Alleyway, Setalite City, 3:20 PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.
There remained a dull ache in his chest, but it was a far cry from what it had felt like earlier. He’d made the safe decision and resisted the urge to return to that thrilling world of stillness where for a few endless moments, he’d been a god.
They’d already moved four times—an attempt to try and throw off whatever method of tracking Vapid used to find her targets. Loren had no idea if it was working or not, but she hadn’t found them yet, so that was something.
It was just a matter of time before she did, Loren knew—it was one thing to say they would evade Vapid, but it was another thing entirely to put it into practice. Nobody had discovered the method by which she tracked her targets, and how could you counter something you didn’t understand the mechanism of?
It was worse than that anyway—Mongoose had been involved, which meant that the rest of the Hero HQ would be working on it depending on what exactly she had told them. If she’d decided that we had indeed had something to do with Marks demise—regardless of the lack of evidence—they would come down hard on them like they most likely had on Aston.
“It’s not going to work,” Loren said quietly, sitting against the wall.
“I know,” Emma admitted. “Let’s just leave the city, get as much distance between Setalite and us as possible.”
Loren rocked his head back against the wall and sighed.
“I need to stay in the city until at least Thursday,” Loren said quietly. “I can’t leave.”
Emma was obviously confused at the answer, and he knew he was going to have to explain it; we were both homeless and on the run now; she deserved to at least know why. Loren spoke quietly; he told her that he’d been experiencing the same day repeatedly—before revealing that Paragon was going to die soon, and the city was going to be destroyed in the attempt.
“Did you know about Mark?” Emma said, watching him.
“I knew that he was dead,” Loren confessed, “It happens every single reset; I haven’t been able to stop it yet—and believe me, I’ve tried.”
Emma shook her head.
“Not that he was dead,” Emma said, “About him and that woman?”
Did I know that Mark couldn’t seem to keep it in his pants?
“No, I didn’t know that until this reset.” Loren said honestly, “I found out the same time you did.”
“When is the next reset?” Emma mumbled.
“Whenever I die next, I suppose.” Loren sighed, “I can reset on command, but I’ve got too much to lose this time—this power is good, and I only have one more day—I’ve never made it past Thursday—I died in the attack on Paragon the first time.”
It was frustrating how often he seemed to die; he’d gone his entire life without biting the dust, and now in a series of increasingly dangerous Tuesdays—It was absurd how many choices led to his immediate death.
“How many times have you died?” Emma asked quietly.
“Half a dozen, I guess,” Loren said quietly, “I haven’t exactly been keeping count, and none of them are memories I want to dwell on.”
“Half a dozen?” Emma said, shocked, “T-that’s, why haven’t you just left the city yet?!”
“Because,” Loren said easily, “If I just leave without trying to help, all these innocent people are going to die again, Paragon will die again, the heroes will all die again. You’ll die again—I’ve got the ability to do something about this, and I will—it’s as simple as that.”
“Are you a masochist or something?” Emma said indignantly. “Vapid is going to catch us; we’ll be confined to a cell in the HQ, and then it’s going to explode! We are both going to die again!”
“Probably.” Loren admitted easily, “But what if this is the time I find the catalyst? I find the one thing I need to unravel everything? What if I miss it because I just ran away, scared? I’m not willing to take that chance—someone is behind all of this, and I need to find out who it is.”
Emma was looking more upset by the moment.
“Just tell the heroes about it!” Emma said urgently, “They are the ones who do this for a living.”
“Emma,” Loren said gently, “I already tried that.”
Emma looked lost for a moment, so I continued.
“I told you and Mark,” Loren said quietly, “Whoever is behind all of this found out within minutes of Mark calling the HQ, and we all died.”
“Who?” Emma said weakly.
“I don’t know, not enough information to figure out who they were, I’ve tried searching for them online but theres nothing public tied to the name ‘Orient’—they might have been international,” Loren said slowly. “I dropped a letter off at the HQ in another reset, explaining everything to them—but that just went to hell immediately, and the bombs ended up going off.”
Emma listened sullenly, now leaning back against the alley wall.
“Another time I tried to sneak in, left the letter in Wraith’s office since that dude is pretty much clear of any involvement at this point,” Loren continued, “Mongoose found me, Wraith captured me, and I spent the next couple of days in a cell.”
I made the hand signal associated with an explosion, fingers splaying apart as they moved away.
“Getting to Thursday at all is annoying as hell—I thought this time, since I’d stayed out of everything and didn’t get involved that I would be able to do it easily. Then Mongoose turns up out of nowhere—things just keep on cropping up.” Loren explained aggrieved, “The goal for this reset was to see the aftermath of the mastermind’s original plan, and try and figure out as much about them as possible.”
“You didn’t know Mongoose was going to show up today?” Emma frowned.
“Never happened before,” Loren said easily, “I don’t know what triggered that; she wasn’t in the first reset at all.”
“She was looking for me.” Emma reminded. “Was I staying at your apartment?”
