Hero HQ, Setalite City, 3:45 PM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.
Loren was dragged out of his thoughts by the sound of the door opening.
A figure leaned against the door frame for a moment; Short grey dyed hair, styled to be slightly longer on one side. The features he could see under the half mask didn’t really clear up the gender of the individual, leaving them as androgynous.
He vaguely recognized her as Secluded, although he had yet to see her outside of footage and photos.
“Loren, right?” Secluded said easily, tone light.
Loren just nodded, pushing himself to his feet and rubbing his neck. Secluded opened the door further, and stepped back to allow him entry. He followed her inside and swept his gaze over the room for a moment.
The room’s people were split into two distinct groups; the first group was on the room’s right side.
Artisan was sitting at one end of the table, with his black vest and white dress shirt. The bottom of his face was uncovered, while the top was hidden behind a skintight mask piece. A pair of circular glasses lay over the top of it, glinting in the light of the room.
Directly to the man’s right was Empress, an extraordinarily short woman with shoulder-length pitch-black hair and large dark eyes. She wasn’t wearing a mask, but even without one, he couldn’t identify her exact ethnicity—she had a delicate mixture of features that were both Asian and Caucasian.
To Artisan’s left was Seeker, with a mess of dark hair hanging around his head—he dwarfed everyone else in the room with his height. He wore a similar half mask, concealing his upper face, and leaving his mouth uncovered. One of his arms rests on the top of the table in front of him, and Loren couldn’t help but take note of just how thin the man really was.
Untold was standing behind the three of them, leaning against the wall with her arms crossed. She was roughly five and a half feet, possessed shoulder-length red hair and long eyelashes. Her mouth and chin were covered by a mask that left the top half of her face uncovered. The woman’s eyes were red from crying, and the skin under her eyes was irritated and puffy.
Like most of the people in the room, she was staring directly at Loren—but he felt distinctly worse about it; he’d never been good with crying people. He always felt a sense of guilt, like he’d been the one to cause it.
Loren turned his attention to the left side of the room and watched as Secluded retook her seat at the table next to Mongoose and Wraith. Alana was once more wearing her second-hand suit mixture and had a black cloth mask tied that covered her face from her nose down. Mongoose wore her white bodysuit, and her own face was covered in the mask that left her mouth exposed.
He ignored the silence and chose a chair directly in the middle of the table, between the two groups—Empress made a halfhearted noise of amusement at his choice.
“Thank you for joining us, Loren,” Artisan said, tone perfectly even. “I apologize for the long wait; there was much to discuss. Wraith has brought us up to speed on the peculiarities of your situation and your remarkable ability to manipulate time.”
Loren had never been shy about revealing his power—everyone forgot about it as soon as he died after all. It was a bit uncomfortable to have someone else reveal it on his behalf, though—he glanced at Wraith for a moment to find her watching him.
“It’s fine,” Loren sighed, handwaving it all. “I’ve got some questions for you if you don’t mind.”
Untold moved to sit down beside Seeker, on the same side of the table as Loren, and he glanced at her for a moment before turning back to Artisan.
“I have no issues with answering any questions you might have,” Artisan said, nodding, “If they are unrelated to the current situation, however, I would ask you to wait until a more appropriate time I am more than willing to avail myself to you after the meeting.”
A polite way to brush off anything that wasn’t on topic—Loren didn’t really care.
“Two things,” Loren said, tilting his head back and tapping a knuckle against his chin. “First—You figured out the exact locations of each of the bombs, disabled the defenses, and found a way to disarm the explosives without setting anything off prematurely—is it because you were the one to put them there in an attempt to take Paragon out?”
Alana sighed; Mongoose choked on her water, and Untold’s hand, which was resting on the edge of the table, clenched and crushed a fistful of the table into dust. Loren ignored all of them, more interested in Artisan’s reaction than anything else.
“I am exceedingly familiar with the bombs, the defense, and the camera system installed in the sewers—all of the designs are mine after all.” Artisan said clearly, voice calm. “I was not the one to put them there, however. Each of the designs was stored on my personal servers, along with half a hundred others, none of which have been made public. It would appear as if someone has gained access to my system—something we have already discussed in length.”
Not exactly an airtight defense—someone had stolen his designs and used them in an attempt to destroy the city—it didn’t clear him of anything, but it did reveal some more of the situation. Untold had turned in her seat to face him directly now, but he avoided looking at her.
“This is indeed something that has been discussed already,” Alana confirmed, “It is something I will be investigating over the coming days.”
“Maybe we should have brought him in for that discussion?” Empress said amused, glancing at Artisan. “Would have saved us all some time.”
Artisan returned the look before dipping his head in an acknowledgment—that meant that he had been the one who wanted to have a conversation without Loren in the room first.
“What is your relationship with Vapid?” Loren asked, still watching him.
