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Avenger Assembled

Vampire Nights

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It was a really good party. In the company of his fellow vampires, Jack felt none of the awkwardness he felt around humans, none of the uncomfortable predatory urges about preying on the innocent. No one at this party was innocent. A good portion of the city's vampires were here tonight in the West End, filling up Melinda's primary residence with a crowd of undead predators of the night. The mansion's grand ballroom was full of dark princes and princesses dressed up in the height of their finery, slinky-eyed, pale-faced lovelies who looked like nothing more than dark thoughts about sex personified. Claudia was here, yet another boy-toy on her arm, and Melinda herself sat on her throne in the middle of the grand ballroom, her most trusted minions and favorite pets at her side.

It was tempting to be here. Too tempting. Don't give in. Jack thought as he looked down into a glass that had been poured from a tap directly out of Melinda's stock. You're supposed to be above these things now. But it would be easy to give in, so easy. Melinda was a good hostess; she kept only the willing on tap for parties like this, the better to benefit the sensibilities of some of her more squeamish underlings. But how did these people get so willing, Jack? Huh? He watched as Merry, the newest vampire in the city, walked off with an adoring young Adonis who she could rip to pieces now, and wondered if the man would survive the night. He remembered the earliest hungers well enough.

Jack had done enough for Melinda to be at her side, a position that had the virtue of keeping him down and out of the way. If he was seen as part of her coterie rather than branching out on his own, no one would worry about cutting him down to size. And as long as Melinda didn't know about his other nocturnal activities and thought of him as just the trusted offspring of a trusted ally...well, he was safe enough in her company. The sorts of things she demanded from the handsome young men she kept around her weren't so difficult. He looked down at his cup and sipped it. It was good. He looked up, as everyone else did, when Melinda rose to her feet, a wicked smile on her face.

"Good evening, my sisters and brothers!" she called to the crowd, the pretty people and their pretty meals turning to face her. Melinda was younger than some city leaders, willing to talk a more enlightened game than they did. With her teeth out, wearing a custom-tailored dress that combined the style of her native Victorian period with a truly shocking amount of alabaster skin, Melinda truly did look like a dark goddess of the night. "I am pleased to greet you all here in the heart of-"

The overhead lights; incandescent bulbs cut to look like candles, flickered violently, then suddenly went out. The humans gasped, but darkness was no obstacle to vampires. Rising to his feet, Jack looked over at Melinda, who had the look on her face that meant death for whichever subordinate was charged with keeping the lights on. Tossing back his drink, Jack leaned close. "I'll take care of this," he promised her in a whisper, getting a nod back from the vampire queen. If he dealt with the slave with the proper amount of force and deception, maybe he could keep the man alive. That was what heroes were for, right?

He'd crossed to the edge of the dance floor when suddenly it was the vampires' turn to shout! Jack spun on his heel and looked back into the deep shadows of the darkened ballroom, where just below the gilded roof a deeper, blacker shadow was beginning to pool and coalesce. Melinda and her people were falling back, her slaves keeping themselves between her and the threat, and just in time. No sooner had Jack begun heading back towards the center of the room than a dark-wrapped figure came plummeting out of the ceiling to make an athlete's landing on Melinda's throne. Jack looked up and felt his dead heart skip a beat.

The dark prince of the undead raised his blackened sword high, his once-fine clothes now a ruin wrapped in cloth emblazoned with the symbols of Hell itself. "I have returned!"

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The room fell dead silent for a moment, Jack himself thinking hard. Ohgodohgod, I can't call the Knights here! What am I going to do? As it happened, Melinda made his decision for him. Standing back amongst a small coterie of toughs from the Theater District, the queen of Freedom City opted not to let her new arrival introduce himself. Vampire or not, it wasn't hard to see the Elder for the threat he was even as the gateway to Hell closed up behind him. "KILL HIM!" she screamed, her voice imperious and face warped to match a predator's snarl. The younger vampires moved, as they always did, young hunters answering the call of their pack leader. They were there to show the strength of the enemy, not to actually survive.

And many of them didn't. Jack ran, too, and as he watched his friends and enemies alike died. Lugat Vrykolak struck like a typhoon amid the sheep, his mystic blade removing limbs, bisecting torsos, and taking heads. The lucky ones who fell would recover given sufficient blood and time; the unlucky ones would have no such luck. And if they didn't stop the monster now...God help them all! "I'm coming for you, Ainsley!" Lugat shouted over the noise of the crowd, the humans running in terror and the vampires backing up like so many cornered animals. "Your miserable lackey put me in the chains of Hell! That's where I'm going to send you!"

