Very slowly—and with great feeling—Jaysh slid back around the elm and placed his head against the bark, wondering glumly if he should see what the grinning idiot wanted or if he should continue holding his tongue and let his dear old friend stumbled right on by.
     He was leaning towards the latter, and rightfully so. This was, after all, his fourth failed hobby in a row and he had a lot of work ahead of him if he hoped to end the pattern. He had either an old kingdom to fix or a new kingdom to find, and neither of those options left him much time for helping his dear old friend.
     Last night, during the-horse-ride-that-wouldn’t-end, the good captain had told Jaysh all about today’s assignment, an assignment that entailed visiting the Devil’s Dome and investigating the disappearance of the golden one. And without fail, Iman had invited Jaysh to accompany him only half a dozen times, to which Jaysh had responded in the negative.
     Interestingly enough, this had absolutely no affect on his dear old friend, even though Iman didn’t know a boar’s track from a goat’s hair or a lie down from a rut mark. The council had given Iman a quest and a-questing he would go, never mind the fact that he didn’t know what he was doing.
     ‘Til he got down there an’ had a look around, Jaysh thought. ‘Til he got down there, fig’erd he was in over his head, an’ went scurryin fer help. An’ where yeh reckon he goes fer his help? Why, down there in the sticks to find his hilljack friend. Cause even though Iman ain’t got no mind fer scoutin, he’s still a clever one. He knows if’n he stomps hard enough an’ if’n he talks long enough, I’ll find him.
     And he was right.
     Slipping around the elm and using the harshest tone he could muster, Jaysh said, “Down here.”
     Iman stopped dead in his tracks, his head jerking to and fro and looking everywhere but the place where Jaysh was standing. When Jaysh yelled a second time, the captain spotted him and began to grin, nudging his partner in the arm and moving to intercept, high-stepping the briars and swinging at the cobwebs.
     “Well, fancy that,” Iman said jovially, “here we are lost in the wood and there stands the finest scout in all the land.”
     Jaysh kept his eyes on the captain, ignoring the man behind him who had, apparently, eaten his fill of dead bugs and spiders and was wiping frantically at his face. Jaysh was waiting for the smiling loudmouth in the elk-skin boots to forego the sweet talk and make his proposition. The sooner he did that, the sooner Jaysh could turn him down.
     Possibly reading this look, Iman smiled a little wider and said, “So how’s forest day?”
     Jaysh tilted his head and unloaded a cheekful of saliva in the leaves. “Not good.”
     “I didn’t think so,” Iman said, looking distractedly around the woods. “We’d have never found you, if it was.”
     That was true, Jaysh thought.
     “But if it makes you feel better,” the captain said, his gaze dropping to the pool of spit, “my Dome expedition didn’t pan out either.”
     “Yeh doan’ say.”
     “I do,” Iman went on, “I was actually on my way there when—right out of the blue—I was intercepted by another of your dear old friends.”
     Jaysh stopped chewing and frowned, puzzling over the word in’ercepted. He was unfamiliar with the meaning of the word—something the other man had done to Iman, apparently—but he got the feeling it meant the other man had somehow stopped Iman’s mission, which would mean that Jaysh’s Iman-got-stumped theory was now teetering on the edge.
     As if to add to the woodsman’s emerging doubt, Iman stepped aside, gestured to the man who’d in’ercepted him, and said, “Look who it is.”
     Jaysh did, and felt the tight knots of confusion smoothing into shock.
     His other dear old friend hadn’t moved any closer since doing battle with the gossamer snares, but he had removed his feathery helmet. This was probably so as to clean the desiccated insects from the face shield, but it might also have been so he could have an unobstructed look at the forest around him.
     With his headgear under one arm and his other arm pulled protectively to his chest—shoulders slightly hunched as if beset upon by cool winds—the officer inspected his surroundings with all the mounting apprehension of a barn mouse surveying a hayloft of owls.
     At the sound of his introduction, he took a few steps forward, ceased his scan of the woods, and gave the woodsman the pained expression of a man who was one good shout away from leaping from his skin.
     “Hel-Hello, young Jaysh,” Serit said, prying a hand from his chest and extending it to the woodsman. “I trust you are in good spirits this morning?”
     Jaysh glanced at the proffered hand. “I’m good,” he said. “You?”
     “I am surviving,” the general admitted, retracting his hand and taking no offense at the slight. Speaking to the overhead boughs and interlacing branches, he said, “Oh—and by the way—I must say, splendid work on the Sway and Westpost missions. The council and I were most impressed by both endeavors. Most impressed. It’s always refreshing to hear from a specialist in his field.” He was now inspecting the splintered birch and its jutting splinters.
