Monday, 15 November 2021 19:00

Diamonds are a Vamps Best Friend (Part 5)

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A Whateley Academy Tale

Diamonds Are a Vamp's Best Friend

by Bek D. Corbin

 

Part 5

 

7:41 AM Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

VAMP

“Let me see if I’m getting this right,” Jadis said to Mrs. Pierson the next morning at breakfast. “You’re telling me that after what happened last Christmas, you STILL let an adorable nameless little boy with no real reason to be here into the house?”

Mrs. Pierson squirmed uncomfortably. I gave a ‘last Christmas? What happened last Christmas?’ look around the table, but all I got were ‘I dunno’ and ‘I’m not telling’ looks in return.

Jadis gave Hernandez a stern look. “And how did Gina Lambert get back into the house?”

“Same way she did last time,” Hernandez said without a trace of embarrassment. “She snuck in after the kid. The boy did something to what currently passes for our security panel, and she phased through a section of mesh that should have been electrified.”

“HOW?” Jadis demanded, not really asking Hernandez, but sort of putting the question to the Universe, “How does a kid who looks like he should be figuring out blocks in Pre-K totally wreck our security panel?”

“Well, I was halfway to getting a decent stopgap layout rigged when another emergency came up,” he said in a classic Male hedge. He finished with a big slug of OJ to gloss over exactly what that ‘emergency’ was.

“If word of this gets out, we’re going to be a laughingstock!” Jadis said, head in hands.

“Wow, Jads, I had no idea that your place was such a crackerbox,” Jobe sneered. “Maybe we should look for someplace safer to stay.”

“YES!” Jadis threw right back at her. “Please DO! And take that fucking ROCK of yours with you. Just leave the eighty grand.”

Then Bova stepped in and said, “Now, Jobe, don’t be like that. We’re imposing on Jadis’ hospitality, her house has nearly been wrecked because of us, and… let’s face it, the fear factor that’s such a major part of their protection has taken a beating as well. Perhaps we should move… say, in with your grandmother.”

“Gramma?” Jobe bleated, totally stopped for the first time in my experience.

“We have a grandmother living in New York?” Belphy asked.

“Yes, she’s the star boarder at Jobe’s cousin Gladys’ old folks ho-er, retirement facility,” Bova said. “Maybe you could stay there until you go to Karedonia. After all, it’s only three days.”

“You mean… With the old people smell?” Jobe wilted, even her ears drooping.

“Why not?” Jadis asked. “It’s not like you drow have super-sensitive noses.”

“If we did, there’s no way you’d use that body wash,” Belphy grumbled at Jobe. Then she perked up. “You know, it’s not that bad an idea. We could brighten up the place, get to know Granny Wilkins, and maybe get the inside scoop on my biological closest-thing-to-a-father.”

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Erzili said, muscling her way into a conversation that wasn’t much of her business. “It’s not that Freight Train isn’t a delightful roommate, but with this place so crowded and Malachai is so busy getting things back together, it hasn’t been much of a vacation.”

I saw Jadis shoot Sapper an ‘okay, what are you up to?’ look. Then Freight Train came back into the dining room with an odd look on her face. She looked at Jadis and asked, “ah, Do you guys have periscopes in your toilets for some reason?”

“A periscope? In the toilet?”

Charger zipped out of the dinner room and came back maybe four seconds later with a weird look on his face. “She’s right. There was a freakin’ periscope pointing out of yer john. It ducked back down the second I went in, but it was there.”

“Hernandez?” Jadis said to the man in a very tense voice.

He already had a smartphone out and was checking it. “No intruders in the basement that I can tell, but there is some sort of lesser intrusion from the exterior. It could have infiltrated the plumbing.”

“Who’d do anything that complicated for something that stupid?” Freight Train asked.

“This sounds exactly like something that Dr. Insidious would do,” Mal said grimly. “Charger! Do a perimeter search of the first floor and basement for any other signs of a breach!”

Charger zipped out of the room and yelled back, “There’s a periscope poking out of the chimney in the front parlor!” Well, you’ve just got to see something like that; you never know when you’re going to need a zany anecdote at a cocktail party. Charger had the wits to not actually go into the front parlor, as to spook the chimney submarine commander. Looking over his shoulder, yes indeed, there was something that may not have been a periscope, but was definitely an optical poking down from the chimney, and was turning this way and that, most likely to see if the parlor was clear.

Then there was a bizarre bulge that came down the chimney, and a ‘bubble’ came out of the fireplace, ‘bursting’ into four figures standing there. “That’s… that’s actually kind of impressive…” Mal muttered sotto voce.

“GO!” ‘Dr. Insidious’ said, copping a pose with his cape- with his back to us, facing three women in skimpy ‘Insidiousettes’ outfits with strapless purple bodysuits with green caplets and matching gauntlets, high-heeled boots and domino masks. “Let nothing stand in your way, my Damsels of DOOM!”

“SID?” Jadis asked in pained tones, “Is this gonna be a THING? Are you gonna do this every morning?”

Sid startled and turned, and even through the gold metallic mask you could see ‘what? You’re supposed to be taken completely by surprise’ written on his face. But he collected himself let out Standard Supervillain Laugh- er, I’m not sure, but it was the ‘Ha-HAH! I have you NOW!’ laugh. “Perfect! Exactly where I wanted you! GO, my beautiful B-” he stopped, apparently stuck for alliterative Bs.

“What?” Jadis sneered, “You’re down to sending Skankerella and her two ugly stepsisters after us?” And while it might seem a tad hypocritical of Jadis to take a cheapshot on another woman’s looks, I had to admit that she had a point. They were dressed for the ‘seductive supervillainess’ look, but to be perfectly honest, they simply didn’t have the raw materials for it. Worse, there’s a thriving sub-industry in providing supervillainesses and women who want to be supervillainess with the ‘bare essentials’; to wit, cosmetic surgery. Hey, the bar that Exemplars, white hat or black mask, set is very high. But these three had probably been shlumps when they started out and they cheaped out on their surgeries: cheap noses, cheap boobs, cheap lips, cheap cheekbones and like that. Their surgeon had just given them ‘package deal #4’ and shipped them out. The noses didn’t fit their faces, the boobs didn’t match their physiques, the cheekbones were obvious and the lips were clownish going on grotesque. It was probably done by a veterinarian who needed some cash for gear so he could help patients that someone actually cared about. Let me sum it up to you this way: Mal, Buzz and Charger (I’ve never bothered to learn their real names and see no reason to ask) are three classic 15-year-old Freshman horndogs with more hormones than sense; these three were buxom mature women in skimpy outfits. And Mal’s Crew was, like, ‘ew!’

“Well,” the one with the soup-bowl hairdo snarled, “are you gonna just stand there and let her call you ‘ugly stepsisters’?”

“Hey!” the one with the flyaway red hair objected, “that would make YOU ‘Skankerella’!”

“Yeah!” squeaked the hefty blonde with the curl-cut do that suited her even less than the other two’s dos. “How come you get to be ‘Skankerella’?”

“I’m Skankerella,” ‘Soupbowl’ snarled, “and you’ll LIKE it!” she finished by giving the Curly-cut one a resounding slap on the cheek. The Flyaway redhead gave ‘Soupy’ a slap in return. From there is devolved into a three-way free-for-all… among Sid’s backup.

“They… want… to be ‘Skankerella’?” Freight Train asked incredulously.

“It’s probably a step up from whatever they’re called now,” Bova said with an unconcerned sip of coffee.

“WHAT? ARE? YOU IDIOTS? DOING?” Dr. Insidious roared as the three battered each other.

“From what I can see, they’re working for you,” Jadis sniped. “Hey!” she yelled at them, “How much is he paying you?”

“Pay?” “You mean we can get paid?” “You didn’t say we could get PAID!”

“Hah!” Sid sneered. “Do you honestly think that my Lethal Lovelies can be bought off?”

“Tell you what,” Jadis said, “Twenty bucks a piece and a donut, and you can leave without a problem.”

“Make it a bearclaw, and you’re on.”

Jadis was a sport, and made it $75 all told, with a bearclaw, a danish, and an apple fritter.

Sid watched in horror as his backup minced out the side door with pastries and coffee to go. Then he looked at Mal, who was shooting Charger and Buzz some signals, and dived for his entrance thingamajig. “GET HIM!” Mal yelled. The three guys all jumped on Sid, and it actually looked like Mal was figuring out the control unit. But, the world being like that, just then there was a knock at the front door, and Erzili answered it.

“Help! HELP!” Sid yelped. There was a crash at the door, Erzili, who was opening the door, was knocked aside, and a bold figure in red and white (bold, or simply clueless, citing his fashion choices) rushed into the room with a shield high and his hammer held high. Freight Train started to intercept him with a rational explanation, but Rubber Boy ran interference for Ultramax. He created an improvised pulley with an overhead fixture, and pulled Freight Train up off the ground, where her strength was useless. Ultramax pulled Charger and Buzz off Sid. Hoping that my Protected Witness status might give me an advantage, I tried to step in to insert some sanity to the mess, but Bronze (or Melody or Mel or the Girl of Brass or whatever) charged by, body-checking me, and diving straight for Jadis.

Bronze jumped Jadis, who was still in coffee-sipping mode, a wide-eyed ‘WTF are you DOING?’ look of surprise on her face. Bronze pile-drove Jadis into the wall, dazing her, spilling her coffee and ruining her dressing gown in the process. Powerjack, the guy with the weird shifting power armor, flew over the drow and tackled Mal. Unfortunately for him, Powerjack underestimated Mal (a lot of people do that), and he zotzed PJ with one of those telescoping ‘techno-devil tridents’ that he likes to have on him at all times.

But that just gave Sid the opening he needed. He widened the aperture (or whatever) of the entry mechanism and dove in, taking the control mechanism with him. “NO!” Mal roared (and yes, he really roared this time) with frustration. He snapped his trident out into full extension and advanced on Powerjack with a truly fearsome look on his face. Bronze decided that if one Diabolik was worth smacking around, then two was twice as worthy. But Mal was in ‘Cold Fury’ mode, and he gave the cuff around his trident a spin. It gave off blinding bursts of light that stopped Bronze, then Rubber Boy, then Ultramax, and then Powerjack. As they rubbed the spots from their eyes, Mal lunged forth and jabbed each of them with the tines of his trident, sending Bronze flying into the wall. Rubberboy curled up into a ball and made whimpering puppy noises. Ultramax flew into a bookcase like he’d been hit by a speeding car. And Powerjack locked up in an awkward ‘dancing Egyptian’ posture.

I know, Mal usually comes off as a harmless cheery tech-geek. But remember, he comes from the same school of badassery that Jadis does. He just doesn’t feel obliged to protect people the way that Jadis does.

Then Mal saw Jadis start to twitch her away back to consciousness, and he really started to lose it. He advanced on Bronze, twisting his trident into new, presumably even nastier settings. But before he could open this new can of Whoop-ass© all over Bronze, Bova stepped up. She got between them and said in a forceful way, “She’s all right, Mal. Your sister is okay; she’s just stunned. And you’ve already proven that you can defend your turf, even from super-powered invaders.” From the tone of her voice and his reaction, Bova was using some telepathic technique to find verbal cues to calm Mal down.

Mal collected himself, gave the four *ahem!* ‘Heroes’ a withering glare, and went over to pick up his sister. As he was getting Jadis into a chair, Tiger Girl and Tower came into the room. “What the HELL happened?” Tiger Girl demanded.

“That little FREAK used a weapon on me, after we caught him trying to kill some guy!” Bronze shrieked.

“Oh, you mean the guy in the gold-and-purple Supervillain outfit, complete with skull mask?” Bova sneered. Really, you can tell that Jobe crafted the Drow; they have sneering in their DNA. “The Wanted Felon whose image you saw not only yesterday?”

“How were WE supposed to-”

“For the hundredth TIME, Bronze,” Tiger Girl said with loud asperity, “Knock and ASK! You keep telling us that you’re working on a Masters Degree; so why can’t you figure out how to remember that?”

“He got away with the remote control!” Mal snarled at Bronze. “A complete YUTZ like Doctor Insidious has a gizmo that can completely bypass our Security System. We’re gonna have to completely overhaul what we’ve already done, just to compensate for this! I’m gonna need… coffee… a LOT of coffee…” Oh Lord… when a devisor says ‘coffee’ like that, he means Devisor coffee, the turbo-charged, caffeine-plus hellbrew that the brainiacs in the Workshop damn near worship. Then he asked who took the bearclaw.

