Siro’s head snapped up, eyes trying to make sense of what he saw. The Previous sprite had obviously decided to take on the form of a short young man, dressed in black aside from a deep red cloak that came up into a hood around his head. It had hid in the opposite corner of the room, lounging on something that looked a little like a small bed. But everyone knew that The Previous did not need sleep. A pale face with sharp blue eyes stared out of the hood and at Siro. A look somewhere between puzzlement and amusement formed on the sprite’s face.
“What do we have here?” asked the sprite in human form
Siro bolted. Slipping for purchase in the droppings he scrabbled on all fours across the room and out of the door onto the gloomy landing. He tumbled down the stairs, painfully cracking a shin against the bottom balustrade as he came to a crumpled halt. Pain ignored, he was back on his face and racing to the front door. However, a few metres outside he was again forced to come to a halt. Block the path in front were his two pursuers. They had stopped arguing and turned to face him. A wicked grin broke out across the woman’s face, while the portly man just looked confused.
“You gonna play nice now?” asked the woman, as she dropped her bag and took a two handed grip of her club. Her companion look less combat ready, but the long blade still looked menacing as it hung limply from a pudgy fist.
If cornered, always try to match your strengths with their weakness, the voice of Aesara just about managing to make itself heard again over the turmoil of panic raging around Siro’s head. An easy motto for Aesara to preach, she cut a formidable figure on the battlefield. He didn’t have a weapon, or any particular combat training for that matter.
But he did have speed, one of the reasons he was selected as a scavenger, coupled with sharp vision and an eye for opportunity. And the larger man certainly didn’t appear to be especially agile. There was his chance.
He leapt towards the woman, who dropped into what looked like a well practised battle stance. Dropping a shoulder Siro jinked to the right, towards the large man who was already looking startled. If Siro could just dive under the man’s reach then he’d come up behind them both, with open road ahead of him.
Siro jumped forward and rolled to the big man’s left, tucking his head down he saw the cracked earth, then the late evening sky, then the dirt, then the sky, he just needed to get back to his feet now and start running. But legs would not respond, his view rolling once more from earth to sky. vision slowly darkening....
“WOAH” exclaimed the woman as she stared at the big man “YOU TOOK HIS HEAD CLEAN OFF!”
The large man just looked down forlornly at the twitching corpse of Siro that now lay at his feet, head having rolling a little further down the path and under a ragged bush.
“He just came straight at me” said the man quietly “You saw it, right Niv?” he looked up and towards his companion, “Straight at me, I had no choice”
Niv smirked, “All I saw was a cold blooded killer in action there, Volk. Always knew you had quick reactions for a big fella, but that was swift. I thought the way Pyrrho took out the scout earlier was cold, but you are like ice”, she laughed.
“Ow, come on Niv, I had no choice” Volk pleaded, then looked down at his blade, which was still dripping blood, “It’s that damn smithies fault, I asked him to sharpen my blade, but not that sharp. He wave the blade a couple of times in the air next to him, Niv looking disdainfully as a blood droplet spattered on her tunic. “Yeah, this ain’t my fault. Straight at me the guy came, and here I am with a faulty blade” the words tumbled out as Volk attempted to reason away the building sense of guilt.
“Not sure why you’re trying to play it down” said Niv, moving to stand over the body “I mean, he wasn’t exactly a fearsome adversary, but not often you aim a blade swipe that nicely. That’s a campfire story right there. Promise I won’t let on it was some wet behind the ears scav.”She sniggered again, toeing the body, turning it onto its back.
“So I leave you two alone for ten minutes and you still manage to make a new friend” the voice made Niv and Volk both look up from Siro’s body, towards The Previous construction.
“He came straight at me Pyrrho, Niv’ll tell ya” Volk looked from Pyrrho, who now stood at the entrance to the building, towards the smirking Niv. Pyrrho raised an eybrow towards the woman.
“The kid made a break for it, old dead eye here” a sideward nod a Volk “took his head off in one. Didn’t know he had it in‘im” Niv finished
“Any idea who he was?” Pyrrho moved towards them, eyeing the body with a frown.
“Just some scav I recokon” replied Niv, “scavs always leg it at the first sign of trouble. Plus, he ain’t equipped to be no scout, not like the one you did in earlier...”
“You searched him then?” Pyrrho had joined the other two at the body now. He stood a head shorter than Volk or Niv, in the height sense rather than the wrong-end-of-Volk’s-blade sense.
“I ain’t touching him” Niv took a step back, then halted as she caught Pyrrho’s gaze. “You know I ain’t squeamish or anything, but I gotta draw a line somewhere. Looting headless corpses is somewhere ‘round that line. Get Volk to do it, he caused the mess” she motioned down at the spreading pool of blood, trickles running through the cracks in the path.
