Iza Gracen’s Apartment, 8:17 AM.
Wednesday, February 22nd, 2022.
The sirens had arrived at the building minutes ago, and Loren was stuck inside waiting for them to leave.
“Fuck me,” Iza said weakly, shaking her head. “So if I was still here tomorrow, I’d be digging myself out of the rubble?”
“Yeah,” Loren said warily, peeking out of the window at the emergency services.
There was a moment where he caught sight of a black helmet with a visor and a woman with a bow.
“Shit, Fracture, and Tag are here,” Loren said resignedly.
“You can stay here until they leave—” Iza offered quickly before cutting herself off abruptly.
Loren glanced over his shoulder at her and caught the grimace as she fought to identify the impulses that weren’t supposed to be there.
“On second thoughts, you should probably leave,” Iza said sullenly, “You can leave your armor here and try and sneak away.”
There was absolutely no way he was taking his armor off in her house.
“No,” Loren said quickly. “I’ll just wait until there distracted and make a run for it.”
“A set of medieval armor isn’t exactly subtle or quiet.” Iza said quickly, “Then I’ll have to explain why you were here. Just take it off. They’ll think you’re a normal guy—”
“I can’t take it off,” Loren said, flustered. “My clothes turned into the armor—I’m not wearing anything underneath.”
“Oh,” Iza said, suddenly nervous. “Then it might not be the best idea to… take it off.”
The unsteady way she had said it didn’t help his own nerves at all—if he stayed here for too long, she might actually attack him—They could hear a muffled knock from a few doors down and a woman’s voice speaking to someone inside. Too far away to identify the words, but it painted the situation rather well.
“Hide in the back,” Iza swallowed, pointing. “I’ll move them along.”
Loren moved towards the room, moving as quietly as he could in the armor but it still rattled and clanked with every step. He pulled the helmet down onto his face and shut the door behind him.
Standing in Iza Gracen’s bedroom was not on his bucket list, but the armor did help a little to allay his panic. The knocking slowly continued towards them, each time interspersed with a short muffled conversation.
He spent a moment looking around—there were multiple bottles of pills on the bedside table, only some with labels, and he recognized several of them. Iza was clearly taking both prescription and non-prescription sleeping pills.
Lots of them.
He’d just picked up the single-horned mask that was lying on the edge of her bed—When the knocking reached Iza’s door, he listened as the familiar voice of Tag floated into the room.
“Good morning, my name is Tag from the Hero HQ—we are just doing an inspection of all the people here to make sure nobody was hurt during the attack earlier,” Tag said pleasantly but by rote. “How are you doing?”
“About as good as I usually am,” Iza said offhandedly, stifling a yawn. “I had a lookout in the hall earlier—what’s with all the statues?”
“We aren’t sure who the power belonged to. It’s most likely not a local, though,” Tag admitted, “We will be looking into it, however. No injuries?”
“Nah, I’m perfectly healthy,” Iza said a touch ironically. “How long are you hero types going to be hanging around?”
“Not to worry, we won’t be long—” Tag’s hand slipped down to pick up a black rectangle off her belt as it started to ring. “Excuse me, I’ll need to take this—if there are any problems, or you find yourself with any information you think would help our investigation, please don’t hesitate to talk to the police they will forward it along.”
Tag must have stepped back into the hall because her volume dropped significantly. The sound of the front door shutting never came, however, and he started to have a feeling that’s things were about to go wrong.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” Iza said dryly, “You’ll only piss me off.”
Shit—Loren opened the door and stepped back into the living room. Tag had her bow up, with an arrow notched and pointed at Iza’s chest. Her eyes widened slightly as he stepped into the living room—from her perspective, the situation probably went from bad to horrible.
“We’re working with Wraith,” Loren said quickly, a half-truth at best. “If you call it in, you’ll be able to confirm it.”
“Just do it,” Iza said, annoyed, “If I wanted to fight you, you’d know about it already.”
She let the bowstring slacken and quickly retrieved the phone once more.
“Fracture—get Wraith on the line. I need confirmation that the guy in the armor—” Tag instructed.
“Loren Parker,” Loren interrupted.
The guy in the armor was a bit too shaky, given he’d only just figured out what that part of his power did.
“—that Loren Parker and Ogre are currently working with Wraith on something.” Tag said quickly, watching them both.
“How’d she know?” Loren said quietly.
Tag glanced at him as he spoke up again but didn’t move.
“The one on the phone told her,” Iza said before groaning. “The first time I see you in six years, and I’ve already lost my secret identity—you really have a pattern of upheaving my life.”
Loren flinched away from the comment, and Tag latched the com-device back onto her belt. Nobody said anything for a while until the sounds of footsteps approached from down the hall. Fracture stepped into view, watching them both from behind his visor. The last time Loren had seen him this close was during their fight, and he looked much the same as he did then.
“Wraith confirmed it,” Fracture said curiously, “They are working with us on the Insoluble case, apparently. Ogre’s been updated to a nonaggressive engagement policy, with a pending discussion on recruitment.”
