The thin country road wound its way down through the valley. On both sides grew high, unkempt hedges, which spilled onto the cracked tarmac. A small flock of birds swooped and twirled above as if enjoying the late summer warmth.
The body lay about twenty metres away.
Siro slowly edged forward, reluctant to give up his concealment in the dense undergrowth below the hedge, but aware of the need to press on. He hadn’t thought that the fighting had spread this far east, that he could skirt round the side. An option would be to double back and loop even further east, but that would take too long. He needed to be back at camp by nightfall, the sun already low in the sky. He let out a small sigh and moved along the side of the road.
Ten metres from the body he stopped. Sniffed. Nothing. The evening breeze was fresh on his face, but it contained no trace of decomposition, an all too familiar smell in recent weeks. The body was recent. Siro instinctively moved back towards the prickly undergrowth, before pausing, caught between the desire to hide and the need to get back to camp.
It was just one body he told himself. Probably a refugee, maybe a deserter. At worst a scout. Most likely died of as close to natural causes as there were these days. Reports of disease in the region had grown recently, the sieges and disruption to the harvest providing a ripe environment. Siro continued to move on, told himself that he wasn’t even going to look at the body, just get passed, no contact, no contamination. Simple.
His eyes betrayed him and he looked down just as he skirted the body. A neat slit across the throat gave immediate lie to the theory of natural causes. Siro stopped. While unfamiliar with combat first hand, he had assisted at the camp’s medical facility on occasion. He could recognise a sword thrust or swipe. But the injury to this poor soul’s throat was too neat. The thin and straight slit was lined by a lived purple bruise. Strangulation. Most likely a garrotte.
This time instinct won out, Siro dived back towards the hedge, rolling through the muck and leaves, thorns scratching his bare legs. He buried his head in his harms, as if blocking his eyes could render him invisible. Breathes came short and sharp, a trickle of cold sweat down the back of his neck.
Stupid, he chided himself. Hiding right next to the body, if the killer was still around he’d already be finished. The body was recently deceased, but it didn’t have to be that recent. Maybe an hour or two. Killer probably long gone. Siro risked a look up. Nothing. Apart from the dead body that is. Ok, time to calm down. Take stock. Coast clear, places to be. Just carry on being cautious and get the hell out of here.
Once again Siro edged out of the undergrowth, quickly brushing himself down and taking a few tentative steps forward. He looked again at the body. His initial shock at the injury had blinded him to the other unnatural aspects to the scene. It was only in its underwear. Pallid skin peeking out from behind layers of filth and matted hair.
Another shiver, despite the fact that Siro himself was, technically, also a scavenger. But one that tended not to create his own harvests with a garrotte. Still, he’d been drilled not to waste an opportunity and the camp was struggling for even basic supplies, anything that could be used as a bandage or dressing in particular. With a gulp he moved to stand over the body, cast another look around, before bending down to remove the last vestiges of the corpse’s dignity.
Siro ran from the naked dead body.
The road curved round into a small hamlet. Siro came to a halt behind a tumble down stone wall, crouching down to catch his breath. Catch his breath and reprimand himself for running when he knows that a proficient killer is in the area. And his only defence is a flea bitten pair of underpants.
Peering round the wall he eyed the buildings that made up the hamlet. Most had collapsed during the years of neglect, just a couple still standing. One an ancient stone barn, the other caused him to shiver once again. It was one of those stark edifice built by The Previous, all gleaming edges and stark angles, made from some unfathomable material. Siro remembered the stories from his childhood - a time not all that many summers ago - when he and the other camp children gathered round the ample form of Tisias, the old man telling tales of how The Previous never really went away, how their malevolent sprites still roam the country, looking for the unwary to tempt with promises of access to dark technology.
But they were just silly stories, right? A fable aimed to stop the children from wandering too far from camp. And even if those devious sprites did lurk around a corner, they didn’t carry a garrotte with them. Did they?
Siro quickly reappraised his options. Backtracking was still unappealing, especially as the sun headed towards the horizon and The Previous monolith glistened. If he could jump the wall and head across the fields then he wouldn’t have to go through the hamlet and past that building. But he’d be heading back towards the front lines. No, he’d have to press on.
Another look around the wall revealed no movement other than the swaying of the weeds that had flourished amid the cracked tarmac and derelict buildings in the breeze. Maybe the killer had gone back to the front lines? Maybe the sprites had sank back into their dark dungeons?
Time to move. Siro stuffed the underwear into the cloth satchel that hung limply over his shoulder, this scavenge having yielded little else. He kept low and close to the wall until it fell off into the rampant undergrowth. From there he picked his way through the collapsed buildings, keeping an eye out for the broken glass that could rip his ragged foot bindings to shreds. He stopped briefly opposite the entrance to the barn, peering in to see if there might be some long forgotten stores lurking in the gloomy depths. But the contrast of the evening light to the dark inside of the barn made it impossible to tell. He darted across the road to get closer to the entrance, scavenger’s curiosity piqued.
