Bowl in hand, the young elven girl took a deep breath before turning the rusty knob and slowly pushing the door open. As she peeked in, a shaft of light fell over her shoulder and through the open space into the darkness beyond, and something on the bed recoiled.
“Mother?” Cearalaith asked in a small voice, trying to sound more confident than she felt. “Mother, are you awake?”
Two faintly-glowing spots of green flickered and briefly focused on the girl, but the only vocal answer was a low moan. Cearalaith slipped in the door and closed it most of the way behind her, leaving but a crack for illumination. “Mother,” she said softly as she crossed the small, dingy room and knelt by the bed. “I’ve brought you soup.”
The pair of glowing eyes vanished back into darkness. “Did you bring my medicine?” came the raspy response.
Cearalaith sighed. “No, Mother. It’s all gone.”
“Bring me my cigarettes.”
“They’re gone too.”
A low rumble. “Bring me more.”
Cearalaith shook her head. “I can’t. I promised Asty I’d stay here and take care of you while she was gone. We don’t have any money anyway. Please, Mother, it’s your favorite soup.”
“Little bitch.” The woman in bed – what was left of Orlaith Sen’thial Duskflame – shifted, rolling over under the threadbare coverlet. “I’m not hungry.”
Cearalaith ignored the insult – her mother had called Astoreth much worse in recent days, with as little provocation. “Mother, please, you need to eat,” she implored. “You haven’t eaten in days.”
“I want my medicine.”
“We’re out,” Cearalaith sighed in exasperation.
“Well, then, make yourself useful!” Orlaith snapped, her voice dry and cracking. “Tell Rioghan to pick up some more.”
Cearalaith’s breath caught in her throat. “Tell… who?” she all but whispered.
“Rioghan,” Orlaith huffed. “The twins will get distracted. Mischief. But Rioghan, Rioghan’s a good boy. He’ll get me what I need.”
Cearalaith stared at her mother for a long moment. “Mother,” she said finally, softly. “Mother… Rioghan’s gone.”
“When he comes back, then.” Orlaith waved a bony hand thinly covered with translucent skin.
“No… Mother, Rioghan’s not coming back. Rioghan, Father, the twins… they’re not ever coming back. They died in the attack, months ago. Don’t you remember? They were defending Silvermoon. We… it’s just you and me and Asty now.”
“You and… who are you again?”
“Mother!” Cearalaith exclaimed, her voice trembling. “Mother, it’s Cearalaith! Your daughter!” The green glows flickered and reappeared to focus, as the girl swallowed back a frustrated sob.
Slowly the woman sat up in the bed, her eyes never leaving the girl’s face. It was not so long ago that Lady Orlaith Duskflame had been a beautiful woman, a respected matriarch, the toast of Silvermoon high society, her loveliness only mirrored and nearly rivaled by that of her youngest daughter. But now where Cearalaith’s hair still fell in soft golden ringlets around her shoulders, Orlaith’s had turned brittle and the color of straw; both elves’ eyes had turned from sapphire blue to green, but Cearalaith’s cheeks were rosy and her expression bright, while Orlaith’s face was sunken and the glow of her eyes dim and sickly.
Now Orlaith peered at her daughter for several tense moments before slowly smiling. “You are Cearalaith, aren’t you?” she said serenely. “I hardly knew you. How big you’ve gotten.”
Cearalith breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes! Good. Now, Mother, will you eat some soup?”
Orlaith glanced at the bowl and wrinkled her nose. “I don’t feel like soup,” she said slowly. “Do we have any meat, or bread?”
Cearalaith blinked in surprise. Her mother had agreed to eat! “B-bread?” she gasped. “Yes! Yes we have bread! I’ll be right back!” She leapt up and dashed towards the kitchen.
“And a knife to cut it?” Orlaith rasped after her.
“Yes! Yes!” Cearalaith called back, and a moment later she rushed back to her mother’s bedside. “Here’s the bread,” she said breathlessly. “And the butter – and here, be careful; the only knife I could find was Astoreth’s; it’s really sharp.”
