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July 14, 2014

 

"I'm just saying it's hard to believe the initials were an accident," the figure perched atop the three-storey apartment complex insisted. Keeping to shadows deep enough to conceal his high collared, royal blue great coat and matching bandanna mask, the West End vigilante known as Jack of all Blades spoke in a low voice as he peered down at the community center across the street, noting the comings and goings through the back door.
 
"Hey, don't look at me, fearless leader," the smoothly cheerful baritone in his ear protested. "When it comes to acronyms, well! Those who live on glass hard drives, et cetera, et cetera!" VINCE, the Interceptor's artificial intelligence and dispatcher usually preferred to appear with his avatar when communicating with the team but for covert surveillance and earpiece beat commandeering an ATM monitor.

Grunting noncommittally, Jack noticed and ultimately ignored a trio of youths starting up a pickup game of basketball on the center's court. The Vibrant Community Reclamation project had been the driving influence behind a number of similar centers throughout the city, focusing on the West End and Lincoln while making inroads into the Fens, repurposing unused buildings in what were diplomatically referred to as 'at risk neighbourhoods'. If the organization spent just as much time holding banquets and press events to pat its well heeled contributors on the back, well, the plus column still came out ahead.

At least in theory. Jack had learned the hard way that looking a gift horse in the mouth was actually a pretty good habit to get into and the increased drug trafficking he and his team had been encountering in the area since the center opened had started to make the hairs on the back of his neck itch. VINCE had explained something about correlation and causation that the swashbuckling swordsman hadn't entirely followed but had agreed that the rising crime bore looking into. Without much more than a hunch to go on, he'd decided to stake out the center itself to see if a lead presented itself.

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It always came down to drugs. Shootings and stabbings were problems on their own, but they were problems he could treat. He could sew someone up and if God was willing, send them home and on the road to recovery. Addicts were an entirely different issue. Drugs ate away at people and burned them from the inside, often destroying them completely or leaving them husks of what they once were.

 

It hadn't taken a lot for Graft to coax information out of the young woman. Knowing what was happening in the neighborhood gave him the kind of information that could potentially help him save lives. A lot of dealers were independent or part of a small network. Dealers that were more organized was always a red flag. Usually it meant one of the bigger gangs was trying to muscle in on the territory. However, with VCR starting to help around the same time, well, something was off.

 

He honestly hoped that the VCR were honest, but he had good reason to doubt them. Lots of people tried to exploit the rougher parts of the city for their own gain. Disguising it as a work of charity made him angry.

 

It didn't take much information to find out where the VCR started their projects. It was a lesson that dated back to medical school. Sometimes the only way to deal with an infection was to cut it off at the source. With that in mind, he made his way to the West End.

Edited by Thunder King

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Doctor Metropolis may be able to restore damaged neighborhoods to their original condition after a supervillain brawl or terrorist attack.  But without the direct effort and resources of people like Mike Palladino, that just meant that people born in the wrong neighborhood could go back to walking past a line of boarded-up storefronts, pandhandlers, and loitering junkie convicts, on their way to the stop for a bus which took them to another bus, which took them to a train halfway across town, none of which ran often enough to get them to work on time at any of the closest places that paid the minimum wage that wasn't enough to make the interest payments to the check-cashing stands for the advance they had to take to afford both rent and food for the month.  There was only so much any superhero could do to make life better in Freedom City, so the Rhodes Foundation was always on the lookout for new worthy causes to fund.  The Vibrant Community Reclamation project had been making quite a stir of late, and the rest of the board of directors were already sold on the idea.

 

But Elena Guerrero knew that, if something seemed too good to be true, then it probably was, and everything about VCR lined up just a little bit too neatly for her to feel comfortable. Palladino's name, and the august lineage attached to it, showed up in the pages of the Freedom Ledger on a regular basis.  Most of the time, it appeared under pictures of his smiling face as he held yet another award presented to him at some fancy dinner by the latest charity he'd spearheaded.  But Elena had read that same name in just enough back-of-the-metro-section articles, police reports, and legal briefs, one step removed from dead ends, for a disturbing pattern to emerge.  Most people wouldn't even consider an act so vile and shameless as embezzling money from a charity, or using one to launder ill-gotten gains.  But Elena Guerrero, the reincarnation of Prince Heru-Ra of Egypt who now called herself "The Scarab," could see right into the darkest parts of the soul, and she knew better than most that the world was full of vile and shameless people.

