Loren’s Apartment, 2:30 AM.
Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022.
It was harder than ever to force himself to get out of bed. He made the standard call to Alana to start putting everything into motion almost by rote at this point. This time, he told her exactly what Naomi had told him about the attack—the additional knowledge that Taker was able to track them and ambush them from below would hopefully help turn the tables. He also revealed Raindancers position as Arret and Beat’s target for assassination.
Loren’s own situation was something else entirely—he stared around the room at the ludicrous amount of hair he had grown while he was on the phone. The power shared a lot of internal similarities with how it was controlled as the Hydra-Hands had—there seemed to be a mechanism that allowed him to sense where all of it was at all times, and moving the strands individually was somehow possible despite the mind-bending nature of just how many there were.
He internally pulled back on it, and the mass of hair began to vanish rapidly until he was left with shoulder-length hair. Lengthening and retracting was as simple as the other power had been, and he seemed to be able to move it through space easily enough. Loren attempted to cut the strands to test their strength and found himself breaking the cheap pair of scissors in the process after he focused on hardening it.
He realized belatedly that he hadn’t even gotten his reward for completing the quest loop, seeing as it had finished around the same time as he’d forcibly reset himself to avoid Naomi, and it had been pushed to the back of his mind as he’d spent the entire next loop thinking about his upcoming meeting with Mara.
Damn thing had robbed him blind.
Loren shook his head sullenly before turning his mind back to everything that had happened on the train.
His biggest worry was that something had changed, but he hadn’t been able to identify anything as of yet. Alana was still the same as always, and Emma still lived upstairs. Did that mean that he had managed to reenact the original events on the train successfully?
Or had he acted in a way that might have unknown repercussions on everything—He had no real way to know; Loren had been working off of incomplete knowledge about the events of the train, Emma hadn’t been there for all of it, and asking Mara to describe in detail the worst day of her life was quite possibly the stupidest thing he’d ever thought of.
Loren shook his head.
After he had died, Mara would be left to try and find a way to live with herself and the things she had done. When he had tried to reassure her, to give her something—a pathway forward or a guiding light, he’d reached for the first thing he had thought of.
He’d seen her smile once; when Naomi had appeared at the train station, Mara had been happy to see her—a feeling that Loren couldn’t possibly have shared, but it was one he could understand. It spoke of a tormented girl finding a group that understood her—or at the very least accepted her.
In the original timeline, Loren didn’t know if he had told Mara to seek Epilogue out or if they had recruited her after what had happened. This time, he’d told her to go with them because she had been happy—maybe because he knew what it was like to live a life filled with pain, but he’d seen a way for her to be accepted.
Would that decision change anything? It had been the only thing he could think of at the time; an active goal would help give her a direction to move in, a place to belong, and it might alleviate some of the pain and sorrow for her.
It wasn’t like he could have told her to join the heroes—he could already see just how that would have played out. The heroes had taken off the kid gloves when dealing with her after the first team had been torn apart—he’d seen the footage. Mara wasn’t in control of her actions in the slightest; she would have simply killed more of them.
Loren shook his head—The question he was left with was what he could do now?
Mara had spent three years with Epilogue, would an attempt to remove her from that group—the one that had taken care of her for years, be something she even wanted?
Would it just be Loren forcing his own perspective on her, deciding that she would be better off elsewhere without respecting her autonomy? That wasn’t even considering the audacity of attempting to force Mara Melancholia into doing anything she didn’t want to.
If he tracked her down and asked her to leave, how would she answer? Mara had told him that she disliked hurting people, that killing wasn’t something she enjoyed. Yet, she had still killed people of her own volition; she had still been the one to perform the actions, to cause the pain.
Loren had wanted her to have somewhere she could smile, and it had made sense at the time. His lack of workable and realistic solutions had just fed into the decision. Mara had just been a scared girl whose chances of a normal life had basically ended the moment she’d gained such an uncontrollable power.
Loren wondered if his attempt to steer her in Epilogue’s direction made him just as culpable as she was.
Loren’s Apartment, 2:52 PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.
“Wraith?” Loren said quietly as he answered the phone.
“Loren,” Alana said calmly, “You were correct; Taker was hidden in the sewers beneath Naomi’s location.”
