Hell or High Water

by Ari Marmell

Chapter One: Death, Debt, Doubt

The first of the charau-ka died before he knew he was in danger.

The huntress had tracked the apes and the traitor from the kraal of the Imjaka, through towering boles and curtains of hanging vines; across mattresses of leaves and fungi-infested soils that greedily retained the prints of passersby. Those who had hunted alongside her had long since turned back, unwilling to press so far from home.

But she would not turn back. The traitor Okamsi had been her friend; that made the tribe's vengeance her responsibility.

When she caught up to the baboon-faced, musk-and-feces-perfumed ape-things, they had halted beneath a thick canopy of branches, apparently arguing in their hooting, grunting language. They numbered three, which worried the huntress—not because she feared such odds, but because they had numbered five, plus Okamsi, when they'd first set out.

So where had the others gone?

She watched, wary of some snare or deception, but eventually the argument came to an end. The trio of charau-ka prepared to set out once more, and still no sign of the missing.

Time, then, to put her doubts aside.

Spears hissed through the canopy, shredding clusters of leaves. The first, a light and springy thing with a broad head of iron, sank into the back of the first ape-man, followed almost instantly by the second. Spears three and four were in the air, seeking fresh targets, before the perforated charau-ka had crumpled to the loam.

Hooting and screeching, the remaining simian warriors leapt aside, allowing the missiles to sink harmlessly into the earth. Hauling thick, knotted cudgels from the leather harnesses that were their only garb, they spun to face their unseen attacker. One slammed his club to the earth, shrieking in challenge. The other leapt for the branches, dangling by one hand and one prehensile foot, sniffing at the air.

Fleet as the jaguar, agile as the gibbon, the huntress leapt from the cover of the trees. She was a lithe, wiry figure, her skin darker and richer than the fertile soils on which she stood, marred only by the faded scars of an old burn spread unevenly across her left shoulder and her neck. Other than the white of her eyes and teeth, the only brighter hue in either her garb or her complexion came from a lion-skin kilt, partially slit so as not to impede her steps. From a belt of cowhide hung her quiver of throwing spears, and a pair of empty sheaths.

In each hand she held the former occupants of those sheaths: her faithful mambeles, wicked crescents of iron, almost like sickles with extra blades protruding at all angles.

She was taller than the charau-ka, but she had seen the strength and ferocity of the foul creatures before and knew better than to be fooled by their size. For an endless instant, human and charau-ka locked burning, unblinking eyes. Then they were coming at her. Their shrieks grew higher until they were a fire in the ears, and they crossed the intervening distance—whether afoot or swinging from the heavy branches—with a speed that astonished even the experienced Imjaka huntress.

Astonished—but not dismayed.

The huntress let fly, sending a mambele whistling through the air as she dove. Leaves and mushrooms crunched, the latter emitting a pungent and unhealthy smell as she rolled on one shoulder, passing just beneath the reach of the tree-borne charau-ka's bludgeon.

Her second enemy, though still roaring his fury, had jerked to a halt at the impact of the many-pointed weapon. It protruded from his chest—not deep enough to reach anything vital, but agonizing enough.

The forward tumble brought her back to her feet—or rather, to her knees, ending in a crouch before her diminutive foe. She yanked the mambele from his chest, twisting to widen the wound. That second jolt of pain, in turn, bought her enough time to bring her arms—and her blades—together across his throat.

"Ameyanda fears no man or beast, but only a fool ventures into the Sodden Lands."

Both mambeles, one already blooded, the other pristine, dug through simian fur and flesh. First a gout of the charau-ka's blood spattered across the earth, followed by his weapon—and then the charau-ka itself.

Hanging now by his feet, the surviving simian hurled a pair of stones, produced from spirits-knew-where. The huntress knocked the first aside with a desperate backhand, iron blade sparking on the jagged rock, but she'd no way to avoid the second. All she could do was rise from her crouch so that she took the stone against leather-warded chest rather than unprotected head.

Dyed the crimson-brown of drying blood, the jerkin was boiled and hardened to turn aside spears and arrows, yet she felt her flesh bruise, her rib shuddering but thankfully not cracking with the impact.

She needed to close, fast. Fortunately, the damn monkey's acrobatics and elevation didn't give him nearly the advantage he anticipated.

Again the mambele flew, followed swiftly by the second. The charau-ka swung aside on one foot, allowing both blades to sink harmlessly into the wood; but then, she'd known full well that he would.

In the brief seconds of his dodge, the huntress broke into a run and leapt. Hands calloused by a life in the wilds of the Mwangi Expanse closed around the rough bark. Even as the charau-ka spun back her way, she swung forward, wrapping her calves around the creature's torso just below his arms. A sharp twist of the waist was enough to shake the bough and, more significantly, yank the ape-man from his perch to land headfirst on the jungle floor.

