Chapter 41

Loren’s Apartment, 2:22 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.

Loren’s eyes snapped open, and he stared up at the lightbulb as it flickered in the dark. He listened as Emma cried out above him, and a little sprinkle of dust fell from the cracks in the roof, causing him to blink and rub at his eyes.

A small tingle caused him to rub them harder.

He stayed there, watching the ceiling in the dark as the same argument began as it always did, but he didn’t move from his spot. Loren didn’t quite know what to make of the situation because it had never happened before—what did this mean exactly?

Sitting up in bed, he reached over and flicked the light switch on. The room was flooded with the light from the lightbulb that remained completely unshattered and hanging from the roof.

The only thing that should have changed was him—this had to be his power. Had he canceled out Emma’s accidental power usage somehow? Or maybe he had strengthened the lightbulb itself to withstand that burst of electricity?

He wasn’t sure yet, all he had to go on was that small tingle in his eye—the argument was escalating again, so he shook his head and put the new power to the wayside for a moment to locate his phone.

Loren gathered his thoughts for a moment.

There was so much he needed to pass on this time, Deceitful, the bomb in Paragon, the bombs in Arrot City, the bombs under the city, and under Hero HQ, as well as where Isometric had located it.

He was seriously considering her offer of handling the Iza Gracen situation as well—him showing up and disturbing whatever shallow peace she had managed to carve out without his proximity strengthening the effect. He shook his head, he’d ask her to do it this loop so he could focus on the plan—he would speak with Iza the next time.

He couldn’t do everything at once—Loren just needed to keep on prioritizing, even if it meant dumping stuff on Wraith every time. Despite it all, he couldn’t help but feel that the duty of a royal messenger was getting tougher every day.

Whatever happened to don’t kill the messenger?

Loren’s Apartment, 9:42 PM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.

Loren spent most of the day knocking off the rust that had accumulated after the equivalent of several weeks of not playing. It didn’t take as long as he thought it might, three games in, everything had fallen back into place like he’d never stopped.

Except, last time he’d been preparing for the tournament, every match had brought that little spark of excitement with it as he won, one more step closer to the prize that would help him escape this place.

There was no such spark now, just an empty void and a horrible feeling that he should be doing something else more productive, that people were going to die while he was sitting here playing video games. Figures he would get superpowers and then immediately lose one of the few things where he could just immerse himself in.

He found himself looking at a tiny icon on his screen, wondering—He hadn’t done a commission in weeks now. The most he had managed was a few rough sketches, no ink, no linework, no shading or color.

He moved to the kitchen table and found his water bottle.

He had time—more than anyone else in the world even, and more than enough to work on something more complicated than a rough sketch of Alana’s striking face. But how could he justify it when entire cities were being devastated?

An hour of working towards a solution to the horror being inflicted on everyone, or an hour spent in leisure? He found himself staring at a pen he’d left on the counter days before the loop had begun.

Loren wondered if art would be the next thing in his life to be sapped of joy. He felt that tingle in his eyes again, and this time he embraced it. A small gust of wind fluttered his curtains for a moment before the pen rolled across the countertop and fell.

It spun in the air, hitting the ground tip first before bouncing up into his reaching hand as he snatched it out of the air. He let the feeling go, and the tingle faded once more. The pen sat in his hand, and he didn’t feel much at all.

The next time he sat down to draw, would it feel just a little bit lesser? Like more of a waste of time? Like he was slacking while people were walking inevitably towards a grim future filled with pain and loss?

Loren twisted the pen until it was sitting between his index and middle finger. He called on that feeling again, and the tingle returned. He flicked his wrist behind him and let the pen go—it tapped twice against something out of sight before he heard it come to a rattling stop inside the container filled with pens that sat on a shelf in his bedroom.

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Loren mumbled before forcing himself to head back to his computer.

He’d been building a plan to secure his place as the winner of the tournament—Chloe’s team was strong, and he’d be hard-pressed to win on points because that’s what they specialized in, but it wasn’t the only way to win.

Downtown, Setalite City, 9:00 AM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.

Loren made his way towards the entrance—he’d been pretty late the last time he’d come here, but this time there wasn’t anywhere near as many people crowding the doorway. The same security guard that had stopped him last time was inside once more but just nodded when he flashed the man his laminated pass still in the lanyard.

