Rooftop, Hero HQ, Setalite City, 2:47 PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.
Loren hadn’t even made it to the stairs before the feeling of justification faded entirely, leaving just the shame behind.
He sat on the concrete wall that bordered the building, just watching the flood of festival-goers passing by, superhero paraphernalia just about everywhere. The sky was clear, blue, and with not a cloud in sight, the same as it was every other time he’d made it to a Wednesday. While those below probably enjoyed the good weather, Loren was left wondering how long it had been since he’d seen it rain.
“Loren Parker.” Seeker’s deep voice said from above him.
It caught Loren entirely off guard, not having heard the man appear, and he twisted to look over his shoulder—and then to the side as the man stepped up to the wall to join him. He took a moment for his heart to stop thudding in his chest before he responded.
“Hey, man,” Loren commented. “I didn’t expect to see you up here.”
Seeker nodded, joining him in watching the people below.
“There is nothing more for me to contribute towards the situation at present,” Seeker said calmly, “I’m afraid my talents lay in other areas.”
Teleportation probably didn’t help much in the way of interrogation, but it certainly helped in bringing over the people whose talents did work there. It also didn’t explain why he’d come here of all places—
“Did you have an argument with Wraith as well?” Loren said lightly. “Must be the day for it.”
Seeker turned to look at him in confusion, and he felt a flash of amusement despite himself.
“No,” Seeker said, “I just needed some fresh air. Is that why you are here?”
Loren nodded, feeling like he was confessing his sins to a giant priest.
“I kind of threw a tantrum—took it out on her when I shouldn’t have.” Loren admitted, “Now I’ve retreated up here to avoid dealing with the aftermath—I’m something of a strategist, you see? Path of least resistance and all that.”
“Indeed.” Seeker said, amused.
They fell into an easy silence; apparently, he wasn’t much of a talker, but Loren didn’t mind.
“What’s the situation with Julian?” Loren said eventually. “Did you guys convince him to go into lockdown?”
Seeker didn’t even blink at the use of Paragon’s secret identity.
“He was willing to entertain us, despite not believing he’d been compromised.” Seeker explained, “Empress has set up a series of fields to both prevent him from leaving the area and to try and arrest any kind of transformation he may undergo.”
Loren listened carefully; while not a conversation initiator by any means, Seeker seemed to give detailed answers when questioned. This was information he would hear in a few hours anyway, but the early heads up was nice.
“Artisan has also contributed his own efforts towards discovering how the change occurs, and Alleviate intends on giving him a second inspection,” Seeker continued, “It remains to be seen if any of the measures we have taken will be effective or not.”
“You guys seem pretty on top of it,” Loren nodded, “Will those fields be able to contain him if he still… changes?”
“Unlikely.” Seeker said solemnly, “Untold and I will be on-site to help contain him.”
“Alice just about broke down the last time you two fought him,” Loren murmured. “That’s going to get messy.”
The casual use of their names seemed to finally draw a response.
“There are few others we can trust that both fulfill the power requirements and the will to place themselves in Paragon’s way.” Seeker said calmly. “Are you aware of all of our identities?”
Loren shook his head.
“You could try hitting up Vapid for assistance; she seems to want to fight anyone that moves—although if you stand still long enough, she’d probably attack you for being suspicious,” Loren said, amused, before moving on. “Paragon and Untold are the only members of your group that I know the identities of. This is actually the first time I’ve really had a proper discussion with you. You know how my power works?”
“I will discuss your suggested candidate with the others. As for your circumstances, we were made aware that you are currently trapped within a time loop, one which resets when you die.” Seeker said in answer, “However the exact details of your power are unknown to us. I find myself curious; when did you first awaken?”
“When I was fourteen,” Loren commented. “I just didn’t notice until recently.”
“That is because it was the first time you’ve died in your lifetime?” Seeker asked for clarification.
It wasn’t; he’d just forgotten about the first-time loop. Once more, he had the choice, explain in full to someone who was just going to forget it all or simplify it for convenience. Now that he was aware he was doing it, it had become so much more obvious—Loren sighed.
“Yeah, something like that.” Loren lied. “I died, everything reset, and now here we are. When did you awaken?”
There was a bit of social pressure behind the words; he’d given the other man an answer and expected response in kind.
“I awakened my powers the day Meteor destroyed Ragdim City,” Seeker said simply.
Loren frowned, eyeing the man and trying to guess his age.
“That was in 1997, wasn’t it?” Loren frowned, eyeing the man. “How old were you?”
It was before Loren was even born, three years before if he was right about the date.
“It was,” Seeker nodded. “I was nine.”
Loren swallowed at that.
The fact that he’d gotten the power to teleport was probably the only reason he was still alive at all. That city was a crater now, and the ten million people who’d lived there were long since buried—not everyone was as lucky as Seeker, it would seem.
The man must have had a family before; had they been with him when he’d discovered his power? Or had they perished with the others? Loren was well aware of how much traumatic experiences followed you, even decades later.
There was nothing he could say to make any of it right or better.
“Sorry,” Loren said anyway, but for what he didn’t know.