It wasn't much of a fall, not nearly enough to kill. No, it was the woman landing on him even as he bounded upright, both mambeles once more in her hands and angled sharply downward, that did the trick.

Silence, then, save for the huntress's sharp breaths. Still alert for the missing charau-ka, she carefully cleaned her blades on the creature's hairy hide before sheathing them. She then made her way to the spears, jutting from soil or flesh, retrieving those that might be reused, salvaging the iron tips from those that could not.

"If you seek the human, you will not find him."

She spun to face the thick screen of foliage from which the voice had come. It had an odd sound to it: raspy, slightly mangled, as though spoken by someone unaccustomed to the regional dialect.

Or, she realized when the figure stepped into the open, by a mouth that was never meant to pronounce the words.

He stood perhaps a head taller than she. Scales the murky green of stagnant swamp water faded gradually into a sallow tan across his throat and chest. A crest of similarly colored spines ran from atop his head to the base of his tail. He wore only an open vest and loincloth of some mammalian hide, but his eyes gleamed with cunning and the black talons of one hand were wrapped around a feather-and-bone-bedecked spear.

It was only as she completed her fleeting inspection that she realized she had no way of knowing if "he" was in fact male. She'd just assumed, perhaps due to the voice.

Her own hands lingered near the mambeles, but if the newcomer was hostile, he could have struck from concealment. Warily, she straightened and ran a hand over the prickly stubble that was the only hair atop her scalp. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"I have watched these charau-ka since before midday. They met earlier with one of the great speaking gorillas of Usaro. A wizard, surely, for it disappeared soon after, taking two of the charau-ka and a human with it. They may be anywhere now, perhaps even Usaro itself. As you clearly track them, I assume it is the human you seek?"

She growled something she hoped, afterward, the reptile wouldn't be able to translate. "Yes, damn it. It is."

The lizardman nodded, though whether the gesture meant the same thing coming from him as it would from her, she was unsure.

"I am Ameyanda," she said, remembering at least a sliver of etiquette while the bulk of her attention was focused on figuring out what she was supposed to do now. "Of the Imjaka."

"Seyusth, of Haa-Ok. And I know you already, Ameyanda of Imjaka."

"Grandmother Sun's blessings on—what? You know me?"

"I know you, yes. I am, in fact, seeking you, not those." He gestured with an empty hand toward the apish corpses.

"Why?" Her own hand edged again toward her weapons.

"I seek one of my clan, my..." He paused, blinking languidly, perhaps trying to recall the proper word, or to explain a concept that didn't translate. "‘Cousin,' is the nearest term in your language. You will help me retrieve him."

"Is that so? Seyusth, not only have I my own hunt to—"

"You cannot find your missing human any time soon. You have no means of tracking him."

"Not only have I my own hunt," she repeated through a cage of clenched teeth, "but why, by all the gods, would I involve myself in yours?"

"Because, Ameyanda of the Imjaka, you owe me your life."

A pause; a blink; a breath.

"Oh. You're that lizardman."


Ameyanda had no difficulty remembering. She still dreamed about it.

She felt the crunch of twigs and fungi beneath her feet, saw the trees and fronds whipping by to either side, heard her own desperate gasps echoed in the panting of Mbamsi and Entandwi. She gagged as the ominous musk—not quite reptile and not quite avian, but distilled from the worst of both—seeped malevolently into those breaths, as if taunting. And she heard the cracking and snapping, hissing and spitting, as the pack closed far, far too rapidly from behind. They were smaller than most of the predatory thunder-lizards of the Mwangi, those raptors, but they were large enough, fierce enough, and horrifyingly cunning enough to take down prey far stronger than the three Imjaka youths. They'd already lost Xabadzi to the raptors' initial ambush.

Ameyanda and her friends would follow him soon enough.

Or they would have, had the grasses themselves not come to the rescue. Wiggling like serpents, they intertwined with the pounding talons of the raptors. Yanked to a halt, some so swiftly that they toppled, the thunder-lizards began to slash and chew at the suddenly hostile flora.

They might, perhaps, have gnawed themselves free soon enough, but the trio's fortune had not yet run out. From a sky largely bereft of clouds, the lightning cracked. When the first of the raptors was seared, shrieking in pain, the others redoubled their efforts. By the time the third had suffered the same agonizing fate, the rest wanted nothing more than to be elsewhere. Finally ripping themselves free, the surviving members of pack scattered, their prey forgotten.