The hallway door was manned by the same two guys as last time, and he spent a moment chatting with them before moving on. He followed the signs until he reached the mass elimination room and stepped inside.

Loren took in all the people, the computers, the dividers, and the monitor that randomly decided the battles in this round. He checked the scoreboard and found Team Coffee just below the top of the list in points, but with one loss already—the same as last time.

“Sorry, Chloe,” Loren said lightly, bringing his power to bear on the randomizer. “It will sound more convincing coming from the winner.”

The monitor started flipping through the next match, and his number came up immediately. Loren made his way to one of the desktops and put the headset on before logging in. He went through to the match interface and waited.

A few moments later, the three players on the enemy team logged in, and the team name’s flashed across the top. As a team, they had twenty-seven games played together since its formation a month ago, and twenty of those games had been victories.

Chloe, whose in-game name was ‘Coffeet,’ played the Hero role more often than not—in 80% of her games, and her least played role was Intel. She excelled in holding command points against larger numbers of enemy units—the single most common tactic in the game was to overwhelm points with numbers—so she’d had plenty of practice accomplishing it.

‘Yamete!’ had 50% of his playtime spent on the Intel role and 50% spent on Hero. He had zero games played as Commander, leaning him heavily towards having more synergy with Chloe than the third teammate. He also had the least amount of games played out of the three, and Loren already knew that he would be slower and less effective at passing relevant information to their Commander based on the experience.

‘Paragon’s Biceps,’ the mousey brunette on the team, was a pure Commander with 100% of her games in that role. It was possible that she had other accounts which she used for the other roles—that wasn’t unheard of for those who liked to keep their stats squeaky clean. Only 30% of her games were won with large unit counts, which meant she liked to avoid the common tactic of overwhelming her opponent in mass. 50% of her games were won by multiple pronged attacks, with one side of the map having a slightly larger force than the other, and then she would wait for them to commit before rapidly switching targets once they had committed to defense.

That had been the strategy they had tried to use him again in the finals, it had failed then—and the moment he saw them try to repeat it today, he smiled.

Finalist Box, Setalite City, 12:03 PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.

Much like the last time, the room was filled with people, both players and support staff alike. He didn’t recognize anyone he knew, so he moved over to one of the benches and sat down, ignoring the stares from the other players.

He’d only been there a minute before the door opened again, and Chloe’s team stepped inside. They moved over to talk to one of the other teams, apparently, friends of some sort—Chloe noticed him for the first time, and her gaze sharpened, but she made no move to approach him.

Loren felt a bit sad at that—He hadn’t gone to meet her at the coffee shop yesterday, so she had no idea who he was. All she knew of him was that he was the reason for their second loss in the tournament.

That was the nature of these damn loops—anyone he made a connection with promptly forgot all about it. Being forgotten over and over again wasn’t exactly a nice feeling, and he had found himself resenting them at times, even though he knew it wasn’t their fault.

It also made him wonder if he could even keep those connections—if he wanted them to remain, he would need to befriend each of them, defeat all the threats besieging the city and then make it all the way to next Tuesday.

No matter how he looked at it, a loop that successful was impossible.

The teams started trickling out the door as their matches were called. Some of the teams came back, and others didn’t, as they were eliminated from the competition one after another. Team Coffee looked on edge and tense as they went off to complete their own match.

They came back looking triumphant sometime later, and he couldn’t help but sigh. His own match came and went—the opposing team couldn’t keep up and were soon left behind as the finalists entered the last matches of the day.

Despite the direction his thoughts had taken him, he found a smile working its way onto his face. That little spark that had left him had relit itself—these were the best players in the city, even further than that in some cases. He’d forgotten what it felt like to throw himself against a challenge and compete against a level of competition that he wasn’t completely outmatched by.

Team Carousel once again made it to the finals with teamwork built from months of practicing together, and once again, Team Coffee ruthlessly drove them to a resounding defeat.

Loren couldn’t help but shake his head in disbelief as once again they managed to bring themselves into a point lead over him.

There was a short break as the battle finished, and the host prepared for the final match of the tournament. Chloe’s team watched him from across the room, and he could easily tell that they couldn’t wait for the rematch.

