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Evergold Festival, Setalite City, 7:33PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.
“There’s a lot of people here,” Loren said quietly, moving past the stalls that had popped up on the main stretch. “Do we even know she’ll be able to find me amidst all of this?”
The earpiece he’d been given by Wraith earlier clicked once.
“Naomi Low has shown an exceptional ability to locate people, including those who should have been completely out of reach.” Wraith said calmly, “You enrolled in the tournament under your real name, and there are pictures of your face on social media.”
Alana wasn’t wrong—his phone had already been blowing up since the end of the tournament, with thousands of people finding and following his socials. As part of the plan they had discussed, he had posted online about his intention to go to the festival tonight. Three people had already approached him about what had happened at the tournament—it was kind of embarrassing, really.
“It is very likely that she has already determined your current location given her expected level of competence,” Wraith said evenly.
“Fantastic—” Loren mumbled before blinking as someone tapped him on the shoulder.
He turned and braced himself, but it was a short blonde woman that he’d never seen before.
“You’re that Loren guy that won the tournament! I’m Ami!” Ami said happily, “Did you really not take the prize money?”
Loren laughed awkwardly, wondering why that was the thing everyone wanted to ask him about and not what he’d said on stage.
“I didn’t take it,” Loren confirmed, “I just wanted to get my message out, taking the money would have lessened it, I think.”
“That’s so weird,” Ami said incredulously before laughing again. “I’ll take the money off your hands if you don’t want it!”
Loren almost rolled his eyes—That was the second time someone had said that to him tonight. He wondered if this was what cashiers felt like when someone asked them if an item was free because it didn’t have a label.
“Nah, that would defeat the purpose,” Loren said simply before turning and giving her a wave. “Enjoy your night, Ami—I’ve got somewhere to be.”
He was regretting this entire thing already.
“That was almost assuredly, Naomi,” Wraith said suddenly. “Leave the market area—head for the underground car park beneath the mall. We will trap her there.”
Loren paused in the middle of the street for a moment, shocked.
He didn’t respond to Wraith’s comment because he wasn’t sure if the killer would notice. There was an almost overwhelming urge to turn around, and he could almost feel the woman’s dark stare on his back now.
Loren slowly started to walk forward again, heading towards the edge of the street at the same unhurried pace. But the idea that she was now watching him—it made him feel as if every step he took was going to give him away.
He passed by the last of the stalls and started in the direction of the mall.
“She is following,” Wraith said simply, “Her hair has changed color—It’s dark red now, shoulder-length, her eyes are still blue.”
Loren felt a little bit better with Wraith hiding somewhere in the vicinity, but it was still nerve-wracking. This was far different than charging into a battle, and he found his gaze flicking to every shadow.
“She left her coat on a bench, be aware that she is now dressed in a black turtleneck sweater—” Wraith said slowly, cutting herself off at the end.
“Something the matter?” Loren said quietly, spotting the mall.
There was a long pause on the other end, and he grit his teeth at the silence.
“She isn’t alone,” Wraith said suddenly, “There’s something else following you. It’s sticking to rooftops, get out of sight and hide. I’ll assist you as soon as I’ve dealt with the one up here.”
The earpiece cut off again as Loren crossed the road and stepped into the entrance to the underground. He moved down the concrete ramp and turned the corner to get out of sight before starting to speed up. If there was a second one involved, it had to be another member of Epilogue.
He just caught sight of a flash of red hair out of the corner of his eye as he dashed down the ramp to the next level. The fact that he was now more or less forced to keep going lower or wait for her to reach him wasn’t lost on him.
Loren was quickly running out of levels, and he stopped on the second last one moving around the next ramp and finding a concrete pillar to hide behind. She should head down to the last floor, and he could sneak back up to the next one.
He leaned out, just enough to get eyes on the ramp, and held his breath as Ami, the blonde girl, practically skipped downwards to his level. She was wearing the black turtleneck that Wraith had indicated, no coat in sight.
“Loren! It’s me, Ami!” Ami called happily. “Sorry I followed you. I just wanted to see if you want to hang out? We could go back to my hotel?”
He wondered if that would have worked on him if he hadn’t known she was a serial killer and was a little embarrassed to think that it probably would have. Loren slipped his hand into his pocket and left it there, watching as she dropped out of sight behind the concrete railing.
Loren pulled his head back and leaned against the pillar.
“Wraith,” Loren whispered, “She is on the bottom floor.”
There was no response, and he waited for a few moments before peeking out from behind the pillar again. His heart started racing as he spotted the two red eyes peeking out over the railing of the ramp, staring in his direction.
“Found you,” Naomi said, smiling.
He swallowed—she either heard him, or something else had given him away. Naomi rounded the ramp and came to a stop in the middle of the room. Loren stepped out from behind the pillar and moved clockwise, keeping as many things in between them as possible while retaining sight of her.
“Naomi Low,” Loren said confidently, hoping to buy some time by putting her on the back foot. “Fancy seeing you here.”
Naomi’s face lit up at—and his confidence fled immediately.
