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Avenger Assembled

Falling Down

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Jack and Melinda were in one of her entertainment rooms in the Midtown estate, not far from where he'd watched Stesha drive away in shame. It had been just a couple of weeks, but it felt like a lifetime since that pleasant, if ruined encounter. What he and Melinda had just done together had been very pleasant, even if a growing part of him was growing more and more dissatisfied with the way the queen of Freedom City rewarded her most loyal servants. "Now that we've finished that little business," said Melinda with a fanged smile, carefully donning a new dress more suitable for the remainder of the evening, "I think it's time we move on to more...pressing matters."

From his position by the window, Jack watched her approach with the mixed feelings one predator felt at the sight of another, even a lovely one. She is so very beautiful... "You have but to ask, my lady," he said gallantly, "and it shall be done. I am your loyal servant." She studied him for a moment, cocking her head, then smiled again.

"I'm glad to hear that, Jack, because I need you to do something very important for me. It has to be done tonight, and it has to be done quickly." She put her hands on his bare chest, digging her nails into Jack's muscular torso. "Someone has betrayed me, Jack. You know how I feel about betrayal. A little mortal whelp of a businessman has taken my money, has taken the blood of our kind for his own appetites, and given me nothing in return." She looked him dead in the eye, her own lovely face warping suddenly into the unholy look of a twisted, predatory monster. "I want you to kill him for me, Jack. KILL CONSTANTINE URALLOS!"

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A few hours later, Jack was at the foot of the Pyramid Plaza, gazing up at the high, high tower upon whose top Constantine Urallos' penthouse was perched. Scarab, are you there? He thought up at her penthouse apartment across the way before shaking his head. It was three in the morning. If Elena was home, she was no doubt sound asleep at this hour. It was no time for humans to be out; it was no time for vampires to be out. But here I am, about to do this thing... If Scarab was here, how would he explain this to her? He's a murderer, Elena, many times over, with his own hands and under his orders. He makes deals with vampires and drinks their blood to prolong his own life, he...

Did that make it all right to take his life? Did that make it all right to dig his fangs into an old man's neck, tear away the flesh there and taste the blood within? Oh yes. You KNOW what that's like. But he wasn't that man anymore. He wasn't that monster; not the creature who'd traded the lives of others for his own. He was something better; a hero with friends who cared about him. He thought of Grim, andBut they're not my only friends. Invisible to the small number of humans around at this late hour, he looked up in the sky and saw his other friends in his mind's eye. Claudia, Dave, Trudy? Could he really turn his back on them now?

And there's no turning back now. Pitt might help if I was trying to overthrow Melinda, but never to hide out after disobeying her orders. And you know what she'll do if she finds out you disobeyed. Things had gotten bad after the Elder's return, very bad. He'd seen vampires die and slaves suffer unspeakable punishments for failing to obey Melinda the right way. His status with her, the fact that he was Claudia's, wouldn't protect him if she was truly angry enough. And maybe he could have talked her out of it...but how long could he keep up doing that? How long could he live like this?

Long as I have to, he finally thought, feeling a twist of sharp, painful regret in his chest. I'm a vampire. He rose up off the ground smoothly, bypassing the ample defenses of the powerful industrialist by the expedient of transforming into mist and rising up the side of the building in flight. Going in there wasn't a choice. Seeing the man with his own eyes wasn't a choice. Or was it?

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Jack drifted, nigh-silent and nigh-invisible, through the open window of the Urallos penthouse directly into the bedroom of the man himself. He moved over the bed and looked down at the man in it with fleshless eyes, gazing at the face of the tycoon-crimelord who'd killed vampires for their blood and done even worse to humans. Are you really the monster Melinda wants me to think you are? Or was he just a man? The silver-haired old man was awake tonight, reading through what Jack vaguely recognized as a Greek Orthodox Bible. The book wouldn't save him, though, not if Jack moved fast enough and struck quickly. He was, he knew well, a very good killer.

