Setalite City, 2:47 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
The fight between Screener and Wraith was the only one still going strong. Cutaway had just fled—the moment that Vapid had turned her attention onto him, managing to take a portal and evacuate before any of them could stop him. They were lucky that the vast majority of the buildings on that side of the intersection where businesses—mostly empty at this time of night.
“Arret, relay this,” Loren said, frowning, “I see any more portals you and your friend will be down a leg each, or maybe an eye in your case—that seems like it would be more effective against you.”
“Dude,” Arret said quickly, her voice genuinely worried, “Are you even a hero?”
Loren frowned at her, and she squeaked.
“You heard that Orient?” Arret said urgently, “I’d rather keep those, please.”
“Who are you?” Loren said quietly, “Why are you trying to kill that guy?”
They probably knew the identity of Mark already, but he wasn’t going to assume anything with these people.
“I can’t tell you that!” Arret said worriedly, shaking her head quickly.
Loren tightened the coils around her slightly, and she squeaked again—Beat spoke up.
“Contract went out a month ago—” Beat said easily, without a care in the world.
“Beat!” Arret said embarrassedly, “At least try and make something up first!”
“I’m not taking any chances with your eyes, kid—besides, I’m far too old for that shit,” Beat laughed.
“Beat…” Arret mumbled.
“Contract?” Loren refocused them.
“Yeah, sure,” Beat said thoughtfully, “The mission period finishes when Golden Week is over; it was listed as a hunt contract on Insoluble.”
Insoluble… What the hell was that—some kind of app or website?
“And?” Loren said sternly, tightening the coil again. “The target was this guy?”
Beat glanced back at him before snorting, and Loren felt his eye twitch slightly in embarrassment; he really needed to figure out a way to get a mask right at the start of each loop, this shirt around the face bullshit was ruining him.
“The target was every single local cape in Setalite City,” Beat laughed, “Unlimited cash-ins, ten million per head—no one believed it at first, sounded like bullshit, yeah?”
It did sound like bullshit—there had to be a couple thousand heroes and villains in Setalite, ranging from no-name B-ranks to a handful of S-ranks. Ten million for each of them? Who could possibly have that kind of money?
“Yeah, it does,” Loren said evenly. “Yet here you are.”
“Here I am!” Beat laughed, “Payments started going out to the most curious, word got around, and we thought hey, let’s pick off some of these guys and make ourselves bank, hell I was going to retire after this—figures I’d get caught now of all times.”
Loren listened to the old man ramble for a while, put off by his complete lack of care.
“So you’re perfectly fine with just killing innocent people for money?” Loren said quietly, unable to comprehend him. “Why didn’t you go after a villain?”
“Innocent people!” Beat started laughing his ass off, “You’ve never been on Insoluble, have you? I think there are maybe five heroes in this entire city who I’d call innocent—either way, it’s not like this dickhead was our only target—Orient, who cares? They have to know about this already; it’s not exactly a secret.”
It was from him, but he wasn’t exactly in the loop.
What exactly did he mean that they weren’t innocent? Some of them were clearly assholes, sure; Wraith had killed him once; in his defense, it was at what was probably the worst moment of the guy’s life. So had Mark, actually… and Vapid got him as well—that one was technically him killing himself trying to keep up with her, though.
Did Tag count? He’d technically died from the explosion, but he probably would have bled out from the hole in his shoulder…
Loren needed to find this Insoluble thing as soon as possible—a wash of blue light appeared on the rooftops, where Screener was holding up both hands as Wraith slowly advanced through the wall of invisible pressure, hand outstretched. Screener vanished in the cage of light, and Loren turned to look at Beat.
“Hey, I told her not to!” Beat laughed, “If you’re going to carry out that threat of yours, my lefts the favorite, do me a solid, yeah?”
Loren considered breaking the man’s leg just so that Orient wouldn’t attempt it again, but before he could make the decision, he saw Wraith land on the rooftop closest to his position in the air.
“I’ll let you keep it for now,” Loren said dryly, “Last chance, any more portals, and all bets are off. Do you need me to be more clear for you, Orient?”
“She’ll be good,” Arret said quickly.
Loren brought them down to the rooftop slowly and nodded to the black armor-clad hero.
“Yo, Wraith, long time no see.” Loren said pleasantly, “You look taller—have you been working out?”