Orlaith grinned as she took the blade from Cearalaith. “Perfect,” she chuckled, taking the knife firmly in her thin hand.
Then she turned the knife and struck at the girl.
Cearalaith had half-turned to move the soup, and between that and her mother’s frailty the first stab glanced off her arm. Cearalaith screamed, and bread and soup went flying as mother and daughter tumbled back on the floor. “MOTHER!” the girl shrieked. “Mother, stop!”
“Give – me – my – medicine!” Orlaith hissed, stabbing wildly and embedding the tip of the blade in the floorboards. “I want it now!”
“Mother!” Cearalaith cried in wide-eyed panic. “Mother, I don’t have any!”
“LIAR!” Orlaith howled, yanking on the knife handle to pry it up. “You’ve got it on you! I can smell it, you liar!”
“I don’t! MOTHER!” Orlaith brought the knife down again, and Cearalaith desperately grappled her mother’s arm to keep the blade away from her. “Mother, please listen to me!”
Orlaith’s eyes narrowed as she stared at the girl. “No,” she whispered at length, her dim eyes staring into Cearalaith’s bright eyes. “No, not on you, in you.” She grinned again as she twisted the blade to point at Cearalaith’s left eye, as Cearalaith struggled to hold her mother’s arms back. “Hold still, child,” Orlaith cackled. “This will only hurt for a moment.”
“Xanilra, Hathkrast!” came a voice Cearalaith only half-recognized; the next moment a dark force screamed over Cearalaith’s head, and Orlaith was knocked back against the bed. Something only half-tangible grabbed Cearalaith under both arms and dragged her screaming back through the bedroom door. This thing dropped Cearalaith in the middle of the living room and flowed between her and the bedroom – and between her and Astoreth, who was striding into the room. “Protect her,” Astoreth ordered the shadow, and indeed it stayed.
“Mother,” Astoreth said, “What the hell is going–” She was interrupted as Orlaith tackled her with a howling shriek. Astoreth kept her footing, though, only skidding back a few feet as she restrained the madwoman.
“She’s got it!” Orlaith screamed, staring at Cearalaith with wild eyes. “I can taste it! Mine! I need it!”
“Mother!” Astoreth snapped authoritatively. “She’s your daughter!”
“I have no daughters!” Orlaith shrieked, pounding a frail fist against Astoreth’s breast. “Think I don’t know what you do every night, you whore, you harlot, you filthy slut! And her, so pretty, so useless! She has what I need and I will have it!”
“Mother, you can’t,” Cearalaith pleaded desperately, hugging her own arms tight. “Each of us is all the others have anymore!”
“What I do pays the bills, Mother,” Astoreth hissed in a low, even tone. “Get a goddamned grip on yourself. What would Father think?”
“Your father,” Orlaith snapped back, but whatever retort she had died on her lips with a sudden trembling sob. “Kieran…” she whispered. “Kieran… my boys, Kieran, my baby boys…” She slipped from her eldest daughter’s arms to crumple on the ground. “You wretched bitches,” she sobbed.
Astoreth looked to her little sister. “Are you all right?” she asked quietly. Cearalaith nodded, and Astoreth made a sign with her right hand. The shadow that had been hovering over Cearalaith seemed to bow, and then flowed right to stand against a wall as Astoreth walked over to help her sister up off the ground.
“Y-you’re home early,” Cearalaith stammered.
“Thank the gods,” Astoreth sighed in response. “What happened?”
“I d-don’t know,” the younger sister replied. “I was trying to get her to eat, and suddenly…”
Astoreth sighed, glancing back to the sobbing, broken woman.
“…A-Asty?” Cearalaith asked in a small voice. “What – what is that – that thing? That grabbed me?” She looked apprehensively at the creature of shadow still floating – apparently obediently – out of the way.