I think that this will be a good day to spend out and about, and not hanging around the house.

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JADIS

Classic Melody Havoc. First she some comes storming in and screws up Mal’s play when he actually has his crew working together, she sucker-punches ME into la-la land, and now she’s pissing and moaning because Mal really does have some combat chops. It reminds me of the time in Fourth Grade-

- No, I’ve promised myself I’m not going keep bringing up old outrages. I don’t want to be like Vamp and her Pop Warner football story.

Anyway, by the time I got my chimes unrung, Tiger Girl had managed to reassert her leadership of the Cadets, and something that suspiciously resembled sanity prevailed.

Ms. Griffin came breezing in a few minutes before the Empress, and the battle for control of the week resumed. I managed to broker a deal that suited everyone, but pleased no one. The big item of the day was a fashion show for… something very worthy; the Griffin was a little vague on it. She may not completely remember what it’s for herself. Mrs. Wilkins wanted to spend some time with Jobe and Belphy, bonding and like that. Mal wanted to pick up some high tech stuff to Insidious-proof the place, and make a surreptitious drop-off to pick up some fresh Devisor-grade beans from a source here in the City. And if Mal got to play around with macro-tech, then Belphy simply had to as well. So, Mrs. Griffin got Angie and Bova to check out how the Drow affected the lighting of the show (and vice-versa) with Vamp along to keep an eye on things, and I got to shepherd around the Empress and ‘her girls’, and Mal as well. Erzili, Charger and Buzz got to hang around Chez Diabolik with the Kiddie Crusaders, just in case someone decides to pull a post 10 AM attack. The sapphire stayed in the secure vault in the basement. With multiple agendas in play, I accompanied Mrs. Wilkins’ group to Cutting Edge.

Which was closed.

Some frantic web-scouring turned up that Shane, the owner, operator and main salesman for Cutting Edge had shut down that venue and almost immediately started up another one on the West Side called ‘Next Step’. I couldn’t help but wonder if Shane had managed to shed a small fortune in operating costs, debts and litigation in the process somehow.

‘Next Step’ wasn’t as glossy as Cutting Edge had been, and the area was a bit more middle class. Yet for all that, I couldn’t shake the impression that Shane had stepped up in the world somehow. It wasn’t as trendy, but it seemed more established. Trendy goes stale; established only gets more established.

There were more salespeople, the décor was more understated, and they were peddling bundling and maintenance contracts as well as hardware, but ‘Next Step’ was really just Cutting Edge repackaged. Shane was there with a few salesthings, going over a shipment of boxes that they were moving out immediately. I noticed that the boxes were from the same front supplier for whoever provided Shane with the inductive control collar that I bailed Jobe out of the mess she made for herself the last time we were in town. I wondered what that was going to be about.

With the instinct of a predatory salesman, Shane checked out who’d just come it. And with the reflexes of a born-in-the-blood weasel, he perked up to instant complete interest. “Jobe! Aunt Lorna!” He immediately sluffed off the business with those boxes off on the salesthings and slithered over to us, adjusting his tie. He gave Jobe and the Empress hugs with a big smile. Then his smile went a little more real. “BELPHY!

He sleazed his way into multiple photo ops with this week’s hot personalities- well, as much personality as Jobe ever gets- though I get the impression that he and Belphy do actually get along. “Okay, and what brings you to my bite of the Big Apple?” he finally asked.

“We need to see your Select Customer stock,” I said carefully. I need at least a little cooperation from Shane, and giving his new civilian clientele worries wouldn’t inspire him to what levels of reasonability he has.

Shane nodded, and told one of his salesthings to cover for him. He led us into his office, and from there into an elevator. We went down maybe 50 feet, the elevator door opened, and we found ourselves in a larger, more tastefully decorated version of the supervillain showroom Shane had had back at his Cutting Edge site on St. Marks.

Shane strutted in, rubbing his hands together as he looked around with satisfaction. “So! What can I do for you this time, Jadis?”

“Security,” I cut off Mal. The last thing we need is for Mal and Shane to get into a tech-spiel, and we walk out with a couple of million dollars worth of techno-crack we didn’t come here for. “The security at Chez Diabolik has been compromised- TWICE- and we need something quick and nasty to slap over the big gap in our systems while Hernandez arranges a more permanent fix. And Shane? This time, quick is necessary, but put the emphasis on nasty. But legal. We need to send the message that anyone who busts into our digs does so at their own peril.”

Shane kited a look at the Empress and the Drow Swarm. “This is to protect Jobe and Belphy and that sapphire that’s in the news?”

“Yep.”

He paused and mulled it over for a second. “Quick and Nasty but Legal. Normally, I’d say ‘pick two’. But I think I got a few options that if we kludge ‘em together, we could have up and running in a couple of hours. It wouldn’t be that nasty- at least not by my standards of nasty- and it would be skirting a passel of laws. But you might get away with it, if you only have it up for a few days. And I’ll give it to you at cost.”

From there, Shane went at it with Belphy and Mal, integrating three systems so they’d cooperate, while driving anyone trying to get around them nuts. Now, I’ve said that tech-heads like Mal, Belphy and Shane tend to react to each other either as venomous rivals or ‘Little Rascals’. And Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla weren’t throwing any venom around. A few hours later, I was gearing up to find a bucket of water to throw on them, when Jobe beat me to it. “Shane! What are you up to?”

“What?” Shane bleated with confusion, “I’m working on-”

“To protect ME?” Jobe sneered with the contempt of someone who knew that they were being told not only a lie, but a stupid lie. “How much of the Line of Succession are you looking to trim, and how do you think you’re going to get around Dad after you do it?”

Shane gave Jobe a flat look of disgust. “Look, the last time you blew through here, your buddy Jady-”

“Jadis.” “Whatever. She gave me this big spiel about how the crown of Karedonia was a white elephant just waiting to make a mess in the parlor, and if I ever became Emperor, all I’d get for it would be legal culpability for Mass Murder. I know, I know, she was just blowing smoke up my ass. But the thing is, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was RIGHT!

“And even if she’s not, so what? What do I know about running a country? Uncle Joe is always griping about how much time running Karedonia takes out of his time in the lab, which is what he really likes! Why should I give up living in New York City, the most exciting and vibrant city in the world, doing Retail, which I love, selling the very bleeding edge of high technology, which I love almost as much, to a pack of technologically illiterate yutzes, which makes me wanna cream in my jeans- to move to a little island that’s nice for a coupl’a weeks, to run a government that knows more about governing than I do, and cope with a bunch of superpowered psychopaths?

“They say that a wise man is one who knows when he’s got it good, and I got a big injection of wisdom about this. Jobe? You wanna be Emperor- or Empress, whatever? Go for it! I’ll back you 100%. You’re as easy to get along with as a crocodile with a toothache, but you’ll be better at running Karedonia than anyone else in the family, and easier to get along with, ‘cause you got legitimacy- or at least as legit as Karedonia gets.”

I was almost as croggled by this as Jobe was. I gave someone advice… and they listened to me? And they aren’t trying to turn it against me?

Her Imperial Highness was taking this in, and gently asked Shane about recent developments among the Greater New York area Wilkinses. There were a surprising number of them. And from what Shane was dropping, his line about Jobe being easier to get along with, should she ever ascend to the Imperial Throne of Karedonia, wasn’t complete hogwash. There was some definite Porcine Bathwater in the mix, but only enough to keep up Shane’s franchise in Retail.

After Mal, Belphy and Shane finished up the Burglar Boggler- there were some delays due to a cell router glitch on the south side of the island that was driving New Yorkers crazy (or crazier), that made testing tricky- we got the modules all packed up and ready to go. As I checked the inventory for anything new and interesting, Shane asked, “So, you still got that chem- sprayer you picked up last time?”

“Yeah; I only used it once or twice, but it came through when I needed it to.”

Shane nodded, walked over to a counter and reached into a drawer. He pulled out a small plasticine packet with a flat electronic slat held in the bubble wrap. “Y’know, you handled that thing with Jobe last time just right. It could have gone off the rails at 1000 miles per hour and trashed the whole setup for everyone, but you kept it on the rails. This? This is a nitric catalyst for your chem-sprayer. It’ll extend the life of the sprayer, make the mixes cleaner and more effective, and it’ll act as the lynchpin for a whole raft of new upgrades. Here. Take it. You deserve something for what you’re doing for our family.”

More than a tad touched, I accepted the catalyst element, and thought better of Shane. But as we rode up the elevator to Next Step™, Belphy slid me a sly look and said sotto voce, “You do realize that that thing is the anchor for a whole raft of new upgrades. If you install it, it may disengage many of the features you’ll need, so you’ll have to get the new upgrades. Upgrades that you’ll have to pay full price for.”

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VAMP

As Mal and Belphy helped integrate the Burglar Boggler into Chez Diabolik’s security structure, PowerJack watched the process with interest. “Is that legal?” he asked.

With an annoyed snort, Mal said, “The First Diabolik Rule is: ‘Keep it Legal at all times’.”

“Really?” Power Jack retorted. “I thought it was ‘Do whatever you want, no matter who gets hurt’.”

“That’s primarily because you have no idea of what you’re talking about,” Mal riposted.

Belphy stepped in between them, poshing up her accent like she expected to be seated at the Royal box at Ascot and asked, “So… PowerJack is it? Do you really think we’d be so dense as to install illegal appliances while several special deputies of the District Attorney’s office watched?” As Pee-Jay wrestled with that, Belphy leaned in just close enough to cramp his personal space and gave him a come-hither smile. “So, PowerJack. Do you have some sort of innate power that allows you control that malleable metal circuitry? Or do you use some sort of inductive interface?”

Whatever Belphy was going for, she definitely got PowerJack off his mark. “What? How would you know about that?”

“Oh, someone obtained a sample of your nanite mesh- well, what we thought was a nanite mesh, it’s actually quite different- and well, samples of that sample have been making the rounds at the Whateley Advanced Technologies labs. Pity, it was a such a small sample, and well, simply everyone is all interested in examining it. Fantastic potentials there. Where did you obtain it?” She leaned in dangerously, giving him that ‘you know I’m irresistible; so why are you resisting?’ pout, and drawing little circles on his heroic chest with her finger. “So… what could I possibly do to… persuade you into giving me another, larger sample… of the mesh?”

And PowerJack may have been a next-generation ubertech Science Hero, but he was still a 15-through-17 year old teenage boy. As he was dithering behind that fully encasing helmet, Mal was frantically integrating all the modules that ‘skirted’ (read: flat-out broke) the Law into the Security Panel, and gestured for Charger and Buzz to pick up the problematic peripherals, so they could get to work on installing them without Cadet Crusaders (or is it Crusader Cadets?) snooping over their shoulders.

As Belphy plied her darkling charms on Power-Jackoff, Jobe was watching this with puzzled interest. Then Bronze very pointedly led PJ out of the room, as Belphy smirked after them. “What are you smiling about?” Jobe asked her sister?/daughter?/progeny? “You didn’t get anything out of him.”

Belphy just smirked triumphantly at her sister?/mother?/ progenitor? “I didn’t expect to. But now I have a good idea what his buttons are, and he’s been slightly trained. When I choose to, I can get Jackie-boy so wrapped up that Mal will be able to walk up with a complete analysis suite and scan his entire rig, without him noticing a thing.”

Then I saw an expression cross Jobe’s face that I instantly recognized. Now, while Jobe and Belphy have been bantering about being mother and daughter, on a very real level, they’re siblings. And I use the term ‘sibling’ because unraveling the tangle of brother/sister/whatever those two are to each other is a complete twisted mess that I have no intention of getting caught up in, and I’m a bilateral hermaphrodite. The thing is, Jobe was an Only Child all his life until the whole Drow thing came along. Now Jobe has a sister. Worse, Jobe now has a sister who’s getting away with something that Jobe can’t. I come from a large family with multiple older and younger brothers and sisters, so I know the look on Jobe’s face. That expression was a classic ‘what do you mean, Belphy has a toy, And I Don’t?’ look.

Belphy slinked off, doing the Pussycat Strut of a girl who’s gotten away with something. I think that Jadis may be right about Belphy becoming more female between her ears than her original programming had allowed. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is infinitely debatable.

Jobe looked after Belphy, threw her shoulders back, raised her perfect little nose, and charged headlong into her first bout of sibling rivalry.