Jack had planned to come up with a strategy for fighting the Elder, maybe consulting with Melinda first and rounding up some of the better fighters in the city, but the moment he heard and understood what the older vampire was saying he knew he had no other choice. If the Elder had seen him for what he was, Jack had to stop him now, right now, and put him down like a dog in the bargain. But how to do that against an enemy substantially more powerful than he was? Only one way sprang to mind: Jack charged into melee against a four-hundred year old menace with nothing but his wits and his bare hands!

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As the darkness rippled and warped around him, striking like a snake as it battered aside Melinda's subordinates, Jack let his claws and fangs grow, slashing across the Elder's back with enough force to expose flesh twisted by months of unspeakably Hellish torments within. He wasn't a fool, he knew he couldn't stand up to the Elder in hand-to-hand combat. But he could dodge and weave around the man, using his own abilities to hide even in the darkness that was Lugat's tool. What mattered was hurting him, landing cuts and slashes and pulling Lugat's attention away from both Melinda and the younger vampires that he was mowing through like a reaper through grass. Unfortunately, Jack underestimated Lugat's combat abilities: even when he couldn't see him, Lugat could counter his every move and keep from suffering more than superficial damage!

Casting his eyes around wildly, the Elder swung his blade to ward off the gnat buzzing at him, becoming one of the very few people who'd actually spotted Jack when his eyes finally locked on the too-fast-moving hero! In a sudden burst of shocking speed, he dived forward and stabbed Jack right through the heart! Jack looked down, too stunned to think, as he saw the metal blade impaling his heart. If that was made of wood, I'd already be dead. Again.

When the Elder saw who he'd pinioned, he grabbed Jack by the collar. "You. I have you now." And with that, the two of them vanished in a burst of darkness, shadows wrapping themselves around Jack as they both disappeared.

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They reappeared in a place Jack would later learn was a mile away and underground, an abandoned subway station on the West End. This is the Lantern Hill stop... he saw in a distant sort of way as the Elder waved his sword, shaking off the vampire on it like a butterfly impaled on a straight pin. Jack didn't so much as hit the ground; instead he vanished in a cloud of mist before striking the Earth. He flew like the Devil himself was at his feet, disappearing into the darkness around the station. And this time, Lugat wasn't able to follow him. Even as he took shelter, the massive wound in his chest burning agonizingly, Jack knew that he couldn't run. This was Lantern Hill; he couldn't take to the streets. Maybe the tunnels...but then Lugat would be loose, and no doubt return to the party to kill his friends. And tell his secret.

"Pathetic." Jack taunted from the shadows, moving faster than the eye could see as he went. "Time in Hell has done nothing but enrage you. Stupid old man." The Elder replied by spitting a black syllable, the shadows around him rippling as he hunted for the lurking Jack.

"When I find you, I'm going to cut off your arms and legs and plant your living torso on my crest of arms, you miserable blood-traitor!" he spat. "And that whore you call a queen! I've been watching the vampires of this city for months, and you are nothing but weak-willed, lily-livered leeches clinging to the petty godlings you fear so much! You should be ruling this place as gods of the night!" Jack said nothing in reply, instead keeping careful track of exactly where his antagonist was going. There was still electricity down here from the look of the third rail; he had a chance, at least. "I was going to kill you slowly and give your head to your dam as a warning, but now I think I'll just bring you back in pieces now!"

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"I think you're scared of me," Jack replied, moving further back against the filthy concrete wall of the abandoned station. He could see what were obviously the remains of a dead hobo and had to shudder; how long had Lugat been out? How had he gotten out? How much had he seen? There was no way to tell. "Humanity has transcended the pathetic sheep you knew. Now they're the wolves, and we're the ones living by our wits. And living well. You know that I'm the future, and you're nothing but another walking corpse with a POINTY STICK!" Jack reappeared from the shadows, a feral snarl on his face, and felt a sharp surge of satisfaction as the Elder flinched. Not as tough as you look, are you?

The two men hesitated, glaring at each other. Jack was confident in his successful show of force, so confident that his antagonist got the jump on him again. Taking no chances now, the Elder disappeared into the darkness around Jack, re-emerging with sword in hand and blade held high! Once again the blade hit home, and again Jack felt terrible pain as the blade cut deeply into his flesh. This is not a joke! Jack thought desperately. He's more powerful than I am, a better fighter, and he's going to kill me if he can. And he can!

Despite his thundering fear and agonizing pain, Jack knew what he had to do. He made one big mistake. Lantern Hill may be close to the West End, and maybe he thought he could come here without any other vampires bothering him. But there's a REASON we don't set foot on the streets here!He growled an animalistic snarl, charging right up the blade as he swung with his claws, something in his desperate fury making the Elder pull back automatically. This time, was Jack who struck home, burying his claws into the other monster's ribcage. "Told you...you should be afraid of me." Jack spat as he drove his claws deep, feeling the Elder's heart give way beneath them. As he watched, the centuries-old vampire's eyes widened as his body suddenly, completely collapsed in on himself.

