Chapter 28

Wraith’s Office, Hero HQ, Setalite City, 11:39 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.

Loren didn’t speak for a while after his confession, trying hard to push away the memory of Arret bawling. Wraith didn’t move to object to his actions or reprimand him in any way, simply content to study him silently.

Leaving him guessing what she thought of him for killing the man—he had no intention of telling her how he’d done it. He had a good idea of exactly how that would work out—Loren wished she would take off her helmet, so he could at least gauge what her reaction had been.

“I see,” Wraith said eventually. “The last loop wasn’t entirely wasted, despite your failure to heed my suggestions.”

Loren tightened his hold on his hair at the words, as she did nothing to assuage his guilt. She hadn’t even addressed it—

“My alters actions are obvious. I was clearly attempting to remove the civilian presence from the area for some reason—a waste of initiative in hindsight, but it is curious that removing so many bodies from the equation did nothing to tempt the bomber into attacking early, it has revealed a great deal. Killing non-powered individuals are most likely entirely outside or counter to their current objectives.” Wraith spoke at length, working her way through the problem. “The most pressing issue is that I have clearly underestimated how fine of a trigger this entire situation was resting on.”

Loren followed her words closely, unsure if he was content to just leave the fact of him now being a murderer behind them.

“There are a substantial amount of heroes scheduled to be present during the speech. They are the most likely the true target of the bomber.” Wraith said simply, “They are not going out of their way to maximize the number of innocents killed, but they do not care if they die during the attack.”

“So, they are just another killer after the money from the contract, then?” Loren muttered, frustrated.

What kind of monster would be okay with killing an entire crowd of people just to get Paragon? Wraith leaned back for a moment, tapping a single finger against her armored chin.

“A very likely possibility, although it is also possible that they gain something else from this, and the contract is simply obscuring the real objective,” Wraith said steadily, “There isn’t enough information to confirm it, however.”

“What does that mean?” Loren said, frowning, not following. “Obscuring their real objective?”

Wraith seemed content to answer.

“The resources available to this bomber seem to be substantial; it’s entirely possible that they do not actually care about the monetary reward itself,” Wraith said slowly, “If that were the case, and factoring in that the culprit is operating in multiple cities in a very short span of time, we could—if ignoring the contract—safely assume that their goal is to wipe out as many of those who possess powers as possible.”

The bomber being unrelated to the insoluble contract entirely seemed like a complete stretch to him. It wasn’t that Loren doubted the existence of those who wished to kill on that scale because the bomb’s actions spoke for themselves in that regard, and there were plenty of examples of it.

It was just that… what kind of motivation could the person even have that would approach the level of money that was on the line? They didn’t have a grudge against humanity, or they would be killing civilians too—so it wasn’t likely an alien or esoteric threat.

Wraith might be right about it, but he just couldn’t see how she would bypass the obvious motivation to get there.

“Do you think that’s what’s happening?” Loren said hesitantly, “Someone with a grudge against heroes? They are actually setting up bombs across multiple cities right in the middle of this contract, but somehow it’s entirely unrelated?”

“It isn’t as likely as them being driven solely by money,” Wraith allowed, “There is a point where another ten million dollars would be a drop in the pool for some; it’s worth keeping in mind.”

Loren nodded; she was obviously just being thorough.

Wraith linked her hands in front of her helmet for a moment, staring at him through the black glass. He was starting to get a bit worried as she continued to silently study him. Just before he moved to ask what she was thinking, she spoke.

“You’ve indicated that Paragon dies on Thursday at exactly 12:00 PM,” Wraith said quietly. “What would you think I wonder, If I were to tell you that there was a… threat discovered to each of the Peacekeepers on Tuesday, at 2:30 AM?”

Loren leaned back into his own chair, frowning, running that piece of information over in his mind. Two-thirty in the morning wasn’t even ten minutes after the loop first began. A threat was sent out to them, and then several days later, Paragon is killed by the bomber.

It sounded like someone had taken up the contract with Paragon as their target.

“I wouldn’t be surprised, I guess?” Loren said hesitantly, “They’ve put a lot of bad guys behind bars. I imagine they have a lot of enemies, and there is money on the line. What was the threat?”

Wraith hummed, a strange robotic noise to hear with her voice changer still activated.

“Seven headless bodies pinned to a wall,” Wraith said simply. “Each with one of the Peacekeepers associated symbols carved into the chest.”

“That’s…” Loren flinched away from the mental image, “Horrible. I don’t see your point for bringing it up, though. So the bomber sent them a message in advance—why?”

“No,” Wraith said evenly, watching him. “I bring this up because I believe you are conflating Paragon’s death with the bomber who targeted the rest of the heroes at the speech.”

Loren spent a moment unpacking that one. Trying to keep up with her was a thrill, but it left him scrambling more often than not, which wasn’t exactly something he was used to.

