Jaysh waited patiently for Iman to pick the shadow out of the distance, cognizant of the fact that most people didn’t have a large blue watcher lurking in the background and that most people would need a few moments to recognize what they were seeing.
     Eventually, though, Iman did recognize what he was seeing—indicated by the way his intense look of curiosity became an intense look of confusion—and Jaysh began to nod, nodding even as Iman turned his stupefied gaze upon him and searched his face for answers.
     “You think...,” Iman said at last, staring at the woodsman like one stares at a crazy person, “…that your big blue friend down there…,” he pointed weakly to the south, “…is the mystery killer?
     Jaysh’s nodding never let up. He knew how outrageous it must sound, knew that something as heavy as the shadow was going to leave tracks in the soil, and that it couldn’t climb the busted trees behind him, or fly through the air. But at the same time, he knew the shadow was perfectly capable of crushing a bear or a bovine, and the runny red holes in the victims’ hides could have been made with a couple of the thing’s fingers, maybe the index and middle, or the middle and ring. Jaysh could imagine the creature drawing back its arm and driving in its crystalline digits straight through the animal’s hide.
     Why it would do this, he didn’t know. But for that matter, he didn’t know why the shadow did much of anything. Like them times it ain’t there, he thought, pulling his eyes from Iman and staring at the creature. Like them times I wake up or look round an’ it ain’t watchin me no more. I don’t know it’s killin things when it ain’t here, but I don’t know it ain’t killin neither.
     “That thing ain’t right,” Jaysh said, keeping his eyes on the shadow and spitting a stream of fluid from the side of his mouth. “It ain’t right.”
     Tracking the line of saliva with his eyes, Iman said, “Oh, I agree wholeheartedly, Jaysh-ole-buddy. I do. But that doesn’t make it a killer.”
     “Doan’ make it in’cent neither,” Jaysh shot back, “and I reckon that thing showed up bout the same time as them happ’nins.”
     “Well, not the same time, but even if it had—”
     From behind them, Serit said, in a voice bristling with alarm, “I say, gentlemen, is something the matter?” The old man could have been speaking to either of them, but when Jaysh turn around, he found the general staring at his dear old friend, as if Serit had naturally assumed the feud had been Iman doing.
     “The matter?” Iman said, taking offense at the general’s insinuating gaze and speaking in his most sarcastic of tones. “Nothing’s the matter, Sir. Actually, everything is peachy keen. Jaysh, here,” he said, hooking a thumb at the woodsman, “has just located our mystery killer. It’s just down there,” he said, gesturing to the shadow’s hiding place.
     Serit turned his ancient eyes to the forest in the south and searched them for much longer than Iman had searched them. “Where exactly should I be—”
     “Right there,” Iman said, waggling his finger and making an exasperated face. “You’ve seen it before. It’s that…oh, that thing…it looks like glass, like someone chiseled it out of diamonds?”
     “Chiseled?” Serit said, thumb and forefinger deep in his lip hair. “Do you mean the kryst?” he asked.
     Jaysh had no idea, quickly exchanging a look with Iman, who also looked blank.
     “Maybe,” Iman said, turning to the general. “Is that what it’s called?” 
     But instead of answering his subordinate, Serit turned to the woodsman and said, “Tell me, young Jaysh, has this creature been watching you?”
     Jaysh stopped chewing, a surge of icy winds whistling through him. The creature had, of course, been watching him for the past three cycles, but he could not speak these words. He could only stand there and stare at the military general while his mouth filled with spit and his mind filled with wonder.
     Could it be possible that Serit Branmore—commander-in-chief for the whole of the Jashian military—knew the true identity of the parasitic shadow? Considering the shadow was a creature of the outside world, and that Serit rarely left the castle, it seemed unlikely the old man would know the beast. But so far he’d nailed it two times running. The thing did, indeed, look like diamonds and it did, indeed, spend a good deal of its time staring.
     Beside him, apparently seeing the look of shock stretched on his good friend’s face, Jaysh heard Iman step forward and say, “I think that’s a yes.”