For a moment, as Ameyanda had turned, wide-eyed, toward Mbamsi and Entandwi, she caught a glimpse of one of the mysterious lizardfolk, deep in the jungle's shadows. Ameyanda knew little about magic, then, but she knew that what she'd witnessed had in no way been natural. Tentatively, she raised a hand in greeting.

Her reptilian savior had solemnly returned the gesture before vanishing into the trees.


Ameyanda dragged her mind across the intervening half-decade and back to the figure she'd never thought to see again.

"I owe you," she admitted, her voice low. "And the Imjaka repay our debts."

"Good," was all Seyusth offered in reply.

Stifling a sigh, the huntress went to retrieve the woven satchel of supplies that she'd left in the hollow of a winding tree root before engaging the charau-ka. "You could explain yourself, at least," she suggested sourly. "Why come to me? Could the other Haa-Ok not—?"

"My people have no desire to assist me. Our journey may take us into the territories of the Terwa Lords."

"And those are who?"

"The..." Again, Seyusth seemed briefly at a loss. "What is your term for my kind?"

"Your...? Oh. Ah, ‘lizardfolk.'"

His snout twitched as though he'd just swallowed something that had decided to bite back. "Yes. The ‘lizardfolk' of the western swamps are not like Haa-Ok, or our neighboring tribes. They are fiercer. More bloodthirsty."

Ameyanda hefted the satchel over her shoulder. "We've had trouble with lizardfolk raids now and then. Them?"

"Most probably. The Terwa Lords—those who rule the swamp tribes—seek expansion and conquest. They have attempted, at times, to annex even tribes far into the Mwangi, either through promise or threat. The former emptier than the latter, I think."

"They're your enemies," she said. "And your tribesmen—uh, tribeslizards?—will not risk invading their lands over one missing person."

"You understand precisely. I attempted to locate Issisk—the missing one—myself, but my knowledge of the region proved insufficient. It cost me an entire moon of wasted effort."

Ameyanda was frowning, tapping a hand idly against her quiver. "I'm a skilled warrior," she said without braggadocio, "and I've seen your power... shaman?"

"As accurate a term as any."

"But I don't believe the two of us can fight an entire nation, Seyusth."

"You misunderstand. While we may pass through their territories, the Terwa do not have Issisk. If he lives, he is in the hands of the swamp's savage humans."

The satchel fell back to the soil with a dull thump. "You mean the scavenger gangs," she hissed, a fair imitation of a reptile herself. "When you say ‘the western swamps'... You mean to take us into the Sodden Lands."

"If that is what you call the storm-drowned territories beyond the jungle's edge," the lizardman told her, "then yes."

Coming Next Week: A journey into hurricane-wracked wastelands in Chapter Two 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

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Tags: Ari Marmell Hell or High Water Jim Pavelec Pathfinder Tales Web Fiction

Great start, Ari (and James!) - am eager for more.

Ari, I heard you first on - I believe - an SF Signal podcast. Am now eager to check out your Widdershins novel!

Amicably yours,

Silver Crusade

Liking. :)

Certainly makes growing up in certain parts of the Mwangi Expanse sound like a life-long obstacle course.

Ameyanda looks cool, but man those are some painfully thin arms... Totally in love with the mambeles though!

Liberty's Edge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber

Loved, loved it and to echo Marcus, I'm eager to read the next chapter!

The Exchange

I'm really enjoying this story and I can't wait for the next installment!


Liking this a lot! Was looking forward to a jungle adventure! The Mwangi Expanse is obviously a rough place to grow up...

Interesting! The combat description is very visceral. I am looking forward to reading the rest of this story.


Sovereign Court

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Adventure, Lost Omens Subscriber

Very good tale - thank you.

Who is 'Grandmother Sun', though, please? 'Grandfather Gozreh' in part 4 is obvious, but is Grandmother Sun a plea to the feminine aspect of Gozreh or a call to Sarenrae or another sun-based god?




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Fleanetha wrote:

Very good tale - thank you.

Who is 'Grandmother Sun', though, please? 'Grandfather Gozreh' in part 4 is obvious, but is Grandmother Sun a plea to the feminine aspect of Gozreh or a call to Sarenrae or another sun-based god?



It's left intentionally vague at this point. I really like the idea that, especially in small communities cut off from outside contact, details of worship and the names of gods can get muddled and evolve in different ways. The reference to Grandmother Sun could be any of the things you mention, or simply an anthropomorphic way of calling on the sun as a totem/mystery/etc., or less a true prayer than simply a saying. (After all, when we say "For Pete's sake," who are we referring to?)

To me, the idea that everybody worships in precisely the same terms strains credulity (especially somewhere like the Mwangi Expanse, where there are countless isolated tribes left to develop their own religious traditions). So this was an attempt to blur those edges a bit!

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