Chapter 31

Cell Block, Hero HQ, Setalite City, 10:57 PM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.

Loren knew that if her helmet hadn’t been in the way, he would have been able to see her smile.

“I find it very fascinating,” Wraith said quietly, “That when you are given no option to act and are forced to think through a situation without being driven by impulsivity, you are capable of displaying a very high level of perceptiveness.”

Real subtle, Loren thought resignedly.

Loren couldn’t exactly blame her for investigating him, even the coded phrase wasn’t enough to give him blanket permission to exist without suspicion. Given what he had seen of her own behavior in regards to breaking into his home to get his phone during one of the loops—her looking into his medical history wasn’t too far off.

It was a guess, but he felt absolutely sure that she already knew everything that was available to know about him. There was a note of interest there that pressed at his mind. It was an obvious violation of his privacy, not that he truly cared about that—but what about the knowledge he held about her?

He knew what she looked like under her armor, after all. Having that knowledge on its own might have been comparable—Either way, he wasn’t sure if he should be upset or happy at her insight, but she was hinting at personal issues now, and it didn’t exactly feel like a comfortable topic to move to.

The best way to soften the pain of the sting was to sting himself first.

“You got me—I’m a mental case, and any spark of brilliance I had buried underneath it all has long since been smothered, the shit life throws at you has a way of doing that, you know?” Loren said self-deprecatingly, “You knew all of that, though, because you already checked, didn’t you?”

He stared at her helmet as if it might reveal something, but this time he got nothing in return—reading her was definitely a hit and miss affair. Apparently, he didn’t need to bother because she just came out and admitted it.

Loren almost sighed.

“I have been investigating you thoroughly, although its main purpose is to allow me to learn the most effective way to assist you in your endeavor,” Wraith said evenly. “In regards to your other comment—I don’t think it’s quite as smothered as you seem to believe.”

They’d have to agree to disagree—The trauma of losing his best friend had ruined him entirely and buried that last vestige of brightness that had once made him strive to excel, but it hadn’t been the only thing to contribute to his fall.

Acting out to gain attention, making impulsive and inappropriate decisions to the detriment of those around him, getting hurt and hurting others on accident, or by not thinking ahead—overstepping the boundaries had practically defined his childhood. Loren was an Icarus who’d spent years dreaming of crafting his wings but could never focus enough to actually do it—far too busy stumbling over every interesting thing that drew his eye and without any of the developed restraint that would manifest later.

He’d been in therapy, imbibed a dozen trojan horses filled with medication that left him feeling stupid, slow, fuzzy, and not at all himself—and on the days where it was its worst, he’d buried himself in things to escape from it all—desperately trying to cope.

Drawing had been the most productive coping method, but gaming had been by far the most effective.

Hyper focusing on a single thing in front of him helped him stay on track, all the little distractions and thoughts pulling him every which way quietened. He lived for those rare moments of clarity, and where everything became crystal clear, where it all just fell into place, and he could act without the mental shackles that bound him.

He always wondered if that was how everyone else experienced the world and if that was how it felt to be normal—If Loren was a color, he’d be a shade of envy.

“I expected that you would attempt to infiltrate Ascent,” Wraith said eventually, sounding hesitant. “It would appear I misjudged what kind of person you are.”

“You’ve known me for half a day at best,” Loren sighed, “I think I can forgive you for not knowing exactly what I’m like.”

That was the crux of his situation, though, wasn’t it?

He was developing an entirely one-sided relationship with her—with everybody—they didn’t have the experiences or the memories of the things they had seen and done together. From his perspective, he’d spent hours or maybe even days speaking with them, working together, bonding.

None of it was real after a reset—it may as well have been entirely in his head for all the weight it held. Was that how things were going to play out now? How would knowing that they would forget him over and over again end up affecting him in the long-term?

Loren’s own growing attachment for those he had begun to interact with was almost unfair in a way—for instance, he knew things about Emma that she hadn’t told anybody else in the world. He knew where she lived and what her routine was—he knew so much about her and so much about the others.

He knew how they would react to situations they had never been in, situations where they themselves didn’t even know what they would do. It was almost analogous to being a stalker in a way—having this depth of knowledge of another person without their consent just felt wrong, like he was intruding on their lives.

Could he really begrudge Alana from doing the same and invading his privacy in an attempt to even the odds?

“I doubt I could have anyway,” Loren admitted, “Yvette was the only member that I made any type of connection with—she’s the one who gave me the keys.”

“I was watching,” Wraith admitted.

Of course she was—that meant she had witnessed the bizarre sequence of events that had taken place.

“Sorry to derail—but what the hell is up with Raindancer?” Loren said, amazed. “Was her getting captured by her brother part of the plan?”

Wraith dipped her head slightly in confirmation.

“It was her idea,” Wraith said evenly. “Raindancer has a very… unusual disposition. It has resulted in many, many issues and complaints since she was recruited.”

