Eli stared into the twin green lights, hypnotized. Fear and wonder pulsed through his veins as his pipe slid from his fingers and into his lap.
“SPEAK UP, LITTLE MAN, WHILE YOU’RE STILL ABLE.”
Eli swallowed hard, then started rambling.
“My name is Eli and I’m a shepherd from the village at the foot of the mountain all of my sheep have been eaten and we’re going to starve if I don’t get the reward they’ve put on your head I’m terribly sorry for—”
“GOODNESS, BOY, DIDN’T ANYONE EVER TEACH YOU THE VALUE OF PUNCTUATION? TAKE A BREATH. YOU’RE MAKING ME NERVOUS.”
Eli drew in a shuddering breath, his eyes still fixed on the green glowing lights in the cave. They went out for a moment, then returned. The creature blinked.
“NOW, TRY THAT AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING. SLOWLY.”
“My name is Eli. I am one of the shepherds that live in the valley below your mountain. Our sheep are disappearing—we can only assume you’re the one eating them—and the Prince has put a prince on your head. All of my sheep are gone, and we will starve unless I bring back your head.” Eli took another breath, slow and deep. “I’m between a bit of a rock and a hard place, you see.”
“I KNEW ABOUT THE PRICE ON MY HEAD. I’VE SENT MANY OF YOUR BOYS AWAY SCREAMING AFTER THEY POLITELY INFORMED ME THEY HAD COME TO KILL ME.” The Beast made a rasping sound Eli could only interpret as a chuckle.
“WHO IS ‘WE’?”
Eli jumped. He had fully expected to have been devoured by now. “What?”
“YOU SAID ‘WE’ WOULD STARVE IF YOU DIDN’T GET THE REWARD MONEY FOR MY HEAD. WHO IS ‘WE’, BOY? ANSWER ME.”
“My parents and I. They cannot work anymore, and you’ve eaten our livelihood. Believe me, I wouldn’t be up here if this weren’t my only option.” Eli gulped. “You’ve got to admit, you’ve brought this on yourself.”
The Beast gave a loud “HARRUMPH”, then remained silent for a long, long moment.
“WELL, BOY, I HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO KILL YOU. AS YOU CAN SEE BY THE SKELETONS I USE IN MY DECORATING, I FIND KILLING TO BE AN EASY HOBBY. PREPARE YOUSELF FOR THE WORST.”
Eli tensed and prepared to run with every ounce of strength he had.
He opened his eyes. He hadn’t been aware he’d been squeezing them tightly shut up until that point.
“IF YOU PROMISE TO COME AND PLAY YOUR PIPE FOR ME EVERY DAY, I WILL ALLOW YOU TO LIVE.”
“And what about the sheep? Will you promise to stop eating them?”
The Beast let loose an awful roar that shook Eli’s bones and made the rocks leap on the ground.
“DON’T PUSH YOUR LUCK, LITTLE MAN. BE GRATEFUL I AM LETTING YOU WALK AWAY ALIVE. IF YOU DO NOT RETURN TOMORROW, I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN AND DEVOUR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY. THAT IS MY PROMISE. NOW GO! LEAVE ME TO MY SLEEP. GO!”
With that, Eli pelted down the mountainside as fast as his skinny legs would carry him.