     Serit glanced at the captain. “Then it is probably the kryst,” he said. “The kryst is the only large, diamond-like watcher of which I know.”
     “Kryst?” Iman asked.
     “Yes, like crystal,” the general confirmed. “At some point, I believe, it was named for the giant crystalline statue it resembles. But why one would accuse it of…,” Serit’s voice faded away as he remembered the place from where this conversation had stemmed. He glanced across at the smashed animal heaped upon the ground. “Why would you…,” his face developed a slightly alarmed expression. “Has the kryst done something, young Jaysh?”
     Jaysh thought about that for a moment. “Nothing to me,” he said, “but it’s been goin’ after Zeph, once’t I fall asleep. An’ my gear.”
     Serit didn’t move. He was still facing the bear, but Jaysh could see he was staring through the animal to the green conflagration beyond, his mind whirling swiftly like the shiny gears of a clock.
     Eventually, he said, “Even if that were true—and I can’t see how it could be—there is quite a bit of difference between this,” he waved disgustedly at the bear, “and frightening away one’s pet. Did you actually see the kryst commit these offenses?”
     Jaysh swallowed. “Well, it sort’a does’em when I’m sleepin, so—”  
     “Then is it possible,” Serit cut in, turning and fixing him with a look, “that someone else committed them? Someone like your woman-friend or—”
     “She ain’t my woman-friend,” Jaysh said, taking his turn to cut in, “an’ I doan’ sleep at her place, no how,” and then, with the feel of a slow motion nightmare—those horrible black dreams in which the dreamer knew exactly what would happen, but remained powerless to stop it—Jaysh watched as his dear old friend’s face lit up and his mouth spread wide.
     “That’s right,” Iman said, eager to make his inane contribution, “when I tracked him down, Jaysh was sleeping on the Hill.”
     “The Hill?” Serit said, the corners of his mustache raised in a sneer. “Our Hill?” he said again, staring at the captain as if he were witnessing some bizarre theatre unfolding in the forest. “The one with the pillars?” he said again, making as if to face the woodsman, then stopping at the last moment and keeping his eyes on Iman. “Are you certain?
     Iman didn’t answer. He merely stood there glancing back and forth between his boss and his friend while his face adopted a look Jaysh had not seen since the days of their youth: Iman’s classic oh-crap-I-screwed-up look, second only in popularity to his ­oh-crap-how-do-I-fix-it look.
     When finally he could speak, he said, “I…uh…can’t…,” and then he just gave up, letting his voice trail off as he crept towards the woodsman.
     Jaysh lowered his head, acutely aware of a greasy film spreading along the inside of his bowels, a sensation he’d learned long ago to associate with shame; Although, why the general’s response should elicit such a response, he didn’t know. It wasn’t like the woodsman was the kind of person who spent a lot of time worrying about the opinions of others. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, the old man’s words—or, rather, his tone—had the woodsman feeling like he were six-ages old and had just tripped on the cobbles and landed face-first in the street, his palms stinging, his knees smarting, the air around him filling with laughter…
     “The Hill,” Serit muttered again.
     At this, Jaysh looked up, finding the general still avoiding his eyes and finding Iman all but crawling into his face. The captain was no more than a stride away and staring straight at him, his face a mask of the ­oh-crap-how-do-I-fix-it look. But Jaysh wasn’t going to help him. He dropped his gaze and began to chew.
     Beside him, in his best tones of false indignation—which almost succeeded in hiding the sound of his authentic despair—Iman said, “Well, why couldn’t it be this Cyst-thingy? What do we, uh…what do we know about this nosey creature, anyway?”
     Serit turned to the creature’s hiding place in the bushes. “Quite a lot, actually,” he said. “We have whole tomes of historical documentation devoted to the kryst’s behaviors, whole bookshelves of observations detailing its idioms and actions. And,” he added, poignantly, “had either of you paid one iota of attention during your elementary studies, you would already know this.”
     Serit turned and gave each an appraising look. “Do I even want to know how much Jashian history either of you remembers?”
