Thirty minutes later, everyone at the Halberta mansion was dead.
"Oh no," said Fate.
"I don't know if this is a good time to bring it up," said Inversion, "but the reason I wanted to be an apprentice was to learn how to not kill people."
"We didn't kill anyone!" shouted Fate, and then immediately held up an apologetic hand, stepped back, and took several deep breaths. "Okay, okay, let's not panic. Calm down. Breathe. Think things through. Let's walk through what happened. We approached the estate from the west entrance and we could tell something was wrong when..."
"That guy fell off the roof," said Inversion, indicating a dead body on the ground with a blade wound straight through the chest.
"Right," said Fate. "Sword attack. Not magical. Can't blame the wards for this." She knelt down to examine the body. "Private security from Octavity. That's not their usual service. Looks like they were beefing up their security. Expecting something. Okay, what happened next?"
"We opened the ward on the west door to go in and check and..."
Fate clutched both hands to her head. "Perfectly reasonable given the circumstances, we had to go see what was going on and there wasn't any indication of magical danger at the time."
"And then a ghost came in behind us and killed everybody."
Fate took off her top hat in order to sweat more freely. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves!" she said, a little too loudly. "We don't know what kind of force came in and killed everyone so let's try not to fill in information that isn't there!"
"A sort of magical grey mist came in and killed everybody," said Inversion.
"Better!" said Fate, wiping sweat off her brow. "Let's... take another look at the scene." She led the way back into the mansion, down the hall past a dead butler and a dead ne'er-do-well playboy to the great hall where a dead dowager and dead toady lay on the floor. "Every single member of our client's household... instantly struck down."
"I think I saw their life force leaving their mouths in little puffs of vapor," said Inversion.
"Observant! Good, good!" said Fate, with a terrifying cheerfulness.
Voices sounded outside, barking out short, military-sounding phrases.
"And that's going to be reinforcements from private security," said Fate brightly. "Once they come in, find out everybody has been killed by magical means, and that we are magic providers, we'll probably be arrested, if not executed on the spot."
"Oh," said Inversion, everything finally clicking. "Maybe we should have left earlier instead of trying to break down the situation."
"They'd already surrounded the perimeter by that time," said Fate. "I was just trying to make sure I didn't die of a panic attack before being killed by security."
"Well I wouldn't bet on it. But our best chance is to stay calm, keep our hands up, make no sudden movements..."
Twenty security guards burst through the front door in perfect formation, a front row of swordsmen crouched down as a row of crossbowmen behind them pointed their weapons at the two mages.
"Hands up!" shouted the leader.
Fate and Inversion put their hands up.
"Drop your weapons in 3 or we shoot!"
"We're mages!" shouted Fate.
"Drop your magic in 3 or we shoot! 3..."
"That's not how it works!" shouted Fate.
Inversion's hand flashed forward as Fate yelled "No!"
Suddenly the entire troop of guards flew up into the air and slammed into the ceiling. Weapons clattered to the ground everywhere. The guards remained there as if pressed by an overwhelming force.
"Run," said Inversion.
"What have you done," whispered Fate as she ran. He followed after her, and moments later the security guards tumbled back down onto the floor in an angry, confused heap.
As soon as they reached the outdoors, Fate grabbed Inversion's sleeve and pulled him behind a row of trees. "It's time for the go bag," she said, and pulled a hole out of her hat, which she threw on the ground. "Jump in!"
Inversion jumped into the hole and Fate followed right after. As she passed through, she turned back and spoke to it and winked out of existence.
They landed on a cold stone floor. "Hold on," said Fate. A moment later, a lantern flashed to life, revealing a small cave.
"You could have used that earlier," suggested Inversion, "before security arrived."
"Do you even know what that was?" snapped Fate. "That was a hat hole. You put it in your hat so you can make things disappear into the hat. Rabbits and scarves and such. But I never did rabbits because the only hole I could afford went straight into the alligator cave."
"The what now?" said Inversion, suddenly looking around.
"Yeah, keep an eye out for alligators," snapped Fate. "So maybe next time you listen to me and we just take our chances trying to get arrested instead of becoming most wanted fugitives stuck in an alligator cave."
"I have a lot of questions," said Inversion, still looking around.
"Well, buddy, you better believe I have a lot of questions for you," said Fate, scanning the area with the lantern, "but we got more pressing matters."
On one side of the cave was a shallow pool of water. There were no visible exits.
"My guess," said Fate, "is that the only way out is through an underwater tunnel, and also that the water is full of alligators."
"That sounds about right," agreed Inversion.
"I don't suppose you could kill the alligators?"
"I don't know where they are," said Inversion.
"Well let's find out," said Fate. She slapped the water. "Hey! Hey you! Alligators!"
An alligator spiraled out of the water in a magnificent leap, snapping its jaws on where Fate had been just a moment before she deftly jumped back and fell on her butt. The alligator splashed back down, and then its head slid slowly back out of the water, regarding them with a reptilian glare.
"What?" it said.
"Oh," said Fate. "Uh."
"Hello?" said Inversion.
"You come here and you yell at me and you slap my house and all you have to say is hello?" growled the alligator.
"I didn't know that, uh," said Fate.
The alligator narrowed its beady eyes at her. "Hey, wait a minute. Are you the one that's been throwing all those scarves in here?"