The bomber had been targeting the other heroes at the speech, not Paragon? It didn’t make any sense to him.

“Alana,” Loren said quietly, “I watched him explode with my own eyes.”

“I am aware,” Wraith said carefully. “When you described this to me earlier, you said there was an orange glow on the road before detonation. Paragon, however, showed no such thing. He erupted outwards as if something was inside him.”

“Yeah,” Loren said, frowning.

Wraith hadn’t turned away from him. Loren closed his eyes and put his mind to the obvious challenge.

They were obviously different types of bombs—One type proceeded with an orange glow that erupted in fire and flames upon detonation. The second had no orange glow, containing simply some kind of localized pressure wave that stopped after several feet, and it somehow originated inside Paragon.

He’d thought of that already days ago, it wasn’t new information, and it didn’t reveal anything new to him. Given the bomber was capable of making automated defenses and bombs in large quantities, the idea that they could make more than one type of bomb wasn’t groundbreaking.

Loren let out a steady breath, the motivation of the bomber was now obvious, either large quantities of money or killing large quantities of heroes. A threat had been placed in advance against Paragon and the rest of the Peacekeepers, but the bomber had given no indication that he intended to set off bombs, he was willing to kill anyone who approached them in the sewers.

Loren paused at the thought, there was something there that he was brushing past, something to do with the methods… The seven headless bodies were almost like a message—they were playing a game with the Peacekeepers, sending a threat and confidently telling them that they were next.

It was almost like how he messed with people in Crescendo—as sickening as the comparison was.

“I’m coming for you. Try to stop me.” Loren mumbled quietly, vocalizing the feeling with his eyes still closed. “The seven bodies are a challenge to the Peacekeepers.”

The bombs in the sewers and under the Hero HQ were completely different. It was primarily a stealth attack, designed to hit without any build-up or warning and to catch as many unawares as possible in a single horrific moment. It was an attempt to win, in a single ruthless moment, and give no time for things to be turned around—Overwhelming and without warning.

Loren’s eyes snapped open as understanding washed over him and stilled. Wraith had leaned entirely across the desk, she was on a few scant inches away from him, studying his face intently from behind her helmet.

He could see the panicked expression on his own face reflected in the dark glass.

“It’s two different people,” Loren said nervously, twisting his hands in the cuffs for a moment. “The headless-killer wanted people to know that he was going after Paragon in advance. The bomber just wanted to win and not draw attention before it was done.”

Wraith hadn’t moved out of his personal space.

“It was just a coincidence that Paragon’s death happened seconds before the bombing.” Loren swallowed, “The two killers had no idea that the other was even planning anything. Is that what you’re saying?”

Wraith breathed out quickly, loud enough that it passed through her noise gate, and the voice changer digitized the noise as a robotic mess of white noise—leaving him with a distinct impression that she was pleased that he’d figured it out.

“Yes,” Wraith said clearly, tone level. “It is highly probable that the two events are completely unrelated despite the timing. Their goals are different, and their methodology is incompatible with one another.”

Loren felt a flash of satisfaction as Wraith confirmed the theory. It felt like a massive step forward in understanding exactly what was happening in the city. There were multiple players, each with their own goals and methods.

The contract-placer was targeting everyone with superpowers, heroes and villains alike. The bomber was targeting both Arrot City and Setalite city, attempting to kill the heroes at the HQ’s and at public events. Either for money or because they had a grudge. The headless-killer was playing a sick game with the Peacekeepers and, without interference, would manage to actually kill Paragon.

Three separate individuals that he’d been thinking in his head as a single, unimaginatively intelligent, ruthlessly efficient, and wholely unbeatable foe—Loren wasn’t sure if this was better or worse.

“Um,” Loren said awkwardly as she continued to hover over him. “Are you alright?”

Wraith stilled with her hands planted on the desk and leaning entirely over it towards him before slowly sliding back into her seat.

“I apologize… it’s something of a bad habit of mine. There is a certain level of enjoyment attained by watching others put together a scenario in their minds.” Wraith admitted, turning to look at the door to her office. “I’ve always found it very interesting to watch the expressions as they work their way to a climax, and you are very expressive.”

Loren started laughing, unable to help himself. The horror of the loops still weighed heavily on his mind, like Sisyphus pushing his old friend up that hill every single day—but it was moments like these that made that boulder feel just a little bit lighter.

“That did not come out as intended,” Wraith said slowly, realizing too late what she had just implied.

“That’s what she said,” Loren laughed.


They took a break from their conversation, and Wraith had been gone for almost an hour at this point. Loren had commandeered one of the heroes notepads and a pen as a way to pass the time until she returned.

The door opened, but when he turned to check, he noted that it was absolutely not Wraith.

“Who the hell are you?” Mongoose demanded, stepping inside. “Why are you in here on your own?”

Loren held up his still cuffed hands, shaking them audibly.

