Hero HQ, Setalite City, 6:07 PM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.
Loren began the day like any other, doing his best not to think about the incredibly high chance that he would be dead before the day was done. He followed his routine, making himself breakfast, orange juice, eggs on toast, and apple, eating silently.
“An astounding success,” Aaron said cheerfully, “The winners of the first-ever Crescendo tournament, Team Coffee—comprised of internet sensations Coffeet, Yamete! and my own personal favorite—Paragon’s Biceps! No doubt she did all the heavy lifting!”
“I still can’t believe people actually pay money to go watch this kind of thing,” Jean said, shaking her head. “It boggles the mind!”
“The only thing that boggles my mind—is the whopping one-hundred-thousand they took home with them!” Aaron cheered, “That’s thirty-three to each of them for a single day’s work—not bad at all!”
“Ludicrous,” Jean said alarmed, “How could—”
Loren clicked the tv off, wondering if he could somehow work winning the tournament into his eventual escape from this week—that extra hundred thousand would do wonders for him getting out of this shitty building. Besides, letting Chloe and her friends win the entire thing completely uncontested rubbed him the wrong way.
He left the building unaccosted and found the weather to be exactly how it always was with barely a cloud in sight—his phone vibrated in his pocket, and he answered it a moment later, unhurried.
“I’m on my way now,” Loren said in greeting. “I’m about ten minutes out.”
“Twelve minutes at your current pace,” Alana said seriously.
Loren wished she could have seen the deadpanned look on his face—goddammit; she could be creepy at times.
“I don’t think I’ll need the extra two minutes to save the world,” Loren commented, waiting for the lights. “How is everyone doing—nothing went wrong? Paragon didn’t decide to do a quick lap around the planet?”
“No, the Paragon clone remains inside Secluded’s power,” Alana said, “Artisan, Alleviate, and Empress are on-site to observe the process. Artisan seemed optimistic about halting the deterioration given enough information and the correct conditions.”
Loren nodded to himself, already assuming that nothing was ever easy and it would take longer than a single run.
“How are you feeling, Loren?” Alana said after a moment.
“I’ve been better.” Loren sighed, “I keep wondering if I’m going to get ganked by one of the others.”
“Lecture, or Reset?” Alana said quietly.
“The former, more than the later,” Loren said, “I’ve died enough that I can almost push past it, but Hannah Bell, ‘Lecture’ just terrifies me. I hate not being in control, and her power is designed to take that away.”
“I understand.” Alana said slowly, “Provided nothing goes awry, and the events remain somewhat consistent with your previous experience, you should be gone before she arrives.”
“I know,” Loren agreed, sighing. “Doesn’t make walking towards the subway any easier.”
The foot traffic was growing thicker the closer he got to central, and he found himself distracted by all the hero paraphernalia. Seeing everyone just cheerfully walking around, completely unaware they would have all died today—it was jarring.
Arrot City and Setalite City both actually—without the Hero HQ branches of both cities, The Peacekeepers, and even Loren himself, millions would have died in the explosions. They would probably never know about it either because releasing that kind of information would just cause a panic.
“Did they get a hold of Trendsetter?” Loren wondered, searching for a distraction.
“Yes,” Alana said simply. “He has agreed to play the part of Paragon at the speech. Hopefully, we can avoid alerting the public to Paragon’s absence for as long as possible.”
Loren bit his lip as he spotted the subway entrance.
“I was thinking about that,” Loren murmured, stalling. “Trendsetter uses illusions, doesn’t he? Think he’s actually Mathew Kline in disguise?”
“I do believe he was halfway across the country at a fashion event,” Alana said, amused, “Unless his range has increased from ten meters to thousands of kilometers, I do not believe he is both a hero, a villain, a pop culture icon, and a Janitor.”
“Yeah, I guess not—that seems like a lot of work hours,” Loren admitted, taking a deep breath.
“Loren,” Alana said quietly, “The main cellular network will be ‘going down for maintenance’ in exactly one minute. Phone signals will become completely unavailable in central; you won’t be able to contact us—be careful, and good luck.”
He shook his shoulders out, hyping himself up.
“Luck, Alana?” Loren smiled, “I don’t need something like that—I’m the Wildcard.”
The subway was filled with people, something he should have felt upset about, but if they’d warned everyone off, it would have been far too suspicious. He’d spent the better part of this morning planning about how to approach this, and he promptly threw it all away.
Instead, he was going to do what he did best.
“Mara Melancholia, fancy seeing you here,” Loren said, smiling as he sprawled on the bench beside her. “It’s been a while, huh?”
Mara stared at him with wide eyes, looking like she had no idea what to say.
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten me?” Loren complained, “I stop dying my hair, and you forget all about me? Come on, that just hurts.”
“I remember you,” Mara said quickly, flustered. “I just—I thought you were lying. You really are immortal.”
“Of course I am—why would I say something weird like that if I wasn’t?” Loren said, feigning bemusement before gesturing to the tracks. “Come to see where it all began, huh? I actually saw our mutual friend the other day—you remember Emma?”
