Left In a Demon's Care
Xelloss appeared in the front room of her home unbidden, but, then, no one intentionally invited a demon into their home. The fire in the hearth was out. A thick coating of dust coated his gloved finger as he ran it across the rickety table centered in the room.
"Neglected," he concluded as he scanned the compact living room for its occupant. A few steps took him past a worn couch to the tiny kitchen where the deep sink was brimming with dirty dishes. Nothing was on the stove and a quick check proved the cupboards were truly bare.
He heard a grunt and a sniffle from the far end of the tiny cottage. "Lina, is that you?"
He pushed open the only door, opening into a dark room. The curtains were drawn, the air stale. He didn't feel particularly threatened, and yet he entered the room warily. He played it safe, as distrustful of humans as they were of him.
"Lina? Are you home?"
The dark, little form hunched under the covers coughed, a repeated, ragged hack. In a hoarse voice she answered, "Xelloss? What are you doing here?"
His shoulders relaxed as he recognized his human acquaintance. "Looking for you, Miss Lina. I discovered a most interesting place I thought you'd want to know about."
He was about to delve into a fascinating story sure to delight, captivate, and enthrall his audience, when he was interrupted by a sneeze followed by a repeat of the coughing fit. He waited politely for her to settle down, and then continued.
"Actually it's some distance away–"
"Oh, shuttup, will you! I don't give a damn about whatever's eating you. Can't you tell I'm sick? I haven't eaten for days. I'm miserable."
And at the starving look in her eyes, he stepped back a ways in case she was crazy enough to chew on him. "Sick? You are ill. Yes, well... I feel obligated to point out that you have the ability to heal yourself. And, although I appreciate the vibes, you appear to be suffering needlessly."
He could feel her blind anger targeting his person as she choked out, "If I could, don't you think I would have by now? Do you think it hadn't occurred to me? I, ah--"
Her further retort was cut off by another attack of coughing and sneezing. Xelloss stood and stared, wondering how he would be able to carry out his planned activities without her cooperation. It would take years to locate and prepare an alternative human of her level of magic, if it was possible at all. He really had no choice; he had to get her medical help immediately.
"I see. Well, I will employ a doctor from the nearest town and return as soon as possible."
"No! Don't go!"
"Pardon? Miss Lina, you know I can't offer you a cure."
"Don't be an idiot! Of course not, but you can get me a glass of water– wait, I'm cold– make that a pot of tea. Why's it so cold in here?"
He approached her bed and leaned over, removing one glove, then pushed her damp bangs off her forehead and laid a cool palm upon her clammy forehead. He recoiled with a look of disgust. "You have a fever, I'm afraid. You must be experiencing chills, not to mention that it is the middle of winter, so that with the fire out your house is nearly as cold as a witch's teat."
"What do you know about witches' teats?" she grumbled.
"Oh, I know quite a lot about them– witches, sorceresses, mammilla, nipples–"
His eyes glittered with amusement as they roved over her chest, her breasts darkly visible beneath her nearly transparent gown. His smile out-shined his hair in the flickering candle light. How he loved toying with this human girl!
The blood rose to Lina's cheeks, supplementing her fever-flush as she yanked the covers to her chin. "Keep your nasty thoughts to yourself. I know you don't lust after humans, Xelloss, and any meal you get at my expense will cost you ten-fold later when I'm well, so you better shape up and shut up and then you can take care of me. Go on! Start the fire! Make me some tea! You know how to be useful, don't you?"
"Useful? Well, not particularly..."
"Then learn, damnit! Or, are you so inferior to us humans that you can't learn to provide care for a girl with a cold?"
Xelloss' pride was stung. He straightened abruptly, saying, "I can follow directions. Fire you say? Tea? Just a moment."
He quick-stepped from her bedroom out into the main room. There he magically made a fire roar up the chimney with only a thought. He disappeared, and reappeared instantly holding a sack of provisions, hopefully enough to satiate Lina for a few minutes, if she wasn't too weak to cook for herself.
