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

Mira’s eyebrow twitched as she touched down on the edge of Cawold. It was one thing to transport earthbounds every now and then, but this many times. In armor. In one day? She’d be lucky if she could flutter come morning. But as they approached Norm’s home, her agitation failed. Feathers fluffing, she cocked her head.

The zephyra’s mouth moved wordlessly as she took it in. A white picket fence encircled the house and yard that was filled with worthless, though expertly manicured, grass. Conical topiaries grew on either side of the wine red door. Boxwood hedges, trimmed perfectly square, sat below every window. Then, there was the house itself.

Standing two stories, it was the most peculiar house she’d ever seen. The ground floor was built of bricks in various shades of brown. Ordinary enough for well off artisans in Sitri, but even for the capital that was where ordinary ended. Some sort of metallic siding wrapped the second floor. Strange enough on its own, but Mira couldn’t begin to guess at the small fortune the robin’s egg blue paint must’ve cost, to say nothing of every hinged window being filled with glass.

As she stepped through the gate, she glanced to Echo. She found the duchess’ feathers puffed out in confusion. Glancing to the others, she found them equally perplexed.

Yipping greeted them as Norm turned the doorknob. Three black puppies flew out to meet their master. Only shin high, they wore matching red collars with little metal tags dangling from their necks.

Narsis shouted in shock as one leapt up to sniff and lick his face.

“Ber!” Norm shouted at it. “Down!”

The delighted squeal of a little girl came from inside. “Daddy’s home!”

Not a second later an adorable human girl in a pastel pink dress bounded after the pups. Her dark hair, the same as her father’s, was pulled up in pigtails, but it was her eyes, an intense, practically otherworldly blue that captured the knight’s attention.

She looked from her father to the others and blinked. “Mommy!” she called into the house as she retreated a step inside. “Daddy brought friends.”

“I know, sweetie,” cooed a familiar voice.

Pinpricks danced across Mira’s eardrums at the sound of the frighteningly familiar voice. It was her. The voice from his ring.

Clad in a white apron overtop a blue dress, Mira couldn’t stop the warmth spreading across her cheeks. It took all her manners to pry her eyes away as not to stare. Norm’s wife might well have been the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.

It was clear where the girl got her eyes from. If anything, the child’s were a muted parody of her mother’s. She was slight and willowy, taller than either zephyrni, though considering Mira was barely five foot that didn’t mean much. Her vibrantly red, not ginger, red hair was pulled up in an elaborate style that defied gravity. A part of the knight almost wanted to ask if she’d used glue to hold it in place.

But for all her beauty, something was wrong. Just as her voice pricked at Mira’s ears, her presence sent static through the whole of her being.

Fortunately, it seemed she was unaware of Mira’s apprehension as she cast Norm a look of pure adoration. The love pouring from her was such that it made the heart sing at witnessing.

Norm, however, looked back nonplussed.

Her smile trembled as she looked to him expectantly. “Um… Norman, sweetie,” she began at his silence, “aren’t you going to introduce us?”

“Huh?” he grunted. “Oh. Yeah. This is my wife and kid.”

Nervous laughter betrayed her faltering smile. “I’m Charlotte,” she introduced herself before kneeling down to half hug their daughter, “and this is Satina.”

The child sunk behind her mother and waived.

At everyone’s silence, Echo stepped forward. “Good evening, ma’am. I am Echo of the House Zeerie, and these are my companions, Master Zhel, Brother Luke, priest of Korik, and Dame Mira Ashwood of Sitri. I’m sure you already know Master Narsis.”

“Oh yes.” Charlotte laughed a tittering laugh. “We are well acquainted.” She beckoned them inside. “It’s wonderful to meet Normie-kin’s friends. I hope you’re hungry. Dinner just came out of the oven.”

The savory scent of roast meat and vegetables wafted from inside. Mira and Zhel’s stomachs answered for them, but as they stepped over the threshold, instinct pinned her wings to her back.

A soft hand forced its way into Mira’s grip in search of an anchor. She looked to find a wide-eyed Echo staring up at her, and in that moment realized just how badly she was trembling. This was no settler’s cabin on the borderlands. It was a lord’s manor.

As they entered the small dining hall, Echo cocked her head. Her brow knitted as she studied the room. The table was set for nobility, a marquis at the very least.

Mira’s jawed tensed at her own assumption. Of course, Cawold sits a marquis! she mentally snarled. It is in the Weremarch.

“Forgive me, Lord Norman,” Echo began at a loss. “I hadn’t thought you were Cawold’s master.”

“I am?”

That only deepened the furrow of her brow. “Well, it’s a rather… impressive home, isn’t it?”

Charlotte gasped. “Did I make a mistake?” She turned worriedly to Norm. “Is this not how humaaaaordinary people live?”

He raised a halting hand. “It’s fine.” Pulling out his seat, he motioned for everyone to sit. “It’s been a crazy day.”

