The Curse of the Ebon Maw Chapter Five by A.S. Raithe

Wings tucked in the dive position, Mira sliced through the air. The air licking her face was like sandpaper, but it was the furthest thing from her mind. Her nerves were on fire from the insistent flashing of the pendant. All that mattered was getting back to Echo and the others before something happened, but the five minutes between spotting Cawold and streaking over its rooftops felt like hours.

She scanned the horizon for the petite duchess. Nothing but empty air. Either Mira had beaten her back or…

Wincing at the worst thoughts, she turned her attention to the village. Orange and yellow feathers popped against Narsis’ shop. Echo’s brilliant plumage was like a beacon against the drab buildings. The pressure lifted from Mira’s chest for all of a second, but as she came in to land and fully took in her lady, she found her legs churning before they touched ground.

Echo’s wings hung slack and useless. Sweat glistened across her face. Her hair was wild and ruined, and her lips were little more than thin, white lines. Each gasping breath sent a tremble through her. She’d pushed herself beyond her limits.

“My lady?” Mira fretted as she hurried to her side.

“In… side,” Echo forced between gasps.

Shouldering her weight, Mira helped her into the shop. Narsis pressed a cup of water fortified by one of his tonics into Echo’s trembling hand. She gulped it down in a breath.

“How bad?” Mira demanded.

“I don’t know,” Echo murmured. “There were tents everywhere, but,” she shook her head, “I didn’t see a soul. Not the slightest hint of movement.”

“Well they are nocturnal,” said Mira.

“Yes, but,” Zhel sighed with exacerbation, “they would still post guards.”

“Especially if their group is big enough to field wargs,” added Norm.

Mira’s feathers bristled. “Where?”

“Ten,” Echo muttered, “maybe fifteen miles… south.”

South!?” Mira blurted in confusion. “But that warg was to the north.”

“That is the question,” Zhel muttered.

“A scout?” Narsis suggested. “Maybe they sent it ahead to find a safe way around the village?”

“Or to decide if it was worth sacking,” Norm grunted.

The gnome whimpered fearfully. “W-We don’t know if they’re actually marching on us.”

“You said it yourself,” Mira began darkly. “Cawold is a prime target. The garrison is a joke, and by the time they get here, the caravan guards will be blackout drunk.”

“And goblins are nothing if not opportunists,” said Zhel.

“At that distance,” Brother Luke muttered ponderously, “they could be on us by midnight.” His eyes passed over their small group. “We must evacuate.”

“Evacuate?” Norm scoffed. “The entire village? By midnight? You realize we’ve got about,” he glanced outside, “four hours ‘til sunset, right?”

“I’m afraid he’s right,” said Narsis. “A few families?” He shrugged. “Maybe. But we’re talking hundreds.”

“We’re also assuming that that was the actual camp,” said Zhel. “For all we know, it could’ve been a decoy.”

Mira’s lips screwed up in contemplation as she turned to Echo. “That would explain why you didn’t see any movement.”

“What should we do then?” said Echo.

“I would like to see this camp.” Zhel stroked his chin. “Something feels off.”

“How?” said Norm. “It’d take hours to hike down there.”

“To walk,” Zhel nodded. “Yes. It would take far too long. But by wing…”

Norm’s face turned ashen as the night elf looked from him to the zephyrni.


Mira’s brow furrowed as they flew overhead. The orange-brown oil tarps of the goblins’ tents stood out in the spring grasses of the Weremarch. They were completely wrong for the region.

They set down downwind of the camp and immediately regretted it. A fetid stench, alien to the grasslands, waited for them like a viper in ambush. It was like they’d landed in the heart of a swamp. Every little breeze carried the rotten miasma on it. For several minutes, all any of them could do was keep their hands clamped to their mouths to stifle their hacking and gagging.

When at last they could breathe without choking, they moved out.

Cover was a rare commodity in the vast, flat Weremarch, but the goblins had set camp well off the traveled roads. Thick, dry brush shielded them as they hurried as quietly as time allowed. There was no way the goblins could see them coming. Of course, the same could be said for the goblins.

The muffled crunch of grass and twigs underfoot might as well have been a pitched battle. No other sounds reached them. Instinct drew Mira’s eyes to the sky. Her feathers bristled. Neither cloud nor bird in sight.

As they neared the camp, Zhel raised a hand, signaling them to stop.

“I’ll go ahead,” he whispered. “And if I’m not back in ten minutes, run. The village will need you, and I’ll have already gone to meet my Lady.”

Slipping from the brush, he drew up his hood. A dull purple-black glow washed over him, and a moment later, he vanished. The only sign of his presence thereafter was the rustle of grass at his passing.

“Orbish,” Echo whispered. “Be a dear and go check things over for mummy.”

