Fantasy Horror Humor Matchmaking household magic witch demon Dating

Domestic Arrangements

By Tim McDaniel
May 1, 2018 · 6,501 words · 24 minutes

Photo by Bee Felten-Leidel via Unsplash.

From the author: Bub, Smoke, Stain, Scratch and Scrape have a problem: their witch mistress really enjoys causing them pain. Maybe if they could find a mate for her, things would get better...


            "Bebub!"  Cruella was screeching for me again.  I'd been polishing the mirror, mirror, on the wall, trying to stay out of her way -- her upcoming date really had her edgy, and I knew what she was liable to do in a state like that.  Cruella does tend to take her assumed name way too seriously.  But, as Smoke loves to remind me, I'm the one who brought that damned video back from one of my uptime jaunts.  Anyway, as soon as she shrieked for me I was duty-bound to bound upstairs to her chamber.

            I know -- it's my own fault.  Cross a witch with one little practical joke, and the authorities assign you to her for five hundred years, subjective.  I wouldn't mind quite so much if she didn't screech all the time.

            Just before I opened the door, she screeched again, her voice vibrating the very bricks of the old castle.

            "Buuuub!"

            "Here, Mistress," I said, entering the chamber. Cruella sat before her dressing table, one hand clutching a brush and the other entangled in masses of black hair, a single glaring eye visible through the tresses.  I noticed Smoke up against the ceiling in a corner, trying to be invisible.  I could hear Scratch and Scrape clicking their claws nervously from under the bed, also smart enough to stay out of sight.  Of those of us fortunate enough to call ourselves her servants, only Stain seemed unworried by Cruella's temper.  Then again, it's not so easy to read emotions in a red-brown blotch on a wall.

            "Bub, I can't do a thing with...this!"  Cruella threw the brush across the room, hitting a leg of the end table where she kept her skull collection.  The skulls started clattering their teeth; I'd have to calm them down later.

            "Scrape, get that!"  Scrape scuttled out from under the bed and scurried over to the brush. He seized it in a trembling claw and clacked over to her.  Clambering up the side of the dressing table, he left the brush within easy reach, then scuttled back to his hiding place.

            "Your hair, Mistress?" I said.

            "Of course my hair!"

            "Shall I help you brush it, Mistress?" That's what I would really love to do, spend my Saturday afternoon brushing that mess, stinking of oils and witchsweat.

            "I've been brushing it," she wailed.  "It's all over the place.  And I have my date tonight!"

            Ah, yes.  She had finally maneuvered the Fire Demon of Zarzakzir into a corner; he'd have to make his move.  And when a demon makes his move, they generally move all the way.  As in move in with us.  The poor guy had no idea of the hell that awaited him.

            I had considered throwing him a word, but he was just so damned snooty.

            Besides, it would be nice to have another target for Cruella's rages.

            "I need some shampoo, Bub."

            Was that all?  I would have breathed a sigh of relief had Cruella not been present. "Of course, Mistress," I said. "Would Mistress prefer something of local manufacture?  Or I suppose I could take a jaunt uptime, get some Prell or VO-5 or that no-tears--"

            "Neither!"

            "Neither, Mistress?"

            "Neither.  I need something special for tonight.  I got a recipe for a concoction from the Fiend of the Chasm a few days ago, when he was over here borrowing the nymph blood.  Now where did I leave it?"  Cruella twisted and turned in her chair, casting about for the recipe. "Smoke?"

            "It has fallen behind the wardrobe, Mistress," came Smoke's cloudy whisper.

            "Well what's it doing there?  Scrape, Scratch, get it!"

            Scrape and Scratch scuttled out from under the bed and scurried over to the wardrobe.  Scratch squeezed behind it, and after a moment sent a scrap of paper flying out.  Scrape snatched it up and scrambled over to Cruella.

            "Not me, you fool!  Give it to Bub!"  So Scrape scampered over to me, and I bent down to take the note.  Scrape scooted under the bed; Scratch joined him after he had worked himself free from behind the wardrobe.

            "Well?  Get to work, Bub!  I need that gel now!"

            "Right away, Mistress."  I bowed myself out of her room and went downstairs.  I sat down in the comfy chair in front of the fireplace, the list before me.  "OK, then," I muttered.  "Let's see what the old witch needs this time."

