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Avenger Assembled

Standing Up

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Licking her extended fangs with hunger, Claudia walked down the basement corridor as she headed for the refrigerated unit downstairs. Normally this kind of work was for slaves, but she was hungry and didn't have time to wait for humans to catch up with her. Everyone was on edge tonight, and she couldn't afford to let her hunger distract her from whatever was going on with Melinda. She'd served Melinda loyally for decades, but the recent attack on the city's leadership had made the queen...different. More like she'd been in the old days, before Kong Wei's death, when Melinda's cult had ruled its section of the night with blood and joy. Claudia had enjoyed the 80s just fine, but she wasn't at all sure it was a good idea to go back to those days now that Freedom City had so very many heroes in it. And then there was the question of what on Earth had happened to her erstwhile favored childe.

She stepped into the refrigerator when someone grabbed her from behind, pinning her against the wall. She hissed and popped fangs wide, a second before turning to rip the throat out of her attacker, before she heard Jack's voice in her ear. "Claudia! It's me!" He released her then, and they spun on each other, the two vampires glaring like the caged predators they were. It was cold in the refrigerator, the bagged blood nearly frozen. Jack had known where to wait for Claudia, taking advantage of the fact that she preferred to catch live prey herself.

"Jack! What..." She gave him a startled look, something like tenderness flashing across her face for a barely visible moment. "What the hell are you doing here?" She glared at him. "And what happened to your apartment? I was worried!"

"What do you mean?" asked Jack, knowing she was lying but pushing past that to explore the mystery she'd left open.

"Don't you watch the news?" she demanded. "Or talk to anyone? It burned down last night! And when I called to ask, Melinda said you were involved! She was sure you were dead!" She folded her arms and glared at him imperiously. Jack's jaw dropped, but he pushed aside the human urge to ask what had happened; if anyone had been hurt by the disaster. This was no night for humanity.

"I...I was dead." Jack looked Claudia square in the eye. "Melinda staked me and threw me off the Pyramid Plaza." It was Claudia's turn to stare at him, her jaw dropping wide.

"But...but why?" She eyed him closely. "What did you DO?"

"Claudia...I'm a superhero."

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She went for him in a sudden rage, eyes red and spitting fury, smashing her fist across his face in a blow that rocked his head back. He caught her by the shoulders and pinned her against the wall, her arms above her head as his weight pinned her down. She broke free in an instant, exploding into mist and leaping through him, but didn't flee. "You...why would you DO that!?" The fury and fear on her face were mixed inextricably. "No wonder she wouldn't tell me what happened to you. You pompous bastard! You know what they'll do to you? To ME? To every daywalker in the city!?"

"It doesn't have to be that way," said Jack, rubbing his jaw as he focused directly on Claudia. "We can be better than this." He looked her square in the face. "I'm going to kill Melinda. Tonight, where everyone can see."

"And what good will that do?" she demanded of him imperiously. "You think whoever follows her isn't going to want you dead too?"

"Not if they have other priorities. Melinda hasn't told anyone what I've been doing, right? With her dead, no one but some of her human allies know, and they can be dealt with as well." He went to Claudia, putting his arm on hers. "Think of what we can do with someone like Pitt running the city. No more assasinations, no more orders from on high; no more petty tortures. We can live our lives the way we want to. The way we should."

She stared up at him and made a decision. "Jack, I'm not going to help you with this. It's too bloody dangerous. For you, for me, and every other vampire like us." She took a step back from him. "Get out," she urged him. "Get on a bus and get out. There are plenty of cities that don't like Melinda and where they won't follow you. Do your little...self-indulgent fantasy there, or whatever you call it. But get out of this city before anyone else dies."

She turned and looked away...and Jack hit her. She was up again in an instant, fury back on her face, but Jack had taken the opportunity to reach the door of the refrigerated vault. The gas-tight, sound-proofed vault. "I'll see you soon, Claudia. You'll be safe in here." And with that he slammed the door in her face, locking his dam firmly in the refrigerator for the duration. This wasn't a good start to the night.

