Chapter 40

Rooftops, Lorens Apartment, 11:17 PM.
Wednesday, February 22nd​, 2022.

“How do we even go about finding her if she can look like anyone?” Loren said quietly.

“Everybody she switches to takes on the distinctive red iris.” Alana said simply, “That is the only indication of her identity that we have available at present.”

“What’s stopping her from changing the color of her eyes while using Sarah Heart’s body,” Loren said, frowning.

“Nothing,” Alana said simply, “Likewise, there is nothing preventing her from using colored contacts in other forms, albeit a person recorded as deceased roaming around is very likely to trigger suspicion regardless.”

How were they supposed to hunt down someone like that?

“Can we lure her out somehow before the speech?” Loren said, frowning.

“While I have doubts that we could discover much that Naomi would consider more valuable than Paragon’s body,” Alana said gently. “There may be something, albeit the prize would have to be quite potent.”

Perhaps a prize wasn’t the right way to go about luring her out—someone with so much power available to her would only move in a direction that was sub-optimal when they were forced to. When there was something more valuable than they could gain from the endeavor, or when they felt strongly enough about something to risk whatever the consequences to their activities were.

He wasn’t exactly an expert on Naomi Low, but if there was one thing an outside observer might decide was important to her, it would have been her brother—long since deceased or not. Naomi had once gone to extreme lengths to kill, vanish or torture every person who had been involved in her brother’s death, in some cases even years later, long after most had thought she had moved on.

The idea of using something so personal to draw her out of hiding sickened him. Unfortunately, the idea of her killing everyone in the city after she had murdered Paragon was worse. Likewise, he knew that by simply voicing it out loud, he would be endorsing the use of the tactic in some manner.

That Alana would probably consider it an effective tool went unsaid.

“You’ve gone quiet,” Alana noted with interest. “Have you thought of something she might value more—Ah, her brother.”

Loren just sighed as she came to the same conclusion the second her attention had been drawn remotely in its direction. What was this maxed-out intelligence bullshit? Charisma was definitely her dump stat.

He tried to figure out what they could do with something like that to force her out of hiding.

“She likes to challenge people, or maybe, you could actually say she likes to set challenges for herself?” Loren said slowly, thinking it through. “She wanted to make a spectacle out of challenging the Peacekeepers as a group.”

“In the interest of refining your current thought pattern,” Alana said curiously. “It might be prudent to note that three of the victims present had familiar or personal connections to the corresponding member of the Peacekeepers. It is highly likely that the others do as well, but I lack the necessary identities of the heroes in question to make that claim.”

Naomi had clearly figured out each of the Peacekeeper’s identities and had gone out of her way to find someone each of the heroes would mourn and murdered them in horrible ways. That she had put in so much effort to find that information instead of just pulling some people off the street and carving the symbols into them…

That there was another layer of disgust he had yet to apply to Naomi Low’s actions shouldn’t have surprised him, but it somehow still managed to.

“A personal challenge to each of them, then,” Loren said, frowning, “Has anyone ever spoken out against her publically—something that could be considered a challenge or insulting to her?”

Alana already had the answer to his question prepared.

“Wallflower,” Alana said, voice pleased. “She was flagged down by an aggressive reporter at a fundraising event, about a week before her disappearance—he asked her some very inappropriate questions about several dark moments in her career, likely designed for a hit piece of some kind.”

Loren was absolutely sure that Alana had already arrived at the conclusion he was building towards—she was simply humoring him, or perhaps more accurately, humoring herself as he figured it out.

“What did the reporter say that had to do with Naomi?” Loren said, frowning.

“Wallflower made a rather defensive remark that while Clavis Low’s death was a tragedy that should never have happened,” Alana said easily, “Windbreaker wasn’t responsible for his death, and neither was she—that responsibility fell to the gang members who had fired into a group of civilians.”

Something that tame and untargeted had resulted in her vanishing entirely—it could be that Wallflower was fine, perhaps on a beach somewhere living it up. Loren just didn’t think it was very likely. It also made him wonder why Naomi hadn’t gone after her prior to the interview seeing as everyone else that seemed to be involved in her brother’s death had already had a visit from her.

“If we make some assumptions that the cause of Wallflower’s disappearance was Naomi targeting her because of what she said at the fundraiser, we gain access to something of a template that we can use to recreate the situation.” Loren sighed, biting the bullet that they were both dancing around. “We could make some very public and disparaging remarks about Clavis Low prior to Thursday and then wait for her to come to us.”

He could almost hear the smile on Alana’s face as she spoke.

“A very interesting solution, Loren,” Alana said, pleased. “Consider for a moment if I were the one to play the role of bait, what do you think Naomi Low’s actions would be?”

Loren felt the tiny muscle in his left eye pulse. Yeah, she’d already figured it out—Alana really was just enjoying herself now.

The answer came to him easily.

Deceitful wasn’t going to make an unplanned attempt on Wraith of all people—not out of anger, and not while she was so close to gaining the power needed to easily deal with someone on that level. She would wait a few days until she had Paragon’s body and then slaughter her then.

