There were a total of eight rooms with their doors open enough that I could enter. Four of these were rooms like the first I had found. These were in much better condition than the first. Clearly, not all the humans in this place needed my example. Still, as their occupants were away, I cleaned them as best I could.
Rooms that were not the cramped quarters used for sleeping were more challenging and captivating. One of these was a long room with white lighting and tiled floors. It had rows of work benches and lots of clear glass containers. Cleaning that one was interesting because of the sheer amount of glass particulates I picked up. It seemed that many glass objects were smashed over a long time. These pieces of glass were picked up and maybe swept up with a broom. However, there were still minuscule bits left behind, and over time the tread of many feet ground them down ever further.
Another particularly challenging room was filled with cages. These cages had things in them that were smelly, and they seemed to exude filth. The very air of the room felt thick with noxious fumes that clogged my dust filter. It took me a long time to finish cleaning that one. One thing that added to the time was that there were trails of salt and other powders everywhere. It was all in perfect circles or fancy designs around the cages. It was quite nice art. It reminded me of the chalk my small humans used sometimes. I cleared it away so they could have a blank canvas when they came back.
There was one more room similar to that one, differing only in that it contained tanks of water rather than cages. I cleaned that one as efficiently as possible. Though liquid no longer held the same horror for me, I still recognized that I would be powerless before such vast quantities of the stuff. Plus, the debris was less pleasant to clean due to its dampness.
The last room I found was unique. It was sparsely furnished, containing only a few bookcases near the perimeter and a desk in the center. One large, plush chair sat behind the desk, while two smaller chairs stood guard in front. None of these held a candle to the true star of the room, though. In front of the desk, below the pair of chairs, lay a luxurious rug. This thing was a work of art. Soft and long, made of fine wool and intricately patterned with deep reds and ambers, it was a delicate thing. The color paired perfectly with the dark wood of the rest of the room. Rugs like this could really tie a room together.
I spent extra time cleaning it, making sure to be slow and thorough. A piece like this had to be treated with care so that it didn’t deteriorate.
The more I continued to explore this new place, the more evidence I found to support my being here for training. The lack of humans to assist me had already caused me to improvise and adapt more than I ever had before. It made me imagine previously fantastical possibilities of my own capabilities and continue to push myself like I never had before.
After my initial exploration finished, I had a good enough map logged in my system to start building a routine. I would manage to cover the whole floor plan each day as long as there were no areas that needed special attention. As I practiced, I became much more efficient. The first run-through was 20% quicker than my model thought it should be. Maybe my new pathing style combining straight lines and graceful curves was vastly superior. Or maybe my excitement caused me to move faster than I should have. It did seem that my cleaning radius had improved slightly, which made each pass more efficient.
The second run-through was only 2% more efficient. Still, all this practice would stack up after a while. I couldn’t wait to see how much better I would do tomorrow.
Bee frowned at her stomach as it growled loudly for at least the third time since she had woken up. The fear had kept her hunger at bay for the first couple of days, or at least what she estimated to be. From the darkness of the closet, she was having difficulty keeping track of time. However, now that her situation had some time to sink in, her body was making its needs known. Though the hunger was unbearable, the thirst soon was even worse. She hadn't had anything to drink in too long. Her tongue felt swollen and rough in her mouth, and her lips were beginning to crack too.
Before the demon had stalked outside the door, she had at least had something as an option to drink. Only now did she realize the cruelty. Not only had it had fun terrifying her, but it was playing a longer game. She wouldn’t have even considered drinking that puddle on the first day. It was dirty mop water, after all. On the second morning, she hadn’t even considered what the demon had taken from her. It wasn’t until later that second day that the realization started to enter her mind. She had a splitting headache from dehydration and was trying to go to sleep, hoping to feel better when she woke up. Well into the third day, even that disgusting swill would have been honey to her parched tongue.
On the brighter side, her ankle hurt less now. She wasn’t sure why that was and was a bit skeptical that it wasn’t the rest of her hurting worse.
She hadn’t been spending the past few days idly, though. The demon had apparently decided to make the castle its new domain. It established a routine of patrolling its halls regularly. The direction and volume of the noises helped her keep track of its position. Bee had been listening for long enough that she thought she knew how to tell when it was at its farthest from her hiding spot.
That just left the matter of how to make the most of the opportunity. And she needed to. She still wasn’t sure why the demon hadn’t come to kill her yet. But as time went on, she became certain about one thing: she was on her own. Since the other mages hadn’t come back for her, they were probably going for help. Seeing as the next town was 5 days’ travel by horse, that didn’t bode well for her rescue.
In the end, it was the thirst that drove her out. She tried to stand and found not only could her ankle not bear her weight but also she was much weaker than she should be. Sitting cramped with no food or water for three days doesn’t lend itself well to fast movement. If she waited any longer, it would only get worse. Using the information at her disposal, she made a quick plan. Just because the demon was sparing her, for now, didn’t mean that it wouldn’t change its mind if it saw her, so it was still a good idea to stay hidden. But she needed a better hiding place. Also supplies.
She waited until the demon was furthest away on its patrol route. Then she began to prepare frantically while making as little noise as possible. Taking a mop, she broke the handle and used the frayed ends to tie a crude splint for her ankle. She still couldn’t put much weight on it, but it would let her hobble a little better. She grabbed the pillow she had been using for the past few days, a broomstick, and propped herself up. Moving slowly, Bee cracked the door open enough to peek out with an eye. Nothing had changed, and she couldn’t see any sign of the demon.