 

The board wasn't going to invest in VCR without the usual due diligence, but time was running out for Elena to find anything concrete enough to hold off the funding for much longer.  Once she had exhausted the more mundane channels at her disposal, she cloaked herself in the power and garb of The Scarab.  Shielded from the mind's eye of any observers, she quietly flew to the VCR community center and office in the West End, hoping that, for once, her instincts were wrong.

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Blodeuwedd had spent the last couple of weeks on the streets chasing down leads rather than concentrating on other changes in her life. Bad for the street scum and lowlives that attracted her attention she wasn’t overly violent, but she was single minded in her approach.

 

Everything she had discovered so far had bought her here to this innocent looking community center the possible source of the new drug supplier. She took a vantage point above concealed from sight watching the place searching for any possible source of all this.

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As the stakeout wore on, Jack was beginning to doubt anything properly suspicious was going to present itself until he spotted nearly seven feet of forest green muscle and chitin walking down the street. "...well, there's something you don't see every day," the fencer muttered under his breath, creeping close to the edge of the building's roof to get a better look and smoothly sliding a worn metal lighter out of his greatcoat pocked and into a gloved palm. "Guess it's nice to know I can still find reasons to say that." Flicking open the lighter and producing a small flame, he subtly flexed the part of him that felt the energy of the flame in a language outside his usual five senses and drew it forth into a ribbon of fire, solidified heat and ember in the shape of a rapier blade held out of view.

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Around the corner, concealed by her ring in an alleyway that provided a full view of the community center's back door, the lenses of Blodeuwedd's mystically treated goggles highlighted a whisper of magic on a nearby rooftop. It was brief, a flicker of power she might have associated with a rote cantrip, a mage lighting a candle or levitating a small object to their hand. Even so it was unmistakeable as a flash of light reflected off of a sniper's scope.

On the street, not making much attempt to hide his considerable mass including the biosuit, Graft may not have been aware of any exercises of mystical might but with his vision extended deep into the infrared end of the spectrum it was tough for him to miss a sudden heat radiating from behind the ledge of the same rooftop. He'd have assumed it was an open flame had he not been able to make out the rough outline of a shoulder against the evening sky once his attention was drawn in the right direction.

Floating over the entire scene, invisible to minds that simply forgot that they were looking at her, the Scarab sensed the drum beat of competition and building excitement from the teenagers playing basketball on the court below her, the grey drone of passersby going about their uneventful business for the evening, the relaxed syncopation of the security guard sitting just inside the center's doors looking up occasionally from the sports stream on his phone. Standing out against all of that were three pinpricks of heightened, piano wire taut awareness and suspicion directed toward the same building she'd come to investigate herself.

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The Scarab gently floated down to the roof of the Vibrant Community Reclamation Project corporate office. When she touched down, she knelt and braced herself against the roof with one hand, while her other hand moved up to her face. She pushed her first two fingers against the center of her own forehead and closed her eyes. Her facial muscles tensed for a moment, and then like a jet breaking through the sound barrier, her awareness broke free from her physical body and soared out over the West End, leaping and diving from one person's mind to another like a bullfrog searching for the ideal perch from which to sing his nightly song. She focused on those minds in which she detected an active interest in the VCR.

The Jack of All Blades felt a familiar echo vibrate inside their heads, a choir of a hundred voices whispering in unison. Jack, this is The Scarab. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance again. I see I am not the only one who thinks there is more to the VCR Project than meets the eye. Fortunately for us, security on the inside, at least that of the human variety, appears to be lax. The ogre in the street, and the hidden woman, also appear to be interested parties. Are they your confederates?

Edited by ShaenTheBrain

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There it was only a flash but it was enough of a clue to Blodeuwedd to spring into action. She was preparing her grapple gun when she felt the feeling of someone else in her mind. The Order had tried to prepare her for any opportunities include the possibility of mind reading and control, having taught her a few basic techniques to block mind reading though it was all hypothetical.

 

“I know you’re out there and I hope you’re not here to cause me any trouble.â€

 

Without missing a beat she fired her grapple and swung over to the other rooftop to see if the two things were contented to what bought her here.