     Jaysh chewed numbly on his vine.
     “What, uh…What day is today?” Serit asked, moving towards the shattered trunk with a look on his face that clearly could not justify what he was seeing. 
     “Hunt Day,” Jaysh said.
     “Hunt day,” Serit mimed, placing the tip of his long and spindly finger to the point of one spur and tapping it lightly. “And what was it you were hunting?” 
     Jaysh’s eyes shifted from the general to the tree trunk. “Mos’ly deer,” he said. 
     “Indeed,” the general said, withdrawing his hand and frowning at the woods, “and did you hap—”
     “Serit,” Iman said, stepping forward and giving the old man a look. “Don’t you think—”
     “General Branmore, if you please,” Serit intoned, giving the look right back.
     “Right,” Iman mumbled, clearly irritated, “but shouldn’t we be—”  
     “Young Iman,” Serit said, speaking in the strict tones of a frustrated parent, “I am certain a few moments of palaver with young Jaysh will not set us back unduly, hmm?” Ignoring the captain’s exasperated sigh, he turned to the staring woodsman and said, “Now, hunt day, young Jaysh, that is one of your favorites, is it not?”
     Jaysh studied the general’s mustache, nerves rattling like dead branches in the wind.
     “It was,” he said. 
     “Yes, I thought as much,” Serit said, completely missing the transition from is to was and making his perfunctory scan of forest. “But today there were no fruits for your labors? Is that what I’m to understood fr—”
     “Yonder,” Jaysh said, nodding to the right and watching as the two officers turned, straighten themselves, and peered in unison at the thing that looked like a hairy feed sack. Their faces softened in curious wonder and then, as they crept forward, wrinkling in dismayed. Closer still, and General Branmore gasped.
     Jaysh could empathize. From where he sat, he could no longer see the details of the kill, but like the crushed cow from the Sway, the details would never leave him; The way the frame had been bent back on itself and the spine had been twisted so badly that, in places, it was difficult to tell the forepaws from the hind paws. He’d found them eventually, that much had happened, but he’d had no such luck with the head. With the head, he’d either failed to locate it or recognize it.
     Steadily retreating from the thing, Serit said, “What…what was…?”
     “A bear,” Jaysh said.
     “A bear?
     Pausing to chew the contents of his mouth, Jaysh said, “I think.”
     Serit was shaking his head. “A bear,” he breathed, still marveling at the impossibility of this claim. “Well, young Jaysh, I must say you certainly did a masterful job of…of doing…,” he trailed off, still in search of the right word to describe the butchery before him.
     To the right of the heap and squatting down for a closer inspection, Iman said, “This wasn’t Jaysh.” Serit looked to the woodsman for clarification, then back to Iman, who waddled a little further around the kill and said, “This looks like the cow from the circle.”
     Jaysh began to nod. “Looks the same, doan’ it.”
     “Yes…it…does,” Iman said, speaking in that thoughtful monotone that implied his mouth was running while his mind was elsewhere.
     Staring passed the bloated carcass to the woods beyond, Jaysh said, “I foun’ a pack’a scabe-wolves down yonder, tore up the same.”
     “Sway killer?” Iman asked.
     “Could’a been,” Jaysh said. “That’un there’s got one’a them runny, red holes.”
     “Does it?”
     “Yep,” Jaysh said, giving a nod. “Some of the scabes din’t, but that’un does.”
     Iman looked up, staring straight at him. “Not all the scabes had them?”
     “Not all of’em,” Jaysh said, pointing to the bear, “and that’un there, it’s only got the one while—”
     “—while the cow had two,” Iman finished, dropping his gaze to the kill. “So what are they?”
     Jaysh didn’t know, but the fact that they held no consistent pattern bothered him. For a mind like his—a concrete-sequential model with an extreme preference for visual stimuli—this made absolutely no sense. If these animals had been slain by the same predator—and clearly they had, based upon the broken carcasses and packed soil—then either all should have puncture wounds or none should have puncture wounds. At least then, with a discernible pattern, Jaysh might have been able to hazard some kind of a guess. As it were, he felt lost and confused and a little overwhelmed. 
     “Is it possible,” Serit asked, “that these openings were made by the animal itself?”
     The general’s voice had come from somewhere behind him and Jaysh had to turn around to find him. After his initial shock, the general had backpedaled as far from the dead bear as possible.
     The woodsman gawked at him, and it seemed—judging by the way his eyes were darted between Jaysh and the captain—that Iman was gawking as well.
     “Compound fractures?” Serit offered, when the gawking persisted. “Tears in the flesh from the animal’s fractured bones?”