Wraith didn’t even respond to the ludicrous comment.
“Beat, Arret,” Wraith said simply, voice digitized. “Well done. Who are you?”
Mark and Mongoose came into sight, crossing rooftops at a pace I had no chance of tracking at this close.
“A hero without a name,” Loren said easily, keeping the mood light. “Delivery for Wraith—can you take these two off my hands? They are kind of heavy—especially pinky.”
“Hey!” Arret said indignantly.
Loren wasn’t messing around; he had four of the hands now coiled around his body, leaving no section unshielded in case the guy decided to take him down as well. I moved Beat forward and placed him on the ground in front of him.
“Beat,” Wraith said seriously.
“Yeah, yeah,” Beat laughing into the roof. “I’ll play nice.”
Wraith pulled both of the man’s hands around, and a black segment of armor bloomed outwards from Beats wrists, locking them together in an instant; white glowing lines drew up from the shackles, back through the black armor before disappearing around the shoulders before Beat slumped forward.
“Ugh,” Beat groaned, “I see you figured that one out finally.”
Wraith didn’t respond; instead of standing once more, Loren moved Arret over into the same position on the ground.
“What was that?” Loren frowned down at the man, “Did you drain his power or something?”
“Yes,” Wraith said simply, “He is exceedingly hard to keep contained, due to the nature of his power—without any energy, he is unable to act.”
“This feels like shit,” Beat complained, “Can you at least make it more comfortable next time?”
Wraith placed his hands against Arrets arms and locked them together with more black armor that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. No attempt was made to remove the cape that was tied around the woman’s eyes for obvious reasons.
“I will take some time to do so,” Wraith said simply.
Loren blinked at the response—maybe he wasn’t a complete asshole after all. He finally retrieved all of his invisible appendages and coiled them around himself. Mark, now wearing his costume and Mongoose, arrived a moment later.
“Who are these guys?” Loren asked evenly, while he still had the chance, nodding to the two tied up on the ground.
“Cinematic,” Wraith answered, “Mongoose, Gradient, report?”
“Cutaway is gone,” Gradient said, annoyed, “Ported out by the teleporter, Vapid scared him off—no idea where she came from, but she’s gone now.”
“Did she manage to touch him?” Wraith pressed.
“No,” Gradient sighed.
“Who’s this guy?” Mongoose said happily, sounding like she was having the time of her life. “Nice mask—really brings out your eyes, pretty boy.”
Loren ignored her completely, still pissed off at her part during the last loop’s failure.
“Unknown,” Wraith said simply.
“We’ve been calling him Wildcard,” Beat interjected like he was having a chat in a bar and not tied up on the roof. “Guy came out of nowhere—blindsided us entirely.”
Loren wondered at that; they’d known exactly when Mark was leaving the apartment, they must have had someone watching for that—Strange that they hadn’t seen him coming out of the window. He noted that the gathered heroes were waiting for a response.
“I’m new,” Loren said easily, “Got my powers about half an hour ago—I was testing them out when I saw a truck get teleported onto the road in a flash of blue light.”
Beat started laughing, but there was a note of incredulity to it.
“He pushed my car out of the way of the truck.” Gradient revealed, “I didn’t even notice it until it was too late.”
“You’re welcome,” Loren said wryly. “Maybe try not to do burnouts in a car park at two in the morning—or at least follow the speed limit, asshole.”
Gradient flushed, visible on the bottom of his face and neck.
“Fuck off—” Mongoose said, annoyed, before eyeing Gradient for a moment. “Why the hell were you doing that?”
Wraith hadn’t stopped watching him since he’d handed over the two, and he crossed his arms for a moment.
“You heard about this contract that Beat was talking about?” Loren said seriously.
“Yes,” Wraith said simply, “This isn’t the first attempt on one of us, and It is unlikely to be the last. Thank you for intervening, Wildcard.”
“That’s a dumb name,” Loren complained.
Beat started laughing.
“Two in the morning, really? Are you a fucking teenager?” Mongoose said mockingly, “Act like an adult, you dumbass!”
Gradient was looking flustered now, but Loren couldn’t find it in himself to give a shit. The only reason he hadn’t revealed that he overheard the man banging a girl was that it would bring Mongooses attention back on Emma, which was something he was trying to avoid.
