Chapter 38

Loren’s Apartment, 7:43 AM.
Wednesday, February 22nd​, 2022.

Loren sat at the top of the stairs, watching the hallway and steadily losing focus as time passed him by. The early morning atmosphere had always carried with it an indescribable feeling of awe for him. The cool, crisp air, the pervasive silence, and the complete lack of people always helped bring him into a state of calm.

Except this time, none of it helped at all because Iza Gracen was waiting for him downstairs.

Loren had spent years thinking about that day in excruciating detail, trying to figure out exactly where it had all gone wrong and what he could have done differently. Iza Gracen taking him into that office was one of those moments that always crept back into his thoughts when he lay in bed at night and sleep eluded him.

If someone in a position of power was willing to prey upon the vulnerable when they were supposed to be protectingthem—what was stopping everybody else from doing the same thing? That single interaction with her had put in a substantive amount of work to shape the kind of person he was today and caused devastating damage to his ability to trust in others. It was something he was still dealing with to this day, and to suddenly find out now that all of it—the pain, the trust issues, the isolation—was built on a falsehood.

To learn that Iza Gracen hadn’t even taken those actions of her own free will—His mind just kept circling back over and over, trying to square away the newly discovered discrepancy in his worldview.

That day in the office, Loren had changed Iza—in some unknowable and fundamental way. His power acted to create a one-sided, false attraction between them that she had been dealing with for six years.

It had been his power, recently acquired or not, that had acted upon her—The entire situation had been flipped on its head in an instant—now he was in the position that he had railed against his whole life.

Loren was now the parent who had demanded subservience in all things through fear and control, he was the school nurse who had preyed upon the unwilling, and he the one who stripped others of their autonomy.

Iza Gracen wasn’t the monster he’d spent years building up in his mind—she was just another victim.

A door down the hall opened slowly, and the first movement in hours snapped Loren out of his thoughts. He turned his head and spotted an elderly man with a small dog on a leash. The man noticed Loren a moment later and smiled as he passed him by, heading down the stairs in what was no doubt a daily routine.

Loren was starting to wonder if he’d gotten the floor wrong—for Isometric to be killed at the reporter’s apartment, she actually had to go there. It had been hours since he had given his phone away, and Elis Frisk delivered his news report on Dovetail’s actions at 12:00 PM today.

How long did it take her to convince the man to run the story? How long did she have left before she had to meet him? She should be showing some kind of urgency, she would have already witnessed two of her teammate’s deaths—

Loren frowned at the thought before the realization dawned on him.

The woman was suspected but not confirmed to be able to view things remotely somehow, and she had just seen half of her fucking team die—she would have been on extremely high alert. If he was in her position, he would have been constantly checking his surroundings for anyone suspicious.

All the while, a strange man was sitting outside on the stairs, waiting for her to come out. He’d looked at the door countless times over the hours, and none of it had been subtle—she had to of noticed him by now, which meant that his presence had most likely caused her to not go to her meeting with the reporter.

“I’m a fucking idiot,” Loren groaned, rubbing his face in disgust.

Leona Kindly was never going to leave the safety of her apartment while he was sitting out here watching the door—He could hear the faint sound of footsteps coming up the stairs, probably the old man again.

He realized quickly that wasn’t the case, as the footsteps sounded far too sharp, and there were far too many. The rush of noise was growing by the second—echoing up both staircases in a cacophony of staccato clacks.

It almost sounded like a stone striking stone—an ear-shattering crash came from downstairs, and the entire building shook for a moment. Loren backed up from the stairs, heading to the middle of the hallway.

A group of three stone humanoids, each glowing with multiple swirling colors to his power, stomped up the stairs on either side of the building, six in total.

Cinematic was attacking—and Animate was the one leading the charge. These were his constructs, the same ones that had chased him and Chloe out of the forest. They were also most likely the reason why Leona Kindly and Elis Frisk died from blunt force trauma in the previous loop.

