Todd Chapman is alone with Lady Violet, the diabolical alchemist who despises him. Can he possibly survive?
At long long long last, the twentieth part of Interviewing Trey. It’s actually been ready for quite a while, but there are some behind the scenes site redesigns that needed to take place, and we’ve finally had a chance to do that. Enjoy!
Interviewing Trey #20
So, I was standing in a hotel room, surrounded by the malevolent Lady Violet and her henches. Lady Violet, to remind, was a young, brash Dark God of Greystone who had already made it clear she hated me. She’d been offended by Leather’s comments about Greystone City and its villains — namely, that they were a pack of psychopaths who’d as soon kill you as hydrate — and was more than happy to take her offense out on me. That Leather had clearly been right probably only made things worse. Now, I was in her power and had every reason to think I was about to die.
Naturally, that made me think about Truncheon.
You know Truncheon, of course. He was probably the most famous ‘second generation’ hero. Arguably, he’d been the first: a sidekick-turned-adult. A leader in blue, carrying around power sticks. He’d been Nightstick’s first Cudgel back when Greystone City was bright. Now he worked out of Monument City, and that’s where I met him after I interviewed his old friend (and notorious turncoat) Amulet for my book.
And sure, we talked a lot about Amulet. But we ended up talking about a lot of other things, too — most of which didn’t make it into the book. Somehow, we’d gotten onto the subject of deathtraps. Truncheon was probably one of the top experts on being put into or getting out of deathtraps — back during his ‘Nightstick and Cudgel’ days he and Nightstick would be thrown into them practically weekly. I’d told him about a few villains — rogues mostly — who designed deathtraps for heroes and the process I’d seen them go through, and I’d asked him how they felt on the other side. Especially since… well, any number of them were silly.
“Silly? Maybe.” He smiled. Truncheon smiles a lot. “But I’ll tell you something. No matter how surreal a deathtrap ends up being? You take it seriously. You always take it seriously. I mean, sometimes it seems obvious that the bad guy doesn’t actually want to kill you — he’s delaying you or showing off or whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s called a death trap for a reason, and plenty of bad guys love to make you think it’ll be a simple escape, only it’s not.” He chuckled. “If someone’s taking the time and effort to trap you — whether it’s an elaborate set piece or as simple as tying you to a chair in front of a time bomb — then they’re trying to kill you, and only a fool thinks otherwise.” He looked off, in the distance. “I’ve known a few. Fools, I mean. Which isn’t a nice thing to say, but… some people shouldn’t be in this business. It’ll kill them.”
I’ve been in a few tight places since then, and of course in one sense Dispater’s Pit itself was one giant death trap, but I tried to remember Truncheon’s warning as I muddled along. The problem is, it’s easy to forget. It’s like Trey — I keep making the same mistake over and over again. I keep expecting her to make sense. To be sane. To be healthy. To be rational.
But she wasn’t. That’s why she kicked me out of my hotel room — painfully literally — and locked me out. In trying to deal with the issue, I ended up Lady Violet’s involuntary guest.
I wasn’t tied to anything. I was standing. There were six thugs surrounding me, all showing signs of alchemical enhancement. Lady Violet herself was in front of me. And right there, I knew. I was in a death trap. I wasn’t tied to anything, and there wasn’t a bomb or a countdown timer, but it was clear that every second that ticked past made survival less likely.
It didn’t seem silly at all.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I didn’t mean to interrupt or—”
“Shhhhh,” Lady Violet said, slowly smiling and sauntering up to me with hip movements that made Trey’s practiced gait look like a J.V. Cheerleader facing off against the Laker Girls. “Sh sh sh. I know. I know you didn’t mean to interrupt. I know you didn’t mean to offend. I know you didn’t mean to be troublesome. You never do, do you? You never mean it.”
I swallowed. “…Lady Violet, I really, really don’t—”
”Shh.” She was close now — close enough to be ‘invading personal space.’ And her pheromones hit me like a sledgehammer — alchemical combinations and altered physiology making her allure far more than natural. Despite the subtle glint of scales here and there along her skin, where the light hit just right… despite the slightly too-angular face and her vague uncanny valley nature, she was intoxicating to look at, to smell, to be near. Her pharmacopeia ensured that. “That’s the thing about intentions, dahling. They don’t really matter, do they? All that really matters is what you do.”