Paragon’s Biceps glared at him with a stare that was razor-sharp, the light reflecting off her circular glasses for a moment. Even the big blond wuss had finally stopped sniffling—Chloe’s gaze was somehow more predatory than even the mousey girl’s, and the villain in disguise somehow managed to look down her nose at him from across the room. Loren started laughing at their intense expressions, unable to help himself—they just looked so serious.

They really were something else entirely.

He placed a hand on one side of his face and let out a pleased sigh feeling more lighthearted than he had in a long while. He wasn’t sure if this had been part of Wraith’s plan to trick him into some downtime, but he’d needed this.

Just a single day where he didn’t have to fight anyone, a day where he could just bury himself in the monotony of a game that he’d long since mastered. Where he could mess around and not think about the horrors that were to come.

Their names were called out as the finals begun, and he pushed himself to his feet with a grin.

Chloe’s team moved back to the side, looking disheartened by their third loss and subsequent elimination. Because they had made it to the final three teams, their loss had placed them squarely in third place instead of complete ejection from the tournament.

Team Carousel spoke for a few moments about their hunt for sponsorships, and he waited patiently for his own turn. He ignored Chloe’s burning gaze as he stepped up to Martin and yoinked the microphone from him.

Martin didn’t even look surprised, simply waving him on—and Loren took that as confirmation that Wraith had ended up speaking to the man. His speaking time more or less confirmed to be uninterrupted, he took a deep breath and let it out.

“I’d like to take a moment to say something, so please hear me out,” Loren said quietly, listening as his own voice was projected over the crowd. “This has been a hard time on all of us, and the tragedy that befell Arrot City yesterday is just one of many things I’d like to change if I had the power to do so.”

He clenched his hand tightly in a fist.

“It’s the kind of thing we’ve all come to expect of a group like Epilogue,” Loren said passionately, placing the blame squarely at their feet without a shred of proof. “What exactly drives these monsters to think that their actions are acceptable? Where does this kind of negative intent come from?”

Loren dragged his gaze over the crowd.

“Were they unwanted, abandoned by those around them? Treated so badly that they sought to take their own pain and impotent rage out on the world?” Loren snarled, slashing his hand out in the air to punctuate his statement. “Or maybe it was their pathetically useless families that drove them to be like this? Do these monsters even have families—parents? Siblings?!”

Loren took a few quick breaths, feeling the shocked stares of everyone in the crowd.

“I suppose if they did, they would be monsters too,” Loren said clearly, glaring at the crowd. “and I don’t know about all of you, but the best thing to do with a monster is to kill it young, along with the rest of its kin—if someone hasn’t done us all a favor and killed them all off already.”

Loren stared into the crowd for a few moments longer before pressing the microphone back into Martin’s hand and walking off the stage. The first-place award and the oversized cheque remained on the stage, untouched and unwanted.

He felt sick as he walked away, the weight of their stares following him until he was out of sight.

“Were they unwanted, abandoned by those around them? Treated so badly that they sought to take their own pain and impotent rage out on the world?” The man on the stage snarled, slashing his hand out in the air to punctuate his statement. “Or maybe it was their pathetically useless families that drove them to be like this? Do these monsters even have families—parents? Siblings?!”

Naomi stared with wide eyes at the man on the stage.

“I suppose if they did, they would be monsters too,” The man spat, glaring at the crowd. “and I don’t know about all of you, but the best thing to do with a monster is to kill it young, along with the rest of its kin—if someone hasn’t done us all a favor and killed them all off already.”

Naomi twitched violently, and the woman below her screamed out an inhuman noise of pain as her finger was torn off at the knuckle.

“Please…” The woman sobbed. “I won’t tell anyone… Please…”

“Thank you, that’s very nice of you,” Naomi said gently, brushing a hand over her hair. “It’s really hard for me, you know, watching things like this. When you asked if I needed help—I just couldn’t believe how kind you were. So I want you to know I really appreciate you being here with me.”

“Please…” The woman begged desperately, “Please!”

“It’s okay, it’s okay, you’re okay,” Naomi said gently, tucking the woman’s hair behind an ear. “I’ve only got a little bit of time left.”

Naomi studied the remaining three fingers left on her hand for a moment.

“It’s not a very long video,” Naomi said hesitantly. “I think we can fit a few more in.”

Naomi rewound the video to the beginning

“I’d like to take a moment to say something, so please hear me out.” The man in the video began.

“No… please…” The woman sobbed, “NO!

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