Hell or High Water
by Ari Marmell
Chapter Four: In the Lair of the White Leech
"Which one's the Gullet want?"
"Don't think he cares, long as it ain't one of the new ones. Someone been in there at least a few days."
The two warriors—muscle-bound, covered in scars of both battle and pestilence—waded into the waters, making for the stump from which the pulley could be operated.
"What about that gussied-up Shackles pirate we took? He oughta be about ripe by now, yeah?"
"Yeah, what is he? Two down, four over?" The White Leech reached for the mildewed rope, tugged—and nothing happened. A puzzled glance upward, and he could just barely make out an amorphous shape in the darkness, perched on the block-and-tackle.
The blood-smeared tooth wasn't much of a weapon, and her left hand was all but useless. But when Ameyanda dropped upon the first of her captors, a feral snarl erupting through bared teeth, it made no difference.
"Issisk..." Somehow, though the iron stakes allowed little range of movement, Seyusth seemed to slump. "You must understand—"
"Understand? Understand that you murdered your own cohort on your journey to the Terwa? That you snuck back to Haa-Ok and killed Errash, your own mentor, before skulking home with your tales of ambush? You never knew Hasseth survived, did you?"
"He ran, Seyusth. The greatest warrior of Haa-ok, and he fled. He thought that, because it was you who tried to kill him, it must have been the will of the shaman. It was not until I spoke to him, in his dying days, and told him that Errash had also been murdered, and the lies you spun of what had occurred, that he knew it was you alone who had betrayed him. Betrayed us!"
"Issisk, listen! Errash wanted the alliance for his own gain, not because the spirits told him so. The others, you... None of you understand what the Terwa Lords are! What we would become, were we to ally with them... The horrors we would have to accept, to inflict... I died with every Haa-Ok life I took, but I could not allow the delegation to deliver us into a devil's bargain for the soul of our people!"
"I do not know the Terwa Lords," Issisk said stiffly. "I know only what you told me of them. How can I know, now, what of that is true?"
"All of it. Issisk, I swear—"
"What I know is that the blood of several Haa-Ok is on your talons. And that this was not your decision to make.
"Some day, Seyusth, the eyes of the White Leech will grow careless, and I will escape. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps a year from now. But I will make my way home, and I will tell all Haa-Ok what you did. That it was not the wrath of the spirits that allowed an assassin to reach our shaman, but a traitor who knew his magics. And they will make their own choice, as they should have long ago."
"Issisk, please!" It was not a word that came easily to the lizardfolk, above all a practical and pragmatic people. "Please, if your anger is with me, take it out on me. But you will be doing Haa-Ok only harm if you—"
"You have no more words I wish to hear, traitor."
Seyusth was still pleading as his cousin disappeared through the open doorway, followed by the shambling Hasseth. If his people were capable of it, he would have wept.
It was the commotion from outside—running, howling, the thump of fists on armor as wild men worked themselves into a frenzy—that snapped him out of it a few moments later. From here, he could see absolutely nothing of what was happening. All he could tell was that it wasn't a fire.
Which, given the rather damp state of affairs, he'd have known anyway.
The sounds faded into the distance, the night now filled with nothing but the hum of insects and the hoot of a hunting bird. And then...
"Issisk knows things he shouldn't."
Ameyanda slipped in through the doorway, carrying one of the White Leech blades. The human looked awful—her eyes were slightly wild, she winced with every step—but it seemed that most of the blood splattered across her armor and skin was not hers.
"We don't have long," she told him, limping across the open chamber. "I left a trail down to the water's edge, and pushed one of the small rafts into the current. Not one with the dead who, uh, row," she clarified. "But we have only minutes before they catch up and realize I'm not aboard."
"Then we had better act, and discuss the details of your miraculous escape another day."
She nodded and halted before him, examining the rough wooden cross.
"Seyusth," she said softly, "there's no way to do this gently, not in the time we have."
"I understand." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Do it."
Even in the blackness, the room spun as she pulled the cross from the corner, twisted it clumsily, and laid it flat. He felt her fingers squeeze between his scales and the curved iron pinning his right arm; saw her flinch from the touch of the necromantic runes; heard the scrape as she braced her feet on the wood.
Wood splintered. Iron screeched. And despite his most adamant efforts, Seyusth screamed.
When it was done, they lay sprawled on the floor, chests heaving, growing sticky with the lizardman's blood. Ameyanda tried not to stare at the raw meat and exposed tendon visible through the rents in her companion's flesh.
Especially when they began to twitch.
"They still work well enough..." he muttered. His arm shaking, he reached a hand out to the huntress's shoulder.
But he was already speaking in his own reptilian tongue.
Ameyanda gasped as an icy shock ran down her arm, as though someone had replaced her blood with mountain runoff. It faded swiftly, however, and so too did much of the agony in her hand.
Not all—and it still burned with a sickly heat—but any relief was welcome.
"Tomorrow," the shaman said softly, "I can cure the infection. I fear you will have to bear it until then."
"Thank you. I—"
Again he spoke in his own language, and the worst of his wounds began to close over. Much like her own, it was far from a complete cure, but impressive for all that.
"What of Issisk?" she asked, staggering roughly to her feet.
Seyusth's face went tight, as though he'd only just remembered why they'd come.
"He is here. He... ran into the swamp when the commotion began. I must find him before they do."
"Wait just a—"
The shaman staggered through the door, shifting into some sort of ibis, and took to the night skies.