Astoreth ran a hand through her hair. “It’s called a voidwalker.”
“Where did it come from?”
“I called it.”
“You … called it?” Cearalaith stared at her sister. “How?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.” Astoreth walked past their mother, still curled up and moaning quietly on the floor, to retrieve the knife that had been kicked into a corner in the tussle. “But it won’t hurt you. It’s under my command.”
“You’re – you’re certain?”
“I’m certain.” Astoreth looked her sister in the eye, tucking her knife into a loop at her belt. “Nothing will ever hurt you while I am around. Nothing.” She sighed. “Let’s get your arm bandaged and get you to bed, now. You look exhausted.” She opened a cabinet, drew out a tin of ointment and a package of bandages and handed them to her sister.
Cearalaith smiled weakly, gratefully at her big sister and disappeared into the washroom.
Astoreth sighed. “Hathkrast. Hik’thalok zetchk-ki gak,” she muttered, and the voidwalker flowed across the floor again. It smoothly scooped up Orlaith’s shaking form into its tenebrous arms, carried her into her room and dropped her on the bed. Astoreth followed, and then pointed the thing back at the door.
Orlaith stared at Astoreth with wide eyes, flashes of clarity and madness flickering across them like firelight. “Liar,” she cackled in a dry whisper. “Bitch. Every word that falls from your lips is false. I’ve seen you with that orc.”
“Not every word, Mother,” Astoreth sighed, sitting on the edge of the bed by her mother. “And not these words in particular.”
Without warning she grabbed Orlaith by the front of her nightgown, seizing the fabric and twisting it tight. Orlaith gasped and scrabbled fruitlessly at her daughter’s hands.
“You are my mother, and I do my best to care for you as a daughter should,” Astoreth hissed. “But nothing will hurt Cearalaith. Nothing. Not even you. You raise a single fel-addled finger to her again, and I will kill you myself.”
“Murder,” Orlaith gasped. “You wouldn’t –”
“Oh, I’ve gotten quite good at murdering people, Mother. That orc you’ve seen is teaching me well – and you know what a fast study I am.” She leaned in closer to whisper. “And it will look like an accident. And I’ll cry, very convincingly, and all the guards will feel sorry for me, and Cearalaith will forgive me. And then we’ll get on with our lives without you. Do you understand?”
The room was silent for a long moment before Orlaith’s response came: a choking, rasping sound that could barely be identified as crying.
Astoreth sighed in frustration and released the sick woman. “Kieran,” Orlaith sobbed, slipping down and wrapping her arms around Astoreth’s waist. “My boys.”
“They’re gone, Mother.” Astoreth stood, awkwardly disentangling herself from her mother’s arms in the dark, and walked towards the door. “We’re on our own. Get some sleep, Mother. Your medicine’s being delivered in the morning. You’ll feel better then.”
Orlaith let out a keening wail, no louder than a whisper. “I want to be with them,” she moaned.
Astoreth paused in the doorway, and sighed, looking down at the floor. “I know, Mother,” she said softly, kicking at a curling floorboard and watching her skirts move – and for the briefest of moments, once again her mother’s child instead of her keeper. “I know,” Astoreth said. “And I know it’s not…”
The words died on Astoreth’s lips as her eyes fell on the empty loop at her belt. She whirled around.
Inside the washroom, Cearalaith raised her head at the sound of a crash from the other room. She dropped the bandage and moved to the door – but stopped at the sound of a high-pitched scream, followed by a kind of rushing sound – as if a tornado were whipping through the tiny apartment, on the other side of the door – and another crash, louder this time, like thunder.
Cearalaith opened the washroom door, and peeked nervously out into the darkness – all the lamps and candles were out, and the thin shaft of light falling over her into the main room illuminated nothing.
“…Asty?” she said in a small voice.
Only silence came back to her.
“Astoreth?” Cearalaith asked again, her panic rising.
“Cearalaith,” came her sister’s low and whispered reply. “Go and get the guard.”