            "A difficult job?"

            I looked up, to see Smoke hovering over my head. "Smoke!  How is that you're no longer required to dance attendance on her majesty?"

            "I am."  Then I noticed that Smoke had left a vapor trail of himself, all the way back upstairs to her chamber.

            "Bright boy.  Could you light the fire?  I can hardly make this list out.  I'll never understand why witches like it so damned dark.  Back home, why, we know how to keep a place lit up, I'll tell you that."

            "Don't think about it," Smoke advised. "You'll just get all maudlin again."  He ghosted through the wood stacked in the fireplace, and a blaze sprang up.

            "Thanks, Smoke."  I looked at the note.  "OK. We need the death rattle of a hero. That should be no problem.  A dragon's beak.  Hell, so now we have to work with mythical and improbable monsters? Hey, Smoke, what dictionary does the Fiend of the Chasm use?  Big Bernie's?"

            "That's right."

            "So the Triceratops beaks we have in that bin in the basement will do.  The last, futile hope for true love.  Well, we're practically swimming in that.  There's plenty in the pantry, right, Smoke?"

            "Yes, four jars."

            "Great.  I can cross that off.  What else do we have here?"  I really need to get some glasses.  "Hair from a pen.  I got that quill from Sun Tzu around here somewhere, if I can lay my claws on it. A string from a world-famed uncrowned king.  We'll use one from that guitar Cruella 'borrowed' from that colonel guy."

            I heard the chamber door open.

            "Shit.  Is she coming down, Smoke?"

            "No.  Just Scrape and Scratch, and the rest of me.  Stain's down here now, too.  Cruella says she needs to relax alone."

            "So she has her bottle out."

            "I imagine."  I heard Scratch and Scrape skipping down the stairs, tripping over each other's claws, and I turned in time to see them land in a tangle at the foot.

            "Gather round here for a sec, everyone.  Family meeting.  There's something I want to talk about."

            Scratch and Scrape scampered over, and Stain appeared on the wall behind them.

            "This particular date of her witchness," I said, "is especially important.  Tonight's the night when, according to accepted convention, he should pop the question."

            I looked at Smoke.  I knew he was thinking the same thing I did.  I slipped off the chair and crouched down next to Scratch and Scrape.

            "Understand this.  This goes off well, and she hooks her demon, we'll all be just that much safer," I whispered.  "There'll be another target for her to focus on, and she'll have less time for us. Less time for the skewerings, lashings, boilings, broilings, and twistings.  Not so many eye-gougings or heart-rupturings.  Less time in the ice pit.  Perhaps as few as three flayings a month.  A month.  Do you two fully understand just what is at stake here?"

            The little dimwits actually seemed to get it. They bobbed up and down excitedly and chittered away.

            "Smoke?"

            "I fully understand.  What can we do to help?"

            "Good question."  I rubbed my pointy chin.  "It seems to me the first step is gathering intelligence.  In spite of the fact that our mistress has been seeing this guy for some time now, we really know very little about him.  Aside from the fact that he lives in the Fire Pits, just past the run-down section, and has incomprehensible taste in women."

            "We haven't seen that much of him," said Smoke.  "She's never had him over before.  They always meet at the Monthly Scrapings or hang out in the Void Swamp."

            "I know.  But it would really help to know what foods he loves or hates, or his musical preferences, the torture devices he's especially fond of -- anything that could give us a leg up.  We've been lax, and there's not a moment more to be lost.  Smoke, why don't you wisp over to his place, and take a peek?  See if you can see anything useful."

            "I'm really not supposed to leave the grounds--"

            "I'll make up some excuse if she asks.  Just a quick peek, that's all.  All we need is a clue to his behavior, his likes and dislikes, to help Cruella push him over the edge of the marital abyss."

            "Well, if you think it would be of help..."

            "I do.  Begone, already!"

            Smoke was soon a contrail.  I could see him through a cobwebbed window, heading over the blasted forest towards the Fire Pits.

            I started preparing Cruella's shampoo, and Scratch and Scrape amused themselves playing snip-the-carcass.  Both cheated, of course, and after every round they'd slash away at one another, but at least the game kept them underfoot while I worked, and I could accidentally step on a leg or pincer without being too obvious about it.

