Hell or High Water
by Ari Marmell
Chapter Three: Over Their Heads
The undead crocodile lashed out with its tail now, rather than its mangled jaw, and Ameyanda could not entirely avoid the blow. She staggered almost to the edge of the wobbling—and now disintegrating—tussock.
For an instant, she seriously considered drawing a mambele across her own throat. Considered, and dismissed.
If they keep me alive, that's their mistake.
Still, she'd prefer not to leave herself helpless. Again she cast about, desperate for any advantage...
And saw it, almost buried in the muck and sticks.
The White Leech who'd struck down Seyusth was moving in on her, again with club rather than blade raised. Even through the rain, the sour reek of old sweat, rotting teeth, and poorly tanned hides was worse than the undead.
She let the club come, raising crossed mambeles to parry only at the last instant, allowing the blow to send her sprawling.
Oh, Grandmother Sun, this is going to hurt!
Agony, white hot and piercing, as her hand came down upon the tiny prize she'd noted a moment earlier. It was crippling, nauseating; her whole body spasmed, and she could feel the object shifting inside the flesh of her palm.
But they wouldn't find it there, and the rain should wash away the worst of the blood before the enemy could grow suspicious.
Racked by pain, Ameyanda didn't have to fake helplessness as the White Leech swarmed over her, confiscating her weapons and tying her arms with rough hemp before dropping her like a sack of tubers into the massive skiff.
She didn't pass out precisely, but the wash of pain, exacerbated by the rough handling, smothered her mind in a thick caul. It was some moments before she once more became aware of her surroundings.
She shivered, and realized that she lay in water two fingers deep—accumulation from the rain. She was lying on the deck of the skiff, which was now surging through the swamp with that unnatural speed she'd noticed earlier.
And now she saw how.
Clamped to the rear corners of the raft with thick iron spikes, a pair of undead torsos worked effortlessly and tirelessly with heavy poles to keep the craft in motion. Someone had taken a few sizable bites of excess flesh out of one of the torso's shoulders.
Swallowing bile, she scooted to look around. To her right lay one of the men the White Leech had attacked, also bound. Apparently hostilities had resumed after the mutual enemy was down. He sported fresh bite wounds, and was already shivering with fever.
Instinctively, she glanced down at her stomach and legs, searching for similar bites.
"You will not find any," breathed a weak voice from her left. "The obese one did that to him in battle, not after capture."
"Seyusth?" She twisted and flopped to face her companion. "Are you—oh, gods and spirits!"
"It appears," the lizardman said, "that the White Leech has experience countering a shaman's magics."
A pair of small logs had been lashed together with leather straps and hemp, forming a rough T.
And to that, Seyusth had been crucified.
A squared metal stake pinned both feet to the heavy branch. Each arm was nailed down with a length of iron curved in a rough U, penetrating palms and wrists both. Ugly, primitive sigils, etched in corrosion and flaking rust, wound in uneven spirals around the spikes.
No spellcasting, not without his hands. And no shape-changing, presumably, not pinned as he was. Amayanda needed no eldritch knowledge to sense the magics, cold and sickly, emanating from that profane iron.
She couldn't help him. All she could offer was the courtesy of not asking something stupid like, "Are you all right?"
Instead, she asked, "What do we know?"
"Galgur the Gullet always has room for one more prisoner."
Seyusth took a few deep breaths before answering. "Their leader is the big one. The men call him ‘Galgur the Gullet.' From what little I overheard, while he may answer to the White Leech chieftain..."
"Montirro the Thrice-Blind," Ameyanda reminded him.
"Yes. He may answer to this Montirro, but not often. His band controls this region of White Leech domain with relative autonomy."
"Good. I thought we were in trouble there, for a moment."
The lizardman couldn't muster a laugh, but his snout pulled back from his teeth in what Ameyanda assumed was a polite grin.
"Issisk?" she asked after a moment's pause.
"Not here. I never saw the unliving one close, but he appeared the wrong build to be Issisk."
Ameyanda nodded, shifted without thinking, then gasped at the renewed pain.
"I am sorry," Seyusth told her.
"It's not as though I could expect you to rush to help me," she said, struggling for a light tone.
"No. It is my fault you are here. My fault either of us had to be here."
