His hands were bleeding, the muscles in his shoulders were screaming. The sword was attached to a crude harness on his back, leaving both hands free for the agonising and excruciating climb, inch by inch, up the sheer side of the mountain fastness.

 

Almost there, he thought. He ran his tongue over his dry lips. Almost there, and soon he would make a stand, and kill or be killed.

 

So many months, bringing him to this moment. So many months, and so many losses. Now he was the only one left, the only one with the destiny and power to confront the dread lord. He was armed with magic and strength of will. Against him, only one man, stood the might of the dread lord's army and mighty magic. If he failed, the whole world would cower and fall into perpetual night.

 

This was the end of everything, the final stand, the hour in which the fate of the world would be decided.

 

******

 

An hour later, he stood before the mighty gates of hell, his sword ready in his hand. They were brooding and silent, but what horrors had issued from these gates, and what further horrors awaited him. Months of learning and hours of fasting had brought him this small respite - the shielding of the magic that allowed him to scale the cliff unnoticed. Had they seen him, the sky would be dark with the rending claws of the dark lord's winged minions.

 

There were no gatekeepers, no dread guardians. He had expected to fight, but this... He had to admit he found it... unnerving. He had fought dragons and other worse horrors. His assault on the dark lord's fortress was the final culmination, and this silence seemed... anticlimactic.

 

Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward. It was only a deceptive calm, he knew. The worst horrors of all would lurk inside, all the worse for the absence of horrors outside.

 

As he walked, a bell rang out. It was neither deep nor resonant; his blood did not chill, and nothing tingled down his spine. Instead, it was high, and almost musical. There was a tune there, something he recognised...

 

And the great black gate opened.

 

******

 

A man stood there on the doorstep, clad in black. His face was cold and white, like a skull. He appeared to be looking down his nose.

 

"Is sir expected?"

 

The hero swallowed, discomfited. He found he was standing with his sword above his head, arrested in the very act of bringing it down on the foul minion who was surely behind the door. Awkwardly, he lowered it. "I... I... I don't know."

 

He had often wondered.  Did the dark lord know of him, and expect his coming? There would be a certain resonance to their final encounter if he did. It would seem like some portentous and foretold.

 

"An invitation is customary, sir." The man looked at the hero as if he smelled - though surely the dark lord's fortress should be a place of smells both rank and sulphurous. "As is using the main entrance."

 

"Are you..." His voice was strangely hoarse. "Are you a minion?"

 

"I'm a butler, sir." The man looked most offended.

 

"Is your... Is your Master in?" He tightened his grip on his sword. "I have important business with him."

 

The butler nodded, and gestured him in. He followed him along a short corridor, with pink carpets and pictures on the walls. He saw kittens and puppies, as well childish scrawls marked with dark siguls. He peered closely to one such sigul, and realised that it was true letters, crudely rendered. It appeared to read, "to grandpa."

 

"In here, sir," the butler said, gesturing to a white painted door.

 

Swallowing hard - was this a dream, or a dark enchantment? - the hero entered. A round-faced brown-skinned man was sitting in a red armchair, his feet on a coffee table, and a cat purring contentedly on his lap. He was frowning over a box of chocolates, struggling to choose between an orange crème and a fudge.

 

"That will be all, Jeeves." The man waved his hand, dismissing the butler. Then he turned to the hero. "And you are...?"

 

His heart was pounding audibly in his ear. This was wrong, oh so wrong... He had rehearsed this for so long. "You are the Dark Lord and I am your Slayer," he would have said, standing tall with the sword above his head and muscles rippling. "This is your last moment on this earth that you would have trampled under your feet like chaff."

 

Instead, feeling like an awkward schoolboy, he just murmured. "I'm a... a hero. Are you the dark lord?"

 

The man frowned. He gestured at his face. "Isn't that a little racist, in this day and age?"

 

He cleared his throat. "Yes. Er... I'm sorry."

 

His mind was racing. Had he got the address wrong? Perhaps this was the wrong dark mountain fastness? Maybe this was a standard design from some building company, and there were dozens of them... He gave a nervous laugh.

 

The man pointed at his sword. "You are.... Oh, you were going to kill me." He pressed his hand against his chest, and visibly blanched. He seemed to be struggling for breath.

 

His sweat trickled down the handle of the sword. "I... " Be true, he heard, in echo of his mentor's voice in his head. So he thrust out his chin, and said, "I was, yes. And if you are the Dark Lord, I am."

 

But something else was clamouring in his mind, drowning out his mentor. It was a voice screaming in capital letters. It was the headlines in the tabloid newspapers: "frail old man cruelly murdered by yob with sword." For he was only an eighteen year old adopted orphan, and had lived in poverty on a council estate until the school janitor - really a wizard keeping him safe in his childhood - had revealed to him his hidden identity and true destiny. To the papers, he would seem like a yob, especially with the unfortunate incident with the dwarven warriors in the wine bar.

 

The man put a strawberry fondant into his mouth. He seemed to have recovered from his earlier fear. "But why would you think I'm the Dark Lord?" he asked.

 

"Because...." He looked round wildly. There was nothing black in the room, and the cat was a white and ginger kitten, and had no sign at all of having fangs. Books were strewn on the coffee table, but they were books on gardening and raffia work - library books, and not even overdue. There were no great dark tomes that pulsed with dark magic like a living thing.

 

Ah! There it was! He threw himself at that small hope like a man lunging to the lifeline that would pluck him from stormy water. "Your couch is red, and I read in Cosmopolitan that red is the new black."

 

"Oh, come on..." The man looked at him in contempt. "That's so last year. This year, grey is the new black. Have you noticed what colour your clothes are?" He shrugged. "We could as well claim that you are the Dark Lord."

 

He wanted to fall to his knees and whimper. This was not what it was supposed to be...

 

"Would you like a chocolate?" The man offered him the box. There was only one left, and it was a brazil nut, which he didn't like. It wasn't even a dark chocolate selection, he noticed, with a little sigh of despair. The chocolate was either milk or white.

 

"I..." he stammered. "I..." He looked over his shoulder, and then around wildly. There had to be some escape, some solution... This was enchantment and trickery. This was...  A small sound like a sob escaped him. He tried to cover it with words. "I... I need to go."

 

"So soon?" The man raised his eyebrows. "Never mind." He raised his voice and shouted for the butler. "Would you show our guest out," he asked, mildly, when Jeeves had appeared on silent feet.

 

"Very good, sir."

 

Stupefied, he let the butler lead him by the elbow.

 

******

 

"He's gone," the butler said, a long time later. "He'll never come back."

 

"Good."

 

The man stood up, tipping the cat from his lap. It yowled.

 

"Shall I?"

 

The butler walked over to the wall and pressed a hidden button. Like stage scenery, the pink walls rose into the ceiling, revealing black hung stone bedecked with chains.

 

"It never stops working, does it, my minion."

 

The butler smiled, and spread his leathery wings. "No, it doesn't, my dread lord."

 

They laughed.

 

Lying on the floor where it had landed were the chocolates from the second layer of the box.

 

All were dark.

 

******