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Jack moved in silence and darkness through the vampire party, his own prodigious abilities to conceal himself giving him an edge even on many of his own kind. The undead were out in full force tonight, the party bustling with the whispery figures of vampires and their servants. Much of the party was all pale skin and soft voices, smiling men and women with flinty eyes and sharp teeth. The humans who followed them around had quiet eyes and minds, faces downcast when they weren't gazing in awe and wonder at their masters. Not every vampire had a human servant, though, and not everyone looked as cold as Melinda. There were other vampires who looked more like Jack than anything else, only their pale skin and lack of respiration keeping them from looking perfectly human. These younger ones were all jockeying for position, just as Jack had suspected, visibly competing with each other as they sipped bottled blood or danced together, showing off how strong and powerful they were with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

The queen of the show, the arch-predator of all of them, was Melinda. She reclined on a magnificent throne of polished ebony, her skin perfectly pale beneath a lush black dress, with humans and vampires both sitting or standing by her side. Her eyes were hard too, but she was smiling, stroking the hair of a favored pet vampire, her fangs prominent as she watched her subjects compete for her favor. Even drifting among his friends, Jack heard no mention of his name, no one worried about where he'd gone. They had their own concerns, he could tell, the wide eyes and whispered voices in dark corners murmuring about their own worries and problems. Melinda was, what? Gone mad? Gone worse? No one could say, but tonight things were coming to a head.

If they only knew...

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Elena's eyes and ears followed Jack through the night, even as her body continued to rest at her Lair beneath Pyramid Plaza. Her face softened with sympathy for the confused and misguided vampire children she watched competing for status and attention. But her features hardened into a hateful glare as the self-proclaimed "Queen of The Night" came into view. "I've seen your life through your eyes. So much blood. So much death. So little of it with necessity or meaning. It ends tonight." She used her telepathy to show DarkStar everything she saw and heard, everything Jack saw and heard. "Be ready to take us in on my signal."

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As Scarab's mental eyes passed by, she distinctly noted one of Melinda's cronies, an older-looking vampire leaning on a long staff, raise his head with a distinct look of concern on his predatory face. Limping slightly on his walking stick, the long-haired figure made his way to Melinda, leaning close to whisper urgently in her ear. Jack saw that too, misinterpreted it as a sign that he himself had been detected, and decided that now was the time to strike. He appeared suddenly on an empty table before Melinda, standing between her, her intimate circle, and the crowd of vampires behind him. It was all high theater to show he didn't fear them, it was all so very petty.

"MELINDA AINSLEY!" Jack was in full imperious regalia today, his eyes red and his fangs just a little extended, the perfect picture of a wroth vampire yet in control of himself. He pointed at her as she stood up, her eyes burning, the guards at her side moving protectively. "Your incompetent leadership has led the vampires of this city into disaster time and time again! I challenge you for the leadership of the Freedom City coven!"

Melinda's glare was as murderous as the fangs she grew, her eyes burning red as she rose to her feet, took a few steps...and then, visibly, mastered herself as the shocked crowd held perfectly still with the calmness of the dead, only a few weeping humans showing any outward emotion at the sight of this sudden, terrifying display. "Oh, for pity's sake." She waved her hand and laughed. "Somebody kill him for me."

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They went for Jack then, some half-dozen of the younglings behind him, charging him growling like animals with fangs bared and eyes glowing red. Jack underestimated the sheer magnitude of their fury, and was actually bowled off his feet as his own people swarmed him. For a moment Dark Star and Scarab thought he'd fallen before suddenly he rose up, face warped in a feral snarl, throwing the lesser vampires aside like bowling pins, hurling them aside to smash into walls and furniture, as he burst out of the swarming attack. "No more blood on your hands, Melinda! Your reign ends tonight!"

She hissed at him, her own fangs out, as her people parted to make way for her. "You miserable little daywalker! When I get through taking your head and putting it on a pike, I'm going to track down each and every one of your friends and turn them too!" She raised her voice at that, trying to call to the others. "Do you know what he's been doing?! He's betrayed us to the caped bastards! How many of our friends have we lost to them? How many of our children!?"

