The gates to the castle courtyard were broken and askew on their great iron hinges. One had been entirely rent from the stone moorings and lay on the inside of the courtyard, a great furrow carved in the mud where it had struck and slid to a rest. As if tossed aside by a great child.
Miriam felt as if her bowels had been left somewhere down the road. She couldn't directly recall when the feeling had began, likely before her and the party of soldiers had entered the town itself. Yet now the sense of foreboding and genuine horror at the devastation that lay before her left her sick and her mind numb with shock.
They had all seen the smoke from miles off, and had galloped hard to reach the town that was the source. Their arrival had been far too late regardless and much of the town had already been given over to flames.
Fires raged and rolled through the streets. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Igniting thatchwork and shingle as easily as if both had been kindling resting in oil. Every spark that leapt to a new building seemed to explode to life and claim the structure as its own all at once.
The city granary had stood out worst of all from the hilltop beyond the town's walls. A twisted inferno that belched black smoke into the sky. A tornado of fire occasionally leaping and dancing amidst the acrid smoke, reveling in the destruction that had been wrought upon the town of Milliamsburg.
Miriam dismounted with the others outside of town. The gray sunlight gleaming of silvery steel and armor as they ventured into the city obscured by smoke and fire. The had left the horses with their stewards and squires, as none of the beasts would even come near the city itself. The animals only reared and screamed with fear. There was nothing to be done with the flame anyway. Their company was few in number and none of them had skill with water magics, and the horses would have been too spooked to be much use hauling water if there was even water to haul. The city wells were, like as not, surrounded by flames. If not buried in smoking debris. And what water they few could have drawn would have been much too insufficient to fight the fires.
As it was Miriam who had decided any attempts to save the town would have been a waste, as there would be no survivors. There were never survivors when one of the Withered passed through and unleashed their fury upon the living.
The party had also opted to leave their gunpowder and rifles behind. If the Withered was still about amongst the smoke and ruin, the weapons would do them no good. Shot did little to slow a Withered, and much less to genuinely harm them. The Withered were long dead the wounds that ended the average soldier's life did little to even slow a Withered.
Miriam and her companions picked through the ruins of the castle gate. Steel shod boots crunching over the splintered remains of the door, and squelching in the strange mud that filled the courtyard. The smell that struck Miriam's nose made the void in her belly twist into a knot and she felt an urge to vomit that took all of her willpower to resist.
The air was thick with the coppery-iron scent of blood, so thick she could all but taste it on her tongue. And yet Miriam saw no signs of where the smell came from. She scanned the bailey's inner wall and searched for any clear signs of bodies.
It wasn't until Jerum let out a cry of alarm as he stumbled in the mud that Miriam and the others found where the scent came from.
A head, or at least part of one, lay half submerged in the wetted soil. Eye sightless and what remained of the jaw gaping and fractured. The flesh sickly gray and coated in dark reddish-brown mud.
All at once the scent, and the incongruously muddy soil, struck Miriam and she could not contain her revulsion. She struggled with her helmet clasp and wrenched it free of her head as he stomach voided itself into the wet soil. Adding to the grotesque sludge that filled the center of the courtyard.
Now that she had seen one body, he eyes found others. A torso lay half buried in mud, and a mound near the center of the courtyard resolved into a far more disturbing pile of remains.
"Stick to the outside of the mud, there's no telling how deep this mud is." A voice called from amongst the companions, and Miriam stumbled away from the mud. More than eager to escape it's clutches. The blood soaked soil clung to her boots, and sucked at them greedily as she stepped away.
Rodug offered a hand, but Miriam ignored it as she made the last few steps to the inner wall. Placing a gauntleted hand on the stone to support herself as she heaved once more. It shamed her to be so affected by this, but at least she was not the only one. Jerum and Heleva were both bent and heaving against the stone, and Mithael looked ill, even as he struggled to keep composure. The only two of their six to not seem affected were Lodum and Rodug, but that did not meant they were immune to the horror of the sight.
