“Be careful,” the old man smiled, “It’s well-fed.”
The cave ahead seemed to exhale. Soft plumes of moisture fell out of it like breath on a cold morning.
Velon took the torch from him with a look of confusion. He turned to the onlookers.
“Will no one join me to slay this beast?”
No one spoke. At least a dozen pairs of eyes looked back like nothing was said. Whatever was in the cave had a hold on them.
“So be it,” Velon said, pushing ahead into the darkness of the cave.
Moisture pooled at the low ceiling. The torch waded through it, dimming the firelight. Velon lowered it to see the walls.
His sword was ready, his arms were strong, and like the beast within, he was also well-fed.
The villagers had given him fruits, berries, and meat like he’d never tasted. They treated him like royalty, and had urged him to eat his fill.
As a sell-sword, Velon was used to such treatment. He came in, killed the beast or man, became a hero for a short time, then left.
But this place. The beast was more than a month or claws. It seemed to have a brain as well.
Velon pushed farther into the cave. The air moved back and forth. The animal was larger than he had thought, if it was moving air around like this. He pulled his sword from his sheath as quietly as possible.
Ahead was a chamber. The firelight could not reach the far wall.
Velon stopped, observing the shadows of the cave. He searched for movement, or signs of what the creature may be.
He squatted over the cave floor, looking for tracks. There were marks, meant to conceal the tracks of something else, and human footprints.
They must give the creature offerings. It was worse than he thought. Velon looked back the way he came, wondering if he should head back, then return with more men.
But splitting the profit would be hard to sell, especially with the risk.
He smirked to himself.
Velon set the torch against a wall, and readied a small bundle of tinder. Metals were spun around dried hay and twigs. He brushed it through the flame of the torch. A small section of tinder caught, and he rushed into the chamber.
“Beast of Cetwood! I am…”
As he began there was an enormous shift in the chamber. The torchlight behind him ceased. He froze.
“Hmmmmmm,” a voice spoke, so close and so deep it rattled Velon’s ribs against each other.
His breathing accelerated. His eyes darted around the darkness.
After only a moment, the metals in the bundle of tinder lit up. The chamber filled with the light of day. An enormous scaled beast lay still against the walls of the chamber. It was blocking the only exit.
“Another greedy soul, eager to take what they can and go,” the creature boomed.
It raised its head from the floor, with its eyes closed.
“Are MINE!” it bellowed.
Pieces of the ceiling fell. Its voice seemed to be clawing at Velon’s insides.
It sighed, smiling. Smoke trailed up in thin tendrils from each nostril.
“Do you know what happens if I were to open my eyes, human?” it said in a whisper.
Velon could see a small window of escape above the creature’s tail. If he could leap over it, he could make a run for the torch and be off.
“What happens when you open your eyes?” Velon humored the thing.
“You die,” the beast whispered.
“I see,” Velon said.
He took his left sandal off as slowly and gently as possible, eager to creep closer to an escape. Sharp pebbles met his exposed soles, and he winced at the pain.
“Here is what you are going to do for me, greedy one,” the beast whispered, “As repayment for the life I grant you.”
“Keep them in line? The villagers?” Velon asked, hoping his brazen attitude would buy him more time.
The beast chuffed, “No. I have that under control. You will return to your king…”
Velon slipped the other shoe off, and got a few steps closer to the beast’s tail end. He could see the torchlight peeking through. This monster had spines, and Velon assumed they were poisonous.
“…and you will tell him that the beast is dead. That there is nothing to fear anymore. To send more people. More villagers. The earth here is fertile, ripe for grains.”
“What if he thinks I am lying?” Velon said.
“Then they will send more like you,” the creature whispered, “And more will die.”
“With your gaze,” Velon said, having a thought.
“With my gaze alone,” it repeated.
“Alright,” Velon feigned cooperation.
“The villagers will give you…”
Velon vaulted over the beast’s tail end, rolling over the poisonous spines. The thing growled like an axe on a grindstone. Velon ran to his torch, and cupped the flame with both hands, snuffing it out. It was the most reliable way to snuff it out. His hands would heal.
A feeling of dread washed over him as the beast searched for him with its eyes.
His theory was effective. If it could not see him, it could not kill him.
It writhed, hissing and scrambling against the earth and stone. It charged after him.
He ran. Pain shot through him as his bare soles were stabbed with the rocky floor beneath him. His burned palms screamed. He gritted his teeth. With any luck this thing would be too large to effectively move through the tunnel.
Velon burst from the mouth of the cave. The onlookers were still around. They yelped when he came into the light.
He cut to the left, getting out of the monster’s line of sight. There was a small divot in the earth next to a pine tree, and Velon dove for it, getting as low as possible.
The monster burst from the cave, searching for him. As its gaze went from left to right, Velon could see the townspeople.
Their eyes burned from inside their head, their arms pulled into their chests and their fingers curled into their palms. Death was immediate, and without screams.
It spared no thought, sniffing at the air. Hissing would be heard from Velon’s hiding spot. Sulfur wafted through the air.
The beast made a pained sound, a grunt of disgust and then scrambled its way back into the cave.
Velon emerged after a time, when he was sure the beast was nestled deeply back in its hole. He observed the bodies.
They resembled dried husks, all the moisture pulled away as if burned from the inside.
He reached for his blade and found air. The beast had it.
Velon straightened up, looking into the blackness of the cave. He would return with more men, and a plan. If this beast could get angry, then it wanted, and if it wanted it could die.
He trudged back into town, eager to question the mayor. As he walked, he tore his shirt. With the strips he wrapped his hands, and stopping every couple of minutes to wrap his bleeding feet.
The man has answers, Velon thought, and I have questions.