Emma’s Apartment, Setalite City 7:00 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
“Forty-eight hours remaining until Mara Melancholia arrives,” Loren said quietly.
“What does that mean?” Emma said, horrified. “Why is it above my head?”
Loren didn’t know, but it had to have been his fault—As far as he was aware, Mara had made no attempt to contact either of them in any of the previous resets at any point. This had to be his power influencing the loop in some way.
“It’s my power. I think it may be influencing her to come here,” Loren swallowed, “Shit, this has never happened before—what’s the time?”
“Why would it want to bring her here?” Emma said, panicked. “Don’t you remember how terrifying she is?”
He found the clock—forty-eight hours from now would be—five hours before the explosion was originally set to go off.
“Thursday at seven in the morning,” Loren said seriously before addressing her point. “Okay, first of all, I don’t remember shit because that train nonsense hasn’t happened for me yet. Secondly, the fact that she is coming here at all could mess up everything else.”
“Because she’s a part of Epilogue?” Emma said quickly, “Oh god, what if she brings all of them with her?”
“Unlikely,” Loren said immediately, “Deceitful and Taker are already in the city, though, but they are here for unrelated reasons to whatever this is.”
Emma didn’t seem to find this piece of information as calming as he had intended it to be.
“Oh my god, I’m going to die,” Emma said, horrified. “She’s coming to kill me because I survived the train, isn’t she?”
“We don’t know that,” Loren pointed out weakly.
“Why would this be written above my head if that wasn’t what was happening?” Emma said, hands threaded into her hair. “I’ve had nightmares that started exactly like this—I was so stupid to think she’d forgotten me…”
“Okay, calm down. We need to think this through.” Loren said, taking her by the shoulder and steering her back to the seat at the table. “Let’s not let everything get away from us here.”
Emma went willingly, and once he was sure she wasn’t going to start freaking out again, he moved to her cupboard and began making tea.
“You’re right that she has most likely not forgotten you—I know I remember every detail about the worst day of my life,” Loren said calmly but made no mention that he actually had forgotten everyone for a time, “That might not be a bad thing—you spoke to her, didn’t you? Before she changed?”
“We both did,” Emma said strained. “But it was only for a couple of minutes before Marrow showed up.”
“Is there any reason she might hate you?” Loren said, boiling water. “From what you told me, you seemed to get along?”
“She was nice before she changed, but you’ve seen the things she has done since then,” Emma insisted. “I was there when it happened; I bet she blames me—”
“Did you do anything that would make her blame you?” Loren said, frowning, “She was transferring for school, right? You were just a student that was going to show her around the city. Did she go attack the school after what happened?”
He honestly didn’t know.
“No, but that doesn’t mean she won’t go after me!” Emma argued stubbornly. “Aren’t you worried she’ll go for you too?”
Loren stepped over and placed the tea in front of her before seating himself across from her.
“It’s not the first time I’ve had a member of Epilogue coming after me,” Loren admitted.
Strangely enough, that didn’t seem to reassure her any, judging by the pleading look on her face.
“Ugh, this would be so much easier if I already knew what happened on the damn train,” Loren said, annoyed, before shaking his head. “Look, from what I’ve seen, you’re super fast; if she does appear when the timer runs out, just run the hell away, and I’ll deal with it, okay?”
“That’s what happened last time!” Emma said, furious, “Then you disappeared for three years—it was a stupid idea then, and it’s still a stupid one now.”
Maybe it wasn’t, though—his power this loop was some kind of quest system, almost like a game. The quest he’d gotten off her clearly intended him to meet Monstrous, but after that, the quest would be finished, right?
“Actually, I think it might be what I’m supposed to do,” Loren frowned.
In games, you usually received a reward of some kind for finishing a quest—EXP, skill points, magical items, gold, abilities, new maps, and any number of other things. He’d gotten a skill to help him accomplish his quest; would he get another one once he met her? It was a quest involving one of the most dangerous people in the world; the reward would surely be something decent?
It might even be something that would allow him to deal with Mara.
“We have the benefit of knowing who her target is in advance,” Loren said frowning, “This allows for a great deal of leverage in how to prepare.”
“How the hell does someone prepare for Monstrous?” Emma said, exasperated.
“Seven AM,” Loren repeated out loud, “A meeting with Mara Melancholia. If I recall, besides the day she appeared, Monstrous has only ever engaged in violence while one of the other members of Epilogue were present. There is no mention of her other identity in the title of the quest, which could be an indication that the meeting will remain a discussion and nothing more.”
Emma listened hopefully.
“This power is strange as well,” Loren admitted, “It told me to seek out a quest, and that would make you the quest giver, and me the ‘hero’ seeking to fulfill the quest. If I had gone to someone else and figured out how to max out their rating, then the quest might have been completely different—there was also a bunch of icons that might have represented different quests?”
