As Jaysh walked the banks of the Leresh and surveyed the fields to either side, he remembered a saying he’d once heard that went something along the lines of, If not for the fields of Arn’s Promise, the Kingdom of Jashandar would be nothing but an extension of the Dead Lands.
     It was a strangely obvious statement regarding the fields, but he supposed it was true. Of course, it was also true that, If not for the Leresh­—the creek that flowed out of the Dead Lands and supplied the crops with nutrients—the fields of Arn’s Promise would be nothing but clay and thistles. But if you were going to say that, then you might as well say, If not for the water between the banks, the Leresh would be nothing but a slimy culvert.
     Needless to say, Jaysh had never gotten the hang of Ifs or What Ifs or How Abouts. He never learned to appreciate the way they took him into his mind and asked him to pretend that what was, actually wasn’t, and that what wasn’t, actually was. His mind, it seemed, had enough trouble keeping track of the real world, let alone a pretend world.
     ‘Ceptin it ain’t fer pretend no more, a voice cackled in his mind. Jus lookit all that mud, Jayshy! Jus look, would jeh!
     That was the voice of his woman-friend, Gariel, who liked to correct him. That, unfortunately, was how her mind worked. And although this would have irritated the woodsman on any other day, today he was too flustered by the Leresh to take notice.
     On the east side of the creek, a crop of sprouts rose from the rich black soil and spread out for as far as the eye could see, dark green leaves as high as a man’s knees, finger-long beans sticking out all over. By the same token, the leafy world on the west side of the creek appeared the same as well, corn stalks stabbing the sky, leaves blocking the mountains.
     It was the Leresh in between the two plots that appeared different. Jaysh could see that it was still as wide as a hay wagon and still as twisted as a serpent’s spine, but the contents of the creek had change drastically.
     Where once had been turgid, brown waters—flowing out of the Dead Lands and into Arn’s Promise—there was now a gully of glistening, brown muck. He spied a few dead fish here and there, and the desultory corn stalk lying on its side, but mostly he spied mud, wet and runny and smelling of worms.
     Jaysh paused in his chewing to spit a line of black at the eastern banks. The possibility of a blockage kept rearing its ugly head in his mind—a fallen bole in the Harriun, a slide of rocks in Dead Lands—but in a kingdom notorious for caves, a blockage wasn’t likely.
     What was likely was that a hole had opened up in the ground and swallowed up his water, the same thing that had happened to Blue Hole in the days of his ancestors, only in reverse, the Leresh having dropped into an empty chasm of space, while Lake Blue Hole had ­tapped into a mysterious underground reservoir.
     Or so the legend went…
     It was always difficult to say what happened at the bottom of a lake. But something had happened and the subterranean passage theory was as plausible as any other.
     As far as history and legend were concerned, the growing season that age had been abnormally dry for the region, and there weren’t any streams or rivers flowing into the lake. Yet in one solitary night, the whole of the lake breeched its banks, submerged it docks, and increased its overall diameter by one third. All in one night.
     And if it wasn’t an underground channel, then where else had the unctuous, orange film come from? The local fisher-folk hadn’t seen anything of the like falling from the sky, and there wasn’t a drop or smear of the filth tainting the shores. Yet in the span of a single night, the surface of Lake Blue Hole had changed into something more aptly dubbed The Orange Slick.
     Legend had it that the oleaginous film would stain any boat or skiff that crossed its path, and the fishermen hated to think of what the ooze might do to human flesh, not there was much risk of any human finding out. Because along with the pockets of floating tomato sauce, the locals also began reporting strange shapes deep within the lake, slate-gray masses passing beneath the boats, a hint of a fin here, a glimpse of a flipper there.
     Blockage my eye, Jaysh thought, moving his gaze along the creek bed. What we got here is a hole.
     Up ahead, he watched the muddy culvert sweep into the west and duck behind the stalks, hiding the last stretch of safe fishing shore from view. Beyond this, the woodsman knew, the fields of Arn’s Promise met with the Wilderness of the Harriun, a sprawl of unreal terrain the locals considered to be less than safe. 
     In a perfect world, the cavity that was slurping down his water wouldn’t be much farther than the next bend in the creek, just around this last jut of corn and well south of the Harriun Wilderness. If that were the case, Jaysh could still cast his line in the water, sprawl himself in the reeds, and not have to worry about being torn to pieces while he napped. But if the hole was in the Harriun Wilderness and the creek bed was empty all the way to those sandy black borders…Fish Day was in for one humdinger of a delay. For as much as Jaysh loved smoked catfish with lemons and onions—unless he was going to see Gariel later, and then scratch the onions—it wasn’t worth a trip into the bad trees.
