Loren felt his chest tighten as the deluge of breaking news articles filled out the search query, and for a moment, he just sat there, staring at the screen.
Alicia came to stand behind him, and after it had become clear that Loren wasn’t even in a state to click through to the actual contents of the article, she reached out and took the mouse.
“Setalite City is currently in a state of emergency, as almost the entirety of the east side of the harbor has been decimated.” Alicia said quietly, “Preliminary reports suggest that the first explosion occurred at roughly 1:00 AM this morning and was then followed by another fourteen identical explosions at roughly five-minute intervals, cutting a swathe of destruction across the city.”
Loren stared at the side-by-side series of pictures attached to the article that looked like they were taken from a video, snapshots at several points in time. The angle showed it was taken from somewhere up high and through the thick glass of a high-rise window.
The first was blurry but clearly showed a tall man falling through the air. The man had something large, angular, and black strapped to his back, almost like a backpack, but it was too far away to make out the details.
The second picture showed a large orange-red dome growing outward from the center of Setalite City. The third picture showed the same man, this time amongst the burnt-out husk of a building, sitting amongst the debris.
His appearance was clearer now that he wasn’t in the process of falling at terminal velocity, but by this point, whatever he had been wearing was barely there, ragged scraps of burnt-black material stretched across his charred body, large darker patches intermixed with lighter ones where the flesh was simply missing.
“The method used in the attack is currently unknown, but contextual clues suggest that the black object attached to the man’s back seems to be the source of the pulses that have ravaged the city.” Alicia continued. “It is now being speculated that he possesses some form of regenerative effect, as the man has been seen moving around the city after each explosion, perfectly intact—along with the newly rearmed device back in place on his back.”
The fourth picture showed the exact same man, kneeling in the exact same place, his bodysuit and mask pristine once more. His arm and the missing sections of his body had returned as well—along with a large black box strapped to his back.
“The search and rescue efforts have now begun, but as the Hero HQ was located within the radius of the first explosion, emergency services have been stretched thin. Aid has finally been requested from nearby cities, Arrot and Saltwall, but mobilizing in the face of this event is a difficult task.” Alicia said, swallowing, “We are still in the nascent stages of the recovery efforts, but very few survivors have been found so far, almost all of which were on the outer edges of the effect—the ones that have been lucky enough to have been located alive were all gravely injured.”
All of your allies are dead.
“The pictures provided have been confirmed as authentic and are taken from a late-night live celebratory broadcast run by local streamer Chloe Walker, which was occurring at the time of the attack.” Alicia said, “Thousands of fans watched the broadcast, bearing witness to the tragic last moments of those within the building.”
Loren flinched at the name, entirely caught off guard—he found himself remembering that very first time he’d died and how Chloe had been screaming in pain after being caught in the explosion at Paragon’s speech. He hadn’t known it was her at the time; he’d found that out much later after he’d seen her in the crowd—and now it was happening all over again. Unable to keep looking at the screen, Loren turned away for a moment, planting his hands on the frame of the window, fingers digging painfully into the wood.
“Are you okay?” Alicia said quietly, noticing the distress.
“No, I’m not fucking okay,” Loren said quietly before turning his head down and away. “Sorry—just keep reading. Please.”
“Okay,” Alicia said, swallowing again. “The man in the footage is yet to be identified due to the grainy nature of the footage and the destruction of recording devices during his path through the city.”
Loren gritted his teeth.
“Unfortunately, as grave as this situation is, more Information has come to light. The spokesperson for the Arrot City Hero HQ has released Information that suggests several members of the Peacekeepers were inside the Setalite City Hero HQ during the time of the attack.” Alicia continued, each word falling like a hammer blow. “Furthermore, we have managed to make contact with Untold, who has corroborated this Information.”
Loren closed his eyes as his anger spiked, the wooden frame creaked beneath his hands.
“As of fifteen minutes ago, we have confirmation that Alleviate, Artisan, Empress, and Seeker were all inside the building at the time of the attack and are now deceased,” Alicia said, having no response to the unfamiliar names. “Paragon’s current whereabouts are still unknown, while Trendsetter is still across the country at an event in— ”
The windowpane shattered as Loren finally lost his temper, and it broke badly, cutting up his arm in the process—he heard Alicia gasp and stumble away from the sudden noise.
