Evergold Festival, Setalite City, 7:49PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.
Loren made no move to approach the seemingly still body of his opponent. People seemed to make that kind of mistake like clockwork in movies, and he was feeling a growing sense of panic the longer he watched her. He fished out the last of the remaining marbles in his pocket and pitched them towards her shoulders. They connected with a small thud and bounced off, but she didn’t even twitch.
He’d killed another person—the fact that Naomi Low was a serial murderer who took pleasure in hurting others took some of the sting out of it. But his sense of failure remained because he had failed his task, though, and the loop was now useless. There was a reason they wanted to capture her alive—much like you couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone, neither could you interrogate a corpse.
If he ever ended up with the power to talk to ghosts—then he’d have to eat his own words.
“Wraith,” Loren said quietly, swallowing. “I messed up. Naomi’s dead.”
He touched his earpiece and repeated the phrase a few moments later, but there was no response. Loren sat down next to the body, wondering what he was supposed to do now. He could go back and try again—but chances where he wouldn’t be lucky enough to get such a useful power for this situation.
Loren let his gaze fall to the blood pooling beneath her knees and found his eyes focusing on a lump in her jean pocket. He mumbled out an apology before fighting to extract the item from her too-small pocket.
Seeing her carry something as mundane as a wallet gave him a moment’s pause at the disconnection he felt between how terrifying she was and the idea that she must have at least pretended to be a normal person at times.
He had plenty of experience already with the daily life of some villains, Emma who’s life continued on outside of her crimes, Chloe, who was a streamer and a professional e-sports player. Isometric lived in an apartment, and Ogre had once been a school nurse…
There were plenty of examples of it, and he couldn’t help but wonder—Naomi must have eaten at restaurants, or gone to bars, or sung karaoke. Nobody spent every waking hour of every single day being a villain.
He flipped the wallet open and found himself immediately disappointed. The driver’s license showed a middle-aged woman who was most definitely not Naomi Low, and there was a small, well-worn picture tucked into one of the many folds showing of a family of three.
Kallin Dale, age 46, and lived at No. 53, Evergreen avenue.
Further investigation showed matching ID cards, a library card, a hair salon business card, and a whole host of other things, including several phone numbers. Loren could speculate on why she had it on her, a cover story she had developed over time in case she was ever flagged down by anyone during the day.
He had a small doubt, though, what if this wasn’t a constructed life—she’d demonstrated many times that she was willing to kill for her own benefit.
“Wraith,” Loren tried again, “Can you hear me? Where are you?”
Once more, there was no response, and he frowned again. He retrieved the stashed phone numbers and flicked through the old crumpled pieces of paper. Loren fished his phone out of his own pocket and dialed the number under the name Alec.
“Mum?” Alec’s voice said exasperated, “Where have you been? I don’t have keys to get in—I had to stay are Jane’s house last night. I thought her dad was going to murder me.”
Loren felt a sinking feeling as the boy continued to extol the horrors that Jane’s Father had threatened him with if he couldn’t keep it in his pants. It was a real number, and the woman had a teenaged son. If Naomi had this woman’s wallet, and she hadn’t contacted her son since yesterday, then Kallin was almost certainly dead.
A series of slow, dull thuds rang out in the empty space of the underground, and he canceled the call before turning to watch the ramp. The first thing he saw was a hand full of razor-sharp blades gripping the railing for support.
The figure continued down, revealing more of its body in the process.
Tall, at least seven-foot, a pair of pointed but crushed purple things on its back that might have once been some kind of carapace or even a set of wings? Short black fur covering the fingers of the hands up to the forearms and down her ribs and hips. The rest of her body was made up of yellow-scaled skin, and four thin arms branched off her torso, one of which was missing from the bicep up.
It was a woman with blonde shoulder-length hair, black sclera, and yellow eyes—The figure passed behind the pillar, and Loren couldn’t bring himself to move as she stepped into sight. Her legs had been modified somehow and ended in inhumanly thin claw feet topped with those same razors.
She wasn’t wearing a shred of clothing, and both her naked chest and lower body were in clear view, but his eyes were instead drawn to the hundreds of tiny holes that littered her body as they bled freely. Likewise, blood was soaking the ground she walked on as she limped closer to his position.
“I suppose that makes you Taker,” Loren said flatly, feeling a fury build in him. “Where’s Wraith?”
The woman stopped on the other side of Naomi’s body and stared down at it with wide eyes. Loren wondered if she could even talk, given that there was a series of metal stitch marks running from both corners of her mouth to her ears. This close, he could hear how ragged her breathing was.
Given how much damage she had sustained, Loren wondered how she could even remain standing.
“I’m talking to you,” Loren said angrily, staring at her face. “Taker!”
Taker lifted her gaze and met his own—her lips pulled back, and for a second, he thought she was baring her teeth at him in warning before he noticed that behind the pointed and sharp teeth was a complete lack of tongue.
Seeing her face this close—there was a strange familiarity to it.