Norm may have denied being a noble, but their meal certainly disagreed. Beef roasted in what Charlotte called a “Dutch oven” was served on blue glazed plates with turnips, carrots, and potatoes. Freshly baked bread, slathered in sweet butter with tangy cheese accompanied their dinner along with dark red wine in fine, stemmed glasses.

Shock kept Mira and Echo’s wings locked tight. The duchess carefully cut each bite with knife and fork as if she was attending court dinner. Meanwhile, the young knight was completely focused on not spilling anything on their host’s tablecloth.

“So,” Brother Luke began, “this Larris Marsh. Is it far?”

“Yeah,” Norm grunted. “It’s a hell—”

Charlotte coughed and sputtered on her wine.

“—of a trip. Almost a week on the road if I remember right.”

Brother Luke nodded thoughtfully. “Then, I’ll need to be off at first light.”

We,” Zhel corrected him. “We will need to be off.” Brother Luke cast him a curious look. “I cannot speak for the others, brother, but if my Lady has guided me here, I cannot believe it was not to meet you. I would travel with you, if you will allow me.”

Mira’s face twisted with guilt. “I wish I could come with you, but I’ve sworn to help Echo restore her… inheritance. I can’t believe she’d want to put herself at such risk.”

“Then your presumptions are incorrect,” Echo said into her glass. “My curiosity has been piqued,” she took a sip of wine and turned to Mira, “and you’re barking if you think I don’t want to see what’s going on.”

“But my lady—.”

“But nothing,” Echo cut her off. “You are a Knight of Sitri. You may be honor bound to me, but your duty binds you to the people of Welmin.” Patting Mira’s hand, she smiled. “At the very least, we can escort them there.”

The knight had no choice but to concede. “You’re right, my lady.”

Echo turned back to Brother Luke. “You have us at least as far as the marshlands.”

A genuine smile filled the monk’s face. “You have my thanks, Mistress Echo.”

“Well,” Norm sighed heavily. “Looks like you guys have a long road ahead.” He shrugged. “Better eat up and sleep good tonight.”

“Norman von Wilder!” Charlotte gasped. “You can’t honestly be sending your friends off alone!” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I’ll take Satina to Daddy’s until you figure this out.” She looked to the others. “What is going on, anyway?”

All eyes went to Satina. There wasn’t one among them who wanted to explain what they’d witnessed in the goblin camp. Not in the child’s presence. Slowly, their gaze turned to the priest. He nodded his understanding.

“We discovered a seemingly deserted camp not far from here and went to check on it. The… individuals we found had been overcome by a disease such as none of us knows. From the looks of the camp, and words their leader spoke, we believe they came from the Larris Marsh.”

Charlotte’s eyes watered. “Oh no. Those poor, poor souls.” She got up from the table. “Let me get some things together for you. You’ll need food and water, bedding. Oh, I’ll need to hurry. Say-Say,” she smiled down at her daughter, “can you help mommy put some things together for daddy and his friends?”

Beaming with excitement, Satina hopped up and gave her very best, serious nod.

Despite the undeniable wrongness of her presence, Mira couldn’t help but feel glad to have met the strange woman. They waited until both mother and child left to continue discussing preparations.

“Are there any settlements in the marsh?” said Zhel.

“Not really,” said Narsis. “It’s mostly fur trappers and traders. Ramshackle shacks and fishing huts sprinkled throughout the marsh.” He shrugged. “I suppose there is Larris sur L’eau. It was a growing village when I was there last, but be mindful, that was nearly six decades ago.”

“At least we know where to start,” Echo muttered. “Human village oooor…”

“Mostly humans,” the alchemist confirmed. “A few elf-bloods and fey-touched. I think there may’ve been some Yesha nomads, but if there were, they stuck to the bayou.”

“If the worst of it is a few pintsized shapeshifters that just want to eat and sleep all the time, I’ll count that as a win,” said Norm.

“Don’t take the Yesha lightly,” said Zhel. “Most of them are calm and peaceful, but they can take the form of practically any animal they’ve ever seen. Who knows what things could lurk in the marsh.”

“Or what nomads might’ve seen in their travels,” Echo added.

Mira nodded. “We’ll just need to make sure we don’t give them a reason to cause trouble.”

“Indeed,” Brother Luke agreed. “A problem his holiness will provide for if it arises. For now,” he looked warmly upon the food before him, “we should eat. It’ll be some time before we’ll have a chance for a meal such as this again.”

None of them could debate the friar’s logic. There was no point letting their minds be bogged down before their boots even saw peat, but Mira couldn’t help digging through what little she knew of the marsh.

It was a contested region in the deep south-east corner of the kingdom. Contested not for want, but because none of the three nations that bordered it had use for it. The inhospitable freshwater bayou had little to offer beyond mosquitoes the size of sparrows, and spiders as big as housecats. Reports of crocodiles and snakes that could devour grown men were common, as were whispers of long lost civilizations from when the gods still waged wars alongside their mortal faithful.