Which meant the obvious candidate for who would be making a comment would be him, an unknown civilian with zero ties to any heroes.

“So I’m the one who has to make nasty comments about a woman’s dead brother?” Loren said uneasily.

“You were the one who proposed it. Besides, I’ve recently discovered that you have natural access to a very public platform that would suit such a plan perfectly,” Alana said leadingly. “The message would spread very quickly while in front of so many eyes.”

Alana was right that he had suggested the idea initially, but she had led him right to the gates. Loren frowned for a moment, trying to figure out which platform she was talking about before it dawned on him.

“You want me to make a statement at the Crescendo tournament,” Loren said, startled.

“Indeed. Today’s tournament was an extremely publicized event—there are people who are watching it internationally,” Alana said easily. “The local media is likewise covering it extensively, and the on-site crowd alone would spread the news across the city quickly.”

“We could make an anonymous video challenging her instead?” Loren suggested weakly, “You can do some hackerman stuff and push it to every screen in the city—”

“Loren,” Alana said gently, “I’m not at all prepared for something like that right now, and it would be a waste of resources when you have a very easy path forward already. Not to mention that Decieftul would very much see such an undertaking—”

“I get it,” Loren groaned, “Taking over half the electronics in the city would be seen as a collaborative effort between heroes, and such an obvious trap would just make her wary.”

“Correct,” Alana said, pleased.

“What’s stopping her from thinking some random guy shit-talking her dead brother is a trap?” Loren tried again.

His mind was already turning to things he could say that would offend the serial killer without being completely overt. After all, if there was something he was good at, it was pissing people off.

“You will need to formulate your comments in a way to avoid mentioning her directly, incite her fury without alerting her to the trap,” Alana said easily. “Target your speech towards Epilogue as a whole, and include a phrase that would likely trigger Naomi’s anger specifically—I’m more than willing to help you come up with something appropriate.”

The idea of publically challenging or decrying Epilogue was daunting—nobody in their right mind would do something like that on purpose. Provoking such an unstable bunch of monsters without the ability to protect yourself from that level of threat was insanity.

“I am so going to die again,” Loren said weakly. “And here I thought that you sounded pretty worried about her getting my power the last time I fought her.”

Alana paused for a moment.

“The discussion we had earlier covering exactly how your power functions has since removed that worry.” Alana said easily, “It’s very unlikely that she is able to gain access to your power, given the nature of how it works and how her own collects the powers.”

Loren was quiet for a moment, pitting what he knew about the two abilities against each other in his mind. One was an ability that returned a user to a previous point in time on death, the other was an ability that copies the body and abilities of a person after they died.

A timeline appeared in his mind, and he imagined a line labeled ‘Death’ cutting it in two halves. He placed each ability on one side of the timeline—‘Reroll’ on the left and… ‘Mimic After Death’ on the right. As he progressed across the timeline, he would first reach the death line. He would return to the beginning of the timeline, never reaching Naomi’s side of it.

“The process wouldn’t allow her to copy my power because she only gains access to my body after I’m dead.” Loren said slowly, “But the instant I die, I return to the past. If I’ve returned to the past, then she hasn’t killed me and doesn’t have my power. I’m essentially immune to her based on the order in which our abilities function.”

It only worked if his power was indeed time travel. In the case where he was simply hopping to a different reality on death, he left behind a Deceitful that would have his ability—if she decided to keep it in the first place.

“Yes,” Alana said, voice a shade brighter than normal.

Loren had no doubt in his mind that she was smiling once more, and he shook his head. If he was leaving entire realities to die… he couldn’t even save his current reality from these people, he couldn’t set himself the task of saving previous realities as well, it was just unfeasible.

At least not yet.

“What if my power isn’t simply time travel?” Loren prompted, just to see what she said.

“We are entirely incapable of determining if that is the case, and even if we could, you have no method available to you that would allow for actions to take place inside a previous reality.” Alana admitted, “As long as that remains the case, there is no utility in paying it any mind.”

If it wasn’t time travel, the members of the previous reality were on their own—including the Alana he was speaking to right now after he reset, something which he very much doubted she had missed.

“Fuck em, essentially,” Loren said dryly.

Alana gave a small muffled laugh—the first time he had heard her do so since he had met her.

“Fuck them.” Alana agreed pleasantly.

“Fine, so the next time I go back,” Loren said eventually, once they had exhausted most of the topics they needed to discuss. “I win the tournament, taunt a bunch of serial killers with superpowers, and then try not to die?”

“Yes, we will, of course, discuss further actions in the past, but until then, I’ll ask that you do not return until tomorrow,” Alana said simply, “Isometric is in the process of searching the Hero HQ for the explosive device and having that information would be very useful.”

“Glad that worked out at least,” Loren sighed before hesitating. “What happened with Ogre?”

“She had agreed to work with us in exchange for help involving an encounter she had with you when you were a child.” Alana said curiously, “I was unaware that your power had manifested so early, Loren.”