     Aside from the Bottoms, the Harriun was the only place the woodsman avoided. Caves of the Kilashan, okay. Mountains of the Blades, why not? Forest of the Shun, no problem.
     But the Harriun? Who in their right mind would enter the Harriun?
     According to Iman Janusery—dear old friend, military captain, and all-around jack-a-ninny—the answer to that question was: Jaysh and Iman. According to the jack-a-ninny, the two of them had made their notorious visit in the days of their youth when they were young and dumb and bent on their own personal destruction.
     Jaysh, however, wasn’t so sure. As tempting at it might be to believe the good captain—for there was a long list of people, places, and events that Jaysh did not recall—there was also the strong possibility that Iman was lying.
     Iman was a consummate liar, one who lied so much that, by now, it was probably easier to just go with the lies. Retracing his verbal steps and dredging up the truth would be altogether too much work, for Iman and his audience.
     But Iman’s mendacity aside, a trip to the Harriun did sound like something he and Jaysh might try. Jaysh hadn’t been kidding when he’d made the comment about chasing their destruction.
     From what little the woodsman did recall, he and Iman had gone racing from one rule to the next, intent of breaking them all. And since Iman was at a loss in this regard—his parents, as far as Jaysh could tell, didn’t seem to care what the boy did—the boys were stuck breaking the rules set down by Jaysh’s parents, which very well may have been stay out of the Harriun.
     An’ there was that fit he threw, Jaysh recalled, thinking back to one of the few times he’d seen Iman lose his cool.  
     As Jaysh recalled, he and Iman had been in the Open Wound at the time—one of the local taverns in the City of Onador—or at least he guessed they’d been in the Wound. Jaysh had spent a lot of time there in his formative ages and, from what he’d heard through the grapevine—grapevine being code for his woman-friend, Gariel—Iman still did.
     Iman loved the Wound, loved it like an actor loves the stage and like a disciple loves the pulpit. Never mind the fact that it was lit like a cavern and smelled like an armpit, he loved it like the home he never had. And every chance he got, the captain was there, sitting at the bar with his good friend Jaysh.   
     Cause the tables was fer the audience, Jaysh heard himself say, quoting the good captain. He remembered the way they’d enter the place at each other’s side and then, in no time at all, Iman was waving and pointing and stealing over to one of the many meaningless acquaintances with whom he just had to shake hands. He’d pat Jaysh on the back and send him after a couple of stools, telling him to, Get them at the bar, right? The tables are for the audience.
     Jaysh hated the bar, hated it for the exact same reason that Iman loved it: Everyone stared at you when you sat at the bar. You couldn’t pick your nose or fart without some old crone at a table rolling you the evil eye.
     Thankfully, though, Jaysh’s role was minimal. His job was to sit attentively at his good friend’s side, sip his sassafras tea like a trooper, and nod anytime Iman gestured to him, usually cued by, Am I right, Jaysh? or Jaysh saw it. Didn’t you, Jaysh?
     And Jaysh, being careful to keep his eyes fixed on his dear old friend—because it made him ill to look behind him at the sea of faces at the tables—would take another sip of sassafras, nod solemnly, and say, Yep or Uh-huh or some other guttural confirmation.   
     At any rate, that was how it began. Jaysh was sitting at the bar, half numb with boredom as Iman told the one about the traveling merchant and the farmer’s daughters for the umpteenth time, and all of a sudden—as the laughter died down and the audience returned their glassy-eyed attention to the captain—Iman said, Hey, did I ever tell you guys about the Harriun? ‘Bout what me and my buddy, there, saw inside?
     Jaysh, who’d been monitoring the sunset through the cracks in the walls, couldn’t stop the look of astonishment from spreading on his face, a look that would have surely damaged his dear friend’s credibility had anyone seen. As it were, one of the scruffy-looking field hands in the back took the opportunity to damage it for him.
     Yeh come out’a there with your clothes off? said the husky man with the sweat-stained tunic. Yeh come out’a there with your skin cut t’ribbons an’ your arms an’ legs caked with gore? Is that how it were, boy? Cause if’n it weren’t—if’n your sayin yeh walked out’a there with clothes on an’ nary a scratch on your nose—well then, boy-o, I’m a-callin yeh a liar.
