“Unhand her this instant!” The patrolling guard demanded, his rail gun leveled at Calvin’s torso.
Something in the way he acted made Calvin think the wrong twitch might result in a big hole in Calvin’s torso, and that just wasn’t how he wanted this night to turn out.
“I’m putting her down,” Calvin said, slowly lowering Nadia to the ground and taking his hands off her neck.
Maybe I can render his metals non-conductuive. That should work, but then they’ll have some idea of what I can do. I want to save that particular ability for an emergency. I could make a wall of air in fornt of him? No, then the sound wouldn’t carry.
A semi-wall? No, he might bump into it and shoot out of reflex.
I know, I’ll make armor out of air. That way he can’t see it, and doesn’t know that it’s there. it will only come into play if he tries to shoot me with that tube.
Calvin was about to armor himself up to give himself time to think of his next step, but Nadia, being her usual self, had other plans. She broke away from Calvin at full speed, sobbing piteously as she threw herself on the well-meaning Juntai man.
“Officer, Officer, you have to help me!” she wailed, clutching at his hand and dropping to her knees, the sudden proximity giving the man pause.
“It’s all going to be fine now, you should –“
“He wasn’t choking nearly hard enough!” Nadia said, putting the man’s hand on her neck and forcing him to squeeze. “I’m desperate!”
The guardsman yanked his hand away from Nadia’s neck like it was made of cherry-hot iron. Nadia’s lips curled in a smile as the man’s jaw gaped, glancing between her and Calvin.
Calvin shrugged. Don’t look at me. She’s the crazy one.
“What, umm…are you doing here?” he asked, forcing Nadia away from where she was trying to cling to the juntai man’s scantily clad waist.
“I’m looking for someone, and it seems they were in this alley. If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep looking for clues.”
The guard scoffed, finally peeling Nadia off of him and sending her stumbling back toward Calvin. He saw her deliberately trip towards him and shifted his weight out of the way at the last second, causing her to topple to the filthy ground with a squawk.
“That’s not the strangest thing I’ve heard tonight, but even so, I do mind when a couple crazy foreigners get up to illicit and downright disturbing sex acts in the middle of the city. in public no less.”
Calvin glared at the whimpering princess who threw him the occasional sly smirk.
Now I’m going to have to figure out a way to manage this. maybe now would be the perfect time for a Complacency Aura. He would dismiss us and go on his way.
He would have to do it in a way that didn’t evoke suspicion, preferably without alarming the man, and so he’d have to hide his movements.
“Alright, we’ll go, just let me grab my coat,” Calvin said, half-turning to conceal his other hand heading for his belt.
Wait a minute.
Calvin straightened and turned back to the guard shining light on them.
“What was the strangest thing you’ve heard tonight?”
Unlike the guards at the palace gates, this one was particularly good natured, Calvin supposed.
“Some dark skinned foreigner woman was digging through the trash, said she was looking for bodies to dissect.”
Learner? Learner was around here tonight?
“When was that?” Calvin asked, stepping closer to the man, who lowered his railgun a bit reflexively.
“Hey now,” The guard said. “Keep your distance.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Calvin said in his most calming voice, which was possibly not that calming, but it seemed to work a little.
“I just want to know how long ago she was here and where she went,” Calvin said triggering the hypnotic mutation in his eye.
He felt a brief resistance as an ache in his temple, before it was swept aside, and the man’s jaw went slack.
“She left here…about ten minutes ago. Left with some man, acting like a harlot.”
“Flirty?” Calvin prompted.
“She put her arm around his.” The guard responded, ignoring Nadia’s antics completely.
Because only a harlot would do that. Calvin thought, resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
Maybe in Allast that’s true.
Put her arm around his? That doesn’t really sound like learner but there isn’t more than two women who match that description and one of them’s in my bed.
Calvin’s eyes narrowed. Learner better not be the one in my bed.
Nadia tried getting a rise out of the man again before giving up with a huff and getting off her knees.
“Why do you always try to solve your problems with magic?” She asked. “I could have gotten him to talk for free. I could’ve gotten the guards at the gate to talk for free, too.”
“My way’s faster and involves less fellatio. Which direction did they go?” Calvin asked.
“That way, towards the residential district.” The guard said, pointing, his gaze still locked to Calvin’s
“You’ve been very helpful and you should feel proud of being the most tolerable guardsman I’ve come across during my stay here.” Calvin said, breaking eye contact.
“Really, what…was I doing?” He asked.
“You were telling us not to loiter.” Calvin supplied.
“Right. Move along,” the guardsman said, waving them away.
These are not the droids you’re looking for.
“Alright, let’s find Learner before she eats whatever unfortunate soul thought she was a catch,” Calvin said, nodding to the guardsman as they left the alley.
“What makes you think Learner has the guy we’re looking for?” Nadia asked.
“Nothing in particular,” Calvin said with a shrug. “It’s just that preventing Learner from committing violence is higher in priority than finding whoever tried to trepan you. If she’s eating the guy who did it, than that would just be a lucky coincidence, wouldn’t it.”
“At least we found out one thing about the guy we’re looking for.” Nadia said with a solemn frown.