"I'll be back!" he gasped, just before collapsing into dust and ash. In response, Jack kicked the ash pile as hard as he could, scattering debris everywhere. "Not as long as I have anything to say about it," he muttered, even as he felt a surge of...he wasn't sure what. He saw the face of superheroes in his mind and knew suddenly, painfully, he was just like them. Another dead vampire. Another dead monster. I'm a big hero.In agony, Jack turned and staggered for the stairs, holding his injuries and walking slowly and deliberately to disguise the fact that he wasn't bleeding. His moral turmoil was enough that he got to the top of the stairs before he remembered where he was. Oh crap! But it was too late, for floating there before him was the unmistakeable figure of Lantern Jack himself!

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The words weren't spoken; they simply seemed to appear on the edges of Jack's mind. "Murderer. You have killed tonight." The ghostly lantern rose high and pointed straight at Jack, the dead colonial ghost staring deeply into Jack's soul. Despite his own surging, pounding fear and physical pain, Jack forced himself to speak rather than running or launching a suicidal attack.

"That thing down there died centuries ago. Uh, sir," he added, not at all sure how to address the mystical guardian of Lantern Hill. How many vampires have you killed? Pumping magical sunlight through them until they imploded; century after century? Lord, I'm so stupid! "He was an escapee from Hell itself. I wouldn't think a man like you would care about that."

"But murderer you are, Jack Faretti. You have taken lives by your deeds and by your hand. You prey on the living and are intimate with the dead." It took Jack a few moments to realize that Lantern Jack was speaking socially.

"Do you go after everyone who's killed?" Jack replied, mastering his fear as best he could. "Or just vampires?" Lantern Jack didn't reply, forcing Jack to continue even as the animal part of him wanted to run and flee from that implacable gaze. "Because I know people who've taken more lives than I have. A lot more. And they're superheroes. And...and maybe I am different. But killing isn't something I do anymore."

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"Why?"

"Because it's wrong," Jack replied, his voice suddenly choking up faster than he'd expected. "Because killing people. is. wrong. And if I don't live by that standard, how am I going to live by any other standard? You...you know what the society of vampires is like. If we don't stop ourselves from evil, there's no stopping us from doing anything. Centuries of life with the devolving morality of a toddler. I...I won't live like that. I won't go through eternity like that."

"So you do not kill for the sake of others; you do not kill for the sake of yourself?" At Lantern Jack's words, Jack thought he was going to die.

"I am a sinner," he finally agreed. He looked the ghost right in the eye, mastering his fear as he thought of all the horrors he'd faced to bring him this far. "They say you can see into the souls of men. Or otherwise. Does the good I've done outweigh my sins?" The ghost said nothing for a moment before raising his lantern high. The lantern's white light burned bright in Jack's face, almost blinding him with its pure clarity.

"Do not return to Lantern Hill." sounded in Jack's mind, clear as a bell, before a flash of light took him. With the sound of thunder in his ears, Jack Faretti disappeared.

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Jack dropped to the ground, blinking back tears to find himself looking up at...Melinda? He was back in the ballroom, now brightly lit and crowded with most of the city's vampires. The humans were gone, banished now that there was serious business to be done, and it looked like Melinda had summoned every vampire in the city as her defenders. As Jack had just magically dropped into the room in a flash of mystic light, that meant he was surrounded by deeply hostile, very surprised vampires. He raised his hands high, his fingers covered in the unmistakeable life's dust of a dead vampire. "He's dead. I killed him."

Melinda stared imperiously down at him and said simply, "Tell me everything." Jack did indeed tell her everything. He told her how the Elder had taken him away for torture and murder, how he'd planned to deliver Jack's head to Melinda and Claudia as proof that she couldn't protect her subordinates. And he told her, too, how he'd defeated the Elder in hand-to-hand combat and then been transported back here by some mystic artifact; possibly something the obviously older vampire had stolen before coming there however he had.

"I see. You defeated him in battle." She ran pointed fingers over Jack's neck, dangerous passion in her eyes. "You defeated the monster that killed twelve of our people." God, twelve? "How did you do this?"

"I ripped out his heart for you, my lady," Jack replied. "And so that no more vampires would die again tonight."

"No more will die tonight, child," replied Melinda, turning to face the crowd of elders. "Never again will we be taken by surprise!" she shouted, her eyes turning red. She rose in the air as she spoke, her long dress trailing behind her like a demon's wings. "I have made sure there were no wars in this city! I have brought order to chaos! We are the gods of the night in a city where costumed humans rule the day! And one of you...or one of your allies," she added, pointing to each and every underling, "has sent an assassin to try and kill me! Only thanks to the loyalty and sacrifice of our young did we win this night!" Her voice hardened into a growl. "This night will not happen again. Things are going to change."

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