Hell or High Water
by Ari Marmell
Chapter Two: Murky Waters
"I know that the Imjaka, dwelling so near those reaches, have made a greater study of these ‘scavenger gangs' than I," Seyusth continued. "That, Ameyanda, is why I come to you, though finding you proved far from simple."
This time, Ameyanda didn't bother to suppress her sigh. "All right," she said, once more hefting her pack. "Lead the way, shaman, and tell me what you know."
Seyusth spoke of his travails as they began to walk, and the huntress—so far as her exertions allowed—listened.
"It was over half a moon," he explained, "before we realized that the hunting patrol was overdue. Another moon, and more, before I could make my own apprentice ready to see to Haa-Ok's needs during my prolonged absence. And then, as I told you, almost another moon still before I finally tracked down the remains of Issisk's band."
"Remains?" If this lizard is hauling me into the Sodden Lands to retrieve a body...
"A smattering of parts, not entirely rotted into the soil. No intact bodies, and no remaining tracks. So I spoke a time with the serpents and birds and toads of the area."
"Of course. Who wouldn't?"
"It was then I learned that Issisk was led away in chains, the others slain and their bodies taken. And I learned that the attackers were not my people but humans, both living and unliving."
Ameyanda staggered to a halt, her skin breaking out in goosebumps despite the sapping heat. She swallowed hard. "Unliving? Your cousin was taken by the dead-who-walk?" She'd never faced such horrors herself, but the folklore of her people was rife with them.
"Alongside the living, yes."
She felt her lips moving in silence. Seyusth watched her, unblinking.
"Does this pose a problem for you?" he asked finally.
"A problem? I think this is a bit more severe than a ‘problem'!" Still, it was enough to stiffen her resolve. She'd almost announced that she was going back, but no.
The Imjaka repay our debts. Ameyanda would not be the one to violate that tradition, no matter what.
Especially not when that one detail—the presence of the dead-who-walk—was indeed sufficient to suggest to her which of the savenger gangs they sought.
The White Leech. Grandmother Sun, help us...
"Seyusth is a powerful shaman, but woefully ignorant regarding the Sodden Lands."
"All right, shaman. Follow me; I know who you're searching for."
They trekked beneath shrouding canopies of leaves and low-hanging lianas, over fallen logs and rotten fungi, through brambles and ferns glistening with condensation and sticky secretions. Seyusth slipped through without effort; thorns and foliage ran off him like water. Ameyanda, for all her skill, had a harder time. More than one scrape or sting brought a grunted curse, and her resentful gaze on the lizardman's back nearly set his vest to smoldering.
Embarrassment, more than pain, chafed her. It had been many years since Ameyanda had required anyone else to slow their passage through even the wildest jungle.
"You are certain this White Leech is the band we seek?" Seyusth asked.
"They're the only border scavengers who make use of the dead-who-walk. Rumor and tales have it that their chieftain, Montirro the Thrice-Blind, learned his necromancies from the Koboto people themselves."
"I had heard that the Koboto sacrifice anyone who nears their lands."
Ameyanda shrugged. "As I said, rumor and tales. But that the White Leech raises the dead is no mere tale. I know warriors who have seen it themselves."
"But can you be certain the White Leech is the only such band?" he pressed.
"As certain as you can be that Issisk still lives."
The following miles passed without further conversation.
They crossed no border. No fences, no signposts; no mighty river or towering escarpment marked the transition.
The trees grew sparser, their roots and branches more crooked. Fern leaves and winding briars gave way to hanging mosses and slender reeds. The lush scent of loam and sprouting things wafted away beneath the odor of rot and stagnant pools.
The mud grew thicker, more greedy as it tugged at scaled or sandal-wrapped heels. Worse, it became vaguely caustic, just enough to cause irritation and a sanity-threatening itch.
By the time they'd passed beyond the mud flats into the swamp proper, the filthy, lukewarm water was almost a relief.
This far from the sea and the eternal hurricane dubbed the Eye of Abendego, the Sodden Lands were indeed simply a swamp, if a swamp with abnormally deep patches and river-like currents. Ameyanda knew that the further west they progressed, the worse it would become. Mires of impossible size, plague-bearing floodwaters as deep as any lake, a barrage of wind and rain so constant as to wear down the heaviest stone.
They shouldn't have to go so far—to the huntress's knowledge, the White Leech operated primarily here in the outskirts—but even this was far from pleasant.
When the shallow marsh began to develop waves high enough to slap at her chest, and a tepid, breath-like gust began to herald the promise of rain, Ameyanda pulled a face and reached out to stop her companion in his tracks. Already she had to raise her voice to be heard over the building winds.
"We're not going much farther in this without a raft of some sort," she told him, running a hand through the stubble on her scalp. It itched, and retained a surprising amount of water, but she hadn't had the opportunity to shave her head in days.
Seyusth stepped aside to haul a thick vine from a nearby cypress. "Use this to secure yourself."