Seeker just nodded.
Loren remained on the roof long after Seeker had left, the quiet man leaving him with a reminder that the strategy meeting for tomorrow’s battle was rapidly approaching. He needed to get updated on everything they’d tried before the loop ended again, so he could take it with him when everything inevitably fell apart.
His phone told him he’d be late if he dawdled up here much longer, but it had just started to grow dark, and the stars were slowly fading into visibility.
He could almost pretend he was in that place, deep inside him where time stood still. Loren had tried, on and off during the quiet moments, to look for it—tried to somehow meditate himself into that place, but it hadn’t worked.
Closing his eyes just left him staring at the back of his eyelids and no closer to enlightenment. While attempting to think himself there just left him distracted, with his thoughts moving to every other problem he had no solution for.
A combination of meditation and intentionally resetting himself held potential, but he wasn’t getting his hopes up—another glance at his phone told him he was definitely late.
Loren groaned and headed downstairs, but he’d only made it to the correct level when the door opened, admitting Raindancer and an unfamiliar teenager with red hair and a pair of ski goggles dangling around his neck.
“You’re the dude!” The boy said, pointing. “You’re totally late, man.”
Loren looked to Raindancer for a moment, but she held her silence—he had enough context clues to guess who this was, even if he didn’t recognize him on sight.
“You’re Threadbreaker, right? I’ve been looking for you everywhere! There’s a job I have that only you can do.” Loren said seriously, and the kid’s face lit up. “I have a bunch of shirts that I need you to take a look at, they are really starting to fray at the edges; think you can tidy them up?”
Raindancer snorted as the kid’s face fell into a state of disappointment.
“That’s not even a little bit funny,” Threadbreaker complained, crossing his arms. “You boomer.”
“I’m only twenty-one!” Loren said, alarmed, before turning to the now laughing Raindancer. “Stop laughing; you’re older than I am!”
Threadbreaker stepped back through the doorway, and Raindancer followed.
“Come on,” Raindancer smirked before directing Loren to follow. “If we make them wait any longer, Wraith will kick all of our asses.”
Loren winced as he followed them out, his improved mood taking a hit.
“What were you doing anyway?” Threadbreaker said curiously, walking backward in front of them.
Loren watched as the kid navigated the hallway like he had eyes in the back of his head—only he wasn’t even paying a shred of attention. His own power told him he was completely at ease, and the movements copied over as everything else did—apparently nothing at all strange about them.
But he had his doubts, Threadbreaker had been known to land hits on people far outside of his weight class, in both speed and experience. Seemingly able to find opportunities and moments where he could enter into the fray and land a decisive blow.
“Watching the stars come out,” Loren admitted, considering asking the kid if he had some kind of passive power.
“Lame,” Threadbreaker said, and Raindancer gleefully echoed him a moment later.
Loren’s thoughts were completely derailed, and he gave them both the stink eye until they reached the room. Threadbreaker walked into the still open doorway and announced his presence without shame.
“Were back!” Threadbreaker said into the room, speaking to everyone at large. “Did you miss me?”
Most of the eyes in the room were on them now—
“No.” Alleviate’s deadpanned voice responded without pause.
“Nobody asked you!” Threadbreaker cried out, offended.
The now-standard meeting room was filled with more heroes than last time, with Seeker towering over everyone present. Untold, Alleviate, and Empress accompanied him at the end of the table. Loren swept his gaze over the others for a moment—He’d drawn enough commissions of Haunt to recognize her on sight, her pure white hair and pale white skin standing out even with all of the costumes present.
Wraith sat at the other end, hands folded in front of her, as she looked straight ahead. Secluded and Fracture sat on her left, both looking tired. There was another person present that he didn’t recognize, an older man with sunken eyes and a mustache, sitting on Wraith’s right-hand side.
Threadbreaker rounded the table and dropped down into the seat next to his teammate, and Loren was left standing by the door with Raindancer.
“Loren,” Alleviate said in greeting, “Sit down already—I’d rather not be stuck in a room with these two for the rest of the night.”
“Rude,” Threadbreaker huffed.
“Go fuck yourself,” Haunt said casually, seemingly at ease.
The older man with the mustache closed his eyes, seemingly annoyed at the language but didn’t comment. Loren just nodded, taking a seat closest to the door, and Raindancer dropped down next to him.
“Haunt,” The man with the mustache said sternly, “You’ve performed your own interrogation and had access to the… impromptu one that was performed early. What do you have for us?”
Loren couldn’t help but wonder who this was exactly—usually, Alana was the one to lead these discussions or Artisan—when he was actually present. They seemed to be deferring to him, and the position at the table suggested he worked for the Hero HQ in some capacity, but the lack of costume said civilian.
“She didn’t want to help out; that much was obvious,” Haunt said unhurriedly. “Three hours isn’t enough time to whittle someone down either—and she’s resistant to empathic reading as well.”
“Are you saying you got nothing?” The man said scornfully.
Haunt leaned back in her chair, yawning, long and loud—the man’s face tightened at the disrespect, but he held his tongue.