“Did you manage to capture them?” Loren said as evenly as he could. “Did anyone die?”
“Nobody died, although several were injured. We did manage to capture them both—although it was much more difficult a task than I originally assumed, even given your warnings.” Alana admitted, “Taker’s sheer strength and variety of powers far exceeds all known information available on her—if we hadn’t managed to surprise her, I think we may well have lost despite our greater numbers and preparations.”
Loren wasn’t surprised—Taker had shown the ability to defeat Wraith on two separate occasions now. The first time Wraith had fought her, it had begun with a stealth attack on Taker, and she had still lost.
“It’s her claws, right?” Loren asked, frowning.
“In part,” Alana said in agreement, “Her abilities are many, and some seem to have strange limitations. Her claws are capable of cutting through hyper durable materials with ease, but when I inspected them afterward, they were completely blunt—further investigation has shown that she deals some form of multiplicative damage specifically to defenses.”
Loren frowned, trying to work through that—it sounded like something from a video game, armor shred, or armor penetration.
“Her level of physical strength, speed, and reflexes still lands her squarely within the s-class and allows her to inflict terrible damage, even with her blunt claws,” Alana said with interest, “She is still capable of creating wounds, scratches, and cuts as long as she is capable of piercing the skin of the target, and that is how she transfers the paralysis effect.”
Loren thought back to Taker’s appearance and the unnaturally tall form she possessed.
“There are other minor abilities apparent, but the real difficulty of engaging her is amplified by the powers she originally possessed as Evelyn Miller.” Alana continued, “She is able to camouflage herself actively and stick unaided to any surface; it makes pinning her down or disengaging from her extremely difficult.”
“So she’s some kind of stealthy, defense-destroying assassin?” Loren wondered. “Why haven’t we heard anything about her in the news before now?”
“I do not think she was… designed to be an assassin. I am actually starting to believe that her name represents her actual role,” Alana said honestly, “She takes her targets under cover of darkness and returns them to Epilogue for reasons that are currently unknown.”
“Experimentation?” Loren said quietly, “It’s what they did to Evelyn after all; maybe they are trying to make more like her?”
“Entirely possible,” Alana agreed. “Deceitful was far easier to contain as we came after them in force. Without Taker available to assist her, it was over rather quickly.”
Loren almost couldn’t believe it had gone correctly—two members of Epilogue captured, and he’d played a part, if remote, in it happening.
“If you were paying attention yesterday, you would have also noticed that the Peacekeepers have managed to find and disarm the explosives in Arrot City.” Alana said, pleased, “I’ve already begun dissembling the ones here in the sewers, and Seeker has stopped by to remove the one beneath our HQ. Should everything go cleanly, there will no longer be a threat within three hours.”
Loren stamped down on the hope that was flaring up but only partially succeeded. Arrot City was safe; Setalite City would be safe in three hours; all they needed to do next was make sure Paragon didn’t die.
“What’s the situation with Paragon?” Loren asked quietly.
“Unknown at present,” Alana said simply, “But I would assume Artisan and Alleviate have been working towards removing the explosive and discovering the cause of the rapid deterioration you described.”
“Gradient and Dovetail?” Loren pressed.
“Gradient is currently doing a remote investigation into Cinematic from a safe location,” Alana said easily, “Dovetail is still cooperating with us and has willingly gone into confinement—I hope to determine whether he can be rehabilitated or not.”
Loren had a hundred more questions, about Iza’s status, about Isometric, about Raindancer—he opened his mouth to ask.
“Loren, rest assured, if anything goes wrong, I will contact you immediately,” Alana said gently, “You should take this time to recuperate and try to relieve some stress.”
Loren brushed his hair back with one of his hands and leaned back into the chair.
“It feels wrong to not be doing something,” Loren murmured, loud enough to be heard through the phone.
“I know the feeling,” Alana admitted.
Loren hesitated for a long while before gathering the courage.
“Alana,” Loren said quietly, but his words were rushed. “In one of the loops, we spent the night together—this was right before I found out about the pheromone thing. I just…”
He found himself searching for a way to ask his question in a way that wouldn’t come off badly, but there was only a beat of silence before she spoke up.
“Are you wondering if I would have had intercourse with you if I hadn’t been exposed to the pheromones?” Alana said curiously.