            Stain manifested himself on the far wall, then on the ceiling, and once on the floor, perilously close to Scrape and Scratch's game. I watched them out of the corner of my eye, but they noticed Stain there before they tumbled into him, and moved their game a ways off.  Stain manifested himself above the fireplace after that.

            Finally Smoke returned, slipping down the chimney and into the room.

            "I saw something," he said.  "I think it's quite useful."

            "Great!" I said.  "Scape!  Scratch! Get your shells over here and listen up."  They skittered over.  I jumped down from the stool in front of the big pot and wiped my hands on my apron. "Go on, Smoke.  What did you see?"

            "The Fiend was on his hands and knees --"

            "Praying for deliverance from Cruella?"

            "No, Bub.  He was cleaning."

            "Cleaning?"

            "Yes.  With a bucket and rags and sponges.  Soapy water."

            I thought for a moment.  I took a deep breath.  "Well," I said slowly, "I suppose even fiends, when the clutter gets too bad, the drippings get too deep, have to tidy things up somewhat. Strange behavior, I admit, but still --"

            "No," Smoke said.  "His place looked spotless already!  He was scrubbing a floor that Scratch could skate on.  Not a speck of dirt or a decomposing corpse in sight!"

            I sat on the floor.  "Wow.  Smoke, if you're right --"

            "Isawit!"

            "-- then this poor sap is even sicker than I thought.  Scratch, Scrape, you're kind of young to hear this kind of talk, but we must.  I've heard about these guys.  He must be what they call a 'clean freak.'  Nothing more unnatural or twisted."

            I stood up.  "Well, that's actually very useful, Smoke.  Now we know how to impress this guy.

            "Fellow inmates, we've got to clean this place up! Scour and rinse and sweep and wash and straighten up.  Scratch, Scrape, get started.  I'll help you out as soon as I've finished this damn shampoo."

            Scratch and Scrape bowed up and down a few times, then began scuttling around, snatching up small bones from under the coffee table to toss into the fire, and rolling empty beer bottles out from under the sofa to put in the recycle bin.  Meanwhile, I got back on my stool and continued mixing up the shampoo.  It smelled vile.  Cruella would love it.

            Then I heard an awful high-pitched chirping and squealing noise.

            "What the heck is that?"

            "Scratch and Scrape have found a rat.  Under the loveseat."

            "Oh?  This ought to be entertaining."  I wiped my hands on a dishtowel and jumped down from my stool for a view of the festivities.  Scrape had a firm pinch on the rat's tail, and Scratch had a nice grip on one of the rat's forelegs, and they were playing tug-of-war.  The rat vented his displeasure, trilling up and down his register.

            "Come on, Scrape!  You can do it!" I encouraged him.

            "Scratch, yank that thing!" said Smoke.

            Then Scratch lost his grip -- he'd carelessly pinched off the rat's foot -- and when Scrape tried to get a better hold himself, the rat was free for an instant.

            It made full use of its freedom, dashing out from under the loveseat, leaving tiny beadlets of blood on the floor every time the stump of a foot came down.  Scrape and Scratch gave mad chase.  They all skittered across the floor, to the left, then to the right, under the coffee table, under my stool, then around the big floorvat.

            Scrape and Scratch were having a fine time tormenting the creature.  The panic of the rat, now almost mindless in terror, was a tangy perfume in the air. I was grinning from ear to ear, as they say (which in my case is literally true) and Smoke was laughing himself sick.  Stain had materialized on the wall next to the fireplace, and I thought even he might be enjoying the fun.

            Finally S and S had the rat trapped against a folding screen, and I thought the game was over.  But as they closed in, the rat performed an amazing leap, straight up. He landed behind the duo and hit the floor running, heading for the opposite wall.

            Straight towards Stain.

            "Kids!  Watch it!" I yelped, and Scrape and Scratch sclattered to a stop inches from the wall.

            The rat wasn't so lucky.  It smacked into Stain and disappeared, just like that, with a little poof and a small cloud of acrid smoke.  Then Scratch and Scrape went looking for something else to do.