“And what I do offends you?” I asked. I may have squeaked, mind.
Lady Violet giggled. “You offend me, dahling. There’s a subtle difference.”
“Because of what Leather said about Greystone City? That was a long time ago.”
“Is there a time limit on offense? A statute of limitations?” She looked, if anything, even more amused. “Some nations go to war over insults dating back millennia. What’s a decade, more or less? Besides…” She turned, stepping back towards the outer edge of the thug circle. “She’s been riding that writeup of yours for how long now? And given her little stunt in Grantham…”
Lady Violet paused, then turned back sharply. Her affect had dropped, just a touch. “You…” She blinked twice. “You don’t know. Oh my God you have no idea. How long have you been down here?”
I flushed. “I’m not entirely sure. I remember the last two days, but before that… it was a while, I know that…”
Lady Violet giggled. “It’s always fun to watch the Jack make the magic happen. I hope I catch his finale — preferably on television many miles away.”
“You… you sound comfortable with the Jack. Familiar. Are you two close?”
Lady Violet turned away, looking at her henches. “Max?”
One of the thugs — bigger than the others, muscles clearly enhanced, wearing a yellow t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and chains around one shoulder, sweatbands on his wrists, and black leather motorcycle pants, stepped forward and drove a fist into my stomach. I doubled over, pain blinding me.
Max stepped back, letting me keel over onto the floor. I’m lucky I didn’t throw up.
“I know your reputation, Mister Chapman,” Lady Violet said, still facing away. “You’re the one who asks questions whether it’s a good idea or not. As near as I can tell, it works out for you.” She looked over her shoulder. “Most of the time.”
“Yeah, well…” I reconsidered throwing up, but didn’t. “I never claimed to be smart.”
“No, you really didn’t. You don’t run on ‘smart.’ You run on clever. Clever turns of phrase. Clever narratives shaped out of clever premeses. Leather was clever. Billhook was clever. Your whole damn book was clever. Not incisive. Not informative. Not useful. Just clever.” She turned back to face me, looking down at me. “Leather’s little jab at me and mine? That was a good quote, wasn’t it? Humanized her a little. Set up expectations. Laid out lines between what she was and what I am. And you loved that. It made her relatable. It was clever and she was clever and oh my that made you you clever by association, didn’t it?”
“…and you don’t see a value in the result?” I asked. Moaned, really. My stomach was a mass of pain and my brain a stew of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I hurt and she was clearly pleased about that. On the other, her alchemical concoctions had done a number on my hormones and endocrine system. I know some people have a thing for pain, and I’m not one to kink shame, but I don’t share it, so the combination was confusing and uncomfortable on top of the actual agony.
She scoffed. “See? That’s a clever question. Blade?”
A thinner thug — one in a jean-vest over a purple t-shirt and jeans — stepped forward and kicked me in the side, hard.
I made a noise I’m not proud of, and finally got around to throwing up.
“I’m honestly curious to see if you’re capable of negative reinforcement,” Lady Violet said, stepping over to her suite’s desk, the circle of thugs parting to let her through. I was watching her, despite my pain — honestly, I had little choice. My brain had its own opinions but her alchemical concoctions meant my eyes were going to stay glued to her any time they were open.
Of course, my brain doesn’t act like normal brains. One chunk of my brain was scared, of course. Thanks to the power of her alchemy, a second chunk of my brain was absolutely ‘focused’ on Lady Violet herself. A third chunk of my brain was busy processing pain. All perfectly rational responses given both stimulus and situation.
But a fourth chunk, deeper down, was doing its own thing. It was the part of me that overthought things, that never stopped asking questions. Once upon a time I was good at choking it down — back when I was covering music and writing glorified press releases asking questions would have been career suicide. The Leather interview had changed that — had let that side of me come out. And yeah, people noticed it and commented on it. I was the guy who kept at it even when things were tough.