At her words, something touched Jack. His face dimmed down, his unholy vampiric rage pulled back on itself. "How many of our friends have you murdered, Melinda? How many humans have died at your command because you were too weak to know how to feed! You're nothing but a monster in the guise of a pretty woman; no more fit to lead free people than a rabid dog."

She looked him in the eye. "That's not what you said the last time we were in bed together." And the room went mad. As the vampires roared, Dark Star and Scarab both made out the vampire in the gallery; a solitary figure with a rifle slowly being aimed directly at Jack! For his part, Jack was entirely too distracted with his argument to notice the bead being drawn on him.

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Dark Star floated about, shaking his head to himself. Such a waste of potential. Though he was really disliking this Melinda person and not just because she had tried to kill Avenger by sending him plummeting from a high rise. Something would have to be done about her eventually. But Jack seemed to be doing fine, so Dark Star did nothing to interfere.

Until someone was about to blow Avenger's head off that is. He sighed to himself; looks like his concealment was going to come to an end. He reached out with fingers of gravity, yanking the rifle from the offenders hands to fly to the center of the ring where he turned it into a pretzel. Now visible, he look around the room, gazing at Melinda for a moment but never locking on. He wasn't sure what powers the older ones might have and was not going to take the risk.

"If you wanted a friend of Jack's, here I am." He address the group as a whole. "Jack has betrayed no one. He's kept your secrets even at the cost of his own happiness. I apologize for following you my friend," he said to the man below him. Turning back, he looked over the crowd once more. "Nor have I ever destroyed one of your kind. I am not here to interfere with your internal politics. Jack and Melinda can resolve this themselves, without interference. But I won't allow the assassination of anyone, friend or foe, to take place on my watch. Life, or unlife in your case, is to be treasured. Don't loose yourself to your base desires."

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The room beneath fell absolutely dead silent in the aftermath of Dark's Star's appearance and speech, the vampire who he'd disarmed fleeing into the darkness. The stillness of the dead was intimidating even among itself, even Jack holding dead still in that single moment of silence. Melinda, as it happened, broke the silence. "I want them dead. NOW!" A moment later her advisor with the staff slammed his staff into the ground and began chanting in a grim, necromantic language that reminded Jack, Scarab, and Dark Star of the tongue spoken by Sister Sixtus and Rocheambeau as they summoned necromantic demons into the world.

And no wonder Jack had known to go looking for the cult of the Elder all those months ago. After all, he was personally acquainted with the most powerful vampiric necromancer in Freedom City. As the undead magus chanted, suddenly shadowy forms erupted in the air all around Dark Star, translucent ghouls cast in white and red, ghosts of vampires twice dead with reaching claws and gaping fangs, each one reaching straight for Dark Star. As the ghosts moved in, Melinda dived for Jack, and the battle was joined. There was screaming and blood as the city's vampires turned on each other in a sudden, spasmodic eruption of violence.

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Hissing with rage, Jack swiped out at Melinda, slashing at her mid-section hard enough to kill a normal woman in seconds. He dug a deep wound in her side, but went for the grapple, wrapping his arms around her waist and trying to stop her before the fight could get any worse. Lord, if I can just get this finished fast enough... But Melinda proved to be made of sterner stuff than he expected, and broke out of his grip with a murderous hiss.

Up on the platform where Melinda had once stood, the African-American vampire Scarab had vaguely recognized from her earlier brush with Melinda looked around cautiously, a thoughtful look behind his eyes. With a careful expression, he stepped back and studied Dark Star, a cunning look behind his eyes.

Surrounding Dark Star on all sides were a half-dozen floating, translucent ghosts, their eyes glowing red and their spectral fangs bared with a hunger that went beyond death and even undeath. "The blood of your soul will spill this night!" one hissed, reaching out for Dark Star with spectral talons. "Cower in the presence of the twice-hungry dead!" At the ghost's words, Dark Star seemed to feel something tugging at the very essence of his soul!