            "Oh," I said, wiping a tear away.  "Good times.  Good times.  But back to work."  I clambered up on my stool and took up the list again.  "Let's see.  Eighteen cups of raspberry juice.  A first sin."  I added them to the pot.  "Scape and Scratch, I don't hear you guys cleaning!"

            Finally the shampoo was done.  It was as sticky as tar and as pungent as a trollfart, and it clung to my arms all the way up to my first elbows.  I tried wiping it off, but the rags only smeared it around.  In the end I just stuck my arms into the fire, and let the flames lick them clean.

            "Time to take the shampoo up to her witchship," I told Smoke.  "Can you peek under her door and see if she is conscious?"

            Smoke drifted up the stairs, and half a second later reappeared, just as Cruella's bedroom door slammed open. "Bub!" she shrieked. "Where's that shampoo?"

            "She saw me," Smoke whispered.  "I swear, she must have been staring right at the bottom of the door when I ghosted under--"

            "Never mind, Smoke.  No rest for the wicked."

            I picked up the pot of shampoo and hurried up the stairs.  "Coming, Mistress!"

            She was sitting on her bed, her hair a rat's nest fanning out from her head -- no, that's not fair to the rats I've known. They shit outsidethe nest.  I think.  Well, if they don't, then they should.

            Her eyes were red and unfocused, eyelids drooping, her mouth slack, her lips black.  She slumped, an empty bottle dangling from one hand.

            "Your shampoo, Mistress."

            It took her a moment to register my presence. Then she looked up, and her eyes began to track.

            "I want that damn shampoo, Bub!  Get started.  Now!"

            "It's already finished, Mistress.  Shall I assist you in applying it, or would you prefer--"

            "It's done?  Then give it to me and get the hell out!"

            Happy to oblige.

            "And get the damn place ready for the visit! Cook something.  Hide the you-know-whats and those magazines.  Get Scratch and Scrape off their asses!"

            "Yes, Mistress.  In fact, acting on a tip that the fiend likes a tidy household, they're already--"

            "Don't give me any excuses.  Just do it!  I've got a vat boiling, if anyone slacks off!"

            "Yes, Mistress."  I bowed myself out, closing the door softly behind me.

            Downstairs, everyone was still, waiting to hear my report. "She's been into her bottle, deep," I said.  "But we have a little time, now she's doing her hair.  I want this place spotless!"

            Bad choice of words.  You just don't want to piss off a splotch.  "I didn't mean you, Stain.  You know that.  But really, we've let the place go to pot.

            "Scratch, see what you can do about that bloodstain on the floor."  Who knew the skin of a simple villager enclosed so much of the red stuff? "And Scrape, will you pleaseclean out your litterbox?  It's been at least six months.  I'm getting tired of asking!"

            The two scuttled off.  I found the old ratty featherduster behind one of the iron maidens and started on Cruella's fingerbone collection on the piano.

            "Look at Stain."  Smoke spoke so quietly I hardly heard him.

            "Huh?"  I looked around.  Stain had manifested on the far wall.  "Is he actually--"

            "Eating some of the mildew, yes."

            "Stain -- helping clean up!  I never!"  I turned back to the fingerbones, and after I finished dusting them I started cleaning up the kitchen, putting leftover rat poisons into tupperware and sweeping this morning's cereal bowls into the sink.

            "Stain must want this meeting to go well."

            "Yeah, Smoke, I guess it's unanimous.  We all want that royal witch off our hides." I began scraping at the accumulated layers of blood and soot on the kitchen fireplace pokers.

            "Wish I could do something to help," said Smoke.

            "You did a lot, Smoke, finding out about the fiend's dirty little secret.  Hey, could you check and see if Scrape has cleaned the litterbox yet?"

            "Sure."

            I eyed the sticky mass in front of the sink. Damn that Cruella.  You just can't melt someone in your kitchen, then leave the scum to fester.  The gooey mess had seeped between the bricks.  It wouldn't be fun to scrub that floor.

            Smoke trailed back into the kitchen. "Hate to tell you this, Bub, but Scrape--"

            "I kinda figured."  I glared at the floor again.  "I keep telling her to get linoleum!  Well, let's see what Scrape has done."

            Scape was crouching in the middle of the living room, his litterbox clutched in one claw.  From the gloomy corner under the stairs where his litterbox had been, to where he was now awaiting punishment, was a trail of little round turds and clumped kitty litter.