I’m not sure I ever really understood how strong that impulse had become. And that part was analyzing everything happening around me, not to figure out how to escape with my life, but to understand Lady Violet, her methods, her abilities, her motivations…
And while the rest of me was scared and in pain, while dealing with a physical and emotional response to Lady Violet’s allure… that deeper part of me was comparing Lady Violet’s alchemical charisma to the other parahuman allures I’d encountered in my time. Salome, for example — her body produced parahuman pheromones that created a fascination and induced suggestibility. Or Beguile, who I’d seen earlier that night — her captivating appeal was apparently psionic, and came with a brain-dulling effect to boot.
Lady Violet’s alchemy worked differently, but I didn’t know how it was different. Obviously it was intentional — crafted and designed through research. It seemed like it worked from a foundation — an allure that enflamed desire and demanded attention but didn’t overwhelm the way Salome or Beguile did. It just overstimulated hormone production. But… give her a chance to tailor a potion or two to a victim… maybe she could add suggestibility or brainwashing, or add the brain fuzz Beguile had, or maybe add a truth serum… magical modularity, almost. Unless it didn’t work like that at all. I didn’t know.
And apparently not knowing was more than my brain could take. At least, that fourth chunk of my brain.
Naturally that’s the chunk that got to use my voice, even when I was that shaky. “…so how does… how does that… how does the alchemy work? Is it a kind of alchemical perfume? Do you drink something that makes your body produce pheromones? Can you change it up? Or… or is it…”
Lady Violet didn’t turn or look at me. “Blade?” she said, almost absently, still looking at the things on her desk. Tools of her trade — mortar and pestle cutting board, vials of powders and gunk, plus the usual hotel kibble of course.
Blade kicked me in the side, again. That was really beginning to hurt.
“…you can beat me to death or kill me or pound me into kibble,” I muttered. “But if you want to shut me up that’s a broken jaw or a gag. Just saying.” I closed my eyes, waiting for the next kick.
It didn’t come. I opened my eyes, looking up. Lady Violet had stepped back into the circle and was looking down at me. “It’s true,” she murmured.
“What’s… what’s true?”
“You.” She peered at me. “The combination of potentiated blends that adorn me should either throw you out of your skull in terror or lock you down in lust. Instead, you’re still talking. You honestly don’t have a filter, do you?”
“Depends on the circumstances,” I muttered, taking a few shallow breaths. God I was in pain.
Lady Violet began chuckling. “This is almost too good. You’re not brave. You’re not even clever. You’re broken. You’re broken and no one even figured it out because they think you’re being mister super reporter. And here we are, and there’s nothing stopping me from clubbing you to death, and you have no reason to expect I won’t, and you want to know how my scent works? Well. I’m not going to answer that. But go on. Ask me something, dahling.”
I took a slightly shuddering breath. “Will your goons keep beating the shit out of me if I do?”
“I’d count on it.”
I nodded. “‘Kay. Most third tier crooks go for armor unless they don’t need it. You wear monokinis and show skin. How’dya avoid getting shot?”
Lady Violet glanced at Blade, who kicked me again. It hurt worse than I can remember anything else hurting. “The infusions and treatments make me more durable, but honestly? I let the boys do the fighting most of the time. And if I didn’t want to show skin, I’d have picked a different alchemical focus.”
I shuddered again, closing my eyes. “…what do you mean, focus?”
There was an explosion of pain on my lower back. I think Max did an elbow drop. I’m not sure.
Lady Violet waited, then spoke up. “Every major alchemist chooses a focus for their grand work. A singular purpose. My mentor chose wealth. Her father chose immortality. As for me? I chose power in all its myriad forms. And when you look like me, skin is power. As I step further from humanity, so too do I embrace the power of my new form. So, naturally my path leads me towards keyhole bathing suits instead of motocross outfits like your girlfriend.”
“…not my girl—”
“Oh, shut up.” She crossed in front of me. “The ever revered Lady Velvet set a certain tone in her career, and that leads to expectations, spending her life in velvet onesies and leotards. As her heir, I had to follow the convention — not because of any requirements, but because Lady Velvet’s reputation means something, and my invoking that reputation makes me stronger. They don’t see a bug girl or a cute blonde — they see the next generation of the original femme fatale Dark God of Greystone. That lets me add her power to my own.”