“Fuck!” Loren hissed, pulling his arm back through the hole.
“Attempting to damage most materials without shielding is ill-advised,” Cube said before something impacted painfully against Loren’s shoulder.
The cuts on his arm rapidly sealed themselves shut, leaving one shard of glass sticking out of his knuckle—after a moment of hesitation, he yanked the shard out of his knuckle, and it closed within seconds.
“Loren?” Alicia said, nervous.
He hadn’t explained much to her this time, and it was starting to cause issues—All of this was just…
“Tiamat is the leader of Epilogue, but you would know her by the name Morgan,” Loren said, moving to lean against the wall. “She is currently working for a ‘hero’ named Untold, who is a member of the Peacekeepers—with me so far?”
“Yes,” Alicia said quietly.
“Untold’s real name is Alice, but unfortunately, it isn’t that simple,” Loren said, gritting his teeth. “Because at some point in the past, Alice was possessed by a body snatcher of some kind whose goals I have no idea about—except for the part where she wants to keep me locked in a prison under the ocean until I go insane.”
Loren fell silent, unsure how to even address any of this—he was playing a death game against someone who had basically already won. The only reason he wasn’t one of the people dead and buried underneath Setalite City was that he was functionally immortal.
“Do you know who the body snatcher is?” Alicia asked hesitantly.
Loren wondered if it even mattered at this point—they’d killed the Peacekeepers and then killed everyone else who was helping him. They’d destroyed Setalite City, his home, and everyone inside it.
He’d spent all that time, all that pain, and all of those deaths trying to save the city from this exact situation—all of it amounted to nothing in the end; it hadn’t even really slowed them down. They just adjusted their plans, carrying it out in a slightly different way. They’d locked him away like a naughty child and then kept on grinding out their end game unobstructed.
Loren hadn’t even been a thorn in their side; in the end, he had been nothing more than a handful of petals ground to dust beneath their boot.
“No,” Loren mumbled, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor. “I don’t.”
How had he ever thought he could do this?
Paragon, the greatest hero in the world. Artisan, a world-class genius who always had a solution, Seeker who’d survived the destruction of Ragdim City as a child. Empress, Alleviate, and all of the others that had put their minds to this task.
All of them had been unable to deal with this; all the while, Loren had somehow thought that he would be the one to solve it all—had he always been this arrogant?
“Loren,” Alicia said, swallowing. “What are we supposed to do now?”
Loren opened his eyes slowly, staring at the floor between her legs rather than meet her eyes. Alicia was suffering too, probably worse than he was—yet all he could think about was himself and his failures.
“Can you look up when Untold joined the Peacekeepers?” Loren said quietly.
It had no bearing on their current situation, and he doubted the bodysnatcher cared much if he knew, but having a task to accomplish might soothe her. Alicia glanced over at the laptop but barely made it a step in that direction before Cube spoke up.
“Untold joined the Peacekeepers on September 1st, 2016,” Cube said.
Loren sighed as the Cube robbed her of temporary purpose.
“How do you even know that, Cube?” Loren mumbled.
“I am currently connected to the network of computing devices that spans most of your planet,” Cube said in answer, “This information is available in many formats and is simple to corroborate.”
Network of computing devices sounded a lot more impressive than ‘the internet,’ but Loren still found it pulling him slightly out of his mental fog.
“Formats?” Alicia asked quietly.
“Video footage, pictures, articles, voice recordings,” Cube said, “All of these are formats that exist within the network, in regards to ‘Untold,’ there is video footage of her meeting with the Peacekeepers, there are pictures of the event where she publically accepted a place within the team, there are—”
“We get it, Cube.” Loren sighed. “Was that the same year the Peacekeepers were formed?”
“Technically, the Peacekeepers were officially founded on January 1st, 2016, but I believe that the founding members were working together before that.” Cube said, “Paragon, Artisan, Empress, and Seeker were the only members present at that time.”