            "Yeah.  Scape, when I told you to clean out your litterbox, I didn't mean for you to spread its contents all over the floor.  Perhaps I wasn't clear?  You want me to manifest something hot and prickly under your carapace?"

            Scrape began -- well -- scraping at the dung, smearing it into the floor.

            "Scrape--!"

            "Bub!"  Ah, that familiar wail.

            "Yes, Mistress!"  I took the stairs double-time.

            My noble mistress was bent over a vat, her hair still glistening and fizzing with the shampoo and hanging in her eyes.

            "Mistress?"

            "That you?  Finally!  Help me, Bub! This shampoo -- it's stinging my eyes! Do something!"

            I got a pan of water and dribbled it down onto her face.  "Blink, Mistress.  It will help."

            "But it stings!"

            Not enough.  "Yes, Mistress."

                                                                            

            I thought about all the delicious things I would do to Cruella if I ever had her in my power.  The extractions, the wrenchings, the lawnmowers.  Pleasant thoughts.  My happy place.

                                                                            

            Finally Cruella stopped whimpering, and when she looked in the mirror she found she rather liked the puffy crimson of her abused eyes, so she decided the stinging was worth it.  Just like when she tweaks her eyebrows or pulls out her toenails.

            The lathering was well underway, and I was able to slip out and see what was going on downstairs.

            Smoke was hanging around above the fireplace, hoping to blend in with the soot -- never a good sign.

            I sighed.  "What is it, Smoke?"

            "I tried to tell them -- that vase was so precariously balanced --"

            Yep.  There in the dining room, the end table was overturned, and the vase in which Cruella kept her soul was shattered on the floor.   Fragments of ceramic were mixed with the pungent orange powder, and the powder was also mixed with something else -- some yellowish brown muck.  I stuck a finger in it.  Yep, it tasted like--

            "Scrape!  How the heck did you manage to track your dung in here?"

            Both Scratch and Scrape appeared from under the dish cabinet and made a show of affection, dipping and dancing like I'd been gone a thousand years, competing for my attention, scrabbling about my feet until I tenderly kicked them away.

            "Oh, you two!  Never mind how.  Scratch, get your little broom.  Scrape, the dustpan."

            One of the most valuable things I've brought back from my trips uptime was superglue, and I always kept plenty around. Not only was it a lot of fun on eyelids and nostrils and private parts, it came in handy in situations like this one. I began reassembling the vase.

            Scratch came back with the broom, and with Scrape holding the dustpan they managed to collect the powder and dung into a little pile. When I finished the vase -- a piece was missing, but if I put that side against the wall, just so -- I put the mess back in.

            "Now get a rag, and clean up what's still on the floor," I said.

            I smiled.  I kind of liked the idea that Cruella's soul was now blended with Scrape's poop.

            I went back to the living room and swept up the rest of the kitty-litter, and then began dusting.

            There was a crash from the dining room.

            "Smoke, could you..?"

            Smoke was back a moment later.  "They're taking care of it.  Just a potted plant."

            Probably the Venus flytrap.  "They'd better take care of it.  Next time I swear I'm going to flame on and hug them both real close to me until they start cooking inside their shells."

            That's when Cruella came downstairs.

                                                                            

            Well!  Her hair actually did look fine.  Some may say the Bride of Frankenstein look is out, but I maintain that the classics are timeless.  She'd slid herself into her slinkiest black dress, with the upturned crimson collar and the poofy shoulder pads.  She had the purple go-go boots on; I could never convince her that they just didn't match her outfits.  But she also wore the shrunken heads of two of her former boyfriends as earrings, which was a nice touch.

            No question about it -- Cruella was out to land this guy.

            And if she did -- if she did!  The possibility glittered before me.

            Another target, did I say earlier?  Far more!  An intimate companion would fray Cruella's nerves far more intensely than we mere servants.  A confidence murmured in an unguarded moment would give the demon ammunition for a thousand vicious asides.  And vice versa -- Cruella would be profoundly amused to dig out his secrets and indiscretions and forgotten kindnesses, and would be even happier to throw them in his faces.

            Oh, they would be a match made in -- well, That Place.