     Jaysh lowered his shaggy head further. He and Iman had spent very little time in elementary studies. On most days, they skipped them entirely, sneaking into the Sway to search for groundhogs and uglings, or wandering into the Promise to throw corncobs at the Leresh. And on those mornings when they couldn’t break for the city limits before being spotted by an authority figure and forced to attend, they spent their time in the temple engaged in tasks completely unrelated to their studies.
     Jaysh preferred to sleep, selecting the pews in the back of the temple and slouching down until his butt fell between the seat and wall. Iman preferred to take a seat near the aisle so he could talk to the other students or stare out the front doors at the people in the street. Needless to say, Jaysh didn’t need to look beside him to know that Iman was wearing the same shameful look of ignorance.
     “I see,” Serit said, speaking in the disappointed tones of one who held history to be sacred. “If we had more time,” the old man said, checking the strips of sky within the canopy of foliage, “I would be more than happy to refresh your memories on the subject, but as it is—”
     Something raw and feral reared up inside the woodsman and he heard himself say, “I got time.” And then he watched as the two military officers began competing for the Most Alarmed Expression Award. On his right, Iman was trying to stare a hole in the side of the woodsman’s head, and on his left the general looked as though someone had stolen his pendants. “That is,” Jaysh added, politely, “if’n you got time.”
     Serit exchanged another surreptitious glance with Iman. “We don’t have much,” he said. “But first, let me see if I understand. You,” he asked, nodding carefully to the woodsman, “want me,” he said, looking more and more frazzled by the moment, “to tell you about the kryst?
     The raw and feral thing reared up once more and Jaysh nodded his head.
     Serit winced and shared a third desperate look with the captain, a look that implied his inner workings were being pulled apart at the seams. The captain, however, only cocked his head to one side and shrugged. Serit turned back to the woodsman and sighed.
     “I suppose we have a few moments,” he said, ambling to the nearest trunk and sliding down its face. “But you do understand, young Jaysh, that we are under a time constraint and that this cannot be a complete account?”
     Jaysh had no idea what constraint the old man was talking about—or what the word even meant—but he could tell by the old man’s body language and by the inflection at the end of his sentence that Serit was waiting on some form of consent, so he gave him a nod. 
     Serit signed heavily, and Jaysh could tell that he did not approve. But approve or not, he did as he was asked, lifting his eyes to the treetops and beginning to mutter the word timeframe repeatedly to himself, speaking the word in a slow and deliberate cadence.
     Jaysh leaned forward and licked his lips, eager to finally have answers. But as he stood listening to the general chanting about timeframes, he had the sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t the only one who was eager to begin. The general looked fairly eager himself.
     Sure, Serit had made a good show of his reluctance when the woodsman had first asked, going on and on about neglected studies and constraints of the time, but now that he was wading into the storytelling process, Jaysh thought his  voice sounded calmer, his posture more relaxed, the lines in the face less pronounced. What was more, his nods were more confident, his stare more intense, and when finally he spoke, Jaysh thought he was listening to himself ramble on about the woods. 
     “Now, to fully understand the kryst,” Serit said, seeking out the woodsman’s eyes, “you must first understand the timeframe in which it was discovered.” He paused. “You do remember your eras, do you not?”
     Jaysh stared at him, than at the captain. He was familiar with his own age, to within about five digits, but since he didn’t think that was what the general was asking, he kept his lips shut and his jaws chewing.
     Beside him, Iman said, “They have something to do with kings?
     “They had everything to do with kings,” Serit said. “Do you happen to recall which ones?” His eyes lanced between woodsman and captain and, again, Jaysh imagined that his dear old friend must have looked as clueless as he felt, because after only a moment, the general said, in his most haughty of tones, “Arn, Fendly, and Galimose, better known as the Great Warrior, the Great Architect, and the Great Strategist, the three men who made possible this great kingdom wh—”
     “Oh!” Iman exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. “I have a question! About the first one!” He stole a look a Jaysh and his Oh-crap-I-screwed-up face was coming out, but even as it did, he kept talking, as if he were helpless to prevent it. “And it’s sort of related.”