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Graft saw the brief flare of flame pop up in the infrared spectrum and spotted the clear outline of someone. He couldn't be sure if it was a hostile, but he also knew better than to hit first and ask questions later. With his incredible mobility, it was near effortless to dash up the side of the building and land on the roof. As he moved he made sure to correct the suit's tendency to forget essential parts, like eyes.

 

The Graft that landed on the roof was one with a complete suit of armor. No exposed muscles, bones, blood vessels or tendons. He even managed to make sure a pair of alien eyes sat exactly where human eyes should be. Human looking eyes, he determined, would look even weirder sitting on an otherwise featureless face.

 

"I should have figured another hero would be patrolling the area." He said. "Or should I say heroes? I felt a telepath contact me, I believe. I apologize for my monstrous appearance. I patrol the Fens mostly, I'm Graft."

 

Despite his horrifying appearance, Graft always made sure to act friendly to reassure civilians and other heroes. Abrupt, horrified screams did him no favors. Especially his years.

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"Ghwah!" Jack made an undignified sound at the unexpected telepathic communication, taking a hasty step back away from the edge of the rooftop and shuddering involuntarily. "Dios, give a guy some warning before you start talking like that..."

"Er, I didn't say anything, boss," VINCE piped up in his earpiece, sounding confused and a little concerned.

"Not you, the other voice in my head," the fencer muttered as he cast about, trying to figure out where the armored heroine the mental chorus belonged to was hiding herself. "Good to, uh, see you again, too. But I don't know about--"

Before he could finish, the distinctive clink of a grappling line biting into brick was followed by the graceful arrival of a hooded woman in dark blues atop the ledge and then the surprisingly agile carapace covered giant from the street below, looking marginally more normal as he introduced himself. "Apparently it's a party. I coulda been charging admission," Jack drawled, lowering but not dismissing his fiery sword just let, lighting the impromptu gathering with flickering orange light from below.

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Apologies. Mental contact can be startling, even for the experienced. Look alive, the giant is headed your wa-

Before he could finish, the distinctive clink of a grappling line biting into brick was followed by the graceful arrival of a hooded woman in dark blues atop the ledge and then the surprisingly agile carapace covered giant from the street below, looking marginally more normal as he introduced himself.

"I should have figured another hero would be patrolling the area." He said. "Or should I say heroes? I felt a telepath contact me, I believe. I apologize for my monstrous appearance. I patrol the Fens mostly, I'm Graft."

Both Jack and Graft felt the choir of one hundred voices vibrate inside their skulls. He is telling the truth. His intentions are benign.

For Jack, the conversation continued. Whoever the woman is, she is exceptionally resistant to telepathy, though if by training, talent, or other means, I do not know. I have not been able to glean much beyond her interest in VCR. I could probably break through her defenses if it comes to that, but I will not resort to such measures without further cause.

The Scarab pulled her awareness back into her physical body, and refocused her concentration on restoring her cloak of psychic invisibility. She closed her eyes for a few moments to see through Jack's eyes instead of her own. She mentally compared his surroundings with those of her physical body, she quickly deduced his position.

Blocking her presence from the awareness of all observers, she telekinetically launched herself over to the building where the rest of the vigilantes were congregating. Floating a few inches above the rooftop, she faded back into view. Jack, Graft, and Blodeuwedd all heard the hundred voices speaking as one in their minds as she appeared before them.

Greetings. I am The Scarab.

Edited by ShaenTheBrain

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Well wasn’t this a happy little gathering. She was sure that she recognized Jack from somewhere else, and not just from the television, there was something about the voice she thought sounded familiar. Still now was not the time to skulk in the shadows, she stepped not quite into the light but certainly closer to the other heroes.

 

“Pleased to meet you all I’m Blodeuwedd. I assume that you’ve all been following the same rumours? We should probably compare notes.†though faint she still carried her soft Welsh lilt.

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"Well..." Graft said. "I'm Graft, and this is a suit of undifferentiated biomass capable of transforming into whatever organs or tissue I need at the moment." He held his hand up and the strange material the suit was made out of seemed to slink away from his arm, exposing a very human looking hand. It slithered back up his arm and reformed itself into a hand, before transforming into claws. It shifted a few more times, adding greater bulk to his shoulders and arms, slithering out as a pair of tentacles coming from his upper back, and finally settling back on to the same default 'mode' it was in when he first appeared.