Iza looked vaguely surprised at the words, glancing at him with a frown.
“Well, that’s a weight off my back,” Tag said, relieved, slowly stashing her bow. “No idea what I was going to do with a bow against Ogre of all people, and I just about pissed in my panties when fucking Grigalt wandered out of the back room.”
Fracture gave her an obvious look of reproach that was completely ineffective from behind his visor. Loren huffed at the reference—one of the most annoying tank characters from Crescendo. Equipped with full plate armor, the character was also extremely rotund, looking like a giant ball had been jammed into a set of armor.
“We’re on the same side then,” Loren muttered, giving Tag the side-eye through his helmet. “Fracture…”
Loren stared at the man, wondering—he’d been killed during the bombing. The feed from Wraith’s home had shown that clearly enough. If he had been the one to create the bombs, he’d done it with the intention to kill himself during the blast.
“Are you alright?” Fracture said, concerned, “It sounded like you wanted to ask me something.”
It was hard to reconcile the man in front of him with someone who would want to inflict so much pain on the world. Iza had turned to watch him as well, no doubt wondering why he was dancing around the issue he’d told her about so openly. Tag had survived along with the help of Secluded—but neither of them had the skill set required to make the bombs.
“No, it’s not important right now.” Loren decided eventually, shaking his head. “You two should take Ogre to see Wraith—congratulations on becoming the newest member of the Hero HQ.”
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s quite that easy to join,” Tag said, amused.
“This better not be the last time I see you, Loren,” Iza said uncomfortably. “I’m not sure I could stand another six years like this.”
Loren realized he was still holding the mask he’d taken from Iza’s bedroom and held it out to her.
“You’ll see me very soon, I promise,” Loren said honestly. “I’m going to wait here until the coast is clear if that’s okay.”
Iza took the mask from him with a smile, fingers brushing very deliberately over his armored ones, and Loren quickly took a step away from her as her expression turned pained once more.
“We can definitely do that,” Fracture said, slowing, watching the interaction closely. “However, I’d very much like to know what happened here first.”
“Walk and talk,” Iza ordered, voice strained as she pulled her mask on. “If I spend any more time stuck in a room with Grigalt, I’m going to start peeling pieces of his armor off.”
Loren stayed where he was and ignored the strange look the comment had garnered from the two heroes as the three of them strode out the door—He was not at all willing to be within arms reach of her after a warning like that.
He sat in her living room for almost three hours, thinking about everything that had happened. Trying to come to terms with it all.
Eventually, most of the people gawking from the sidewalk had grown bored of watching the motionless army of statues that stretched across the road and into the alleyway opposite. Loren had used the reduction in onlookers to clang his way out into the hall and snuck out the back stairs.
Once he was there and more free to move, he picked up the pace—using his armor-enhanced strength to leap forward and grab onto the fire escape—which promptly snapped off from his weight, sending him tumbling onto the ground unhurt but embarrassed.
It looked like he taking the long way home.
He’d actually managed a pretty stealthy return to his apartment, all things considered, a few people had noticed him, but it had only been for a few seconds at most. He shut his apartment door behind him with a sigh of relief.
Thankfully the armor did, in fact, have the ability to be taken off—it was just an insanely complicated process that took him almost an hour to figure out. The feeling of the enhancements given by the armor vanished after each section was removed. He took one of the gauntlets off several times as a test, and the protection returned each time.
He was working on his last boots when he heard a small knock on the door.
“Hold on a second!” Loren said loudly.
He quickly wrenched the last boot off and pulled on some pants and a shirt before heading for the door. He opened it to find Emma and her duffle bags, returning from wherever she had gone during the day to hide from Mongoose.
Loren waved her in before flopping down on the couch and kicking his legs up over the back of it, mentally exhausted from everything that had happened. His hair hung below him, and he could feel the blood running to his head, but he didn’t move.
He had saved Isometric and the reporter, survived a fight against Animate and Aperture without getting ganked by the rest of them—probably more to do with the fact that he had the help of a villain who could go toe to toe with the best in the world but still.
Now he was approaching the worst portion of the loop, and the feeling that he should be out there doing something was still as strong as it had ever been.
“Did they check the apartment like you thought?” Emma asked tiredly, stealing one side of the couch for herself.
He turned his head up with some effort.
“No idea. I only just got back about an hour ago, but it’s a safe assumption that they did,” Loren said before letting his head hang down again.
“You shouldn’t hang upside down like that,” Emma said, poking him in the rib. “Your face is really red—it’s going to explode.”
The poke turned into a clawed hand running over his ribcage, and he squawked at the much more energetic attack.
“No!” Loren said sternly, wagging his finger up at her. “Bad girl.”
He swatted at her hand in dismay, and he was forced to retrieve his legs up and spin upright just to survive the unholy assault. The spewbeast looked very pleased with herself, and he made a note of this unprecedented attack on his person.
Vengeance would be had.
“Did you hear about the fight in central yet?” Loren huffed, rubbing at his face to try and get the blood flowing again.
“Ogre against the army of statues?” Emma guessed.