            And while the two of them were busy circling one another, censuring every deficiency and pushing every button, we -- Smoke, Stain, Scratch, Scrape, and little old me -- would be left alone. Maybe that blister on my back would have a chance to heal.  Maybe I could have the Imp of the Perverse over for a game of Monopoly once in a while.

            So help me, I actually teared up at the thought. I hoped Cruella didn't hear the drops sizzling and sputtering on my cheeks.

            Cruella looked around.  "Everything looks...cleaner, Bub."

            "Yes, Mistress."  I couldn't recall ever seeing the place so free of clutter and goop.

            "Why is that, Bub?"

            "Oh, I don't know, Mistress.  Every few years I give the place a good going-over.  I thought it was about time."

            She nodded suspiciously.  She walked past me on the way to the kitchen.

            And as she passed --

            There was something different about her. "Is that a new perfume, Mistress?"  Maybe it wasn't too late to get her to change it.  The smell was sour and moldy, acerbic and curdled.

            "What are you talking about?"  When she turned to face me the pungent odor washed over me.  Strong stuff.

            Why don't I learn to shut up?  "Your fragrance, Mistress."

            "I don't bother with that kind of stuff, Bub. You know that."

            Oh, right.  Ever since that vat erupted flaming vapors, and seared Cruella's nostrils.

            But oh, that stuff was strong.  And it reminded me of something.

            Oh, shit.

            Scrape's shit, specifically.  It was mixed in with her soul, now, and Cruella stank with it through and through.

            I wondered if the fiend had a sense of smell.

            I followed as Cruella stalked into the kitchen, and scrutinized the floor, the vats, the sink, the fridge.

            "I expect a superb dinner on the table tonight."

            "Of course, Mistress."

            "Because if you screw up, I know someone, and some things, that are going to really suffer."

            "Yes, Mistress."

            She came back into the living room and looked around.  Her gaze flicked past the soul vase, and I breathed again.  She walked over to the wall where Stain had manifested himself, and scratched at it with one long fingernail.  No mold.  I gave Stain a secret thumbs up.

            Sending Scratch and Scrape out to dunk themselves in the bathtub, I started preparing dinner.  They returned, dripping and chittering, just as I was putting a tray of dinner rolls into the oven.

            They shut up when Cruella came back into the room.

            "I'm almost impressed, you louts," she said. "The place really looks..." Her gaze had wandered over to the Venus flytrap.

            I looked, too.  It looked fine.  Scratch and Scrape had done a surprisingly good job at setting it to rights.

            But there -- on the floor -- a speck of dirt!

            "I thought you said you had cleaned up."

            "Yes, Mistress."  Just get it over with, I thought.

            "I don't know exactlywhyyou felt the need to do so, but in any case, when you do a job, you should do it fully.  I've always said so.  Do you agree?"

            "Of course, Mistress."

            "Of course.  And yet there's dirt on the floor.  Right there.  Do you see it?"

            She started off slowly, with just a sensation of electric spiderwebs enwrapping my body.  My spinal cord began to itch.  Then things got interesting.  She'd found a way to turn my bones inside out, slowly.  At the same time I noticed that my tail was curling around, and the tip inserted itself into my -- well, never mind the details.  Or the entrails.

            It really hurt.

            An age later, when I regained consciousness, I struggled to stand.  Scratch and Scrape were also moving a little, though shakily.  Wisps of steam emerged from under their shells.  All over the room I saw little whiffs of vapor; it would take a while for Smoke to collect himself.

            Stain, of course, was unaffected.  Lucky SOB.

            "Now, clean up properly," said Cruella.

            I hobbled over to the speck of dirt, Scratch and Scrape clattering behind me.  I bent over and licked the dirt up.

            Cruella was smiling.

            The oven timer dinged.  "Get the rolls out, Bub.  He'll be here any moment."

            "Yes, Mistress."

                                                                            

            "For almost twenty minutes, I didn't even know where I--"

            "I know, Smoke, I know.  It wasn't much fun for me either."  Smoke and I were whispering in the kitchen, with Scratch and Scrape scuttling about my feet.  In the dining room we could hear the sounds of conversation as Cruella vamped her guest.  "But we got to forget all that.  The Fire Demon is already here, and when we go out there he's going to see an alluring household filled with happy servants."  I wanted to grab Smoke and wring him.  "Happy servants, you all get that?  We've gotto make him want to stay!  Or all this will have been for nothing!"