“What are you getting at?” Emma said, lost.
“I’m thinking that it’s highly likely that you’re are not actually expected to be involved in the quest at all,” Loren frowned in concentration, “It’s my power, and I’ve been given a timer and a goal—Maybe I’m expected to seek her out within that time frame?”
He hadn’t even thought about it like this—the urgency at the situation had taken them both in. If this was the case, then this might be an opportunity he needed to take.
“How would I even go about doing something like finding her?” Loren mumbled.
“I think the better question would be, why the hell would you want to?” Emma said alarmed, but slightly less panicked. “If you’re right and I’m not the target, shouldn’t we just wait out the timer?”
Loren shook his head.
“This might be a nonrepeatable occurrence,” Loren admitted, “If my power has drawn her here this loop, I won’t ever get the chance to meet with her like this again—and I need more information about what happened after you left the train three years ago.”
“Why?” Emma said quickly, “You can reset, right? If you end up in the past, just reset straight away and avoid it.”
“There is absolutely no way I can do that,” Loren said immediately, leaning forward. “I have no idea how time travel really works, Emma. If I go back in time and reset immediately, I might end up changing everything—I could make everything worse.”
“I don’t understand?” Emma said, looking lost. “Wouldn’t everything just reset again after you died?”
“There’s no way to know that,” Loren said seriously, “Things that happen after my ‘save point’ get rolled back, but if I go to a time before my save point and change something? I could end up making permanent changes to the timeline—who knows what might happen then?”
“This is too complicated for me,” Emma groaned and rubbed at her face in frustration.
Loren wondered what the best pathway forward here was—he could get Alana to take Emma in as she had with Isometric and Ogre. Just to keep her out of harm’s way while the countdown was active. He would just need to convince a villain and one of the most stubborn people he knew to go into the custody of the Hero HQ.
Loren sighed; nothing was ever easy.
Loren’s Apartment, Setalite City 10:59 AM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.
“Loren Parker?” A woman’s voice said tiredly.
He tilted his phone into a more comfortable position.
“Uh, yes? Who is this?” Loren said hesitantly; the voice was familiar—
“It’s Tag, from the Setalite City Hero HQ.” Tag said.
Something had gone wrong—there was no reason Tag would be the one calling him if that wasn’t the case.
“Fuck,” Loren sighed. “What happened?”
“We were counter-ambushed during the attack on Deceitful,” Tag said mechanically, “Taker emerged from beneath the road; presumably, she was following Deceitful from the sewers. She managed to cut through Wraith’s suit and paralyze her before we even knew she was present.”
Loren felt his stomach drop out from under him.
“I got an automated message from Wraith afterward to contact you and explain what happened,” Tag admitted, “You were the one giving us the information about them?”
“I was,” Loren said quietly.
“Taker went after the rest of us, and Deceitful managed to kill Wraith while we were busy trying to survive.” Tag paused before she let out a slow breath, “Secluded ended up dragging Taker into her inner world right at the end of the fight, but Deceitful escaped in the chaos, and we have no idea where she is now.”
“Who else did we lose?” Loren murmured.
“Mongoose is dead; Fracture is missing a leg.” Tag said through clenched teeth, “Raindancer, Gradient, and Dovetail weren’t present; they were all out on a different mission at the time.”
“Shit,” Loren said quietly, making a snap decision. “I’m sorry, I should have given you more information—but it’s Wraith’s fault. She wouldn’t tell me what she knew about Mara’s location. If she had, I would have told you about everything else.”
“You should have told us anyway; people died today…” Tag said furiously, not even missing a beat. “What else are you hiding from us? How did you find any of this out?”
Loren swallowed before making his play.
“I… I’ll tell you everything, okay? But I need to know about Mara first,” Loren said quietly. “Wraith must have told you how much I’ve wanted to meet her.”
Tag was quiet for a breath before she spoke.
“I don’t know where she is now,” Tag said carefully, “But I know where she will be—you’ll tell me everything?”
“You know I will,” Loren promised, “I’ve got nothing left to lose after all.”
“During our investigation of her movements, we overheard a conversation,” Tag said seriously, “She intends to return to the place where her powers first emerged, I don’t know why she wants to, but that’s what we heard.”
“What time will she be there?” Loren asked quickly.
“Thursday morning,” Tag answered quietly.
The quest updated, writing flashing into existence and declaring his new destination.
‘A meeting with Mara Melancholia: Meet Mara Melancholia at the train station on Thursday morning.’
“Loren?” Tag’s voice called, emerging from the phone just enough to be heard.
Loren took a deep breath and then let it out.