“Is Wraith alive?” Loren said quietly, refusing to lower his own gaze.
Taker nodded slowly, the motion seemingly an exhaustive effort—she was getting paler by the moment as her blood continued to spill from her many injuries. The woman swayed for a moment before sitting down in a sickeningly fluid motion—her extremely thin leg sliding outward for balance and then planting an equally thin hand on the ground and rotating down into position beside Naomi.
A clawed hand reached out and gently gripped Naomi’s shoulder before slowly levering her up and then down onto her back. Loren made no move to stop her, and his gaze was drawn to the knife still sticking out of the middle of her chest. Loren wondered what she would do if he took the knife—and the answer was nothing.
Taker remained perched in her seated position, staring down at Naomi’s face.
The sound of metal being dragged on concrete grew louder as Wraith made her way down the ramp.
The reason for her sluggishness grew apparent as she stepped into view. Her armor was covered in rents that were an easy match for the clawed hands and feet belonging to Taker. Her helmet was missing entirely, and three shallow red lines stretched her jaw to her hairline, leaving the bottom half of her face covered in dried blood.
“Loren,” Alana mumbled, approaching the three of them. “Are you alive?”
“Yeah,” Loren said quietly. “I was starting to think Taker killed you.”
His lack of dread likely keyed her into the fact that the situation was no longer dangerous.
“She could have. Her claws are sharp enough to bypass my armor, and I found out too late that they are coated by a paralytic agent that she appears to naturally secrete,” Alana winced, dropping down beside him. “You killed Naomi.”
“Yes,” Loren responded, hesitating. “I didn’t want to, but I didn’t really have a choice.”
Alana simply nodded.
“Taker looks familiar, and she was smiling right at the end,” Loren confessed quietly, “I don’t really understand why.”
Alana studied the woman in question for a long moment.
“I ran an image of her face through a database when I first noticed her following you, in an attempt to identify who I was engaging,” Alana said quietly. “There was a 70% match to one Evelyn Miller.”
This had been Wallflower?
“That’s horrible,” Loren swallowed, “Naomi did this to her? She cut out her tongue… it’s…”
“I’m afraid so,” Alana said hesitantly, “She has most likely undergone extensive mental conditioning as well because given her level of strength, Naomi would have been incapable of containing her by herself, and this kind of biological transformation is well outside of Naomi’s projected skillset.”
Loren shook his head in disgust.
“While nothing really went according to plan,” Alana said tiredly, slumped in her office chair. “We managed to learn several important things tonight.”
This was the first time Loren had seen her outside of her armor—and her style of dress was surprising.
She wore an overly large black business suit with grey slacks, with a darker grey tie over a white dress shirt; each part looked like it had been assembled from different sets. They looked well worn. He couldn’t help but find his eyes studying her appearance every couple of moments.
“Yeah,” Loren sighed. “What happened about the wallet I found?”
Alana folded her hands together on the desk, slipping her fingers into a tight knot.
“Ms. Kallin Dale was found inside of her home, bound and deceased,” Alana said quietly. “She was tortured before she died, and the suspected cause of death is blood loss.”
Loren wondered about Alec, the teenage boy that had picked up the phone, and how he was going to deal with the news of his mother’s death.
“Anything there to indicate why Naomi went there?” Loren commented with a sigh.
Alana closed her eyes for a moment, seemingly thinking it over.
“I have located CCTV footage of Ms. Dale chasing away several young teenagers who were picking on an equally young girl—this took place at roughly 10:00 AM, Wednesday,” Alana said seriously, eyebrows drawing together in thought. “Ms. Dale then brought her in the direction of her home—most likely under the premise of allowing her to call her parents or something similar.”
The idea that Deceitful was running around the city pretending to be a kid and interacting with others was horrifying.
“At 5:37 PM, after roughly seven and a half hours pass, and about two hours after your speech was broadcast, a similarly dressed young woman is seen leaving the area from the same location.” Alana paused, making sure Loren was following along. “I was able to track her until she entered the crowds downtown, at which point she could have become anyone.”
Loren was thinking about the timing—with this information, they could take action against her much earlier. They wouldn’t need to go through the entire tournament arc every time he wanted to attempt to capture Naomi.
But she had gone there before the speech had occurred and hadn’t left until after it—surely she had a reason?
“That was what you saw Naomi do and the reason that she most likely gave to be taken into her home,” Loren said shakily, “But why did she go there at all? What purpose did Naomi have in targeting her? Why did she go after Kallin Dale?”
Loren thought he already knew why, but he couldn’t help but ask. Alana’s face grew more pained the longer he spoke, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop.
“Naomi told me that everybody was guilty for what happened to her brother, those at the scene, those that praised the heroes afterward, and every other hero for existing and perpetuating the system that these things existed within.” Loren managed, pressing his palms tight against his eyes as his voice grew shaky. “What about her son? Is he guilty as well, just because he looks up to Paragon? What decisions drove her to—to just tear apart a kid’s life like this?”