A ‘friend’ wasn’t the appropriate identifier for a girl who’d she’d only spoken to for a few minutes on the worst day of her life, but the longer he kept Mara off balance, the better.
“I remember her,” Mara said, blinking, “Um. How is she?”
Loren almost laughed at the awkwardness.
“She’s doing fine, Mara.” Loren smiled before pushing himself back to his feet and holding out a hand to her. “Hey, moping around down here sounds boring—I’ll buy you a coffee, and we can catch up properly.”
Mara stared at the hand, looking completely lost—Loren held his smile, raising an eyebrow in expectation, letting the social pressure for her to accept his offer build. Mara slowly brought her gloved hand up and took his own. Loren pulled her up to her feet before steering her back towards the entrance. He felt something move underneath his hand, barely a ripple beneath her coat and paid it no mind.
The only thing that mattered was that Mara was coming willingly.
“Aren’t you scared of me?” Mara said hesitantly, keeping her head low. “Last time I—I killed you.”
Fingers, stretching, branching off into a thousand directions, reaching into him, pain beyond anything he’d ever felt—Loren laughed out loud.
“Of course I’m not scared of you—do you know how many times I’ve died, Mara?” Loren said in answer, “I’ve lost count at this point, honestly.”
They stepped out of the subway, and Loren was beyond relieved that Lecture wasn’t waiting at the top for them. Nobody even gave them a second glance, and he steered them back towards where he’d come from.
“O-oh,” Mara said in understanding, glancing around worriedly. “I didn’t realize.”
It was obvious that she was paranoid that someone would recognize her, but the likelihood of someone recognizing her through her mask, in the mess that was Setalite City downtown—during the height of the Evergold festival, no less, it just wasn’t worth mentioning.
“Nobody can tell who you are; you’re fine, dude,” Loren said, nudging her shoulder with his own. “Don’t worry so much,”
“You knew who I was,” Mara murmured. “Even with the mask.”
That was a good point, actually—
“I’m immortal, Mara.” Loren said brightly, “Of course I knew who you were—as if I’d let a mask hinder me.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mara said, bemused. “Immortality doesn’t confer any type of mask-bypassing ability.”
“Does so,” Loren argued before pouting at her raised eyebrow. “Fine, I knew you were going to be there—I’m also a time traveler.”
“That’s how you knew who I was, back on the train?” Mara smiled, no doubt pleased to have ferried out his darkest secret.
“Yeah, I was trying to stop you from getting your powers,” Loren admitted outright, keeping his tone upbeat to avoid the mood crashing. “Thought you might appreciate a normal life, you know, finishing school, partying, crushes, and all that—but I didn’t have the full picture of how the train thing went down, so it still happened.”
Mara opened her mouth and then closed it again, unsure what to say.
“That was the ideal outcome, anyway,” Loren continued, “I probably should have asked you in the present first, though—get a better idea of how things went down on the train before I went back. I’m kind of impulsive, though, so that’s not really how it panned out.”
Loren steered her into the same Café he sometimes met Chloe in, hoping he wasn’t about to get his now regular coffee place nuked. He bullied a favorite order out of Mara and paid for both drinks.
Mara took the drink in hand and followed him back to a table in the corner; he chose the seat with the view of the window, so she could have her back to the rest of the store and keep anyone from seeing her face should she remove the mask.
“Now that I’ve got you alone with me,” Loren said seriously, watching her tense. “What the hell is in a Miel latte?”
Her tension fell away, and she scrunched her nose up at him, almost offended by the judgment.
“It’s an expresso with honey instead of sugar,” Mara eyed him, making sure he wasn’t about to make fun of her again. “There’s cinnamon and cream in it as well.”
“Interesting,” Loren said, noting it down to try next time he was here. “When was the last time you had one?”
“Three months ago,” Mara admitted, looking down at the table. “I got yelled at for going out.”
A ‘weapon’ going out for coffee was probably not allowed—although he seriously wondered how they went about making Mara Melancholia do anything at all. Loren just nodded, not engaging on the topic because he needed her to keep her thoughts away from Epilogue and her phone.
“Listen, it’s okay to have bad taste in coffee,” Loren said gently, patting her gloved hand. “I won’t judge you.”
“You’re judging me right now,” Mara complained, narrowing her eyes at him.
“I would never,” Loren grinned, sipping his own drink.
He watched her eyes, trying to gauge her mood by that alone—she lifted the mask from the bottom, taking another sip before replacing it.
“Um. You’re immortal, right?” Mara said, hesitantly, “You didn’t—how long did it take for you to come back?”
Loren knew that he was going to have to keep lying to her now—he really was the worst.
“Not going to lie—that one took forever,” Loren lied with a smile, “It was like three years before I had pulled myself together enough to remember what had happened.”
Mara looked incredibly relieved that he wasn’t upset at her from the question—it was a strange feeling to have one of the most dangerous villains in the world be worried that he might be upset. His choice of ‘pulled myself together’ was deliberate; it would draw her attention to what had happened on the train and hopefully away from scrutinizing anything he said too deeply.
“Does it usually take that long?” Mara asked, meeting his eyes again.
