Downtown, Setalite City 6:52 AM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.
At some point, he’d passed through the wave of exhaustion that had overtaken him and out the other side again. The extra-large coffee that he had bought on his way to the train station probably had something to do with it as well, but who could truly know?
Loren couldn’t help but feel as if he’d been forced into a corner in a way.
He absolutely needed to meet with Mara, and to do so; he needed to go to the train station because that’s where she was. The problem with it, besides the fact that he was actively approaching a member of Epilogue, was that Naomi already knew his destination.
Here he thought he was smooth when he finessed Mara’s location out of the woman, but he was simply a smooth brain because he’d forgotten that even by asking the question, he’d given away where he intended to go. He couldn’t imagine a world in which Naomi hadn’t picked up on it and wasn’t present, waiting for him
Loren also knew that Naomi was very likely to be incredibly curious about his interest in Monstrous. She might even be curious enough to let him make contact with her before she attacked, just to see what happened.
From her perspective, a team of heroes had known exactly where she had been and the disguise she had been using at the time. That kind of exact information would pique anyone’s interest because she was probably the only person who had that knowledge. How she had figured out that it was a guy named Loren Parker who had shared it was anybody’s guess, but his primary suspicion was that she had tortured one of the heroes sent after her.
Loren was aware that she had access to both Alana’s and Tag’s bodies—but he wasn’t exactly sure who else had survived. He had her testimony that both Secluded and Fracture were still alive, but he couldn’t trust what she said. He left the anonymous tip because of that paranoia—if he tried to contact any of the others that she had mentioned being present at the battle, they might very well be her in disguise.
His power let him see the names above people’s heads, but he would already be within range of a serial killer by that point—which was the exact opposite of what he wanted. She had also indicated that Secluded had captured Taker—had that actually happened, or was it another lie?
Anything he came up with would be guesswork and trying to outthink someone who had access to Alana’s power was doomed from the start.
Loren spotted the entrance to the station, and he’d never seen it look so intimidating before—he angled towards it, pushing the two-dollar glasses he’d purchased up his nose. It had worked for that one guy in the old comic books; surely it would help conceal him a little.
There were far too many footprints, fingerprints, and other marks in the city for him to distinguish anything of note through the ocean of question marks that he did his best to ignore. He moved down the stairs, paying careful attention to the names of the people around him—His heart just about exploded in his chest as he caught the name ‘Naomi’ in a mess, but a second panicked glanced revealed that the last name was entirely different.
He cursed under his breath as the adrenaline slowly faded, and he eventually found himself walking around the platforms. He noticed a short woman with black hair and what looked like a detective’s fedora sitting on a bench. She was Covered in a long coat and jeans. Her hands were covered with a pair of gloves, and she wore a pair of sunglasses that were large on her otherwise pale face.
He knew who it was before he even read the name above her head.
“A meeting with Mara Melancholia; Speak with Mara,” Loren murmured, reading off the update. “To aid you in your quest, please choose a reward.”
The same three options as the first time appeared, and he stalled for a moment, trying to figure out what he needed here the most. There was no way in hell he was going to attack Monstrous, and there was no telling if the offensive power would be enough to allow him to fight Naomi off if she showed herself. Likewise, unless he lucked out and received some form of outright invulnerability, nothing was going to be able to protect him.
He intended on getting all the information he could get and then resetting—he chose [Sensory] for the second time, and then—nothing happened. The options disappeared, but the world didn’t unfold before his eyes.
Loren felt completely ripped off as he sat down on the same bench as Mara Melancholia and waited to die.
A long minute passed, but Mara didn’t even turn to look at him.
From what Emma had told him of the train incident, she was supposed to know what he looked like, so he’d hoped that she would begin the conversation once she had realized who he was.
Fuck it, he was on a time limit, and he was going to have to wing it before Naomi showed up to shank him.
“Hey, Mara,” Loren said gently. “You look like inspector gadget, in case you didn’t know.”
Mara turned to look at him with wide eyes.
The first thing he noticed was that the tiny flash of pale skin that he could see of her neck was moving. He’d seen the articles and even some video footage but seeing it in person was making his skin crawl.
What looked like fingertips pressed against her skin from the inside, stretching the skin outwards before retreating, and in its place was the outline of a pair of lips, before it was replaced by a nose and then vanishing once more. This close, he could even see an outline of a large eye pressing outwards on her cheek.