She… walked… is the best term for it. I think, and I stress think that she was trying to slink or sashay or some other method of sexy locomotion. Whatever, she walked over to Mal as he was getting ready to head out. “So Mal,” she said, doing the ‘draw circles on the guy’s chest’ bit. “You’re going to pick up some devisor coffee?”

Mal stopped in the middle of putting the ‘medical eyepatch’ over his obvious cyberoptic implant and gave Jobe a ‘hah?’ look with his good eye. “aahhh… Yeah.”

“Does your source have any of the specialty coffee plants?”

“Dunno. Bioware isn’t my cup of tea.”

“Cup of tea,” Jobe tittered. “How droll. While you’re picking up your order, maybe you could snip off at least five samples per variant of the leaf, cherry and root, of as many variants as you could? For me?” She ended almost nose-to-nose with Mal, smiling vapidly. (‘Vapidly’- my first use of that word in a conversation; must make a note of that in my diary)

Mal used shrugging into his coat as a context for getting a little distance from Jobe. A wise and prudent thing to do with Jobe at the best of times. “Jobe? I’m just going to pick up a few bags of ‘Crunch Time’, ‘Midnight Zowie’, ‘Long Haul’ and ‘Final Exam Cram’ blends. I don’t know where this guy has his greenhouses. He probably has them somewhere in the Continental US, but I’d say probably somewhere in Virginia or the Carolinas, maybe Georgia. Really, Jobe- you’re the Bio-Wonk; you should know that.” With that, Mal gestured to his posse, and they left as a pack. Sapper looked back at Jobe, who was standing there wide-eyed, open-mouth, slack-jawed and stock-still in shock, and shot her a ‘nyeh!’ as they left.

The Mal Pack was out the door, down the stair and to the corner before Jobe snapped out of it. “What?” she yelped, looking around frantically for some anchor of sanity in the sea of madness she was floundering in. “How could he turn me down? How could he turn THIS down?” she gestured down at her exquisite drow form, which was packaged in Jobe’s usual mix of Eddie Bauer™ and whatever other casuals were lying around at hand.

“To be honest, Jobe,” I said as I poked at what little of the sideboard as was left (especially with the Moocher Cadets in the house), “while Mal may not be ‘Mr. Smooth’ cool-guy womanizer, he’s still a tougher nut than you could expect to crack on your first seduction. First, of all, he’s known you for years; getting hit on by you is like getting macked on by his sister. Second, he still thinks of you as a guy- a guy trapped in a drop-dead gorgeous girl’s body, but still a guy. You talk like a guy, you act like a guy, you dress like a guy when you have the choice. Third, he has a girlfriend: Erzili. So he’s not desperate. I don’t know whether Mal and Erzi are knocking boots or if she’s just leading him around by the nose- and I don’t want to know. Fourth, while- like I said- Mal is no ‘Mr. Suave’ type, he’s got more cool than to let himself get macked on while his girlfriend is right over there. And lastly- Jobe, that was effing pathetic! You had all the subtlety of a sledge hammer! Just be grateful that no one had a video camera and captured that. It would have gone viral on YouTube.”

“Nuts,” Freight Train said disgustedly. Looking at Bova, she added, “She’s right- you never have a video camera on you when you really need it.” She paused and said, “Maybe Apple™ will include one in that ‘smartphone’ they’re yapping about.”

Jobe snapped out of it. “Vamp,” she said in a way that maybe she actually knew something about Imperial presence, “I need you to teach me everything you know about seduction. I figured that with this face and figure, leading the men of the world around by the nose would be child’s play. But now I realize that while I have the equivalent of a master-class rapier, I don’t even know how to fence. Your face is… unremarkable, and your figure is… rudimentary, at best. Yet, despite being an albino on top of those two things, you can bulldoze over most boys at Whateley, even if an Exemplar girl is right next to you. Clearly you have a superior understanding of the dynamics of seduction. Teach me!”

I stifled a snicker. “Jobe, seduction isn’t a Science, where everything can be rendered down to equations; it’s an ART. It’s a matter of passion, in every respect. You’ve got to do it for the love of it, not just because it gets you from Point A to Point E, without slogging through points B, C and D. ‘You-”

“Vamp, will you can it with the Humanities claptrap?” Jobe snapped, “Give me something I can work with!”

I kicked back for a second and tried to come up with something to get Dr. Dementress off my back. On pure free association, I came up with, “Well, Jobe, you’re into the Martial Arts, I hear.”

“I don’t do the fuzzy headed philosophy crap, Vamp” Jobe said. “I work with good, simple, effective methods of making the other guy HURT.”

“Excellent,” I countered. “In that case, you’ll remember that many styles boil down to ‘get your opponent off balance and keep him there’. Seduction is the same: get your pigeon off-balance socially or emotionally, and keep them there until you lead them by the nose to whatever it is you want.”

Jobe crossed her lavender eyes as she tried to synch that insight with her usual methods of communication. When I started to smell gears burning, I added, “Still, I can tell you about the simplest, most basic Seduction technique, the romantic equivalent of an atemi-punch: you get in close and let your pigeon know that you’re all hot and bothered by them,” I got in close (despite my better judgment), “without actually SAYING it, that you’re REAL interested in going into the next room with him and doing some heavy breathing…” I was nose-to-nose with Jobe, our eyes locked, “BUT…” I stopped short, smiled, turned and walked away.

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JADIS

I walked in just as Vamp was walking out. From the way she was slinking out and the smirk on her face, I’d say she’d gotten over on something. I had a horrible nauseating sense that I’d have to pay for it, one way or another. Jobe was standing there with what I think, and stress think, is her ‘WTF?’ look. Besides the obvious physical changes, Jobe’s been through some pretty hefty psychological upheavals lately; what that bodes for the rest of Humankind, I have no idea.

“Ah, Jobe?” I leaned and waved a hand in her face. When she finally reacted, I said, “Jobe, this is getting ridiculous. You and your drow can stay here, but I want that rock OUT of my house. Say, in a nice, secure Safe Deposit box.” Preferably one that the Witch Queen and her knights can break into and rob without too many problems. “Or at the very least, turn it over to an interested buyer. I have someone who has a very good claim to being the rightful owner of the sapphire.”

“What? Give up the prized gem of the sacred Karedonian Crown Jewels?”

“Jobe, you got it two days ago!” But Jobe wasn’t having any of it. Which does bolster the Witch Queen’s claim that this ‘Astaroth’ is messing with Jobe’s head. I wonder which one I should feel sorry for?

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Trying to argue with Jobe about that stupid amethyst was like trying to talk to…. Well, JOBE. An exercise in futility. After banging my head up against the slate-black wall that is Jobe’s head, I felt a need (no offence to Bova, Belphy or Freight Train) for some air that was drow-free. I mean, I’m in New York, it’s Spring Break, there are people that I actually WANT to talk to, and despite the threats of some of my buds’ parents there are no Restraining Orders out against me.

So I walked out the door, gave the MCO noids in their stakeout car a frosty glare and went for a walk. Hey, I could use a break from the insanity. Well, as much of a break from insanity as you can get in New York. But my subconscious seems to have a rather sadistic (or possibly masochistic, depending on the point of view) sense of humor. I found myself strolling through a part of the neighborhood where I’m quite pointedly not welcome. It was a stretch where several of my old girl-geek-gang lived. I noticed that the coffee shop that we frequented- trying to look older and sophisticated- had closed. I wondered if the literary club thing was strictly a middle-school scene and the others had each gone their own way, or if at least some of them still regularly gathered at someone’s house, and bickered away at their interpretations of the Lake Poets, and Victorian-era Serialists. I still say that Alexandre Dumas Pere was an editor of genius, not an actual author.

Then, as if in answer to a summoning spell (and yes, I have seen a few) a voice came from Stage Left: “Jadis? Jadis, is that you?” I turned around and spotted a girl of roughly my age, wearing good- if out of season- clothes, who was looking at me with large brown eyes. She was pretty enough, and she rang a bell, but even with my Eidetic Recall, my memory training and those fibers that run through my brain, I couldn’t peg her. “Jadis? It’s me- Ashley Diamond.”

Ashley Diamond? Ashley wasn’t my best friend, back in our Montessori days, but she was definitely a member of the gang. And she was one of the girls whose parents had explicitly forbidden me from contacting again. Looking at her hand, I saw a trade paperback. “Going through a Gabriel Garcia Marquez phase?” I asked puckishly. When treading on awkward ground, keep conversation light.

She blinked stupidly, then looked down at the book, as though it had somehow crept up and snuck itself into her hand. “Oh right- Love in the Time of Cholera. Well, once you read One Hundred Years of Solitude, there’s no going back…” then she collected herself. “Jadis? Is it true? Your father is a supervillain? Dr. Diabolik?”

“Well, people keep screaming it in my face, so it must be true.”

“But WHY? Why would he want to kill millions of people?”

“Actually, he hasn’t,” I corrected her. “Seventeen thousand and change is more than enough of a body count. But it’s not millions.”

“But why did he kill Trevor Goodkind?”

“Trevor? Dad didn’t kill Trevor. Trevor isn’t even dead. Hell, I had afternoon tea with Trevor last week and we spent the time arguing about Jack Keroac.”

“Trevor’s alive? But the rumors say-”

“Yes, something did happen to Trevor. Exactly what, I can’t say,” I told her. “Not mine to tell. I will say that he’s alive, healthy and- well, making the best of his situation. He’s not on speaking terms with his family, and that’s all I can say.”

“And what about Tansy? She just upped and disappeared right about then.”

“Oh Tansy? Tansy… she’s going through a very bad patch. Again, not mine to tell. But I will say that she’s looking better.

“And speaking of looking better,” I hedged, hoping to get off this sticky topic, “I see that you finally got your braces off. Aaannnddd…” I leaned in closer to get a better look at her face.

“Yeah, I know, I know,” she said as she self-consciously covered her nose with one hand. “Daddy got me a nose-job for my 16th birthday. He said that I had enough on my plate, without having the Diamond Nose on my face.”

“Honestly, you look nniiicceee…”

“And what’s all the noise about you and those black elves that are all over the place?” Ashley’s no slouch in the shifting uncomfortable topics department herself.

I let out an aggrieved groan. “Supervillain politics. Y’know how, every so often our Dad would take Mal and me down to the Caribbean for a week or so? Well, we didn’t go to Trinidad or Martinique or the Bahamas, or any place sane. No, he dragged us down to Karedonia.”

“Karedonia? The Supervillain island?”

“Just like that. My Dad has a time/share lair down there.”

“Time/share LAIR?”

“Yeah, those places come with NATO-standard physical defenses, and a stock ‘Laboratory’ space that acts as a nice wine cellar if you’re not a scientist. Anyway, the leader of those drow- the ‘black elves’- is the child of Joe Wilkins, aka Gizmatic’, the *ahem!* ‘emperor’ of that island- don’t ask- and she’s going to be betrothed down in Karedonia next weekend. No, I don’t know who the guy she’s gonna marry is. The whole thing has ‘Fiasco’ written all over it. Anyway, they’ve decided that Karedonia needs a full set of Crown Jewels. And for reasons Dad won’t explain, I gotta put them up at my place while they get the whole thing worked through.”

All starry-eyed, Ashley asked me if it was true that I’d met the Amazing Three, back when the Iron Warlord kidnapped Mal and me. And then she asked me about the various personages that I’ve met since I got booted out of the book club. Looking back, I actually have met a surprising number of the people she asked about. And I never thought that Ashley would be so impressed about me running into the Blue Diamond.

Ashley was squee-ing about me having met Dr. Thunder and some of the Imperial City Guard, when something grabbed her purse. Ashley was completely shocked, and even I admit that I was taken a bit aback by it. The purse snatcher was winged and about the size of a barn owl. But it looked like a latticework tribal tattoo of a barn owl that ripped itself off a hipster’s back and fluttered off to in search of Kate Spade handiwork.

As we chased after it, the tatt-owl fluttered into a sidestreet, and then into an alley. That did not bode well. Not realizing that it wouldn’t be an issue, I decided to not put up my beast-skin, as to not weird out Ashley any more than she already was.

In the alley waiting was a boy of maybe Ashley and my age (hey, he might be a mutant and the age estimate goes right out the window), wearing a very nice camelhair overcoat, dark pants and glasses. He was tallish, slender and had the general air of a teenage intellectual, with long lean features, a nose and chin that were just long enough for his face, intelligent eyes, and a look of mixed guardedness and hope. The tatt-owl flew up to him and lit on his outstretched hand. Then the ‘owl’ sort of… unraveled… and the raveling wrapped itself around his forearm.

