“First they came for the pigs; then they came for their masters.”
The men’s expressions told the tale. They glanced at the corpse, with its piss-yellow skin and toadstools sprouting from its eyes, its mouth, its ears and nose. The mushrooms swayed, though there was no breeze. Straining against their roots, reaching. As if hunting for me.
I shuddered and all eyes were back to me. They didn’t believe me. How could they? It was too terrible to fathom. These were not men of a scholarly bent. These were street toughs. The best — or should I say worst? — Khyber had to offer, lured to my home with promises of wealth. I rubbed at my face; I needed to make them see the threat. All of my wealth would be meaningless if the attacks continued. There was no one left for them to take.
No one but me.
I settled my hand upon the braided silver Goodson’s Noose about my neck. He hung from the Wall and faced heathens to win His father’s favour. Surely, I could face these … men.
They came from all over the city of Khyber. Which meant they came from all over the world.
“Who,” asked Coal, the ebony-skinned Garan, “are they?”
He was dressed in the colourful robes common of his desert-dwelling people and towered over the assemblage. I, myself, barely came to the man’s chest. Furs swaddled him beneath those robes, peeking out here and there, making him seem all the larger. He shivered as if he could not get warm, though we were in Khyber’s High Summer and I felt the sweat gathering at my brow. He cupped his hands around a bowl of tea, taking a sip. A spider’s web of bright orange scars wound about those large hands, glowing like embers.
“This,” I said, gesturing at the toadstool, “is they. They walk like men, hunt like them. Kill like them. But they are not. Not men! Not beasts! They took my stock, but were not satisfied. I’ve lost my factors in every ward in Khyber. My seneschal! Even the bloody razor guild won’t take my coin for guard duty, now!”
I tried to calm myself. Such outbursts were unseemly, even among the lowborn.
Wei, an inscrutable Xiou, leaned against the wall, pushing his broad hat above his eyes with the tip of his staff. He pursed his lips, but said nothing.
“Not even Old Wyrd would expect me to believe that,” Hraki, a giant Valkuran from the North Sea, bellowed, jabbing at me with a sausage-thick finger, each jab forcing me to retreat a step. “And he’s a bigger liar than any god in Khyber.” Hraki was almost as broad as the Garan was tall, a fury of hair and iron.
“A Garan sorcerer could have worked such magic,” Coal said cautiously, as if daring the others to accuse him. When they did not, he continued. “Though at a terrible cost to himself. He would need to give up his humanity to take the same from his victims.”
Hraki crossed his arms over his burly chest. He spat upon my rug. I was glad now that I’d had the foresight to remove my treasured woven Rusan rugs before I had invited these ruffians into my home. Like Hraki, they’d come from the barbaric far north. Unlike him, they were irreplaceable.
“A witch or hex, nothing more,” the Valkuran insisted.
“You’re all wrong, yeah?” a cheery voice interjected.
Wheeling as one, we saw a slight man leaning against the doorframe. He picked at something between his teeth, regarded the prize, and then discarded it upon one of my tapestries.
I winced — those I’d forgotten to store away, more concerned about the muck on my … guests’ feet.
“Mushrooms out of everywhere,” the stranger spoke, gesturing at what was once my seneschal. He shuddered, too, though I felt he was exaggerating the gesture with false disgust. “Glad you kept that one’s pants on, yeah?”
All of my dangerous men said the word, each with a different inflection. Anger from the Valkuran, suspicion from the Garan, amusement from the Xiou.
“Who?” I asked, curious, echoing Coal’s earlier confusion.
“Needle,” they answered at once.
Coal added, “A thief and liar.”
“A dead man,” Hraki growled.
And from the Xiou, “An adequate tailor.”
Needle threw back his hood, revealing a tanned, smirking face. He nodded at Wei. Were it not for the smouldering mischief in his eyes, he could have been any man in Khyber.
“It’s the creeping rot, it is. Cygaricus, god of shit and muck and what things grow there. It’s the Vile Truffle, luv. That’s your culprit.”
He spoke with the quick brogue of a Khyber native, though I could not quite place from which quarter his accent originated. He was also utterly unconcerned by his less-than-welcome reception.
Reprinted in Grimdark Magazine #5, September 2015