It must have been one of those days for meeting undesirables, because poor Jaysh had one of his own. For him, it happened in the lush, hip-deep blades of the Southern Sway and, in his case, turning back wasn’t an option.
     He had considered the matter, had weighed the pros and cons of turning around and marching the Pit out of there, but in the end he’d decided against it. Turning back now would mean resuming Scout Day at another locale, which ran the risk of not having Scout Day at all, and he simply could not have that. After missing Fish Day yesterday, he was taking no chances.
     So he stood his ground, and he set his jaw, and in his mind he made a mental note to pay better attention the next time Gariel was telling him about one of Iman’s golden opportunities.
     Beside him, in a voice seething with impatience, someone said, “Anything now?
     Jaysh broke his eye contact rule and shifted his glare to the speaker, a clean-shaven man with a handsome, chiseled face and a mane of long, black hair. On the man’s brightly polished shoulder plate, the insignia of a double-edged axe shown clearly in the sun.
     “Iman,” Jaysh said, testily.
     “I know, I know...”
     “Wha’d I tell yeh?”
     “No talking. I know. It’s just—”
     “Huh-uh,” Jaysh said, shaking his head, “the other thing.”
     The captain froze, looking utterly befuddled. “That it’s Scout Day and not Help Iman Day?”
     Iman tapped his lips with a finger. “That I could stay if I was quiet?
     Jaysh gave him a look like a runaway grain cart. “An’ how’s that workin out fer yeh?”
    Iman’s hands exploded into the air. “It’s not my fault,” he whined. “I’m excited, Jaysh. People get excited. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true. And you can’t blame me, either. I mean, come on, it’s the king’s council! How often is a lowly boot-licking captain like myself asked to investigate a major incident? Huh? How often?”
     Jaysh mumbled a disinterested, “Yeh heard me,” and moseyed away.
     “All right, fine. I’ll be quiet,” Iman said. “But you’re going to find me something, right? I know its Look Day, or whatever, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do both, right? You can look around and find something for your dear old friend. It is possible, isn’t it?”
     Shaking his head, Jaysh said, “Not if yeh cain’t keep your mou—”
     “Because this could be it, Jaysh. This could be my one and only break! You know. The one I’ve been waiting on. The one that’s going to put me back on top.”
     Panning his head about the green of the pasture, Jaysh put a finger to his lips and said, “Shhhhh.”
     “All right, all right. I’m finished.”
     But he wasn’t, and the silence only lasted until the bottom of the hill.
     “Royal charge,” he exclaimed, supposedly to himself. “I mean, come on, who gets those, right? Not me, that’s for sure—Oh!” He held up a finger and moved towards the woodsman. “Did I tell you if I do well today, they said there’s a chance I get another? Did you hear me, Jaysh? I said another assignment! And you’ll never guess where it is!”
     Jaysh paused to draw a breath. He knew without looking what expression Iman was wearing. It was the same one he’d worn as a child, the very one that accompanied all of his golden opportunities, the look that preceded such memorable ideas as locking-people-in-stables-and-then-running-away or stealing-fruit-from-the-market-and-throwing-it-at-guards or going-into-the-Harriun-to-see-what-will-happen.
     Iman said, “Give up?”
     Staring at the next rise, Jaysh said, “Mh-hm.”
     “Westpost!” he roared. “Can you believe it? Westpost, Jaysh! Prairie all around, Dead Lands right next door, hundreds of bored and brain-dead soldiers just sitting around waiting to play cubes, all that loose change. It’ll be great. Just like old times. Me. You. Grand adven…,”
     The captain’s voice faded from Jaysh’s ears, receding behind the mysterious object the woodsman saw drifting into view. It was about four paces to the right of his current trajectory, nothing more than a dark place on the next rise, but to him it held the potential of being more.
     He picked up the pace, aware that he was bucking his precious routine, but aware, as well, that he wasn’t bucking it by much. True, it was technically Scout Day and, technically speaking, he was supposed to be scouting for game and not investigating an object on the ridge that looked nothing like a run or a burrow or a den. But at the same time, wasn’t it also bucking the routine to have this big-mouth traipsing around with him? Wasn’t Scout Day, in one way or another, already bucked? Jaysh decided it was and veered towards the object, his heart beginning to race.
     “…so if you want,” Iman was saying, his voice coming back to the woodsman’s ears, “you could come along, too. You know. If you weren’t doing anything.”
     Jaysh shaded his eyes, squinting hard as he neared the aberration.
     “I hear there’ll be more scooou-tiiing,” Iman said, giving the last word an enticingly musical quality. “That’s your thing, isn’t it? The scouting?”