Oh, Fnark. I finally got Hexbreaker out of my system, after making a complete fool of myself all last year, and with the exception of that scene just before Christmas break, he and his girlfriend Swordmunchkin have found other things to do (don’t think about it, don’t visualize it, Jadis, you don’t need the aggravation). And now another lean intense intellectual comes into my life. Oh God, how have I so offended you?

He held up one hand and with the other extended the purse. “Forgive the liberty, Miss Diabolik, but I needed to speak with you, well away from the people who are watching your house.” He said this with a cultured, refined cosmopolitan European accent- has someone been reading my diary?

Still, can’t let him know that he’s affecting me. I have no idea as to who he is- or where he got those great shoes? “I’m not the one you need to ask forgiveness of,” I said as I manifested a glittering violet-and-silver hand and floated it over to him to take the purse back. I handed the purse back to Ashley, who was watching this with wide eyes and a blank look. Ashley took the purse numbly, and I kicked myself for possibly alienating one of the few people from my past who’s made any attempt to re-connect with me. Needing something else to focus on, I turned to the guy and asked, “You have the advantage of me.”

“I’m called Hexwing,” he said.

“Are you a supervillain?” Ashley asked eagerly. “Aren’t you supposed to be wearing a mask or something? Not that what you’re wearing isn’t fantastic- is that coat Michael Kors®?”

‘Hexwing’ stalled at this and looked at me for enlightenment. I gave him a stony look that said that he’d have to give me a little more.

“My name is Arsene Pellegrini-St. Germaine.” I gave him a little more stone. “My mother is Madam Hex.”

“And Madam Hex IS?” I asked with an imperious arched brow.

“You met her twice- once, when she broke into your townhouse, and her raid was spoiled by two tagalongs, and the other when she followed that idiot ‘Dr. Insidious’ into your home.”

“Jadis, people have been breaking into your place?” Ashley asked.

“Yes,” I said not taking my eyes off ‘Hexwing’. “Including people who really should know better.”

“And we come to the point of this meeting,” ‘Hexwing’ said with a rather embarrassed smile. “My mother is a professional thief, with an emphasis on ‘professional’. She takes meeting the terms of her contracts very seriously. And she has accepted a contract to obtain the amethyst-”

“Sapphire,” I corrected him.

“The jewel that Sabella Griffin is making such a fuss about,” he settled for a more neutral solution. “Between your house, those fledgling superheroes, and the competition- not to mention your father and your own formidable self- I’m afraid that this contract may be the end of her. Miss Diabolik, my mother can be…” he trailed off, not wanting to hare off onto a tangent. An embarrassing, sticky maternal tangent. I just gave him the ‘oh, could I tell you stories’ look of sympathy and urged him on. “I love my mother, and I’m afraid that her stubborn pride will force her to keep going after the, ah, jewel, until she lands in jail- or the hospital- or worse.”

I watched his face as I weighed this, and nodded for him to go on.

“I was hoping that between the two of us, we could… forge some face-saving escape from this sad impasse. I’m not asking you to give over the jewel- Bon Dieu, that would only make things worse for everyone involved! I’m not sure what or how… but surely, between us, we could come up with something that would ensure both your jewel’s safety and my mother’s well-being?”

“Well, you three could just turn yourselves in, and save the Police the trouble,” came a cold, harsh rasping voice. It wasn’t Ace- after that brainfart with Nemesis, he wouldn’t dare. Besides, his ‘Clint Eastwood’ shtick was actually better. Not good, but better than this. Oh, he wasn’t going for Eastwood; he was going for Batman. God, why me?

An athletic male form wearing a dark gray armored bodysuit with a utility belt and gear straps on his thigh and biceps, mostly concealed by a flowing black hooded cape, emerged from the shadows near the alley. And no, he didn’t walk- he’d insist with his dying breath that he ‘emerged’. He’d probably worked for hours in the mirror to get that ‘brooding Byronic hero’ expression that showed under the hood just right.

Nightlord. Again, God, WHY ME?

Arsene- or Hexwing, or whatever had the expression on his face that a stereotypical Frenchman has when he sees a McRonalds™ on the Champs d’ Elysees. He glowered with disgust mixed with superior disdain as Nightlord marched up. “Excuse me,” he said in tones that had icicle dropping from them, “but the comic book store is three blocks in THAT direction.”

“So, THIS is what you were up to, She-Beast,” Nightlord rasped at me.

“She-Beast?” Ashley peeped in confusion.

“Later,” I said, as this was getting sticky enough as it was.

“Meeting with a second group of supervillains-”

“Supervillains?” Ashley cut in again, thrilled to be included, “You really think that I could be a supervillainess?”

“No doubt to execute some foul double-cross against that first group of supervillains that you’ve put up in your foul den of iniquity,” Nightlord finished.

“’Foul den of iniquity’?” Ashley said with distaste. “You’ve GOT to be kidding. Nobody’s used ‘den of iniquity’ non-ironically for FIFTY YEARS. My grandmother has more panache than to use ‘den of iniquity’. Of course, she edited copy for the Village Voice for eight years…”

“Just wait until he tries to improvise alliteration,” I said aside.

Arsene broke his glower and smirked at Nightloser, “Look, they’re beaming the Total Imbecile signal over the city! They must need you!”

“Do you honestly thing that you can sneer your way out of this? Nightlord snarled.

“What I think he’s trying to say, Nerdlord,” I cut in, “is that we’re honest, law-abiding citizens trying to have a civilized conversation, and you have no standing to interfere. No crime is being committed, there are no Wants or Warrants out on any of us-” okay, I’m guessing about Arsene, but hey, I’m on a roll, “-and even if there were, you have neither standing nor due cause to hold us while a search for any such Wants or Warrants was conducted.”

“NO,” Arsene corrected me heavily, “what I was trying to say was ‘piss off, nutcase’,” he finished with a snide smile. Then his smirk faltered. “’Nutcase’ IS the proper term for this, not ‘loony toon’?”

“Nnnnoooo…” Ashley drawled, scrunching up her face, “’Loony toon’ implies deliberate elements of farce, sort of like ‘Zany’. ‘Psycho’ implies actual insanity, while ‘nutcase’ suggests milder delusion.” GOD, I have missed this kind of vocabulary hairsplitting.

“Look, your fancy quibbling can’t cover up the fact that you’re plotting to steal the Crown Jewels of Karedonia!” Nightlord snapped.

“Ah, if you’d been listening, Nightlunch, you’d have picked up that we were trying to PREVENT the theft of the Jewel,” I pointed out. “Jewel, by the way, singular, which despite publicity to the contrary, is My Property.”

“What?” Ashley honked, “How did you come to own one of the Karedonian crown jewels.”

“Not ‘one of’,” I corrected her, “the one and only at this point. And to be honest, it happened because I didn’t duck fast enough.”

“So, what exactly about me says ‘supervillainess’?” Ashley abruptly shifted the conversation. That stopped Nightlord, as while Ashley’s pretty enough, she’s pretty in the ‘cute bookworm’ way, and doesn’t exactly radiate sinister glamour. Not that she wouldn’t like to.

Nightlord, in a rare instance of common sense, put Ashley’s question aside. “If you’re so innocent, then WHY are sneaking around to conspire with this obvious criminal?”

“Obvious?” I hooted, “How is he- why NIGHTLORD!” I gloated, “Are you Jealous?”

“Jealous?” Hexwing said, getting his back up a bit, “What does he have to be jealous about?” And that was it. Nightlard and Hoaxwing squared off into a classic ‘boys trying to get the other to back down’ things and started yammering at each other.

After a couple of minutes of this, I picked Hexwing’s pocket for his cell phone. I called my own phone, so I could text him later, and handed it back to him. Then I indicated the mouth of the alley to Ashley. “Let’s motor. You really don’t want to be here if they start throwing punches.”

“Why not?”

“They both have super powers, and there isn’t a lot of room in this alley,” I explained. “Besides, if they don’t start fighting, they’ll just keep yapping at each other, and that gets boring fast.”

Ashley gave a sigh and nodded. This kind of excitement was new to her, and still thrilling. As we walked out of the alley, she asked, “So, are you and this Nightlord guy dating or something?”

I gave her the lowdown on Nighty-knight’s ‘Batman/Catwoman’ ideation, and from there, we chatted about what was happening with the rest of the Literary Club. Besides Tansy and me, a couple of others had moved on, and the closing of the coffee shop put a kind of crimper on the club, though they still saw each other pretty regularly. Sic Transit Dorothy Parker Mundi.

Through some strange subconscious habit, we gravitated towards Schloss Diabolik. “Amazing,” I said. “Nobody’s attacking anyone, and the place isn’t on fire. Want to come in? I know that Mrs. Barnes was fixing some of those caramel pecan clusters you like so much, and there’s a chance that there may still be some left.”

Just as ‘caramel pecan clusters’ registered with Ashley, I spotted the MCO stakeout team. Worse, the MCO stakeout team spotted us. And one of them snapped a picture of Ashley with a telephoto lens.

Ashley started to make ‘no, I couldn’t’ noises, but I cut her off. “I hate to tell you this, Ash, but you’ve been made by the Mutant Gestapo. Your picture will be compared against a list of my known associates. They’ll track down your mother and father, and ask them why their daughter is associating with a known dangerous mutant. Which is not a crime, but it’s in their interests to make it socially questionable.”

Ashley paled. “They wouldn’t do anything so… petty!”

“Ashley, we’re talking about a bunch of spooks who work for an international NGO that needs to justify its budget.”

Ashley twitched at that. Her parents had forbidden me to speak with Ashley (which I honor out of past kindnesses) but it also means that they’ve forbidden her from speaking with me. Ashley’s father is a partner with the firm of Kelling, MacLeod, Shandy & Diamond LLD. Mr. Diamond is a lawyer that Parky respects, so I doubt that he didn’t see that wrinkle and iron it flat. Both Ashley and her folks were looking at some serious grief if the MCO decided to start turning the screws. Unless…

“Ashley, you have to come inside. If you can’t go sneaky, go BIG.”

She gave me a weird look, but I harried her up the stairs (without grabbing or anything else the MCO could use against me). When we entered, Freight Train, who was a wearing a Celtics jersey and basketball shorts, spotted us and yelled, “Hey, She-Beast! Who’s this?”

Dear Reader, this was Ashley’s first direct exposure to mutant-kind: a slate-black, white-haired giantess with a centerfold body, wrapped up in the next best thing to lingerie. I’m amazed that Ashley’s brains didn’t come leaking out of her ears.

Fortunately, I spotted someone who, despite being sneaky, devious, pushy, manipulative and opportunistic- or rather, because of that- was just what my gambit needed. “Vamp?”

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VAMP

I broke off needling ‘Ultramax’- which I regard as a social duty- to answer Jadis’ call. Besides, catching Ultramax saying something stupid is like catching a bus- there’s always another one around the corner.

I walked over to the front door, where Jadis was standing with a 16-ish chick in Junior Literati. Said chick was thin and pretty cute, with a suspiciously cute nose and large dark eyes that a good makeup artist could do wonders with. She was, all taken, pretty, but all the prettier for not being the nitro-charged hawtness that was running rampant at Diabolik Central. Not that she was seeing it that way. She gave me the ‘how can anyone that scrawny be so hawt?’ look that I am all-too familiar with from women.

“Vamp, this is Ashley Diamond, a friend of mine from the days before my cover got blown. If we can’t get her out the back door, we may need another way for her to get back home.”

Okay, I’m picking up some serious ‘concise, cryptic and competent’ vibe here. Why would this Ashley chick need to get out the back door?

No, wait! Jadis said that all her friends from before she got outed as Dr. Diabolik’s daughter were off-limits to her, strictly verboten. But if she’s here… back door… ah! She can’t go out the front door, because of the Police and KoP and demonstrators and MCO and what all. So, Ashley’s picture connecting her with Jadis is making the rounds already. She needs a context where she can go home without getting majorly busted, but if she-

OH! Well, DUH! We can’t keep it quiet that Ashley and Jadis were hanging out, so we make that a GOOD thing! Looking around the room, the potentials ran amuck in my head. Mal and his gang were actually getting the Burglar Boggler together, despite having PowerJack kibitzing over their shoulders. From the massively uncomfortable posture he had, I got the impression that Jobe was doing some experimenting (not genetic, thank you Mother Mary), of the socio-seductive variety. This may be the first ‘D’ that Jobe’s gotten in her life. Tiger Girl and Bronze were having one of those ‘I’m in charge here/ NO _I_ should be in charge here’ sparring matches that seem to be the norm for them. The Griffin and her entourage were back from the venue where the fashion show was going to be held, and she and the Empress were having a more decorous and subtle, yet far more vicious, version of what Tiger Girl and Bronze were doing.