"Teapot. I don't see a teapot." But he knew where to find one. He transported directly to the home and business of an old acquaintance.
"Miss Filia, sorry to interrupt, but Miss Lina is ill and needs tea. Ah, I see what I need. Tea, too. Thank you, I'll return this later," he promised, waving the "borrowed" tea set as he disappeared and before she had the chance to recover from the shock of the demon's sudden appearance.
He dumped an unmeasured portion of the fragrant leaves into the pot, filled it with water, and then willed it to a boiling temperature. "I suppose this will have to sit and soak awhile." He was talking to himself, now. How embarrassing!
He checked the fire, heat blasting like dragon's breath from the hearth, and the tea, turning gold like a dragon's scales, and he felt terribly competent. He called out, "Feeling warmer yet?"
"I'm burning up!"
Xelloss walked into her room. "That's the fever, as I said before. Chills, then heat. It goes back and forth like that, at least is has with all the sick and dying humans I've observed. Anyway, I can assure you it's perfectly comfortable in the house."
"I need water," she croaked.
"Water, I see. Just a moment." This time he simply filled an empty, semi-clean glass from the– "Where's the water? Oh, no matter."
He supposed Lina used a pump at a well, but he wasn't about to ask her about that and he didn't see one. Instead, he transported to a stream, filled the glass, and reappeared in her room. "Here, fresh and cold."
She emptied it in a single gulp. "More."
As he watched her swallow her second glass he also noticed a veil of darkness filling the room. It was his turn to cough. Smoke continued to drop lower.
"Didn't you open the flue?" Lina asked.
His blank look told her "no."
"Inside the chimney is a lever. When it's closed the cold air can't come in, when it's open the smoke goes up and out."
"Ahhh–" Xelloss dashed into the front room, creating a clear path to the brick fireplace with a wind spell, then reached in, oblivious of the heat which couldn't damage his human-form skin, and grabbed the iron handle of the flue. With a hard yank, he wrenched it shut, providing the smoke a new place to go. He ran to the windows and opened them while dispelling the lingering smoke with another spell. The house was smoke-free, but chilly as a grave once again.
"Tea," he remembered. He poured the lukewarm nearly black liquid into a chipped cup he found on the windowsill and carried it into Lina's room. "While you're drinking this, I'll fix dinner."
Lina took one sip and spat out the liquid, and not a few leaf fragments, coughing. "Ugh! That's terrible. How long did you steep the tea before straining out the leaves?"
"Strain?" He realized at that moment that taking care of this human would be more of a challenge than he had supposed.
"Yes, and before you start cooking anything, you'll have to wash the dishes, heh heh," she chuckled, embarrassed knowing the condition in which she had left the kitchen. "And then I think you'd better check with me."
"You don't trust me to cook?"
"Have you ever cooked for a person before? A human? A human you didn't wish to kill?"
"Then no, I don't."
Xelloss grew thoughtful a moment, making a quick decision. "I'll pick up a soup for you from town, then– for something quick, you understand."
He wasn't going to fail at this mission. He chose the best restaurant, exerted both his charm and his ingenuity to convince the chef to sell him a "take-out" portion, and immediately transported the aromatic brew to Lina's bedroom. He stood, holding the steaming pot while Lina cleared her bedside table with a singe swipe of her arm. He winced at the piles of detritus accumulating on the floor, crawling with her germs. That couldn't be doing her any good, he thought.
"That sure smells great, though chicken soup is the sick-person soup of choice, you know."
"No, I didn't."
"Don't look so hurt, Xelloss. This you managed to do okay." She slurped down the soup, pausing breifly to look up at him. "What?"
"Are you getting well?"
"Well? Like over this cold? Hell, no! It could take weeks, who knows?"
His voice rose an octave. "Weeks!"
"Yes, weeks, or days. It depends on how good my nurse is."
"Your nurse... being me?"
"You could give up and call a friend–"
"No, that won't be necessary."