“The kick mark in the barrel was three inches higher, at least, so he’s probably taller than you. Not that that’s uncommon.”
“You want me to see if I could alter your summon to give you a permanent wedgie?” Calvin asked, raising a brow.
“Seems a lot tamer than the human centipede threat.”
“True, but this one I fully intend to follow through on.”
Calvin and Nadia followed a trail of witnesses whose heads had been turned by Learner’s exceptional beauty, and with a bit of canvassing the area, they narrowed in on a small neighborhood for more affluent artisans. After that, locating Learner wasn’t hard.
She was sitting in front of a house, drenched in blood, heels tapping against the boulder she was sitting on in the man’s front yard.
“Took you guys long enough.” She said.
Calvin took in the scene and breathed in his anger and bottled it down until they got out the other side of this. he didn’t know all the facts and yelling at the eldritch abomination wouldn’t serve any purpose.
One thing Calvin was deathly afraid of was that she would get a taste for mayhem, and he would have to put her down. The creature’s abilities grew at a visible rate, meaning the longer they delayed, the worse it would be.
Every time he brought the subject up with Kala, the girl told him that she was too important.
“Learner. You have to know how bad this looks.” Calvin said, approaching her.
“Oh, no, this is fine,” Learner said, glancing down at the blood on her dress. “Totally justified. I caught a serial killer.”
Calvin frowned. “What?”
“You know, the serial killer that’s been hunting Allast the last decade?” She cocked her head to the side. “Cuts off people’s heads?”
Nobody had said anything about it to Calvin.
“Here.” she tugged a leather bag out of her cleavage and tossed it to him. The bag had the muted clicks of something hard inside.
“The guy had a bag of human teeth. I’m pretty sure they’re from people he killed. Unless he likes collecting teeth from all his friends and family. He also tried to kill me after he used an interesting mutation to restructure my brain.”
Learner made a drilling motion at her temple. Calvin notived there were four spots of dried blood on each side of her head.
Minor damage to the skull, rewriting Nadia’s personality…
Calvin dropped the bag and glanced at Nadia, who shrugged, looking back at him.
No way it’s that easy.
“Is he still alive?” Calvin asked, glancing back up at the abomination.
“Mmmostly?” she said hesitantly.
“Learner, I need to see.”
“Right this way.” She said, hopping off the boulder and motioning for them to follow. She led them to a shed off to the side of the house, where a lantern revealed a small pool of blood and red drag marks where he’d dragged himself into the house proper.
“Huh,” Learner said when she spotted it. “I was pretty sure I got his tendons.”
They followed the blood and got to the back door of the ornate wooden house.
“That’s weird. Pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to lock the door in the state I left him in.” Learner said with a frown.
“Go away!” a woman’s voice shouted from inside the house. “Go away! We’ve already called the guard!”
Calvin put one hand on the handle and the other over it to muffle the sound and pulled, tearing it right out of the wood.
There was a scream and the clatter of furniture in the next couple seconds as Calvin dismantled the door and walked in.
There was furniture pressed up against the door that he crunched out of the way, revealing an entrance hall smeared with blood, and an older woman wielding a knife, her eyes bloodshot and teary, hands trembling.
Behind her were three children, a boy and two girls, attending to a man’s wounds in the living room.
“Get out, get out, get OUT!” She screamed, her voice nearly stopping Calvin in his tracks with sheer force. A moment later, she lunged at him, her lips curled back in a snarl.
Calvin caught the knife by the back and tugged it out of her hands. She wasn’t particularly strong or fast, making it an easy task.
The difficult task was getting past the woman without hurting her or getting his eyes gouged out as she went feral, trying to bite or scratch him any way she could.
Finally, Calvin settled for spinning the woman around and grabbing her by the back of her neck, wrenching both arms behind her back with the other.
It didn’t make him feel like an especially good man, but something was off here. the three children stepped between him and the man on the floor.
“Get away from that man or I’ll hurt your mother.” Calvin said, expecting reluctancy obedience, or at least hesitation.
“Get out of here! leave him alone!” They shouted at the top of their lungs, veins bulging on the sides of their heads as they strained their voices beyond what one would reasonably consider a safe volume for a human child.
Then they leapt at him, the biggest daughter carrying a heavy piece of furniture while the others had smaller knives.
Not one iota of concern for their mother.
“Okay, this is stupid.” Calvin muttered.
32/46 Bent remaining.
Calvin turned the air around their limbs solid as steel, freezing them in mid-feral leap.
That didn’t stop the screaming however. Their eyes rolled in their skulls, their faces turning red as they struggled to escape the bond he’d formed around them.
Calvin sealed the family in soundproof bubbles of air and tiptoed around them, finally able to get a good look at the man in question.
He was shredded, with several larger lacerations on his chest that had been hastily patched, along with surgical incisions on his arms and legs that seemed designed to hobble him.
He was Juntai handsome, with a well-defined jaw and decent musculature. Well-fed. On first glance, everything about the man on the floor panting in front of him spoke of a life of relative ease and affluence.
The glare of pure loathing he was getting from the man, however, was something he’d never encountered before. There was such visceral blame, greed, and desire to do harm, that Calvin could almost feel the saw on the back of his neck.