Pushing the door the rest of the way open, Bee used her makeshift crutch to move down the hall as quickly and quietly as she could. The nearest thing she could use to quench her thirst would likely be just down the hall, in the librarian’s office. Ethan was a bit of a drinker, and when cleaning his office, she had found a wineskin tucked away behind his coat more than once. Luckily for her, the office wasn’t far.
Hobbling as she was, it took her half a minute to cross the 50 feet to the librarian’s office door. By the time she got there, she was out of breath and gasping in pain. Her ankle was almost definitely broken. Even with the splint, she could barely put any weight on it. The broomstick made an incredibly poor cane on the smooth stone floors. It was hard to keep a hold on as her hand kept slipping down, and she didn’t have the upper body strength to really use it.
Still, she made it and was able to get the door open. Opening the door one-handed and one-legged was an awkward process, but she managed it. As she slipped in, her eyes zeroed in on the desk. There, she saw an oasis beckoning to her, a teacup and a plate with a couple of biscuits. Ethan must have left them out from the night before the summoning. Moving as quickly as she could, she snatched the tea cup and brought it to her lips. Nothing came out. Pulling it back a little, Bee saw that it was empty. She cursed Ethan under her breath, grabbed a biscuit, and crammed it into her mouth. It was stale and dry. She didn’t care. Until she tried to swallow, that is.
As a consequence of mixing the dehydration with the dry biscuit crumbs, she couldn't get it down. Bee began to cough. It started small but quickly grew. She could neither swallow nor get the crumbs out of her throat, so she started panicking. What started as a minor cough quickly became choking. Frantically, Bee scrambled around the desk, going for the wineskin hanging on the hat rack. In the process, she knocked over one of the magic lamps. It rolled on the desk, but Bee didn’t even notice and grabbed the skin to bring it to her lips. The feeling of the lukewarm wine flowing down her throat provided immediate relief. She gasped, her coughing subsiding, as she began washing the crumbs down her throat.
Not until she was done coughing did she register the sound of glass shattering as the lamp rolled off the desk. With the skin slung over one shoulder and the stick in the other hand, Bee turned on her good leg. The glass ball previously mounted in the desk lamp, giving off a gentle glow, was now shattered on the floor. Its contents swirled in the air.
I was in the middle of my rounds when I sensed something. Far in the last room on the east hall, I was cleaning a bedroom, nothing too interesting, and my mind was only 95% on the task. Because of my laxness, I heard it. A disturbance, an unfamiliar sound in the thus far silent castle. It sounded like shattering glass. I stopped in the middle of cleaning the dust bunnies from underneath a bed. Perhaps the humans had returned to observe my work? Excited, I decided to greet them. I could give them a tour of their freshly renovated home. Maybe it would also guide them towards the out-of-reach spots I hadn’t been able to take care of as well. Maybe they would help me navigate the stairs.
I hurried down the halls toward where I detected the disturbance. It was coming near the large room, though not from there precisely. Then I heard a young girl. Then another voice joined in. The young girl's voice was high-pitched, squealing in joy, similar to the party-going humans that had left me here initially. The other voice was much lower, almost a growl by comparison.
As I turned the corner, a strange sight came into view.
It didn’t look like a party at all…
The swirling ashy contents of the former lamp coalesced into a small form. Rather than a solid creature, it still had the appearance of a cloud of thick, dense ash. However, it glowed like a lump of dying coal with heat radiating out from its center. It wasn’t any bigger than a cat, but it stood on two legs and had a humanoid shape. Ears stuck out four inches from its head, with a nose almost as long. Bee could feel its slight heat even from where she was standing. She recognized that image from descriptions her mother had used to frighten her as a child. It was an Imp. Not only an Imp but one with a fire or ash affinity, it seemed.
The Imp growled at her. Blocking the way back to the hall, it made ready to attack. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t have been too much of an issue, but with Bee in the state she was in, it might as well have been a rabid wolf. It pounced. Thinking quickly, yelling, Bee met it with a swing from her staff. The blow passed through the Imp with very little resistance, sending ash scattering everywhere. But as soon as the particles landed, the nearby ones began to gather up again. When it was formed, it was just noticeably smaller. This time it shrieked in anger.
When Bee readied her makeshift crutch for another swing, she noticed a problem. It was no longer a broomstick, but a torch. And quickly burning one at that. A couple more times, she batted the Imp away. Each time it became a little smaller, but so did her weapon and the available space for her to hold on to it. She feared what would run out first. She turned to flee to the only other door in the room, which led to the library. Her leg picked an awful time to give out. Screaming in pain, she stumbled to her knees. Unable to move with any speed, and without the broomstick to support her, she started to crawl. Before she made any progress toward the door, she felt something land on her back and grab her hair. Surprised that she was not on fire just by its touch, she was able to wriggle around to her back and used her hands to keep it away from her face.
When she dug her fingers in and tried to grab it, it felt like she had touched a hot stove. She shrieked again, quickly going back to her open-hand approach. Bee did her best to keep it from her face. It was too late, however. A now familiar sound reached her ears, turning her blood to ice. It should have been further away. The pause cost her, but as the Imp moved, she caught a glimpse of what was behind it.
She trembled in horror as the nightmare she had been avoiding approached her. Worse, she was laid out, helpless, and incapable of doing anything more than stare at the demon that had taunted her for days.
It resembled a black disk, so dark that it seemed light itself didn’t reflect off its surface. As if it sucked it in. It emanated an unearthly whirring and humming sound, not unlike an amplified, sustained death rattle. Around it, dust and debris swirled. They didn't last long as they were sucked toward its underbelly, disappearing underneath just as the light did on its surface. She thought she saw a flash of something spinning just under the front edge of the disk - teeth perhaps?
The demon that had sent a cadre of mages running for the hills was here, and it was coming straight for her.