It was Raindancer’s idea? Yikes.

“Why did you let Ascent escape in the first place?” Loren asked finally, getting to the big issue. “What was the benefit there?”

“Each of them has eaten a meal that unknowingly contained a tracking device,” Wraith said simply. “Raindancer was unaware of this facet of the plan—she was inducted under the premise that she would be ‘tracking’ them on foot, and as of an hour ago has reported that she lost them in the city.”

That Raindancer had most likely let her brother go was left unsaid.

So Wraith had brought in Fracture about the bombs, had tested whether Raindancer held some kind of loyalty to her brother, and let Ascent escape in order to locate their base. Clearly, she was trying to jam as much into a single loop as she could manage.

Letting Ascent escape was a pretty big move on its own, especially after the fiasco he had caused with Vapid. Wraith was just torpedoing her own reputation here. There was no way she wasn’t going to get shit for this.

“So Raindancer just offered herself up to free her brother?” Loren said, frowning. “And then, as far as it appears, let him loose in the city?”

Wraith simply nodded.

“It’s not enough to determine if she is leaking information to Liquid, and in turn Complexity,” Wraith explained, “It has, however, revealed she will absolutely take action to aid her brother if given the opportunity, despite his position as an active villain. Not unusual given they are siblings, if disappointing.”

Loren hummed in thought.

“Do you think her meme lord act is just a cover?” Loren frowned, “I can’t see her doing it otherwise. She ended up getting disturbingly fresh with Darius, it makes sense in a weird way.”

Raindancer was clearly committed to her family if she was willing to go that far to set her brother free—

“No,” Wraith interjected evenly, “I’m afraid that is exactly what Raindancer is like, most of the time—she often professes, with some degree of pride, I might add, to have a very strong brother-complex.”

Ew.

“Ew,” Loren said immediately, voicing his thoughts. “I hope Darius never got stuck in any washing machines while she was around. It also explains why Arla was so pissed off at her as well—her and Darius seemed to have something going on.”

“I was unaware the members of Ascent were romantically engaged prior to today,” Wraith admitted, “It should prove to be very useful information come the next time they show themselves.”

Loren didn’t want to know.


Cell Block, Hero HQ, Setalite City, 11:47 AM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.

Sitting in a cell with nobody to talk to sucked, Loren decided.

Wraith had visited him hours ago, but he hadn’t seen anybody since. He wished he at least had his phone or something to draw with—His quiet musing was interrupted when the door to the cellblock shattered inwards, and Sparklite came sliding through the mess.

“Holy fuck!” Loren cried in alarm, scrambling to his feet. “What the fuck are you doing here?!”

He could feel his heart thundering in his chest and wondered if he was having a heart attack.

“Found you!” Sparklite panted, desperately gasping for breath. “I’m getting you out of here.”

How on earth had she gotten past all of the heroes? She clearly wasn’t trying for stealth—the sound of concrete shattering far above echoed down the stairwell. What exactly was happening right now?

“What’s going on up there?” Loren demanded.

Sparklite placed her hand on the empty cell doors opposite him, and the still humming current surged up her arm and over her body—she let out a sigh of relief and stood a little straighter.

“I don’t know, but there are villains everywhere,” Sparklite said distractedly, “The Crew was like a block away fighting some team I’ve never seen before, then more of them started showing up—then the Hero HQ showed up—”

Sparklite was glowing brightly—she struck the cell bar shattering it inwards, and the mess flashed past him into the other side of the cell. A piece of debris clipped him, and the core inside him bloomed to life once more.

There was another crash upstairs that shook the building as Loren stepped between the broken bars to freedom. The two of them headed for the stairwell, and he unconsciously started feeding the force into himself, preparing for the fight above.

“The fighting was coming this way, some guy destroyed the entire bottom floor with this crazy elemental attack,” Sparklite said hesitantly. “I saw a lot of bodies on my way in, and most of the building is on fire now.”

What the fuck was going on?

“Why are you here, Emma?” Loren asked distractedly, noting that she jumped at her name.

That had to be Archetype’s combination attack—The Crew was fighting Cinematic. That had never happened before—or had it? Dovetail was under watch, The Crew as a whole might have been one of Cinematic’s targets as well, and the hero may have just beaten them to the punch in the previous loops?

“You knew I was Sparklite?” Emma said, alarmed.

With Dovetail out of the game this time, their own attack on The Crew must have occurred—something must have gone wrong with it, though, because Storyboard wouldn’t have let it happen like this surely.

“I looked into what you said yesterday,” Sparklite said angrily, “You were right—Mark is a complete piece of shit. I wanted to break you out because… well, it’s hard to explain.”

Archetype must have been waiting for Chloe to get out of the Crescendo tournament, so he was nearby when this started going down. Far too much water started pouring down the stairs, and Loren had to brace himself on the railing to avoid being pulled back downward.