            I glared at Smoke, then at Scratch, and then at Scrape, until they each signified agreement.

            And when we emerged from the kitchen, bearing our platters and bowls and beakers, I saw Cruella laughing, leaning forward, her hand on the demon's knee.  He seemed equally pleased, sitting there smoking, his tiny black moustache quivering as he snickered.

            But his pointed nose was quivering, too.  I pushed between them to set my platter on the table, forcing Cruella and her stench to back away from the victim.  I had to buy time.  Once the Demon signed the nuptial contract, it wouldn't matter what Cruella smelled like, but until that happened I had to keep them from getting too close together.

            "Ah, the food," Cruella said, giving me a quick glare.  I withdrew, bowing.  "Finally!  I do hope you'll find something here you enjoy, FD.  The butcher assured me that the kittens were fresh just this morning. And afterwards..."  Cruella's simper was a horror to behold.

            "Afterwards?"  The demon snickered again.  His voice was surprisingly high for such a big guy.  There were rumors that it once had been pitched lower.  He began to lean forward.

            The smell!  I dashed in between them.  "Some wine, Master?"

            The Fire Demon was taken aback, but presented his glass.  I filled it, and Cruella's glass, then backed off again, bowing low.

            "Your staff is most attentive," the Demon said.

            "Oh, they have their moments.  Bub here has been working his cute little tail off today, scrubbing the floor and everything."

            The Fire Demon curled a lip.  "I thought I noticed something -- a distressing lack of clutter and discolorations."

            I guessed he was trying to be funny.  I bowed low again.  "A Demon of your taste, Master, no doubt knows the value of cleanliness."  Hah! He would think we were simpatico, and by the time he realized how wrong he was, it would be too late!

            "Hardly," he sniffed.

            "Huh?" was all I could say.

            "Oh, I'll admit to doing some scrubbing myself. Since that unfortunate incident with the formaldehyde, you know, Cruella, I have been without a staff, myself."

            "Well, my own staff is attentive to my every need," Cruella said, sipping her wine.

            "Yes," the Demon continued, as if she hadn't spoken. "Why, just this morning I had to scour my kitchen floor -- me, myself!  While wallpapering my living room I had carelessly spilled a great deal of ichor, and I had to get rid of it before it ate away the house foundations. What a nuisance!  If there's one thing I hate -- well, of course there's more than one, but if there's one thing, cleaning is the top of the list.  And really, what's the point?  Things will just get dirty again."

            The Demon began looking pointedly at the suspiciously clean dining room.  Soon he would start to make comments, and after dinner I could just picture him walking through the rooms, sneeringly dragging a finger along immaculate countertops and noting with disdain that the floor didn't squelch.

            I had to do something.  Perhaps we had been a little overzealous.  Perhaps we had ruined this date, and our chance to include another victim in the household.  Still, I couldn't believe the situation was past saving.

            Wine, that would do it.  Wine cures everything.  It slops over the glasses and makes the floor sticky, and then makes one too drunk to notice unsullied walls and shelves.

            "More wine, Master?" I tiptoed forward.

            And saw that his glass was still full.

            "Would master perhaps prefer another vintage?"

            He looked full at me, his little red eyes sparking.  "No."

            "Something else, then, Master?  Scotch?  Vodka?" My brow was starting to sweat.  "We have a nice can of turpentine in the pantry. Or fairy blood?"

            "No."  He maintained his gaze, without blinking, and now I could feel sweat sliding down my back.

            "Mike's Hard Lemonade?" I asked desperately. "Grape soda?"

            The Demon looked at me a bit longer, than over at Cruella, who was herself sipping at her wine.  "It is really rather good," she said, and I could see that she herself was beginning to perspire.

            "Tell me, Cruella," the Demon said, "Do you trust your staff?"

            "Oh, implicitly.  They keep the torture chamber in good working order, keep the irons in the fire hot, defrag my computer.  Not that there isn't room for improvement, mind!  I'm sure you will have some wonderful suggestions." Cruella simpered and leaned forward, placing a hand on the Demon's hand, pale white against the red.

            He looked down at the hand.  Cruella removed it.