     Serit’s mustache bristled. “You’re question about Arn,” he asked, his voice saturated with skepticism, “is related to the kryst?
     Eyes still fastened on Jaysh, Iman’s grimace worsened. “It’s related to the killings,” he said, “which is what Jaysh is really talking about.” He turned back to his commanding officer. “See, the other day, when I was having a conversation with this lieutenant at Westpost, we were talking about the…oh, you know…,” he twirled his finger in the air, “…those things, you know, that killed everyone, back in the old days…?”
     Serit waited, then said, “The old ones?”
     “Yes! The old ones—Them. Anyway, we were talking about the old ones and I was trying to understand why these killings weren’t their handiwork, and this lieutenant out there—this Badgerup, or whatever his name—he was telling me that Arn had chased away the old ones and that they couldn’t come back. He said that if they had come back, the defenses at Westpost would know about it. And I was just about to ask what he was talking about when Jaysh had to leave, so anyhow, I still don’t understand how we can be sure these attacks weren’t caused by old ones.” He exhaled deeply. “See what I mean?”
     Serit gave his captain another worried look that seemed to say—at least in Jaysh’s mind—How is it that you’re a captain? But of course, Jaysh knew the general was well aware of the answer, just as the hothead lieutenant at Westpost had been aware of the answer.
     Serit said, “I am afraid I do not see the connection between the history of the kryst and the history of the old ones, so this will have wait unt—”
     “No, no, no,” Iman exclaimed, practically jumping up and down, “it is related! It is! See, you and I both know it can’t be that walking statue down there—No offense, Jaysh,” he said, not bothering to look over, “so anyhow, I was thinking, if there was a chance it was one of these old ones, and you could confirm that, then you won’t have to go on and on about this kryst nonsense, am I right?”
     Serit’s mustache dropped like a rock. “First of all,” he said, “I do not need to recount a history lesson to confirm that the identity of the mystery killer is not an old one, and second, young Iman, I believe young Jaysh is interested in this kryst nonsense—even if you are not—and does not wish to have his inquiry interrupted by—”
     “But he doesn’t care,” Iman said, turning to his friend. “You don’t care. Do you, Jaysh?”
     Jaysh looked at him. What was he going to do, argue with the great silver-tongued captain of the Jashian military? It wasn’t like he would win.
     “Nah,” he said, offering a shrug, “I doan’ care.”
     Serit gave his captain another exasperated look and glanced purposefully at the slivers of sky. “Very well,” he said, “the officer at Westpost was talking about the Mad Man’s Pass, the chasm through which the old one’s fled after Arn defeated the dreaded Kragen.” Serit tapped the green ax on his shoulder plate at the mention of the Great Warrior, but before he could go on the good captain had his hand in the air.
     “Sorry,” Iman said, reading the general’s irate expression. “but what’s a Kragen?”
     Serit sighed, still unable to believe the dearth of understanding in an officer of the king’s army. “It was the king of the old ones,” he said. “Though not a king as you and I understand them to be. It was only a title among peasants,” he explained, raising his eyebrows. “May I continue?”
     Iman still looked perplexed, but he nodded that the general could proceed and Serit said, “As the Westpost lieutenant has pointed out, it is true that the Mad Man’s Pass was a primary factor in the placement and maintenance of Westpost facility. Primarily because it was always assumed that since the creatures left through the pass, it would be through the pass they would one day return—If,” he added strongly, “there ever was a return and, to date, there is no reason to expect there will be. Now,” he said, turning to Jaysh, “with regard to the kryst—”
     “They all left?” Iman asked.
     “Yes, they all left,” Serit said, “now, the kryst on the other—”
     “They all just…ran for it? Through the pass?”