“You’re the man from the train,” Mara said quietly, barely above a whisper. “Loren Parker.”
“Yeah, that’s me.” Loren admitted, “I found out that you would be here today, so I came to talk to you.”
Mara watched him from behind her glasses, and he couldn’t help but think about the skin of her face stretching and clawing outwards from unseen hands.
“Your hair is a different color,” Mara said hesitantly. “It was white back then. Why did it change?”
“I must have gotten younger,” Loren joked before shaking his head. “The real answer is a bit more complicated, and I’m happy to explain. Could I ask you a few questions first?”
Mara was different than he expected, the divide between how someone is vilified in the media and what they are like in person.
Loren watched as a finger pushed through her neck, followed by the rest of the hand, the skin stretching and reforming as it reached towards his face. Three more pale hands emerged instantly, catching the first and dragging it back towards her neck, where they vanished beneath the skin with a sickening twist.
Loren wondered how close he had just come to being killed.
“Sorry,” Mara said quietly, “You can ask.”
He found it surprisingly easy to navigate this conversation, her face and somber tone giving him all the clues he needed to keep things moving. Her energy in the brief discussion they’d had so far remained remarkably even, with few peaks or dips. It was most likely the small peak in engagement from his joke was that had set her off.
Loren smiled at the woman.
“Thank you,” Loren said, “Mara, from what I understand about you, you seem to avoid hurting people if you don’t have to.”
Mara’s coat ruffled around her hip for a moment as if something was struggling beneath it.
“I don’t like hurting anyone,” Mara said quietly, “Unfortunately, I can’t always help it.”
Mara Melancholia was practically the face of Epilogue, a boogeyman even on a team of monsters, and she would outright admit that she didn’t enjoy the work. Loren wondered if she had much of choice in the matter—not like the forcible recruitment that seemed to have occurred with Evelyn Miller, but more of natural lack of choice due to her circumstances.
Her first act within the realm of the superhuman was to massacre a train full of people and the two teams of heroes that were sent to stop her. She had done all that with her face exposed, and the entire world knew her name—It wasn’t like she could walk into her university and continue her education or visit a grocer looking for a job stacking shelves.
There had been a few outspoken people in media who had tried to push the angle that she hadn’t been in control, based on the footage of the event, but after she had joined Epilogue, those voices had quickly quietened down. Between those reporters, the arm once more reaching for his face, and the comment, it was clear enough what she meant.
“You aren’t in complete control of your power,” Loren said in understanding, as another rogue arm was once more forced back inside her. “It must be difficult living like this.”
Loren had very clear memories of being in that exact position—burning Setalite City to ashes when he was a child by birthing a second sun on earth was just one of them.
“I don’t understand you,” Mara said quietly, “You aren’t scared of me, even after what I did to you.”
Even after what I did to you…
That was by far the biggest clue he’d gained from this conversation. It explained how the future time travel loop likely ended—Mara Melancholia killed him.
Loren hummed in thought. Marveling at the simple ease with which he was able to work his way through this conversation. Mara’s controlled manner and seeming generosity towards his questions were some of it, but he’d never been this good at reading people; it was completely unnatural. This had to be the result of the second Sensory power—some kind of unconscious reading or understanding of whoever he was speaking with.
“Mara, it’s not because I’m not scared of you,” Loren admitted with a smile. “I just think I’d much rather talk to you than do what everyone else does and run away.”
Mara had gone completely rigid in a sort of tensed silence after he’d first spoken, but it seemed to bleed away after he continued talking.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mara said quietly.
Loren leaned towards her slightly, and she leaned away to maintain the distance as another hand crawled outwards towards him. He was aware that the action would lower her guard slightly; he doubted many people were willing to get this close to her.
“I’m starting to get the impression that you aren’t really passionate about your job,” Loren stage whispered before reaching out and poking her shoulder. “You’ve gotten much better at controlling your power.”
Mara stared at him, expression completely blank, but the wide eyes were enough to convey the world to him about how stupid she thought he was for closing the distance.
“I’ve had help,” Mara said quietly, coat shaking slightly.
If there was someone in Epilogue who was capable of helping her control her powers, Loren couldn’t exactly blame her for sticking with them. If anyone had come along and supported him during his childhood struggle, he might have done the same.
That was the crux of the matter then—she would most likely stay in Epilogue because they’d taught her to live with her power—a monster learning from monsters. They weren’t exactly the best role models to be influenced by, but an uncontrollable, unkillable murder machine didn’t have much in the way of variety to pick from.