“Power… meaning image?”
“Blade?” I took my side-kick and gave another shriek of pain in return. “Pathetic. You only see the surface. Idiotic lifestyle reporter. Everything is power, dahling. Everything. My predecessor’s reputation gives me options and advantages. Her training gave me other options and advantages. My own experimentation and research gives more. The money I take in from crime gives me more. It’s all power. It’s all ways of taking what I want from this world and imposing my desires on the remnants.”
I was coughing a lot as I breathed. I couldn’t open my eyes — it hurt too much, if that made sense. But I was still listening. “…and when Lady V-Velvet was… she saw everything as wealth, right? Instead of power? Everything in the world comes back to money?”
Lady Violet started to scoff, then paused. “Hold,” she said, probably to whoever was about to beat me down again. “That’s… that’s actually correct,” she said. She sounded thoughtful. “If our positions were reversed, she would see my reputation as an opportunity for profit. Her training enriches her. Her experiments enrich her. The world enriches her.”
“…is that how alchemy’s different from chemistry? I mean… perspective, I mean. Your focus changes the entire field, but just for you? Lady Velvet taught you techniques but in the end alchemy literally works differently for both of you?”
Lady Violet pursed her lips. She shook her head slightly — I realized she was waving off Max before he clobbered me again. “Yes,” she said, finally. “Yes… that’s… that explains more than I expected. I’m not sure why that surprises me.” She cocked her head to the side. “Interesting you caught that. I know you’ve never met the revered Lady Velvet. You’ve certainly never met anyone like me, before.”
“Actually, there is one—” I started to say, then tried to shut my mouth before—
Lady Violet’s eyes narrowed, her demeanor shifting and her annoyance coming back to the surface. “Max,” she snapped.
Max gave me another kick. I think I started keening like an injured dog somewhere in there, but I’m not sure. It all kind of blends together, honestly.
Lady Violet’s eyes were literally burning with a light purple fire as she glared down at me. “You know someone like me? You understand me so well you can classify me? Who? Who would you possibly know who was anything like me? Leather? Billhook? I swear if you say Moriarty James?” She took a deep breath. “Who?”
I coughed. There was blood in the cough. “Amulet.”
Lady Violet opened her mouth, probably to yell — then stopped. “What?”
“Amulet,” I said again, shuddering and wrapping my arms around my legs. That was the first time I could remember going into a fetal position while on the clock. “Freya’s sidekick.”
“I know who she is,” Lady Violet snapped. She shook her head. “How?” she asked, finally. “Where’s the similarity?”
I coughed again, closing my eyes. “Tons of them. You both had mentors. Her’s was a top hero, your’s was a top villain. Freya and Lady Velvet both crossed the aisle in the Apocalypse Agenda — Freya going bad,Lady Velvet going good. She was marble, then she was alive — transformation, triggered by the amulet in her chest. You’re transforming yourself bit by bit. You’re both steeped in ancient traditions but keep up to date with technology. Just… tons of things.” I kept my eyes closed, waiting for the hammer to fall. Maybe even the death blow. “And you were both trained as heroes but ended up crooks.”
Lady Violet didn’t say anything. Not right then. And no one kicked me, so, you know. I had that going for me.
It was true, though. Amulet’s chapter of my book was the most famous one, not counting the one on Leather’d original interview. It was almost funny, since I almost didn’t do it — I was focusing on third and fourt tier crooks and Amulet was only ‘third tier’ by convention. She’d started as Freya’s sidekick, hewn out of marble and given life by Hecate’s followers. Then she was a Junior Justice Winger — what they used to call the teenaged slash tweenaged sidekicks of Justice Wing members when they got together. Then she was a charter student at the Justice Wing Institute for Parahuman Research in Grantham, Massachusetts.
In other words, she was a hero. And a pretty big deal, for that matter — she was one of the most famous second generation heroes, on a par with Truncheon, Shillelagh, and Paragirl herself. In fact, most of the time those four plus maybe Crosspointe or Kelpie hung around together — legends, made more so by tragedy. By rights she should have been one of the greatest heroes of our time.