“Did Untold show up before then?” Alicia asked quietly.
“Untold’s first recorded appearance was in Setalite City West, on December 12th, 2015.” Cube said immediately, “Two armed men were fleeing a hospital while accompanying a known gang member who had been captured earlier that day and was receiving treatment for his wounds. Untold stopped the vehicle they were in, further injuring the fugitive and incapacitating the other two men in the process.”
“Nothing before then?” Loren wondered.
“There are no earlier sightings of her costumed identity.” Cube said.
Loren frowned at the wording.
“What about as Alice?” Alicia spoke up, identifying the same problem.
He was reminded once more how sharp Alicia seemed to be when she wasn’t wracked with fear.
“There are sixty-four date-stamped and unviewed security camera footage archives that indicate a link between civilian Alice Wroth and ‘Untold.’” Cube said, “There are seven that indicate a possible, but far less likely link between civilian ‘Alice Marie’ and ‘Untold.’ There are two that indicate an unlikely link between civilian ‘Alice Wilder.’ There is—”
“Stop,” Loren said, “You’re saying that Alice Wroth is the civilian identity of Untold?”
He didn’t have the time to listen to every single indication of someone named Alice being nearby Untold during one of her sightings—the fact that Cube could actually find this kind of Information so quickly was disturbing.
“It is almost certain that this is the case,” Cube said. “In each of those sixty-four instances, Alice Wroth was within fifty meters of a crime, before she vanished, most often a handful of seconds before Untold appeared.”
The fact that this footage was lying around and nobody had even seen it—how many other heroes had done something similar thinking they were slick?
“Um—when did Alice Wroth gain her powers?” Alicia said, continuing the line of question.
Loren was content to listen and let her chase down his answers.
“Alice Wroth most likely gained her powers on October 2nd, 2015, when the music shop she was inside collapsed on top of her.” Cube said. “Archive footage shows no earlier incidents indicating enhanced abilities before that date while Datasets indicate a large spike of Expressions appearing in Setalite City on this date, and in the immediate aftermath.”
“Expressions are powers?” Alicia asked for clarification, “What happened on October 2nd to cause that?”
“Starsealer attacked Setalite city,” Loren said as everything fell into place.
“Correct,” Cube said, “The cosmic entity that was eventually designated as ‘Starsealer,’ attacked without warning. It made it most of the way into the city proper before Paragon temporarily repelled it.”
Loren just listened; he’d been on the east side of the city, still in the mental health facility at the time. Even being so far away, he’d periodically felt the building shaking, and eventually, the power had cut out.
“Starsealer showcased a vast array of expressions during the battle; upwards of three hundred were identifiable on sight, but as expressions are often complex or have effects that are not immediately visible by sight alone, it is likely the entity possessed far more.”
Alicia looked stunned by what she was hearing, having been inside the tank for long enough that she’d most likely never heard of anything coming to attack them from off-world.
“Eventually, a force comprised of approximately 273 heroes and villains defeated Starsealer,” Cube said, “Footage indicated that Starsealer did not try to avoid Paragon’s final attack, seemingly resigned to its fate, and its body destroyed several city blocks before being disintegrated from the force.”
Loren had seen the footage of Starsealer’s death, as it had been played every year on October 2nd at the memorial of everyone who had died during the attack.
“Because of the pervasive damage to the structures within Setalite City, and the life-threatening situations that civilians found themselves in, many ‘Awakened’ discovered their Expressions.” Cube continued, answering the initial question Alicia had posed. “Excessive levels of trauma, adrenaline, shock or pain are often catalysts to the subject, which will rapidly develop their Expression in response.”
They fell silent, and Loren’s mind was attacking the puzzle furiously.
Alice Wroth had gained her powers on the same day that Starsealer died, much like many others.
However, unlike those others, she had gone on to become a hero before eventually joining the Peacekeepers—a team comprised of the very people who had worked together to kill Starsealer in the first place. She had worked alongside those same people for years, at some point falling in with Tiamat, and they had found an opportunity to abduct, clone, and presumably murder Paragon—because she’d already failed to kill him in an upfront battle.