So, go ahead! He heard Claudia's voice in his ear as the bells for three-thirty AM rang from the grandfather clock in one corner of the big bedroom. Snap his neck and get back to the party! And there was a time, no more than seven months earlier, that Jack would have heeded that voice with no more than a second thought. He's a monster. He's a killer, I...

Do you want to be like him? came Elena's stern voice in his other ear. Then Grimalkin's, too, the little shapeshifter an imaginary phantom nearby his hand. Or like her? Is that what you want to be for the rest of eternity? A killer and a monster? He felt an illusory hand on his shoulder, and it was Knight, Wesley giving him a firm, man-to-man look. You're a hero, Jack. You saved the world. He heard Divine's voice too, telling him about defending the weak and helpless, Arrowhawk demanding to know if this was the way heroes in America acted, and even Stesha, asking if this was why he'd ended their relationship. Surrounded by the illusory ghosts of Knights past and present, Jack made his decision.

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At four in the morning, a hockey-masked figure slammed down onto Constantine Urallos, pinning him down and covering his mouth to stop a scream. The old man's eyes jerked open wide in surprise, then anger, as he glared up at his assailant. Avenger glared back, as was his wont. "Constantine Urallos. Your crimes are manifest. Tell me why you should live. A scream will see your guards broken before your eyes. And then we shall talk outside your room." It had been a simple matter to change in one corner of the room, the absolute darkness of the room meaning that Jack hadn't bothered with his usual sneakiness. With any luck, this wouldn't take long.

His heart pounding, Urallos opened his mouth and spoke distinctly. "You're dead for this. I'll find who you are and I'll see your family dead in front of your eyes. You hear me?" The fear stood out on the old man's fragile face, but so did defiance. He might be scared, but he wouldn't be moved.

"Me, dead?" Avenger laughed. "Better men have tried. Monsters hunt you tonight." he told him with a malevolent sneer. "A smart man would get out of town. And not trifle with so many bloodsuckers."

Avenger heard the rush of air behind him, but failed to note its import until the stake erupted out his chest.

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Jack awoke to a universe of pain, his body frozen in agony by the wooden stake through his back, the magical symbols on it showing it to be no ordinary wood. He opened his eyes and ears, and heard strife. "...thought you were never going to get here," spat an angry Urallos, still gripping a mystic symbol in his hands that Jack recognized from his history books as belonging to the cult of Hades. "What was I supposed to do if he broke my neck?"

"You'd be whining a lot less, that's for bloody sure!" spat Melinda. The princess of the night who'd been with him earlier was a monster through and through now, her eyes glowing a malignant red and her fangs standing out brightly on her face. She had him pinned against the open bedroom window, easily supporting his weight with one hand. Jack was still wearing most of his Avenger costume, though his hockey mask was long-since gone. When she saw he was awake, she spat on him, then struck him directly in the groin. Unable to move, he groaned, barely able to cling to consciousness. "You contemptible little BASTARD," she hissed at him. "I was going to break your bones and give Claudia back your weak blood, but this? THIS?" She held up the mask before his eyes. "Nothing for you, Jack. No heroic death, no dramatic last speech, no pathetic little legacy to inspire more pathetic little childlings to betray their blood and their nature. This is the night that you die and no one cares!"

And with that, before Jack could speak, she threw him out the window. The cold rush of air on his face, as he began to fall, woke him up all the way, pushing him past his stunned agony. Get the stake out get the stake out He forced agonized limbs to move, the few seconds of his hundred-story fall stretching out into eternity. I'm sorry Mom and Dad. I'm sorry I didn't love you enough. Agonized fingers brushed the slick shaft, the magic there scorching his fingertips. I'm sorry I was such an ass to you, Elena. You've always been a good friend. His hand closed on the wood, pushing past the small pain to drive out the big one. But he was holding it behind his back; he'd have to pull it out. No time now, got to do it. I'm sorry about the pig, Wesley, you're a real trouper. And Grimalkin, I hope you like your house and you like your house, because I don't think I will! The pavement was rushing up fast, the storm sewer grate below a painfully ironic destination. Mom was right about me! He pulled the stake out and hit the ground at terminal velocity.