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The multitude of claws ripped into the hero, tear into him but doing no visible damage. Still...the energy hero gasped as he felt his soul go cold and the world dimmed as he fell from the air...

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Hand on her slashed-open side, queen of the screaming melee all around her, Melinda glared at Jack. "Fool! You forget, stripling, that I have held your very mind in my power! And now, I take it again!" She focused directly on Jack, who resisted the sudden, overwhelming pressure in his mind only through the most fantastic force of will.

"No more, Melinda! Tonight we fight as free people!" It was all shocking hokum to Jack, the words, and the meaning behind them, coming with full force. To the crowd around him, he shouted, "Will you let her have your souls forever? Or will you stand tonight for Freedom City!?" A few more of the clashing neonates rallied to his side...a moment before Dark Star fell from the sky. "Oh dear Lord," Jack breathed aloud, "no more blood on my hands!"

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The Scarab was hoping for a more opportune moment to come out of hiding, but the alacrity with which their foes had incapacitated her comrade forced her hand. The telepathic link with DarkStar didn't quite allow her to see the spectres through his eyes, but his thoughts were clear enough for her to have an idea of what was going on.

Her voice echoed in DarkStar's mind, soothing him. Fear not, Friend. Let me lend a part of my experience and fortitude to you. His soul filled with cleansing fire.

The Scarab appeared in an explosion of golden light, which then faded into an aura that passed from her to DarkStar. His entire being was sheathed in a golden glow. "His soul is not yours to take, spirits."

She hovered several feet above the floor, looking down and around at the chaos before her. "I have looked into your minds, into your very souls. I have seen your lives, through your own eyes. I have seen so much blood, shed by your hands, your claws and fangs and blades. So much pain and suffering and death. So little of it necessary or justifiable in any way. No more. It ends tonight."

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"No more killing!" Jack charged Melinda, his claws flashing before her face as she pulled her head back at the last minute. Jack was angry at the sight of his friends' suffering, his emotions giving the master manipulator Melinda an edge over him. She laughed at him, her own injury nothing before the sight of him in rage.

"Temper temper, little Jackie-poo. You'll have killing enough when I feast on the blood of your friends!" When Scarab appeared, though, Melinda's fury at yet another violation of her private sanctum knew no bounds, and she hurled herself at Jack with renewed force.

When Scarab appeared, the vampires all around her took a step back, the ones for them and against them both looking very much like monsters cowering before the light. That is, except for one. "Hey, what a coincidence." Dave spoke in a surprisingly deep voice as he approached the hovering Scarab, his dark skin beginning to ripple and shift. "Scarab! We meet again." He was growing now, seeming to assume mass from nowhere, his flesh turning a dark, featureless red. "You remember me? Forty years ago, when you pulled our starship from the sky?" The Grue bared long, predatory fangs. "Of course, that was before I met Melinda. I've changed a lot since then." And with that he hurled his fist at the Scarab, the spiked, red-hewn blow smashing into Scarab's mid-section.

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With Dark Star falling from the sky and Dave engaging Scarab, Nevermore worked to maintain his spell, chanting as his necromantic power continued to force the ghosts into incorporeal reality. Interpreting the Scarab's power infusion into Dark Star just the wrong way, the necromancer and his servants made the obvious choice and dived after the Scarab, hissing and spitting as they clawed at her with undead fury.

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Dark Star's eyes fluttered open as he returned to consciousness, restored. He righted his fall without notice and glanced around at the combat. He moved back to his center position and scowled. He had had enough of this. He'd tried to be nice; indeed, he'd made no offensive moves at all. Perhaps Scarab was right and this lot was too far gone to save. He hoped not. But still, he wasn't about to let such violence against his friends continue.

He threw his hands outwards, letting the fires of radiation reach out to burn the offending spirits, the one who summoned them and the vampire Grue. He looked over at the summoner and scowled. "You started this..." Dark Star thrust one hand forward and sent a gravity beam towards the necromancer.

