Chapter 25

Forestry, Outside Setalite City, 4:07 PM.
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022.

Arret hadn’t stopped crying, not even after they’d moved away from the body and further into the forest—Not that he expected her too. Loren tried to ignore the villain, but it was starting to get to him.

He’d never been good around crying people, and he wasn’t exactly on top of his game right now either—which just compounded the issue. Loren swallowed the sick feeling that was rising up his throat—he shouldn’t have done what he had, not out of anger.

Heroes sometimes went lethal, Loren was well aware of that, but he hadn’t killed the man to save anyone. He hadn’t killed him to protect Outplayed or in self-defense—he’d already beaten him and had him at his mercy. It wasn’t a hero vanquishing a villain in a life or death struggle—he’d gotten angry and killed a man out of sheer frustration, stress, and hurt.

He didn’t want to kill anyone—but how was he supposed to solve any of this if he was shackled from using lethal force—especially against these types of villains who were fine with killing as long as it got them what they wanted?

A week ago, he wouldn’t have ever considered killing a person, but now, here he was in the aftermath of just that. He’d wondered, back on the rooftop of his apartment, if after a thousand resets he’d find himself a hollow shell, and if each death would take a piece of him away, grind him down.

It hadn’t taken anywhere near as long as he hoped to start grinding his moral compass away.

It was worse than he could easily see the justification for it now as well—if he’d killed Beat in that first fight, Wraith would have lived, and the plan would have survived contact with their enemies.

Instead, he’d stuck to his ideals and gotten everyone killed again. They hadn’t died yet, sure, but it was less than twenty-four hours before it happened, and he once again had no way to stop it.

“So, who exactly are you?” Outplayed spoke up, “Don’t get me wrong, I was a goner before you showed it, but I’d thought I would have heard of someone like you before.”

“You seem far too at ease sitting next to a murderer,” Loren said sullenly, watching the surviving woman sobbing on the grass. “Bea—He called me Wildcard, that’s good enough for now. I’ve only had my powers for a couple of days.”

Outplayed pulled some grass out of the ground and tossed it into the air, watching it scatter.

“You said they killed your friends,” Outplayed said curiously, “So this was revenge? I can understand that you know, they were trying pretty hard to kill me, so I’m not feeling very sympathetic to Cinematic right now—what are you going to do with the other one?”

“I don’t know.” Loren admitted, “She can’t go back to her base because Vapid will track her there, and she doesn’t have a transmitter anymore, so they can’t even find her.”

“Fuck you,” Arret sniffled. “You didn’t have to kill him…”

Loren turned away from her, unable to ignore the pang in his chest—he had a weakness for crying girls, and he was more than aware of it. He had a hundred arguments lined up to tear her apart, but he couldn’t bring himself to use any of them.

Outplayed apparently didn’t have the same problem.

“You guys killed his friends first. You didn’t have to kill them,” Outplayed said simply, “What do you expect was going to happen?”

“I don’t even know who they were!” Arret snapped.

Loren just shook his head at the lack of self-awareness.

“That doesn’t bring them back to life,” Outplayed said easily, “Your entire group kills people all the time. At this point, you should have expectations that people will be coming at you with the same level of force you use.”

“Fuck off,” Arret sobbed, “Beat wasn’t even fighting back. You killed him in cold blood—”

Loren found the ability to speak up.

“Your two teammates killed two of my friends without warning while they weren’t fighting back.” Loren said pointedly, “You tried to assassinate Gradient while he wasn’t fighting back. How many others has your group done that to? You’re not some special case that’s above the law, you fucking hypocrite.”

Arret ripped her cape off her head, and her eyes glowed. She caught them both as they suddenly froze, unable to breathe. It didn’t even take a second for him to stretch out one of the numerous limbs and tie the cape back around her face.

“Fuck.” Outplayed gasped in a breath.

“I hate you…” Arret sobbed brokenly.

Loren sighed and pressed his face into his hands.

“I’m glad I got the drop on her before she did that earlier,” Outplayed said worriedly, holding her throat. “I’d have been screwed.”

“Arret,” Loren said clearly, “I need information on Cinematic.”

“As if I’m going to tell you anything,” Arret said, sniffling. “You going to kill me next? Torture me?”

Loren flinched and shook his head, glad that she still couldn’t see. Outplayed glanced his way for a moment, somewhat uncomfortable at the accusation.

“This one didn’t have anything to do with your friend’s death?” Outplayed asked pointedly, more of a reminder than anything.

“No,” Loren admitted.

That wasn’t why he had killed Beat anyway; he hadn’t done it for revenge—he’d done it on a whim because he was angry. He wanted to save everyone, dammit—why did everything have to keep going wrong!?

“Fuck!” Loren snarled, and Arret flinched away from him. “Arret, get out of here, I won’t stop you—GO!”

Arret scrambled to her feet and tore the cape off her face again before taking off into the trees away from them. Outplayed nodded at the decision, but he just looked away from her.

“Well, now what?” Outplayed said easily, “Archetype is still looking for me. You going to leave me to my fate?”