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Consciousness returned slowly, so slowly. Jack opened his eyes to pain, his body broken in fantastic, bizarre ways. The sun was on his face, not a good thing for any vampire. He was...in the storm sewer? He had vague memories of hitting the pavement above his head, and then misting out just long enough to fall into the storm sewers. Did I really fall all that way? Wow! He tried to laugh, but a painful, agonizing sound came out as torment shot through his body. Must have broken my ribs. And my back. And my legs. Is that? Yeah, yeah, that's my skull. He could still feel the neat hole in his chest, dug there by the supernatural magic in the stake Melinda had shoved through him. Why aren't there any rats? he thought, floating on a curtain of shock to protect him from his shattered flesh. Dang it, Elena, why do you have to keep your building so clean? Must file a complaint with the management.

-

Elena slept, and dreamed of darkness. And then a sudden, white-hot burst of molten pain, stabbing through her, that transformed itself into a long, terrible fall that ended in an explosion of pain. She saw a dark warrior falling from the steps of the Great Pyramid, mortally wounded and hurled away from an angry Set-in-female-aspect into the deeper darkness of the Abyss itself. And then, just as she woke, she saw the warrior's face. It was Jack. He'd fallen, and fallen practically on her doorstep.

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Elena shot up out of bed. Jack... She tore the covers off, leaving them to pool on the ground as she snatched the red tank-top off her nightstand. She reached out to him with her mind. Jack, is that you? Where are you? She slid the apartment window open as she slid her shirt on, and shivered as the night air a thousand feet above the streets of Freedom City scraped against her skin. Hang on. I'm coming.

The shirt uncoiled and crawled along her flesh, encasing her in The Scarab's distinctive red armor. She took a moment to cloud herself from the eyes and ears and minds of any observers, then dove out the window and flew down to meet her fallen comrade.

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Derrick Lumins jogged down the street in the pre-morning light. After a wonderful night sleep and a light breakfast, he went out for a run. It was the only real exercise he did. Once he got back, a quick shower before heading over to see his sister-in-law and her kids; spending the day helping out. It was the only connection he had left to being human.

Even now, all solid and materialized, he missed it. Being Derrick Lumins was just not who he was anymore really. But he needed to be there for what was left of his family. Someday, he’d probably stop being Derrick entirely. Just Dark Star would remain.

He shook his head from those weary, yet sadly common, thoughts and resumed his run. Out of the corner of his eye and far above, he thought he saw something. He stopped moving over to railing, squinting his eyes, trying to discern what had caught his attention.

It was a person. A body! Then suddenly, the body was falling…It was Avenger! Derrick, or more precisely Dark Star, would recognize that simple outfit anywhere.

“No, no no….,†he said to himself, horrified at what was happening before him. He concentrated, trying to bring the energies inside him forth. But it wasn’t easy. It normally took him a minute or two to slowly let the change happen. He focused, doing everything in his power to calm his mind. But it was too late…

He heard the meaty thud all the way from where he was, which didn’t help his concentration any. It took forever for his concentration to come into focus, knowing he had failed his comrade. The man had fallen to his death because Derrick couldn't focus! The sun was was coming over the horizon already! Finally, the energy inside burst forth and Derrick Lumins was gone. Dark Star wasted no time, and with a flash, flew to the fallen hero’s side just as Scarab landed as well.

Amazingly enough, Avenger was alive! Horribly injured but still alive. He’d always known the man had some powers, but this was impressive. "Hold on, I'll fix you up in a moment." He wasted no time, extended his hands over the grievously wounded hero, letting the regenerative radiation pour forth. But nothing happened…

“I don’t understand…that should have worked. It always works…†He was confused. He extended his hands again to try once more. He wouldn’t quit. He wasn’t going to led a good man die.

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On closer inspection, Avenger didn't look alive at all. Every limb was terribly bent and broken in multiple places, even his spine twisted in several shocking angles. The back of his head was visibly smashed in; with huge gouges torn out of his forehead as well and one eye smashed. The worst injury was in his chest, where a massive hole gaped so wide Dark Star could see the sewer tiles beneath it. It looked as though he'd been violently impaled, then beaten to death. But the strange thing was, for something he'd seen happen only a half-hour earlier, there was no blood.