     Seeing that this was never going to end until the captain was satisfied, Serit took a very deep breath and said, “Admittedly, the land at that time was wild and without a proper historian, but the legends that endured until quill met parchment clearly state that the old ones fled across the pass. Now, admittedly,” he said, using a tone of concession, “it very well could be that the locals who harbored these tales either intentionally fabricated them or that the tales themselves were accidentally distorted over time, which is a natural occurrence in the oral tradition. But,” he said, erecting a finger, “the historical records that exist were gathered from numerous sources in the kingdom and from the oldest family names; the Denbauks, the Ballentines, the Januserys,” he added, giving the captain a complimentary nod. “It’s not as though a single man, woman, or child was responsible for the creation of our historical documents.”
     Iman lifted his gaze to the busted birch. “That’s incredible,” he said.
     “Indeed,” Serit said, checking the overhead light. “Any other questions?”
     “No,” Iman told the general. But even as he spoke, Jaysh didn’t believe him. There was something about the way his dear old friend was staring at those splinters that told him this issue was not yet over.
     If Serit had any doubts about the captain’s truthfulness, however, he hid them well. Iman had barely finished the o in no and the general had already returned to the woodsman’s original question.
     “So after Arn defeated the Kragen—” his fingers brushed the green ax on his shoulder plate, “—the old ones fled the land and this time became known as the Era of Purification. And it was this era that made possible the next period of time, known as the Era of Development, the key figure of this time being King Fendly, or the Great Architect.
     “Fendly, as I am sure you’re aware, was the king who started much of the city’s infrastructure, the streets and sanitation, watchtowers and bulwarks. Castle Arn was built during this time. Irrigation was implemented in the fields of Arn’s Promise, gold extraction was developed at the Devil’s Dome. It was also during this time that people stopped referred to the land as Drugana and came to know it as the Kingdom of Jashandar.”
     “But afterwards, by some ironic twist of fate, these accomplishments of peace and progress were actually the violent seeds that brought forth the bloody time that followed: the Era of Warfare marked by the reign of King Galimose, the Great Strategist. You see, it was during this time that Jashandar’s accomplishments attracted the attention of both neighboring and distant lands alike.”
     Counting on his fingers, he said, “The most significant were the engagements with the metropolises of the F’kari, the battles with the Nameless from the Uncharted, the wars with the halflings of Erinthalmus, and finally—from your own childhoods, in fact—the conflict with Lathia, which made the list not because of how it was fought—Owndiah knows it was the briefest and most one-sided engagement in Jashian history—but because of how it ended,” and with that, he gave the woodsman a meaningful nod and a sad expression.
     Jaysh frowned at this, and when the general failed to elaborate thereon, he made a quick glance at Iman to see if his dear old friend found the nod and look as suspicious as he did. Iman, however, did not. The captain was staring numbly at the general and, if anything, appeared to be bored out of his mind.
     “But getting back to your original question of the kryst’s character, I told you this history of the eras to offer you some understanding of the length of time our kingdom has existed and to afford you some understanding of the how long our crystal friend has proven itself trustworthy.
     “If exception is made regarding the kryst’s character, you need to understand that it has been around a very long time and that, during that time, it had never raised a hand against any member of the Jashian populace. There are a few Nameless and Lathians who ended up worse for wear at the hands of the protectorate, but never a Jashian, not once during all those generations.
     “To be exact,” he said, letting his eyes lose focus, “I believe they appeared in the time of Fendly, one on the castle site while Fendly was overseeing construction and the other at the king’s dwelling where his family was residing.
     “According to the histories, it was quite an experience. One moment, there was nothing but labors and guards and the next moment there was this large, blue statue standing amongst them as if it had—”
     “There’s two of them things?” Jaysh asked, jabbing a finger over his shoulder.
     “I’m sorry,” Serit said, looking up as if he hadn’t heard, although he had to have heard. The woodsman was standing right in front of him now and he’d practically shouted the question.
     “Is this other’un gona show up too?” Jaysh asked, his voice an octave higher.
     Serit stared at him and, to the woodsman’s horror, it looked as though a plug had been removed at the old man’s base and all of the historical enthusiasm had been drained from his being. His face went slack, his eyes lost their gleam, his giant mustache—which had been sticking straight out with every enunciation—began to sag over his lips.