"Grandfather Gozreh damn that lizard! I should—"
The thump-squelch of ponderous footsteps in the mud, and a high-pitched wheezing of animal fury, announced that her time had run out.
They announced, too, who approached.
The room was empty, save for the broken cross. Nowhere to hide. And even after Seyusth's curative magics, Ameyanda didn't think she had it in her to face the Gullet directly.
Her frantic gaze alighted upon the shaman's blood, only just beginning to seep into the saturated wooden floor. With no other choice, she dropped to her knees and began to arrange things just so...
A grunt as he came through the door, a faint creak of wood beneath his feet. She knew what the walking avalanche of flesh must see: Her body, lying crumpled in the midst of a sizable blood pool, her stolen weapon lying beside her. Using techniques she'd learned long ago to avoid the sensitive ears of prey and predator both, she breathed lightly, softly. In the feeble lighting, it should appear she didn't breathe at all.
"Well, haven't you been trouble?" the high, breathy voice asked from behind. "Not as ripe as I'd like, but you'll still taste fine. And more of you to go around, with fewer mouths to feed."
She felt flabby fingers close around an ankle, lift in preparation to drag her from the room...
Ameyanda rolled upright, stomach muscles screaming, and struck. The iron spike that had nailed Seyusth's feet to the cross now plunged through Galgur's own. The lumbering giant shrieked, a sound almost too high to hear, and crumpled, grasping reflexively at the sudden agony.
The huntress's other hand, clutching one of the sharpened brackets that had held the shaman's arms, punched between those toothy ridges and down that screaming gullet. She felt things tear around her makeshift weapon, the skin of his throat quivering obscenely at the touch of the thing's vile magics.
"How does that taste, you motherless hyena?"
Galgur managed a single, wet choke. Blood bubbled up around Ameyanda's hand, and she yanked it back, leaving the cursed bracket behind.
The room shook as the Gullet's body rolled to the floor. Ameyanda decided to believe that her brief gasp was a result of that shuddering, and not a near-sob of relief at the creature's death.
All right, now what?
She had no idea of how quickly the others would return, and she'd never find her way out of here wounded, in the dark, without Seyusth. So what could she possibly...
Ameyanda studied the massive corpse, then the blade on the floor beside the puddle of blood, and heaved a thick sigh. In a day of sickening tasks, what's one more?
At least now she had somewhere to hide...
"I knew you would run."
Seyusth dropped through the branches, shifting out of bird-form as he landed with a muddy thump. "After what you told me, I knew you would see the sudden commotion as your opportunity. Perhaps even a gift from the spirits."
Issisk straightened, hand hovering near the blade at his belt. "What do you intend?"
"Issisk, please. I will help you get home, and submit myself to whatever penance you see fit, but do not tell the others! Their belief may be all that keeps us from the Terwa!"
"I am not you, Seyusth. I will not deceive our people. I will let them make their own choice. And where Hasseth and the others were tribesmates, I am family. I do not believe you would murder me to keep your secret."
Seyusth lowered his gaze, and Issisk turned to walk away.
For several days they traveled. They rested as well as they could, in the best shelters they could find, and said little. Finally, they awoke one morning to the welcome sight of the Mwangi jungles against the eastern horizon.
Ameyanda rose, stretched, preparing herself for another day's hike. She eyed the rough blade she carried with distaste and more than a little sadness. Those mambeles had been her trusted companions for years. She could acquire new ones readily enough, but it wouldn't be the same.
Seyusth appeared beside her, also ready for travel—and apparently still digesting what she'd told him over breakfast.
"You really hid inside—"
She shuddered with the memory of the charnel stench, the wet coils looping around her arms, the hot, reeking fat closing in around her. "It worked. And I don't want to talk about it."
"And Issisk?" She hadn't planned to ask; the fact that Seyusth had returned alone was evidence enough of the lizardman's fate. The question just burst out in response to the unwanted imagery he'd inflicted on her with his own comment, however unintended.
"The White Leech reached him before I did," Seyusth's attention fixed on the distant jungle. "I was unable to save him."
"So this was all for nothing."
"I... fear so."
Ameyanda growled and started walking—then stopped once more when she realized the lizardman was still behind her.
"Isn't this about where you turn north, if you're returning to Haa-Ok?"
"I am not returning yet. I owe you—"
"No, we're even. I was repaying a debt."
"Yes, you accompanied me as repayment. But then you saved me, when it would have been wiser to make your own escape from the White Leech."
"I'm not keeping count. And I have my own tasks, Seyusth."
"And I will assist you."
"You owe me nothing, shaman. Go home."
The huntress began to walk once more, and this time she did not look back.
It sounded nice enough. But Seyusth wasn't certain he had a home any longer. The visage of every relative would be Issisk's dying face; every glance, his eyes; every raised voice, an accusation.
Issisk had been right. He'd felt guilt before, but not until it was one of his own family had he felt like a traitor.
Seyusth had meant to save Issisk, he truly had. But the tribe must be protected. Haa-Ok was safe. The people still believed the spirits disapproved of the Terwa Lords. They were in no danger of losing their identity, their culture, their souls to those monsters. And Seyusth's own apprentice could serve their spiritual and mystical needs for many moons to come.
I can do more good here. Allies among the humans will prove useful, someday, when the Terwa do come to Mwangi.
So he told himself again, and again, in the hopes that he would start believe. Because responsibility was easier to bear than guilt.
Seyusth sighed a very human sigh, and set off after his distant companion.
Coming Next Week: A free sample chapter of Tim Pratt's new high-tech, jungle-exploring adventure City of the Fallen Sky!
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.