Miriam heard more than felt Rodug place a hand on one of her pauldrons, and she managed to swallow her bile long enough to look up at the towering War-Elf. She could not see his face through the visored helm he wore, but she thought she caught a glint of light reflecting off wet eyes and his shoulders were slumped.
It took entirely too long for Miriam to regain her composure, but no one seemed to fault her. Even Lodum seemed respectful of the other elves' horror, although he waited with arms crossed. Clearly impatient with the delay.
Finally Miriam swallowed the bile and returned her helmet to her head. She'd had the discipline to not toss it to the ground at the very least.
"That is enough," Miriam shouted to the others. Her throat raw from her own ejecta as she grabbed the sword at her hip and drew it from its scabbard.
"Find the Withered. Find it and disable it." She said and then pointed towards the tall rectangular central structure of the castle."
"Split into three. Heleva and Mithael, check the manor." She then pointed her sword to the wall to her right, which was the north side of the castle.
"Lodum and Rodug, sweep the north curtain. Jerum with me on the south." Each team in turn acknowledged their orders and skirted their way around the mud field at the center of the courtyard.
Miriam and Jerum mounted the stairs that led to the inner wall over the gatehouse and made their way south around the stone curtain that sheltered the castle from danger. Not that the stone had done much to stop the Withered.
Great stone keeps and towering battlements did little to halt a Withered. Indeed even the War-Elves were unlikely to be slowed by such rudimentary defenses. Keeps and towers were there to keep those without power in line, to be used to defend against the many. While the powerful stood behind their walls and ruled all of Elf-kind.
Even then, gunpowder was changing warfare. The standard soldier need not suffer through a year of training with sword or spear and instead could suffer through four months of training with rifle. Armour was slowly becoming irrelevant in the face of such weapons that fired bolts of steel faster than any arrow.
Even a simple hand-cannon could punch a hole through Miriam's own breastplate. Sunsanun, mage soldiers, and the other warrior classes were coming more and more in danger of becomes relics amongst his Holiness' army. Whereas once a heavy pike and mounted cavalry with Sunsanun as support had ruled the day on the battlefield, now walls of hand cannons and rifles and siege cannons dominated.
Castles that resisted an enemy who had access to siege cannons fell within days. And castles that had been armed with siege cannons and troops armed with rifles or hand cannons could repel any army of any number, so it was said. Even with Sunsanun support, those weapons turned the tide of war.
Miriam passed by a ruined cannon emplacement on the castle wall and shook her head. There was one thing that even these new weapons did not help against however.
The Withered were dead things that cared not for the weapons of mortals. They could be slowed, and they could be stopped in place. Yet only Sunsanun and their magics could truly end their threat. Magic could destroy a Sunsanun completely and utterly, if applied correctly.
Fire to immolate, water and ice to freeze still. Stone to crush and grind bones into dust to be scattered on the winds. Even the purest forms of mana could completely evaporate a Withered if one had the power to overwhelm the monsters long enough to summon up the magic.
That was, of course, the problem. The Withered were powerful. Beyond simply powerful when compared to mere soldier castes. A single Withered could take on a squad of regular soldiers easily, they could take on Sunsanun and riflemen and cannons as if they were nothing more than gnats. They could destroy armies, and villages.
They could even slaughter entire towns or cities if they had the mind.
Fear briefly reached out towards Miriam, and she slashed it down with vengeful fury. Yes, the Withered were powerful. Yes they were greater than the average Sunsanun amongst his holiness' ranks. Thankfully, Miriam and her fellows were not just Sunsanun. That fear had no place reaching out to one of her power, and of her rank, within the hierarchy of his Holiness' order.
A beast like a Withered, while dangerous, was not something Miriam and her friends could not defeat. For they were Kalaked, god-kin. Children of gods that had long since abandoned the world. Connected by blood to divine powers that most of elvenkind could only dream of.
And still Miriam felt a shiver run up her spine as she looked out over the burning town that surrounded the castle. What the Kalaked were not was senseless, reasonless beasts. Monsters who slaughtered and mutilated other elves for what amounted to sport. Every story and tale that Miriam had heard of Withered was of their depravity. The evil that animated the dead and made them carry out wicked acts that stained all elfkind.