 

"I normally don't show off what I can do, but, I feel like you folks would have good reason to be suspicious of the big guy in the meat suit." he looked around. "Someone is moving into the Fens. Someone big, and organized."

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"Hey, sure, undifferentiated biomass, that's very in right now, it's very this season," Jack nodded with exaggerated aplomb, wishing his sister was there to let him know if any of what Graft had just said actually made sense. Somehow seeing tentacles growing out of the chitinous hulk's back didn't have quite the reassuring effect he seemed to expect it to have.

Sighing, the masked fencer opened his sword hand and allowed his blade to dissipate into a puff of rising hot air and crossed his arms. "Alright, fine. I'm not exactly low profile so I'm going to assume you two already know who I am but for the record it's Jack of all Blades. The West End is my dojo, grasshoppers, but I'm not going to say no to extra hands. Claws. Whatever." Looking over his shoulder to the Scarab he explained, "I'm a real team player these days, you know. I've mellowed." Turning back to the other two he added, "If the VCR, ridiculous initials aside, is dirty, however, that risks harshing said mellow. Miss Unpronounceable is right, study hall time. What's everyone heard?"

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The Scarab nodded to each of the assembled heroes.  "Blodeuwedd, Graft.  I have heard the names.  Only good things so far."  She turned to Jack.  "I'm guessing we're all following the same broken trail of bread crumbs.  A community outreach program that doesn't spend much time with the community.  Business records that look just a little too neat and tidy to be genuine.  And a millionaire city councilman who's name pops up in police reports as often as it does in the society page.  This wouldn't be the first time an investigation into money laundering and embezzlement came up short at the feet of Mike Palladino.  For some people, money and power are an end unto themselves, not merely a means to an end.  They can be a drug every bit as intoxicating as anything peddled on a street corner."

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"Someone is moving into the Fens. Someone with a lot of muscle, drugs and money. Someone too organized to just be a typical street gang. I followed my sources back to the west end, which is where I got the notion that VCR is involved. People love to exploit the poor." he did not seem to move his head, as if, well, as if he didn't need to. It was a little disconcerting to most people. In truth, Graft did not need to move his head because he literally had eyes on the back of his head, and the sides, and his chin...wherever he wanted eyes to go, really. Though he did manage to stop his 'eyes' from actually leaving his face, he was still receiving visual input from elsewhere.

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“It’s Blodeuwedd, b l uh d EH w eh th, and it’s a pleasure to meet all of you.†she was use to it by now and it was more a matter of fact response than any kind of irritation.

 

She followed along with Scarabs explanation of what she had found out before adding what she had also found out.

 

“I believe that money and power are not the only drugs they've been after. Seems someone been pushing out the regular drug pushes with good quality stuff, and the trail leads back to places like this.†she gestured to the community center “Guess someone is playing Mobster using the center as a base.â€

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"The nicknames are one of my many charming quirks, kid. I call her Lady Tin Britches," Jack elaborated, pointing with one thumb over at the implacable Scarab. "You can't really tell with the mask, but she loves it, really." Leaning against the large metal air duct housing sticking out of the rooftop with his arms still crossed, the fencer weighed the information they'd collectively gathered. "So. Not a lot of question that there's some serious abuse of trust going on here, huh? Trouble being that swinging down there and beating up a bunch of people in a community center is probably not Plan A material if we actually want to stop these guys, which rules out my main skill set. Anybody actually come with a plan in mind?"

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"Anybody actually come with a plan in mind?"

"My initial scan of the area showed very light security in the offices. I can most likely circumvent it for us, in a discreet and nonviolent manner. First things first, though, we should clear out the innocent bystanders."

The Scarab vanished from the minds eye of the other heroes, reappearing a few moments later in front of the youths on the basketball court. She retrieved a money clip from a pouch on her belt, counted out fifteen twenty-dollar bills, and offered five to each of them. "Sorry to cancel your game, Gentlemen. I hope this is adequate compensation, both for the inconvenience and for your discretion." She made a "zipper" motion across the part of her helmet where a mouth would presumably be located.