“Oh my!” Naomi said brightly, “You even know my real name—I haven’t been on the other side like this in quite a while! How long have you been planning this, I wonder?”
She wasn’t even unnerved in the slightest—fine; he would need to up his game.
“Not very long—It was kind of a spontaneous decision,” Loren said flatly, watching her closely. “How long have you been planning to blow Paragon up?”
The silence stretched between them for almost ten seconds, and the bright smile on her face grew forced. He slowly removed several of the marbles out of his pocket, holding them between his fingers.
“Now that isn’t something you should be aware of,” Naomi said uncertainly, bringing her thumb up to her mouth. “How could you know that? Hm. Future sight, or a precognitive of sorts, perhaps? Seeing the future seems the most reasonable explanation.”
Loren just listened to her ramble quietly to herself.
“You could be reading my mind, I suppose,” Naomi said quietly before her body suddenly shifted.
Loren’s eyes started to build up the power, his fingers tightened on the marbles between them as the adrenaline spiked, but she didn’t move from her place. A man stood in her place, large and with a squarish jaw, red eyes watched him for a long moment before she melted back down to her previous form.
His mind broke free of the adrenaline—and he realized belatedly that the form she had briefly taken was Windbreaker, the telekinetic.
“No, you’re not reading my mind,” Naomi said curiously, studying him. “Or you would have attacked me just then. Future sight it must be, interesting. You must be aware that I’m not alone, so why would you lead me here—”
Loren couldn’t even find a place to say anything; she seemed to be devolving into a monologue.
“Oh, I see, you’re not alone either—that explains why I can’t reach Taker.” Naomi laughed suddenly, “I suppose my entire little plot has been found out then? That’s a shame. I really thought I had won already—I suppose that’s why they also tell you not to play with your food—”
That sounded like something you said right before you attacked someone. Suppose Taker was here as well. That must be who Wraith was currently engaging. It also explained why she hadn’t known who it was on sight. Nobody had actually seen a clear picture of Taker, other than a shadowy outline.
Loren spoke up, attempting to derail her from taking any aggressive action.
“Oh my god, lady,” Loren said, feigning exasperation, “You’re worse than Beat—just shut up already. Look, we’ve already captured Taker, and you’re in no position to fight your way out of this one, Naomi.”
Naomi took a step towards him, and he forced himself not to step back. He did, however, raise a hand up in preparation.
“Fight my way out?” Naomi giggled, taking another step forward. “You make it sound like I want to leave—I’m exactly where I want to be.”
Loren flung his arm outward as soon as he saw her face start to change, letting two of the larger marbles fly. His power activated, and each of the marbles hit a different pillar before ricocheting back towards Naomi. She raised her arm as the two marbles smashed into each other directly in front of Windbreaker’s distinctive face, showering her with a thousand tiny shards as they suddenly ruptured under the force.
Naomi cried out in pain as the shards buried themselves into her skin, and she lashed out with Windbreakers power, ripping the shards out before sending them flying back through the air towards him.
Loren’s power flared again, eyes lighting up in the low light, and improbably enough, none of the debris hit him. He gripped a handful of smaller marbles and threw them across the room, scattering them everywhere.
Naomi switched again, Windbreaker’s large frame rapidly shortening until she stood in the body of a teenage boy. He bore a striking resemblance to Naomi, with black hair and pale skin—and Loren recognized him as the woman’s twin brother.
Two of the marbles crashed into each other again, but Naomi suddenly snapped three meters to the side before sliding to a stop and avoiding it entirely. Loren was already scattering another handful of projectiles, and Naomi broke of her forward momentum as three impacts rang out around her, showering her in the shards from every direction.
Loren watched as her back arched, and she began to fall forward, streaks of blood scattering around her. She desperately flung her hands out to try and ward off the coming impact with the ground.
Time seemed to slow as her hands touched the ground, she snapped forward towards him, straight through the shards, hand outstretched towards his face. A marble, one of the larger ones, floated in front of her face on its pathway across the room as she moved through the air towards him, and then three more marbles slammed into it.
Loren watched her gleeful expression, his eyes glowing as the marbles burst apart into a million fragments, and Naomi reared back as her face was savaged by the glass. Shards flashed past his own face, none hitting him as his power lowered the probability of them hitting him to almost nothing.
Naomi’s forward momentum remained, and he stumbled to the side as she flashed through where he had been standing. She screamed and wrenched her hands down her face, tearing the larger shards out and spinning to face him.
Loren found his balance once more and turned to face her—Naomi’s face was a complete mess of blood, almost entirely red, and one of her eyes was clenched shut. He drew out another handful and pitched them across the underground as her face started to ripple once more.
Naomi’s gaze flickered around like a cornered animal as the glass marbles started bouncing off concrete walls, somehow hitting at the perfect angle to survive the contact without breaking. He pushed the power harder as some of the marbles burst uselessly on the walls.
Suddenly they were impossibly pinballing around her, crashing into her and bouncing off. Naomi tried to scramble out of the mess as they started to explode. She threw herself to the floor, curled up into a ball, and protected her face.