And then Jack spoke. "Oh hey Dark Star..." He focused on Dark Star with his one good eye. "This in't really how I wantedja to find me. I think I'm in shock. Dinnit even know I could go inta shock." On closer inspection in the early morning light coming through the sewer grate, Jack still wasn't breathing. "How you doin? 'Slena with you?" His speech was slurred; it looked like he'd taken an impact to his face at some point in the recent past and his mouth was damaged. And it was hard to think his brain was intact, for that matter.

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The Scarab soared down into the sewer, dropping her psychic cloak as her path intersected with the gravity-powered hero. "Darkstar! Thank the gods."

"This in't really how I wantedja to find me. I think I'm in shock. Dinnit even know I could go inta shock.'Slena with you?"

"Yes, Jack, it's me. Just relax. We'll take care of you."

"Hold on, I'll fix you up in a moment."

The Scarab raised her hand in protest, but by the time the word "Wait!" escaped her lips, DarkStar's energy had already passed over Avenger, with no effect.

"I don’t understand…that should have worked. It always works…"

"Your powers can't help him. Not directly. You repair living tissue, and Jack isn't alive. Get us down to The Lair. The infirmary. I know what he needs."

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"Hi 'lena," said Jack, his broken mouth slurring his words. "Made a mess on your sidewalk. Sorry 'bout that..." Elena's presence helped him focus more intently on the world, though not so close that he could push past the ocean of pain that threatened to overwhelm him. When Dark Star picked him up, his body was strangely soft, the skeleton inside broken. There was still not a drop of blood. Jack fell silent for the trip, but his eyes stayed wide open, his dead body still.

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Dark Star had seen amazing wonders in his travels. Beings that defied description, living worlds, beings of all shapes and sized. Artificial lifeforms as well. But all were 'alive' in some sense of the word.

Not alive? Wha...? "I don't..." He shook his head, a little confused but that didn't matter. What mattered was Avenger and getting him the help he needed to live. Er...unlive? Let's just stick with 'survive' for now... If Scarab said he need what was down in her lair, then that was where they would go. Now.

He scooped them gently up in a gravitic field and flew like Avenger's 'life' depended on it. Because for all he knew, it did. The field protected them from the wind and acceleration as he blew through the corridors and passageways at truly ridiculous speeds. With a whoosh, they can to a sudden and gentle stop in the infirmary. He released Scarab and laid Avenger gently on a waiting bed.

He dearly wanted to know what was going on and who was responsible for almost killing Avenger. But all that could wait a while.

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As soon as the group appeared in the infirmary, The Scarab started searching through drawers and cabinets frantically. "Lay him down on one of the beds" she instructed DarkStar without looking at him. As she searched, her armor retracted from her body, transforming back into an innocuous red tank-top that clashed with her blue boxer shorts. She stomped around the infirmary barefoot as she collected various items, then pulled a chair next to Jack's bed.

"See, Jack? I told you we should've kept some down here just in case." As Elena assembled and inserted the needles and tubes between herself and Jack, DarkStar realized she was giving him a blood transfusion. "I know you don't care for this particular vintage. In fact, this'll probably hurt like hell. But it's better than nothing." She muttered under her breath. "With a fall from that height, we're lucky you didn't just liquify completely. What did you get yourself into?"

As Elena's blood began to flow into Jack's inert veins, she visibly calmed. Her shoulders relaxed and slumped down. She looked up at DarkStar. "Thank you." Then she turned to Jack, took up a box of pre-moistened towelettes, and began gently wiping the blood and grime from his face.

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When Elena's blood hit Jack's veins, his eyes suddenly turned a brilliant, malignant red. What had looked like broken teeth before sharpened suddenly into fangs, his ears pulling up into sharp points to match the ones in his mouth. There was no hiding his true nature now. As blood returned, so did sensation, his one working hand twitching with pain. "Pulled the stake out. Would have survived. Burns." His hand twitched, hard, as Scarab's mystically empowered blood filled his shattered veins. He could feel his body's recovery, even as it burned. "God." Push past it. Stay conscious. "Found out who I was. Melinda." He licked his lips. "Set me up."