That didn’t happen. Instead, she followed Freya to Europe and crossed the aisle right alongside her goddess. Some people figured that was out of loyalty. That almost seemed confirmed when Amulet joined up with her old school and sidekick buddies and saved the world at the end of the Apocalypse Agenda. After that? Well, Freya was dead and Amulet was offered a general amnesty. Everyone assumed she’d go back to being a hero.
But she surprised them. First by vanishing for several years. Then, when she did reappear? It was as a gun-for-hire — a mercenary, backed by a cadre of Freya’s worshippers. And her services were available to all the bad guys who could pay.
Naturally, the Service and the Guild shrugged and took her money. Just another ex-hero turned villain, right?
But she wasn’t ‘any other’ villain. She was Junior Justice Wing. She was a Guardian of Actuality. A charter student of Justice Wing’s great experiment in training new parahumans. And yet, she still went bad.
So, she was a traitor. She was the traitor — the Benedict Arnold of the super hero set. The Service may have ranked her as third tier, but Justice Wing put her right on top of their ‘most wanted’ list.
It made for a pretty good interview. And… yeah. Even now, Lady Violet reminds me of Amulet, in good and bad ways. Maybe that’s why I’d been thinking about Truncheon earlier — since I only met him after I interviewed his former ally.
Lady Violet didn’t say anything for a long moment. I didn’t pretend that was a good sign.
“Well,” she said, finally. “All right. Get him on his feet, boys.”
Someone — Max? — grabbed my upper arms and hauled me up, which made me scream. Did I have cracked ribs? I wasn’t sure. My stomach and side were both a mass of pain, and my head was pounding to boot. It wasn’t just the thugs. There was Trey’s attack from before. Decipher’s throwing sigil had hurt too, and healed or not it that shoulder was still off. There was Trey’s attack from the previous night. Before that there was the surgery to implant a bomb in my neck, following who knows how long I spent under sedation. God, I was a mess.
But still, I managed to keep on my feet after Max let me go. Lady Violet looked me up and down, then slid some packets out of her hip pouch. She turned, walking back to her desk, and moved the mortar and pestle closer. As she spoke, she poured ingredients in and began grinding. “I’ll give you this much,” she said, with clearly false cheer. “You made me think, just a little. That’s not nothing, dahling.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled.
She looked at me over her shoulder. “Now don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean I like you. I don’t. I despise you. I despise your little leather-clad friend. I despise your book. I despise your cells. But you managed to make me think, just a little, and alchemy begins and ends with thought. Elements drawn together and married through transformation. You’ve given me a new element. That deserves consideration.”
I opened my mouth to say something.
“Blade,” she snapped, and Blade belted me across the face, shutting me up before I could speak. He then gamely helped me stand back up.
“So,” she said, breezily, still grinding away. “I’m not going to kill you. Not that I was really planning to — not when the Jack’s up to something. I’m not going to get him angry without a reason.” She set the pestle down and took a brush out of her pouch. She dipped it into bowl, then dabbed it on her lips, leaving a purple powder that seemed to melt and soak into her flesh, her lips turning as violet as her name.
“I’m… thank you for not killing me,” I said, softly.
She scoffed again. “Another principle of alchemy is reaction,” she said, dabbing more of the powder onto (and into) her lips, then rubbed them together, did an air kiss, and smiled a deep purple smile. “You follow procedures and get predictable results, then change things and try again. You expend energy to gain information. All of it leads to power. Your time in my crucible netted me a result. I have to balance that equation. There is always a price, and that kind of debt is never wise.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was shivering, now. Standing up, facing her and watching her, her alchemical charisma seemed more potent. It was certainly was having more of an effect. It’s possible her own hormones, triggered by anger or who knew what emotions, had changed the balance of the pheromone. As a result, fear was sliding into the background and my pain seemed less important. My attention was increasingly fixated on her and it was hardly chaste. My eyes stayed locked on the transhumanist alchemist in the one piece bathing suit which looked better and better on her curves the longer the pheromone had to work on me. For all that my head was more or less clear, she was brainwashing me now. Conditioning me. If she spent real time at it, I can absolutely believe she could make me into whatever she wanted.