It would not do to have too many people involved; they might try to talk her out of going on his little adventure later. No, the fewer the better. He would have to put out a little more effort than he had been up to this point. The first course of action: get rid of the germs, and the room was teaming with them. He knew Lina was healthy when she was traveling outside, so fresh air and light was in order. He flung open the heavy, dusty drapes and jimmied the window open a few inches.
"AHHHH!" Lina howled and tossed the soup pot and the last remnants of its soup into the air.
Xelloss ducked under the flying pot, which missed his head by sheer inches. "What's the matter?"
"The soup! Ugh... that awful thing in my soup. What kind did you say it was?"
"It was the chef's specialty: Escargot. I thought you liked it." He bent to pick up the pot and began stuffing it with trash.
"That's snails! I hate them! Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate all manner of slimy, nasty... ugh..."
Her exertion tired her out.
"Well, damn. Now you've made the mess in here worse." He stood, glaring down at her arms akimbo. He couldn't take the rubbish, and so continued collecting and stashing it away.
Lina cracked open her eyes to observe Xelloss' antics. "What are you going to do with those rags?"
"Burn them. They are full of germs. You will continue re-infecting yourself if you keep these things around."
"But I need something to blow my nose on," she whined piteously.
"I will find clean ones." He crinkled up his nose. This was servant's work! "This place is dirty, not that it bothers me personally, but if I'm to nurse you back to health I must find a way to remove the filth." He thought deeply a second for an easy solution, but cleanliness and tidiness were not his magical métier.
"There's a bucket and soap under the sink and a pump around back, near the..." She paused to yawn, using her hand to indicate in which direction, possibly, he might look.
"You should get some rest. Don't you worry. I'll find everything I need."
"'Kay..." She turned over and fell instantly asleep.
"Well, that's good. At least you're not worrying about me. Now, to clean."
Xelloss quickly discovered that his hair was in his way. Removing one of the ties from his ankles, he wrapped the yellow fabric across his forehead and around his head. His gloves, staff and cape he discarded in the corner of the front room. Taking Lina's advice, he checked under the sink and came up with a large bucket, scrubbing tools– never used– and cleansing soaps in boxes with instructions.
"Now, this is more like it. Incantations." He scrunched up his brow and read carefully. "Water, hot, pour in a "liberal" amount of... got it. Liberal, that means to be generous. Sounds easy."
He found the water pump and filled the bucket. Using a simple spell, he set the bucket afloat on the air and directed it back to the house. There, he fired off a spell, bringing the water to an instant roiling boil. He had been rather free-handed with the soap, however, so that with the agitation and heat a chemical reaction exploded, producing volumes of bubbles. Foam flew about the room and on Xelloss.
"Ah, well, shit." He shook the soap from his clothes and returned to the kitchen, wondering what he should use to sop up the mess. He discovered nothing that advertised itself as an immediate solution. "I had better finish removing the trash and see if I don't find something under it."
Ten minutes later, Xelloss was standing in the back yard facing a blackened mass of smoldering refuse, burned beyond recognition, a smile of satisfaction plastered on his face. Destruction was more his style. Although the chaos of the house was comforting, it was not what he had intended, and there was no fooling himself that his task was getting any closer to completion. At this rate, Lina's cold might worsen into a serious illness that would knock her out of commission for weeks, months even. That wouldn't do. He would require a trained professional to clean the house. He went inside and quickly checked on Lina's condition. She was still sleeping.
"No change," he determined in a flash. "If I'm lucky, hell, I'm always lucky, when I need it, then I'll get this resolved before she wakes up."
He ran a finger along her smooth, pale cheek, applying a light sleeping spell, just to make certain his "luck" held, before tossing on his cloak and transporting to town. First, he returned the soup pot, and used the opportunity to question the chef.
"You brought it back?" the chef smiled in surprise. "Did you like it?"
"It was excellent, thank you. Perhaps you can help me again. I need an expert at cleaning houses. And a cook– for a day."
"On your own, eh? The little lady left you?" He gave Xelloss an understanding pat on the shoulder.