Of course she would get all of the credit—then again, it was probably better he stayed off their radar. He wasn’t sure if Animate had any way to see him through the automatons or if they were simply following orders—so it was entirely possible that they didn’t know what he looked like.
“I was there too,” Loren sighed.
A look of understanding showed on her face.
“That’s why you weren’t here when I woke up,” Emma said in understanding, “If you were going to do something dangerous like that, you should have brought me along with you. I could have helped—”
“Sorry, I didn’t think you would actually be of any help there—you’re pretty specialized,” Loren said helplessly, giving a great big shrug. “I’ll make sure to call you up next time I need someone to pull a fork out of a wall socket—”
He yelped as she attempted to once more deliver some kind of punishment to him, and he used his feet to push her back to the other side of the couch, covering his ribs defensively.
“I was only going to talk to her anyway,” Loren said warily. “The fact that they attacked her there was actually my fault. I stuck around too long, and she ended up staying inside her apartment. Next time I’ll push a letter under her door or something.”
That hadn’t worked out well in the past sure—but he wasn’t going to be hiding in any lockers next time either.
“This time loop stuff is crazy,” Emma admitted, tilting her head to the side. “How do you even remember all of this?”
He watched her hair cascade down one shoulder as she began to brush it out with her fingers.
“Because my brain has more folds than there are stars in the sky,” Loren bragged, “A smoothy like you could never understand.”
“Idiot,” Emma pouted.
“Loren,” Alana’s said calmly, unaffected by the usual digitizer. “I’ve spent the last two days collecting everything on record about Deceitful. There is, unfortunately, a substantial amount of it—not all of which was released publically for various reasons.”
“I can imagine,” Loren said uneasily. “I remember watching a news report on her once, she’s from Saltwall City—can you give me a brief history on her?”
“Of course,” Alana said simply, “Naomi Low and her twin brother Clavis were born in Saltwall City in the year 1995. They were raised by their parents Mary and Steven Low, she attended Saltwall East Primary as a child before enrolling at Saltwall Private Academy for girls, where she attended until she was seventeen.”
Left before graduation— that seemed pretty unusual.
“So a public school kid who ended up going to a private girls-only school later—that’s a big change at that age,” Loren said thoughtfully. “Why did she drop out?”
“Naomi and Clavis Low were caught in the middle of a battle between several heroes and a local gang on the 9th of May, 2012.” Alana said in answer, “Clavis died at the scene before medical services could arrive. Naomi dropped out of her schooling not long after that.”
“What happened to their parents?” Loren said hesitantly, not sure he wanted to know.
“They were killed, most likely by more members of the same gang, although it was never proven—revenge for her hunting them down, I suppose,” Alana said quietly.
Loren had a sneaking suspicion he knew the identity of at least one of the heroes involved in the battle that had taken her brother’s life.
“Windbreaker was one of the heroes involved?” Loren asked uneasily.
“Yes,” Alana said immediately, “Each of the gang members arrested had already either vanished or been killed, and then you know what happened to Windbreaker. The other hero that was present was still active as of last year—”
“Who is the last one?” Loren frowned.
“Windbreakers sidekick, Wallflower, now known by her civilian name as Evelyn Miller and another student from the same private school,” Alana said simply. “She was capable of surface adhesion and camouflaging herself. It is widely believed that she has either been killed.”
“So Naomi Low’s ability-pool is what exactly?” Loren frowned, “Telekinesis, Camouflage, surface adhesion—”
“No,” Alana interrupted. “She has never shown any instances of camouflage or surface adhesion. It is possible but not likely given she has not been seen in Evelyn Miller’s body or used those powers.”
“It’s possible that Evelyn Miller still alive then?” Loren wondered.
“Possible but unlikely, as the last time she was seen was a year ago, on the 9th of May,” Alana said quietly. “The most likely explanation is that she simply chose not to keep the ability of her victim.”
That would be the anniversary of Clavis Low’s death, he realized before falling into a long silence.
“Naomi Low’s original power isn’t fully understood, but I believe I have a mostly accurate idea of what she is capable of,” Alana said easily, filling the silence. “In brief, she has the ability to store the bodies of her victims in a limited number of slots and use the power while in the corresponding body—her original body is known to have small black circles on the fingertips of each hand. We could assume from this that she had ten slots for these bodies, one for each finger, but it’s possible she could have up to twenty slots.”
Loren made the connection there easily, if she had matching markers on her toes, it would make sense.
“When did she get her power?” Loren wondered.
“We aren’t able to confirm the exact moment, but she was seen with those black markings after the event that took her twin’s life, leaving it as the most likely time she awakened,” Alana said simply. “She has been recorded taking on Windbreakers form and using Telekinesis multiple times. She also has access to a Shapeshifting ability that was most likely taken from a civilian anti-hero advocate by the name of Sarah’s heart, who was known to have a very similar power—due to the nature of the ability, Naomi Low is able to change her appearance at will while in that body.”
A murdering body thief that could change her appearance to anything while using one of the bodies—this was going to be even harder than he thought.