     Stabbing a finger at the skeptical field hand, Iman assured the man that, as a matter of fact, he had kept all his clothes on, and—as the man could plainly see, while the captain was lifting his arms and making a theatrical pirouette—he had done so without sustaining the slightest of lacerations. Then he gestured at the woodsman with his mug of ale and said, Just ask, Jaysh. He was there. And Jaysh had started so badly that he spilled his drink on the floor and quickly crawled beneath the table,  pretending to clean the mess with his shirt sleeve.
     By the luck of the banned, though, the doubting field hand wasn’t interested in Jaysh’s seal of authenticity. For as soon as Iman finished speaking, the dirty farmer let out a resonant Bah, declared that the word of two liars carried no more weight than the word of one, and then threw his drink at Iman as the good captain made a rather nasty comment about the man’s mother.
     Jaysh was pretty sure he’d left after that—he’d never been much of a fighter and Iman, thanks to his mouth, always had been—but the salient point Jaysh took away from the exchange was how irate Iman had become after hearing the field hand’s blatant accusation.
     To say that Jaysh’s dear old friend was occasionally challenged on his outlandish tales was to say that the sun occasionally came up and that the moon occasionally followed. But in any event, when these occasions arose, the captain usually maintained his credibility and simply challenged the naysayer to substantiate proof to the contrary.
     But not that time, Jaysh thought. That time he throwed himself a right nasty fit. And the realization of that fact made Jaysh wonder if maybe, just maybe, he had seen the Harriun. But before he could fully analyze the captain’s defensive behavior and reach a decisive conclusion on the matter, he was interrupted by the sound of thudding.
     Had Jaysh not known better, he might have sworn a team of peasants had snuck up behind him and were driving tent stakes with a series of hammers. But since this wasn’t the first time he’d heard the shadow bearing down upon him, he knew the sound came from the creature’s feet as it came thundered across the field.
     He also knew that if he didn’t get going, the next sound he would hear would be—  
     Clack! Clack! Clack!
     It came from the direction of the pounding footfalls and sounded like a pair of mason bricks being smacked together.
     Jaysh picked up the pace.
     There was absolutely nothing he had to say to the shadow and, likewise, there was nothing it had to say that he wished to hear. They were better than halfway through with Fish Day and, even though his large and silent friend didn’t care, they had yet to dig a worm, bait a hook, or—Sira Forbid!—catch a fish.
     Clack! Clack! Clack!
     Jaysh was nearly in a jog now, his pack and quiver bouncing all over. He was bound and determined to reach the bend in the river before the bothersome shadow caught him. If he could just see the murky waters of the Leresh somewhere beyond the hole that drank them, then he was prepared to endure any poke to the shoulder or goofy hand-speak the shadow might throw…his…way…
     He rounded the screen of stalks and skidded to a stop.
     In the fields beyond the bend in the stalks, there was no sign of its dark brown water. There was a gleaming trail of mud—twisting and turning and, eventually, disappearing into the soft black scab of the wilderness—but no water.
     Clack! Clack! Clack!
     Jaysh’s eyes glided along the swath of midnight that, from where he stood, resembled the black face of a basalt mountain or maybe the coal-tinted lip of a strip mine. But having stood closer to that shadowy land in the past, he knew the wilderness was too soft for stone and too oily for anthracite. What was more, he could tell, even from here, that the upper ridge of the blackness was rippling like a forest and not float like a plateau.
     But that ain’t no forest, he thought, spiting a stream at the sprouts, an’ them ain’t trees.
     Behind him, the sledgehammer footfalls came to a stop at his heels.
     Jaysh continued to stare at the Harriun, refusing to subject himself to any nonsense in his current state of dismay. But when the shadow brought its hands together directly behind his head—Clack! Clack! Clack!—he realized he could either acknowledge the creature’s existence or go deaf.
     “Yeah,” he said. “I hear yeh.” And then he tensed for what was to come, knowing full well that the shadow only clapped for so long before trying to gain his attention by other means.
     As the brutal finger sank into his shoulder, Jaysh suppressed his groan. He was, however, unable to stifle the wrinkles on his face. He kept waiting for his arm to get used to the poke—go numb or callused or whatever it was that arms did when subjected to repeated abuse—but if anything, the flesh of his arm felt as though it was growing more sensitive.