            "I'm not talking about their attentiveness to household chores," he said.  "I mean, do you trust them not to attempt to murder you?"

            Cruella attempted a laugh.  "Why--!  Of course not, dear!  With my death, they'd all be liberated!  I may be an old witch, but I'm not so foolish as that!"

            "And yet you allowed this one" -- he jerked his head in my direction -- "to pour your wine just now.  And you've been drinking it.  How do you know he hasn't poisoned you?"

            Darn it.  On any other day, of course I would have done just that.  This dinner party had rattled me more than I had thought. I had so wanted this date to go well.

            Destroyed by the spirit of selfless service.

            And her date had so rattled Cruella that she'd neglected to test the wine on a prisoner first.  She sat there, her mouth opening and closing.

            The Demon smirked, and I imagined inserting a yard-long icicle into a certain orifice of his.

            No, not that one.  He'd enjoythat.

            Poor Cruella.  She didn't want to admit the end was nigh.  She cackled as if the Demon had made a joke, and said, "Yes, well!  I guess I need someone -- someone like you -- to remind me of such things!"

            She attempted to flutter her eyelashes. "Forgive a lonely old witch, FD, but I knew when you blasted down the door at the Henderson's bridge party that you were the one.  I have the nuptial contract all ready for signatures.  If we can scare up enough blood somewhere!"

            The Fire Demon of Zarzakzir glared at her, then tittered.  "Anxious, are we?  Not one to waste time, eh?  Very well, my dear.  Perhaps I can overlook one lapse.  In all else, you seem to be an acceptable match.  I trust my instincts in these things!"

            Cruella laughed, ending it with a delightful snort.

            I couldn't believe it.  It was actually happening.  A lightning rod was about to be set up in our little castle.

            "You know how it is, dear," said Cruella, patting his knee.  "In this house, we get up to so much fun sometimes, that I can almost forget to watch myself!  The little things just slip our minds.  The shrieks here, the yelps!  Oh, the merriment!"

            "Little things may indeed slip our minds, Cruella, but that's what the little people are for.  Let's sign that contract."

            "Bub!"

            No need to yell.  I was at least as anxious as her to get the damned thing signed.  I raced into the study and grabbed it off the desk.

            Smoke was there, hovering over the cauldron.

            "It's happening, Smoke!  It's really happening!"

            "I know, I know!"  Smoke was all a-tremble.

            I hurried back into the dining room.

            The Fire Demon was leaning forward to kiss Cruella. As I was gathering the wind to shout -- shout what, I don't know -- his face twisted and he flinched back.

            "Whatisthat awful stench!" he said.

            Damn that Scrape's poop!

            "Stench?" Cruella asked.

            "Nothing, it's nothing!" I cried.  "Ha, ha!  Yes, my Mistress has potent spells, and their aftereffects can linger, for a short time -- just a short time!"

            "Cruella?"

            "Ah, FD, I suppose --" Cruella shot me a murderous glower, then smiled back at the Demon.  "Those spells, yes, that must be it!  I'll just wash up."

            "Surely your servants know how to cover up offensive scents?"

            "Oh, of course!"

            "And do they have working noses?"

            "Surely.  Well, most of them.  Some of them. Well, Bub does."

            "Then I fail to see why he did not notice the problem, and correct it.  It seems to me, Cruella, that you may be far too lenient with your staff."

            "Not at all!"  Cruella was on her feet now, leaning toward her demon. "They scurry in terror to obey my every whim!  I often punish them both before and aftertheir infractions!  They certainly receive discipline, believe me.  Just today I--"

            "No, I'm sorry, Cruella.  First the non-poisoned wine, and now this stench." The demon rose to his feet. "I don't think this will work out. In my experience, attitudes concerning domestic policies rank paramount in insuring a compatible union.

            "Adieu."

            And he was gone.

            Cruella just stood there, looking out through the open door into the night.

            We just stood there, looking at Cruella.

            She gently shut the door and turned to us.

            "OK.  Better put the tarp down, Bub," she said.  "I'm afraid things are going to get really, really messy, and you worked so hard on cleaning the floor."  She fixed each one of us with a stare.  She cracked her knuckles.  "Now, who wants to go first?"

This story originally appeared in DF_Underground.