“Not to loot” Pyrrho replied impatiently, “but it’d be good to know where the kid was from, see if we need to add any more factions to our rapidly expanding list of people to avoid”
“T’is hard to keep tabs these days” muttered Volk.
The hint of a smile crossed Pyrrho’s face, “What? Don’t you like being the scourge of the seven counties? Our enemies tell stories of our exploits to scare their children.
“If they tell this one” Niv nodded at the body “then those poor blighters ain’t gonna sleep anytime soon” she turned away and walked a few paces
“Right then Volk” Pyrrho instructed “Time to get acquainted with your new friend”
“Ow come on Pyrrho, you don’t really want me to search the poor sod” a pleading look towards the shorter man was greeted with a stony stare. Volk sniffed, then crouched over the body, “Gee, he didn’t even have proper boots” he indicated towards the foot bindings.
Pyrrho frowned, then lent over Siro’s feet. They were bound tight in cloth, wrapped in an intricate fashion. A familiar fashion. “Some scavs prefer not to bother with boots, helps them stay mobile, stay quiet”, stay hidden, stay safe, his mind’s voice continued. His frown deepened.
“It's nearly dark” Niv's statement shook Pyrrho from his contemplation “We hunkering up here for the night?”
“Oh no, not here!” Volk interrupted before Pyrrho had time to reply “This place is cursed, what with that Previous place and, and, my sword doing strange things” he looked down at the blade a flash of inspiration on his face, then thrust it towards Niv who jumped back instinctively “You reckon maybe that could be it Niv?” he almost pleaded, “them Previous possessing my sword? After all, he came straight from The Previous building” sword swished away from Nov and pointed back at the body.
“May....be” Niv pondered, “not sure why you'd want to give them credit for that blade swipe though. What you reckon Pyrrho, you feel any Previous presence during your exploration? They say you're part Previous in any case”
“Who does?” half a smirk had found its way back onto Pyrrho's face.
“Oh, you know, camp gossip” Niv suddenly seemed unsure of the confidence she risked breaching.
“Why do you always insist on visiting those places?” Volk interrupted.
“Why wouldn't I?” Pyrrho retorted “Quiet, dry, comfortable – about as nice a change as you can get from life on the front line”
“But the sprites” Volk said
“Are the stuff of childish legend, you should know better than...” Pyrrho eyed the lumbering form of Volk for half a second “people should know better than to believe in that sort of thing”
“Then why did they inhabit such dark lairs?” Niv questioned, motioning towards the building, glinting in the last efforts of the sun to light the evening. “You said yourself that you normally needed to bust through a wall 'fore you could see owt”.
Pyrrho contemplated the building for a moment, then shrugged. “Heard they had control of light, could snap a finger and a room would illuminate, or glass would turn from black to transparent”
“That ain't so far away from sprites now is it?” Niv retorted.
Pyrrho shook his head, this was an argument he would never win. The Previous were bad news, everyone knew that. “We'll camp here tonight” he said, “but over in the barn” added before Volk could protest, “but first we finish searching this fellow, then we bury him”.
“I'll go make a fire” Niv started to stride off
“Not so fast” ordered Pyrrho “You can dig a hole first”
“Common...” Niv began to protest
“Either that or you do the body search”
“Ok” she held her hands up and went to look for a suitable sport of earth “We never did this for that scout though”
“That scout was Drakhan scum, best left as a message when their vangaurd passes tomorrow. This...” Pyrhho look down, mood darkening again “This is just some poor kid.”
“Came straight at me” said a fullorn Volk
“I know big man, but now we gotta make the best of it. Time to have a look in his bag”
Volk looked like he might protest again for a second, but thought better of it and began rummaging around Siro's personal effects. However, it was only a few seconds before he stopped again.
“What this time?” Pyrrho was growing frustrated
“In, er, in his bag. There's only one thing” Volk stammered
“What?” Siro said, hand rubbing his face.
“These” Volk held up the underpants, “from that scout I reckon. Gee Pyrrho, just how desperate was this kid?”
Pyrrho took the pants proffered by Volk, something he'd never envisaged happening other than in a nightmare; a situation today was rapidly qualifying as. “People get desperate at war time” he almost muttered.
“But who round here?” Volk looked close to tears “We're, what, half a mile from where you reckon the front-lines will come together next. And we saw the refugee caravan on the way here, the county is emptying out. Who sticks round to steal underpants?!”
Pyrrho looked towards the horizon, a few miles away camp-fire smoke from the massed ranks of the soon to be combatants eddyed lazily in the last rays of sun. “I guess some caravans move more slowly than others”.