Yeah, well, he hadn’t found that out until she had locked him in a room while everyone in the city died.

“Join the club,” Loren said tersely, feeling an undercurrent of anger rising up. “I didn’t find out until the end of the last loop.”

Alana was quiet for several moments.

“You’re angry—at me,” Alana said curiously, “When we first talked, I detected the same thing—I did something that upset you at the end of your previous loop.”

He wasn’t getting into this.

“I promised to hire a healer from Insoluble at the start of each loop for Ogre to try and fix what I did to her,” Loren said instead, blowing past her comments. “I don’t have access to the application at the start of each loop. Can you help me with that?”

Alana allowed the diversion without further comment.

“Of course.” Alana said easily, “I will contact you in the morning with a final update on Isometric’s search and a modified code phrase to include your request for the app.”

“Thanks, Alana.” Loren said evenly, “Talk to you then.”

He waited for a beat for her reply, preparing to hang up.

“Loren, in the interest of maintaining a functional working relationship,” Alana said hesitantly, “I will give you a coded phrase that you may use if you find yourself—”

“You already gave it to me last time,” Loren said simply, shaking his head. “What is the code for?”

Alana ignored his question.

“If I gave that to you already, but you haven’t used it…” Alana said thoughtfully, “Then I must have intentionally acted against you in a way that greatly upset you. Enough so that you—”

“Goodbye, Alana,” Loren said, annoyed, before hanging up.

He folded his hands behind his head and continued to stare up at the stars, feeling a bit heated at how the call had ended. He heard boots on the bottom of the fire escape a few minutes later before Emma popped her head up.

“Hey, are you going to stay up here all night?” Emma huffed as she crested the railing.

Loren tilted his head back far enough to catch sight of her.

“Nani?!” Loren cried out, making her jump in shock. “You’re approaching me on my rooftop, completely uninvited—”

“I’m sorry!” Emma squeaked, taking a panicked step back towards the ladder.

“—And you don’t even have the decency to wear your costume!” Loren said indignantly, “How am I supposed to derive any enjoyment out of looking at sweat pants and a dirty shirt—hey, that’s my dirty shirt!”

Emma gripped the front of the shirt in question and quickly stomped over to him. He felt some of his bad mood vanishing as she came to sit with him.

“Idiot!” Emma said, flustered, “I thought you were actually mad at me.”

They talked quietly for a while, and eventually, he brought up what he was doing.

“I’m resetting tomorrow before the city explodes,” Loren said eventually. “I feel like a coward for doing it. I wonder if it will always feel like that.”

“You’re going back in time to save the city from being destroyed—those aren’t the actions of a coward,” Emma said curiously. “You’re pretty hard on yourself, you know? Besides, I’ve seen you do some pretty brave things.”

He glanced at her face in the dark—she was most likely referring to the future him, the one that she had met in the past. Loren didn’t really think he was the person capable of facing Mara Melancholia—at least not yet, but maybe he would get there eventually.

Lorens Apartment, 8:17 AM.
Thursday, February 23rd​, 2022.

“Isometric has located the device in the Hero HQ,” Alana said easily, “It’s underneath the basement floor, directly under the backup generators. There is a hollowed-out space in the foundations, completely lined with an unknown but very dense material that blocks most forms of remote scanning.”

Loren nodded to himself.

“How long has it been there?” Loren wondered.

A hollowed-out space in the foundations of a building’s basement sounded like someone had decided to do this a long time ago. Was this a long-term plan, or did they somehow teleport the bomb into place remotely? His old Vanish power could have accomplished something similar in description—dig a hole from below, place the bomb and then return the material sealing it inside.

“Isometric is unable to determine such things with her power, likewise she had described the device as a perfectly smooth black cube with no identifying information.” Alana said easily, “I will need to find a way to bypass the foreign material to remotely scan it first so we can get a better idea of how to disarm it.”

“Are you asking for more time?” Loren said hesitantly. “I could stick around a bit longer—”

He doubted it would improve their chances much, but he didn’t mind waiting a bit longer before jumping back into the grinder.

“No.” Alana said immediately, “There is nothing I will be able to uncover in a few hours, this will take days or even weeks of careful work. I’m afraid something this delicate won’t be solved in a single loop.”

He couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Couldn’t anything have a simple solution? When he was a child, and he used to dream about being a hero—before everything that had happened with Isaac—it was always epic battles, heroic speeches, and a happy ending.

So far, his childish optimism couldn’t have been further from reality.

“Then I’ll continue to ferry your findings to the next one,” Loren sighed. “I feel like I’m not doing anything—like I’ve become some kind of messenger pawn in a time-travel chess match.”

Alana took a moment to compose her thoughts.

“If this were such a thing, you wouldn’t be a pawn.” Alana said thoughtfully, “You would be a much more versatile piece on the board, a queen perhaps, given all of the options you have available to you.”

He wasn’t sure if he should be flattered that she thought him so valuable or annoyed that she had promoted him to the lofty heights of the royal messenger.

“I suppose I had better find myself a crown,” Loren said wryly.