OH! Well, DUH!

Fighting a big grin, I steered Ashley over to the bitch-fest. Like anyone sane, Ashley wasn’t happy with the idea of getting between those two. So I pulled a nice little bit of subterfuge that broke the train of exchange, and I ruthlessly inserted Ashley into the fray. “Missuz Wilkins, this is Ashley-,” blither, blither, blither, “I just thought that I should start Ashley here at the top, rather than start with the small fry.” Then I started the formal introduction. Now, as I understand the rules of such things, you introduce the socially inferior person to the superior person. Which technically is the Empress. An empress, even of a dinky little island, technically outranks a non-noble socialite, even if the socialite has more real social power.

Which, as planned, stuck in the Griffin’s craw like a Powell tank.

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ASHLEY

Ashley was in a state of complete and total meltdown. Jadis was introducing her to superheroes! Okay, junior superheroes, but still, superheroes! Ashley prayed to whatever uncaring Guardian Angel that listens (probably as she watched Entertainment Tonight) to the prayers of teenage girls, that she didn’t blither- too badly- at PowerJack. Okay, Rubberboy was like someone’s annoying little brother (speaking of which, how did Mal hook up with a hottie like that black chick?) and UltraMax- what was his deal? But Tower? Yeah, he was the kind of hero she had dreams about. But Splendor and Bronze? Talk about ‘toods!

Come to think of it, why were superhero kids hanging with the daughter of a big name mad scientist like Dr. Diabolik?

Yeah, Jadis seemed to get along with Tiger Girl, but-

-hey, what was with the weird ‘Alex’ albino girl? Why did people keep calling her ‘Vamp’? Why was she dragging Ashley-

-Oh. My. GAWD. She was introducing Ashley to that black elf princess that was all over the media- and her mother, the Empress! Who for some reason wasn’t black, or an elf and didn’t look that much like the princess…

‘I am not a blithering idiot,’ Ashley reminded herself repeatedly, ‘I am not a blithering idiot’. Then the blonde, who had her own entourage, each with their own distinctive style (though the guy with the pillbox hat needed someone to have a talk with him), who was standing near them got her nose all out of joint. “So,” the blonde asked, cutting in on Ashley’s conversation with the Empress, “are you wearing that to the gala?”

But Alex cut Ashley off, “No, it’s a pity, but Ashley isn’t going to the gala. We’d love to have her- the Everygirl Aspect and all- but there’s no way that her mother is going to let her attend at the last minute, even during Spring Break.” Alex leaned in and whispered confidentially, “Ashley isn’t even supposed to be seeing Jadis at all. Supervillain daughter, Police surveillance, protesters outside the Brownstone, all that sort of thing.”

“That’s horrible!” the Empress gushed, stepping into the spotlight. “Do you have a cell phone? Of course you have a cell phone. Call her and we’ll get it all settled.”

“mmmyyy Mom would never believe this,” Ashley croaked.

“AND?” the blonde- who Ashley suddenly recognized as Sabella Griffin, THE Sabella Griffin- cut in. “Are you the only girl in Manhattan who hasn’t heard of selfies? Just take a picture with me, and your mother won’t be any problem at all.”

Ashley wasn’t sure, but Alex took her phone and snapped a classic ‘Selfie!’ shot with the Empress. But Mrs. Griffin insisted on taking one with Ashley herself. Ashley called her mom, who insisted that she ‘fess up as to where she was. The Empress interrupted and insisted. When Mom scoffed, Mrs. Griffin sent a picture of her (not the Empress), and as predicted, Mom folded like a pair of threes.

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SUPERBAD

Marco had just killed his beer when the cat jumped up on the table. The cat, which was sleek black except for the white blaze on its chest, looked calmly at him with sapphire blue eyes. Dangling from the cat’s blue satin collar was a pendant in the design of a Thoth’s Eye within an inverted triangle within the hollow of a crescent moon. Marco looked around him quickly. But when he looked back at the cat, he still startled at the sight of the sleek woman who was sitting in the chair next to him, idly petting the cat as they gave him matching pussycat smiles. She was sleek and dark, and she was definitely working the ‘elegant lady of mystery’ look. She wore a dark blue fitted trench coat with a matching wide brimmed hat. The hat somehow shadowed her face in such a way that only her mouth and eyes could be seen, disguising her far better than a mask could. The pendant around her neck and the buckle of her hatband both had the same moon-and-eye design as the cat’s collar. The eyes that sparkled at him were the same shade of blue as the cats’. And they had cat slits as well. In one hand, she held a walking stick with a carved cat’s head cap with two sapphire-blue stones for eyes. “Jeez!” Marco started. “I didn’t see you come in, Hex.”

“I’m so glad to hear that, Brainstorm,” ‘Hex’ replied in a purring smirk that obviously was mimicking Eartha Kitt’s trademark husky delivery. “I’d hate to think that I was losing my touch.” Without losing her detached smirk, she foresook any further pleasantries and stated in a way that allowed for no debate, “Last Christmas, you did a bit of work for Jadis Diabolik.”

“ahh… Yeah,” Marco said, not sure where this was going. “And?”

“Did you keep the card with her phone number? I need to get in touch with her.”

“Why?” Marco asked, meaning ‘why do you need to get in touch with Jadis Diabolik?’

“Because I’m paying you to,” Hex pushed a roll of $10 bills into his hand, ignoring the implication of his question. The cat leapt off the table. “Read this off to her,” Hex continued, jotting something down on the back of a business card. Finished, she handed him the card. “She’ll understand what it means.”

Not really in a position to refuse, Marco took the card and looked at the cryptic words. “I have no idea what any of this is supposed to mean.”

“That’s… rather the point, Brainstorm.”

“Look, I-” Marco started, but he was cut off when Gracie, the bar’s waitress slipped and spilled a tray of drinks. When he returned his attention to his table, Hex was gone without a trace. “fuuuhckk… he rasped, realizing that he was now more or less obligated to make the phone call. She’d given him money, and she’d managed to leave before he could say ‘No’ and return the cash. By the rules that Marco operated by, he was obligated to earn the money. Oh well, at least he was getting a hundred bucks just to pass along a message.

Checking out that no one in the room was paying him that much attention, Marco meandered over to the pay phone down the hall next to where the restrooms were. Despite its picturesquely seedy décor, Superbad had some serious anti-eavesdropping measures, and that payphone had a more secure connection than Gracie Manor. Fishing Jadis Diabolik’s card out of the back of his wallet, Marco punched in the number and waited for the dial tone.

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[And the message is: WAA- Kismet99. ACRIS 138J56D114R. 12+ 2200. Whatever the fuck that means] Brainstorm read the message off to me. I made him read it off again, so that I was sure I got it right.

“Okay, thanks, Brainstorm. But, ah, Brainstorm… why are you passing this along to me?”

[‘Cause she paid me a hundred bucks to do it]

Well, one of the things that I like about Brainstorm is that, for a supervillain, he’s a remarkably upfront kind of guy. “Okay, I can respect that… So, what can you tell me about this ‘Hexery’ chick?”

[Not a lot,] he admitted. Like I said, very upfront kind of guy. [We don’t really run in the same circles. She wheels, she deals, she steals, and sometimes things get very involved when she’s around. How much of that is her, and how much is it’s because she deals with a lot of people who don’t really run in the same circles… who knows?]

“What do you mean, ‘people who don’t really run in the same circles’?”

[Well, Supercrime, Street Crime and Organized Crime don’t really mix that often. Often enough for Biz, but really, they’re very different scenes, y’know? Mob types will do some truly horrific shit to Supervils or street punks, ‘cause they’re not really a part of their set, y’dig? And some serious vice-versa goes down too. I mean, street punks will really mess up a mobbed-up guy if he’s on the outs with his mob, just ‘cause they can; likewise if they catch a Supervil when he’s down. But we all do Biz. But we don’t do a lot of Biz with the Artsy crowd, or Entertainment, or Big Business, or Science Geeks, or the High Fashion crowd, or Political types, or Spy Biz, and all of ‘em walk very carefully when the High Magic set gets involved. But she does business with ‘em. Y’know how some people get a little nuts when they go down to Miami or Tijuana or Rio? They’re not on their home turf, so they think the Rules don’t apply anymore? Well, it kinda gets like that, when you got people dealing outside their Set. How much of the dust that gets kicked up when Hexery is around is Grownups acting like little kids, and how much is Hexery getting witchy and copping an excuse? Who knows?]

I was checking out ‘Kismet99’ on the Whateley Alumni Association’s online database. It said that she’d been a Fixer for dear old Melville, back in the Dark Ages. If Hexery is ‘Kismet99’, then as a Melville Fixer, she’d have contacts with contemporaries who graduated into those sets. It didn’t say what her mutant traits were, but it said that she’d graduated in the top 10% of the Mystic Arts program, so the odds were… reasonable that Kismet99 might be Hexery. If anything, Hexery might very well be a glimpse into my own future. I think that I might just take her up on her offer, and hear what she has to say. “Thanks, Brainstorm. Consider yourself as having earned your hundred.”

[I just didn’t duck fast enough.]

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JADIS

We got Jobe to the fashion showcase in time for her to get prepped for the drows’ big turn on the catwalk. Now, I admit that I spend a good deal of time keeping track of developments in Fashion (one of the advantages of Eidetic Recall- you can keep track of several things at once, so I have several irons in the fire at any given time), but the back stage of a Fashion show has no glamour at all. If anything, it reminds me of a Formula One pit team at work. No, race car mechanics don’t show vocal disdain for the units they service. The way they acted put Naomi Campbell’s antics in a new light. The Empress was at Jobe’s side through the whole thing, BUT I’m still amazed that Jobe didn’t try to claw a slice out of this one particularly nasty couturier.

I was carrying an armored case handcuffed to my wrist. And no, the sapphire wasn’t in the case; there was a tear gas grenade in there. The sapphire was in my jacket pocket, where it was nice and safe.

And best of all, I wasn’t responsible for the safety and security of the Fashion show. Mrs. Griffin had that nicely covered with a team of professionals. And for those threats the professionals couldn’t be expected to handle, the Cadet Crusaders were there. The logic of that move is dubious, but as long as I’m off the hook, so what?

For her part, Tiger Girl was keenly aware of the potential for fiasco with her crew. “You ever get a feeling that someone’s gunning for you, that they’re watching you, waiting for you to make that one wrong move and *bam!*?”

“Yeah,” I said. “For me, that’s called ‘waking up in the morning’.”

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VAMP

I’m surrounded by gorgeous men and women in various degrees of couturier-grade dress and undress- so why am I bored? Is it the fact that at Whateley I hang out with guys and gals who are just as attractive- and actually interesting? Is the Workshop going through a phase where both the male and female contingents are particularly toothsome, or am I- Mother Mary protect us all!- am I gaining… depth? I expect my eye candy to be intellectually nutritious as well?

As I was pondering this unsettling line of thought, one of the seamstresses came up to me and started nattering at me. I lowered my sunglasses (albino + glaring bright lights = ooowww!!!) and told her that I wasn’t one of the manikins. She kept yammering about time schedules, so I put on my scary face and bared my fangs at her. She scampered away and started chittering away at the bigwigs of the affair. So I pushed up my shades and looked somewhere else. The Empress was having a bicker fest with the couturiers over the fit of Jobe’s *ahem!* ‘crown’. The Drow were standing there, trying to figure out whether they liked or hated being primped that way. Jewelers from six different houses were mixing and matching their items with the Drow and a few favored baseline models. Ashley was making the rounds, taking selfies with everything that couldn’t move fast enough and posting them to her MySpace and Facebook accounts. The Cads were standing around, looking conspicuously vigilant. Bronze was engaging in a silent snubbing competition with some of the models. Ultramax was giving a bevy of other models the ‘why, Yes, I AM a superhero- why do you ask?’ pose. NightChylde and Splendor were watching the couturiers with interest. Aurora was standing around with a baffled look on her face. Oh, right- she’s a mind reader. With what passed for thought processes around there, she was like a diplomat at Disneyland, trying to open up a meaningful dialogue with ‘It’s a Small World After All’ puppets. Tower was standing there, clearly having a problem keeping his hormones from declaring war on his sense of duty. And PowerJack-

-he was being stalked on two fronts.