The first one reached him, hand outstretched, and he stepped backward to slip the grab before striking it across the face with his enhanced strength. Its glowing blue cheek exploded under the force of the hit, but it left his knuckles stinging. It stumbled in front of the other two, blocking their path before it managed to grab him by the shirt.

Loren panicked, grabbing its wrist, pulling on the blue aura hard, and dragging it into his shirt. The construct’s entire arm vanished up until the shoulder and his shirt transformed into the color of silver as its protection field grew stronger.

He could absorb these things—he ducked down and surged forward, tackling the one-armed golem around the torso, drawing it inside his clothing. It vanished, leaving its legs standing on the floor to mark its passing.

His shirt couldn’t even be called that anymore, closer to the consistency of weaved metal thread than any cloth he had ever seen—he was transforming it into armor with everything he added. The long sleeves had grown halfway to his fingertips, covering them in a similar material.

Loren raised his guard as the other two reached him, weathering the painful blows and leaving them armless in response as he stole their mass.

The sound of a door being smashed behind him forced him to turn, sprinting towards the three that were in the process of breaking down the Isometric’s door. He shoulder barged one of them, sending it skidding across the floor, missing half of its torso, and set himself in front of the doorway.

The armor was growing to look more like plate mail as he held his ground—Whatever was happening downstairs was still going on, and the entire building was doing its best to resist it. Likewise, more and more of the stone constructs were starting to swarm up the stairs.

A helmet grew down to cover his face, a cross slit leaving him free to see out of it. The armor encased him entirely now, gauntlets, vambraces, leggings—even a lump on his left arm that looked to be turning into a buckler shield of some kind—a lump of metal formed in his right hand, quickly growing longer.

The constructs fought on mindlessly, but it was reaching the point where their blows no longer moved him. He stabbed out with the lumpy sword and dragged those he struck inside of the forming blade—by the end of the second wild swing, it had grown long, thin, and razor-sharp, leaving deep grooves in the floor and railing with each pass. Another more distance crack echoed from several buildings away, and the hundreds of constructs stopped in place, completely unmoving, hands outstretched towards him.

Loren panted for breath, unwilling to move from his place by the door.

But they remained still, no longer controlled by Animates power, now nothing more than a horde of motionless statues. Either the villain had fled, or he’d been beaten by whoever was destroying the area.

“Why did you save me?” Leona Kindly said nervously, from one of the many holes in the door. “Who are you?”

“I’m a knight in shining armor, obviously,” Loren said tiredly, trying to stick the sword in the loop at his belt and failing. “Oh, by the way, a group called Cinematic is targeting you—in case you didn’t notice.”

He managed to stow the stupid sword away before turning to face the door.

“Who the hell is Cinematic?” Leona said hesitantly.

“That’s what I said—I had no idea who they were at first.” Loren sighed. “They are a villain group that works on the down-low. Right now, they are targeting villains and heroes to get the reward from that Insoluble contract that showed up.”

Understanding sparkled in her eyes.

“I’ve never seen you here before—when did you start working with Ogre?” Leona said quietly, eyes flashing amber for a moment.

Ogre was here—That explained all of the noise downstairs. Animate was definitely dangerous, but he wasn’t on that level. Ogre had fought Untold and even managed to escape from Paragon on two separate occasions.

“About five minutes ago apparently,” Loren said slowly, “Look, that guy who just tried to give you the Terracotta Army treatment is only one member. They have more, lots more—”

“More? What should I do?” Leona said shakily, “Half my team is dead—do I just run? Leave the city?”

Loren hesitated as she started to cry—he didn’t have any solutions to that question. He hadn’t come here to save her—as much as he wanted to—he’d come to see which of the villains came after her.

He was turning over a new leaf—he had to remember to not get attached.

“That won’t work. Their powers are too diverse,” Loren admitted quietly. “They have a teleporter, a guy that makes almost perfect plans, and another that can tell which direction you’ve gone.”

