The entrails bubbled and spat as they slopped onto the fire, sending up a squealing hiss of blood-steam which made my stomach clench. It was perversely comforting, the feel of my gorge rising, despite everything I’d seen both on and off the Blood Bowl field. Yes, I was certainly no stranger to the sight of red stuff, grey stuff, oozing black stuff... But still, it made me want to vomit every time I saw it and that made me glad. I was still human, at least.
The same could not be said for the thing which sat hunched before the fire, or at least that was my assumption. I had never seen its face, shrouded as it was in stinking, heavy robes from head to toe, but its grunting voice bore the same guttural rasp as the brutal man-goats who had imprisoned me in ‘gainful employment’. The only ever glimpses of the creature beneath were the brief flashes of clawed fingers as they threw bloodied offerings into the dazzling blue flames, sickening gifts to the foulest of gods.
The stench of the tent was almost overwhelming, a heady mix of putrid meats and mouldering animal hair, acrid smoke and burned flesh, all trapped within walls of skin which, I had been assured, had been hewn from the screaming forms of the more disappointing of the Pink Horrors’ previous Head Coaches.
I slumped to the ground, awaiting the words of ‘He’. I had been summoned, and I knew that it was my life to disobey.
The impenetrable blackness beneath the hood surveyed the dancing flames and the only sounds in the tent were the crackle of burning wood and the sizzling of bodily fats. It seemed like half an age of the world before a yellow-brown claw flashed from beneath the robes, swiping at the fire.
‘It... It say you... bad omen,’ He struggled to form the words, like his tongue was unsuited to the intricacies of human language. ‘It say... you bring shame...’
He looked me in the eye, so far as I could tell and I couldn’t help but shiver.
‘...It say I should geld your billy-plums and feed them to the minotaur.’
‘But we don’t have a --’ I ventured.
‘YOU BAD COACH! WILL BRING SHAME TO THE GODS!’
‘I might not. Last team I coached, won the league.’
‘LAST TEAM YOU COACH, ALL DEAD!’
‘LAST TEAM YOU COACH, ALL DEAD!’
‘But that was you!’
He fell silent and I edged back slightly. I was still bloodied and purple from the last time I had disagreed with ‘He’.
I watched him, the breath caught in my throat. Waiting.
When it came, the low, moaning bray which thundered from beneath those filthy robes shook the very skin-walls of the tent and, if only for a moment, dampened the fire itself. In those few moments of flickering darkness, I allowed myself a nervous half-smile. I think He was laughing.
The sound stopped abruptly, my smile faded. A claw stretched up from beneath the robes and my gaze followed it up to the roof of the tent.
‘You... see this?’
I watched as the thick smoke from the fire rose up through the rent in the ceiling, spreading in the night air to blot out the foreign stars. Ragged flaps of sewn skin - human, elf, perhaps even orc - shivered around the edges of what I could only describe as -
‘A smoke hole. It’s a smoke hole,’ I said.
‘No.’ The claw slowly dropped and stretched out over the flames, immersed in them but untouched by them, until it rested but a hair’s-width from my broken nose. ‘It is your hole.’
‘My...?’ But I knew exactly what He meant.
‘Tomorrow you play elves – You want keep skin, you not lose...’