Artisan leaned back fractionally before he caught himself. Empress started laughing at the question, which seemed a strange reaction given the situation.
“Ah,” Artisan said hesitantly, sounding taken aback.
The only other person in the room that seemed to have an idea of what Loren was referring to was Untold, who spoke up for the first time.
“You saw them together in a previous… loop?” Untold said, surprised, glancing over at the man.
“Yes,” Loren said simply. “They were one of the few who survived the explosions.”
Artisan fiddled with his glasses for a long moment, and Loren wondered if the man was going to duck the question—but to his surprise, he actually answered it.
“We have a complicated personal history,” Artisan said eventually, sounding a bit sheepish. “We have known each other for a long time, and some of that time was spent in a romantic relationship.”
So they’d dated in the past—not exactly the conspiracy lynchpin he’d been hoping for. He felt a bit let down, honestly. So the two of them had been arguing, likely because of past relationship drama, and Vapid had removed him from the area because of their history.
Loren slumped back into his chair.
“Your girlfriend sucks—” Loren said, annoyed. “The amount of times she has messed up a loop because she wants to beat the shit out of me—or someone else for no reason is astounding.”
Mongoose snorted at the complaint, and Empress grinned.
“We have not been together for a long time—but yes,” Artisan said non committally, seemingly unwilling to talk about it in depth. “She has always been one to act in haste; it is both a strength and a flaw.”
“Got any advice for getting her to treat me like the king I am?” Loren sighed, genuinely hopeful.
Artisan opened his mouth to respond, but Alana spoke up.
“I would like to move this discussion towards a more fruitful topic,” Alana said evenly, watching him with narrow eyes.
Loren couldn’t help but think he’d made her mad—he probably deserved it from coming in swinging at Artisan the way he had. But he was pretty annoyed at being kicked out for the first half of this discussion—it felt like he was herded towards the kiddie table while all the adults talked.
“I agree,” Seeker said quietly, tapping an exceptionally long finger against the tabletop. “Let us discuss your ability and how we can use it to improve this situation.”
Untold’s emotionally exhausted visage visibly brightened at the tail end of the comment.
“You’re able to go back before he dies,” Untold said quickly, leaning forward. “How far can you go? Can you take others with you?”
Loren felt a pang of sympathy for the woman; she’d been clearly devastated by everything that had happened—He wondered at her own relationship with Paragon. They had clearly been close—Paragon was supposed to be married, although nobody had actually seen the partner in question.
He wanted to ask, but he’d already been rude enough for one meeting with potential allies, so he let it slide.
“I can’t take people back with me, sorry,” Loren admitted and tensed his jaw as some of the hope on her face drained away. “What I can do, is take information back for you and do my best to save him—that’s essentially what I’ve been doing anyway. It’s also why you kicking me out to have all these secret memes is pissing me off; anything I learn now I can bring back to the past—”
Untold nodded quickly, looking pleased, but Artisan spoke up, tone far cooler than hers had been.
“That is exactly the problem,” Artisan said levelly. “You are a complete wildcard; anything you learn is to your direct personal advantage, and you alone have control over how that information is used. That would become a detriment to everybody here should your goals change—whether it is on a whim or otherwise. There also exists the possibility that your goals have already changed, and you are currently playing a much longer game than it would outwardly appear.”
Loren took a moment to beat down the fury that had surged up at the implication—well aware of the hypocritical nature of having accused the other man of almost the exact same thing previously.
“You want to run that by me again?” Loren said quietly, his eyes started to tingle slightly at his anger. “You have no idea what I’ve been through just to get to this point.”
Artisan gave him a knowing smile—as if to point out that the same thing had applied to him. Loren felt his anger spike at the condescension.
“Loren,” Seeker said soothingly, voice still noticeably deep. “We aren’t accusing you of any wrongdoing, but the fact remains that until yesterday you were a complete unknown. You may not realize it yet, but should you switch sides, you would present a greater threat to humanity than whoever is currently orchestrating the events taking place in Setalite City.”
Loren paused at the words, hesitating only because of the sheer genuineness the man seemed to possess. He’d spent so much time around these super-geniuses that speaking to someone who just outright said what they meant in a nonhostile way was a positive experience.
At the start of all of this, Loren remembered when he had been sitting on the rooftop of his apartment, thinking about the future. Back then, he’d wondered how long it would take until he was ground down to that hollow shell. He’d thought of it again after what happened to Beat.
After that, the question had become how long it would take before he started taking shortcuts, started taking the easier way to accomplish things, or just started sacrificing people. How long until that became him killing all of his problems like he had done to Beat?
His moral erosion was always on his mind in some parts.
Loren was well aware of the threat he posed if he ever strayed too far from the path of good. It’s why he fought so hard to stay on it, to remember that everyone else around him was just as human as he was.
