Serit Branmore, general of the Jashian military, was having trouble of his own, but only a small portion of his trouble involved waterways. The majority of his trouble stemmed from the thing before him. He dared not touch the thing—knew what would happen if he did touch the thing—but understood, as well, that he had no choice in the matter.
     Two days ago, he had ordered a royal emissary to slide an official decree beneath the obstruction—hoping to get lucky—but to no avail. The intended recipient either did not receive the missive or, more than likely, he received it, wiped his albino nose with it—or other orifices, Glory forbid—and then flatly disregarded it. 
     Now, General Branmore had a second official decree, also signed by king and council, and he had been given strict orders to either deliver the missive in person or consider himself a traitor and prepare to be exiled, a fate that involved a public flogging, a loss of personal possessions, and a one-way ticket down the Lathian road.
     Lathia, the general knew, was the war-torn and ruined kingdom directly to the south of Jashandar, a kingdom of burned-out cities, poisoned fields, and bitter-tasting streams, all ailments the Lathians had suffered at the hands of a Jashian military. Serit knew this because he had, apparently, co-led the assault on the southern kingdom.
     He also knew that the Lathians, bitter and desperate and literally eating each other alive down there, would simply love to get their hands on a Jashian exile, especially one who’d assisted in the annihilation of their kingdom. And all Serit needed to do to experience this torturous ordeal was to continue standing there in the cellar and staring at the thing in the wall…which he’d been doing for the past several moments.
     It appears in every way, the general thought, to be a door—Just a door. In skittish, cat-like movements, his eyes checked off the criteria. There’s the obligatory handle and hinges, brackets and bolts. Wooden planks measuring one and one-half hands wide and bolted vertically from floor to ceiling, cut round at the top to match the arch of the entryway. Everything appears to be in order. Everything one would expect to find on an ordinary cellar door…so go on then, Serit old boy, give the thing a rap. Let’s get this over with.
     He drew a breath, one so large it threatened to explode his scrawny chest, and extended his hand towards the frame, watching as his age-spotted fingers crept ever-nearer to the wood and watching his gray-haired knuckles loomed closer to the knots and grains, watching as, right on cue, the thumb-latch clicked, the hinges squealed, and the door crept slowly inward.
     Serit stepped back and released a long and disquieting groan. He would never get used to that. 
     “Kowin?” he called, eyeing the sliver of darkness and searching for signs of the king’s royal healer. “Kowin, is that you?” But even as he called, he knew it wasn’t Kowin. Kowin would be somewhere in the deep shadows of the room, engaged in one of his experiments and doing Owndiah-knew-what to some poor defenseless animal.
     Serit cocked an ear at the space between door and jam, but instead of the healer’s bare feet scuffing along the floor, he heard the muffled sound of a larynx croaking in the distance.
     But was it a human larynx?
     If he let his imagination run wild, Serit envisioned a large frog chained to one of the mold-covered walls, something with thick haunches, slimy skin, and a huge set of egg-yoke eyes. It was a ridiculous image, he knew—one which could not possibly exist in his carefully constructed reality of textbooks and maps—but ridiculous or not, a guard-frog was precisely what he heard groaning in the darkness.
     He raised a trembling hand and ran a thumb and forefinger through his luxuriant mustache, toying with the idea of leaving. It was an idea that gained in appeal with every horrible moment he stood staring at the croaking darkness. He could simply backpedal to the stairs, creep to the main hall, and be done with this morbidity.
     In a few days, he could tell the king and council that Kowin had stepped out for a breath of fresh air. An unlikely possibility considering the healer’s abhorrence of daylight, but it could happen. And in the meantime, Serit would find some lesser-ranking soldier—who thought with his sword and who had no idea what he was getting himself into—and order him to carry out the task.