The spirit, still clad in mouse skin, poked his little head out of her purse. A chunk of cheese clutched firmly in his paws, he stuffed it in his cheeks and hurried to join the night elf.

Time can be such a curious thing. In times of stress, it can seem to expand or compress. Those ten minutes somehow did both. Minutes were as hours and seconds at once. Mira’s fingers went numb gripping her sword. If a goblin happened their way, she would have to be quick before it could alert the others.

The nearest tent flap opened and closed. If she hadn’t known better, she would’ve assumed it was the wind. Not a nu-duwar stealing through the camp.

Echo assumed her channeling posture. Eyes whiting over, her head began to jerk, nose twitching. Not a second later, she doubled over, choking and struggling to keep her breath.

“My lady?” Mira gasped. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Echo choked out. “It smells like… like nothing I’ve ever smelled. Awful. Worse than open sewers.”

Mira’s jaw flexed. There was only one thing she knew that was so foul.

A minute later, the tent opened and closed. Seconds later, another opened, far less stealthily as before, and just as quickly it flew open. Invisible or not, the dust kicking up made it clear Zhel was racing through the camp.

At last, they erupted from the largest tent. The tiny familiar tore off ahead. A bright blue glow flooded the camp as the mouse stretched out, growing larger and larger. Orbish hadn’t completed his transformation to his preferred form as a border collie when he reached them. His fur was the black and white pattern common of the breed, but his face and tail were still those of a mouse. Albeit a mouse of unusual size.

Panicked barks and squeaks tore from the spirit’s muzzle. He spun in place, paws prancing as he whimpered.

“Orbish! Orbish! Calm down! Someone might hear you!” Echo hissed at him.

But nothing could quiet the being. If anything, her shushing only made him fret harder.

“Slow down!” Echo insisted. “I can’t understand you! Your thoughts are all jumbled!”

Orbish froze in place. Trembles wracked his body as he completed his transformation. Tail sliding firmly between his legs; he locked eyes with the duchess.

Dead?” Echo murmured. “What do you mean dead?”

It was then the night elf reached them. A grave look etched his face as he regarded them.

“Fly back to Cawold!” he demanded, all subtlety and stealth abandoned. “We need the friar and alchemist at once!”

Echo tensed beside Mira. “What are you doing!?” she snarled. “They’ll hear you!”

“Corpses can’t hear anything!” Zhel snapped.

Falling to a knee before them, he shook uncontrollably. His eyes were wide and unfocused. Jaw tense. Every gentle rustle of grass drew his attention.

“The adults, the elders, the,” he gulped, “the children. There’s no one left. That warg must’ve been the only thing that escaped.”

“How?” was all Mira could say.

“I don’t know,” Zhel admitted. Shaking his head, he trembled uncontrollably. “Please,” his eyes focused on the zephyra, “you have to collect Brother Luke and Master Narsis. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Norm rose from the grass. Green flame pulsed in his hands.

“You two up for it?” he asked without looking to them.

Mira turned to Echo. The duchess nodded.

“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” said the knight.


It took longer convincing the gnome to come with them than it did to reach the village. (“If gnomes were meant to fly, we’d invent a contraption to do so!”) But he eventually relented.

When they got back, they found Zhel and Norm sitting in the middle of the camp. Thousand yard stares filled their faces. The warlock passed a flask to the night elf, who took a mighty swig before passing it back. At the sight of them, all of Narsis’ fussing ceased.

“Friends,” Brother Luke began in his calm, even way, “what has happened?”

Zhel’s mouth moved but the sound that came out was barely a whisper. “They look to have passed months ago… years even but,” he shook his head, “the food’s still fresh.”

Norm took another gulp. “There’s no way to explain. You have to see it yourself.”

Brother Luke looked to Mira as Narsis hurried to prepare a tonic with his limited ingredients to calm the shaken men. The placid face of the priest couldn’t conceal a flash of concern as it glinted through his eye, and the knight couldn’t blame him. She’d seen war and death as a squire, and she knew the look of those who had witnessed atrocities firsthand.

No words were exchanged as she went with him into the nearest tent, leaving her small charge with the alchemist to help.

The foul putrescence of death leapt at her. She buckled in on herself as if she’d taken a punch to the gut, struggling to contain her stomach.

Choking coughs tore from Brother Luke, though the sound was muffled by a perfumed cloth he held to his face. He offered one to Mira, but as much as she wanted to snatch it from him and shield herself, she couldn’t afford to be down a hand if whatever killed the goblins lingered near.

They slunk through the relatively spacious tent. Dried sausages and herbs hung from the posts. A crude yet somehow ornate table— ornate by goblin standards that is —sat in the center of the room with hardtack and jam on it. Rough carvings of animal forms were etched into the gray table legs. From the look of it, it seemed this goblin had been of considerable rank.

In the back of the central room was another flap, and as they approached it, the stench grew stronger. When Brother Luke pulled it aside, Mira felt the image before her sear into her memory.