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The three teenagers all seemed predictably startled by the Scarab's abrupt appearance but had enough aplomb to quickly play it off and accept the proffered bills. The shortest, a wiry youth with immaculate cornrows who looked like he made up for any deficiencies in height with quickness, thumbed through the bills to count them then gave the armored heroine a wry courtly bow with a toothy grin. "Ma'am, consider us adequately compensated. You have a good night." The basketball player to his right, somber and tight-lipped with a shaved head, nodded to the Scarab politely with the manner one might have usually reserved for a respected teacher or reverend and both began to walk away.

The third, a heavyset young man who looked like he probably weighed as much as his friends put together for all that he carried it reasonably well, hesitated. "So, like, is something going down?"

The more verbose teenager looked back with exasperation. "Man, c'mon! Don't make us look bad in front of our new favourite hero. You misunderstanding the definition of 'discretion' or what?"

"It's not like that," the inquisitive youth shot back, annoyed. Looking back over to the Scarab, he explained, "Listen, I seen you on TV before, you fight, y'know, big guys. Heavy hitters, yeah? And things have been messed up lately. Rico's brother got capped in the leg and nobody's even seen the guy that did it before." He seemed more perturbed by the idea of unknown persons in the community than he was about the gun violence. "So I'm saying, like, if something is going down, maybe we can help or whatever?" His girth made it difficult but he straightened his back and squared his shoulders enough to indicate that he was serious.

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By her natural inclination Blodeuwedd wasn’t as flashy as Scarab’s, she prefered to operate from the shadows. From the safety of the rooftop she watched the other heroes action with some interest, though she suspected that it would be difficult for them as heroes to gather the information they needed. Even as she watched an idea formed, a way of doing things that she had been trained to do what seemed to be so very long ago.

 

“Maybe going in like this isn’t the best idea. Perhaps we should approach this in another way and enter the Youth center undercover?â€

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"What, you're suggesting a lady in bright red and gold armor tossing around fistfuls of cash isn't the most subtle approach? Your ideas are new and strange to me, Banana-fana-fo-fuwedd," Jack murmured in a hushed tone, waggling his eyebrows as he watched the Scarab speak to the youths on the basketball court. It occurred to him that there was something oddly comforting about the supremely powerful psychic attempting a bribe before simply rifling though the minds of random passersby to get what she wanted, unorthodox though it may have been. "Meat Suit, keep a look out up here in case our flush friend needs backup. We'll see if there's a better spot to sneak inside around the side."

Gesturing for Blodeuwedd to follow, the swordsman backflipped off of the rooftop and disappeared into the shadows of the alleyway.

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Blodeuwedd gave a little sigh at Jack deliberately mangling her name but it was difficult to stay mad at him for long, he had a rugged charm that even she could... appreciate.

 

Instead she followed him down doing a similar little tumble as Jack as she did so. Activating her ring she was almost completely concealed from sighted.

 

 

“I’m still with you just better hidden, I can probably go places where even you are obvious. How do you want to do this? I have a little skill in these matters.â€

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The Scarab floated closer to the inquisitive youth.  She spoke in a lower tone, barely above a whisper.  "We don't know yet.  That's what we're trying to figure out.  And until we do figure it out, we're trying to keep collateral damage to a minimum.  If there is trouble, then we don't want it for anyone but ourselves.  I appreciate the offer.  And I'm not wearing a badge, so I know it's hypocritical of me to ask you to stay on the sidelines.  But there are things we can do that no one else can, not even the police, and we can do them better without other people in the line of fire.  If you want to help, you'll get your chance, I promise.  Just not today."  She nodded to him, and then vanished from sight once again.
 
Jack and Blodeuwedd felt The Scarab's voice echo in their minds again.  Security on the inside appears to be minimal.  I can assure us an unimpeded entrance, unless the two of you would rather swing onto the roof and climb down a ventilation shaft?

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"Yeah, kid, I noticed," Jack assured Blodeuwedd, looking directly at the goggles covering her eyes. He could no more see the invisible young woman than any random passerby but his metamagi senses provided him with certain advantages. The eyewear and weapon at her hip were magical, certainly, even while her ring and accoutrement hummed with more subtle energies. "With all that stuff you're wearing you smell like licking a curio shop. Not that I'm one to talk, believe me!"

The pair had stealthily made their way to the back door of the community center when the Scarab contacted them. "Don't disrespect the ventilation shaft," Jack whispered aloud, not entirely sure how the telepathic conversation was supposed to work. "But sure, if you just wanna waltz right in, that works, too."

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