"Oh, no! She's sick in bed with a cold."
"Oh, of course. What man wouldn't want a housekeeper, to have all that taken care of for him? Wouldn't choose to do it myself, well, except the cooking, but I do that all the time. Well, I have good news for you. I have two daughters, hard workers, who could use some extra money. You and I will work out the details. I'll get the dishwasher boy to go get them– they're next door at the inn."
The most tedious, time-consuming part of the exchange was the walk home. He couldn't very well teleport the girls, their supplies and himself directly to Lina's without terrifying them. They chattered and giggled, whispered between them about how cute he was and who would get him, and annoyed him all the way with their bubbly, upbeat attitudes. He was amused and not a little surprised that they were attracted to him, but he was getting a bad taste in his mouth. He was close to throttling them both for relief, when the house appeared in a parting of the trees.
"This way," he said, beckoning them inside with a flourish.
Once inside, the sisters were all business. They understood how to wash the walls, mop the floor, scrub the dishes, and polish the windows until they were transparent again. Xelloss watched, fascinated by the tools and effort required to remove all traces of dirt. They knew to be quiet as they sterilized Lina's bedroom and bathroom. Their extreme caution wasn't necessary, although Xelloss didn't tell them he was supplementing Lina's sleep with a spell, because he enjoyed the quiet. Lina never stirred and the work got done, pleasing Xelloss enormously.
Most interesting to him was what was going on in the kitchen. In less than an hour, the two girls had a cauldron of beef stew simmering on the back burner, while another burner held a stockpot of chicken soup. Proper tea was ready for the addition of water and one of the young ladies had written out explicit instructions for its preparation. The icebox was stocked with fruit juices, important for Lina' recovery, they said. They made it appear easy, which it was for humans long-used to the chores.
The construction of a delectable layer cake, taking form magically before his eyes from such simple basic compounds, fascinated the demon.. Six tender layers of snow white cake were separated by alternating fillings of sweet berry jam and custardy cream. Carefully, like an artist, one of the girls applied a coating of rich butter cream frosting, thick and generous, swirling it on top attractively.
"If I had fresh berries, I'd use them," she said. "But this time of year, they're not to be had, are they?"
"I can get some," Xelloss said. "Does it matter what kind?"
"Strawberries!" They both exclaimed together.
He stepped out the front door, and onto the astral plane, reappearing in a different clime, a different town. He located the town's market and in no time was the proud owner of several baskets of berries, the best, he was told. Back he transported to Lina's front door, and when inside, was greeted by the two surprised and pleased young ladies.
Gleefully, to his dismay– their cheer was nearly overwhelming his demon shielding at times– the berries were taken up, washed and used to embellish the delicious cake. He struggled to keep up his smiling visage as they hugged him and twittered.
"Yes, yes," he said pushing them off. "You've done a marvelous job. Yes, everything's turned out just I wanted. The food smells delightful. I'm certain Miss Lina will enjoy eating it all."
"Is she your...wife?' asked one of the girls, confused.
"Oh, no! I'm unmarried."
Admitting that had been a mistake he discovered immediately when they took turns batting their eyes and posing again, as if, he believed, to attract his eye. He found them far more annoying than he should have; they were merely human girls that he could wipe out with a flick of a finger. Remembering that fact, he regained his usual aplomb.
"She is... a close friend. Very close, in fact, we are engaged."
The lie was easy. Why not pretend an intimacy that could possibly occur, if he were a human? He gazed down at Lina, her delicate little hand curled on the coverlet, deceptively frail. He needed her to complete his mission, but he also enjoyed her company, he admitted to himself.
"Oh," said one, disappointed. "Well, she should appreciate this cake. It's a special one for Valentine's Day, which is tomorrow, as I'm sure you know."
No, he didn't. "Is it an important festival?" he asked.
"Oh! Yes!" they each answered.
They took turns explaining the holiday's significance. "You see, Valentine was a shrine priest who perform marriages to couples no other shrines would allow."