     After the second poke, Jaysh groaned without shame and turned to face the creature, the only course of action that would end its cruel touch. As he did, though, he made sure to raise an arm to his face and shield his eyes with his hand. He did this not because the creature was hideous or because it might spray him with poison. No, the woodsman shielded his eyes because the shadow, in all honestly, was not a shadow at all. He’d given it this name because the thing followed him around like a shadow and because it reminded him of one at night. But in truth, there was nothing dark and dreary about the creature.
     Peaking at his watcher in between the gaps in his fingers, Jaysh said, “Uh-huh.”
     The shadow brought up its crystalline arms and began to make its signs, needles of white light lancing from its upper body. As it did, the woodsman tried to focus on the symbols and not the mechanics behind the gestures. He was much better at this now that the novelty of the phenomenon had worn off, but in the beginning this had not been the case.
     In the beginning, he’d stood mesmerized by the walking gemstone, finding it impossible to interpret the simplest of gestures. The shadow could have been shaking its head no and the woodsman wouldn’t have noticed. He’d have been staring at its crystal-blue neck and wondering how something so hard and angular could flex like the wings of a blue jay.
     Now, however, instead of staring dumfounded at the miracle of its movements, he tended to stare dumbfounded at the incomprehensibility of its speech. And the speech it was currently endeavoring to make was no exception. It had its hands above its head—fingers dangling and palms held loose—and it was shaking them as if they’d gone utterly numb.
     Squinting at this, Jaysh could only shake his head and shrug.
     The shadow lowered its hands and pointed at a place behind and below the woodsman. Jaysh followed the trajectory of its finger.
     After tracking everything from bears to beavers and wolves to weasels, Jaysh could honestly say he’d seen every track there was to see, the teardrop crescents of white-tailed deer, the human-looking prints of a ‘coon, the nearly star-shaped markings of crows.   
     For this reason, he’d already concluded that the tracks behind him—the ones at which the shadows was so poignantly indicating—had come from a critter alien to this land.
     Judging by the way the prints hung out to the side of the body and by the way they were dissected in the middle with a narrow squiggling tale, he guessed they’d come from some kind of a water lizard, something the size of a big dog, but nothing he couldn’t scare with a stomp of a moccasin or a clap of the hands.
     “I seen em,” he said, turning his squelching gaze back to the shadow and seeing that it was now jabbing its finger at the strange prints and then the center of the river, first the one, then the other, as if the two were related. Then—possibly in response to the woodsman’s lackluster reaction—it stopped pointing at the tracks and pointed at something to the north.  
     Jaysh turned to look.
     Roughly half a league up the Leresh, far enough that the details were lost to the woodsman, a black beam lay across the muddy path. It might have been a slab of coal or maybe the burnt remains of a tree, but way up here, this close to the bad trees, it could be only one thing.
     “I see it,” he said.
     The shadow’s hand clacked together and Jaysh turned back around, watching a new set of blinding, starburst movements. When Jaysh shook his head at these, the shadow slowed its pace and illustrated its message with greater emphasis, a tactic that always made Jaysh feel like a deaf beggar being screamed at by some idiot guard, an accommodation of the brain-dead that did nothing for comprehension.
     Bringing his brows further into his face, he said. “I ain’t gettin yeh.”
     The shadow tried something new, pointing first at Jaysh, then high into the northern horizon, and finally shaking its head. When it did this again, Jaysh turned while the shadow gestured over his head—making sure the creature was pointing where he thought it was pointing—and said, “Doan’ go up there?”
     The shadow shook its head, then made two curt symbols. The first was one Jaysh had seen used on poisoned berries and rotten logs and anything he deemed as harmful or, in Jaysh’s estimation, bad. Thus, the woodsman had grown to regard this symbol as the bad symbol.
     The other sign was actually a rather common gesture considering where Jaysh spent most of his time. It involved the shadow holding a hand at face height, flat like a hatchet, and then shaking the hand in a manner that reminded the woodsman of a leaf or, in this particular instance, a tree.
     Jaysh nodded and turned to the Harriun, giving it a pensive look. In the past, the shadow had come blundering out of the brush to warn him of snakes and mushrooms and some things that, on the surface, seemed innocuous. But it had never indicated an entire section of the land and then forbidden him access.
     Well, this is dif’ernt, he thought, his insides turning suddenly cold as he tried to image something formidable enough to spook the shadow.
     Jaysh moved his gaze to the beam of black in the creek bed, then dropped it to the queer markings in the mud at his feet.
     “Think I’ll wander down to the Mela,” he said, turning to the south. “Plen’y of water down there.”