From where she was being prepped for a gown (which I have to admit, looked absolutely fabulous with her black complexion), Belphy was studying PJ like a lioness checking out a particularly juicy wildebeest. I got the impression that she was looking forward to peeling PJ out of that shell- and then throwing PJ away and keeping the shell.

On the other front, Mal and his crew were hanging around- which is sort of suspect in of itself, as they couldn’t be considered as either part of Jobe’s entourage or Security- and they were checking PowerJack out. Forgive me the Miss Marple moment, but while Mal’s expression was… interesting, sort of, it was Sapper’s expression that really rang a bell. It took me a few minutes to peg it. It was almost exactly the same expression that my (half) sister Sherry had when she was talking my little (half) brother Mark into doing something stupid. And while my older (half) brothers Doug and Larry aren’t intellectual giants or anything, Sherry’s still their younger sister and they’ve learned better than to listen to her. Probably the hard way. God knows, that’s how I learned.

And suddenly I remembered that Mal had gained a lot of status in the Workshop because he acquired a sample of PJ’s ‘liquid metal’. I think that Jadis got it for him somehow; I know better than to ask. And if Belphy is gaming PJ for another sample… oh, crap, Erzili is noodging Mal into going for another sample, before Belphy can beat them to it.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! Extreme Stupidity Immanent! Danger!

Fortunately, I realized that dealing with Belphy would have more influence on the Mal Pack than vice-versa. So I sidled up to her as her hair was being fine-tuned, and I asked sotto voce, “It’s been bugging Tara that she has to choose between having a cell-phone, or a PFG, or a blaster, or a lightsaber, or a Tac-visor. Why not have a single, integrated, Tony Stark only wishes he had it this good, suit of power armor?”

Belphy’s big almond sapphire blue eyes popped open. “And you’re bringing this up why?” she asked back, also sotto voce.

“Oh, with everything that’s going on, I completely forgot about it,” I said, carefully taking in Belphy’s attention and mood. “I just wanted to sound you out about it while I still remembered it, and before anything else happened to get shove it to the background. Also, I was hoping to catch you before you got involved with another project.” More to the point, I didn’t want Belphy focusing on ripping off PowerJack. While she looks like a sexy 16-year-old, and she has the brain patterns of a genius- okay, a neurotic and unscrupulous genius, but still a genius- as a matter of fact, she was still only a couple of months old. She doesn’t have a lot of discipline or real-time familiarity with failure or frustration. Which is great for her branching off from Bel-fart-ors grubby mindset. And it also means that she’s susceptible to the shiny new toy gambit. Hopefully, designing the ultimate suit of power armor, all in her head, will distract her from PowerJack.

Here’s hoping that she doesn’t think to incorporate PJ’s weirdo metal thing into the design. God alone knows what that stuff would do to Tara.

Belphy went stock still and visibly retreated into her own personal design studio, trotting out every bit of Power Armor design lore that she’d inherited from Belphegor, or had picked up in the Workshop, and piecing them together for optimum effect, and eventually she’d remember Tara’s synergy effect, and she’d start all over again to make the most of that. Mission Successful. She was even easier for the seamstresses and hairdressers to work with. Not that they noticed, let alone appreciated that.

Then I noticed that she was toying with something in her hands. Focusing on seeing it, I made out that it was a metallic patch of almost exactly the same color and sheen as PowerJack’s malleable metal, and was almost the perfect size and shape to fit unnoticed in the palm of her hand.

I wasn’t sure about the mechanical details, but if I designed something to harvest a nice sample of PJ’s special metal while no one noticed, it would look almost exactly like that. Murmuring “Hmmm… integrated systems” into her ear, I gently pried the patch out of Belphy’s hand. ‘Integrated systems’ is to cybernetics wonks what ‘Double D Cup’ is to high school football jocks. I subtly drained the patch of energy and slipped the patch back into her hand. When it failed to work, she’d be so busy trying to figure out what went wrong that she wouldn’t have time to try another gambit.

Well, that’s Belphy taken care of. But Mal wouldn’t have his ‘Wyle E. Coyote eee-vil geee-nius’ face on if he didn’t have something going down, going down now, and going down in a way that he could pull it off right under the Kiddie Krusaders’ noses, just for the bragging rights. I may be new to Whateley, but I’ve hung around the Workshop enough to realize that the ‘I am a GENIUS, and must prove it to the world!’ cliché is very real. Which may explain why Whateley grads do so well at MIT.

Okay, Jadis could probably figure it out in ten second flat. She is Mal’s big sister, and she knows all his tics and tells, like I know Mark and Emma’s. But Mal is keeping an eye on her just in case (the bionic one, I think), so that’s out. Mal’s a tech-head, so he’s devised a technical solution, probably from scraps and leftovers from the Burglar Boggler. I could ask Belphy for technical advice, but that would be like asking a fox to help catch a chicken.

Okay, how could Mal smuggle anything that could take out PowerJack into this auditorium? Looking around, I noticed that besides all the high fashion stuff, there was tons of lighting and sound equipment.

Lighting and Sound equipment. Two subjects about which I know exactly zilch. It could be Sound equipment, as Buzz, one of his flunkies, has vibratory powers. But Buzz was right over there, drooling at the Venezuelan model. Hold it- where was Charge?

And then, just because I was thinking of it, I noticed a pair of blur-fast movements. And then Charger casually strolled away from a stack of gear like nothing happened. The blurs had been a good 30 feet away from each other. Charger had switched the two stacks before anyone spotted him. How a teenage boy with average strength (as far as I know) pulled off moving two stacks that had to weigh at least 500 pounds, I have no idea. Probably one of Mal’s gimmicks in action. Charger is a speedster, and even without resorting to the Physics Rules Raping that DC’s The Flash™ resorts to, there are all sorts of sneaky things that you can pull with Super-speed. IF you slow down long enough to think of them. Unexpected, unlikely and over quickly. Well, give Mal his due, it was a nice gaff. I hate to spoil it for him, but I have my marching orders.

A relaxed stroll past that stack of gear showed me that the stack was ‘Special Effects Lighting’, and there was a list of very specific installation instructions. so Mal had Charger sneak the stuff into the hall, where the event’s own technicians would install it to his specifications. No doubt overhead, where it would go unnoticed, but perfectly set for an ambush. I had no idea what it was going to do; it could fry PowerJack with a massive electric jolt in front of everyone, or it could be so subtle that the only way you could prove anything afterwards would be with a gram-by-gram weight analysis. And there was a lot of territory between those two extremes.

So no clues as to how to handle that end; what about the control end? There are too many cartoons where the villain gets mashed because his idiot henchman pushed the wrong button at the wrong time, so Mal will handle that personally. I haven’t been in there myself, but I’ve heard that the Bad Seeds have a large picture of Dick Dastardly with a list of ‘Don’t Dos’ in their clubhouse.

Remote control. Well, Duh, sneaking anything larger in here would be a tactical nightmare. Remote control… pocket. Hip pocket? No, too likely to get lost at the worst possible time. Back pocket? And sit on it, setting it off? Jacket pocket? Too likely to fall out. Inside pocket? Too obvious. Breast pocket?

Bingo.

Sure enough, there was a subtle lump in Mal’s breast pocket, just big enough for a small remote control.

Let’s cut to the chase: I got a similar control, switched it for the one in Mal’s pocket, and no one was the wiser. Hey, I _am_ The Vamp. Was there ever any doubt? Now, when Dr. Babybro pulls his Master Stroke- nothing. Except maybe an embarrassing glitch in the sound system.

With the warm satisfaction of having done a good deed, I sashayed over to where Jadis was watching the proceedings with Tiger Girl and Ashley. Jadis was wearing a black leather blazer over a white sleeveless turtleneck with matching pleated linen skirt and felt beret. Ashley was wearing a green silk gown that the Empress noodged one of the designers into loaning her. And Tiger Girl was wearing… well what she always wears. I noticed that Tiger Girl seemed to be bonding with Jadis, probably on an ‘Oh Gawd, I’m responsible for this mess’ level. Jadis and Tigs were comparing notes, apparently having decided between themselves that the Whateley Kids were responsible for the Drow and the Amethyst, and the Cadets were responsible for the safety of the civilians. Bronze probably wouldn’t like that, but she was PR savvy enough to not let civilians get mashed- while cameras were rolling.

Then, the Griffin, looking absolutely fabulous for someone of her age (whatever that is; probably a more heavily guarded secret than the access codes to the President’s ‘football’), in a designer gown that was not from any of the designers at the show. “Don’t be so nervous, girls,” she assured them. “Take it from someone who’s been to these dog and pony shows: you can only do so much, and then you just have to step back and let the people you’ve recruited do their best.” She gave the Empress, still hectoring the Tiffany’s jewelry designers, a frosty look. “Well… some of us do, anyway.”

Looking around, Jadis said, “I’m surprised that Steff hasn’t managed to weasel her way into this.”

“She tried,” the Griffin said with decisive snip. “But there’s only so much Wilkins that you should have to put up with at any one time.”

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JADIS

Well, it’s hard to argue with that.

Ashley gave me an inquiring squeak, which I just answered with, “Personality politics. Just be glad that you don’t have to cope with the Wilkinses any more than you have to.”

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ASHLEY

Ashley wasn’t sure what to make of that, but she owed Jadis for getting her into the social event that would make her high school career, so she let it slide. There was so much going on that even with her making the rounds taking selfies, Ashley couldn’t keep track of it.

Then, somehow, magically, it all sorted itself out, and it was time for the curtain to go up.

Despite herself, Ashely felt a thrill as the curtain went up. She’d seen all the dreary menial work involved, and still there was the magic when the show began. There was the introduction, the recitation of the pretense for the show, and the sublimated spiel for donations and all like that. And then beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes gorgeous jewelry glittering everywhere, strode imperiously out onto the catwalk. Who could possibly be so jaded as to not be thrilled?

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‘Another day, another fashion show, another round of playing Barbies with overgrown 11-year-old girls,’ Giles Hubbard of New York Metro News groused silently to himself. As much as he wanted to do otherwise, he couldn’t help but focus on the flaws, the clichés, the overwrought banality of yet another parade of emaciated 20-something dressmakers dummies. He just hoped that there would be some good blow at the après-gala party.

Then the hostess announced that the next segment would be ‘Princess Jobe and her ladies-in-waiting presenting the selections in the competition to furbish the Imperial Crown Jewels of Karedonia’. Giles stopped cold. ‘Princess Jobe’? ‘Imperial Crown Jewels’? Karedonia? All that rang a bell faintly. For some reason, Giles had that tagged as ‘Nine day wonder- ignore it and it will go away’. It wasn’t that Giles was interested- he simply hated being out of the loop.

Then the curtain parted again, and four girls strode forward. It wasn’t the ‘I’m a model and I’m bored’ stalk of a professional mannequin or the ‘That’s right chump, forget about Junior High, now it’s all about ME!’ march of some noteworthy being paid off with a few minutes in the spotlight. It was the ‘why are you wasting my time with this’ tread of a presence with real power being forced by expedience to face the masses. The girl in the lead was gob-stoppingly gorgeous. Her skin was as black as fresh asphalt, but she had the features of a classic European beauty, with large guileless lavender eyes that perfectly matched the large spinel-cut gem set on her brow in an elaborate silver crown. Her body had the lush perfection of gifted and unworthy youth, the envy of women and the desire of (most) men.

One step behind her was a girl who was an almost exact twin to the first, except for the length of her bone-white hair, the color of her sapphire blue eyes, and an absent look of distraction on her face.

While the first two were picturebook perfect princesses, the third one, another step behind and on the other side of the lead princess, was an Amazon warrior, out of armor and into silks. She was long, lean, buxom, and she exuded physical power. She wasn’t there to be ogled; she was on guard duty.

The last of the four was small, delicate, elfin and delightful. Her long white hair tumbled to the small of her back. She was the only one of the four enjoying herself. If anything, she seemed to be enjoying some inside joke.

Giles had to admit that these four were a striking deviation from the norm. And once you wrapped your head around that, their presence enhanced and was enhanced by the jewelry she wore.

Which was all very arresting, but when you got down to it, it was still just another fashion show. Giles was working hard to maintain the sneering, snarky, dismissive disdain that had served him so well for years. Then something dropped out of the overhead lights, and everything went to hell.