Loren banged his head on the table in embarrassment as she just said it outright—how could someone who was so intelligent be so blunt—ugh.
“Yes, Alana,” Loren mumbled, throwing himself under the bus. “That’s what I was wondering.”
“Attraction is only one quality amongst many that determine whether or not two people are willing to engage in sexual intercourse with each other, and I do not mindlessly sleep with every person I experience an attraction to.” Alana explained evenly, “I may have trouble relating to people at times, Loren, but if I made the decision to have sex with you, it wasn’t simply because I thought you were pretty—do you really think me such a simple creature that I act on base instincts without considering why?”
Loren was still processing her response, but he shook his head, even knowing she couldn’t see him.
“You know I don’t think of you like that, Alana.” Loren said quietly, “I just… can I even exist—in a morally neutral way if I unconsciously infringe on everyone else I interact with?”
“You have such an interesting way of viewing the world, Loren,” Alana said quietly, “But it’s rooted in an ocean of self-hate.”
Loren pressed his forehead harder into the table—he wasn’t so far gone that he couldn’t see the waves.
“Do you find me attractive?” Alana wondered.
“Yes,” Loren admitted, not even having to think about it. “Very much so.”
“Have I infringed on you, now that your attraction to me colors every decision you make?” Alana said, seemingly pleased. “Every single person walking around emanates attractiveness to some degree; all you have to do to pick up on it is to observe them.”
Loren bit his lip at the point, but he didn’t have an easy answer—he recognized it was the same premise, but the difference was one of the levels.
“Does it matter if the sensory organ used to interpret those signals is different?” Alana continued, apparently enjoying the impromptu debate. “If you experience attraction to someone via sight, is it morally different than if you were to experience it from smell? Touch? Taste?”
That brought back some memories.
“I don’t think it’s an equal comparison,” Loren said vaguely, unable to answer with certainty.
The question he knew she would ask after his response was obvious already—Loki’s wager.
“A weak counter,” Alana said, amused, “The only difference between the two is the sensory organ used to interpret it and just how much attraction is experienced. When you are observing someone, at what level does the attraction experienced transition from a level that is ‘good’ to one that is ‘bad?’”
Loren banged his head against the table again several times.
“I can’t answer that. The line is too indistinct,” Loren said weakly. “It has to be different, Alana—I’m forcing others to find me attractive.”
He could clearly remember the mask she had worn when she had stepped into the office that day.
“Are you?” Alana said pointedly, “A person cannot control how attractive others find them, and you, Loren, cannot control how attractive others find you. I wonder—did you make a conscious choice to find me attractive?”
Loren considered the question seriously—He had a set of preferences that he liked, but he’d never sat down and decided on them—they were simply an innate part of him. He’d observed things, and the ones he enjoyed became sought after, while those that he didn’t care for fell away.
“No,” Loren admitted, thinking about Alana Paige in her totality. “There was never a choice.”
“So by your own reasoning, I forced you to find me attractive?” Alana said smugly.
Loren ran her words over in his mind before banging his head on the table again.
“Just because I can’t beat you in an argument, Alana,” Loren complained, “Doesn’t mean you’re right.”
Alana actually laughed.
Train Station, Setalite City, 6:52 AM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.
Loren waited, leaning against the stairs and thinking about the discussion he’d had yesterday with Alana. The main point of contention that was stopping him from moving past it was the existence of Iza Gracen—her situation just wasn’t the same as Emma’s or Alana’s.
Using her reasoning that everyone emanated attractiveness fell apart in Iza’s case because his power had physically edited her body to amplify the effect a hundredfold. You didn’t lose culpability for something just because you didn’t mean for it to happen—just one more village he’d avalanched.
There was hope, though, they’d eventually find someone capable of reversing the changes, and once they had, Loren might be able to get them to do the same to him. It would just take careful timing to make the change occur just before a future save point.
It wouldn’t erase the lifetime of pain that he’d inadvertently caused Iza, but it was a start.
A short woman in a long coat walked behind him, face hidden under a fedora. Loren tracked her progress across the room before she sat down at the same place she had during the quest loop. His mind flickered about for a moment, trying to slot this in with all the other pieces of the puzzle.
Mara Melancholia had been here, in Setalite City, in every single loop, and not a single person had noticed that she had returned to the scene of the crime. Loren watched her for a minute, considering—there would be no Naomi to interrupt them this time.