"Secure myself to wh-augh!"
Ameyanda leapt backward, splashing murky water in all directions, as the shaman shifted. One moment, a lizardman; the next, over the span of seconds, his limbs drew into his body and thickened, his torso elongated, his snout lengthened. His pebbly flesh bulged in some spots, smoothed in others.
Lurking in the water, eyes and nostrils protruding menacingly, was a full-sized crocodile.
"Warn me before you do that!"
The crocodile, in a very familiar and languid expression, blinked.
"You can't speak when you've turned yourself into an animal?"
"Oh." Ameyanda stepped forward—less gingerly than she felt—looped the vine around the reptile's chest, and climbed aboard. Not the most comfortable mount, but it must beat walking.
After hours of being tossed about by the beast's wriggling swim, her arms and legs bruised raw against its knobby hide and savaged mercilessly by vermin both above the water and below, she wasn't so sure of that anymore.
Early the following day—not that one could tell it was day, given that the pounding rains still hadn't moved on—Seyusth apparently scented or detected something. With an abrupt twitch that nearly unseated his partner, the crocodile shot through the swamps on a new course.
Ameyanda, who knew that asking him what they were doing was a waste of time and breath, instead wasted that same time and breath in a litany of curses.
A reed-covered hillock was their destination. Seyusth had barely climbed atop the rise before shifting back into his natural shape. Anyone with lesser reflexes than the huntress would have been sent sprawling.
"You have some steed etiquette to master," she groused at him. "Why—?"
"There." Black talons pushed a tuft of reeds so she could see. "Are those White Leech?"
In what amounted to a wide corridor of swamp hemmed in by cypress walls, a pair of skiffs moved sluggishly across the water. The wood of the haphazard vessels was stained with old blood—old and dry enough that the rain washed absolutely none of it away. The men aboard were clad in tatters and leather scraps, held together by everything from cowhide straps to sodden twine, and armed with roughly hammered and sharpened scrap metal. One man poled each of the skiffs, while the others argued over the choicest cuts of... something that had once drawn breath.
"Difficult to tell," Ameyanda told him, struggling to peer through the downpour. "We're in their territory, but I wouldn't know how to tell the White Leech by sight. They... No," she said with sudden certainty. "They're not White Leech."
"How do you know?"
"Because," she said, pointing at the ominous shapes suddenly looming from the corridor of trees, or rising from beneath the swamp to surround the skiffs and their frantic crew, "I'm fairly sure those are the White Leech."
They seemed no more than phantoms, obscured by the downpour. Some of the silhouettes that formed from within the trees, or from deep within the murky waters, appeared humanoid. Others were most assuredly nothing of the kind.
That the first group they'd spotted were thrown into utter panic by the arrival of the second was clear enough, but precisely who the newcomers were, or what about them was so horrifying, neither the brown-skinned huntress nor the green-scaled shaman could see.
The feeblest remnants of what might have been shouts or screams drifted through the downpour.
"We must get nearer!" Seyusth yelled in her ear.
"How wise of you, great shaman," Ameyanda retorted with bitter sarcasm. "And how do you suggest we..." But the lizardman had already dived into the choppy swamp.
"Spirit-damned lizard," she hissed at the fading ripples. He'd retained his natural shape, but even so, Ameyanda knew she couldn't match his speed in the water. Still grumbling under her breath, she hung her quiver of spears across the thickest reeds—the weapons would just float away anyway—checked that both mambeles were snug in their sheathes, and waded reluctantly into the waters.
Even over the course of only a few dozen paces, the treacherous mud, the submerged and rotting logs, and the abnormal waves conspired to constantly alter the depth of the swamp. At times she was submerged to the waist; at others, the crests of those waves passed over her head, slapping her across the face with filthy water and reeking algae. Still, she preferred to wade, though she was a strong swimmer; she wanted to keep her feet under her and her eyes at least mostly clear.
She finally clambered once more onto a solid surface—a floating tussock of sticks, moss, and mud—and spent a moment gasping for breath, coughing up water, and trying with all her might to strangle the lizardman with her eyes. "Some of us," she began, "do not swim like—"
Whatever protests remained died in Amayanda's throat.
One of the primitive skiffs had already been overturned, partly smashed to kindling by a reptilian juggernaut of flaking scales and protruding bone. Two more crocodiles—though these two were alive—had surfaced alongside the undead monstrosity to snap at men in the water. Nearby, bobbing almost peacefully in the currents and waves, five of the dead-who-walk, naked and sloughing waterlogged flesh, advanced on the remaining raft.
Beyond those, the huntress could begin to make out the details of the larger force emerging from the tree line. A skiff of prodigious size, stained white, led the way, followed by two of more traditional girth. The men standing on those skiffs, hooting worse than the charau-ka and waving rusted blades overhead, wore leather armor clearly formed from a wide variety of creatures. Not a single greave, spaulder, or breastplate matched any other, and while some were obviously crafted from the tanned hides of swamp beasts—crocodiles and great snakes, primarily—others appeared mammalian and even, on occasion, humanoid in origin. A few of the latter still sported locks of hair, flapping wildly in the rain.