     The woodsman’s mouth fell open. It could be her, he thought. It could really be her.
     Behind him, Iman was saying, “And Branmore, he won’t care. Really, he won’t. He was the one who wanted you for this job, so I’m positive he won’t care about the next one…,” the captain hesitated as something occurred to him, “…I’m like seventy-five percent sure he won’t care.”
     But Jaysh didn’t care if Iman was one hundred percent sure and had the papers to prove it. The woodsman was halfway up the rise now and could see quite clearly that the dark spot on the ridge was a bare patch in the reeds. It was not his beloved pet.
     From the vicinity of his neck, Iman said “Gariel told you all of this, right? About the council? That they’d requested you specifically? She did tell you that, right?”
     “Huh-uh,” Jaysh said, moving past the bare spot. “Yeh seen Zeph lately?”
     Iman stopped behind him, indicated by the cessation of rustling grasses. “Did you say, Zeph?
     “Yep,” Jaysh said. “Yeh seen’er?”
     Resuming his hike, Iman said, “Is that what you’re calling your big blue friend?”
     Jaysh frowned at this. The very thought of addressing the shadow with her name made his stomach turn. “You know who I’m talkin bout,” he said.
     “No. Really, I…,” Iman’s voice faded, and Jaysh could imagine him staring at the sky the way he did when he was thinking. “Are you talking about that little monster with all the scars?”
     Jaysh turned and shot a scowl over his shoulder. He looked like he had more to say, but not surprisingly Iman Janusery was faster on the verbal draw. 
     The captain said, “Because if you are, the only time I see that thing is when I’m with you. And Jaysh, old buddy, if you hadn’t noticed, we don’t see each other all that much.”
     “No,” Jaysh said flatly, still stinging over the monster reference, “we don’t.” 
     “And that’s a shame,” Iman went on. “I think of all the fun we use to have, all the things we used to do, going down to the Wound, having a drink or two, playing cubes. You’d hang out with Gariel, I’d play a little of the cubes—”
     “I’m startin to worry bout her,” Jaysh interrupted.
     “Her drinking?” Iman said, morosely. “It’s getting bad, isn’t it? I didn’t want to say anything, but since you—”
     “Not Gariel,” Jaysh said. “Zeph. I’m worried bout Zeph.”
     Another pause ensued, followed by, “Oh.”
     “Fer the past few moon cycles,” Jaysh said, “she’s been takin off in the middle’a the night. Jus up an’ leavin…like somethin’s chased her off.”
     He listened to Iman tapping his lips, then heard, “And this worries you because…?
     “Cause she’s use’lly back b’now.”
     “I see,” Iman said, clearly not getting it, “and this is the little creature that hisses at everyone and that Gariel has to fend off with a broom?”
     “That ain’t cause’a Zeph.”
     “Really?” Iman said. “So it had nothing to do with her latching onto Gariel’s leg?”
     “No, it—” Jaysh had to stop. He could feel the muscles in his chest going taut and needed a breath. He took one and waited for the tension to leave his body. “The problem is,” he said, “Gariel doan’ like them little black hairs on her stuff, which doan’ make no sense, but that’s jus how she is.” He sighed heavily and shrugged. “But as far as Zeph latchin onto Gariel’s leg, that never happened. I were there at the time and when Zeph made to get hold of her, I grabbed Zeph up and she never come close to—”
     A noise came wafting across the prairie, a noise so faint as to be the woodsman’s own pack rustling against his shoulders, or maybe the grass shifting at his hips.
     Jaysh stopped moving.
     “What?” Iman said, nearly knocking him down. “What is—”
     “Shhh!” Jaysh hissed, cocking an ear to the next valley and listening for the disturbance. After a few moments, he turned his head and listened with the other ear, then turned slowly to face the crest of the hill.
     There was something over there all right, something making a low and indistinct droning noise that sounded very similar to a moan. Only moaning didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Aside from the occasional groundhog hole waiting for the unsuspecting ankle, there weren’t too many ways to sustain an injury in the Sway. And as far as predators were concerned, there were coyotes and hawks, but nothing large enough to inflict mortal damage on a full-grown person.
     “Stay here,” Jaysh whispered, sinking in the blades.
     “Hey! Hey, I’d better—” come along, was what Iman intended to say, but it never made it out of his mouth. It died in his throat as the woodsman turned and gave him a very sobering look.
     “I need to hear,” Jaysh hissed, “an’ I need to know what I’m hearin ain’t you.”
     Iman looked like he’d been slapped. With hand on his hilt, he said, “But what if its trouble?