“Imagine if I hadn’t saved you, Gradient, you’d definitely have died,” Loren added pointedly, steel manning the guy’s defense even as he twisted the knife. “Your friends here would have been crying for months because you wanted to go for a late-night joyride.”
“Dumb fuck!” Mongoose hissed at her ‘friend.’
“I get it!” Gradient said, frustrated, “Fine, I won’t do it anymore—just shut up already!”
“Wraith,” Loren said slowly. “I’d like to have a discussion in private with you—I wish I wasn’t so tired; I know I’m going to mess this up because I haven’t slept thanks to this idiot.”
“Look, he’s not even sorry! He hasn’t learned his lesson at all,” Loren insisted, annoyed, “Get him Mongoose! He almost died, you know? Does he care about your feelings at all?”
Mongoose turned on him with narrowed eyes, and Loren met her gaze without fear. Wraith was still studying him silently, and he raised an eyebrow at the guy’s armored head.
“It’s a matter of urgency,” Loren admitted, “Innocent lives are on the line.”
“Very well,” Wraith said seriously, “Mongoose, Gradient, take them back to HQ.”
“You’re just going to run off with this random guy?” Mongoose said challengingly, raising an eyebrow. “He might be playing for a contract, lure you out on your own and stab you in the back.”
Wraith turned his helmet for a moment to study his comrade.
“No offense,” Loren said easily; he wasn’t going to let that character assassination slide, “But I’d much rather fight you and Gradient than take on Wraith—it’d be an easy fight actually; maybe we should let Beat back up, give your side a bit more of a fighting chance?”
Beat started laughing his ass off again, and Mongoose bared her teeth in anger. Gradient just seemed relieved to have the attention turned off him for a moment.
“You want to test that out right now?” Mongoose said darkly.
“Enough,” Wraith said calmly. “Mongoose.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mongoose said, annoyed, dragging Beat up off the ground by the shoulder. “Were going.”
Gradient did the same with Arret, tossing her over his shoulder, but before he left, he glanced back.
“Thanks for the save, Wildcard,” Gradient said firmly before leaping away.
Loren blinked as he realized he was being spoken too, but responded to late.
“That’s not my name!” Loren called out, annoyed. “Idiot.”
“Do you have a name you wish to be called?” Wraith said stoically.
Loren opened his mouth and then closed it—Bootslayer911 probably wasn’t a valid answer here.
“Dammit.” Loren sighed, “Whatever, it’s a good a name as any—Can you take me somewhere where there is absolutely no chance of us being overheard—keep in mind that might not be enough to stop it from getting out.”
Wraith stilled and remained that way for almost a minute before Loren finally spoke up.
“Uh. Are you on the phone with someone?” Loren guessed, wondering if the suit had some kind of interior monitor or something. “This is super awkward in case you haven’t realized—you’re kind of just staring at me.”
“Ah. I apologize,” Wraith said somewhat off-beat, “Please follow me.”
A completely inconspicuous door on the street filled with plenty of them rolled up, and Loren followed the armored man into the room. The door came back down on its own, and they stood in the small room. Loren was about to speak up again—because, goddammit, this guy was awkward.
He felt a strange feeling in his stomach, and he realized that they were in an elevator. It stopped, and the wall slid open to show a hallway, at the end of which was a small empty room with a table and two chairs.
“Wow,” Loren said, blinking, “I’m not walking into an interrogation room, am I?”
“You are.” Wraith said simply, “This room is known to me alone.”
“Uh,” Loren said, sweating, “I’m not sure if you intended that to sound as creepy as it does—”
Wraith was quick to stop that line of thought.
“I am not interrogating you,” Wraith said shortly, not moving to sit in the chairs. “You wished to speak in private—speak.”
Loren strode over to the table and hopped up onto the ledge to sit on it before pulling the salmon shirt from around his face.
“Alright, every time I die, I wake up at 2:22 AM, Tuesday, the 22nd of this month.” Loren said, watching the mask, “As you have no doubt guessed by the shit that is going on in Setalite this month, I have died a bunch of times already.”
“That is how you knew where Gradient would be and when the attempt on his life would happen,” Wraith said simply, apparently playing along—or at least pretending to.
“Yeah, but the problem is much, much worse than that.” Loren said seriously, “The longest I’ve made it before dying is Thursday, and I’ll tell you now, a lot of really, really bad stuff happens between now and then.”
“You have spoken to me before,” Wraith deduced, “You are choosing your words much more carefully than earlier—you prepared this.”