At the forefront, bellowing to shame an enraged elephant, was the most monstrous man—if man he was—Ameyanda had ever seen. Easily half again as tall as she and monstrously obese, he must have outweighed any three of the others put together. Rolls of fat, maggot-pale and glistening with rainwater, bulged from between the slapdash components of his armor. He carried a hammer, its head large enough for a halfling to have used as an anvil, waving it about with apparent ease. His head and jaw seemed subtly misshapen, but that could have been an illusion of distance, combined with his straggly, sickly hair—thinning up front, hanging to his shoulder blades behind.
That mass of flesh and his smaller allies blocked Ameyanda's sight of whoever or whatever poled the skiff from the rear, but it shot forward with startling speed, seeming to crush the waves before it. Already they were near enough to their victims for the most lithe of the White Leech warriors to leap from one raft to the other.
"We," Seyusth announced suddenly, a gleam in his golden eyes, "could certainly do with local allies. The enemy of my enemy, as your people say..."
Had Ameyanda not been so astonished, so horrified and repulsed, by the blasphemies of the White Leech—had she not still been trying to gather her breath—she might have stopped him. As it was, by the time she registered what he was doing, it was already too late.
"Seyusth! Damn it!"
The shaman rose, arms held high. The combatants might not have noticed his appearance, distracted as they were, until the first of the lightning bolts roared from the heavens.
Several of the White Leech fell to the deck of the skiff or into the ever-hungry waters, their bodies blackened. Their gelatinous mountain of a leader recoiled, one arm raised to protect his face. The skin along that arm, and across his gut, turned red, then black, but he hardly seemed to notice.
Almost immediately, every eye present scanned their surroundings and fixed on Seyusth. Though the attack had not come from him directly, nobody was stupid enough to think the stroke a coincidence.
The lizardman opened his mouth, perhaps to shout something to the men he'd meant to rescue, when the entire mass of humanity and undead—including those whom the White Leech had just been slaughtering—began shoving their rafts through the water, closing on the startled shaman.
"The scavenger gangs," Ameyanda hissed through heaving breaths, "always band together against outsiders!"
"Get us out of here!"
Seysuth stepped to the far side of the floating tussock, presumably to once again assume his own crocodile form and carry them beyond the reach of the slower skiffs.
The undead crocodile erupted from the swamp like a breaching whale.
The snout, a battering ram of dead scales, rotting flesh, and stained bone, slammed the shaman backward to land sprawled, half in the swamp. It spun, its jaws a gaping pit to the Abyss. The overwhelming miasma of decay, to say nothing of the sprayed droplets of liquefying muscle, nearly paralyzed the Imjaka warrior.
Ameyanda leapt from the quivering mass of vegetation, tucking her knees high, just barely clearing the oncoming snout. Crying aloud, she kicked down with both legs, slamming the jaws together and down into the tussock. Now crouched atop the shambling horror, she drove both mambeles deep into its flesh.
Muscle tore; bone splintered; chipped teeth flew to land scattered amidst the twigs. For a living creature, a fatal blow.
For the unliving crocodile, an inconvenience.
"Seyusth!" She stepped off the mangled snout, blades raised. "I could do with some—"
The sound of splashing water, thrashing limbs, and the impact of something on roughened flesh suggested that the shaman had his own problems.
The crocodile snapped, attempting to skewer her with the edge of a broken jaw. Ameyanda backpedaled, seeking any escape, and glanced over her shoulder just in time to see Seyusth fall.
A handful of the dead-who-walk had followed their crocodilian ally through the waters and clambered atop the floating isle. One lay, truly dead, lacerated by the shaman's spear; another had been brought down by a second lightning bolt from on high. But even as Seyusth turned to handle a third, a head broke the surface of the swamp—a humanoid head not mammalian, but reptilian.
Seyusth froze, his whole expression slack. Ameyanda could only assume he was trying to tell if the unliving thing was the missing Issisk. And in that moment of distraction, one of the White Leech leapt from the skiff—gods and spirits, how did that ponderous vessel move so swiftly?—and slammed a thick cudgel into the lizardman's skull.
A cudgel... yet he carried a serrated falchion in his other hand.
Ameyanda saw the grin of the monstrous fat man, the clubs and ropes held by his fellows, and knew they had something far worse than a quick death in mind.
Coming Next Week: Capture by the scavenger gangs in Chapter Three of "Hell or High Water."
Ari Marmell is an author and game designer, and has written extensively for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, World of Darkness, and more. His novels include the independent dark fantasy novels The Conqueror's Shadow and The Warlord's Legacy, the young adult fantasy Thief's Covenant, and the morbidly humorous The Goblin Corps, among others. For more information, see his website at mouseferatu.com.
Illustration by Jim Pavelec.