     The woodsman considered this for a moment, considered again that maybe a scabe-wolf had wandered out of the Shun or perhaps a mountain lion out of the Kilashan. But each time he tried, reality kept rearing its ugly head and getting in the way.
     The larger predators never strayed too far from their natural habitat. For one thing, it wasted valuable energy and, for another, there was no need. There were too many stupid prairie animals that cooled themselves in the shade of the forest or drank from the streams in the mountains.
     “There ain’t no predators out here,” Jaysh said.
     Iman glanced over his shoulder. “What about uglings?”
     Jaysh frowned. “Ain’t had one’a them since we was kids.”
     Iman said, “So they’re due!
     That was true, and Jaysh knew it, but he didn’t have time to worry about what might be or what could be. Such thinking was beyond his limited imagination and, therefore, a huge waste of time. He told the captain as much with the narrow slits of his eyes, punctuating the statement with his feet as they took a few steps up the hill.
     Iman said, “Jaysh! Hey! Why do you think I’m here?
     The woodsman turned and stared at him. He’d learned the hard way, over many ages of trial and error, that Iman was a talker. Actually, the woodsman had deduced that part on their very first encounter. The part he’d had to learn over time was that the only way to win with a talker was to quit talking. Talkers, like Iman, were usually smarter than the woodsman and better at debating, and if they thought there was a sugar cubes chance of persuading you, they would never shut up.
     But if you just stared at them…
     “Okay,” Iman said, drawing his blade, but making no attempt to follow. “Okay,” he said again, this time in a whisper. “But be careful.”
     Feeling irked to hear this advice from someone he considered to be the proverbial city mouse, Jaysh didn’t bother acknowledging it. He turned, lowered himself in the grass, and crept for the hilltop, listening to the rustling of grass against his body and the dull whump-whump of blood in his ears.
     At the top of the hill, when the drone he had heard did not return, he stopped, cocked his ear to the valley, and waited for the susurration of the reeds to fall away and the beat of his heart to slow. And when they had, he listened as the quietude of prairie reasserted itself…and the enigmatic drone reemerged.
     It was on his left now, somewhere towards the eastern slope of the next valley—towards it, but not actually on it. From where he sat crouching on the ridge, he could tell it was coming from down in the basin. He could tell, as well, that it was not the sound of moaning.
     Due to his new proximity, the sound had changed in volume and pitch and become nearly incessant, which meant that the only way it was moaning was if there were multiple victims and they were all wailing in harmony.
     But if’n it ain’t moanin…?
     Jaysh dropped to all fours, submerged himself below the reeds, and went crawling down the grade. In his ears, the mysterious noise faded beneath the whisper of the grass, but he didn’t let it worry him. If the disturbance turned out to be mobile and moved from its previous location, then he’d locate it again once he reached the bottom. More importantly, if the disturbance turned out to be an ugling—
     Why do you think I’m here?
     —at least this way it wouldn’t see him coming. It would, of course, hear him coming—like a warthog plowing through the brush—but he’d worry about that when the time came.
     At the base of the slope, he found that the noise hadn’t moved. It was still lying ahead of him—right in front of him, actually—and the only difference was its tone.
     It seemed to have taken on a sawing quality, like tiny fairies using tiny logging tools. But since Jaysh didn’t believe in fairies, what it really sounded like was a hive of honeybees buzzing in a log.
     But there ain’t no bees in the Sway, he thought. Ain’t no logs neither.
     He rose from his concealment and peaked across the valley, zeroing in on the buzzing and finding a circle of crushed grass not three body-length’s from where he crouched. It was misshapen—not a circle in the pure sense of the word—but it was round.
     An’ plen’y big, too.
     Rolling his eyes back and forth across its face, he guessed he could have parked two wagons inside and still had room left over. But with that being the case, how had he missed something like this from his position on the ridge?
     He thought about that for awhile and, in the end, chalked it up to a bad case of the nerves and the fact he’d barely peeked his head from his cover, moving on to the more pressing question of, Where had it come from?
     For some reason, he wanted to say up. It made absolutely no sense, he knew, but as he laid eyes on the circular hollow in the reeds, he had the strangest notion it had been created by something falling from the sky, something like a vault door tearing free of its hinges and plummeting to the ground. But of course, if something had fallen from the sky, and if that something had made this crumpled recess, where was it now?
     He didn’t have an answer for that question, but the thought caused him to stand slightly and run his eyes along the slope of the valley, rolling them to the sky on both sides and realizing that there was nothing else down here but him, the buzzing, and the section of crushed grass.
