The forest was dark, as forests often are. Eli waded through stray drifts of days-old snow, looking here and there for tracks. On the outskirts of the woods there were few signs of life. The deeper in he walked, the darker it became—and the deeper the silence.
“Strange that even the birds are silent here,” he said aloud, to keep his own mind company.
Then he saw a print in a patch of snow.
It was more of a crater than a print. He saw the mark of a pad as wide as a millstone, toes as big as iron skillets, and deep furrows in the earth beneath the snow where claws like plow-blades had turned over the earth. He counted the prints: one, two, three, four…more and more, and they led to the top of the highest peak in the mountains.
Eli swallowed. There was nothing for it. He must follow the Beast. It was either die here, trying to save his parents, or die at home, watching them wither away while he did nothing.
There was something else in the snow—something that stuck out from the many shades of grey on the winter forest floor. Long streaks of red blood stained the snow. The blood was steaming as a brand steamed when pulled from the fire and plunged in water. It sizzled.
“Blood shouldn’t sizzle,” Eli mumbled, feeling shaky. “Only metaphorically.”
Following the trail of prints and blood, he wound further into the forest, up and up the craggy sides until the air was thin and he was closer to the sky than he’d ever been before.
He heard a strange sound carried to him on a breeze. The sound of a great, rumbling snore echoed towards him. The trail led him closer to the sound with every step. Afore long, Eli found himself at the yawning mouth of a cave. Snores reverberated from its dank depths. He saw in its shadows the bones of wolves.
“If I were a murderous monster,” he thought, “I imagine I’d like living here very much.”
He wondered what to do. There was no doubt the snores came from a sleeping monster deep inside the cave. But the cave was so dark, the darkness seemed like a wall or tar, too thick to pass without cutting it in two. How could he find the monster if he went inside? He hadn’t thought to bring a torch. Or even matches. The sun was setting now, and the frosty winter sky grew darker by the second.
“Ah, well,” he said with a sigh. “At least the stars and moon will bring more light than have ever entered that foul cave. I’d be better served trying to bring the Beast out to meet me, and we will fight out in the open.”
He sat down with his back to a great tree, facing the mouth of the cave. He drew his long knife and placed it on his knees, then pulled out his pan pipe—a treasure he was never without. That instrument had occupied him on the long hours in the fields, watching his sleepy sheep. He had learned to play it as a little boy, and by now, with years of practice, he had reason to be proud of his musicianship.
Eli drew a long, trembling breath, and began to play.
A sweet melody rippled through the barren trees and reverberated from the rocks. The stars themselves seemed to lean down and listen closely as the gentle air echoed through the hills and down, down into the cave.
The snoring stopped. Eli noticed, but kept playing, though his fingers grew stiff with fear. From the depths of the cavern, two green lights appeared, winking like an old man waking from sleep. Their angry light burned brighter and brighter as the earth shook with rhythmic steps. Soon the lights glowed bright and close like poisonous green lanterns, and the booming steps halted at the end of Eli’s melody.
A snarling, rumbling voice reverberated from the cave’s shadows.
“WHO DARES DISTURB MY SLEEP?”