Loren’s eyes started to sting from the strain, so he let the power drop, blinking quickly to try and rid himself of the pain. The two of them remained in their positions for a while, breathing heavily, and he could just make out the wide glowing eye that glared at him from beneath the black mess of hair.
“Loren.” Wraith coughed weakly over the earpiece. “I’ve captured Taker, but I’m in no condition to—Stay down!”
There was an inhuman shriek loud enough to hear over the earpiece and the sounds of struggling for a moment. The sound of a sharp crack and another shriek forced him to take the earpiece out—the noise far too loud.
“I’ve called in reinforcements,” Wraith coughed again as the sounds of struggling continued. “Mongoose will be at the underground in five minutes. Stay hidden until then.”
The line cut off, and he pulled another handful of the marbles out.
“Hey,” Loren said quietly. “I really don’t like this kind of thing, so it would be better for us both if you just stayed still.”
Naomi started to shake before the sounds of her muffled laughter started to break through. Loren wondered what on earth she could find funny about a situation as horrible as this. Naomi rolled over onto her back in the shards and let her arms fall down beside her like she was trying to make some kind of marble-glass angel.
“Who even are you?” Naomi laughed, letting out a sigh that almost sounded relieved. “You just turn up right when I’m about to win—and everything falls apart.”
He didn’t understand her at all.
“What do you mean to win, and why do you even want to kill Paragon?” Loren said quietly instead of answering. “What’s the point of all this? You already got your revenge.”
“Did I now?” Naomi wondered, staring up at the concrete ceiling with her single remaining eye. “It certainly doesn’t feel like it—Have I actually gotten revenge, Loren, if nothing changes afterward?”
Loren studied her quietly.
“Clavis is still dead, and the world wasted no time in forgetting about him—heroes aren’t these perfect pillars that everyone likes to think they are.” Naomi said quietly, “They have just as many bodies behind them as I do. It’s just a little harder to see.”
Loren clenched his hands.
“Don’t believe me?” Naomi said, amused, “The day my brother died, there wasn’t a villain in ten miles—but there were two heroes.”
“They were trying to stop—” Loren said quietly.
He tensed as she moved suddenly.
“Don’t f****** tell me what they were trying to do!” Naomi screamed, sitting up in the glass. “You weren’t there. You don’t know anything about what happened.”
Loren swallowed, even bleeding and in no position to attack; she seemed more dangerous than ever.
“There wasn’t a problem until those two showed up…” Naomi mumbled, “If they hadn’t been there, nothing would have happened—if heroes didn’t exist, my brother would still be here today.”
Naomi gripped her destroyed eye and shook for a moment. Her motivation was clear enough for him to see, but something still didn’t add up.
“Why do you have his body?” Loren said quietly. “I thought you only got the bodies of those you killed.”
Naomi shook harder for a moment before dropping her hand to lie in her lap.
“F*** Loren, you’re ruthless… Imagine asking a crying girl something like this?” Naomi laughed wetly. “I can see why they had you get up and say all that… It’s pretty simple really, why wouldn’t I have it?”
“I don’t understand,” Loren said quietly.
Naomi leaned back onto her palms and let her head hang backward.
“It’s not that complicated—Clavis never liked going outside, but I wanted to go into the city, and I’d long since figured out which levers to pull to get him to do what I wanted,” Naomi said smiling, “I made him come with me—if it weren’t for me, he would have never been there.”
Loren wished he’d never asked because now he did understand, a little too well. That day on the bridge would never have happened if he hadn’t been such a coward.
“I’m just as responsible for his death as everyone else is,” Naomi confessed before letting herself fall back into the glass. “There’s an order to these things, Loren. There’s an entire world out there, filled with heroes and those who endorse them—but I can’t get revenge on anyone if I’m the first to die.”
Loren didn’t have a response to that—he’d hated himself for a long time, but he’d never come close to the depth of hate that Naomi had within her. Paragon was just a stepping stone on her pathway to extinction—
“Don’t move,” Loren said quietly as Naomi started to get up. “Naomi.”
Naomi didn’t listen, staggering to her feet with her arms dangling by her sides before she managed to draw herself upright. Loren gripped the handle of the knife in his back pocket tightly, sliding it out and dangling it in her sight as a warning, but she didn’t even pause.
“Naomi,” Loren said quietly, “Don’t make me—”
The woman swayed to the right and started to fall, but he lifted the knife up in preparation as her face blurred back to her brothers. Loren’s eyes flashed as he pulled his power up and scattered the handful of marbles in his left hand.
Naomi appeared on the side of the ramp that was leading upwards before pushing back onto the ground in front of him. Her foot slid out from under her as she stood on one of the marbles that had rolled to a stop in front of them. She twisted violently to regain her balance and used her brother’s power once more—running her directly into the knife that he held up in front of him.
Loren swallowed as she fell down onto her knees in front of him.
He belatedly let the handle of the knife go and stumbled away from her. Clavis’s features vanished, and Naomi’s own pale face returned.
“Hah,” Naomi laughed painfully, folding over until her head touched the ground. “I really hate losing…”
Synopsis: The online game <