The fact of the matter was it would be far easier to destroy this city than it would be to protect it from destruction. If he really did stray, nobody could functionally stop him. Every time he returned, he would have the element of surprise, the advantage of foreknowledge, and a new invisible angle to strike from with every loop. They could kill him certainly, or trap him perhaps, but he’d just come back, angrier and more vicious than before.
He didn’t want to die, and he wasn’t going to let someone set him up to live out a fate worse than death.
“The speech you gave to lure out Deceitful was well constructed, but its existence and your methodology showcased exactly what you are capable of doing with enough information at your disposal,” Artisan said simply, watching him. “You found out something secret, weaponized it, and now two members of Epilogue are dead—and you did it in less than a week.”
Loren turned to look at his own reflection in the window; its transparency gone through some technological application that darkened the glass—He looked tired.
“You are someone that can not be permanently removed from the board.” Artisan pressed on, “Every time you interact with someone, you gain more leverage, and all of us will slide further beneath your thumb.”
The fact that he was drilling down onto the point so heavily managed to fan the flames of his anger once more—but the fact that his arguments all held true tempered it.
“That never stopped us from working with Paragon, despite his aura affecting us,” Empress said airily, not really addressing anyone at the table. “But you aren’t exactly wrong—for instance, just how many times have we had this conversation, I wonder? If I were to stare up into the sky above us, would I see the strings?”
Silence fell over the table for a moment, and before Loren could speak up to defend himself, he was beaten to the punch.
“There is no way for you to ascertain whether or not Loren will—or already has—turned against you, and the fact that you waited until after our conversation to reveal your doubts is telling enough,” Alana said bluntly. “You are attempting to steer him into a realization that uses his need for autonomy, his stubborn nature, and his inability to accept that there will always exist those with authority to bolster him. You’re aiming to have him prove you wrong, to have him become a force for good—to spite you if nothing else. How noble.”
Empress started laughing again as Artisan sighed and sat back in his own chair, looking exasperated as all of his machinations came apart in an instant. Mongoose was openly smirking at the man, and even Untold looked amused.
“Ouch,” Secluded said, amused at her surgical strike against Artisan’s manipulation. “She totally bodied you, huh?”
“Perhaps we are going about this the wrong way, old friend?” Seeker said, smiling wryly at him.
“Perhaps we are.” Artisan admitted.
Loren found himself getting pissed off that everybody was just talking about him like he wasn’t even present. Even more than that was the idea that everything that had been said already had apparently been planned out to manipulate him into doing what he had already decided to do himself.
If he was feeling overly paranoid, he might have even questioned if Alana’s interruption had been a further layer to the deception to pry some other motivation from him. He shook his head—the idea that they might try to obtain some kind of… hold over his motivations, that they could take credit for something he had reasoned himself into, to begin with.
He had been wrong before; he hadn’t been rude enough to get his message across.
“Hey—I’ve been putting up with a lot of bullshit lately, so I’ll make it real simple for all of you,” Loren said loudly, unable to control the tiny muscle in his eye from twitching. “I don’t need your permission or your blessing to do what I want. You need me to go back and save Paragon. I’m not some ship that sails at your command. Listen to me—I’m the captain now.”
Empress was outright giggling at the sheer disregard he had for those he was talking to, but he continued before they could use her interruption to retake control of the conversation.
“I have one goal, and I had it long before I met you assholes. I’m going to save this god damned city and everyone in it because that’s what I decided to do.” Loren said firmly, meeting each of their eyes. “That means I’m going to save Paragon with or without you, so you can either help me or get the fuck out of my way.”
Untold had an indecipherable look on her face, but Seeker nodded firmly at his declaration. Mongoose looked like she was stuck between a curious mixture of annoyance and amusement at his gall.
“Satisfied?” Empress said, still giggling.
Loren frowned but didn’t answer because her voice had been pitched towards Artisan.
“Yes, I’m satisfied with that,” Artisan admitted. “Wraith?”
“I never had any doubt to begin with,” Alana said easily. “I wouldn’t be actively assisting him if I didn’t believe in him.”
“I’m bringing it down then,” Empress smiled and raised her hand.
The room flickered with light for a moment before it vanished, and Loren found himself suddenly aware of a tiny tingling in the back of his head vanishing—He hadn’t even noticed it; how long had that been there? What was its purpose?
“It was a field that forced everyone inside it to tell the truth,” Secluded said, amused, noticing his sudden tension. “It’s been up since before you came into the room.”
Was that why very few of the room’s occupants had been speaking? To avoid being caught up in the field’s effect? And here he was, getting up on his soapbox and mouthing off while everyone else was aware of it—he did his best to ignore the heat crawling up his neck.
“Bastards,” Loren said, embarrassed. “The lot of you.”