     …why do you think I’m here…
     Jaysh took a breath and started towards the concavity, moving in a crouch. He was sure that anything lurking nearby would still be able to see his bushy-headed melon floating across the grass, but that was okay. Briefly, he’d considered dropping his bushy-headed melon below the screen of vegetation, but quickly decided against it. He decided that if the cause of that depression were still around, he wanted to have his bushy-headed melon up where he could see whatever-it-was coming towards him.
     Cause this here’s it, Jayshy, Gariel was telling him from the back of his bushy-headed melon, this here’s the thing Iman was sent to look in on, the thing what’ll get us in good with them uppity folk.
     Listening to this, Jaysh felt obliged to agree. For even though he’d not asked Iman why the king and council had sent him to the Sway—somethin to do with countin cows or sheep—he was fairly certain it had something to do with this unnatural-looking depression. Admittedly, he could be wrong, but speaking as one who spent most of his adult life in the rough and who’d been all over the four corners of this land, he’d never seen anything—
     Jaysh froze in the grass, arms out, knees bent, mouth gaping like a fool. There was something moving in the depression, something round and black and lying on the far side of the hollow.
     At first glance, it looked like the back and shoulders of a large bear, one rooting in the ground for ants or rabbits or possibly a snake. But as he stood there trying to figure out why the creature was this far from home, he noticed the queer manner in which it moved.
     With his simple vocabulary, he didn’t know the meaning of the word undulate. He knew only that bears didn’t move the way the thing in the depression was moving. They didn’t rise or fall or jerk side-to-side like a flock of birds avoiding a predator. In fact, the thing in the hollow never seemed to stop. It appeared to be in constant flux, lifting for a moment, sinking back down, darting to the right, then back to the left.
     Watching this, Jaysh felt his stomach rise and fall with the same queasy movements, his breakfast of the beans and cornbread threatening to spill into the reeds. It was during this time, while fending off the urge to retch, that he finally identified the darkness in the hollow.
     But not just flies. Accompanying them were wasps, beetles, butterflies, and seemingly every other winged insect the Sway had to offer, an eclectic conglomeration of all things small and buzzing. This usually meant that something over there was dead and that the flying masses were simply competing for a bite to eat and a place to leg their eggs. But what Jaysh couldn’t figure out was why there were so many of them.
     He had seen kill-swarms before, either buzzing over the dead dogs in Onador or flitting over the slain deer in the Shun, but never had he seen one so dense, and never so agitated. It was almost like they’d been called here the rest of the kingdom. 
     Jaysh pulled a bit of old shirt from his pack, wrapped it over his nose and mouth, and tied the end behind his shaggy head. If he found what he expected beneath that heaving swarm of bodies, the smell wouldn’t be pleasant. And even if he didn’t find what he expected, he didn’t fancy the idea of inhaling half-a-dozen creepy-crawlies.
     Tucking the bottom of the cloth into his collar, he leaned into the circle and began swatting at the pests, raking handfuls of squirming dots and fluttering specks from the dark and dizzying air. Not surprisingly, he found more of the same skittering below. 
     For a time, he had the almost humorous image—had he not been so unnerved—of himself kneeling down in one of the ponds of the Shun and scooping at the water. He saw himself trying to empty the pool by slinging armfuls of fluid up from the bottom and onto the surface, an act of futility if ever there was one. And yet his current efforts seemed depressingly similar. His arms were yet to finish its shooing motion and already the swath of air was filling with bodies.
     The Pit with this, he thought, bringing his lashes together and ducking his head, his greasy face and mane dropping into the swarm. He could see something taking shape beneath the swirling mass, something with twisted limbs and a staring eye, the former covered in short brown hair, the latter clouded and gray.
     Having seen what he expected, he closed his eyes and staggered blindly to the far end of the depression, the end without the pestilence. Once there, he turned his attention to the circle and decided this was a rather cut-and-dry scenario.
     He was standing in the place where a predator and prey danced the Dance of Death, where they’d rumbled and rolled and the poor prairie reeds had taken a beating in the process.
     An’ the dirt, too, I reckon.
     He started to kneel down and take a look for tracks, then thought better of it and moved out of the circle. He wasn’t sure why—whether it was the idea of being completely exposed or the idea of the prey still rotting therein—but the thought of remaining in that disk spooked him like the grave.
     He crouched outside the hollow, peeking his head back through the wall of grass and looking around the ring-shaped clearing, hopping to get lucky and find a place where hooves had trampled or claws had torn, maybe even a pile of dropping released by the killer or the killed.
     He experienced no such luck.
     With all the flattened grass, it was like trying to read Braille beneath a thatch weave, so—uttering a silent curse—he reached through the grassy wall and began digging at the carpet of reeds, careful not to reach too far inside.