Six forms dropped onto the catwalk, flowed upwards into ragged wraithlike figures with eerily blank yet suggestive faces. they surrounded the four darkling girls. Immediately, the ‘princess’ drew a pair of odd-looking knives with hoops at the ends of the handles. Where she had kept those in that gown, Giles had no idea. The Amazon immediate stepped between as many of the figures and the princess as she could. She snarled, but kept her position as the lumps on the catwak flowed upwards into spectral appearing humanoid forms with. There was a shout from behind the curtain, and someone threw the Amazon a microphone stand. The Amazon caught it on the fly, twirled the stand so that the base was a broad weapon, and all but dared the intruders to try something. The wraiths advanced with fluid motions.

Well this was a new twist! Fashion show runners had been trying to free up the event by adding new elements of drama, but this went far beyond what anyone had tried! Despite himself, Giles was looking forward to what other new tricks they had in store.

The oddly unsynchronized dance stopped. The ‘wraiths’ paused and presented- wishbones?- no, yet another piece of jewelry, solid necklaces- to the ‘Elves’. The ‘Drow’ seemed puzzled by this. Good acting, at least.

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ASHLEY

“Oh… shit…” Jadis gasped.

“What?” Tiger Girl asked, leaning forward to see what the threat was.

“Compliance collars,” Jadis said with utter dread. “Snap them on, and they induce a reflexive submission reflex. Those things even work on Jobe!”

“Are you sure?” Ashley asked, peeking over Tiger Girl’s shoulder.

“Believe me, I know those things when I see them!” Jadis rubbed her neck with anti-nostalgia. “Powerjack! Tower! Spl-

“-er, sorry, Tigs. Mal! Buzz! Charge! Sapper! Those are Slaver Obedience Collars! Take them OUT!”

Mal’s team looked at him. Mal confidently reached into his breast pocket, fished out a small remote control, pointed it at the scene, pressed a button-

-and nothing happened.

Mal looked at the remote like it had betrayed him.

“VAMP! Jadis snapped, “Get Jobe OUT of there!”

Alex gave Jadis a chipper ‘on it!’ thumbs-up, made a production out of gathering her gorgeous scarlet silk gown around her and vaulted over everyone’s head. Alex managed to execute a descent that put her exactly between Jobe and the head ‘wraith’, while making her long pale legs look absolutely fabulous!

Alex landed with a flourish that had the audience applauding. She slapped the collar out of the Specter in Scarlet’s hand and grabbed Jobe, gathered her up and leapt both of them backstage. “VAMP!” Jobe snapped, “I almost stabbed you!”

Being upstaged that way forced a decision on Mal. “Okay Crew, let’s get IN there!” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a thingie that telescoped into a kind of high-tech pitchfork. He looked remarkably badass for someone that Ashley remembered running around, making Transformer™ toys fight.

And being upstaged that way forced a decision on Tiger Girl as well. “Tower! Bronze! Ultramax! Get out there and protect the audience! At least until they figure out that this is for real! Pee-Jay, Splendor, Nightchylde up in the air. Remember, we’re on defense her- keep it defensive.”

Bronze started to argue, but Jadis cut her off with, “Harder to get sued that way.” Bronze started to scowl at Jadis, but headed out with the others. Ashley just wished that she could figure out why Bronze was so familiar. 

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‘Great, now they’re trying to follow up that fantastic Prima Diva exit with a chorus line,’ Giles thought ruefully. Though the bit where the boy seems to be appearing and disappearing at various places on the catwalk, taking necklaces from the ‘ghosts’ was very good. Giles wondered how they pulled that off in real time, on-stage.

The line of ‘superheroes’ filed in and didn’t seem to be doing anything. Though the bit where the boy in the gray outfit with the white Ts all over the place appeared to grow to 30 feet tall was very good. That seemed to be the signature of this show: the same-old same-old, gussied up with very good bits.

But the boy with the pitchfork seemed to be doing the best against the ‘spooks’; Giles wondered what the director was going for with that, given the ‘devil’ imagery. Then a girl in a black leather blazer with vividly white hair strode onto the catwalk. “Fork me, Mal!” she said with enough real authority that the déclassé implications of that faded. ‘Mal’ reached behind his back and produced a sort of dowel, which he tossed to the girl. The girl twisted the dingus, which telescoped and unfolded into a pitchfork similar to Mal’s.

Between them, the boy and girl with the pitchforks tore into the spooks, rendering the puppets (Giles assumed) to picturesque shreds. But the red wraith was tougher- and gamer- than that. He slithered past the pair and the more obviously *snerk* ‘heroic’ players on the stage, and grabbed a girl, probably a director’s assistant or something, lifted her off her feet and held her in the classic ‘hostage’ position. Then it clamped one of the necklaces around her neck.

The ‘hostage’ was wearing a Paris Green gown that had all the earmarks of the workshops of one of the more avant of the avant-garde couturiers, so it was clearly shifting to a new segment of the show. The trope was well-worn, but its use as a segue technique was a nice element; he’d compliment it in his review. As the girl with the pitchfork yelled the expected demands for the hostage’s release, a chill wind blew through the showcase. An affected voice with an accent that Giles couldn’t place jeered, “What a vile, ignoble, ruthless and utterly despicable gambit. I think I’ll steal it.”

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ASHLEY

As the collar snapped around her neck, Ashley felt something very wrong happen to her. While Ash had never been the bold, confrontational rebel-for-trouble’s-own-sake type, she knew her own mind. And this was just wrong. It was like… she’d been beaten down and had to go along with whatever this creep did, no matter how much she didn’t want to. It was worse than listening to one of her Aunt Muriel’s SJW cause-of-the-month rants.

At least Ashley didn’t scream like a bad movie damsel-in-distress. She whimpered, but she didn’t scream.

Ashley fought to concentrate on something, and when she did, she was certain she’d popped a circuit. The source of the snotty comment came from the central aisle. Even with the weird night she’d been having, this was way surreal. It looked like a heavy metal Cirque de Soleil production of World of Warcraft. It centered around a Faerie King that Frank Frazetta would have done after a night of bad Ecstasy. He was tall and slender, with an almost feminine beauty that was spoiled by a set of his eyes and mouth that suggested that he was born to laugh at the slaughter of innocents. He wore plate armor and bore a great spear, both made of gorgeous stained glass trimmed with gold- and stained with blood. Through the glass helmet, Ashley could see long silky hair as dark as midnight, and she swore that she could see stars sparkling in it. He sat astride a mount that couldn’t make up its mind whether it was an armadillo, a cat or a Lipizzaner stallion.

He was surrounded by an ‘honor guard’ that was one part urban rabble, two parts Muppets, and one part Hieronymus Bosch. There was a ‘royal guard’ of massively obese giants wearing NY Knicks uniforms. There were hunched over old geezers in hip-hop gear with knit caps that dripped blood. There were pale elven warriors in SWAT gear, holding bows armed with arrows of glass. There were shambling mounds that looked like Marvel’s Man-Thing® made out of heaps of rotting garbage. There were things that Ashley couldn’t focus on; if she tried, they squirmed out of her vision.

Jadis, the superheroes and the others paused as they tried to figure out what this new guy was about.

Then, idly, almost playfully, the Faerie Lord spun his spear like a baton. As it whipped about, a crackling ball of foxfire grew at its tip. The spear snapped to a stop and the ball of plasma whipped off the tip and skittered about right at-

-Ashley.

The ball exploded in a hail of pixie-dots. The Scarlet Wraith was torn apart, but Ashley was wreathed in pixie-dots. Which looked fantastic- if it photographed- but was like dangling from wires, like Peter Pan. Ashley had ‘flown’ on wires when she was Nine- and threw up. And the stupid collar only made it worse.

The pixie-dots (which tickled, in a not-fun way) moved Ashley to within the Faerie King’s grasp. He took hold of her like she was a wriggling kitten, by the scruff of her neck. From that peculiar position, she could see that he was beautiful, but not really human. Like a cartoon character drawn by someone who didn’t really know how humans were put together. And in a weird way, that was more frightening than if he were horrifically ugly.

The Faerie Lord held the tip of that impossibly sharp spear under Ashley’s chin. He started to say something, but he was cut off by a female voice with a strangely Midwestern accent: “Oh Please! Don’t tell me that you’re going to monologue! SPARE Us! Monologuing went out with The Incredibles!” Princess Jobe trudged through the curtains over Vamp’s attempts to stop her. Jadis gave Vamp a dirty look, which Alex returned with a ‘what do you want?’ cringe/shrug. Jobe had fans of weird ninja-knives in both hands. “Is that your sinister plan? To Cliché us into submission?”

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“Why isn’t the audience at least trying to escape?” Tiger Girl hissed to Jadis.

“If he is who and what I think he is, I think that he’s got them under a glamour, in a dream-like state where they’ll accept anything, no matter how weird. Or-”

“OR?”

“Or, they’re sitting through this because it’s good drama. Hey, we’re talking High Fashion types here, and this is more interesting than yet another fashion show.”

linebreak shadow

“What?” The Faerie King shrilled, “You DARE, you.. you trumped up, counterfeit insult to Eldritch Glory? I am SYNDARIAN, the Song of the Night Wind, Darkling Anti-King of the Western Court, Last Prince of the Unseelie Hoard, Marshal of the Host Abominable, Knight Paladin of the Black Glass Tower, the-”

“You know,” Jobe interrupted with a flat annoyed tone to her voice, a peeved pout on her perfect face, her arms folded (as she still held the fans of knives spread), “the more titles and appellations you give yourself, the bigger a loser you are. I am Crown Princess of Karedonia. Anything more is redundant.”

“Karedonia?” Syndarian sneered, “Karedonia is an even bigger farce than you wearing that ‘crown’, trollop! You have no notion as to what you have. Give it here. If you hand it over now, I’ll be lenient, and only flay you alive and roll your body in salt.”

“Hand over my crown?” Jobe retorted, “Ridiculous. Go back to the World of Warcraft, and get a new quest. This one’s crocked.”

“You DARE deny SYNDARIAN?”

“Get along home, Syndi, Syndi, get along home…” Jobe jeered.

‘Wow,’ Ashley thought as she dangled from Syndarian’s hand, ‘they’re having a sneering duel. How… New York…’

Syndarian gave an incoherent scream, took his spear out from under Ashley’s jaw and brandished it. He ordered his ‘honor guard’ to attack and squash the upstart like a bug. The five giants raised huge sledge hammers and let out a resounding war cry.

As if in answer to the giant’s challenge, forks of lightning rained down from the heavens. Or at least the overhead lighting array. The flow of phased electrons passed through the heads and hafts of the hammers, and boiled the giants alive. Or something. The giants flared into swarms of furiously buzzing multicolor dots that flitted among the rapt audience. Some of the dots stung members of the audience; others just buzzed in their faces.

Malachi looked up at the overhead lightning array, and then at the remote in his hand. Then he shot a searing glare at Vamp, who hastily hid the remote in her hand, and responded to Mal’s glower with a smile of atypical innocence.

As Syndarian reacted to the threat from above, one of the boys in Mal’s entourage (strange to think of Malachi as having an ‘entourage’) stepped forward and pushed both hands at the Faerie Warlord. The boy (‘Buzz’ if Ashley’s furiously free-associating mind was right) blurred into indistinction. Then Syndarian’s spear, then helmet, then armor entire shattered, breaking into more pixie-dots. Syndarian dropped Ashley and started snatching at the pixie-dots, as though he could take hold of them somehow. Malachi stepped up with his trident and blasted Syndarian right in the face. As the Unseelie Warlord’s bodyguard reacted to that, the SWAT elves stepping forward with their bows ready, Mal reached into his jacket and pulled out handfuls of metal disks. He threw them, and as they flew unerringly to the eldritch archers, they ‘exploded’ into spidery mini-robots. They latched onto the archers’ faces, and jumped over the geriatric hip-hoppers. He produced more (where was he keeping them all, Ashley wondered), covering Syndarian, his steed, the shambling mounds and the other darkling fae.

Tiger Girl saw her opening in this and did a vaulting pounce over to Ashley. She nimbly picked up Ashley (to the photographers’ delight) and jumped back through the curtain with her. When they were grounded, Tiger Girl took the collar in her hands and tore it off Ashley’s neck. But in her free-associating mind, the first thought that came to Ashley was, ‘Why couldn’t it have been Tower or Powerjack? Where’s the Romantic Heroine cred in being rescued by a girl?’