On the bed lay a corpse, just as she expected. But the state of it. That was something she never could have prepared for. Not rotting. Not blackened and slimy, bloated and vile from decomposition. It was shriveled. Dry and atrophied.

A body, yes, but a mummified one.

The gray flesh of the goblin looked remarkably preserved. As if, were she to touch it, it would still feel warm. For all the viciousness goblins were capable of, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. His body twisted in agony, desiccated flesh clinging thin as paper to each bone. Whatever happened had been slow and torturous.

“Impossible,” Brother Luke muttered aloud. “It should take months for a body to reach such a state. Besides. Goblins don’t even practice mummification.”

He knelt next to the low bed. Extending a trembling hand to draw back the thin shroud draped over his torso, Mira grabbed his shoulder.

“What are you doing?” she hissed.

“These aren’t natural causes. Whatever killed him could still be out there. Imagine what would happen if it came upon Cawold.” The priest shuddered. “We have to figure out what did this.”

She grimaced at the prospect but relented. He was right. Anything capable of wiping out an entire goblin camp was more than the thorp could possibly hope to repel.

With a heavy sigh, she nodded and turned her attention back to the body. The next thing she knew, she was on the other side of the tent, a shriek befitting a little girl screeching from her. The priest’s voice joining hers in shrill horror.

The goblin moved. His dry, yellow eyes were open and staring at them. Withered lips moved as his chest rose and fell.

He wasn’t dead.

Grangou,” the goblin croaked out, voice broken and dry. “Lapès.”

Those two words he repeated again and again as the knight and priest clutched each other. Slowly, his voice weakened. As they watched, too stunned to move, they saw the light of life flicker and snuff. The last of him shrank into his features. Taut skin drew so tight each bone could be counted.

For what felt like hours, they sat there, staring at the husk of goblin. No words could begin to describe the thoughts flying through their heads. Mira’s lips didn’t dare move.

“What the devil was that?”

Echo’s whispered voice gave Mira a start. She hadn’t heard the duchess or the other men approach. Her senses had been so focused that everything else was muted.

Brother Luke shook his head. “Not here,” he muttered before shutting the goblin’s eyes and motioning everyone outside.

There was no real way of telling how long it took for them to compose their thoughts. The young knight had been in dozens of battles. She’d seen horrors and death before, but nothing like that.

Norm’s flask was passed around until it was dry. Only then was the silence broken.

“Hunger,” Narsis muttered. They turned their quizzical looks to him. “He kept repeating the same thing.”

“You understood him?” said Mira, though her voice didn’t feel like it belonged to her.

He nodded. “It was Croian,” he explained. “They speak it in the Larris Marsh.”

“Guess that explains the swamp smell,” Norm mumbled.

“Where is this Larris Marsh?” said Echo.

“Leagues to the sou—” Mira’s head jerked to the friar. “Brother Luke?” she began, voice light and airy. “When we met, you said Lord Korik was guiding you somewhere. Do you still… feel that?”

His eyes widened with understanding. Lowering his head, a serene look washed over his face as he opened himself to the power of the divine. It wasn’t a moment before a gasp confirmed Mira’s worst suspicion.

“What did he say exactly?” Mira asked Narsis.

“It’s been ages and it was a strange dialect, but he kept saying ‘hunger plague,’” said Narsis.

The lone human rose to his feet. “We should get out of here,” said Norm. “If it is a plague, we don’t want to risk further exposure.”

“Agreed,” said Narsis. “Norm, Lady Echo, would you be so kind as to…”

Though he trailed off, his meaning was clear. Smoke rose over the grass. Only after the last scrap of bone was immolated beneath their conjoined spells did anyone speak. The solemn duty of cremating everything weighed too heavily upon them.

“We should be getting back now,” Echo barely whispered.

Mira nodded in agreement. “We need rooms at the inn.”

Norm could hardly contain a scoff. “If you didn’t get one at dawn, you’re not getting one now. Caravan season, remember?”

“Wonderful,” the knight sighed.

Echo batted her eyes at Narsis.

“I’m afraid giants like you would find my home a bit cramped,” said Narsis.

All eyes turned to Norm.

With a heavy sigh, he twisted his wedding band. “Oh, darling,” he began, his voice dripping with contempt on the word, “could you make up the guest rooms? We have company.”

The same disembodied voice from before answered. “I’ll put out the good china.”


Continue to Chapter Six on January 21, 2024.

About the Author

A. S. Raithe is a fantasy author living near Pittsburgh with his wife and children. Always the creative type, it wasn’t until high school and being introduced to a local bestselling author that he found his passion for writing. He took time away from writing to attend college before being convinced by his wife to pick it up again shortly after their wedding. Outside of writing he enjoys exercise, baking, gardening, folklore, music, and hiking.

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