All the force was being pushed into his core, and he tried to keep an eye on his mental state, but he couldn’t identify if anything had changed yet.

“Train, Marrow, Mara Melancholia,” Loren said easily, waving his hand vaguely and splashing the water about.

“You remembered this whole time!?” Sparklite squawked, face scrunched up against the spray. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Look, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times,” Loren said ironically, feeling a sense of excitement building the higher they went. “I’m stuck in a time-loop—”

The water surged upwards, the volume growing at an impossible rate, swallowing the entire stairwell and leaving them both underwater and in complete darkness. He lost sight of Emma immediately, and when he reached out to where she had been, she was gone. Loren’s hand was still clenched around the railing as he held his breath—she must have gone upwards, right?

The water was still moving, pushing him back and forth as he fought to keep his grip. He pushed off the railing with some force, sending himself rocketing through the water—he misjudged the angle and crashed into the stairs above him before glancing off and spinning in the dark water.

Loren’s chest was starting to burn, and he picked a direction, quickly coming against something solid. He punched it, cracking the wall, but not enough to break through, he hit it twice more the damage increasing with each strike, but the concrete just kept on going.

The water was calming down, no longer rapidly passing by, but it did nothing to help him. The stairwell was littered with debris now, and he struggled in the dark water, trying to find something familiar to grab onto and establish where the fuck he was.

His hand touched something familiar, and he pulled—Loren stopped, moving his hand down until he found the reason Emma wasn’t moving, the railing had shattered and was sticking straight through her chest.

Loren screamed.


Loren gasped in a desperate breath as he sat up, heart still thudding painfully in his chest, even as Emma cried out in ecstasy above him. The veil the core held over him had vanished with the transition, and his mind ran wild once again. He curled into a ball on the bed, ignoring the stinging glass biting into his skin, and gripped his hair tightly.

How was he supposed to live like this?

The fury, the anger at the world, and the injustice of Emma’s sudden death came flooding in—and yet here she was above him, alive and intermingled with a man who was inevitably going to die.

It was too much—but were his feelings even valid here?

Did it matter if she died when she just came straight back like this? Did the Emma who’d drowned, in agony and alone in the darkness, deserve any further thought? The pain and suffering she must have felt had been real, as real as the pain of the glass under his shoulder.

If he didn’t even consider those moments as real, why would any of this be considered real?

What was the distinction here? Was all that suffering and pain allowed to be forgotten, as long as it happened in his past—in the loops that he’d left behind? It didn’t work like that for anybody else, their pain followed them through their lives as they lived them—just because Emma’s pain was erased afterward didn’t mean her suffering in that moment wasn’t real.

Why was he the one who’d been handed this power?! What was he supposed to do? Why did he have to make a choice between letting a man die or stepping in to help him and dying himself?

Why did it all lead to tragedy?

Loren’s eyes were red and raw by the time he fell asleep in the glass-covered bed, with the three unacknowledged orbs circling slowly above him, glowing a faint white.


Eventually, Loren found himself forced to get up, trying unsuccessfully to bury the thought that, once again, his failure to act immediately in this loop had allowed Mark’s death to go unchallenged.

The three orbs continued to follow him as he went about his business, completely ignored.

There was a hypothetical Loren had read once, about an unknown child who was drowning in a body of water as you, the actor, walked past every day. You were given two choices, save the child’s life and ruin your expensive clothing in the process, or allow the child to drown.

The hypothetical repeated until the savior either decided that no matter what, his monetary worth wasn’t equal to that of the life of the child, or he let the child die. It wasn’t an exact match to his current situation, as it concerned itself with the monetary threshold you were willing to sacrifice to save a life, but it was close.

Instead of destroyed clothing, what if attempting to save Mark resulted in direct, measurable harm to his mental wellbeing? Where exactly did the threshold exist, where you could say that Mark should be left to fend for himself? That the cost had grown too high?

It was something he’d been struggling with for days, and worse than that was the fact that the choice to not save Mark also brought a degree of mental harm with it. It was a scenario in which the guilt of letting someone die when you could intervene was set against the trauma of dying gruesomely at the hands of Cinematic.

A Hero—a morally good one, not any of those like Dovetail—would act to save Mark, regardless of what the cost was to themselves, death, trauma, or dismemberment be damned.

Loren knew that, and he wanted more than anything to be that kind of hero, to rise above his own miserable existence. He wanted to stand up in the face of adversity and tell it to fuck right off—that he wasn’t going to submit to any of the injustices anyone might want to inflict on those around them.

He wanted to do what Paragon did when Starsealer arrived, to stand unbroken and strong in front of the cosmic horror, to force it to break on him before he ever even considered moving. To show it that he’d rather die than allow it to have its way with humanity.

Loren wanted all of that, more than anything in the world—but in the back of his mind, a tiny voice grew louder every day, whispering to him…

Not even Paragon would be expected to die for them more than once.

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