Alice had pretended to have a very simple but strong power, but once the charade was no longer necessary, she had revealed numerous others—the ability to fly, as well as the power to manipulate and harden water, both abilities that she had never shown before. Then the thing that was wearing her body like a suit had told Loren, to his face, that Alice had been gone for a very long time.
I found her the day she unlocked her powers—I was a bit desperate at the time—but then again, so was she.
“Starsealer is the one inside Alice Wroth’s body,” Loren said quietly.
He felt like a fool.
Loren had laid down on the rooftop of the Hero HQ with her, barely a meter away, staring at the stars. They’d talked about Paragon, about the loop; she had even given him a code to use in case he needed to convince her to help him in other loops.
He had even brought her in as a backup in case the Mara situation went badly—she’d fought Reset for him, knowing full well what the man’s power was, that he would just walk it all off, and her place would be further solidified as one of his allies.
“Given the sheer variety of Expressions that Starsealer possessed, it is highly likely that the entity possessed some method of acquiring or replicating powers,” Cube said, “It is also possible that it possessed at least one power that would allow it to take over a victims body.”
Loren stared at his hands, red now with dried blood from the window.
When they had prepared the ambush against Deceitful and Taker, Alice had been the one going after the bigger threat. But she had been taken out of the fight right at the start when Taker managed to bite her, leaving her paralyzed in the sewers.
Taker had just left her there unharmed, without any further attempt to hurt her despite doing her best to kill Artisan barely a minute later—It wasn’t Taker being merciful; it was Alice attempting to ruin the loop without being discovered.
Every time Loren came back with new Information and came up with a new plan, Alice was sitting there at the table with the other heroes, finding out about his power alongside everyone else, and during that final loop where he’d sat with Mara in the coffee shop, Alice had decided that she couldn’t let him go back again.
Because if Loren knew about Mathew Kline, he would find out about Morgan, and then once they’d found her… Starsealer would be dragged back into the light.
When you look at me like that, it makes it so very hard to wait.
“Starsealer plans on taking my body,” Loren said, watching Alicia. “That’s why they didn’t cut out my brain and put it in a jar next to your tank.”
“Your brain would not survive in a jar,” Cube said, “Without access to blood, nutrients, or—”
“How about a jar filled with Alicia’s blood?” Loren said, annoyed at the interruption. “It kept twelve hands preserved for twenty-five years.”
Alicia flinched at the reminder, and Loren felt a flash of guilt.
“Inconclusive,” Cube hedged.
I don’t think you’re quite ready yet; you are still far too lively.
“She told me I wasn’t ready yet,” Loren said quietly. “Why didn’t she just take my body before?”
“Expressions commonly have both complex and simple requirements to use,” Cube said, “For example; It is possible that the Expression the entity is using to usurp a body requires a certain level of power. Alternatively, it might require a specific mental state in the victim. It may only succeed between certain timeframes or while in certain temperatures. It could derive its success by the position of nearby celestial bodies, the difference in mass between the host and the possessor—”
“Stop,” Loren sighed. “I get it—Expressions are complicated.”
“Correct,” Cube said.
“I need to stay away from her then,” Loren frowned, “Because whatever the condition is, if I’m near her when it happens, she could jack my body.”
“The entity likely has access to an Expression that would allow her to discover your location regardless.” Cube said. “Attempting to hide from a being with such a potentially vast skillset would most likely fail—”
“So I can’t hide from her, and eventually she’s going to take my body,” Loren snapped, “What the fuck am I supposed to do?”
The Cube paused for a moment, seemingly using its vast array of resources to discover the solution.
“May I suggest killing the entity?” Cube said.
Loren wondered if he could get his foot high enough to kick the fucking Cube out of the air—he’d probably have to jump.
“You’re a genius, Cube.” Loren sighed. “Truly.”
“Thank you, Loren.” Cube said. “I appreciate the compliment.”
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 – Season 3, Chapter 78 – Live.
Ameliorate(NSFW) – Chapter 10