Loren tilted his head.
“No—kind of?” Loren floundered. “I told you about Mark dying that first time, and you ended up drunk and passed out in my apartment the next day.”
“She didn’t come knocking on your door at any point?” Emma frowned. “Why not? She must have seen the messages on Mark’s phone?”
What would stop Mongoose from checking all of the other apartments when she found Emma gone from her own apartment—Wait a minute.
“You got kicked out this time,” Loren said slowly.
“When she checked my apartment, all of my things were gone,” Emma said quickly, eyes lighting up. “So she thought I’d disappeared?”
“Right after Mark died, she finds your apartment empty.” Loren nodded in understand. “It’s an easy conclusion to make—maybe she thought you had something to do with it?”
“So she starts investigating the neighbors to see if anybody knows where I’d gone?” Emma narrowed her eyes, “Did she track me down in the first one?”
Loren blinked—no, he’d been messaging her back and forth all the way up until he’d died.
“No,” Loren confirmed, “So she left you alone in the first one—she went to your apartment, found all your things still there, and then just left without doing anything?”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Emma mumbled, “If she went through my things at all, she would have found my costume in the closet—why wouldn’t Mongoose come after me then?”
Loren ignored the ludicrous fact that she just kept her villain outfit hanging in the closet—because she was wrong about something.
“Your costume wasn’t in your closet.” Loren admitted dryly, “You were wearing it when you crashed through my window—it was also covered in vomit, you damn spewbeast, you left it hanging up in my bathroom.”
Emma flushed at the revelation.
“Don’t call me that!” Emma huffed before shaking her head. “So she went to my apartment, found nothing suspicious, and then left—what a bitch.”
That was actually pretty useful information, and he was starting to realize the benefit of talking it out with others. He wouldn’t have known why Mongoose had taken different actions if he hadn’t asked, and who knows how long it would have taken him to figure that out?
If he wanted to avoid Mongoose investigating the entire building, he would have to make sure Peter didn’t kick Emma out and then steal her costume from her closet before Wednesday.
Alternatively, if he could steal Mark’s phone before Mongoose got a hold of it, he could shut that entire thread down before it even started. He’d make sure to do one of those things next reset to see if those actions would transform into a reliable Mongoose-repellant.
“This is awful..” Emma said suddenly, sounding pained as she paced about the alley. “I’m not going to know any of this when you reset next. You said it starts exactly at two-twenty-two AM?”
“Right when you’re banging Mark,” Loren clarified.
“Ugh.” Emma spat, turning to face him. “Can you like—tell me about him and that bitch somehow—before I—”
“You want me to just start shouting about it at two in the morning?” Loren sighed, “No, thanks. I’ll tell you the first time I see you—will you even believe me, though?”
The idea of rehashing the same conversation again sounded exhausting to him, but that was the obvious solution.
“I will,” Emma said immediately. “Just tell me about all of this—”
Emma fell forward onto her face in the alleyway, and Loren heard her nose break as she hit the pavement. The world froze as he locked eyes with the Vapid, who was standing directly behind Emma, baton in hand.
The energy in his legs surged upwards into the rest of his body, but even still he barely got to his feet before Vapid’s baton cut through the air towards his face. It was moving so slowly in his sight that he could see little ripples washing off the thin strip of metal. He pushed the power harder, already feeling that burn in his chest rising up in response, and twisted under the attack, sending a surge of energy out of his foot to jar him to the side.
Her golden eyes tracked him as he spun with the motion and lashed out at her face. Loren’s hand grazed her cheek as she dragged her head to the side—tearing her hood off in the process, and he latched onto his true target.
Vapid’s eyes went wide as he tightened his grip on her long braided hair; Loren stepped forward, pulled down hard on it—dragging her head back into clear view before bending his elbow—driving it straight towards her face.
It landed with a crack as those same translucent ripples washed over them. The impact sent her upper body reeling backward, but she kicked her legs upwards even as she fell. Vapid twisted, still upside down, and planted her own foot on Loren’s thigh before snapping her other foot directly into his face as she flipped backward.
Loren let go of her hair, desperately ducking backward, and firing off another burst of energy from his feet to clear the hit that would have ended the fight even as his chest burned in agony. Vapid touched down on the ground roughly, not at all like her normal grace, and her hand went to her face, holding her shattered and bleeding nose.
Emma hadn’t moved, and he knew that she was already out of the fight; he wouldn’t be receiving any more help from her. Vapid lowered her hand after a moment, revealing the entire bottom half of her face was covered in blood.
“Feels a bit different when you’re on the other end, huh?” Loren said viciousy, through the pain in his chest.
Vapid smiled, revealing bloodied teeth.
“I’m surprised I haven’t heard of you before,” Vapid said happily, looking at the blood on her hand. “That hasn’t happened in a long time.”
“Yeah? Well, I’ve got some time to play,” Loren offered panting, knowing he was doomed already. “Come back over here then, and I’ll make it really memorable for you.”
