An empty house, 7:27 PM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
Loren crawled over to lean against the wall instead of attempting to hold himself upright in the middle of the room, and when he managed to make himself comfortable, he let his attention drift to the homunculi moving about the city.
They were starting to be killed with an almost methodical frequency, but the pattern didn’t make much sense, and then after he had managed to visualize the net of nodes corresponding with his power a bit better, he realized whoever was tracking them was slowly working their way in the direction of this neighborhood.
It wasn’t a direct path, more like a wide sweep towards him-so; however they were managing to track him; it must have needed some kind of additional information before it could pinpoint his exact location with any sort of accuracy.
They’d stopped going after the groups he was making further into the city almost entirely; instead, they were dogged in their choice of direction-not that it mattered much; Crescent seemed to be dealing with those groups anyway after the mystery person failed to chase them back into the city.
Loren had a feeling if he spawned any more minions at his position, that would likely give the game away or give some kind of better sense of where he was to the person.
As he was growing more adept at interpreting everything he received from each of the nodes, he was starting to catch snippets of both sound and sight. Not enough to understand exactly what they were seeing, but it was becoming clearer.
There were still a couple thousand of them deeper in the city as well, keeping track of Crescent’s location and dying at very regular intervals as she located their hiding places. The woman must have been growing tired because the attacks were becoming less and less frequent as the hours passed.
Abnormally high destructive power, speed, and everything else-she may have been gifted with, but she was still apparently as susceptible to growing tired as the rest of us.
Movement at the window drew his eye, and he caught the edge of Emma’s bodysuit before she stepped past the window. A moment later, and she was inside, almost entirely silent; she was clearly practiced at stealth.
Loren barely managed to raise his hand quick enough to catch the package she tossed at him; he squinted at it in the dark for a moment, unable to read without any light. He fumbled for his phone for a moment, trying to retrieve it from his pocket.
“Alright, so I couldn’t find any lubricant,” Emma said apologetically, “So we will have to do this the hard way; come on then Loren, bend over.”
“Fuck, no!” Loren squawked.
He quickly used his phone to read the packaging; It was a normal brand name painkiller. Loren almost sighed in relief; he wasn’t sure if she’d been serious about that whole gag.
“Should have seen your face,” Emma giggled, sitting down beside him.
Loren huffed quietly, dry swallowing two of the tablets with some effort.
“Tracker-person is still working their way here; I think they know the general area,” Loren admitted, “But not the exact location.”
“Are you still making more naked guys?” Emma said quietly.
“Yeah,” Loren said, amused at the descriptor. “I can’t make any more here though, I’ve got a feeling it would tip whoever it is off-they’ve started ignoring most of the groups I’m making nearby.”
“You can’t overwhelm them with numbers?” Emma wondered, not sounding very pleased with her own idea.
“I tried with about fifteen at once,” Loren admitted, “Whoever it is destroyed them in seconds.”
“You said it was a hero earlier. Do you know which one?” Emma mumbled, “We might be able to talk to them, explain what’s happening?”
Loren remembered that this entire reset went astray because he’d tried to do exactly that, but maybe actually meeting them in person could work. He’d had most of the optimism kicked out of him at this point though, he was pretty sure they would just get attacked.
He really couldn’t blame them, given that it looked like he had destroyed the city and murdered millions.
“We can try, Emma.” Loren said unsurely, “I’ve got a bad feeling about it, though.”
Emma turned to face him more fully at the sound of her name, leaning her cheek against the wall.
“So do I,” Emma confessed quietly, “This doesn’t look good; it might be better if we just leave the city entirely.”
It’s what he had suggested she do earlier, but she obviously wanted to include him in the plan. She didn’t know about his ability to reset and probably considered this entire place to be past saving.
Loren knew that there was still information to be found in this loop; it was the first time he’d managed to get past the explosions, even if they had come several days earlier. It was possible that whoever had done this would make themselves known now somehow, and he could then work towards taking them down in the next reset prior to the destruction of the city. If he left the city or reset straight away, he could miss some grand insight, or worse, he could wake up with another useless power and fail to even get this far again-at least not without a series of doomed loops.
“You don’t want to leave,” Emma noted quietly, leaning over against him. “I don’t understand you at all, Loren.”
He tilted his head to rest on her own and sighed.
“Confession number-uh, whichever this is, I’m stuck in a time loop,” Loren said easily, “Every time I die, I wake up just before you blow your load at two in the morning.”
“What?” Emma squeaked.
“Yeah, I’ve been through it at least five times now-I’m not really keeping tabs if I’m honest,” Loren said honestly, “Every time I tell anyone about something that’s going to happen, I seem to fuck it up worse, so there’s a lot of trial and error involved.”
Emma had sat back to study his face better in the dark.
“You’ve died five times?” Emma mumbled.