“I got plenty, but It’s probably not what you’re looking for.” Haunt allowed, “Evelyn Miller, 23, previously went by Wallflower, as part of the Saltwall City Hero HQ. Worked under Windbreaker before he died—”
“All things we already know—” The man interjected, but Haunt didn’t even bother to stop talking.
“2021, 9th of May rolled around, and she was attacked in her bed in the middle of the night by her dead mentor, Windbreaker.” Haunt paused for a moment, glancing down at Threadbreaker, “I’ll spare you the details of what exactly happened in that room, but it’s exactly what you’re all thinking.”
Loren closed his eyes in disgust.
“What does that mean?” Threadbreaker frowned, but he was ignored. “Did he torture her?”
Haunt didn’t respond to her teammate’s prompt for more information.
“Evelynn was drugged at some point near the end of the encounter, and the next time she woke up, she was tied to a bed in a hospital—that’s my interpretation of it, by the way, it looked like a hospital room, one of the private ones, lots of machines, no labels, custom-built stuff.”
Loren wondered how exactly Haunts power worked for her to get that kind of information. Was she reading surface thoughts of whoever she attached to? Or did she have complete access to their memories?
“Of the members of Epilogue,” Alana spoke for the first time, “Deceitful, Lecture, and Monstrous—none of those have the ability to create custom medical equipment. Reset could stumble onto a power that allows him the ability to do so. Tiamat or The Researcher is most likely responsible for its creation and usage.”
“It could simply have been purchased from Insoluble,” The mustached man pointed out calmly, but Alana shook her head.
“Taker’s modifications alone would require an in-depth knowledge of powers, equipment, and the human body,” Alana expanded, “The presence of custom-built equipment combined with the modifications to Evelyn imply an expert was involved for a long period of time.”
The mustached man nodded at the breakdown.
“While it’s possible that they also hired an expert from insoluble, it gains us nothing to assume that they sourced that expertise from outside of their own organization.” The man said in agreement, “Especially when you consider their names are likely a direct representation of their power usage or interests.”
“Tiamat was that God who made all those serpent monsters, right?” Threadbreaker said curiously. “Kind of makes sense.”
“Tiamat was a Mesopotamian goddess,” Raindancer corrected, surprising Loren. “Known for being the personification of salt water.”
“I’m still right, though,” Threadbreaker said smugly.
Raindancer rolled her eyes, and Haunt rejoined the conversation.
“After that, it starts to get progressively harder to follow along, her memories are seriously messed up, and almost every waking moment is her under the influence of a dozen drugs that make it near impossible to read anything. At some point, empathetic, visual, and audio registering just falls off completely,” Haunt meandered her way through the conversation, unrushed. “I couldn’t estimate how long, but it’s just pain, disorientation, and a bunch of awful things I’d rather not say in front of Breaker—Audio comes back eventually, whatever they did to her hearing made it way better afterward, her sight likewise returns; perfect night vision, and she can partially see heat signatures through walls as well.”
Haunt took a breather, seemingly thinking about where to go next.
“Visual and auditory returned,” Alana prompted, “Empathy did not?”
“It returned, but she’s basically deadened her own ability to care about anything at this point—in response to everything that happened to her.” Haunt amended before frowning. “The one with the mind control? Lecture? She made regular visits to her throughout her captivity, constantly reinforcing their control over her—that woman’s power is no joke; I was getting edgy just hearing it second hand.”
Loren understood completely; he’d been under its spell before—there was no way to fight it without some kind of immunity.
“Who was present during the experimentation?” Loren asked quietly, mind on a specific person.
“The Researcher was there all the time, and he never entered the room without a face mask,” Haunt said distastefully, “He had a habit of… doing things. Evelyn’s perspective throughout this made it difficult to see what exactly was being done to her visually, but she certainly felt it all. He removed all of her limbs three separate times; for instance, the third time ended with a buzzing sensation along each of her fingertips.”
Her claws strange ability to both shred defenses and paralyze on contact.
“That’s horrible,” Alleviate said, disgusted.
“Tiamat was also present frequently—Evelyn saw her uncovered face several times; she’s a middle-aged woman, in her forties maybe, dark auburn hair, five and a half foot at a guess.” Haunt estimated, “It’s also notable that Evelyn was moved into a new room at some point, specifically after some kind of fire destroyed the first one. The new room had a large glass container present to one side—there was a lump of flesh growing in it.”
“The Paragon clone?” Untold murmured without feeling.
“Unsure. Soon after, her memory just goes black, and it never really comes back afterward.” Haunt frowned, “They did something to her head, but I couldn’t tell you what—she’s clearly still experiencing, but the most recent memories are completely inaccessible to me.”
“When was she in the room with the tank?” Loren spoke.
“In relative time?” Haunt wondered, “She was taken in May, and it felt like weeks or even a month, so that must have been in June or later?”
“Did you see any indication of what The Researcher or Tiamat could do?” Alana prompted.
“No on both accounts,” Haunt frowned, “You were talking about an expert earlier—I’d say The Researcher has some kind of intelligence-based power, but it would be an unsubstantiated guess at most.”