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Dark Star stood by, saying nothing as he watched Scarab work. He understood what she was doing, just not the why of it. Jack wasn't alive. Heck, the man didn't have any blood from hitting the pavement...

Of course when the man suddenly grew fangs, things became much clearer. He knew amazingly little about the supernatural stuff. Though since joining the Knights, he had done a little research on the subject. But even without it, it wouldn't be hard to guess that Avenger was actually a vampire. But he'd seen the man in sunlight before...why hadn't he burst into flame? Perhaps the man's true and good heroic nature afforded him some protections?

That, and many other questions, were rolling around his head as he watched and listened. Questions would wait. For now, he simply moved over next to Scarab and let his healing energies infuse her, helping to keep her blood cell count high and the transfusion going strong.

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"Found out who I was. Melinda. Set me up."

Elena continued to clean Jack as best she could. "Just lay back and relax. Let the vitæ do its work. I was afraid this might happen."

In fact, I warned him this would happen sooner or later. But now isn't the time for "I told you so."

"Do you have any family, anyone she might try to use against you? Is there anyone we need to move into protective custody? Is there anything else you need? We're here for you."

Elena smirked. "Does this mean we can finally kill her now?"

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"My family is dead, Elena," Jack replied. He forced the words out with great precision and distinctiveness. "My mother had a stroke when she heard I'd ODed on Max, and my father took his own life a year later." The painful memories shot through his mind, sharpening his focus as the blood poured back into him. The two others could see his wounds beginning to heal, but terribly slowly; the blood in his system allowing only a painfully slow resurrection. "Claudia is a friend of hers. She wouldn't blame her for this. And she thinks I'm dead, or she'd have been down there to cut my head off. She...she knows I've been working as a superhero." He licked his lips. "The...the humiliation would be too great for her to broadcast with a public display of revenge." He was quiet for a moment, his body eerily still except for the bizarrely audible sound of blood infusing it.

"Lugat returned a few days ago. I'm sorry, I should have told you." His broken eye healed of its own accord with a bizarre noise. "I...I killed him, and brought his ashes back to Melinda. She thought he was an assassin, she's been getting more paranoid since then, more worried about threats from...That's why she did this. She was testing me. If she finds out I'm alive, she'll go mad. Blood will run in the streets. People will die." He made a small noise in the back of his throat. "God, there's already so much blood on my hands. I don't want anyone else to die because of this, Elena."

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Dark Star stood next to Scarab, occasionally reaching over and accelerating her own healing. Mainly though, he simply listened. I must spend too much time off world and away from people... He really had no idea what was going on. Ok, Avenger was a vampire. He got that (though was still a little surprised). But the rest, he was just doing his best to keep up.

He paused a little at the thought of killing someone, anyone. Was that really necessary? He wasn't comfortable with that thought at all. Even if, and he assumed the names Avenger was sharing, were vampires? Couldn't they be redeemed. After all, Avenger was obviously a hero...

Avenger's words brought him back. Dark Star had been quiet up till now; having little to contribute. He brought a little gravitic telekinetic force and wrap it around his hand as he stepped forward and lightly rested it on the man's shoulder. Dark Star knew the importance of physical contact and reassurance, even if he himself seldom could feel it.

"If dead you need to be to save lives, then dead you shall be. At least till you're ready. No one else will die or suffer. I do not know or understand what has been done and come before. But I don't need to know. What I do know is this. You are a Hero, a true guardian of the good and innocent of this city. We are your teammates. You companions. Your friends. Whatever darkness you need to face, be it internal decisions and guilt or an external threat like this 'Melinda', you do not face them alone. We shall stand beside you and bring light to wash away that darkness. We will overcome. You are a Hero. And you do not stand alone."

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"Your parents must be proud."

"Your parents must be proud."