     It’s the perfect plan, he thought, taking another step back. Kowin receives his decree, the king and council receive their intel, and—most importantly—I don’t have to enter this squalid little cell or be cooked in a sauce pan by a horde of vindictive Lathian cannibals. And best of all, the king and council would never— 
     Something moved in the shadows, something pale and indistinct and smelling of decay. Serit reeled backwards into the wall.
     “What?” the movement cried. “What? What?”
     This voice, unlike the guard-frog before it, had a whiny and falsetto timbre, as if the speaker were in perpetual pain and, instead of crying out for the provision of aid and succor, cried out with any number of blistering interrogatives.
     The voice of something living under a bridge, Serit thought.
     Aloud, the general said, “Good morning, Kowin,” and moved his trembling hand from the gray hairs of his lip to the many pendants of his chest, “and how are you this—”
     “What you want—What, What?
     “I, eh…the council, that is to say, the royal council, they sent me about the rivers, the unexplained developments in the, um…,” he trailed off, his jaw gaping. “Did you, by chance, receive an official decree?”
     Some of the feeble hall light was infiltrating the shadows and Serit could see two white shapes hovering in the gloom. One was possibly a face—skull-shaped and pink-eyed—and the other was a hand. They both peaked out from what appeared to be a black feedbag taken from the waste-soaked floor of an untidy cattle barn, this latter assessment based solely on the horrific aroma leaking from the room.
     The general, however, would have taken notice of the sackcloth garment regardless of the aroma. In fact, he’d have sooner taken his eyes from a venomous serpent coiled around his thigh.
     “No!” the skull-shape cried. “No! No! No! I not gets paper!
     Serit waited for the shriek to fade from the damp and musty corridor, then—being careful to keep his eye on the rim of the albino’s reeking hood—he said, “You received no royal missive, nothing asking you to use your, um…seeing contraption?
     “No!” Kowin snapped. “You wrong! You goway!
     “There wasn’t an emissary from the council?” Serit inquired, moving his nervous gaze to the ridge of Kowin’s sleeve. “A young man, it would have been, with dark brown hair and the royal insignia stitched on his right breast. The missive would have bore the same insignia on—”
    “I not helps!” the skull-shape squeaked, a long red tongue escaping its gums. “You not haves letter from council, so I not helps! You goway!
     “Yes, but—”
     “And tell council to send peoples way! All peoples! Send them farway!
     The door slammed shut and Serit was left to stare at splintered wood. He cleared his throat and straightened himself, brushing at the plethora of medals on his thin and aged chest. He had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but as he had learned during the many ages of his distinguished military career, sometimes the royal healer required a firm hand. Not Serit’s hand, of course—Oh my, no—but a firm hand none the less.
     Lifting his chin so as to project his voice, Serit said, “I’m terribly sorry, Kowin. There must have been some sort of delivery error on the part of the emissary. I do have a second decree here on my person, but I can see that you are not the sort of…eh…,” he trailed off, searching for the word, “…man to be bothered with silly bits of paper. I’ll just stop by the roundtable and inform the council. I’m sure they’ll understand.” He paused. “I’m sure Counselor Baggershaft will understand.”
     From the other side of the door, there came a sharp intake of air.
     “I’m sure Counselor Baggershaft would be more than happy to deliver any future correspondences in person so as to avoid—” 
     The door swung open and a little man in poorly-stitched robes waddled into the light, squinting with both pink eyes and shaking one clawed finger. “No, No! No halfling! He not comes here! You hears me! He not comes!
     Serit raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said. “Are you saying a royal decree isn’t necessary?”
     “I…,” Kowin trailed off, raising a hand and scratching at his head, the sort of gesture one might make if they were suffering from lice. But Serit knew—from his careful watch of the healer’s attire and from those dreadful moments when the fabric pulled free—that the little albino was as bald as a fish. The only things adorning Kowin’s pasty flesh was a score of god-awful tattoos that ranged from horned lizards to winged men to one—though Serit could not for the life of him conceive why—that resembled a weasel walking headlong into a meat grinder.