But clearly she wasn’t going to spend any more time than necessary.
“So,” she said, stepping closer. I felt my body grow warmer, but I couldn’t seem to start sweating. My mouth went dry. “You gave me something to think about. To balance that equation… I should give you something to think about. Something new. At the same time… I really, really don’t like you, Mister Chapman. And honestly, I’m hoping the Jack hurries up and kills you.” She leaned closer. “So here. Enjoy.”
And then we were kissing. It was a kiss that felt eternal — the kind of kiss that happened after years of tension building up between potential lovers, finally released. That was the power of her alchemy at work — I would have kissed her for a year and a day straight if she let me. I’d have kept kissing her until I starved to death in her embrace. And if that seems like a sudden shift to you, that’s because it was. Right at that moment, with her body against mine and her lips connecting us through mine? There was absolutely nothing else in the entire world. There may not have been a world.
Lady Violet then slowly stepped back. I reached for her, but Max grabbed the scruff of my neck and hauled me back. I noticed her lips had gone back to their previous color. And I could feel my own lips tingle.
“…what did you do?” I whispered.
“Balanced the equation. I gave you a new element in return for the one you gave me. It’s something to think about. Open the door, boys.”
I heard the door open with a thunk… even as I felt… odd. Like… maybe I didn’t have bones? Bones were optional, at the least.
“There’s one thing I do remember,” Lady Violet’s voice said, echoing from very far away, like she was calling down a well. “About you, I mean. Your book. You wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson, but you couldn’t manage it. Well. Maybe this will help.”
My vision began to fisheye — the center of my field of vision swelling, the edges distorting… my boneless body beginning to flow to the floor like gelatin, but Max kept hauling me back into shape. Or that’s what it felt like, anyway. I don’t think I changed shape. But then, alchemy, so who knows?
In the distance, I could hear the wind. I wondered where it came from. I tried to ask another question, but my tongue had dribbled down onto the floor and was crawling away. Looking back… the thugs looked… weird. They looked like their meat and skin and bile and eyes were blue sludge, and through that sludge I could see their bones glowing. Like Paragon’s paravision maybe. And some looked like their bones were denser than the others, and I could see little fireflies trailing through their body along what I assumed were their nerves or their arteries or something.
“I’m not needlessly cruel,” I heard an echoing voice say. By inference, I guess it was Lady Violet. “I’d tell you what to expect, at least in general… after all, you’ve probably never been on a bad trip, have you? But unfortunately, dahling… I can’t tell you anything. I don’t know what you’ll see. I don’t know what will happen. I can’t swear that you’ll ever come back. This isn’t like ketamine or acid. Each person is wuhinik. Kanok vulunaya nam-tor wuhinik, heh ish-veh weht do danik. Du nam-tor wuh toglantausu. Ish-veh bezhun fereik-tor wuh panu. Spo’ Eve sa-mekh fa’ du, tonk’peh du nam-tor ri spo’ ish-veh. Du zahal-tor ish-veh sa-kai. Glazhau tor ik sa-kai, Chapman!”
It took a moment before I realized I had no idea what Lady Violet was saying. Her words had become gibberish. I’m not sure I even knew what language was at that point, so I stopped listening. Amazingly, I wasn’t in pain any more. Of course, that made sense. There was no reason to be in pain, since my body was made of light and gas and starstuff. It was entirely reasonable. It’s why I no longer felt any desire for Lady Violet. You need an endocrine system to feel lust, and I’m pretty sure I’d swapped mine out.
Of course, that didn’t help me with the fear. If anything, it was getting worse — not panic or even terror… but dread. The fear settled into my core, deep into what would have been my bones if I’d bothered to have a skeleton. Was it Lady Violet’s lipstick? Or was it the only rational response to the situation? I honestly don’t know.
The open door was in front of me. Max or Blade or God or someone else entirely hauled me towards it.
Beyond was darkness — no, a pit. A cavern, surrounded by fire and echoes and a scent like childhood. If the pit had a bottom I couldn’t see it.
“Consider this a gift,” Lady Violet said, her voice clear for just that one second, and then they were pushing me through the door and I was pitching forward and falling down the pit, with nothing but darkness below.