“Bunch of different ways too, although the bombs are the biggest threat,” Loren frowned, “Last time I got shot in the face by a turret-that sucked, you seemed pretty upset at the time too, not going to lie.”
“I was upset? We’ve done something like this before-in the other..loops?” Emma said quietly.
“Most of them end up with us talking, honestly, although this time you just broke into my apartment, that was new,” Loren said, bemused, “You fell through my window once and spewed on my floor as well.”
“Liar,” Emma said embarrassedly, “As if that would ever happen.”
“If you say so, Sparky,” Loren shrugged. “Anyway, the reason I even brought it up-I need to stay in the city and try to find out who exactly is the one behind all of this.”
Emma was quiet for a long moment.
“You’re going to use that information to go back and stop them before they can do it?” Emma said in understanding.
Loren just nodded.
“So, as much as I would love to abscond with your fine ass to a nice little cabin in the woods-live out the rest of our days away from exploding cities and crazy people,” Loren said wryly, “I’m going to have to stay here.”
“Idiot,” Emma mumbled.
Loren just smirked.
“You tried to send me away earlier,” Emma said, frowning, “Why?”
“I already told you, no point in us both dying,” Loren said honestly, “I’ll just reset anyway, but there’s no need for you to get hurt before then.”
“Why are you planning on dying at all?” Emma snapped, “That’s stupid, idiot.”
Loren opened his mouth, then closed it in shock.
“Fuck off,” Loren said, astonished. “It’s the obvious best move, given everything I have access to-sitting around outside the city for weeks on end isn’t going to help me fix the situation the next time I die, is it? I should be getting as much information as quickly as possible-”
“Maybe that’s true—but; letting yourself die on purpose—actively planning on it in the hopes that you might get some information faster is stupid!” Emma said in frustration.
He wasn’t actively planning on dying; he just knew it had a very high chance of happening and was willing to try and find a way through.
“What else am I supposed to do?” Loren snapped, “All these people keep on fucking dying; I can’t just leave them like this—not when I’m a single reset away from bringing everyone back!”
“What about you?” Emma jabbed her finger into his chest, “You’ve already died five times!”
“So has everyone else!” Loren argued before swiping her hand away.
Emma countered the attack without even looking, snatching him by the wrist and leaning forward against him; Loren had to brace himself with his hand as he slid down the wall under her weight.
“That doesn’t counter what I said at all!” Emma hissed in his face, furious. “You’re not even addressing my points!”
“Because they suck!” Loren said meanly, not even trying to convince her anymore. “Your points are trash, Idiot! Get better ones!”
Loren couldn’t help but admire the mixture of anger, frustration, and passion on her face; he’d never seen her look so alive.
“Stop trying to piss me off!” Emma demanded, almost entirely on top of him now. “Answer my question!”
Loren was too fired up to concede at this point, so instead, he doubled down on doing exactly what she had accused him of-mostly because that was exactly what he was trying to do; maybe if he annoyed her enough, she would actually leave the city.
“What are you going to do? Blow up another of my lightbulbs?” Loren taunted before going for the critical hit. “Champ?”
“Loren,” Emma growled, inches away; he could feel her breath on his face. “Don’t call me that.”
Well, maybe she wouldn’t leave the city; she might just murder him out of sheer fury-but if he was going to die anyway, it may as well be by Emma.
“Sorry, champ,” Loren said pointedly.
An empty house, 9:43 PM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
“Two blocks away,” Loren mumbled, keeping his eyes on the road outside. “I’m bringing more homunculi up behind them, but they aren’t stopping-seems like they are checking the houses now.”
Emma brushed her hair out of her eyes before tidying it up enough to slip her mask back on.
“That way?” Emma said quickly, indicating the last position.
He adjusted her angle slightly, and she nodded.
“We can either wait for them to check the house,” Loren said quietly, “Or we can go wait for them on the street.”
Emma looked nervous.
“Do we have any backup?” Emma mumbled, slipping her head under his arm and helping him limp towards the door.
“There are about a hundred of my guys in the area; I can double that in a few seconds,” Loren whispered as he heard the sound of a window shattering across the street. “Let’s wait out on the stree-”
“Found you.” A mechanical voice said darkly before the wall exploded.
A sheath of blue light flickered around Emma before she lunged backward out of the kitchen door, dragging him along with her. Loren could just see a metal covered hand-cut past his face before they were outside, and a stinging pain flashed across his cheek. A metallic click, followed by more, sounded out as the attacker stepped out of the kitchen and into the lamplight.
The boogeyman of the Setalite City Heroes, Wraith, with the severed head of one of his homunculi wired onto his shoulder.
“Oh shit,” Loren said weakly, that explained how he had been tracking them. “Hold on, man, we didn’t do this! I tried to warn the heroes about the bombs this morning!”