     “I thinks, maybe,” the little man said, his pink eyes ablaze, “I-I thinks you comes in now. Yes, you comes in now and we looks.”
     And then Kowin was gone, waddling back inside.
     Serit followed after, watching as the darkness swam in and stole away his sight, listening as the growl of the guard-frog grew louder in his ears. Behind him, the horrible door that had decided to open on its own, closed on its own, and the darkness exploded from the walls.
     Serit picked up the pace and moved swiftly towards the healer’s shuffling footfalls, the whole while wondering if the darkness wasn’t a blessing in disguise. Judging by the way his boots were sticking to the floor, it was probably best that he not see what he was walking through, a viscous fluid that felt like pinesap and fluctuated from a thin film to a sh—
     His right foot struck something like a hairy log and he went stumbling forward, arms pin-wheeling and feet stamping to catch up. By some miracle of Owndiah, he managed to avoid tripping over anything else and, eventually, came to a stop.
     What in the world had that been? he wondered, peering around the nebulous room and realizing, much to his chagrin, that he could no longer hear his host.
     The croak of the guard-frog echoed off the walls, as did the sound of Serit breathing. He moved a hand to the hilt of his sword, hoping the croaking devil could see that he was armed and hoping, as well, that it did not call his bluff. The weapon at Serit’s side, like the pendants at his chest, served a purely symbolic gesture. Generals were expected to have one—as dairy cows were expected to have horns—and so he carried the cumbersome blade. That having been said, he had no idea how to use the thing and would likely remove his ear if he tried.
     “Kowin,” he called, taking a step backwards. “Please answer me, Kowin.”
     The albino did not answer the general, but somewhere to the left, Serit did hear the shrill sound of the little man’s voice. Oddly enough, it sounded as though the albino were swearing in a foreign tongue. And even odder, when Serit spun to face the strange-sounding curse words, he was temporarily blinded.
     He saw darkness where the bad language had been and then a light as orange and as bright as the sun flared to life and enveloped his host. After some time, when Serit was able to blink open his eyes, he watched a spray of tiny, orange sparks cascading through the murk and spilling over a black orb the size of a human head. The molten sparks rolled off the orb and landed on a waist-high table, extinguishing themselves.
     The sphere began to glow, slowly illuminating the pale figure stooped above it.
     Serit crept forward, watching as the globe’s interior began to brighten and swirl like a miniature vortex of spectral vapor, wisps and trailers that took on mass and blossomed with color. He could make out a yellow-green canvas with a curving brown line squiggling through its midst. As the image stabilized and became distinct, he recognized it as the checkered fields of Arm’s Promise.
     As a master strategist for the kingdom’s defenses, Serit had surveyed countless maps and could identify the region at a glance. The tiny brown squiggle, on the other hand, was something of a mystery.
     Being sure to keep his distance, Serit pointed a gaunt finger at the sphere and said, “Now, what is this part here, this twisted part in the middle?”
     Kowin snorted cruelly. “That creek.”
     “Yes, I know it’s the Leresh, but where’s the…,” Serit’s voice died away, his hand coming to his medals and his mind leaping to the kingdom’s one and only attempt at establishing a settlement outside the capital city.
     It’s Elnor and Blue Hole all over again, he thought. Only this time they’ve taken the water.
     The tragedy at Elnor had happened generations ago and long before the general was born, but he was most familiar with the details. Serving as both military general and royal historian, he’d become quite the expert on all things Jashian, especially such potential catastrophes as were inflicted upon Elnor.
     Taking his hand from his chest and causing his pendants to tinkle, Serit said “More caves?”
     Instead of answering, Kowin barked another guttural profanity and sent the image skimming north along the slimy creek bed. The scenery streaked by in a blur, league after muddy league of dead fish and stray branches. Neither of them witnessed anything even remotely resembling a cave or sinkhole. Finally, the image in the sphere came to rest at the black and sandy borders of the Harriun Wilderness.
