The road to Chateau Remoulade twisted through a perilous swamp of man-eating plants. Fate wanted to avoid any kind of magical solutions, so as not to prematurely alert the residents of the chateau, so Inversion was wearing a wig and a dress. He had not put up much of a fight about it, and that upgraded him slightly in her eyes.
"Why didn't she get human-eating plants?" he asked, as they wound their way between slavering green mouths pulsating in the vegetation.
"It's actually kind of a funny story," said Fate. "These are very popular among witches and swamp hags and the like, which leads to the common misconception that it's some kind of man-hating thing. When the truth is, they're just a lot cheaper and easier to get. You see, in order to get carnivore vines to grow here, they had to crossbreed them with a native plant, and the most convenient one was the common sweetvine, which for some reason grows faster near men. They've had limited success crossing them with a less discriminatory native plant but those seeds are still really pricey and only for the ludicrously rich."
Inversion nodded. That all made sense. "Do we have a plan this time?"
"I'm going to ask about the human sacrifices and then we'll..." she paused as they reached the front door, which was already open. A dour butler stood just inside. "My lady is expecting you," he said.
"Can we have a moment of privacy?" asked Fate.
"No," said the butler.
Fate sighed. "You can gimme the wig and dress, kid. We'll wing it from here."
The dour butler led them down the halls of a great mansion which had clearly once been resplendent, but now reeked of neglect and decay. The walls echoed with emptiness and absence. They ascended a once-opulent staircase beneath a grand chandelier of dust-coated crystals, and made their way into a large room, which was possibly the only regularly maintained room in the house.
In the room was an opulent velvet-upholstered chair and in the chair sat a young woman draped in luxurious silks. "Ah, our guests have arrived," she said. "Thank you, Wilbert." The butler bowed.
"Lady Remoulade, I presume?"
"Well, it appears you have the advantage of me," said the woman with a sly smile.
"Fate Piranha," said Fate, tipping her hat, "and..." she looked toward Inversion.
"Inversion," he said.
"We're mages by trade but this is just a personal trip," said Fate.
"Is that so?" drawled Lady Remoulade decadently, carelessly waving around an impossibly thin cigarette in a golden cigarette holder for some reason. It wasn't lit. "And what's your personal interest here?"
"Well, we've been hearing that someone around here's been asking for human sacrifices."
"So?" said Lady Remoulade, rolling her eyes. "Is that a crime?"
"Yes, actually," said Fate.
"Are you the police?"
"No," said Fate.
"Well then how about you buzz off," said Lady Remoulade, rising to her feet and stubbing out the cigarette, which again, was not lit.
"I don't think I will," said Fate, stepping forward.
Something like a dark tentacle flashed out from Lady Remoulade, too fast to see exactly where on her it was coming from, and yanked Fate off her feet. It wrapped tightly around her like a rope, holding her a foot away from Lady Remoulade and unable to move. Sparks flashed impotently from Fate's fingertips and the lady laughed.
"Anti-magic wards," she said, waving broadly around the room.
Inversion began to raise his hand, slowly and more hesitantly than normal, and for the first time Fate sensed it, the strange feeling that gravity itself was being warped around her, but it all vanished as Lady Remoulade clapped something cold and metal to Fate's head and shouted, "Don't even think about it!"
Inversion dropped his hand. The strange sensation was gone.
"Is that a gun?" he asked.
"You bet it is," said Lady Remoulade, nodding proudly at the pistol. "I usually lean on magic myself, but it's good to have a backup."
"I heard they're pretty inaccurate," said Fate, trying to look at the gun but unable to move her head.
"Aim's pretty wild at any serious distance," said Lady Remoulade, "but at this range? 100% accurate." She turned to Inversion. "I don't know what you're packing that lets you beat the anti-magic wards, but I'm gonna bet you can't get it done faster than I can pull this trigger."
Inversion looked hesitantly at Lady Remoulade, and then at Fate.