Fate looked at a stalactite. "Uh, no."
"You're a terrible liar."
"Well it won't happen again," said Inversion. "She destroyed the hole."
"Oh thank God," said the alligator. "Well that's something, at least."
"You, uh, wouldn't happen to be ok with us just swimming out of this cave past you over there would you?" asked Fate. "And then we'll be out of your life forever."
"Let's see, out of my life, or in my stomach, that's a tough one," said the alligator.
"Okay, okay, fair," said Fate. "I can see that. As an alligator, I'd feel the same. But let me just ask, is there anything we could do for you, other than getting eaten, in exchange for you letting us past you? We can do a bit of magic, you know."
"I'm sick of magic," said the alligator, narrowing its eyes again.
"Okay, okay," said Fate again. "I get that. I hear you. But there has to be something you want out of life? Or you have everything you want right here in your pool in a cave?"
"Well," said the alligator. "I'll tell you this. On the other side of this tunnel is a cave, and outside the cave, not too far away is a village, full of people. And I can hear the people doing and saying things, and I hear a lot of happy sounds and a lot of merriment, you know? But every time I go out to see what they're doing, they run, because I'm an alligator, and yeah, I've eaten some of them in the past. But every year, I just want more and more badly to see what they're doing. You know they've got this yearly festival where they dance in front of a bonfire and oh, that's the best, because the shadows from the bonfire get projected onto my cave walls and it's almost like I can see them."
"That sounds like the harvest festival," said Fate, scratching her chin, "and you know I believe in fact it starts next week."
"Yeah, that sounds right," said the alligator. "I love watching them dance inside my cave, but I still can't really hear what they're saying or see their faces and I wish more than anything I could do that."
"All right, see," said Fate, "I think this is something we can help with, but if I remember earlier, you said you had a big objection to magic, and if this is what you want, it's going to take some magic."
"Yeah?" said the alligator skeptically. "What kind?
"Well, we could do an illusion spell and make you take the form of a human," said Fate. "And since you already talk, you can probably pass for a human pretty well. The only thing is, you gotta promise not to eat anybody."
"Yeah, I get it, the jig would be up," agreed the alligator. "But, I wouldn't want to be a human full time."
"No, no, of course not," said Fate, chuckling. "Why, I don't even think I like it. But here's what we can do. We can link it up to the full moon, werewolf style. You can be a human once a month and check out what they're up to - not eating anyone, of course - and then go back to your alligator life the rest of the time."
"Yeah, that's perfect," said the alligator. "That works out for me. When's the next full moon?"
Fate pulled out a weathered almanac from her overalls pocket. "Ah, looks like next week in fact. You'll be able to check out the harvest festival. Perfect."
"Ah, great," said the alligator, his mood significantly improved.
"Let's do a test run to make sure everything's set up," said Fate. "Can you step out of the water for a bit and - key point - don't eat us."
"Yeah, yeah, I got it," said the alligator, who crawled out of the water with alarming swiftness.
Fate consulted another reference book from another pocket, pulled a reagent pouch out of her hat pocket, and began an incantation over the alligator, who looked nervous. A moment later, the alligator fizzled and blurred like a staticky image and then reformed into the shape of a handsome man. The handsome man frowned.
"What's wrong?" asked Fate.
"Look," said the handsome man, "I... I know you humans can't tell these things but... I'm a lady."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," said Fate, grabbing another pinch of reagent and re-enchanting the alligator. The image fizzled and blurred again and formed as a buxom lass.
"Now we're talking!" said the buxom lass happily.
"All right, just give me a second to hook it up to the moon," said Fate, sitting down and working some calculations out in a notebook as the alligator tried different poses while looking at her reflection in the water and looking to Inversion for a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Finally Fate stood up. "Okay, you're all set," she said. "We'll get you back to alligator form for now." She made an arcane gesture and the image dissipated, forming back into a solid, large alligator.
"I can't tell you how excited I am," said the alligator.
"I'm excited for you!" said Fate.
"Uh, same," said Inversion.
"All right, why don't I give you two a ride through the tunnel," said the alligator. "Just grab on the back there somewhere."
"And you're not going to eat us," said Fate.
"On my word," said the alligator.
Inversion and Fate looked at each other. Inversion shrugged. He had never heard any proverbs about the word of an alligator and whether it was good or bad. Neither had Fate. She also shrugged.
"Yolo," said Fate, invoking the ancient blessing when entrusting your life to the whims of chance, as she gripped the alligator's shoulder firmly.
"Yolo," said Inversion, grabbing onto the alligator's other shoulder.
The alligator slipped gracefully underwater and rocketed through the tunnel like a creature born to water. It surfaced shortly after on the other side.
"I can't say you don't look delicious," said the alligator with a sigh, as they hopped off, "and I am absolutely starving. But I'm true to my word. Thanks for everything."
Both Fate and Inversion added a data point to their mental model of whether alligators in general were good to their word.
"Oh, we didn't get your name," said Fate.
"I'm Corvette," said the alligator. "And you?"
"Fate Piranha," said Fate, tipping her hat.
"Nice," said the alligator. "And your, uh, him?" she asked, nodding at Inversion.
"Oh," said the alligator, and paused a moment. "Well, why not." It slipped back into the water and disappeared.