“Naomi,” Loren said seriously, voice hard. “You didn’t have to kill them.”
There was a pause on the other end before the voice changed.
“Huh, I’m surprised you figured it out,” Naomi said honestly, “What gave me away?”
Loren closed his eyes for a moment as she confirmed it.
“You said that Raindancer, Gradient, and Dovetail were busy on a mission,” Loren said quietly, “Dovetail is currently detained and under investigation for conspiracy to commit murder.”
“Shit,” Naomi laughed, “I should have known—heroes are all the same, figures one of them was playing both sides. I suppose I’ll have to hunt you down and get my answers the old-fashioned way. Actually, now that I have a few new tools to test out, this might actually be better. Let’s enjoy our time together, okay, Loren?”
The woman’s excited voice changed completely at the end of the sentence, and he flinched as he recognized who it belonged to. He couldn’t help but recall that voice whispering something very similar in his ear while they were tangled together on a futon.
“It shouldn’t be too difficult a task,” Alana’s voice chimed brightly, sounding completely at odds with her normal level tone, “I can’t believe she saw the world like this—it’s such a rush; everything is just so much more.”
Loren placed his phone softly on the kitchen table and left his apartment without another word.
ANG Internet Cafe, Setalite City 6:59 PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.
Loren chewed on his lower lip as he clicked through the old articles covering the multitude of incidents that had involved Mara Melancholia. There wasn’t much more to learn about the train incident than what he already had access to. He had learned that Marrow had apparently been brought in soon after but had later broken free and completely vanished.
Without his phone, he had no way to contact Emma, but if Deceitful had his number, then he wasn’t going to carry it around with him. She had been taken to one of Alana’s safe houses—From what he knew about Decietful’s power, the bodies didn’t give access to any of their memories which should have meant that the location of those safe houses remained inaccessible to her.
It felt like wishful thinking; with Wraith’s body in her possession and the comment about how she saw the world, it was clear that Alana’s genius had at least in some part come from her ability. An ability that now rested in the hands of a serial killer.
What a horrifying thought.
He’d left an anonymous tip for the HQ from a payphone about Deceitful having killed the team sent to capture her on the off chance that they hadn’t already noticed the entire team being decimated. Now his goal was simple, stay out of her sights until he could attempt to meet with Mara and then get the hell out of this cluster fuck of a loop.
The fact that it could have gone so wrong was alarming—Taker was a player who couldn’t be easily dealt with, even by people on Wraith’s level. Her claw’s ability to rend through armor and paralyze with a scratch was beyond dangerous. In the next loop, he would make sure to reveal her presence in the sewers; hopefully, it would help in mitigating the likelihood of a stealth attack.
The door opened, and a few more night owls entered the building, heading for the counter. He kept a close watch on them until they entered their own cubicles. He pulled his hoody up in a paranoid movement to make sure most of his face was still covered and reseated his face mask.
He’d spent a lot of time thinking about the wording Naomi had used. According to her, Mara had intended to return to the train station; this was obviously a discussion that had occurred sometime in the past.
It made him wonder if he was wrong about his power drawing Mara into the city.
What if she was here in every loop, and his power simply picked up on it somehow? He’d had no reason to be in the train station on a Thursday before the explosion, so for all he knew, she might have gone there every single time—it wasn’t like he had checked.
That would mean three members of Epilogue were in Setalite City during Evergold week—far too many for his liking, and it made him wonder if they weren’t all here. Decietful’s mission to kill Paragon might have been something they all had a stake in. As if there weren’t enough destabilizing agents in the city already…
Loren shook his head and refocused.
He wouldn’t know if Mara had been lured here by his power or not until the next loop, so he’d put that out of his mind for now. Likewise, if the other members of Epilogue were here somewhere, they had yet to make their presence known in any meaningful way—he’d deal with that if it came up in the future.
Loren blinked tiredly and checked the time again—it was just about time to leave.
He’d had plenty of time to think, and now that he was aware that Mara would be in Setalite City today, the countdown timer made far more sense. She would most likely appear at the train station around seven and then would be his chance to get answers.
There were two problems; the first was that Deceitful now knew what his destination was and would likely be waiting for him at the train station. There was nothing he could do about that—he’d brought it on himself by asking about Mara in the first place.
The second problem was that this loop left him more or less completely defenseless. He’d chosen the Sensory power in the hopes of discovering more information with it, but then he’d been railroaded into tracking down Mara before he lost the opportunity. He didn’t have super luck powers to save him from Naomi or the overwhelming physical prowess that had allowed him to fight off Vapid.
All he had on his side was his sensory power and the ability to communicate—he just hoped that Mara actually wanted to talk because if she didn’t, this entire loop was a loss.