“Hi there,” Calvin said, squatting down beside the hobbled man with a grin. No way on Marconen was he going to let mean thoughts drive him off.
“You wouldn’t mind answering some questions, would you?” Calvin said.
The man just stared at him, skin pallid, breathing erratically.
Nadia made her way past the frozen family, frowning as she glanced over the struggling woman and children.
“Look at him.”
Nadia obliged, and in the moment the man looked at her, his eyes widening, Calvin got the whole story through Open Book.
To Nadia, the man was a perfect stranger, but to the man, she was the juiciest prey, and keeper of a thousand priceless secrets of arcane knowledge.
I think we have a winner. Calvin thought, standing.
“Calvin, can I talk to you?” Nadia whispered.
Calvin frowned. It was unlike Nadia to be discreet. Might as well humor her, then.
“Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere,” Calvin said, pointing at the man to Learner.
Nadia dragged him away, leading him to a small library before she came to a halt and began whispering, glancing around suspiciously as she did.
“Calvin, those people are under the effects of mind magic.”
“Obviously.” Calvin said.
“Yes, but it’s the kind of mind-magic that they’re under.” Nadia said.
“Okay, there’s two different broad categories of mind magic. Soft and hard.”
“So he hit them with hard mind magic.”
“Shut up for a sec,” Nadia said. “Hard mind magic achieves a specific result by temporarily flooding a person’s Stability, overwhelming their control. It’s the kind of spells you see cast every day in Iletha. It’s the core of all of our sorcery. Concrete spells linked to a Skill that can be handed down from person to person easily, with a repeatable, predictable effect. Soft mind magic involves little dollops of Bent, so small that the System accommodates them without alerting the victim. These changes pile up to create larger changes.”
“These people were turned into raving fanatics over the course of what must have been a month or so.”
“And? What does that mean to the uninformed.”
“Two things: First, that’s incredibly fast for soft mind-magic. If the man down there is the one who did it, he’s either a grandmaster or a savant. And it looks more like the second.”
“And the second thing?”
“The second thing is that soft mind magic is only taught in certain high-prestige Ilethan academies.”
“Obviously he didn’t go to those,” Calvin said.
“Obviously. So where in the Abyss did he learn how to turn a mother and her children into rabid bodyguards?”
“You.” Calvin said, booping her nose.
Nadia went pale.
“Elliot told me the man had been trying to change your mind via trepanning, but I think he got some memories out of it too. I saw it when he looked at you.”
“You have to kill him.” Nadia whispered. “There are things in my mind that simply shouldn’t be known.”
“Relax.” Calvin said, patting her head. “I wasn’t planning on leaving him alive.”
Calvin went back out into the main hall, where the man was resting against the wall, still glaring at him.
“Sorry, buddy,” Calvin said in perfect Juntai as he squatted down beside him, pulling a knife out of his belt. “You picked the wrong people to fuck with.”
The man coughed and gave him a bloody smile.
“You do what you have to, Calvin, because if you don’t kill me tonight, I’m going to do much better next time.”
“How do you know my name?” Calvin asked.
The wounded man glanced at Nadia again.
Calvin lashed out with the dagger, sinking it deep into the man’s eye. The Juntai killer twitched violently on the end of the knife as Calvin scrambled the man’s brains for a moment, making damn sure he wouldn’t be a problem later down the road.
When the twitching stopped, Calvin drew his blade out and cleaned it on a clean patch of the dead man’s shirt, peering at the man’s face.
“Did anyone get his name?” Calvin asked.
“He told me it was Carem Sageva.” Learner supplied.
“Son of a bitch!” Calvin shouted, slapping his forehead. “I was supposed to meet this guy tomorrow morning!”
“Not anymore, I guess.” Nadia said with a shrug.
When Calvin finally climbed back into bed he was dead tired and full of conflicting emotions. It wasn’t easy to kill someone, even if there was a decent amount of evidence that it was the right thing to do.
He’d spent the rest of the night cleaning up and erasing any sign of their presence, and now he just needed the comfort of his wife. Some good hugs from Kala, possibly with the addition of Ella, and lots of sleep.
Maybe he’d get to sleep in because the man they were set to meet today was dead.
Calvin shucked himself out of his clothes and crawled into bed, snatching the covers away from the greedy cover-thieves. He crawled over to Kala’s body, which was radiating heat like a furnace, her lovely skin nearly hot to the touch.
He was tired, but there was always time for kisses.
Calvin planted kisses up her shoulder until she woke up, groaning as her brows knitted together.
“Was he missing a tooth?” Kala asked, turning over in bed, her eyes tightly shut.
“What?” Kala said, prying her brown eyes open to look at him.
Carem ran through the night as fast as Elina’s body would take him, rubbing the keepsake of his former body between his thumb and forefinger as he decided on his next move.
Circumstances had forced him to reconsider his position on copying himself. Thankfully Elina had gladly given herself to him. Her complete lack of resistance had…triggered something in his mutation, and even now, he could feel the dull ache as the Roots grew down from Elina’s brain through her arms.
Maybe I am the Roots themselves?