"What now, you're wondering," said Lady Remoulade. "Well what happens now is you have a seat and we have a conversation. Like civilized people." She gave an extremely unladylike cackle and indicated a velvet ottoman.
Inversion slowly sat down on the ottoman.
"That's one of my favorite pieces," said Lady Remoulade. "You know why they're called ottomans? They were invented by a furniturer named Caleb Ottoman, in response to a challenge by the king, who said, I bet nobody can make a comfy chair that you can sit on that doesn't have a back. And Caleb Ottoman made a beautiful chair with no back, just like the one you're sitting on, and brought it to the king and he was executed for being a smartass and making the king look dumb. That's why nobody else took up the challenge."
"Is this the best use of our time?" asked Fate.
"Shut up, you," said Lady Remoulade, pressing the pistol harder against Fate's temple. "I'm holding the cards here. I'll say what I like."
"But you are the one behind the human sacrifices?" asked Inversion.
"Yeah, that's right," she said. "And I bet you wanna know why. Well, take a look at me, kid. How old would you think I am?"
"I"m four hundred and sixty-five years old," she said with relish, peeling her blood red lips apart to flash a gleaming smile of menace at him.
"Because you kill other people and consume their life force to renew your youth?" guessed Inversion.
The smile twisted into a snarl and she squeezed Fate harder with the tentacle, causing her to let out a small yelp. "Looks like someone didn't learn a lesson from my little fable about being a smartass," she said.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly, and Lady Remoulade slightly relaxed her grip on Fate. "I'm not good in social situations."
"Color me surprised," said the lady dryly, sizing him up. "All right, you got my number, you know why I need the sacrifices."
"How often do you have to, uh... eat? Drink? A person," asked Inversion, "to uh... keep at this age."
"Oh, no, honey, this is all permanent," said Lady Remoulade. "Every time I consume a life, it takes a few years off, and lemme tell you, they don't come back."
"Well, then why do you need more... uh... how young are you going for?"
"How young you got?" asked Lady Remoulade, and then broke off in a maniacal cackle.
"Okay, I mean this with all due respect," said Fate cautiously, "and please don't get upset, I'm just asking for clarity - you want to become an evil baby?"
"And what's wrong with that?" roared Lady Remoulade.
"Nothing, nothing," said Fate.
Inversion had already been trying to create a hat hole to the alligator cave but it was no use. The anti-magic wards seemed effective on that.
"Well, this has been a lovely chat, but I think it's time to bring it to an end. Wilbert!" she snarled.
Something conked Inversion on the back of the head and he fell forward, dazed. "I think you gotta do it one more time," he heard, and a second conk knocked him out cold.
He woke up in what seemed to be a dungeon cell, chained up. The dour butler, who was apparently named Wilbert, stood outside the cell. "Ah, you're awake," he said, and then quickly, as Inversion began to stir, "Please don't try anything. We have your friend stowed away safely, and if you were to do anything foolish, we'd have to harm her."
Inversion tried to speak, but it only came out in a whisper. He coughed and tried again. "Hitting people on the head isn't -"
"Yes, sir, I am familiar with your thoughts on hitting people on the back of the head to knock them unconscious, you mumbled them several times as you were coming to. The brain is a complex system, I understand."
"That's right," said Inversion.
"Now if I may be so bold to assume, you are wondering what my lady's plans are for you," said the butler.
"Is she going to kill me and consume my life force in order to become younger?" said Inversion.
"I stand corrected," said the butler, with a slight bow.
"Does it hurt?" asked Inversion.
"The ceremony?" said Wilbert. "Oh, it's extremely painful. It must be performed when the subject is completely conscious. So now that you are awake, I'll just let my lady know..."
"Actually I'm feeling dizzy. I think I'm going to pass out again."
"Nice try, sir," said Wilbert, and exited with a little bow.
A short while later, Inversion found himself in a bloodstained ritual room. There was an old pentagram on the floor but it was faded and scribbled over in favor of newer and more modern dark methods.