     “There were two,” Serit corrected, “but as you well know, young Jaysh—you of all people—” he said, placing poignant emphasis on the pronoun, “the castle kryst is no more.”
     With the base of his neck coming alive with goose flesh, Jaysh said, “It ain’t comin around then, huh.”
     Still staring at the woodsman, his face a knot of pain and worry, Serit said, “No. It isn’t.”
     “Good,” Jaysh said, shifting his gaze to Iman. Surely, Iman was as confused by all of this as he was. They’d grown up together, for Sira’s sake, and Iman knew as well as he that there was no such thing as a castle kryst. And sure enough, when he found his dear old friend’s face, it did look confused—his dark brows hoisted, his pensive lips pursed—only his dear old friend’s look of confusion was not directed at the general…but at him.  
     “You feeling okay?” Iman asked.
     “I’m fine,” Jaysh said, feeling the sudden urge to move away from his dear old friend. He stumbled towards his pack and quiver, watching from the corners of one eye as Iman turned to exchange another knowing look with the general and the general shaking his head and beginning to crawl to his feet.
     “Why don’t you have a seat, young Jaysh,” Serit suggested.
     “I’m good,” Jaysh said, grabbing his pack and holding it like a shield.
     “I don’t think you are,” Iman said, using a gentle tone that did not to suit him. “I think you’re—”
     “Said I’m fine,” Jaysh said, grabbing up his quiver without taking his eyes from the captain. “Ain’t yeh s’pose to be som’eres?”     
     And in that same small voice, the one that had no business coming from his dear old friend, Iman said, “Not anymore.”
     Jaysh stared at the man in the long black hair and light-brown boots, the man he thought was his dear old friend, but now looked nothing like him. Because his dear old friend was always smirking or grinning and this strange fellow was frowning deeply. And whereas Iman was always sporting bright and sparkling eyes, this sorry sack had only dark ugly pools where his eyes should be. And while Iman was always moving about with a spring in his step and a swagger in his gait, the stranger coming at him was moving around like he had slag in his boots.
     “Young Jaysh.”
     It was Serit’s voice, coming from over his shoulder. While Jaysh was staring at Iman’s transformation, the general had snuck up behind him. “Young Jaysh, I’m afraid you have to come with us.”         
     Jaysh spun on him, and nearly tripped. “What fer?” he barked, his eyes darting between the general and captain. “‘Cause I cain’t ‘member stuff like you?” 
     “No,” Serit said, his voice now as small and terrifying as the man who looked like Iman Janusery. “No,” he said again, shaking his head as he advanced, “that’s not it at all.”
     Jaysh opened his mouth to tell him to keep his distance, the goose flesh on the back of his neck squirming like mad, but before he could, the man who looked like Iman beat him to it, just like the real Iman might have done.
     “Jaysh, old buddy,” the man said, “why do you think it came to you?”
     Jaysh’s mouth was still open, like a fish out of water, but no words came. The words were there, tripping over themselves in their eagerness to get out of his head, slamming into one another in their fear and unease, but for whatever reason, his larynx had swelled shut and the words were forced to crawl down his esophagus and hide in his belly.
     “What do you think it’s been doing?” the man who looked like Iman asked, now only a stride away.
     Jaysh didn’t know and neither did he care. He cared only for running into the woods and hiding in the brush, something he’d grown quite adept at over the previous ten ages. But try as he might, his petrified legs refused to move and he found himself helpless to do anything but stare at the creature in the brush, the one Serit had called a kryst.
     It was still there, he saw, still hiding in the woods, still staring at him as it had for the last three cycles. Only this time, as the creature stared with those pupil-less blue eyes, the woodsman stared back, staring as if the force of his stare might cause the thing to explode into pieces.
     But instead of an eruption of sparkling stone, there was only Serit’s hand lighting upon his shoulder.
     “Young Jaysh,” the old man said, breathing out the words, “I’m afraid it’s time.”