“In the company of Sparklite, a well-known villain.” The voice noted darkly, “You think I would believe that, after everything that’s happened? Everybody you’ve killed today? All the people buried in the rubble, crushed or suffocating? Nobody left to save them? All of my comrades-my friends-in more pieces than I could ever hope to count?”
Loren couldn’t find the words to explain anything; Wraith’s voice was a controlled fury filled with pain-but Emma managed to find her voice in his stead.
“Wraith,” Emma said quietly, “We didn’t do this; Loren tried to stop it-”
Wraith took a single step forward, more of his segmented metal armor revealed in the light, the angled white eyes on his helmet glinted.
“Loren.” Wraith pronounced the name carefully, voice furious.
“Sparklite.” Loren said quietly, “It’s time to go, now-”
Wraith didn’t wait for him to finish speaking.
The ground practically evaporated beneath him as he crossed the distance in a sudden burst of movement; Emma launched him up into the air before electricity danced over her form. Wraith crashed into her with a deafening crack, sending them both through the fence and out of sight.
The closest Homunculi managed to catch him before he fully hit the ground, but he still ended up tearing his leg up on the fence in the process. Loren was already multiplying as many of the nearby creatures as he could get his attention on, and they swarmed straight through the wall after the two.
A flash of lightning tore through the air, cutting a massive trench through most of the street and wiping out at least half of his newly created army. Wraith didn’t even slow down-he dashed straight through the middle of it, lightning washing off his metal-clad form like it wasn’t even there.
The demonic man hit Emma like a Wrightway truck, and with another ear-bursting crack, the street shattered below them. Emma lost her footing and was sent tumbling backward from the followup-but Wraith just kept on moving forward, stepping on pieces of moving debris as if they were solid footholds.
Emma’s aura flickered for a moment before it grew brighter, and for a short time, she contested Wraith in melee, punches, knees, and elbows glancing off the man’s impervious armor and sending arcs of showering sparks in every direction.
The homunculi couldn’t keep up with either of them and despite Loren’s attempt at positioning them to work under the massive speed disadvantage, it didn’t make much of a difference. Instead, he decided to overwhelm him.
The army surged forward as it abruptly doubled in size again, and then once more as a wave of chalk white bodies washed over the street like a tidal wave. Wraith didn’t even turn around; instead, a section of his armor opened up, a net of black metal spikes speared outwards, branching off in every direction. The homunculi that came into contact with the growing network of spikes were cut into pieces, and it continued to grow larger by the second.
Another flash of lightning, even brighter than before, flashed across the distance at the stationary hero, but instead of doing anything useful, the lighting surged up and out of the spikes destroying thousands more of his autonomous army in an instant.
The spikes vanished almost as soon as his army had, and the lightning cut out abruptly before there was a sudden silence. Loren felt his blood run cold as he stumbled out onto the street to get a better view of where Wraith was positioned.
There was an area empty of the homunculi, and right in the center was Wraith, holding Emma by the throat as she clawed at his arm, a dull crack rang out, and her legs stopped scrabbling for purchase in the air.
Loren saw white.
The road was swallowed in homunculi, the houses disappeared, the trees lining the sidewalk, the entire block vanished beneath the endless white clawing bodies.
This time Loren didn’t stop.
Loren’s Apartment, 2:22 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
Loren reached up to touch his face, where Wraith’s armored hand had slid through and out the other side, as pieces of his lightbulb fell down around him. His heartbeat like a drum in his chest, the adrenaline of the fight surging straight back into existence even after the reset.
Emma let out a noise of ecstasy from upstairs before the thumping gradually slowed to a stop.
“So everybody died again, including Emma,” Loren whispered. “And I learned nothing new.”
It wasn’t entirely true; he’d learned several things, but it didn’t feel anywhere near as equal as he would have liked. The first thing he learned was that the people would drop their veneer of humanity the moment they were given the justification.
Crescent had been willing to upgrade from theft to mass murder after something had tipped her over the edge, wiping out blocks of the city and killing countless survivors of the bombing. Wraith had given up on saving anyone at all or listening to any kind of explanation, content to enact his mistaken revenge.
How ironic that a hero and a villain would be so alike, despite being on directly opposite sides of society.
Something else that he had learned was that he had understated the need for secrecy in his letter to the Hero HQ-the bomber had still figured it out. Alternatively, he had understated how careful they needed to be when handling the bombs because they may have set them off by accident.
The third and most startling thing he had learned was that Wraith was an unstoppable monster.
Nothing had worked against the man. He had just cut straight through everything in his way, too strong, too durable, too fast, too skilled. Outnumbered thousands to one by superhumanly strong homunculi had done nothing to slow him down in the slightest, and Emma, who had been far above them in strength, had lasted less than two minutes against him.
Loren couldn’t understand why the man was only listed as an A-rank hero.