Vapid laughed brightly—the image incredibly jarring with all of the blood covering her face. He doubted he had more than thirty seconds left before his body started breaking down, as it was his eyes were starting to blur slightly at the edges.
“It’s already quite memorable,” Vapid assured, “Tell me, mysterious villain, what was your part in Gradient’s death?”
“I’m a hero,” Loren snapped. “Neither Sparklite nor I had a part in his death; I’m investigating it myself.”
Vapid looked surprised at the words.
“Yet you’ve aligned yourself with a villain who is now the top suspect for having had a hand in his death?” Vapid stated clearly, “I don’t think I believe you.”
“I didn’t think you would,” Loren said glaring. “You don’t seem all that interested in the truth.”
Vapid’s smile widened.
“You got me,” Vapid admitted happily, “I’m really not here for you or Sparklite—you are both just a novel distraction.”
Not here for either of them? Why was she following Mongoose around then? Why had she even come to their apartment building—
“Aston Grey?” Loren said in understanding, “He was your target.”
“You know his name? He is just a point of interest in a much more complicated situation.” Vapid smiled before tilting her head slightly. “I’m sure you know that Gradient wasn’t the only HQ hero who has died in the last few days.”
Was she talking about Dovetail—the guy that Serpentine killed? How the hell did he get caught up in that? Loren didn’t respond to the unasked question, and Vapid took a small step forward.
Loren moved to stand between her and Emma.
Even with all the stalling they had both been doing, the pain in his chest hadn’t lessened at all, and the blur at the edge of his vision remained. This power was strong, and his legs seemed to be able to hold up under the strain, but his body wasn’t, he had to push it too dangerous levels to keep up with her, and his body just wasn’t able to survive the energy unharmed.
“Well, this has been interesting.” Vapid gave another bloody smile.
Loren’s chest felt like it was bursting as he started moving a fraction of a second before she had. The world slowed to a crawl again as the energy surged upwards through his body, and he palmed her baton to the side, stepped under her spinning high kick, sending his fist towards her throat—Vapid continued her spin, and his fist hit the top of her raised shoulder instead.
The baton came back around, and he caught the tip of it before twisting it out of her grip. Vapid let it go and turned the movement into a straight punch directed at his face. Loren went under it, his own overhand sliding along it to crash into her other palm, barely stopping the hit from connecting with her already damaged face.
Vapid pulled him off balance with her grip on his fist, but he just stepped around her, jaunting to the side with a burst of energy and barely an inch out of the way of her sudden spinning heel drop. Loren blinked through the tears in his increasingly blurry eyes as the pain grew to encompass his entire torso, quickly moving up to his throat.
He pushed harder into the pain, suffusing the energy throughout his body and Vapid’s heel slowed to a crawl as it passed by his head. Loren’s body couldn’t keep up with his perception, and his left hand crawled upwards over the longest moment of his life.
Vapid’s golden eyes watched him, ever so slowly dipping down to see the fist rising towards her face.
Her heel touched the pavement, sending ripples of translucent light in every direction, and her hand snaked upwards through the air towards his wrist, moving almost twice as fast as his own. Loren’s fist crashed into her chin before it had even crossed half of the distance, sending her head back from the force. The hit lifted her feet off the ground as she struggled for purchase above the ground.
The burst of thrilling energy he forced upwards into his hand radiated off the punch, and something burst in his chest. Loren’s vision washed away, blurry and grey before the world sped back up. Vapid smashed into the wall of the alley, unable to turn in time to right herself, and shattered the wall.
Loren fell to his knees, unable to breathe, blood soaking through his shirt to pool around him on the floor of the alleyway. He could see the dark stain on his shirt, right over his heart, and the blood dripping from his fingertips, even as the world grew dark.
Loren managed to lift his gaze to find Vapid, crawling out of the debris, bloodied and torn clothing, a limp mess around her—He’d lost this one and failed again as Thursday continued to evade his grasp.
He couldn’t help but wheeze out a gurgling laugh—At least she wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” Vapid mumbled weakly. “Shit.”
As the glass shards fell around him and Emma put on a show for the entire apartment building, Loren couldn’t help but wonder why he’d been the one to get this power. He seemed like the worst choice, no matter how you looked at it.
Loren knew he was reckless, that he deviated from his own plans almost as quickly as he made them. He made snap decisions and judgments without all the facts, and chaos seemed to follow him wherever he went.
Even so, before all of this—before Emma, before the superpowers, the time travel, the explosions, and before his repeated deaths—Loren had never once, in his entire life, felt as alive as he did right now.
He’d gone toe-to-toe with one of the strongest heroes in the world, tossed her around like a ragdoll, hadn’t even been touched a single time. He’d witnessed every breathtaking moment, and his body had responded like it had been born to fight—born to win.
Just like that, the feeling was gone—and Loren was left once more as a lowly mortal in a world of giants.
Strangely enough, Loren found himself smiling.