Lady Remoulade stood in a rippling red gown at the top of a small dais, smiling grandly down at him, and in the corner someone in a clinical white robe who Inversion didn't recognize was fiddling with sigils and reagents. He turned to Inversion and waved.
"Ah, I don't think we've met. I'm Dr. Fatality, Lady Remoulade's personal life provider."
"Hi," said Inversion, who was not at all prepared for this kind of social situation. "I'm Inversion," he tried.
"Oh well, that's a new one," said Dr. Fatality with a hearty chuckle. "Well, I'm all ready to get started on my end, unless anyone wants to say a few words?"
"Just a few," drawled Lady Remoulade languidly. "So, kid," she said, looking directly at Inversion. He looked directly back at her this time and she flinched inwardly for just a moment as she had the strangest hint of a flashback to that time she looked into the abyss and it looked back at her. Absolutely unsettling. It had wrecked her for a week. She snapped it away and continued, whispering into his ear. "I've got your friend locked up in another room, in one of those trap dealies, see? If you try anything funny, I just give the word and one of my servants will activate a mechanism, and it's curtains for her." She drew her fingers across her throat.
"Aren't you going to kill her after you kill me anyway?"
"Don't overthink things, kid."
"I can't help it."
"Well, if it helps, here's how I'd be looking at it if I was you. You go along with me, and maybe, just maybe, during all this, we screw up one of the steps, and you or your friend gets a chance to escape. Just a teeny teeny chance, not even realistic to be honest, but it ain't nothing. You don't go along with me, and your friend bites it right now."
"Can't argue," agreed Inversion.
"All right," said Dr. Fatality, clapping his hands together. "Let's get started, shall we?" He waved toward a large stone slab. "Inversion, I'll need you to lie down on this slab, and we're going to have to chain you down so your struggling doesn't disrupt the ritual too much."
Inversion looked at the bloody slab. It didn't look very appealing but he thought about what Lady Remoulade had said about the slim chance and sighed. "Yolo," he said, as he lay down.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."
"Nothing," said Inversion.
Wilbert and Dr. Fatality chained him down and Lady Remoulade sauntered over, licking her lips. She held a twisted dagger in one hand, with a black metal blade and a jeweled hilt.
"Now," she said, "I'll be taking out your organs one by one in order to really get that pure essence, but first... a taste."
"Ah," said Dr. Fatality, "that's my cue." He tinkered with something Inversion couldn't see and the slab began to glow.
Lady Remoulade bent over him, smiling with macabre delight, with now 4 dark tentacles curling and slithering around her. Inversion could see now that they were coming from behind her somewhere, but not exactly where. Two of them were definitely coming out of her upper back, but the lower ones...
She drew the tip of the dagger across his right forearm.
"Ow!" he said.
She bent slowly over the wound as blood oozed out, closing her eyes as if to savor the aroma. Something like a steamy mist or vapor began to rise out of the blood, dark as night.
"Well, that's not right," he heard Dr. Fatality say in the distance, but Lady Remoulade opened her mouth over the mist and inhaled it with a look of bliss.
Suddenly she jerked back in horror.
"My lady!" cried the butler.
Inversion pulled his head up as far as he could to see what was happening and was taken aback. Lady Remoulade looked hella old. Her hair was white and brittle and her face was shrunken and wrinkled.
"Ohhh, oh boy. Oh boy," said Dr. Fatality, scrambling to do something or another.
"We must do something!" cried Wilbert.
Lady Remoulade clutched Inversion's wounded arm, causing him to cry out again, and pressed her terrifying, decaying, now near-skeletal face close to his. "What... are... you..." she gasped just before crumbling to dust.
Inversion closed his eyes and his mouth and tried to close his nose, hoping not to breathe in any of the disgusting dust.
"What have you done?" gasped Wilbert. "We.. we must kill the girl!" He rushed to a nearby bell that Inversion assumed was the signal for another servant to kill Fate.