     Serit said, “Have you searched the boles?”
     Kowin hissed and said he had not.
     Staring warily at the strange flora in the sphere, Serit said, “After I leave, I’m sure the council would appreciate your perusing the remainder of the waterway, up to and including where it branches from the Forn River in the Dalfallow. For now,” he said, clearing his throat, “let’s have a look at the Mela, shall we?”
     Kowin uttered another bestial groan and drug his claws across the orb. Immediately, the image of the fields drained of color and substance and became a swirling vortex of steamy fog. The airy contents pulsed and spun and, very slowly, took on the shape of the grassy pastures to the south. Once again, in the midst of the sweeping verdant, a serpentine squiggle marked the center of the image, this one the color of fresh pitch.
     At its sight, Serit felt his heart sink in his chest. “Is that the Mela?
     Kowin’s white face pumped up and down.  
     “Is it black?
     Kowin made a sneering grin.
     “Oh, my,” Serit said, his head beginning to shake. “Oh, my.
     Moving the image east along the river, Kowin zoomed in on the banks and focused on the swath of black that bordered the waters. The soil resembled a blanket of coal dust, the cattails bent and blackened on the ground. Also sprawled within the decaying weeds was an army of stiff and bloated carcasses, mostly bluegill and bullfrogs, but a few cows and goats could be seen lying there as well, each with their muzzles dipped in the water.
     Serit turned to Kowin and searched for some sign that what he was seeing was some cruel ruse or some trick of the light. He found no proof of either, though. Instead, what he saw on the healer’s person was the one sight he’d been trying so diligently to avoid. For there, illuminated in the light of the dome and in plain view on the healer’s shoulder, the soiled sackcloth garment was bulging like some burrowing animal, rising to the surface of his flesh and then sliding down Kowin’s arm.
     As the bulge drifted down healer’s sleeve and sank into his elbow, Serit gave his head a firm shake and moved on to matters at hand. Under normal conditions, the bulge would have been cause for his immediate departure from the healer’s presence, just in case the thing inside the sackcloth was interested in coming out for a breath of fresh air or, Glory Forbid, a quick bite to eat. But these, of course, were not normal conditions.
     Rubbing at his mustache, Serit said, “Any idea how this might have…how the consistency of the…the water might have…,” he trailed off, overwhelmed by the imagery in the sphere.
     The healer, however, seemed to understand his rambling and fired back a declarative, “No!
     “Well, have you scanned it?” Serit asked, flummoxed by the response. “It has to have a source.”
     “I not haves time,” Kowin said. “I busy.
     “Please, find the time, Kowin. The council will expect an—”
     “I say I not haves—
     “Counselor Baggershaft will expect—”
     “I looks! I looks!
     Yes, that’s more like it, Serit thought, picking up the pace as he backpedaled for the door, hoping with all his might that the door would creak open for him as it always did, parting from the jam and allowing him safe passage away from the croaking monstrosity in the corner and the terrible images reflected in that sphere.
     As it turned out, the door did just that, its latch clicking softly and its wooden face swinging in to reveal the lantern-lit hallway beyond.
     Pausing at the entryway, Serit said, “The council would appreciate it if you would keep them apprised of any findings or developments or anything at all that—”
     “Likes people?” Kowin asked.
     Serit stopped, clearly aghast. The strange little man couldn’t have found anyone, not in the few moments it took the general to reach the threshold of the door.
     “Um…yes,” he said, doubtfully, “like people or anything that mi—”
     “Likes people here?” Kowin said, tapping the glass of the sphere.
     Though he didn’t want to, Serit crept back to the ovoid contraption and leaned over its curving face, unable to believe the scene he saw reflected in its glass.
     There were people in the sphere—two of them, in fact—both of them standing in the waist-high grasses of the Sway and not five paces from the noxious waters of the Mela, one of them scruffy and bearded and staring despondently at the river, the other large and blue and staring intently at its partner.