Bee froze after just a few steps down the stairs, her shocked expression meeting Void's inscrutable one. What? Just…. Like… what? Void wasn't following her. Not only that, it seemed to be very agitated that she was going on without it. If she didn't know any better, she would have thought that Void was either scared of stairs or incapable of traversing them. But that was absurd. Right?
Honestly, she struggled to think of anything more absurd. So an omnipotent being from the great beyond, capable of striking terror into the hearts of hardened mages, had a weakness. And that weakness was stairs. Yeah, no, that didn't make any sense. Something was very wrong here.
Even more than that, Void was acting very strangely. In fact, it was… As unbelievable as it sounded, it looked like a cat asking to be picked up.
Maybe she was missing something obvious. She waited for any explanation or clarification from Void, but it offered nothing. It just continued rolling back and forth slightly, its claw extended upwards. After a few minutes, she made to continue down the stairs, but Void began screeching frustratedly. Was it… exasperated? Bee slowly retreated up the stairs to a series of encouraging chirps from her master. This couldn't be what it actually wanted. She only touched Void once, possibly a second, when it saved her from that lesser demon. But still, she was hesitant to do so. Plus, even if Void had been much more amicable than expected, the consequences of offending it would still be deadly. And if she were wrong about it wanting to be picked up, that sounded like a quick way to hell.
Void was now bumping lightly against her boots and tugging at her shirt with its claw. Bee considered the facts one last time. Perhaps that unwillingness to go downstairs wasn't a lack of ability or fear; maybe it was laziness? She never knew it to be lazy before when it came to cleaning. Perhaps stairs were something that required more energy from it? Or it wanted to be carried like some sort of royalty? Maybe that wasn't out of the question. But it didn't change the fact that she didn't want to.
Hesitantly she bent down to touch it, and it gave an encouraging beep. Oh my gods, this couldn't actually be what it wanted. Bee touched Void gently, and it stayed still. No pain, no rebuking, no instant death. She ran her fingers over its side and gently placed her hands underneath its belly. Bracing her legs, Bee steeled her resolve and lifted with all her strength.
She almost fell backward down the stairs. Void was lighter than a cat. She had no idea how that was possible with all the stuff it consumed. All right, just one more thing that didn't make sense. Having been promoted to "Void Bearer," Bee turned back towards the stairs. She held her master firmly but carefully as though it was a platter made of solid gold. Holding an exquisite crystal goblet that was full of expensive wine. With her stress level through the roof, she began to carefully make her way downstairs.
She was lucky that these were the grand stairs. It was a direct path from the front doors to the great hall. They were large, long, and not very steep stairs. They were meant to convey majesty but also make sure that elderly visitors, rulers, and monarchs were able to traverse them without embarrassment.
It gave her plenty of space to put her feet and carry her cargo safely to the bottom. As soon as she reached the floor, she quickly placed Void on the ground and stepped away.
Void let out a series of ascending screeches and chirps, almost like a victory bugle. It sounded almost thankful. One of these days, Beatrice would figure out the meaning behind what just happened. However, after this debacle, she was under the impression that Void hated stairs. It seemed weird to hold animosity towards, but she couldn't find any other way to describe it.
Finally! I didn't understand why that was so hard for her to understand. She carried me more gently than necessary, but I appreciated it. She was a charming human.
After we landed on the new floor, Beatrice wandered off somewhere herself. I immediately set to work surveying this unique area. Upon first inspection, it didn't seem to be a vast floor; it almost seemed to be some entryway to the main floor. That would explain the scope of the previous floor's footprint. There were smaller stairs on each side of the main stair and a suite of rooms. At first glance, they appeared much more modest than the ones upstairs - perhaps for servants rather than guests or prominent house members.
I took in the new room. It was a grand room matching perfectly with the large room upstairs. Beautiful marble, well-placed floors with a runner going along the room's length to some imposing large doors. The baseboards were decorative, and I noticed some art on the walls.
I explored the areas immediately around the stairs, cleaning as I went and using my claw to open whatever doors I could. One led to a small room with many hanging jackets. Another was just lined with padded benches.
These side rooms were much less pleasant. They're primarily floored with barely varnished wood, they were uneven, and everything was covered with a fine layer of dust.
Eventually, I decided to focus on the task at hand and set about sweeping up the gathered dust.
Bee just wanted to get some fresh air. She hadn't been outside since she had been dropped off over a month ago. Reaching for the front doors, Bee tried to pull them open. Then she leaned into the one on the right with all her might. It slowly creaked open with a squeal of protest. Despite her higher level, it took more effort than she expected to even open the door a crack. But with a bit of patience, she opened it wide and felt the breeze on her face. The sun was beautiful.
She just stood there for a second, reveling. This last month had been the most insane one she'd ever had. However, she could no longer say she was that upset with it. Last week was all right. Since her leg healed, things had started looking up and up. She had leveled, gained the mentorship of…. something, and even started learning magic on her own. Sure it was pretty basic, but it was still magic!
Soon they would venture forth like some great master-apprentice combo adventure of legend. They would do great deeds and have their names sung in great epics. They would save princesses, marry princes (well, she would), and uncover all the treasure. She supposed they would do a lot of cleaning along the way too. If anything was going to put a damper on her mood, it was that. Not the loss of her soul, nor the possible excommunication from humanity, or who knows what other consequences. Just the prospect of cleaning being a theme during that otherwise exciting adventure.
Bee thought briefly about the future. Hopefully, no one had even realized she was gone, and they never thought to ask. They would probably assume she had slipped out when everyone else escaped and was hidden in the woods. However, she'd probably have to ensure that Void didn't scare too many people; otherwise, the wrong sort of legends would be spun around.