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The radiation lashed out at the vampire Grue first, passing through his body in a sudden, disturbing moment of pure supernatural malfience. "Fool!" he called up at Dark Star. "Your powers might have burned me once, before I passed beyond the Unity and into the everlasting glories of undeath!" The ghosts, too, were unaffected by Dark Star's blasts, his beams of energy passing straight through them and blasting huge holes in the walls beyond. Nevermore, on the other hand, wasn't so lucky; taking a blast of energy through his midsection that scorched his flesh. Hissing animalistically, the vampiric wizard staggered, barely able to maintain his power.

Melinda hissed at Jack, taunting him with murderous fury. "Your friends are going to be as dead as you, hero! Them, and everyone else who hasn't stood for me. For ME!" She screamed. "This is MY CITY!" She tilted her head back, letting her skirt fall aside to show a long, lustrously pale leg. "If you think you can stop me , that is. Let's play a little game." And with that, she erupted up into the air, vanishing through one of the holes Dark Star had blasted in the walls.

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"A Grue Vampire. I suppose the saying is true - if you live long enough, sooner or later you see just about everything. Even a pathetic would-be conqueror trading one form of slavery for another."

The Scarab raised her hands to her temples. A golden glow enveloped her head, forming a spectral bubble that then shot out toward "Dave." It exploded upon contact, the energy pouring down around his head and shoulders like liquid. It morphed into a swarm of gold scarab beetles, which appeared to bite and slash and burrow into his flesh.

"Your flesh may have become stronger, but your spirit is just as weak now as it was then."

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The Grue staggered and nearly fell underneath the mental bombardment, only mastering its will through sheer unholy might. Despite the Scarab's failure to break the Grue's will, though, she noticed that some of the vampires below had caught sight of her efforts...and seemed to be on her side "Yeah, you get that Grue!" a black-haired woman called from the corner as she stood in a small circle of battling vampires. "I remember '68 too, you bastard! My mother died when your ship blew up half of Lincoln! I can't believe you've been a monster all this time!"

Meanwhile, Jack erupted upwards into the interior of the building after Melinda, turning her hunt against her as he disappeared into the darkness of the interior of the building itself. "Melinda. Listen to me." He whispered into the darkness, a floating shell of his former self. "Leave the city now. Go somewhere else and run the parties again. No one else needs to die." The worst part of it, as he sought her out unsuccessfully in the darkness himself, was that he meant it...even as he knew, perfectly well, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Melinda would never give in. This night, he was going to have to kill her.

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The vampire Grue's bones and muscles shifted around again, skin writhing horribly over his warping dead skull. "The time for deception is over! I, D've F'ly, shall stand alone in the glories of undeath!" Evidently the loyalty of a vampiric Grue was...well, about as reliable as one might expect, when you got right down to it. With a roar, he brought his mighty fists together, warping together his fingers and transforming them into a species of malignant snake found only on the Grue homeworld. Extending them wide, he extended his snaky talons at the Scarab in an attack both bizarre and terrifying to behold as the teeth and claws closed in on her. It was terrifying to watch; actually hitting would have been even more impressive.

With a curse, Nevermore waved his hands, dismissing his ghostly escort. "Fools! You shall never triumph over the power of death itself!" He targeted the space ghost who had hurt him, naturally, focusing on Dark Star and chanting in a grim tongue. At his words, a blast of pure black energy came boiling out of his fingertips to ensnare Dark Star inside a great glowing black human skull!

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Dark Star noted Avenger's departure, tracking the heroes movements as best he could. But for now he kept his attention on the wizard he had previously blasted. He slid past the weird skull apparition. "Nice try. My turn!" He reached deep inside himself and opened up a direct channel for his energies. It blasted forth and slammed into the wizard, completely encompassing him!

