Chapter 26

Highway, Outskirts Setalite City, 8:07 PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.

The lights that bordered the highway shone brightly in the dark, and Loren eyed the passing trucks warily. They’d kept on walking, moving from the forest to the road as it grew too dark to see anything.

“He could have just given up,” Loren said quietly, “Maybe they decided that one death was enough and moved on?”

“Archetype chased me for like four hours today,” Chloe argued, “He’s persistent. “The only reason I’m not stuck in a collapsed and burning unit right now is that I saw him from the window walking around the block.”

“Did he know that you lived there?” Loren mumbled.

“I don’t think so—far as I can tell, one of his powers is to sense the direction of something he’s looking for,” Chloe guessed, “It’s not like a continuous power either, because he didn’t hone straight in on the building, I think he gets like regular updates or something? I couldn’t tell you the specifics. I was a bit busy at the time.”

“Was he literally just walking around the city looking for you?” Loren said, frowning, “Trying to ping your location?”

“I suppose it could have been one of the other members tracking me, sending him information?” Chloe mumbled.

“No,” Loren said, remembering what he had heard earlier. “Beat… said that they’d been trying to contact him all day and that he left his transmitter at the base.”

“I guess he was just walking around the city looking for me then,” Chloe said warily, “Yikes.”

“A super stalker who can find you wherever you are—it really is Vapid all over again,” Loren muttered. “Why didn’t he attack you in the other loops?”

Chloe shrugged.

“I don’t even know what happened in the other loops, Loren?” Chloe rolled her eyes. “How would I know?”

“You were at the tournament for most of them,” Loren explained, “He didn’t attack you in any of those ones—too many people in central or too much hero presence?”

“He didn’t come after me the next day?” Chloe probed, smirking. “When I wasn’t busy winning the tournament?”

He felt a spike of challenge in the words and sent her a narrow-eyed glance.

“We were sending messages to each other in a few of those loops, and we even met up for coffee once after the tournament,” Loren said thoughtfully. “I never witnessed or heard anything about him coming after you.”

“Maybe he just decided to go after an easier target when he couldn’t get to me in the city?” Chloe theorized, “Alternative to that, maybe he came after me that night?”

Loren had no evidence to the contrary, but there was no proof either.

“It could have happened,” Loren admitted, “We don’t know that though—Chloe, If I send you a message at the start of the next loop telling you about Cinematic, what would you do?”

Chloe blinked at the sudden direction change.

“That isn’t exactly an easy question to answer, Loren,” Chloe said dryly, “I know now that I’d run away, but that’s with enough time for all of this to settle in—if I just get a message out of the blue like that—I could run, or I might go after you first.”

Loren opened his mouth to argue and then paused.

“Why would you go after me?” Loren said, frowning.

“I thought you said you watched my stuff?” Chloe snorted, “You fake fan.”

“Why?” Loren repeated, annoyed.

“It’s what I always do to people who threaten me,” Chloe said defensively, “It’s my thing! If I just randomly get a letter from some stranger saying that somebody is coming after me for money, I’ll treat it as somebody digging into my secret identity.”

Having your security blanket of anonymity bypassed by some mysterious sender…

“I can include stuff about you to prove that I know who you are or something,” Loren argued. “Try and sell the idea that we worked together in a previous loop.”

“That will just make me think you’re trying to blackmail me with my identity, and it goes straight from warning to an active threat,” Chloe said slowly, “Right now, you are literally the only person in the entire world that knows my identity—and before you argue that, I doubt Archetype knows it, his power probably points him towards the villain ‘Outplayed,’ not the streamer ‘Chloe Walker.’”

Loren scratched his cheek for a moment—that had been what he was going to argue.

“What the hell am I supposed to do then?” Loren sighed, “Tell me something to take back with me—”

A grey man stepped out from the treeline in front of them, perfectly humanoid down to the details of his face—but once he moved into the light up ahead of them, Loren realized that he was completely made of stone.

It took him several frozen moments to get over the shock of his sudden appearance.

“Stay over there,” Loren called out as he came to an abrupt halt on the road. “Outplayed?”

“No idea which one it is, but if I had to guess?” Chloe said evenly. “Animate.”

A second man strode out of the trees, made completely from what looked like woodgrain, and then a third made of metal, fourth—a flood of the beings started walking out of the trees. Moving to surround them and completely blocking off the right-hand side of the highway. The traffic came to a halt behind the army, headlights illuminating the growing army.

“Loren.” Chloe said quietly, “It’s time to get the—”

They attacked—Loren lashed out with ten of the fourteen limbs, keeping the other four tightly wound around him. Ten of the automatons shattered under the overwhelming force of his phantom limbs, sending broken bodies into the rest of the army before seeking other targets.

Chloe front kicked one of the metal ones that was now missing its head after the first attack, only managing to send it back a couple of feet and doing no damage. A wooden enemy punched her across the face, and she made no move to avoid it.

Its hand exploded into a shower of splinters on contact with her invulnerable face.