     If he were going to break the rules, he wasn’t going to break them by much. And he shouldn’t have to, either. If the grass was bent over, then it had been bent over by something, and that something would have left marks in the soil regardless of whether they were at the center of the ring or out along the perimeter. He need only move that top layer aside to reveal the tracks.
     But as the crushed reeds lifted and moved aside, Jaysh found the dirt below as smooth and flawless as the sky above, and when he moved down the ring a little further and pried up a different section of grass, he found the same results. In fact, he found this phenomenon to be the case all the way around. The soil was compact, like the dead thing and its killer had rolled around a good deal, but there were no signs of feet, paw, or hoof marks, not even form the prey.
     As unlikely as it was that the predator had rolled around in the depression and then rolled off into the sunset, it was possible. But what wasn’t possible was that the prey—which was now lying on the other end of the depression and getting deader by the minute—hadn’t left behind its tracks.
     Jaysh slid back from the circle, sat there with his knees to his chin, and tried to think of what he was missing. Maybe the kill happened out here, he wondered, out here in the tall grass. Yeah, that could be it. The predator made the kill, the prey rolled all over—later falling over dead—and all the prints were out here in the rough.
     He liked that theory. It explained the dead animal and the bugs, the semi-round circle of flattened grass, the lack of prints within. As theories went, it was a good one.
     It just wasn’t true.
     For as Jaysh moved around the immediate area, pushing aside the tall blades and practically sniffing the dirt below, he found no tracks. With desperation starting to claw at his insides, he entertained the notion that the prey had been struck further out from the circle—at high velocity, perhaps—and then made to land within the circle.
     Only the further Jaysh crawled from the circle, the more tracks he failed to find. And not just tracks. There was nothing out there, no indentations in the flora, no torn soil on the ground, no strands of hair lying in the grass.
     Heart slamming, he sat up and panned his head around valley. It was still empty, save for one officer on the ridge and one crystal man further back in the distance, but neither of these sights brought him solace. 
     He moved back to the dark blot on the far side of the circle—again making it a point to stay out of the depression—and knelt down beside his only clue. If there were any answers out here, they were awaiting him at the bottom of this nauseating hive.
     He took a deep breath and leaned into the buzzing clot, scooping away the pests like clods of wild and humming mud, scooping them from the air and tossing them away.
     After a time, the outline of a carcass peeked up at him from the throng and he breathed a sigh of relief. There was a leg—No, two legs. At least, two legs and probably more, all of them pressed against the body. And there was a set of horns. He swatted the tiny scavengers away from the horns and found the head. It had been bent all the way back and was lying on the animal’s shoulders, as if the animal had run headlong into a boulder and broke itself in half. In fact, the animal’s remains in general appeared to have been badly crushed, and as odd as that was, Jaysh found it even more peculiar that they had not been eaten.
     The woodsman’s thoughts went to the slaughterhouse where Gariel’s father had worked when they were children, then to the alleyway behind the slaughterhouse where they had played. He thought about the piles of guts and gore Gariel’s father tossed in the alley, the mounds of heads and hooves, the crates of tails and hides, all the things that people didn’t eat.
     Then his thoughts went to the kills he’d encountered during his time in the woods, the kills that were little more then hair and bones, the kills where you really had to work to discern the creature’s identity.
     Whatever done this wasn’t hungry, he thought, and again he heard Iman’s departing words as he left him on the hill: Why do you think I’m here? Why, Jaysh? Why do you think they sent me?
     Jaysh resumed his inspection, desperately searching for a piece to this puzzle that would give the rest of it meaning. He ran his hands down the animal’s forelegs, down its broken neck, its shattered spine.
     About halfway down the creature’s back, and just below the vertebra, Jaysh felt his fingers pass over an opening in the hide. He jerked his hands back—just in case something was in there—and leaned in for a closer look. The hole was deep, and wide. As wide as a spearhead, he guessed.
     He brought up his hands and resumed the physical inspection, searching for additional gouges and tears and trying not to think about the bugs in his beard, his hair, his eyes.   
     Ignoring the pests, he ran his hand down the carcass’ tail, feeling the places where the vertebra buckled and bent, checking the hind legs for teeth marks, padding the belly from back to front. Near the animal’s head, he found another opening in the hide, roughly the same diameter as the first and, again, located about two hands down from the rippling spine.
     It, too, looked deep, and Jaysh wondered just how deep.  
     He leaned forward to find out—to slip a few fingers into the hole and go probing about for answers—when something lunged at him from the grass.