“Wraith brought me in, turns out you can get arrested for being too good-looking—who knew?” Loren said idly, returning to his drawing.

Mongoose snorted at the brag, crossing her arms and leaning against the doorframe. It was interesting to him that the last time he’d been in this office with her, it had been a much more frantic situation.

“What did you actually do?” Mongoose pressed.

He’d calmed down significantly over the course of the day, but there was still an undercurrent of anger for what had happened this morning. Loren eyed the hero for a moment, wondering what the repercussions of him telling her would be.

She might go to investigate Emma, but that had only happened when Mark had actually died. With Mark alive and well, she might just aim her anger at him—a well-deserved outcome.

Then again, it could spiral out of control again…

“I broke a bunch of things in my apartment and tossed my dresser out the window,” Loren admitted, “I was pretty angry at the time, and I’d just unlock my powers about ten seconds beforehand.”

Mongoose narrowed her eyes a bit at the admission, suddenly much warier.

“That’s a job for the police, it would only get escalated if someone became aware you had a power in the first place,” Mongoose noted. “It wouldn’t land you here in Wraith’s office unless you revealed your power to them. What else did you do?”

“I’m applying for a job,” Loren said primly. “Turns out you guys need all the help you can get!”

“Fuck off,” Mongoose snorted. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that you haven’t answered the question.”

“One of the heroes was banging his girlfriend next door to my apartment at the time—the walls are super thin, so every time he turns up, I can’t help but overhear them going at it. It’s super annoying, and I broke some shit in frustration.” Loren said simply, returning to the notepad. “So he breaks into my apartment without his costume on, and I kick his ass with my new powers—I thought it was a freaking home invasion.”

Mongoose started laughing at the somewhat edited tale.

“This sounds like a comedy skit,” Mongoose snorted.

“I kicked the dude down the stairs, and he came back five minutes later wearing a costume, and with reinforcements,” Loren said dryly. “We beat the crap out of each other for a while before one of them snuck up behind me and choked me out.”

Loren earned another laugh for his efforts.

“Ah, that makes more sense—you found out the civilian identity of one of the heroes,” Mongoose nodded in understanding, still smirking. “There’s a couple of hundred who rotate through the roster here, which ones did you fight?”

Loren rested on the precipice, he’d been vague enough to avoid incriminating anyone. Although if she’d known that Mark or Dovetail had gotten into a fight that morning, it would have been a different story.

“Gradient and Dovetail,” Loren said simply.

Mongoose’s good-humor vanished in an instant, and her eyes narrowed to slits. Loren continued sketching, feigning that he had not noticed her change in mood.

“Oh, those two, huh?” Mongoose managed a strained laugh, “Hey, I don’t recall, which one did you say was banging his girlfriend at the time? Dovetail, right?”

“No,” Loren said idly, “It wasn’t Dovetail.”

The was a moment of tense silence before Mongoose turned and walked back through the open door. Loren caught a glimpse of her face, her fury writ large in her eyes and easy to see. The door slammed shut behind her, leaving him alone once more in the office.

“No, wait, come back,” Loren said without enthusiasm.

It was probably going to come back to bite him, but so did everything else in this damn loop. At least he was the one who’d made the decision this time.


The illustration on the desk was almost finished when Wraith finally returned, and the alone time had given him ample opportunity to come up with the next line of questioning.

“Is it possible to get rid of a contract?” Loren asked curiously.

Wraith rounded the desk and retook her seat before speaking.

“It has been tried countless times,” Wraith said evenly, “The creators of insoluble have insulated their business against any attempt brought against it so far, it is unlikely that a breakthrough will be made to that end without years more work, and they will not remain idle while we attempt such a thing.”

If they couldn’t remove the contract, then perhaps they could use another method?

“Can we find the Contractor, get them to remove it?” Loren said intently, closing his eyes, “There can’t be too many people with access to those kinds of funds. Can we follow the money?”

Wraith shook her head minutely.

“Insoluble has made tracking the transactions impossible to trace,” Wraith said simply. “The identity of those who set the bounties are likewise entirely inaccessible.”

He flushed slightly—Of course, he wasn’t going to walk in and solve a problem they’d been attempting to solve for years now, he shook his head. They fell into an extended silence before Wraith spoke up.

“Your altercation this morning seems to have derailed Cinematic’s plan to assassinate Gradient, most likely because of how many heroes ended up being present.” Wraith said thoughtfully, “It is worth addressing that Storyboard is most likely constructing a new plan of attack at this very moment.”

Loren swallowed, having not even thought about it.

“Wheres Gradient now?” Loren said quietly, “If they target him again…”

“I have already made him and several others aware of the coming danger,” Wraith said, so calmly that it almost slipped him by.

She’d told people about the assassination attempt? Had she told them about the bombs too?

“Did you tell them about—” Loren said quickly.

“Yes,” Wraith said evenly, studying him.

Fuck.

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