So the creature that Miriam found knocked Miriam off her guard.
They found it in a tower cell near the top of one of the guard towers. Unlike the other doors throughout the castle that they had seen, this door had been unmolested and hung whole and barred against intrusion.
At first Miriam thought of survivors, and her heart leapt with joy as she pounded a mailed fist on the iron bound door.
"Hello?" Miriam called, hoping her words could be heard through the thick door.
"Is anyone in there? Are you a survivor?" She called and for a moment there was no response.
When Miriam pounded on the door again however she heard something, something soft and she pressed her helmeted head closer to the door.
"What was that? Is anyone there? Speak up." She responded and the sound repeated itself. The sound, it seemed, were words. Very soft, and very low. Barely reaching Miriam's ears through the reinforced wood door. Like a child's whisper from far away.
This time however the sound did not stop, and the words repeated themselves softly beyond the door.
"Go away. Go away. Go away." The voice whispered and Miriam's mind imagined a child who had found safety and huddled in hopes for the monster to pass by. A child who feared she and her knights were the monster come again.
"You're safe now." Miriam called to the door, and she gestured down towards Jerum, who had waited lower on the stairs, to help her. If the child were in shock he or she would be unable to open the door.
"We are going to come in. We are Kalaked, we will take you to a safe place." She added as she tried to push the door open. The door hardly moved and even when she pressed an armoured shoulder into it and leaned her weight against it the wood resisted her.
All the while the little voice on the other side continued to whisper.
"Go away. Go away. Go away."
"Can you remove the bar on the door?" Miriam called, but the child did not answer and continued to mumble, just barely loud enough to be heard.
Miriam cursed under her breath then turned to Jerum.
"Step back, i'm going to have to break the door down." She said and the Elf did as he was bid, but there was a hesitation to his step.
"Are you sure this is wise?" He asked and Miriam scowled back at him.
"If there is a child trapped in there we get them out, the Withered will wait for a moment more. They do not range far once finished with their slaughter." Miriam answered before she waved off any more questions.
The child's murmurs were growing louder now, and faster it seemed. Miriam could only imagine what the child must have seen first hand to have been affected so.
Miriam planted her feet on the stairs and threw herself bodily against the reinforced door. Steel and iron clashed and wood groaned in protest as her weight, and that of her armour, impacted. Yet the door did not budge.
Again and again Miriam threw herself against the door, and on the fourth time there was a loud snap as the bar that held the door shut broke. Yet the door still did not open until the sixth time.
When Miriam struck it the final time the wood splintered and shattered where she had struck it, but as did the bar on the other side. Allowing the door to open inward to the Tower cell.
The room beyond had clearly been used as a weapon storeroom. Bundles of arrows lay in neat stacks along one side, with a rack of spears and spare shields on the other side. Miriam scanned the chamber before her eyes fell upon a dark shape huddled amongst the arrow bundles. The only light in the cell was a narrow strip of dim sunlight that filtered through the arrow slit opposite the door.
Miriam stepped into the room, forcing the door aside and out of the way, and looked to the huddle shape in the dark.
"You're safe now young one. We are here to…" Her voice trailed off at the shape began to move. It's own voice more audible now that the door was not in the way.
What Miriam had mistaken for a young child's whisper was in fact a wheezy rasp of the Withered. It's dull lifeless eyes peered up at her, and a light shone from within them. A bright white speck at the bottom of deep sockets.
The creatures face was hard to see in the dark, shrouded by a cowl of filmy gray cloth. The entirety of the Withered's body seemed covered by the thin fabric, and as it unfolded its body Miriam could see how thin and frail it appeared against the dim sunlight pouring through the arrow slit.
The creature stood almost of height with Miriam, with long sinuous limbs that looked almost as if they had been made of sticks. The thin filmy fabric that encircled the body clung tight to it's frame, or hung freely from it in places where it appeared torn. The creature was emaciated, almost skeletal, in appearance as it stood tall. It's dull eyes shining their pale light as it looked down towards Miriam, and the head cocked to one side. As if curious.