He didn’t really have a way to answer that, because technically his return to life was instant.
“It’s usually pretty quick,” Loren flapped his hand about, as if it existed within a range, “I was three years in the past when I died that time, though, so that probably had something to do with it taking so long.”
“Sorry,” Mara lowered her eyes again, “Three years is a long time.”
He tapped the back of her gloved hand, drawing her attention back to him.
“I didn’t even feel a thing during those three years—it may as well have passed in an instant,” Loren said honestly, brushing it off. “I’m happy to see you’ve used that time to get so much control over yourself, though—you must have practiced a lot; good job.”
Mara smiled, eyes crinkling.
“It took months to stop attacking everyone near me,” Mara admitted, swinging her cup enough to swirl the liquid inside. “Most of that time, Hannah had to use her power to stop me.”
Loren hated the idea that the woman’s power was actually good for something, but he didn’t let it show on his face. Lecture’s power somehow working in spite of Mara’s impervious nature—that was confusing in its own way. Mental powers, in general, didn’t work on Mara; they’d been tried in the past, along with everything else in the hero’s bag of tricks—Lecture’s power must be far more potent than they’d known.
Maybe they could chain powers together—have someone take control of Lecture, and then have her get Mara to surrender.
“You managed it, though; that’s the important part, Mara,” Loren tilted his drink at her in recognition, “You should be proud of that.”
“I am,” Mara confessed, ducking her head to hide her smile.
“Hey, no hiding—” Loren smiled, “It’s not every day you get to have coffee with an immortal.”
The light-hearted brag evoked a different reaction than he’d expected, and she hesitated.
“I know another person who is immortal,” Mara said. “I don’t have coffee with her, though.”
Loren’s heart skipped a beat, trying to parse that information. ‘She’ meant that it wasn’t Reset or The Researcher, and it wasn’t Deceitful or Taker because he’d seen both of them die. He hoped it wasn’t Lecture, but unless she was commanding herself to ‘not die,’ the most likely candidate was Tiamat.
“Tiamat’s trying to steal my thunder, huh?” Loren pouted, “As long as I’m still your favorite immortal, I can deal.”
Mara relaxed at his uncaring attitude, lifting her mask once more to take a sip of her coffee.
“You’re in my top two,” Mara said impishly, clearly enjoying herself.
Loren chatted quietly with the lonely girl, keeping her attention firmly on himself and away from the fact that her friends were likely fighting for their lives. Untold specifically had made it clear that she didn’t intend to let any of them escape after what they’d done to Julian.
Rivaled by spite and eclipsed only by indifference, vengeance was a driving force like few others—he couldn’t exactly bring himself to think less of her. It hadn’t exactly been an uncommon opinion amongst the rest either, Mareke at the forefront making sure that each member of Epilogue had long been listed as Capture or Kill.
Just how much of himself was he expected to leave behind in order to fix all of this? Would the Loren that came out of this even be recognizable at all? He could almost envision a younger self watching him; he may as well have been a stranger—Something was wrong.
A short red-headed boy, perhaps thirteen at most, stepped into the café.
He looked around for a moment before spotting them, and then he smiled, circling one of the benches in the middle of the room. Loren watched him approach in those same strangely smooth motions.
He forced himself not to react, completely unable to figure out why he was going against the plan.
“It was the first time I went outside since I’d joined,” Mara said smiling, “Naomi took me to—”
Loren flinched violently as he was showered in blood and viscera.
Threadbreaker’s fist hovered in front of his face, sticking out the front of Mara’s head, and for a moment, he couldn’t understand what was happening. Mara’s body tipped forward and crashed onto the table, unmoving.
“Yes!” Threadbreaker shouted. “I got her!”
People were screaming and rushing out of the Café now, but Loren couldn’t take his eyes off the blood spreading across the table in front of him.
“Damn, kid,” Vapid said, appearing beside them. “I didn’t think you could actually pull it off—thought I was going to have to save you both.”
“Loren?” Seeker’s deep voice said gently. “I’m sorry for the change in plan; Threadbreaker decided to act on his own despite my contentions.”
“Who cares?” Threadbreaker argued, “We just killed Monstrous, dude. Everyones going to be talking about this for years!”
A piece of Mara lost its grip on his cheek, falling to land on the table with a wet noise.
The final chapter for Season 2, Chapter 68 – Tiamat Interlude, is up on Patreon. That’s two 100k seasons completed so far my dudes, it’s been a fun ride so far and I hope you’re all enjoying it. Now we’re headed straight on into the final season, gotta keep up the momentum.
Thank you to all the supporters, on Patreon, on here, and everywhere else, you guys are what is making it possible to keep improving on my passion, and I really appreciate all of you. If you’d like to help support my mission to snap as many elbows as I can get my greasy little mitts on, but aren’t in a place to chip in–you can support me for free as well! Leaving a comment, or a review on any of the other fiction websites I post my content on helps out more than you know.
Keep on keeping on!
Reroll – Chapter 68 – Tiamat Interlude. – Updated.
Ameliorate – Chapter 9(NSFW) – Updated