"You know, like if families were feuding, or the couple was of the improper classes–" one began.
"Like the son of the master of the house and his parlormaid," the other added, sighing, starry-eyed.
"Or different races their families might find undesirable, those kinds of problems."
Xelloss raised his eyebrows, "Different races?"
"It's so romantic!" they agreed together.
"And now, we celebrate with shows of love, like a nice meal."
"And gifts, like jewelry!"
"And romantic poems written in cards."
Xelloss could stand the emotional outburst no longer. "I see. Yes, thank you. I get the idea. Well, thank you for all you have done. I'm sure Miss Lina will improve greatly for here on out. Let me set you on your way here, yes this way to the door– And your pay, with a bonus if you go...right...now!"
He slammed the door, back flat against it, eyes shut. He was feeling drained, but it was done, all done. Now he could face Lina when she awoke and prove his worthiness. No, he meant he would prove his race could achieve everything her human race could, and more– and better!
He shook off the strange feelings creeping over him, then froze. He could hear Lina scuffling around in her bedroom, a door closing, most likely to the bathroom, and reopening a few minutes later. She was awake! When he went in to see what she needed, Lina was back in her bed, still very weary looking.
"Water," she croaked.
"How about juice?"
She drank three glasses, handed him the glass, and drifted to sleep moments later. He was disappointed that Lina was not completely well by now. Of course he knew better. He was being over-hopeful and unreasonable, but he wasn't feeling reasonable. He couldn't completely excuse his behavior, his desire to stay with Lina and nurse her to health, or his repeated determination to involve her in his activities and include her in every job he was ordered to carry out. His logic flew out the window and his passions flared the longer he remained in her presence.
Knowing this weakness, but dismissing it, Xelloss pulled up a chair near her bedside and sat, preferring to watch her breathe to anything else. His world contracted to this single room; the steady breathing, the tiny sighs, the expression of calm on her face, all eased his mind. It was undeniable and inexplicable. Possibly it was also dangerous.
She didn't move until the next day. She stood in the center of the house, turning slowly, taking in all the improvements. With the clean windows and washed curtains, the wan midwinter sun streamed in. The clean, fresh smell, the dancing, sensible flames in the fireplace, and the sparkling floors were the next things that caught her attention. But the food, warming on the stove was a wonder beyond her wildest dreams.
"How did you do all this?"
"It was nothing. What? You don't believe I did it?"
"Oh, I can see you got it done, but...well, it doesn't matter how, does it? This is just great, Xelloss. Ah, I'm starving, can we eat?"
"Might as well, why wait?"
He joined her at the table, carrying the dishes, first, then the two pots. He simply set them on the table; Lina would empty them into her gut faster that way.
"I'm pleased to see your appetite is normal. Are you feeling better today?"
She nodded between bites. "Lots. More food like this and rest... I slept great last night."
"You'll be well soon you think?" he asked, leaving the table to retrieve the dessert surprise.
"Yeah, a few more days." She patted her belly contentedly, her eyes lighting up when he returned, carrying the tall, beautiful confection. "What's that?"
"Your, ah, Valentine's Day dessert. I was told it's an important holiday, for lovers."
"For lovers? Oh!" She gasped, blushing with embarrassment.
"And while you eat, I'll tell you about this terribly exciting find I made the other day. I think you'll want to come see it for yourself."
"Is there treasure involved?" Lina was recovering nicely.
"Oh yes, and adventure, and... possibly a little danger as well."
"Oh, I'll bet. Why else would you want me along?"
"Why?" He smiled warmly and leaned back in his chair, his fingers intertwining under his chin. "Seeing you smile at me like that, well... to be honest, several new reasons come to mind."
"Erk?" she nearly collapsed where she sat. "I think this Valentine's Day stuff has gone to your head."
"That's one rationalization, certainly." His smile grew with her discomfort.
Yes, Lina was continuing to be an interesting assignment; one that Xelloss couldn't wait to explore more deeply. Perhaps someday he would.