"No cops!" yelled Dr. Fatality, misunderstanding the purpose of the bell and stabbing Wilbert in the throat with a scalpel. He kicked the dead butler out of the way and wiped his brow. "This... this wasn't my fault. It's you. There's something wrong with you," he said, pointing accusingly at Inversion.
It wasn't the first time someone had said that to him. But Dr. Fatality just started hurriedly gathering up his equipment and stuffing it into his bag, talking to himself. "I wasn't here. I was never here. Nobody saw me come in except the butler." Moments later, Inversion was alone in the room.
He sighed. He held his breath and looked through the dust on and around him. There was a pile of clothes and something shiny among them. After a difficult ten minutes and a very painful time with his wrists, he managed to grasp the shiny object. It was a cigarette holder. He sighed and rooted around for another ten minutes, this time finding the key and unlocking himself.
Fate was hanging over a pit of spikes, and Lady Remoulade's least intelligent servant was manning the switch that would drop her.
The door creaked open and the servant looked up to see a thin figure in a butler's uniform. "Yeah? They ready for the girl?"
The butler nodded.
The servant pulled the other switch, which swung Fate over to safety and released her from the mechanism, although her hands were still shackled. Then he flew up and slammed into the ceiling. The butler yanked the keys off the dangling servant's belt, grabbed Fate's hand, and they ran off out of the mansion.
"I'm starting to see a problem with your approach," said Fate, as they ate biscuits in a thicket off the main road, waiting for the coast to clear. "If we never kill anyone, and we keep running away, we're just creating more and more people out there that are walking around looking for us and hoping to kill us."
"You can kill them," said Inversion.
"Ok," said Fate. "I don't think I really have a grasp on your code."
"It's not a code," said Inversion. "It's just a promise I made to my dad."
"Oh, I see," said Fate.
"The last thing he said to me before he died," said Inversion, "was, 'For God's sakes don't kill anyone.'"
"Oh," said Fate again, with a little less clarity.
"It's really easy for me to kill people whenever I try to do anything," Inversion explained. "So my parents told me it's really important to learn how to do things without killing anybody. So that's why I needed someone to teach me magic."
"Okay," said Fate. "I think I'm following you now. But can't you kill people once in a while if it's very important? And self defense?"
Inversion shook his head. "My dad said that since it was so easy for me to kill a lot of people, it's probably better if I don't kill any people. He said something about a slippery slope. I don't know what that means."
"All right," said Fate slowly. "So I'm glad I've got the green light to kill anyone I wish. Good to know. But here's the thing from me, do you know about what level of power the average mage is capable of?"
Inversion shook his head.
"Not... that," said Fate, gesturing vaguely toward him. "And not that hole in the wall you made back at Jesperson's. There are mages who would kill to be able to kill as many people as you can."
Inversion shrugged. "Too bad for them."
"Yeah, fair enough," said Fate. "It's probably for the best. But my point is even if I go full out at everyone we run into, I can't handle them. I can't take out that whole town hall full of marauders."
Inversion nodded. "That's good information to have. It would have been nice to know earlier."
"In terms of withholding information that would have been nice to know earlier, I think there's plenty of blame to go around," said Fate. "But I don't want to dwell on it. We've got enough to deal with in the present."
"I have a question," said Inversion.
"Are you procrastinating?"
"What do you mean?"
"Did you go on this whole sidetrack about the village and Lady Remoulade in order to avoid thinking about being wanted fugitives and not having a job anymore?"
Fate narrowed her eyes. "Maybe," she said. "I had a mentor once who told me that when a problem seems too big to tackle, you should break it down into smaller, solvable problems, and tackle those one by one. I try to live by that but sometimes I get mixed up and tackle a smaller, but completely unrelated problem, which doesn't have any bearing on the big problem."
Inversion frowned in thought. "Did your mentor have any other advice?"
"He said that if I was stuck for more than 5 minutes I should ask for help."
"How long has it-"
"Yeah, yeah, we'll get some help," said Fate, rising to her feet and dusting off the biscuit crumbs. "Come on, I think I know a guy."