She’d said it teasingly, but he could tell there was an undercurrent of fear there, and he couldn’t exactly blame her.

“If he gets in contact with the other members on his team,” Loren said quietly, “You’re going to have more after you.”

“So you’re saying I’m screwed?” Outplayed laughed nervously, rubbing her neck. “I suppose I could turn myself into the heroes that might keep me out of their eye for a while—they might even lose interest—It will be like a vacation!”

“That’s a bad idea,” Loren sighed, “There are bombs in the city—like what happened to Arrot City the other day—if you get taken into the HQ, you’re going to die.”

“Damn, that’s messed up,” Outplayed said, shocked, before shaking her head. “I’d survive it, either way, as long I didn’t catch fire.”

Loren just shook his head again.

“You’re invincible to physical damage, but you still need to breathe,” Loren muttered, “You’d be buried under a couple tonnes of debris.”

“No air, huh?” Outplayed said frowning. “Who set the bombs?”

“No idea, I was trying to find that out—Wraith was helping.” Loren sighed again, “Goddammit.”

“You did say that earlier—Hey Wildcard, what did you mean when you said,” Outplayed said slowly, “This was going to be the run?”

He had said that earlier, hadn’t he?

“Don’t know if you’ll believe me, but I’m stuck in a time loop.” Loren admitted quietly, “Every time I die, I wake up on Tuesday, 22nd.”

There was no point in keeping it a secret here.

“Huh,” Outplayed said strangely before smirking. “That would be enough to send anyone loopy—”

“Stop,” Loren groaned miserably, “Is your superpower bad jokes?”

“Sure is,” Outplayed said easily before sighing. “Can’t hide in the city, no protection from the heroes because I’ll get exploded or one of them will take the chance to earn a quick 10 million—I’m starting to feel a little stuck.”

Loren knew the feeling well.

“You said you were in a loop,” Outplayed said, staring up at the trees. “Have we met before? Is that how you knew where I was?”

“I didn’t know,” Loren said simply, “I was following Arret and Beat. I didn’t even know you’d gotten attacked. It hadn’t made the news in any of the other runs.”

Outplayed tilted her head at that.

“Well, there was a lot happening today with the breakout.” Outplayed, said idly. “I guess I kind of got lost in the mess, huh?”

Loren shook his head.

“This is the first time that break out occurred. Crescent doesn’t usually attack,” Loren explained, “It might have been the news about Dovetail killing villains that encouraged her act early or something—I don’t know, there are so many changes from the littlest differences that it’s hard to keep track.”

“This is kind of awesome.” Outplayed said interested, “What else changed this time?”

Kind of awesome? Maybe from an outside perspective.

“It’s all fun and games until you get killed a dozen times,” Loren muttered, “I managed to stop Gradient from being killed by Cinematic this morning, I made friends with Wraith, they canceled the Evergold Crescendo tournament—”

That was you!” Outplayed said indignantly, holding her hand out in accusation. “You dickhead, I was going to win that!”

Loren scrunched his eyebrows up at the comment.

“You were in the tournament?” Loren said suspiciously, “Which team?”

Her voice was different, but he was starting to have a very good idea of just who she was. Outplayed shuffled a bit, realizing she’d just given away a hint to her identity.

“Think I’m just going to reveal myself to any guy that comes crawling by?” Outplayed huffed, “I don’t think so, buddy.”

Yeah, he knew exactly who this was.

“Chloe Walker,” Loren said firmly, “I should have figured that out—your voice is different, a voice changer, huh?”

Outplayed looked genuinely shocked and was completely lost for words for several seconds.

“I’ve never told anyone my identity,” Chloe said seriously, “How the hell did you figure that out? Did I tell in one of these loops?”

“You didn’t. It was just a guess.” Loren admitted quietly, “I met you before the tournament, and we hung out a few times, usually, we get coffee at the start of the loops.”

Chloe winced as she realized she’d confirmed his guess, and she messed with her costume’s collar for a moment before speaking, her voice back to how she usually sounded.

“Dammit, okay, you got me,” Chloe sighed before frowning. “What’s your name?”

“Loren Parker,” Loren said simply, “You know I’ve been watching you for like over a year now? It’s hard to connect Chloe, the nerd, to Outplayed the villain who kidnapped the Mayor, dressed him up like a stripper, and then covered him with honey and feathers.”

“Some of my best work,” Chloe preened, “What was your favorite one?”

Loren met her gaze for a moment.

“I liked the stream where you gushed for twenty minutes about how hot Trendsetter was,” Loren said pointedly, “Mm! I’d take him for a ride—”

Chloe choked for a moment, waving her hand furiously.

“Oh god, stop, that’s embarrassing,” Chloe said, cringing, “I didn’t think anyone would ever connect me with the mask, this is awful. I regret everything—I’ve changed my mind. I think I’d rather explode than deal with the embarrassment.”

Loren snorted, but even the levity wasn’t doing anything to wipe the horrible feeling that was lingering at the back of his mind—he slumped back against the tree with a sigh.

