Chapter 34

Unknown location, 12:03 PM.
Thursday, February 24th, 2022.

Loren stared at the screen that had shown Deceitful, but she never returned to the frame, nor to any of the others nearby. The city was ruined now, and he couldn’t see how it could possibly recover from something like this.

This was now the furthest he had ever managed to get, and he’d learned several crucial pieces of information. Artisan hadn’t been the one responsible for Paragon’s death, but he was the only surviving suspect they had for the city-wide bombing.

Vapid and Artisan had made sure to be next to each other, and they had even started arguing right before the explosion—He wished he could have heard what they had been talking about. Tag and Secluded had survived the attack, and from what he could see, they were already attempting to set up a temporary encampment in the middle of the city—

The wall screen blacked out for a moment before a large rectangle with a white line appeared in the center, bouncing up as Wraith’s voice cut through the silence.

“Loren,” Wraith said quietly, “I’m scrubbing through the footage now that I have a moment—”

Loren lashed out at the screen furiously, it landed with a bang, but his fist glanced painfully off to the side, leaving a line of blood on the protective layer covering it. He gritted his teeth and held his hand in his fist, mentally activating the Condition orb, the gash on his knuckles sealed up under the white energy and the pain left.

“You… how could you just do this?” Loren said, anguished, striking the screen again, much softer this time. “What gives you the right to just… it was my choice to make.”

There was the sound of quiet breathing over the line for a while before she spoke.

“You are correct that I do not have the authority to make your choices for you,” Wraith said gently, “Loren… you’re not going to last if this keeps going on, you aren’t coping with any of this…”

I know that better than anyone!” Loren screamed in a fury. “That doesn’t give you any—

Something lanced painfully through his mind, in a place he didn’t even know existed—Loren cut himself off and pressed his palms into his eyes in a futile hope that the pressure would help him keep it together.

“Loren, you cannot save everyone…. you are going to fail, again and again, and again.” Wraith said quietly, speaking slowly. “Everyone around you is going to die, right in front of your eyes, and it’s going to take a piece of you every single time—this is the reality of your situation.”

Loren threaded his hands into his hair and lay his forehead against the desk, desperately trying to hold it together. He knew all of this already, he’d been living it since that first loop—the small spark of pain had developed into a crack before something tangible shattered in his mind—a picture of a car and a familiar blonde boy looking up at him with dead eyes.

He gasped and pushed the image away—Why was she telling him this!?

“For the sake of your sanity, for the sake of avenging every single person that has died in your past, and all those who are yet to die,” Wraith said gently, “You need to start making the type of choices that you are not comfortable with, take the actions you cannot stand—because if you don’t… there is nothing waiting for you except pain, forever stretched out in front of you, and then one day you’ll find that you are no longer able to feel even that.”

He lost the fight against himself, and he let it out in a scream built from anger, guilt, and pain. The small black-haired boy in his mind screamed with him, horrified by what he had caused.

“It was Deceitful,” Loren muttered tiredly, lifting his head enough to view the screen. “She was the one who killed Paragon.”

The screen that had remained silent since his breakdown flickered back to life.

“Then this loop is forfeit,” Wraith said quietly, “The second target is Empress, followed by Artisan according to the order of the bodies we found—they won’t be able to stop her now.”

Artisan, the man who, with the help of Vapid, had escaped the attack completely unharmed.

“Artisan and Vapid fled just as the bombs went off. Tag and Secluded survived, and Fracture was caught in the explosion, there was nothing left of him that I could see from the feed,” Loren said quietly, “What happened to Complexity?”

“He showed no sign that he knew the explosion was approaching, neither did any of the captured members of Ascent,” Wraith reported evenly, “They died when the bomb detonated beneath the HQ.”

Loren felt that awful feeling he always did at the thought of leaving someone to die when it was preventable, but he didn’t speak on it this time. He remembered Chloe’s burning body—how he could have saved her if only he had his phone.

The phone that Alana had taken from him.

“Did Raindancer attempt to break them out?” Loren pressed.

“Yes, and I stopped her from doing so,” Wraith admitted, “I assigned her and Mongoose to a task on the outskirts of the city, both are currently en route to meet up with the other surviving heroes.”

That was all of the heroes that he knew of personally that worked at the HQ accounted for. He couldn’t help but wonder where Gradient and Dovetail would have been if they had survived to this point—he shook his head he needed to keep up the momentum because if he stopped to think…

“Were they pulled off the Isometric-Reporter investigation before they found something?” Loren managed, trying not to focus on the present.

“Two bodies were located at a residence in central, they were both killed by blunt force trauma,” Wraith said quietly, and a map showed up on the screen with two locations marked with names. “Identification was found on both bodies. Leona Kindly, the secret identity of Isometric, and Elis Frisk, a reporter.”