"How is that, precisely?" This was starting to sound disturbingly like a deathbed confession—did lizardfolk do that?—but Ameyanda hardly cared what he was saying. As long as he kept speaking, he was conscious; as long as he was conscious, he wasn't dead.
"Years ago, emissaries of the Terwa Lords approached us. They wanted Haa-Ok to serve them, as a—a stepping stone—in Mwangi. I opposed this, as did many others. To join with the Terwa would be to betray our traditions, our heritage; to become something the world never intended of us. But I was merely an apprentice shaman, and my protests carried little weight. My mentor, Errash, supported the alliance. Further, he claimed the spirits of the Expanse supported it as well."
Seyusth's words were coming slower, now, between heaving, labored breaths. "After several moons of debate and consideration, Haa-Ok sent some of our own to announce our assent to the Terwa Lords. The band was led by Hasseth, our greatest warrior, as a sign of respect. I was to go with them as well, to offer what magical protections I could along the way.
"I proved insufficient. Perhaps we took too long for the Terwa's liking? Perhaps they had some other plot. We never knew. We were attacked along the way; only I survived, due to my magics, and then only barely. But worse, when I finally made my way home, I found that Errash had been slain in his sleep! No agent of the Terwa should have proved able to infiltrate our home, murder our shaman, and depart undetected!
"It could only mean that the spirits had removed their protections from him. They could not, after all, favor such a hideous alliance. Some good came from the catastrophe, then, for while a few of my people still argue, even to this day, to join the Terwa, most are wise enough to heed the spirits' signs."
Seyusth lapsed into a fit of coughing, which in turn tugged at the spikes and set his wounds bleeding anew. Several of the men up front glanced their way, attracted by the sudden spasm. A few laughed; one flicked his tongue in and out, like a reptile.
"How does that make what happened to Issisk your fault?" she insisted. Keep talking. Stay awake...
"I... After becoming shaman to Haa-Ok, I spoke long about the evils of the Terwa Lords and those who follow them. And many of our youth took those lessons deeply to heart. We sent hunting bands far from our territories, in part, to patrol against Terwa incursion from the Sodden Lands. And Issisk's band... I found them well beyond their accustomed terrain. I fear they went looking for the enemy, and it was this that brought them to the White Leech."
"And we're so delighted it did!"
The voice was soft—not with kindness, but like a smothering pillow—and high as a young girl's. Ameyanda looked up at the obese bulk that now kept much of the rain from her skin; she could not even imagine how a body that fleshy could approach so quietly. Or without rocking the entire skiff.
He squatted so that the jiggling of his thighs threatened to slap against their feet. Ameyanda could smell not merely sweat, but mildew and the seepage of open sores.
She could see, too, the cause of his misshapen jaw. His teeth had been removed and replaced, via foreign magics or surgeries, with twin ridges of serrated bone.
As much to keep from gagging as anything else, Ameyanda spoke. "‘Delighted'? Why?"
Galgur ignored the question. "Did we hear," he asked Seyusth, "that you dislike the Terwa lizards? Oh, that's really too bad, since we'll be trading you to them. Not for a while, though. We've a friend who would dearly love to speak with you first!"
The shaman hissed, deep in his throat.
"And you two..." He turned to Ameyanda and the other captive. "We'll put you in the swamp for a time. You'll be so much more succulent after you've softened and ripened!"
It wasn't the laughter and cheers of the White Leech that sent a shiver through Ameyanda's spine, but the string of anticipatory drool that dangled from Galgur the Gullet's maw.
The village had been built in part on a gentle hillside. It had probably been beautiful, pastoral gardens and fields of crops. But that was before the coming of the eternal storm.
Now most of it was permanently submerged, the wooden buildings rotted to skeletons of what they'd been. A few, however, stood tall enough, and high enough on the hill, that a story or two protruded from the swamp. These, too, harbored the restless stench of decay and rough smears of various molds. Still, with the use of uncountable patches and slapdash repairs, they remained good enough for some.
Galgur's faction of the White Leech called them home.
They'd approached the hillside through a veritable thicket of peculiar reeds. Protruding stiffly, reaching almost a man's height above the waters, they didn't appear remotely natural to their surroundings.
And now Ameyanda knew why.