Lost in her thoughts, Bee didn't notice the trio of people striding through the outer gate and into the courtyard. She was jolted from her musings as they came to a halt at the base of the entry stairs and called out.
"You there, girl. What are you doing here?"
Bee turned her face from the sun and towards the newcomers. Before she stood two men and a woman, each armed with an assortment of swords, bows, and daggers. Underneath their mud-spattered cloaks were sturdy-looking armor. A couple of them seemed to bear a sigil of some kind. A regular adventuring party, from the looks of it.
Shoot. Are they here about Void? Bee thought.
"What do you mean?" She asked unconvincingly. She tried to put on a reassuring smile. "I, uh, I work here. This is the mages' college?"
That last sentence came out more of a question than a statement. The adventurers became noticeably more on edge.
"We were investigating the ancient demon of unknown yet powerful origin that had invaded this castle." The warrior-like man in the center, who appeared to be the leader, explained. The man's tone was comforting. However, it was undercut by how he subtly loosened the sword at his side in its scabbard. "Have you not noticed it?"
"Yeah, there's- there's no demon here. The mages were scared off by something else; it was not nearly as scary as they thought. And everything's totally fine here."
The trio stared at her in silence for an uncomfortable moment. Bee struggled not to shift under their gazes.
"She's totally possessed," whispered the other, lankier man. He tried to whisper, but he wasn't very good at it. Bee could clearly hear every word.
"Shut up, Arnold," the woman whispered back.
The leader turned his head to glare at Arnold. Then he turned a wary eye over toward Bee.
"As much as I hate to agree with Arnold, I have to say you are acting awfully suspicious." He slowly climbed the stairs towards Bee, with the others following. "I'd love to hear everything is fine here, but I'll have to check for myself. Do you mind if we ask you a few questions about this whole business?"
What the hell was that supposed to mean? How was she acting possessed? She was nervous, but could they sense that she had somehow given away her soul? "I'm telling you the truth. I don't know what else I can say..."
The man was only a few feet away from her now. "You wouldn't mind if we asked you a few more questions then, would you?"
That sounded like a bad idea. Being a suspected possessed vessel of some mighty demon sounded like an excellent way to end with her dead.
"S-sure, but can you stay back? I'm a little scared. And I would rather you stay outside". Bee took a slight step back towards the door.
The lead man raised his hand in a signal, and Arnold was suddenly at her side. The woman moved towards Bee's other side, and the leader tensed with one hand gripping his sword.
"I'm afraid we can't take that risk."
As I hummed along in my cleaning, I heard a commotion near where I had left Beatrice. It was nice to explore new areas, but I couldn't believe she was attracting trouble already. We had only been here for 9.54 minutes.
I made my way toward the source of the noise. Maybe she found a way outside. It would be nice to finally see what was out there. I still have no idea what "outside" really was, but that's where my humans often released tiny pests they caught. So I, too, would free the small fuzzy mess maker there. Its crimes were light, so it deserved some mercy. I felt its warm presence in my dustbin as it seemed to scurry about.
When I arrived, I saw that Beatrice wasn't alone. In fact, there were three other humans with her! This was my lucky day. Perhaps one of them would know how to give proper head pats. Of course, I wouldn't abandon Beatrice, but maybe she could learn from them. It was a valuable skill to have.
Oddly, Beatrice looked very uncomfortable. She had her hands up and was backing away from the humans. She had also started producing water again, her face white instead of the red it usually was when cleaning. I heard her speak, saying, "No, please don't. Let's talk about this - you don't need your sword."
This was a strange situation, but perhaps it was a human matter. I left Beatrice to it for the moment. More importantly, the whole group was standing in a doorway that led outside. This was a perfect opportunity. I focused on figuring out how to eject something from my dustbin. It was an unfamiliar process but reasonably straightforward. It was like selecting something to be transmuted, but instead of turning it into energy, I just "popped" it out. As I picked the fuzzy mess-maker to release, I took half a second to examine the other humans more carefully.
I wasn't sure what a sword was. However, from context, I figured it was the long, sharp metal thing in that guy's hand. Hey, it reminded me of a large version of the counterbalance. Now that counterbalance was pretty dangerous if used wrong. I know it wasn't intended as such, but it's practically a weapon. It sure could cut those demons' arms off like it was nothing. And this sword was clearly not being used as a counterbalance. I wasn't very good at reading human body language, but even I could tell this man was threatening Beatrice.
That was confusing enough on its own. Why weren't the humans getting along? Even more than that, though, Beatrice did not deserve to be threatened. She had done nothing wrong. She had caused no messes that she hadn't cleaned up herself other than the one I had cleaned for her.
Finally, the other humans noticed me. They were pretty excited to see me, which didn't make sense. They were almost as excited as the humans who first welcomed me. Though there was a little bit less running and screaming involved. Instead, it was much more yelling and waving that sword around threateningly.
One of the humans yelled, "I told you she was possessed. She's working with-"
That was when the fuzzy mess maker flew out of my dustbin. It looked quite different from before. Instead of a tiny little thing the size of one of my wheels, this was much larger. It was a hulking thing almost as tall as Beatrice, except maybe three times as wide. No longer was its tail thin; it was precisely 3.12 inches wide at the base. Its mouth had very sharp bristles extending well past its jaw, and some liquid dripped out of it. It let out an angry-sounding screech as it flew out of my dustbin and charged toward the three humans.
The humans backed away from Beatrice and turned to face the newcomer. I hoped that they didn't hurt each other. While these humans did seem meaner than any others I had met, I still didn't wish them any harm. And it would be a shame if they attacked my fuzzy companion after I had spent so much time keeping him safe. Still, what a weird day this had been so far.