Loren studied the map, taking note of where both of the victim’s apartments were located, he needed to find out who exactly was responsible for that—it was most likely a member of Cinematic, but the question was who.

He hesitated for a moment before bringing up his suspicions.

“Artisan is the only suspect to survive the explosion,” Loren mumbled, “Is this confirmation that he was responsible?”

There was a beat before she replied, sounding thoughtful.

“That he managed to escape while at ground zero with no advance knowledge of the situation is extremely suspicious and easily bumps him up to the most likely suspect, but it’s not outright confirmation that he is the one responsible.” Wraith said slowly, “I have already been in contact with Artisan, he is currently in central leading the rescue efforts.”

All that, and they still didn’t know who was responsible—they’d learned so much about the situation, he knew, but it still hurt to think about.

“Where are you?” Loren said quietly.

“I am currently investigating the location where Deceitful revealed herself,” Wraith said evenly, pausing for a moment. “The feed showed her moving west, and her tracks lead in the direction of Hope’s Bridge.”

Hopes bridge, a massive mile-long feat of engineering that crossed the length of Setalite cities natural harbor, connecting both the east and west side of the city. The camera feeds had been almost entirely on the east side of the harbor, and the one-loop he’d been alive after the bombs he hadn’t exactly been in a position to see if anything had happened on the west side.

He managed to figure out how to minimize the enlarged comms prompt and return to the camera feed. Loren found the camera that showed the harbor and the ones that showed a good view of Hopes Bridge. The west side of the city looked untouched from the camera’s perspective, but it wasn’t the best angle to really see.

The smoke and dust still lingering on the east side weren’t making it any easier to see either.

The further away from central, the better the condition of the buildings, and the bridge was mostly untouched except for some cosmetic damage. It was completely packed with cars, with several overturned vehicles blocking the way and stemming the flow of traffic.

Survivors of the attack were instead fleeing across the raised footpaths that ran above the cars on both sides of the bridge. His eyes were drawn to a very familiar spot before he found himself on his feet and staring down at the camera feeds in front of him.

“Wraith,” Loren said quietly, unable to bring himself to say her name. “There are civilians all over the bridge, and the traffic has stopped completely if Deceitful is still moving towards the bridge—”

If he went to the bridge, he might be able to do something—that image of Isaac came back stronger than before, only this time it was Loren, staring up at him from the ground as his friend cried, and the driver stumbled out of the car in horror.

He shook his head to clear the image. It hadn’t happened like that—just one of his many childhood nightmares.

“I’ll handle it, Loren,” Alana said gently. “Don’t think about the bridge. Just stay inside. There’s nothing you can do now.”

Don’t think about the bridge—he’d spent most of the last decade doing exactly that. That damn bridge was the reason he’d spent so much time away from his family in the first place—the reason he wasn’t there when his mother died. The reason he’d failed to connect with his dad after everything that had happened, and the reason he’d spent years in a fuzzy haze—the trade-off to avoid the reoccurring… nightmares and self-recriminations.

Movement on one of the feeds caught his attention, a single person walking towards the bridge, hands held out to the side as if to encircle the crowd in a loving embrace. The survivors closest noticed the man and moved towards him in relief.

Loren could almost imagine the red eyes set in the middle of Paragon’s smiling face.

A gap formed right through the middle of the crowd, and suddenly cars were tossed upwards across the entire length of the bridge—and then the world seemed to catch up. A line of carnage that practically erased thousands of people from existence at the speed of his flight and the unyielding nature of his skin, even those further away were left crushed and broken in the aftermath.

The bridge roiled for a moment, and cables began to snap along the left side, the source completely invisible to the naked eye—Paragon far too fast for anyone but the superhuman to witness his passing.

The entire structure twisted violently as the rest of its supports vanished in an instant, and then it fell into the harbor below—those enduring few who had survived the vicious attack on the city despaired as they were crushed beneath the weight of a bridge called Hope.

Loren felt numb as he watched the bridge disappear beneath the water.

Deceitful had always been considered dangerous, but never in the way that she was right now, she just hadn’t been in the same league as the other threats. Her infamy had come from the brutality of her murders.

The first one they could attribute to her was Tim Carrow from Saltwall City—who went by the hero name Windbreaker. Carrow’s wife reported his death to the police when she found his costume laid out neatly on their shared bed, the man’s head propped up against some pillows, his hands and feet tucked into the costume, but his torso completely missing.

Deceitful had later taken credit for that murder along with seventeen others, all civilians—less than a year later, she was found in the ranks of Epilogue.

Her power was obvious when in use, she copied and stored the bodies and powers of those she killed and could switch between the bodies at will—strangely enough, she didn’t take every power that she could have, and the reason was publicly debated to this day, the general consensus being that there was a limited amount of ‘slots’ she could fill and didn’t want to waste them on useless powers.