“Are you all right?” the Empress (!) asked her kindly. Ashley tried to pull her marbles back in order and managed an inarticulate ‘Uh-huh’. “Very well then!” The Empress pulled herself up straight, threw her shoulders back and-

-started to rearrange her jewelry.

Once she’d reset her bling, the Empress shot Mrs. Griffin (who was nowhere to be seen- no fool she!) a sneer and marched through the curtain. Ashley was still suggestible enough to follow her and her brain almost melted.

Of Syndarian’s followers, only the steed remained standing. As a matter of fact, aside from the SWAT elves, all of his followers were mysteriously missing. Syndarian stood tall in his stirrups, with the swarm of pixie-dots a polychrome hurricane between his hands.

Syndarian was howling madly, stirring up the pixie-storm into a raging tempest. Splendor, Nightchylde, Powerjack and Tower were doing everything they could to protect the gala-goers. Not that the gala-goers were worried; they just sat there, watching it like the latest IMAX extravaganza. Bronze and Ultramax were futilely slugging it out with gusts of pixie-fury. Princess Jobe and her handmaidens were furiously fighting the pixie-storm, but just as futilely. Rubberboy and Aurora were huddled together up in the lighting array, holding each other with nothing else they could do. Vamp was limply floating in midair, a dopey spaced-out look on her face. Malachi stood over the dazed forms of Buzz and Charger, blasting the storm with his trident as Erzili- or at least an Erzili-shaped silhouette covered his back. Tiger Girl actually seemed to be affecting the pixie-tempest, but the best she could do was upset the storm’s balance, keeping Syndarian from taking full control of it. Which for some reason struck Ashley as very bad.

There was no sign of Jadis, but there was this slender, vaguely girlish silhouette that ribbons of sliver and purple energy streamed off. She was floating a foot or so off the floor, and was blasting Syndarian with a trident for all she was worth. At least Syndarian noticed this, and didn’t like it.

The Empress gave an annoyed tisk like ‘Kids! Can’t trust ‘em to do anything right!’ She put an eyepiece over one eye, and touched various pieces of her jewelry. Brilliant rays of golden light radiated out from the Empress in fans. “Are you quite through playing with children, Robin Good-for-Nothing?” she heckled Syndarian.

Syndarian and the Empress went at it hammer and tongs, as the Cadet Crusaders, the Drow, and Mal and Jadis’ friends took a breather. The two adults (if that term really applies to Syndarian) were evenly matched. Too evenly matched. Syndarian’s attacks couldn’t get past the Empress’ defenses, but the Empress’ attacks were like hitting fog: the storm just moved away, unaffected.

The second silhouette girl faded, revealing Jadis, who was breathing hard. Ashley moved toward Jadis, figuring that helping her was at least doing something. As Ashley helped her stay standing, Jadis said, “I don’t believe it. We’re completely useless! Syndarian just doesn’t operate by the same rules we do. Nothing’s working! Even the Empress is really only keeping Syndarian busy while her batteries last. I can’t think of anything!” Jadis went slack and a blank look of woe crossed her face. “I’m not used to that. Ashley, do you have ANY ideas, any ideas at ALL, no matter how stupid? ‘Cause I’m running on fumes here.”

Ashley shook her head. “Iiii… dunno. There’s something, something nagging at me, something from Grade School, but it isn’t ringing a bell.”

“’Ring a bell’?” Jadis jumped on this with both hands. “Grade school?” she visibly racked her brain until she had what she was looking for. “BELLS! Ashley! You’re a genius!” She gave Ashley a kiss on the cheek. Then she looked eagerly around and spotted a large, metal prop of the Liberty Bell (Ashley wasn’t sure exactly how it fit into the rest of the backdrop; it was just sort of dropped in, but so was a bunch of other stuff, like the giant Russian nesting doll). Jadis dashed over to the mock Liberty Bell and gave it a resounding whack with her pitchfork.

The bell may not have pealed a toll for Justice and Liberty throughout the land, but it affected Syndarian like an ice pick in his ear. He visibly flinched and winced, but far more to the point, he stopped manipulating the pixie-storm. Jadis gave the bell another whack with the pitchfork, and Syndarian visibly cringed, and the storm thinned out, spreading wider. Syndarian said a few crisp, authoritative words into the swarm and tried to reassert his control.

“Freight Train!” Jadis snapped, “Get him OUT of here! Don’t be subtle, just PUSH them out!”

“Don’t be subtle!” the tall Amazonian drow said chipperly. “It’s about damn time!” She scampered away from Princess Jobe’s cluster and set her shoulder into the Faerie Lord’s steed’s chest. Audibly going, “chugga- chugga- chugga…” she pushed at the not-horse, with Syndarian viciously ranting astride it, milling with her legs against the carpeting. Then Jadis gave the bell another whack, and the steed stumbled, giving way to ‘Freight Train’. Angie gave out a loud ‘WOOO-WOO!” and kept pushing, using the chugga- chugga- chugga to focus herself. It took a bit and several ‘woo-woo!’, but Angie managed to shove Syndarian and his ‘horse’ out of the audience space, past the lobby and finally out into the street.

Once Freight Train had Syndarian out onto West 36th Street, the entire assembly- the Cadets, the Drow, the Diaboliks, the couturiers, the models, and yes, sadly, the audience followed. At least the couturiers and models had the rock bottom common sense to stay in the lobby. The audience seemed to take the whole thing as some kind of Performance Art, but did keep some distance. “Cadets, surround him!” Tiger Girl ordered. “Splendor, Nightchylde, stay up and cover him from there. Tower, Ultramax-”

Tiger Girl’s orders, while no doubt tactically sound and responsible, didn’t take into account the factors of Wilkins entitlement nor Drow temper. “JOBE!” Jadis screamed, “NO!” But Princess Jobe had her knives out, and she intended to use them. She sprinted out from the cover of Belphy and Bova, leapt over Freight Train and landed on Syndarian as he scrambled to coordinate both dismounting from his steed and keeping what control over the pixies that followed him as he had. With a snarl, she planted knives in his shoulder, his neck, his chest, his right arm and his stomach. Then she clawed at him with her nails.

But Syndarian just stood there, ignored the knives and foiled Jobe’s strikes like an adult dealing with a tantrum-throwing child. “And this is the true difference between True Royalty and a crass pretender- in every sense of the words.” He took the crown from Jobe’s brow.

Belphoebe snapped at PowerJack, “The Crown! You have to get it! God alone knows what he can do with it!” Ashley didn’t know what Belphy was up to, but she knew that if PowerJack tried it on his own, he’d get stomped.

But Belphoebe seemed to have a point: Syndarian set the crown on his own head, threw his head back and gave a howling laugh. Did supervillains have a list of standard laughs they used? Then he swept his arms forward, and all those stray pixie-dots that had spread out so widely came to him as though he had a pixie-whistle. He wrapped them around himself like a warm blanket, and disappeared into a fog. When he reappeared, he was wrapped in a golden suit of armor that was too smooth and liquid to be technical, but had a subtle aura of raw power to it. He was surrounded by six golden knights, each with a high golden shield and a unique golden weapon. “To Arms, my minions!” Syndarian cooed. “Mete out Sidhe justice with goodly ladles, and don’t forget to dish out seconds!”

And for a few minutes, that’s pretty much how it was: Syndarian’s knights kicked some serious ass all around, and nothing that anyone did seemed to so much as bother them. Even the Empress’ energy gadgets just bounced off the gold armor and shields. Belphobe seemed to regard PowerJack as their best bet against the knights, and kept urging him to get back into the fight.

Finally, Syndrian’s knights had the Cadet Crusaders, Drow, and so on surrounded. The Empress was holding a badly cut up Jobe in her arms, and the other drow were looking rather ragged as well. Tiger Girl said, “Okay, I admit it, it’s time to call the Guard.”

“You mean, you haven’t?”

“Yes, DO that,” Syndarian gloated. “I need to deal wi-URK!” *WHAM!* His monologue was cut short as a high conical club of some sort came down out of the night and smashed him with enough force to crack the asphalt.

Syndarian let out an inarticulate gurgle and twitched. As he furiously tried to gather his wits, the club came down again, forcing him a good two feet into the tarmac. *WHAM!*

The Sidhe Knights froze in position, teetered and fell.

Syndarian struggled to climb out of the hole, calling the pixie-dots available to him. The Sidhe Knights dissolved into streams of pixie-dots that swarmed to the Faerie King. He gathered them up and-

-*WHAM!* the club came down a third time.

This time, the pixie-swarm gently ebbed away like a heavy fog before a wind, Syndarian disappeared, leaving only Princess Jobe’s crown, metal battered, but the jewel unharmed.

As with all the others, Ashley followed the ‘club’ as it raised up in the air. It lit up with a light that filled her heart with hope and pride. The ‘club’ was a large golden torch. And the hand that held that torch was attached to a statuesque woman standing maybe 50 feet tall, in a copper-green bodysuit with white sandals, gloves, hunting shift, tablet-shaped shield and spiked crown. She was athletic, with long curling black hair that tumbled down from the crown. She was Miss Liberty, a legacy superheroine whose predecessors had operated in New York City since the 1930s, passing the torch down from one generation to the next. And for all that, in Ashley’s heart of hearts, she just knew that she was the living embodiment of Liberty itself.

Miss Liberty raised her torch high, sending its light over the street. She looked down at the assembled people, obviously trying to figure out the greater situation, having dealt with the obvious threat. She opened her mouth and started to speak-

-but she was cut off when flares of energy struck her from behind. Ashley quailed with horror as Miss Liberty stumbled and fell, her torch slipping from her hand and going out.

Miss Liberty hit the street with a crash. The crowd, junior superheroes, Drow, mutants, Fashionistas and bystanders alike looked on in stunned silence. Then that silence was shattered by the sound of mocking feminine laughter. “At last! The asinine myth of Liberty, brought down by the might of the Proper Order, the just rule of the Master Race!”

A woman strode out of the darkness with the air of a ruthless conqueror claiming her victory. She was tall, not 50 feet tall, but in the six-foot tall range, athletic and buxom. Where Miss Liberty was dressed to inspire, this woman was dressed to intimidate. She wore a draping white cape pinned with swastika buttons to a black mini-dress pattered after the SS tunic. She wore a helmet-like metal half-mask pattered after a wolf’s head with flaring wings at the temples. Long golden blonde hair fell to her shoulders from the half-mask. Over the tunic she wore a wide metal girdle with a large black swastika at the front. She had two long intricately worked metal gauntlets that went up to her biceps like opera gloves, and she had matching mid-thigh boots with high heels. Behind her came lines of men in bulky black longcoats, and gold coalscuttle helmets with face concealing ‘gas mask’ type masks, with large energy weapons that connected to backpacks by cables.

“As the false champion of the false ideal falls, so shall this wretched hive of scum and villainy be cleansed by the purging fire of PURITY!”

Though she didn’t announce herself, Ashley recognized her. She wasn’t just a supervillain, she wasn’t just a super-powered Nazi, she was an A-List supervillain who was wanted by the UN Security Council for Crimes against Humanity, and was regarded as a Clear and Material Threat to Global Peace and Welfare.

She was Wulfin the Purifier.

 

To Be Continued

Read 4654 times Last modified on Tuesday, 16 November 2021 04:17
More in this category: « A Single Fold A Good Man (Part 3) »

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Horrid
9 months ago
Bek, I have always adored you the most of all the original canon crew of authors and read everything you write with the greatest of pleasure. You can not imagine my joy at seeing Diamonds 5 posted. But please don't make us wait several years for the next installment if it can be avoided. Of course, if you do you will find me patiently waiting like Fry's dog outside the pizzeria in Futurama.
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Darkmuse
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Darkmuse
9 months ago
Nice to the next instalment of this legendary thread...
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Horrid
9 months ago
Hey, I sure hope you didn't think i was chiding you for the long wait between installments of "Diamonds". Bek. I am not a creative type and don't really know but I bet there are a lot of reasons why the chapters are taking so long: writer's block, stuff in real life, your doing other things you enjoy (this is the one i am hoping for), etc. If you were to decide to walk away from this story and never end it I would be sad but would also defend your right to do so. Thank you for having given me so much pleasure from your writing. I love you. :)
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DPRagan
4 months ago
Well, that escalated fast,
Although two 50 foot woman tussling is going to be a big issue room-wise.

Since we are getting an Ashley PoV, I wonder if this will be significant.
I think Nikki is still messed up in this point of the timeline, so I have to wonder how she will take the Unseelie Sidhe, Trolls and Redcaps?
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