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The necromancer screamed and imploded as Dark Star's radioactive barrage blasted through him, vanishing into a cloud of smoke that disappeared on the barely perceptible wind in the darkened room. The vampire Grue was rearing up to strike at the Scarab again when a bullet suddenly caromed off its hide, the monster glaring up with now massive insectoid black eyes, its motion lost, as a vampire in the gallery cheered and reloaded. It was, of all people, the assassin who'd been prepared to strike Jack down a few minutes ago. "That's for everyone on Astoria Street in '04, you red-skinned #$$)@!" the vampire marksman cheered.

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The Scarab scanned the room, taking a moment to re-orient herself. Order out of chaos. Who is with us, and who is against us...There. She noticed one of Melinda's loyalists out of the corner of her eye, and, without turning her head away from the Grue, she reached out toward the vampire. As she lifted her hand, the vampire rose up out of the melee, as if plucked by some invisible giant. She brought her hand in a downward arc toward the Grue, and the vampire slammed into him with the force of a rocket. The vampire exploded into ash upon contact, but the Grue stood implacable in the face of the assault, unmoved.

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Melinda's fist smashed into Jack's face, knocking the hissing vampire backwards against the heavy wooden beam behind him. They were in the rafters far above the battle in the ballroom below, struggling just above the broken remains of the ceiling that Dark Star's blasts had knocked a hole in. The taunting, the jabs had long since passed; they were two feral monsters struggling with each other and the heat of their madness. Jack could feel the broken arm she'd given him when she'd nearly pulled it off, and see the deep slashes along her midsection he'd given her. She went for him while he was pinned against the beam, grabbing him by the midsection as she glared at him.

"Jack, listen to me," she spat suddenly, "they'll never accept you, no matter what you do. I know you, Jack." She looked him dead in the eye. "I've seen the darkness in you. Touched it. Tasted it. They may embrace this game you're playing as long as you play it, but what happens when you get bored? Can you really tell me that you're never going to kill again? Never ever? Are the lives of your friends, of your people so valueless to you?" She wasn't trying to backstab him, was the worst part of it; he could feel the meaning, the knowledge of decades, centuries of inhumanity in Melinda's eyes.

"Look at me." Jack looked at her. "My hands are covered in blood for what I do here tonight," he told her, raising his taloned fingers. He remembered the ground rushing up at him at the Pyramid Plaza, the trust he'd gained from Dark Star, Elena, and all his friends that had brought him there tonight. "But when I shed that blood, I do it to save the souls of us all. Goodbye, Melinda." He suddenly threw himself at her, the shock of his rush startling her out of the fight and before she could form into a mist or fly off, knocking them both down through the broken ceiling as they came crashing down in the middle of the wild melee of vampires and superheros beneath.

The two vampires slammed to the ground together, Jack's knee buckling beneath him...and a single, solitary shard of broken ornamental wood passing through Melinda's chest. Her eyes widened, and with no dramatic speeches and no terrible last words, Melinda Ainsley exploded into ash. The vampires in the room fell still and silent almost at once, an eerie, deadly pall falling over the darkened space, glowing red eyes falling on Jack Faretti above all others. For the living, there was a moment's pause.

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Dark Star nodded to himself as the vampire basically disintegrated with the force of his blast. He hadn't intended to destroy the creature but there was no doubt about the evilness there. He looked below and turned to the undead Grue that seemed to be shrugging off most attacks. The thing appeared to be rather focus on Scarab. He didn't particularly like the idea of shooting the thing in the side or back; it didn't seem honorable. They might be evil monsters, but he wasn't...

"Heck with it." Dark Star fired after a moment's thoughts, blasting the evil creature. Some things had used up their second chances.

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In the 5,000 years she had walked the Earth, The Scarab had met few creatures as foul, sadistic, or bloodthirsty as Melinda. As she watched the vampiress collapse into ash and dust, she allowed herself a wry grin beneath her mask. Hello, Melinda. Goodbye, Melinda.

The Scarab turned briefly to her comrade. "Good thinking, DarkStar. Took the words right out of my mouth - change partners and dance." She held her hands up to her temples. "While you keep 'Dave' here busy, I will check and make sure the necromancer is truly dead and not just being shy." She closed her eyes, reaching out instead with her mind. Let's see what rock you're hiding under...

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