     Jaysh nodded, his chewing pace returning to normal. He’d never seen a bone tear through the skin before, but he knew it was possible. Some of the patrons of the Wound—the older ones who’d survived the war with Lathia—they’d seen plenty of it.
     According to them, it was a common occurrence for soldiers on both sides to either be knocked lose of the grapples and shattered on the ground or to lose track of the siege machinery and tumble beneath the wheels. In either event, there were bone shards sticking out all over, thighs and shins, forearms and ribs, but mostly ribs. If you listened to them, the ribs seemed to be the weakest bone in the human body.
     “I s’pose,” Jaysh said, thinking of the many sweats he’d broke while trying to force his skinning knife through the side of a bear hide. But there again, bear hide wasn’t plate armor or chain mail and he reckoned that, with enough force and a thick enough shard of bone, anything was possible.
     From the vicinity of the bear, Iman said, “Jaysh, did you see any bones in the holes on the scabes?”
     Jaysh was shaking his head even before he turned around.
     “I didn’t see any on the cow,” Iman said. “None on this thing either,” he added, pointing to the bear and locking eyes with the general.
     Serit cleared his throat and said, “Perhaps, they were pulled back in?
     Jaysh looked around at Iman, but the good captain had already returned to his bear, obviously placing little credence in the general’s Retracting Bone Theory.
     Spitting out a stream of black, Jaysh said, “I doan’ know bout bones, but whatever killed the bear,” he said, adjusting his gaze to the canopy above, “it come through up there.”
     Iman turned to him, followed his gaze to the displaced greenery, and spied the wrist-thin branches above, snapped and dangling. The biggest among them might have been as wide as his calf-muscle, but not by much.
     The captain took a step towards them and stopped, sweeping his eyes in a diagonal trajectory from the broken limbs to the shattered birch, and from the shattered birch to the dead bear slumped at his boots.
     Glaring at it for a time, Iman then looked back to the twisted branches in the treetops and made one of the befuddled expressions he used to make in the temples when the disciples would ask him spiritual questions about Owndiah and Glory and creatures of the Pit.
     Iman said, “I’d like to ask how something large enough to kill a bear could be supported by treetops so small…,” he shook his head, “…but of course this is the same creature that doesn’t leave tracks… so I’m not going to.”
     The question—if there’d been a question—hadn’t really been directed at him, but Jaysh’s felt compelled to raise and lower his shoulders all the same.
     “This is just wrong,” Iman said, dropping his eyes to the woodsman. “Very, very wrong,” he said, turning to Serit. “Like ugling wrong, you know?”
     Jaysh scratched his beard. “That what this was?” he asked. “An uglin?” 
     Still staring at Serit, Iman was shaking his head. “From what I’ve heard at the Wound, uglings don’t come out too often. I mean, what’s it been, since we were kids that we had one on the loose?” He looked at Serit for confirmation, found the old man looking around the forest, and said, “And if it were an ugling, we’d have seen it by now. I hear they come out like a pack of wild dogs, jumping up and down, howling at the moon.”
     Jaysh thought back to a set of tracks he’d found along the rim of the Bottoms—back before he decided never to go near the place—and had to agree. The markings he’d seen there had been of a creature that ran on two legs and left perfect goat tracks in the mud, pointed on top and round on the bottom. But even more disturbing than the thought of an upright Billy goat was the realization that the Billy goat had never hesitated as it came sprinting out from the misted shoals and went charging into the Sway.
     Ignoring his impulse to flee, Jaysh had followed the trail until it opened up into a wide set of galloping prints. The creature having apparently dropped down on all-fours like a bear, but instead of having goat hooves all around, the forelegs of this monstrosity ended in paws, like a coyote.
     The four-legged run had ended at the intersection of real hoof prints further into the Sway, probably those of a steer or bull, though Jaysh would never know. The owner of the real hoof prints was no where to be found. There was only the dried blood on the grass and the hoof-and-paw tracks racing back into the Bottoms.
     Jaysh had wisely let them go.
     Iman said, “There’s probably a better chance it’s an old one, but according to that man, Butterolf,” he glanced at the general, “there’s not much chance of that either. Butterolf was pretty sure we were looking for something that keeps to the shadows.”
     And just like that, as the word shadows left the good captain’s lips, Jaysh felt a blistering thought come alive in his head, a thought so pregnant with possibilities that he wondered why he hadn’t asked it before.
     “Is that what we’re lookin fer?” he asked. “Somethin in the shaduhs?”
     Iman studied him for a moment, and then nodded that is was.
     Jaysh turned to the trunks and undergrowth where last he’d seen his crystal admirer and, sure enough, it was still there. He raised a hand and pointed an accusatory finger at the place where chips of blue and flares of white could be seen dancing in the emerald screen.
     “How bout that thing?” he said.