All the while the creature continued the mantra it had started when she had first knocked on the door. It was faster now, and higher of pitch. More of a desperate plea than a whisper now.
"Gowaygoawaygoawaygoawaygoawaygoawaygoaway…" It said as it stood there in the dark of the Tower Cell.
Miriam's hesitation did not last long, and she did not bother to reach for her sword. Instead she raised her left arm, palm splayed out and pointed at the creature, and then braced her elbow with the right. Even as she shouted orders to Jerum light was beginning to form in the center of her gloved palm.
The Withered lunged forward and Miriam cut the spell she had been forming loose and allowed her mana to react with the material world.
All at once the world became blindingly bright and all the wind was driven from Miriam's chest.
There was a curious sense of falling, and a sudden stop and flare of blinding pain that shot up Miriam's legs and back. A pain that only added to an already present ache that she could not recall the source of.
As the radiant light faded from her vision, the world beyond her helm returned with grim resolve.
In the distance, smoke rose from a tower of molded stone, a tower that no longer possessed a top. All around her Miriam found chunks of stone and debris, half buried in a rancid smelling mud. It took a moment to realize the blast of her spell failing had landed her outside of the guard tower, and she found herself to have come to a rest in the mud at the middle of the courtyard. Her back pressed to the dark heap her and her compatriots had seen early.
A slimy dark snake of something soft, and cold, fell across an armoured shoulder and once more the urge to vomit rose in Miriam's stomach. The only thing that kept the sickness away was the rush of adrenaline through her veins, the call to battle. If there was a battle to be had. Surely the severed spell had…
Miriam's heart fell when her mind caught up with her hope. If she had survived the blast, it was unlikely that the Withered had even been hindered.
As if to verify her fear a piercing wail filled the courtyard and a shape leapt from the smoke and splashed into the mud not ten paces away.
Smoke lifted from the Withered's desiccated frame in long thin wisps. More of the filmy fabric had been burned away, and more yet was afire and fell away from the creature as it stood in the mud.
Beneath the film was a skeletal frame of bone and gray flesh the same texture as weathered granite. It stood taller here in the open then it had in the cell, and would have overtopped even Rodug at his height.
The blast had incinerated the cowl that had hid its face. A gray skull with sunken eyes leered down at Miriam, and the creatures mouth worked slowly, the lips seeming to crumble apart as it spoke. Its voice the same raspy whisper as before, only the words had changed, and it had sped up even more.
"Killmekillmekillmekillmekillmekillmekillme…" The Withered wheezed as it loomed over Miriam, who found she could not move. She wasn't sure whether it was the mud, or being projected through the stone of the tower that had done something to her body, but she could not move. She struggled to push herself away from the creature, but her arms would not listen.
Even words failed her as the Withered took a splashing step forward in the mud. Its sunken eyes shining like stars as it leaned towards her. Its body seeming to jitter and spasm uncontrollably, as if it's limbs were weak, and could hardly support its weight.
All at once the creature's chant stopped as it pressed it's face to the front of Miriam's visor. Those twin holes of starlight peering through the slit at Miriam's own eyes. All was still and silent for a moment as Miriam felt the Withered's fowl decayed breath play over the front of her helm.
The creature's breathing was rapid and desperate. As if it had ran a great distance.
Miriam felt a hand press to one shoulder, and then the other, as the creature began to lift her up out of the mud. It's skull face still pressed to her helm. Those eyes searching, seeking. Trying to find something in her, but what she did not know.
Finally the creature stopped, it had lifted her up over it's head and stared up at her now. Still holding her by the shoulders, it's fingers like stone spikes digging into her flesh. Somehow each digit had rent through her steel, as if it were no more than fabric.
The Withered spoke. Not a chant this time, but a single phrase. A request that it whispered in a voice that, to Miriam's ears, seemed full of pain. The indescribable pain of ages passing without end.
Three words whistled out from between cracked and age-worn teeth as the Withered held her there.