Loren focused on his own task of decimating the still growing ranks of the clone army, managing to keep a clearing of perhaps ten meters around them with his efforts. Occasionally one or two would slip through, and Chloe would self-defense it to death.

More and more of the automatons were coming by the second, starting to climb over each other to reach the no-mans-land that was growing harder to keep empty. He switched to more wide-sweeping attacks with his ten limbs to keep up with the increase of bodies, cutting down ten at a time with each hit.

They were still getting overrun—It was a losing scenario.

Loren snagged Chloe with one of the limbs and used another to throw them over the barrier and into the oncoming traffic. He landed on top of a passing truck silently, dropping Chloe down beside him. The army gave chase, moving faster than a human could have but far slower than the truck. They were quickly being left behind.

He had a feeling they wouldn’t be growing tired, though.

The car in front of the truck started to slow down, not much, just enough to bring it closer to the truck—when it was within fifty meters, the world disappeared, and everything went black. Loren spun around, but there was nothing—he looked down at his hands and couldn’t see them.

Chloe?” Loren shouted, “Can you hear me?”

He couldn’t hear his own voice.

The only thing he could feel was his phantom limbs and the small pressure of them wrapped around her. He tried to touch his face with his normal hands but couldn’t tell if he’d managed it—Loren dragged them both upwards, abandoning the truck, and moving into the air.

Barely a second later, the world flickered back into view, and everything came rushing back with a flurry of sensation and noise.

He snapped his gaze downwards, and a spike of horror rippled through him, the truck was covered in blood, and Cutaway was standing on top of it staring upwards, sword glowing white. Loren looked to where he was still holding the lower half of Chloe’s body—there was nothing left above the waist.

Screener’s massive presence washed through the area, suddenly pushing down toward him from above. He dragged himself out of the way half on reflex, still coming to terms with the fact that Chloe was already dead.

He’d lost his forward momentum in his shock, and a blast of fire crashed into him, washing over the invisible limbs and covering him in dark smoke. He dragged himself out of the way of the flash of lightning that followed, and once more, as Screener sent a wave of force at him from above. He couldn’t get out of the way this time, and it crashed into his own defense, sending him rocketing towards the highway below.

Loren lost sight of the world once more as he smashed into the road and back into the range of the sensory deprivation field. He dragged himself along the road, feeling with his phantom limbs until he managed to clear it.

He found Cutaway sprinting towards him, sword glowing white—Loren lashed out at him with ten of the limbs, and he was forced to break off the attack, defending himself with his sword. The ten limbs were severed on contact with the weapon, and suddenly he had twenty-four limbs.

A blue cage of light surrounded Cutaway, and he waved as he disappeared—Loren felt the heat on his back, and he wrapped all twenty-four limbs around himself as Archetypes combination attack washed over him.

The limbs were shredded under the line of energy, barely holding, before the rest of the attack hit. More were growing back almost as fast as they were destroyed. His mind was expanding to make way for the forty-eight—ninety-six—in barely seconds, he’d reached the point where thousands of points bloomed in his mind—

The last of the attack washed over him, and Cutaway was revealed directly behind it, sword drawn back, all of his countless limbs were still wrapped tightly around him, and Loren tried to physically dive out of the way as the moment stretched on forever—

Loren froze before he’d taken a single step, unable to breathe, and the last thing he saw before Cutaway’s sword touched his chest was a flash of glowing pink eyes.

Emma cried out from above him, and his restraint shattered at the same time as the lightbulb.

“FUCK!” Loren raged.

Loren ripped the sheet off his bed furiously, standing up before he kicked his dresser as hard as he could, caving in the front of it and breaking one of the drawers. Some kind of energy grew inside of his chest, but he was far too angry to care.

He kicked the dresser again, much, much harder than before, smashing it to pieces and lodging his foot in the wall on the other side, and the energy increased once more. He ripped it out, grabbed the remains, and flung it at the window—it smashed through, sending glass, wood, and clothing down to the street below with a crash.

That core of energy continued to grow as he systematically destroyed every single thing he could get his hands on in the room. The bed was flipped over, the base stomped into splinters, and the headboard lodged in the ceiling hanging precariously from it.

Loren didn’t even feel tired after it all, and his anger hadn’t abated at all.

A series of loud bangs rattled his front door, and he stomped out into the kitchen and practically ripped the door off its hinge.

“What the fuck do you want, Mark?” Loren snarled, “Was I making too much fucking noise for you? Real fucking annoying, isn’t it?”

Mark leaned back from the anger, probably not expecting it, or maybe it was the fact that he knew the man’s name.

“What is going on here?” Mark said slowly, looking over his shoulder into his apartment.

“Why the fuck is it your problem?” Loren snapped, stepping forward. “Feel free to go back upstairs and wake the whole fucking neighborhood up!”

Mark looked even warier and held his arms up in a calming gesture.

“Calm down,” Mark said levelly, “Is there someone else inside with you?”

“Fuck off,” Loren said clearly. “Next time you want to start asking questions—Remember to put your fucking costume on first dipshit.”

Mark flinched before narrowing his eyes.