Not his, not the weeds around him or the birds above. But from inside the barn. Human. Ok, think. This is what Aesara trained him for. Stay calm, stay hidden, stay safe, the phrase drilled into him and the other trainees. He backed up a couple of metres and crouched behind a cluster of rubble. Assess your options. He needed to get through and out of the hamlet, but the entrance to the barn looked directly onto the mottled road he needed to traverse. There wasn’t enough daylight to wait it out or turn back. Aggh, stupid. He already knew Aesara would be angry for his decision to search so far from camp on only his third solo outing. At the time he’d imagined returning with untold riches; food, clothes, maybe even some Elder writings. Now the decision just seemed foolhardy. Stay calm. He was letting himself get to worked up. Think. What would Aesara do now? She wouldn’t, couldn’t run. Instead she’d prowl, low through the rubble. Balance haste with caution.
“Hey, Niv, that you?” the deep voice coming from within the barn, “I got nothing in here, told ya this was a waste of time”. A pause. “Niv? NIV?” A bulky figure waddled into the evening light, squinting as he looked around. One hand shielding his eyes, the other gripping a long blade, spotted in rust, but with an edge that gleamed.
Siro ducked down lower, chin just a handbreadth from the stony ground. There was more than one of them. He could be surrounded, he turned in fear, eyes darting, searching out an unseen aggressor. Breathing now ragged. Aesara forgotton, Siro broke cover and ran.
“OI!” The bulky man cried “HEY NIV, PYRRHO, WE GOT COMPANY”
That makes three of them, a remote part of Siro’s brain whispered. But the rest of his brain was preoccupied with putting as much distance between this cursed place and himself as possible. He leapt fallen masonry, whipped through tall weeds and sped past The Previous lair. The cracked road was beginning to slope up and out of the hamlet when the second figure emerged from behind a fallen tree.
“What the...?” the figure was slender, lithe, pretty even. Well, would have been if Siro wasn’t convinced that she wanted to kill him. He skidded to a halt and took off in the opposition direction. Behind him the woman grappled with the fastening on her patched up trousers, then snatching up a small bag and a knotted wooden club before beginning her pursuit. This gave Siro precious seconds, but he was already tiring from the initial sprint. Back in the hamlet he slowed a little, cautious for the big man. However, that waddling form was still close to the barn, ill equipped for the chase.
Siro looked around. Stay hidden, the small calm part of his brain whispered. But where? He jinked off the road an picked his way through some of the derelict buildings. There were piles of masonry he could duck behind or within, but they wouldn’t hold up against any more than a cursory search by his pursuers.
The Previous building.
The thought actually stopped Siro in his tracks. Was he crazy to think such a thing? Was that even him thinking it, or perhaps the devious whispering of a Previous sprite?
“HE WENT THAT WAY” the shout of the big man, directing his comrade, shook Siro from his considerations. What was the greater risk; confronting his childish nightmares about The Previous or the slow embrace of a garrotte?
He dived towards The Previous building, in through the wide front opening, embraced by the darkness inside. Tripped, fell, scrabbled back up, furiously willing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Was that a shimmer of light from above? He squinted. Yes, light from somewhere. He moved cautiously forward, foot banging against a hard surface. He bent down to examine the obstruction. It wasn’t very high, but then just a little way above and beyond the barrier was another short wall.
Why would The Previous use stairs? Don’t malevolent sprites float where they wish? Or perhaps this was just a temporary construction to entice and entrap the unwary? The approach of his pursuers footsteps from outside echoed through the front opening. Siro went up the stairs.
The light is definitely getting better up here, thought Siro. He could now make out the top of the staircase as it bent round onto a small landing area. Detritus litters the floor. Rotting carcasses of small birds mainly, interspersed by odd little Previous trinkets that Siro daren’t look at for too long lest they come to life. He moved off the landing and into the room the light was coming from. Moving into one of the darker recesses of the building would have made more sense from the perspective of hiding, but that was a move too far for the terrified young scavenger.
It was a small room. The oppressing smell of bird droppings making it feel all the smaller. Siro put a hand to his mouth, as if skin and bone could filter the noxious scent. Most of the room’s feathered inhabitants appeared to have vacated before his arrival, presumably startled by the chase that had led him here. He edged towards the broken hole in the side of the room that had let the birds out and the light in. Down below and a few tends of metres away he could see the big man and the slender woman remonstrating with each other, but their voices seemed oddly quietened by The Previous building. Siro slumped down against the wall below the opening, caring not for what he sat in as he fought to catch his breath.
“Hello” said a voice from the other side of the room.