Loren moved towards the bench.
“Hello, Mara,” Loren said quietly, “It’s nice to see you again—sorry it took so long.”
Mara turned and watched him with wide eyes, just like she had in the other loop. He could practically see her shoulders rise as the burden of his death in some part lifted from her conscious.
“I… I came here so many times,” Mara said slowly, “I thought you were lying about being immortal.”
“I’m hurt that you would think so badly of me—I’m still here, aren’t I?” Loren said lightly, sparing her the complete explanation. “How have you been, Mara? I imagine it’s been hard.”
“It’s been very difficult, but I am… surviving.” Mara said quietly, “I was approached by the group you told me about.”
“I’ve seen you with them on the news,” Loren noted, closing his eyes for a moment. “I wondered if I made a mistake by telling you that.”
Mara looked away for a moment before shaking her head.
“I don’t think it was a mistake,” Mara said, shaking her head, “There’s nowhere else I can go; I’ve hurt too many people.”
They sat in silence for a few somber seconds.
“Do you have friends?” Loren asked quietly.
Mara ducked her head for a moment.
“A few,” Mara smiled shyly.
It was the first sign she’d expressed since he had sat down that things had changed—and he noticed that her coat didn’t even rattle. Loren smiled at the sight of her control—she was even better than she had been in the other loop.
Perhaps what he’d said on the train had actually helped in the end.
“I’m glad,” Loren said honestly, “Any chance of steering them onto the path of slightly less evil? I could hook you guys up with some hero buddies if you feel like switching sides?”
“I very much doubt anything like that is possible,” Mara said evasively before hesitating and glancing over at him. “I hope you know that despite being a part of Epilogue… I’ve tried not to hurt people when I can make a choice.”
“I know, Mara,” Loren said simply, “It’s the best I can hope for, I suppose. I also know that Evelyn and Naomi are in the city. The rest of your friends are here too, aren’t they?”
Mara stilled for a second before her eyes widened.
“How did you find that out?” Mara said quietly.
That was confirmation enough—the entirety of Epilogue was in Setalite City. Did they know about the sewer bombs after all? Naomi hadn’t known about them—but it could be one of the other members acting on their own?
“I’m immortal,” Loren said seriously as if that did anything to answer her question. “I know everything.”
“That doesn’t make any sense and has nothing to do with immortality,” Mara said, bemused, before glancing up over his shoulder. “It’s okay; he’s an old friend.”
It took a moment for him to parse the meaning of her words and the fact that she wasn’t speaking to him any longer.
“Really?” A voice drawled, sounding completely at ease. “Now, isn’t that something?”
Loren closed his eyes as the words sent a tingling sensation racing down his spine. The sound of footsteps approached him, and he traced the owner’s spatial position by sound as they dropped down onto the bench between the two of them.
A woman of average height and black hair, cut short in a pixie cut that was swept to one side. The person sprawled out and threw an arm over each of their shoulders—He fought hard not to tense up as the hand-dipped downward, fingers tracing under his shirt and over his collarbone.
This close, he could see that her eyes were green.
“Hannah Bell,” Loren said evenly, turning slightly towards her. “Nice to meet you.”
He moved his shoulder to dislodge her hand, but her grip tightened in warning.
“Lecture—I don’t like strangers using my name.” Hannah drawled, finger tracing its way up to his throat and tapping once on his voice box. “Stop moving around.”
Loren found himself suddenly unable to move, and he chose to remain silent as the hand curled slightly around his throat.
Lectures power was well known; if you were within five meters of her position, anything she said was unignorable. She could force you to do just about anything, and nobody had shown the ability to resist her voice.
“Mara, why are you down here hanging out with a boy?” Hannah said, rolling her eyes; she held her phone up to her ear for a moment. “Why the hell did you turn your phone off anyway?”
“I wanted to watch the trains without being interrupted,” Mara said, frowning. “You can let him go now.”
Loren felt the tingle running up his spine fade away, but he stayed perfectly still as the hand squeezed around his throat in warning.
“It was a pain in the ass to track you down, you know? We’ve got a massive problem—” Hannah sighed before switching her attention to the phone. “Reset? I found her; she’s in the subway.”
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