“Is there someone else inside with you?” Mark snapped back, placing his hand on the door. “I won’t ask again.”

“Hey, Emma?” Loren said loudly, who was still listening from the railing above. “Did he tell you about how he’s been fucking another girl behind your back for more than six months? Or was he going to wait until after you’d finishedEverybody loves surprises!

“W-what?” Emma said, shocked.

“Don’t listen to him!” Mark shouted, pressing forward into the apartment. “Shut the fuck up!”

Despite having a good hold on the door, he couldn’t stop him—the guy was using his enhanced strength to push his way inside. Loren hit him in the sternum, the energy in his own chest increased once more, and the punch sent Mark staggering back a couple of steps.

He had all of a second to brace himself before Mark slammed into him at speed, sending them both crashing back into his kitchen. Loren ended up on the floor underneath him, and he struck upwards—Mark blocked the hit with his palm, but the force sent him rocketing upwards into the ceiling with a crack.

He didn’t even seem phased and landed in a crouch before coming after him again. Loren managed to get to his feet just in time to receive a punch to the face, it turned his cheek, but the force bled away into that core in his chest, leaving him unharmed.

Marks eyes widened as Loren struck back at him again, but this time the man caught the punch with an audible crack, stopping it cold. The energy of the connection just fed back into the core once more, and his other hand smashed into the man’s block, sending him sliding back across the floor.

“How do you know who I am—” Mark demanded, “How long have you been following me around?”

“I’m not telling you fucking anything,” Loren snapped, taking an aggressive step forward. “Get out.”

Mark held his ground before touching his ear for a moment.

“Dovetail. No one else is inside the premises. It was just him.” Mark muttered. “He has classified information, so I’m going to have to arrest him at this point—I need some backup. He has some kind of strength-enhancing power—Do not send Mongoose—I don’t give a fuck if you’re busy, get over here now.”

Loren could hear an intake of breath from the stairwell—Obviously Emma. Dovetail was coming here—the one that was murdering villains for money? Yeah, fuck that—he’d had more than enough of dying today.

“Get the fuck out of my apartment,” Loren snapped, stepping forward again. “You don’t get to just break into my home when you feel like it and then act like I’m the one in the wrong.”

Mark cracked his neck and then took a stance.

“You attacked me,” Mark said firmly.

“I defended my home from an unknown civilian breaking in,” Loren snapped, “Last warning—get out.”

“No,” Mark said clearly.

Loren couldn’t find it in him to care anymore, he was too upset—Mark deflected the first punch to the side like he’d seen it coming from a mile away. He probably had—he wasn’t exactly a professional fighter, and this guy did this for a living.

He blocked the return hit barely, tried to tackle the hero, and then got a knee to the chin for his efforts that sent him stumbling backward, unharmed but off-balance. The front kicked sent him halfway through the wall, and the second one put him through the other side, into the bedroom.

Loren was starting to wish he still had the understanding of combat he’d had during the Vapid run—that would have been really fucking useful right now. He scrambled back to his feet and stepped forward into the next attack, pushing through it entirely and shoulder checking him.

Mark was sent sliding backward before he caught himself one more. Loren swung at him again, missing entirely as the man stepped to the side like he was moving in slow motion. The next punch came from behind his ear, harder than any of the previous ones, and once again sent him off balance.

Loren spun around in time to catch the next punch with his face, and Mark practically vanished when he turned backward before hitting him from behind again. Loren spun before throwing himself back and straight into Mark’s next attack, crashing into the man back first.

Mark tried to lock his hands around his neck from behind, but Loren broke the grip with his still-growing strength. The hero hit him three times in the side of the face—increasingly harder with each strike.

Loren spun, swinging the man off the floor and throwing him at the front of the apartment with all of his strength—Mark smashed through the wall, the stairwell railing, and dropped out of sight. He panted, realizing he’d been holding his breath during most of the fighting—His apartment was ruined, the floor had holes in it everywhere, the walls were missing most of the drywall.

Almost thirty seconds passed before he heard a sound echo up the stairwell—the energy core started to lessen slowly. Loren stomped on the ground, and it stopped dropping, adding the force of the kick to the pool of energy.

The sound finally registered as footsteps, and they stopped on the landing outside his door, just out of sight. Dovetail strolled in the front door a moment later, blue costume looking as pristine as it always did, and the two cloak tails draped down to touch the ground behind him.

“Well, look at all this mess? You’re in quite a bit of trouble, I’d say,” Dovetail said, smiling kindly. “I’d like to take you down to the HQ to get this sorted out peacefully. How does that sound?”

Loren’s anger hadn’t left him at all, and the man entering his apartment after what had just happened was just the icing on the cake. Mark entered the room, still out of costume, but he was wearing his Mask now at least.

“I don’t have anything to say to the man who was actively planning to kill Serpentine, Piston, Stalk, and Isometric in a couple of hours,” Loren said clearly. “Forty-million dollars was all it took to turn you into a villain, huh? Real upstanding guy, aren’t you?”

Dovetail wasn’t smiling anymore, and his hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists at his side.

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