Live a lonely life where she killed everyone that came near her or join a group of people who abducted, tortured, and killed at a whim—but also offered company and a life where she could be the one in control of her body.
“That’s why you continue to stay with them, despite the things they do,” Loren said thoughtfully, “You know, Naomi and Evelyn killed a bunch of my friends today.”
Mara tensed again, buckling forward into a hunched position; Loren waited for her to regain control of herself, feeling vaguely bad about being the one to cause the loss of control. He could hear faint whistling in the distance and closed his eyes for a moment; he didn’t have much time left.
“I’m sorry,” Mara said quietly, holding her stomach. “You should go.”
The whistling was definitely coming in their direction now.
“I’m surprised she waited so long to appear,” Loren admitted but made no move to leave. “Mara, you know about my power, don’t you?”
It was a guess, but the fact that she wasn’t surprised that he was still alive after apparently killing him was telling enough. He was out of time now as the whistling came to a stop next to them.
“You’re immortal,” Mara said quietly.
“I’m totally surprised you actually came here—I was starting to think you’d tricked me somehow,” Naomi said brightly as she twirled to a stop before the bench and spread her arms wide. “What kind of business could you possibly have with Mara?”
Mara remained seated, but he noticed she had an almost unnoticeable upward curl to her lips at Naomi’s appearance—Three years together in the same group and nobody else to talk with had to of created some bonds between them.
The atmosphere had changed as well, no longer quiet and understanding, as it had been with just the two of them. With Naomi’s addition, it had become predatory, and Mara had immediately fallen back into a forced state of observer rather than a participant in the conversation—likely to protect herself from the horror of what was about to happen.
“It’s love,” Loren said immediately. “Were eloping.”
Mara’s perfectly calm façade broke for the first time, and her coat rattled dangerously as she fought to remain controlled. Several hands tore their way out of it, struggling outwards against the countless others that were attempting to stop them. She made a small, strangled grunt as she attempted to hold herself back from losing control—Even Naomi was seemingly watching her with hesitation.
Loren was pretty sure this was as much information he was going to get given the circumstances; as he focused his will inwards—the last thing he saw before the world faded was a million pale limbs, lined with teeth, faces, and eyes fighting to reach outwards in every direction.
Apartment, Setalite City 2:22 AM.
Saturday, February 9th, 2019.
Loren sat up on the bed, thinking about what he had learned. Mara was trapped in a situation in which there wasn’t much hope for an exit. She was indebted to horrible people for the things they had done for her, and because she had nowhere else to go, she was stuck with them.
She had seemingly come to enjoy her time with them in some small part judging by her reaction to Naomi’s presence. In a strange way, it shared the same trappings as a toxic relationship, familial or otherwise—Even if you didn’t share all of the belief systems, the old hatreds born from other times, or the lack of empathy for others, you still went out of your way to accommodate and defend them.
Even when you knew what they were saying or doing was wrong because they had done it for you. They had picked her up when she was at her lowest point and showed her that not everyone was scared of her, that something vaguely resembling a life could still be something she had.
You couldn’t completely handwave the responsibility of someone in this position, especially because most of the things they had done simply weren’t excusable—but you could seek to understand it.
With nothing left to her except instinctively killing everyone around her, she had chosen the only option available to her.
Loren sighed and pressed his fingers into the bridge of his nose. He performed a quick inward check for any strange feelings that would denote his power for this loop but frowned when he wasn’t able to find anything.
He closed his eyes in the dark room and tried again. After five minutes of continual searching, he opened his eyes again and came to the conclusion that if he did get power this time, it was completely undetectable.
Loren glanced out the window for a moment before frowning.
Something was wrong—his gaze flickered up to the roof, and he stared at the unbroken lightbulb. He listened for noise, but he couldn’t hear the characteristic sound of Emma and Mark playing bury the sausage or the argument following its burial.
His bedsheets were gone—so was his shelf, dresser, and art supplies; he swung his legs out of bed and stepped out into the hallway. The kitchen table was gone, and there was nothing on the countertop—even his fridge was gone!
“Who the fuck steals someone’s fridge?” Loren murmured.
All of his stuff was gone, and further inspection showed that the mattress he had been lying on was the old ratty one that had originally come with the apartment. He’d thrown it out on the first day here and bought a new one. Loren stopped in front of the bathroom mirror, and then everything suddenly made sense.
His hair was white.