"Your parents must be proud."

Elena's own words echoed inside her head. Her own sarcastic, inconsiderate words from the party with Melinda. So this is what they taste like. "I...I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't know. I stayed out of your head as much as I could. I didn't know..."

"Derrick is right. You are a Hero, and you are not alone." Elena smiled. "I told you. You can earn their trust, and admiration, and they will accept you, even if the rest of the world would not."

"If she thinks you're dead...truly dead, than this works in our favor. We have the element of surprise, and her own pride will isolate her from potential allies. The gods don't give mortals any guarantees, but working together, we should be able to avoid any innocent casualties...or are you saying you don't want us to grant Final Death to your less civic-minded brethren?"

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Jack closed his eyes and concentrated as Scarab's empowered blood filled his body, and suddenly there came a great transformation in him. As Dark Star and Scarab watched, his wounds knitted up like a fast-motion film, dead flesh knitting itself back together in a sudden, eerie process of change. The great open wound in his chest healed up last, first the back knitting up, then the front as the massive, gaping hole in his body vanished. When it was done, he sat up, carefully removing the needle from his arm.

"They're my friends, Elena. Friends who've stood by me before." He looked down at his newly-healed hands, gathering his words as never before, then looked up at his two friends. "I never had a great, defining moment where my soul was restored to me or some afterlife fantasia was confronted with the imminent reality of damnation. I just...I just chose to do something better. To be something better. If I can make that choice, the vampires of Freedom City can make that choice too." If they can make the choice...to be like you. He flexed his newly-healed fingers, perfectly immaculate after falling a hundred stories and landing on his hands. "You asked me a minute ago if my family could protect itself, Elena." He put his newly-refreshed hand on Elena's shoulder, then put the other around where Dark Star's was. "My family's right here."

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He nodded in agreement at Scarab's words though he did pause at her voicing the option of killing.

He looked at Avenger. "Friends are important. They can give you the strength to go on when you have none of your own. If you made the choice to be a better person, then they could make the same. Everyone deserves to choose for themselves." He gave the man's hand a telekinetic squeeze. "I'm honored my friend."

"So, how would you like to handle this? If this woman that tried to kill you knows you are also Avenger, as soon as you return to doing your good works, she will know you are still alive. Shall we confront her? And once she has been defeated," and there was no doubt in Dark Star's mind that good wouldn't overcome," what do we do with her?" He paused in thought. "Are there vampire prisons? I suppose I could find a suitable planet if nothing else...might take a little looking however."

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Elena shook her head. "I can understand a reluctance to kill. Even relate to it. And if you think your fellow vampires have the same potential for redemption as you, then I will defer to your judgement on the matter. No one prefers to turn enemies into friends more than I. But Melinda is beyond redemption. I've been inside her head. I've seen her life, through her eyes. A life drenched in the blood of the innocent. A life which would have ended naturally long ago were it not for the dark magic which sustains her. She must be destroyed."

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Jack seemed to come to a decision at Scarab's words, his eyes hardening as he pulled his hand back. "You're right, Scarab. Melinda is a monster." Reaching down, he began pulling off the tattered remains of his costume, the black leather having been torn to fragments by his hundred-story fall. "This isn't something I'm going do behind a mask. If you have a change of clothes my size in here, I would appreciate it. I don't think I can go back to my apartment anymore. Tomorrow night, I will go to Melinda's lair and challenge her authority over the city's vampires. And after that, one of us will be dead."

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"A bold strategy. But do you really think you can keep playing both sides of the fence like this? And does this mean you don't want our help?"

DarkStar heard Elena's voice in his head. Jack is getting our help, whether he wants it or not. If he says "No," then we'll use my scrying powers to follow him from a distance and keep an eye on him. And we'll jump in at the first sign of trouble.

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Dark Star nodded, unsure. "I can't say I understand exactly what your situation is. But I believe in you and trust you. If you feel this is necessary, then it must be." He paused. "If you like, I can go to your apartment and get anything you need."

Agreed. Though following him is never an easy task. But we won't let him face this alone.

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