"We'll put you in the swamp for a time. You'll be so much more succulent after you've softened and ripened!"
Despite her best efforts, or the shame it brought, she'd finally panicked. First the bag, yanked over her head and sealed around the neck with some viscous sludge. It smelled of light tanning and animal fat, and it had one of those long reeds—long, hollow reeds—protruding from one side.
And then she'd felt herself manhandled, strapped by leather cords to a heavy log, and tossed in to lie amidst the others.
They didn't even mean to kill her first. Let her lie, submerged in the marsh, half-buried in muck, until her waterlogged skin came loose on her flesh. Only then, she knew, would they haul her up—a primitive rope-and-pulley system dangled from an overhanging cypress branch—to feast.
So yes, as the world went away save for the sound of the torpid waters beyond the bag and the patter of rain on the surface, gradually slowing as the squall finally passed, she'd thrashed, bucked, screamed in panic.
But only for a moment.
No large animals, was her first rational thought. Galgur and his men wouldn't want anything to rob them of a meal, so they must have some means of keeping the bigger predators away from their "crop." Nets in the water, perhaps. It meant there was nothing—well, nothing large enough to kill her outright—to be attracted by the blood.
And there would be a lot of blood.
Ameyanda pulled her left wrist toward her shoulder, as far as the straps would allow—and then kept pulling. For minutes beyond count, she pressed the ball of her hand against the leather, against the soft wood of the log. The pain was enough to draw another scream. So be it; let them think she howled in terror, if they could hear at all through the breathing reed.
She pushed; she twisted. And slowly, agonizingly, the jagged crocodile tooth—one she'd knocked from the unliving creature's mouth, the thing she'd deliberately fallen upon and concealed within her own meat—slid from her skin.
She'd expected that she might need to free herself of bonds; she'd never begun to imagine the circumstances in which that need would arise.
Her fingers seized up, twitching, and she almost dropped it. The breath caught in her throat as she bobbled at it, and she almost cried in relief when she once more held it firm. The hand was weak, limp with pain and a growing infection she could already feel.
But it would do. It had to do.
In tiny twitches, Ameyanda began to run the edge of the tooth over the leather, again and again.
"I know what you did."
It was hearing his own language, more than the words themselves, that yanked Seyusth awake through the fog of pain. The room smelled of rotten wood, and as he pried his eyes open, he could see huge blotches of mold and water damage on the walls.
The room was also at a slight angle—no, he was at a slight angle. They hadn't even bothered to stand the stake to which he was crucified straight up; just leaned it in the corner.
And then full awareness finally flooded through him, and he lowered his gaze to the one who'd addressed him.
"Issisk! Leaves and scales, you live!"
The younger lizardfolk stood in the chamber's open doorway, perhaps a bit scrawnier than Seyusth recalled, but healthy enough. He nodded once, but otherwise offered no response.
"They allow you to move freely?" Seyusth asked.
"Largely. They keep eyes on me, to ensure I do not attempt to leave, but otherwise I do as I will."
"A strange sort of imprisonment."
"And what makes you believe I am a prisoner, Seyusth?"
It was, somehow, shocking to the core of his soul and the precise answer he'd anticipated, both at once. "I don't understand. Issisk, why—?"
"They needed another of our people," Issisk said, his voice oddly flat, even for a reptile. "They grew accustomed to having one of us work alongside them, to serve as spy in Terwa territory, or negotiator with their patrols, or scout who could swim farther than any human."
"Accustomed to..." Seyusth was feeling dizzy, and not only from his wounds or the precarious angle.
"The one who had been with them was dying. They were hunting our kind when they came across my patrol. I was the fortunate survivor, and I chose cooperation over consumption. And I had some time to converse with my tribesmate before he died of his illness."
"Who... Who was...?"
"I thought you would never ask."
Issisk stepped aside, and a second lizardman strode—no, shambled—through the door. The dull scales and gaping holes were sufficient to tell Seyusth that this was the undead who had attacked him in the swamp.
But this near, he could also see details he'd missed at the time—including a face that, though partially worn away, he recognized.
"Oh, spirits. Hasseth..."
"As I said, murderer," the younger one hissed, "I know what you did."
Coming Next Week: The gritty, rain-soaked conclusion of Ari Marmell's "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.