“What am I supposed to do then?” Leona rubbed at her face in frustration, “Die?”

When Thursday rolled around, that was most likely what was going to happen if she continued to sleep in a build in the middle of Setalite City.

“I know what you shouldn’t do,” Loren sighed, “There are bombs under the Heroes Podium, the Hero HQ, and this building is well inside the blast radius—The city explodes on Thursday at exactly 12:00 PM. I highly advise that you don’t be here when it does.”

Loren paused for a moment before sighing—fine, he’d help a little bit.

“Your absolute best chance to survive any further attacks is to speak with Wraith at the Hero HQ, don’t tell anyone else about the bombs, or they will explode early.” Loren directed, “Repeat that last part back to me so I can be sure you are going to get everyone there killed.”

Leona repeated it hesitantly, and he nodded.

“I don’t know how your power works,” Loren said slowly, thinking. “Find the bombs in the Hero HQ and then tell Wraith as much as you can. Good luck.”

Loren turned away from the door, feeling guilty that he couldn’t do more for her—taking her in would just end the loop early when they inevitably came after her, and he got involved because he wouldn’t be able to help it.

He would send a message to Wraith once he got his phone back from Iza.

The statues, still reaching towards him, proved no obstacle, as he simply absorbed them into his armor as he walked through. His armor was no longer growing in size, but he could actively feel the protection it provided growing stronger.

The entire staircase and each floor of the building was filled with the damn things. Loren eventually reached the second floor and stepped into the hallway—it had surprisingly few statues. The ones that remained were crushed, broken, and scattered across the hall.

A towering giantess with a singular-horned face mask stooped to enter the other end of the hall, shrinking all the while. The image of a humanoid that large squeezing itself into such a small space sent a thrill of terror through him, but he managed to hold his ground.

Ogre paused as she spotted him, rapidly shrinking back down to normal human proportions but still quite tall.

“Loren—I don’t know what’s more surprising, that you were telling the truth about the villains,” Ogre said slowly, somehow identifying him through the armor. “or that you actually came back.”

Oh no.

“That explains why I couldn’t break your grip earlier.” Loren said weakly, “Thanks for the assist, Iza.”

“There were two of them?” Loren asked, watching her carefully from his place in the living room. “Animate was the one with the statues. What could the other one do?”

Iza was perched on the kitchen counter, on the complete other side of the room.

“Cut off my senses,” Iza said slowly, watching him. “Everything went black, couldn’t hear anything.”

“Aperture is the one who can blind senses,” Loren explained, “What did the two of them look like?”

“Animate was a man, long brown hair and a beard, pretty angry guy. Aperture was a woman, shoulder-length black hair, black and white striped shirt with no mask—much more composed.” Iza said, leaning forward enough to slip off the counter, “They teleported away in this blue circle that appeared out of nowhere.”

“That’s Orient’s power—they may have given up after encountering you here, but I wouldn’t count on it.” Loren said honestly, “They might come back with the rest of the team.”

“So they are after the ten million?” Iza said, rubbing her neck and frowning. “Who was the woman they were after?”

“Isometric from The Crew,” Loren said, adjusting the helmet on his lap as he brushed his hair out of his face.

“I’ve done some small jobs with Serpentine and Piston—when I was feeling charitable,” Iza added cheekily, “I didn’t realize one of them lived here.”

Iza stepped away from the counter and scratched at her cheek.

“Piston and Stalk were killed this morning by Dovetail,” Loren said hesitantly, watching her.

Iza looked genuinely shocked as she moved to look out of the window.

“When did the Hero HQ start killing the bad guys?” Iza said, unnerved and taken aback, “I expect that kind of thing from groups like The Pantheon, but these local guys—what the hell?”

“He was after the contract money,” Loren admitted, “Not all of them are bad though—definitely assholes but not bad.”