“Hey,” Outplayed said quietly, “He was a bad guy, and he killed someone today, remember? At least he won’t be able to go on and kill more—don’t get so hung up over it.”

Loren just shook his head.

“I know that,” Loren replied as levelly as he could, “It’s not that I’m upset about him… That’s not the problem—I just… I can’t even trust myself to keep it together—Just because I was angry? He was a target I could take it out on, and I shouldn’t have done it like that.”

Outplayed stayed quiet, content to let him air his thoughts.

“I always make my decisions based on what I think is the best answer to the situation at hand,” Loren said quietly, feeling his eyes sting. “But this time, I got angry, and I make a snap decision that had no upside. He was the talkative one. He was the one willing to make deals, I shouldn’t have killed him—I—fuck!”

Loren rubbed at his eyes furiously, he was such a liar.

No matter how much he tried to pretend that he didn’t care that he’d killed the man, he did. He knew this was just the start too, there would be a moment in the future where he had to kill again, he’d find a way to justify it then too, and he knew it would be that tiny little bit easier the next time.

And then it would happen again, and again, and again.

“What do we do about Archetype?” Chloe said quietly, finally breaking the silence.

Loren had been thinking about that exact problem, only it wasn’t just Archetype they had to worry about now. He’d killed Beat and let Arret go—if she’d gotten into contact with them, which was very likely, they would know what he’d done.

“It will probably be worse than that now,” Loren said, thinking out loud, “They’ll come in full force as soon as Arret gets the message to them, and Archetype has had enough time to get in contact with them as well.”

“He didn’t seem too interested in co-operating with his teammates,” Outplayed reminded, “He might just try and find us himself.”

“It’s better to plan as if he will be here,” Loren said critically, “At least we will have a plan if he shows up then.”

“True,” Chloe said easily. “Hm. I can’t remember all of the members of Cinematic, Cutaway was the only one I could name off the top of my head.”

“Animate, Aperture, Archetype, Arret, Beat…,” Loren paused for a moment before continuing. “Cutaway, Orient, Screener, and Storyboard. Those are all the names I’ve heard.”

“Good memory,” Chloe said, impressed, “The names are pretty telling, well most of them anyway.”

“We can’t beat that many,” Loren offered quietly, “Screener and I counter each other abilities, he can sense what I’m doing, and I can mostly do the same. We managed to win this morning because there were so many others in the fight as well, Wraith, Mongoose, Gradient, Vapid—were going to get overwhelmed if it just us.”

“So we’re doomed?” Outplayed bit her lip, Loren just nodded.“Well, shit—I wish you’d thought of this before you let Arret go.”

Like she hadn’t been happy to let the woman go, she’d clearly wanted no part in another death.

“I wasn’t exactly thinking of the consequences at the time,” Loren said sullenly. “My mind is a bit out of whack at the moment—This reset is probably a lost cause, but I still—”

“What happens to me after you reset?” Chloe asked suddenly.

Loren opened his mouth to reply before pausing.

“I don’t actually know,” Loren said slowly, “I just wake up in my bed, and everything is back to the way it was. I guess you just appear wherever you were at the time.”

Chloe was frowning.

“How do you know it’s a time loop?” Chloe pressed, “What if you’re just going back, but everything else keeps going?”

Loren frowned in concentration. There was no actual way to figure that out, was there? What if the world did just keep on keeping on—just without him in it? What if his power wasn’t time travel at all, and he possessed a body from an alternate reality. What if he was sending a copy of his mind back, but the current him would keep on going?

What if he wasn’t actually the original Loren at all?

“I don’t know,” Loren said, swallowing. “There’s no possible way for me to know that.”

Chloe pulled her knees up to her chest, resting her chin on them.

“Well, enjoy that existential dread,” Chole said wryly. “I’d appreciate it if you don’t reset—I really don’t really want to be left here to fight off the entirety of Cinematic on my own.”

Loren just nodded.

“I still want to stay anyway.” Loren sighed, “There’s a chance to see what happens after the explosion tomorrow.”

“Ugh.” Chloe groaned, “I thought it would be like in a week or a month or something—I didn’t realize you meant it was literally tomorrow.”

“Right in the middle of Paragon’s Evergold speech.” Loren muttered, “In case you felt like attending.”

“I was planning on attending,” Chloe said slowly. “Damn, I would have been right in the middle of it—How come Paragon doesn’t notice something’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. He explodes like five seconds before the bombs go off,” Loren explained, “I have no idea how they managed it, but that’s what I saw.”

“Was it Beat?” Chloe asked gently, “He’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head that could do something like that—Paragon should have heard him coming, though.”

Loren shook his head.

“It wasn’t. There was no white trail,” Loren said sullenly. “No fire or anything outside his body either, one second he’s just standing there, and the next he’s paste all over the crowd.”

“Yikes,” Chloe said uncomfortably. “If even Paragon can’t survive this shit, how are the rest of us supposed to?”

“I’ll find a way to stop it eventually,” Loren said quietly, staring into the slowly darkening forest.

“I wonder if I’ll be there to see it,” Chloe muttered, “Or if the world ends with you.”