Now she had access to Paragon’s might—Wraith was right, the loop was done, the thought of someone like Deceitful with that level of force at her disposal…

“In the wall directly above your bed is a false panel. It contains a single pill. It will be entirely painless—” Wraith began, speaking quickly.

“Alana,” Loren snapped as he saw her appear at the end of the destroyed bridge. “You know you can’t beat her—”

“I’m sorry I forced this on you,” Alana said urgently, “If you’re still mad the next time we meet—”

Loren listened to the string of nonsense words, not unlike the coded phrase—but this time, it was a much shorter message.

The connection to her cut out, leaving just the camera feed of the destroyed bridge. Wraith stared straight at the camera for a long moment before she vanished, and the street exploded violently.

Loren was out of his seat and into the next room—the timer at the top was all zero’s, but the door was still locked and without a handle. He activated the attack orb, and the door disintegrated, followed by the wall around it as the wave of force washed outwards with a deep reverberation.

He climbed up the remains of the destroyed staircase, knocked down the weakened door with his shoulder, and stumbled into what looked like a living room. He looked out of the shattered window—he was still in Setalite City, but far from the center and much closer to the waterfront.

Loren made it outside, clearing the steps with a single jump and vaulting the fence. Glass was everywhere along the streets, from the windows of cars, houses, and the light posts above. There were people everywhere, panicking and pointing towards the city proper.

Smoke, fire, and dust-covered the skyline, the city was a hellscape—and at the edge of it, close to the water, a towering building tilted before smashing into the harbor. Loren started running, following the esplanade towards the fighting, wishing his power had some kind of mobility component.

There was a twisted frame of a motorbike lying next to a power post, and he angled towards it. He activated the condition orb, and the white light flashed over it, dragging it back into perfect condition—the keys still resting in the ignition.

Navigating the city on a motorbike wasn’t easy, and the fact that he had never used one before made it a frustrating experience. Loren squinted into the wind and swallowed as another building fell ahead of him, taking down another with its descent.

There were people everywhere, most like the remains of the bridge survivors, who had fled towards the water, passing him by, and he struggled to weave through them, his pace slowing further—something dark crashed through the building to his right before continuing out the other side.

Loren tried to brake, and the bike fought him, sliding to one side. He used the protection orb on reflex before he hit the tarmac and twisted to his feet unharmed and covered in white light. A thin black spear pierced the ground beside him and erupted into a cage of black bars—as something smashed into it.

The world vanished beneath the force of the hit, and dust erupted into the air, and he could feel himself spinning before he smashed into something hard and then started to fall again—the dust cleared from a sudden furious wind, and he was astonished that his shield had held.

As Loren fell, he could see Wraith with her hands splayed in front of her as what looked like a million black spears tore out of the ground in a wave—Deceitful crashed through them, slowing down enough that he could see the movement as a blur.

Loren thrust his hand towards the ground below and activated the attack orb, and the reverberation rippled in the air before it struck the entire area around the red-eyed villain. The broken ground shattered further, and she was forced down onto her hands and knees for a moment, muscles bulging. A thin black spear shattered against Paragon’s unbreakable skin before five more landed around her, blooming into another cage of dark metal.

Loren had no control over his descent as he fell towards the cage—he put his faith in the protection orb that covered him in white once more. He glanced off one of the taller spears before landing amongst the mess, tangled up three feet away from a pair of red eyes that stared out at him from the shadows of the cage.

He felt all of his adrenaline and anger flow out of him as he stared at the woman who had caused so much death feeling strangely calm. Loren dropped the shield and placed his hand against the bars facing her.

“Another one, hmm? How lovely, I do wonder, however—” Paragon’s voice said with a sick laugh. “Who might you be—”

The cage shattered beneath the force of the attack orb, and Deceitful was sent out over the harbor, vanishing beneath the waves with a massive splash.

The spears around Loren cut into his flesh before he managed to pull the shield back up. Wraith stumbled over to the mess and placed her hands against the metal before it started to disintegrate around him.

“Loren, I told you, to leave.” Alana managed, panting between words. “We can’t risk—”

Loren got his first good look at her—half of the helmet was missing, and her jawbone was exposed, leaking blood down her neck. Her armor was barely holding together, and sparks of white and blue were dripping out of the gaps. The way she spoke—something wrong with her breathing as well.

He was already reaching for the condition orb connection when a sudden wind flipped his hair upwards, and he braced himself against the sudden force, the protection orb holding against the furious gale.

It passed a moment later, and he was left to realize that Alana was no longer in front of him.

Loren spun around and found her, with Decietful’s hand buried in her stomach, as she held her off the ground. Alana glanced over at him before she erupted into a forest of thin black spears, the material rapidly growing outwards, tearing out of the ground and swallowing the street.

As it reached his position, Loren let go of the protection orb.