If anywhere could spawn such an awful plague, it was the Larris Marsh.

Never to be called poor mannered, the zephyra knight helped clear the table as the others retired to what they called the “living room” for sherry following dessert— a masterwork of custard none of them could identify. At least, she tried to, but the peculiar kitchen was quite possibly the least safe place for her.

Pots and pans dangled from hooks overtop a tile table built into the center of the floor. A block filled with every manner of knife a butcher could pray for sat ready for use. Charlotte twisted a knob in a wash basin and out rushed scalding water. Most dangerous of all was the box nestled against the wall that a kettle sat upon, a constant, steady flame licking at it to prepare tea.

She deposited the dishes in the sink and hurried to rejoin the others before something could make her wings spring open. The last thing she needed was her feathers to meet the fire.

Hot baths were prepared to sooth their aching muscles. By the time Mira finished and changed into the silken nightgown Charlotte provided, she was more than ready for bed.

Echo was out cold as Mira slipped into the bed next to her— Zhel and Brother Luke having taken the other room. Propping her sword against the nightstand, she felt slumber’s embrace swiftly sucking her down. She twitched at the knowledge of what would soon follow.

Home. The bracelet. The alley and… Blood. So. Much. Blood.

Charek bore down on little Mira for the millionth time. Her broken ribs ached. That awful metallic tang filled her mouth.

He leered down at her, grin splitting his face in half. “Some champion.”

“Mira! Mira wake up!”

Reflex sent Mira’s hand flying to her sword as she startled awake. Her mistress caught her wrist as her fingers snagged the handle. Trembling breaths puffed from the knight as she collected her senses. A rattling sigh shook her as she forced herself to release the weapon.

She rolled over, squinting hard against the darkness to get her bearings. She had no idea how long she’d slept, but it felt like a while. Better than most nights at least.

Soft feathers brushed her arm. The weight beside her shifted as Echo adjusted herself into a sitting position. Mira could barely make out her outline, yet at the same time she could feel the concern wafting off the duchess.

“Bad dream?” Echo ventured.

Mira nodded thoughtlessly. “Yeah,” she croaked.

“Need to talk about it?”

She shook her head fervently as she slid up to sit beside her. “No.”

There was silence for a moment. In the next, comforting warmth washed over her as Echo wrapped a wing around her and rested her head on her shoulder.

“I’ve known many soldiers. I’ve not witnessed what they have, but I’ve heard their stories. The horrors they… you’ve witnessed.” Echo’s chest rose and fell heavily. “I can’t imagine it. Do they come often? The nightmares?”

“Most nights,” Mira admitted. “Sometimes twice… o-or more.”

Raising her head, Echo turned to meet her eye. “If you’d let me, I might be able to help. I know a spell that will put you into a deep and restful sleep devoid of thought or dream. You would simply close your eyes and once they open, it would be morning.”

An appreciative smile crossed Mira’s. “Thank you, my lady, but I wouldn’t be much of a knight if I couldn’t defend you.”

Soft laughter shook the duchess. “I have a feeling our hostess is quite capable of preventing anything from befalling us.”

Mira’s shoulders shook silently as the mental image of Charlotte armed with a rolling pin and her “Dutch oven” beating back a flight of dragons filled her mind. At the same time, she couldn’t say she disagreed with her mistress’ impression.

Cool blue light filled the room as Echo transformed her spell book into its full size and opened it. The pages glowed and hummed with magic, illuminating themselves for the noble to read. But as she found the page she needed and looked up at Mira, her feathers fluffed.

“Something more troubles you, doesn’t it?” Echo said knowingly.

“Not really.” Mira shrugged. “I mean, maybe a little.” Echo sat patiently. “It was just something Zhel said at dinner.”

“The bit about his goddess leading him here to meet us?”

Mira nodded. “It’s just… gods converging? Especially from different pantheons?” She sighed. “That’s never been a good sign.”

“No. You’re right. The last time that happened was when the orcs were wiped out.”

“You don’t think we’re getting ourselves mixed up in anything like that, do you?”

“Well.” A mischievous smirk twisted Echo’s lip. “I’ve never been the particularly religious sort. Keep temple visits mostly to the high holy days. You?”

Mira shrugged. “Just a makeshift altar to Myria I made when I was like six back at the barracks. Can’t even remember the last time I lit a candle.”

“There we have it.” Echo motioned for her to lie down. “The two of us, a warlock, a priest and a… whatever our night elf companion is, hardly a Crescent Bow makes.”

“True enough.” Mira chuckled as she made herself comfortable. “You’re not exactly Hennet the Whitefire, after all.”

“And you’re hardly Teesha Moonflower.”

The soft, warm bed welcomed her back to the comforting embrace of sleep moments before Echo’s spell washed over her. For the briefest second, she saw Charek’s face leering at her. Those words he’d cackled for years met her ears. But it was only that second. When again her eyes fluttered open, morning greeted her and breakfast called.

Continue to Chapter Seven on February 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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