“What happened to Serpentine?” Iza wondered, turning to face him. “Is he dead too?”

“Serpentine already killed Dovetail in revenge—Um,” Loren said quickly, “I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet, but you keep moving closer to me—”

Iza’s eyes widened in realization.

“Oh god,” Iza said weakly, forcing herself to take a few steps backward. “What the hell is your power? A knight that charms maidens?”

He remembered a joke Emma had once made at his expense, but his own execution came out weaker.

“I couldn’t imagine anyone further from a maiden,” Loren admitted, completely serious. “You are far too frightening.”

A look pained look flashed across her face, gone almost as fast.

“That’s surprisingly hurtful,” Iza mumbled, before raising her voice, “I’m still waiting for an answer about your power.”

“Alright, this is going to get complicated,” Loren said resignedly. “So I’ll attempt to explain it simply, and you can ask questions if you don’t understand anything.”

“Fine,” Iza said intently.

Loren took a deep breath.

“My power awakened that day in the cafeteria, during the fight, and just before you took me to the office,” Loren said steadily, and Iza suppressed a wince at the reminder. “I didn’t know I had it at the time, and I had no idea what it was until later.”

Loren adjusted the helmet on his lap again, fiddling with it.

“It has two parts. The first part returns me to a previous point in time when I die,” Loren said clearly, “The second gives me a different, random power every time I return.”

Iza had taken two steps closer during his explanation, as her mind was more focused on the puzzle.

“I don’t know what that first random power I unlocked was exactly, and there’s no way for me to check,” Loren admitted, and Iza clenched her fists. “All I know is that you and one other woman started acting really inappropriately towards me.”

Iza buried her face in her hands for a moment.

“This is the least satisfying answer I could have imagined getting,” Iza said tiredly, “Putting aside the time travel stuff—I already assumed you had some kind of charm ability. Some kind of an aura of attraction or something.”

It was likely something much more insidious than that.

“The fact that it’s still active six years later points towards it being some kind of permanent change to your body,” Loren said carefully, leaning back to create some distance between them. “I only had that power for half a day before I died and got something else.”

Iza flinched as she realized she had crossed most of the room without noticing again.

“So some kind of biological field that changes the bodies or minds of those nearby,” Iza said weakly, shaking her head. “The longer we talk, the less I’m starting to notice the wrongness of the feeling. It’s kind of just… You said you don’t have the power anymore. Does that mean you have no way to change me back?”

“I can’t change you back,” Loren admitted quietly. “We can try to hire a healer from Insoluble—”

“I’ve already tried that with half a dozen different capes, Loren,” Iza said quietly. “None of them could find anything wrong with me—I’m perfectly healthy as far as any of them could tell.”

Half a dozen was a lot, but there were thousands listed on there—he’d seen them, one of them would work, surely.

“We could go to Alleviate,” Loren suggested, “If there is anyone who can fix it, it’s probably her.”

“I’m an S-class villain, Loren,” Iza groaned, forcing herself to stop mid-step. “Alleviate would probably try to fix me—even if it did work, I’d be stuck in the middle of the Peacekeepers base. My luck has been pretty good in the past, but there is no way I’m fighting my way out of the entire Peacekeeper lineup. They would either try and recruit me or take me in.”

Not exactly the best options available, but he did have time on his side here. With enough attempts, eventually, he would be able to find the right healer, one that could detect the change. Until then, he was going to try and stack the deck in his favor as much as he could.

“I’ll send a different healer your way every time I die,” Loren promised, “Eventually, we will find a way to fix you—I’ll make sure of it.”

Iza blinked at the comment before frowning.

“Exactly how often do you die?” Iza said uneasily.

Yeah, he wasn’t touching that one.

“Moving on,” Loren said quickly. “The city is currently under siege by Epilogue, Cinematic, and an unknown villain who has set explosives underneath some key locations within the city. I’m going to need your help—”

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