“Kind of,” Loren said, once again thrown off by the crazy perceptiveness this guy had. “I wrote a letter to you about it once, in one of the loops—it went very badly.”
“Because you told me in particular?” Wraith asked for clarification, still not questioning the veracity of it all.
“No, I got caught in your office delivering the letter,” Loren said lightheartedly, “Mongoose tried to kick the crap out of me, and after I escaped, you figured out where I lived—really not a fan of you attacking me in my bedroom, I’m still waiting for an apology.”
Obviously, a joke because the Wraith that had done that was gone.
“I apologize,” Wraith said simply.
“Uh, that was a joke, dude,” Loren said awkwardly, and Wraith didn’t respond. “Okay, moving on. First things first—there are bombs under the HQ in Arrot city, there are bombs under the HQ in Setalite City, there are bombs in the sewers—presumably in both cities as well, but definitely here—specifically under the heroes podium.”
Wraith stilled even more than normal, and Loren watched him nervously for a moment, waiting for an attack.
“Arrot is going to explode today, at just after 10:30 AM, it takes out multiple blocks of the city, and the entire Hero HQ.” Loren said seriously, “The bombs in Setalite don’t go off until Thursday.”
“Paragon’s scheduled speech,” Wraith said without inflection, “During the height of the festival.”
Loren just nodded; he’d just have to get used to being read like a book by mister galaxy brain.
“The person who set all this up can set them off remotely—they’ve done it multiple times before,” Loren said seriously.
“You asked to speak to me in private because somebody in the HQ is the killer,” Wraith said evenly. “Or somebody from HQ is sending the killer information about any investigations we undertake from the inside.”
“There’s a leak,” Loren confirmed, “That’s what I’ve come to believe—every time I get involved or I tell anyone, and it gets back to the leak in the HQ, the bombs end up going off.”
Wraith studied him in silence, unmoving.
“How were you able to confirm that I was not the killer or the leak?” Wraith said, finally.
Loren narrowed his eyes for a moment, but he was pretty sure that hadn’t been a threat—just an awkwardly worded question.
“You survived the explosion in some of the loops,” Loren admitted, “In one of my failed attempts to get the information to the heroes—this was before I learned about the leak—”
“I killed you,” Wraith said at length, voice a decibel quieter.
Damn, this guy was way too smart; how he had gotten there so quickly was anybody’s guess.
“Yes, you did.” Loren admitted, “I was identified as the one who sent the letter, and you came after me. You were…very angry, you killed a friend of mine first—I lost it and started fighting back seriously.”
There was no point in sugar-coating it; he hadn’t done it in this timeline—he had to remember that, he couldn’t keep holding events people went on to do over their heads before they had done them.
“I am… I apologize—” Wraith said slowly.
“Don’t bother,” Loren said quietly, “I was just thinking about this—I can’t hold you accountable for something you have done yet—just help me fix this situation, Wraith.”
Wraith nodded carefully.
“This is the first time I’ve managed to save Mark and the first conversation I’ve had with you where I didn’t look like a suspect—but I may not be able to get this far next time,” Loren admitted.
Thinking about how hard saving Mark had been this time.
“There is another variable that determines how quickly you fail?” Wraith deduced. “A factor that changes at the start of each loop.”
Loren flinched at the wording, and Wraith’s shoulder moved backward slightly before stilling.
“Damn man, you have zero chill,” Loren said, pained, rubbing his neck for a moment. “I get a different power every time I die.”
Wraith took a moment to parse that.
“The attack happened very soon after you reset,” Wraith said evenly, “You are not always able to figure out how to use the new power in time to help, or it simply doesn’t allow you the capability to fight.”
Fuck—if Wraith had gotten this power instead, the loop would be solved by now.
“Yeah,” Loren admitted, “That about sums it up—so, you seem pretty smart; how do I go about getting your attention in a way that doesn’t get me arrested next time?”
Wraith tilted his head ever so slightly.
“You consider this loop to be failed already?” Wraith said without inflection. “You plan to die again.”
“All it takes is word getting back to whoever is behind all of this,” Loren said honestly, “And all of those people die in the bombings again—even if I survive it, that’s still a failure to me.”
“I see.” Wraith slowly reached up to his helmet.
It hissed, and vapor appeared from the gaps in a burst as it detached.