Alana stood up before slowly rounding her desk and leaning down towards him. Loren didn’t move as she wrapped her arms around his back and pressed her own face into his shoulder. He reached out and pulled her the rest of the way into his lap.
Alana didn’t complain about the proximity and any chance he had of keeping his composure vanished.
Alana had moved back to sit on the edge of her desk and was watching him from her perch. Loren wiped at his face, finding it difficult to meet her gaze after breaking down in front of her.
“What about Evelyn Miller?” Loren mumbled, hesitating for just a moment on the name. “Was she seen on any of the footage nearby?”
“No,” Wraith said just as quietly. “Her appearance is much more static and alarming than Naomi’s, so it is much more likely that she is waiting outside of the city or is hidden somewhere within it.”
Her leg moved slightly, and he found his gaze drawn down to her feet. He blinked as he noticed that she wasn’t even wearing shoes.
“So we could attempt to take Naomi down before the tournament,” Loren wondered quietly. “If we were lucky, we might even be able to do it without running into Evelyn?”
“It’s possible that she could join the battle if given enough time,” Alana said thoughtfully. “Until we locate Evelyn’s current position, we must assume she will be nearby and able to assist her ally.”
Her toes wiggled around in the air as she spoke, and he wondered if she was even aware of the movement.
“Just how many of Epilogue’s members are here?” Loren mumbled. “Are we going to run into Mara Melancholia next?”
“It’s possible,” Alana said quietly, “This attempt on Paragon’s life likely involved the other members in some manner.”
Loren thought about the known information on the rest of them.
Lecture was easy enough to understand—anyone who was within a small radius of her was forced to listen to and carry out the things she said. If you left the radius, her power was rendered useless, but while inside, it was basically unbreakable.
There had been several reports released after investigating some of her living victims. Prolonged or repeated exposure to her power left the person in a permanent state of suggestibility. Several of her long-held captives had later attempted to commit suicide at very specific times due to the reinforced conditioning.
Evelyn Miller’s current mental state could most likely be attributed to a year of exposure to Lecture’s power. Publically available information on most of the other members was basically non-existent except for hints gathered by their chosen names and the sea of victims they left behind them.
Deceitful, Monstrous, Lecture, Taker, Tiamat, The Researcher, and Reset.
Loren wasn’t too encouraged by the fact he had already met two of them, and that wasn’t including his apparently already scheduled meeting in the future-past with another.
“Sorry, this is off-topic,” Loren said eventually, breaking away from the discussion on Epilogue for a moment. “Why are you wearing three different sets of clothing? And where are your shoes?”
Alana glanced down at her own feet, and her lips tightened into a tiny pout.
“I couldn’t find a pair that fit,” Alana admitted, “These are all from the lost and found downstairs. I didn’t want to return home; it would have taken me a substantial amount of time with my armor damaged.”
“Couldn’t you have caught a taxi home or something?” Loren said hesitantly. “Then come back here afterward?”
“I don’t want to go outside without my armor on,” Alana said, flustered, looking away from him and picking at her coat. “It was bad enough that everyone saw me arrive in the state I was in—Tag even laughed at me when I came out of the lost and found wearing this.”
Loren couldn’t help but laugh at the mental image, and he weathered the indignant expression that she turned his way at the noise.
“You laughed.” Alana accused quietly.
She leaned forward to slip from the desk in front of him before crossing her arms. She stared down at him with a gaze that promised the darkest of consequences. Still, her completely red face ruined the intimidation entirely.
“Sorry,” Loren said seriously, studying her face. “I shouldn’t have laughed. You know, Alana, somehow I had forgotten how cute you were under that helmet—it’s been a while since I’ve seen it.”
Alana’s hand twitched as if she wanted to reach out towards him, but she kept it pinned under her crossed arms with a force of will.
“You’re making fun of me again,” Alana said quietly, attempted to keep her expression stern and failing. “You aren’t engaging in very professional behavior—Loren! Don’t laugh at me!”
Loren weathered the attempt to shake him with good humor and managed to latch onto the outside of her coat sleeves. He pulled her closer to him, slipping between her arms, and she gave a startled jump as he wrapped his own around her middle in a tight hug, tucking his head under her arm.
“Hey, Alana?” Loren said quietly, partially muffled by the coat.
“Y—yes?” Alana said quickly, making no move to step away from him.
“I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without you, you know?” Loren said, squeezing her tighter. “I know you don’t remember anything we’ve talked about in any of the loops… but thanks for always helping me. I just want you to know that I do appreciate you, even when I’m acting stupid or when I’m mad.”
Alana threaded a hand down into his hair and brushed it to the side softly.
“I know that none of this is easy for you, Loren. But you should know that I appreciate you too.” Alana said gently. “So thanks for not giving up on us.”
Thanks for not giving up on us.
It wasn’t much in comparison to all of the pain he had seen so far—but it helped, and that was enough.