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The Final Trump

A Whateley Universe Story

By Bek D Corbin

 

Part 5

 

JJ mused that there is something seriously off about the idea of celebrating your own birth by wearing the kind of suit that you’d be buried in. At least he’d talked his mother out of the bow tie. Vic and Bart were also in their ‘you’re going to look good for the pictures’ suits, but they didn’t have to stand on the reception line. Asha was slightly overdressed with her usual frills and bows overload, and still somehow managed to make it work. Viv was on the first of the 15 outfits that she’d brought; she was bound and determined to make a killer impression, no matter what!

Looking around the central area of the lair, JJ took in how the setup for the party was pulling together. The large open space forced a strange ‘indoor garden party’ vibe on the do, which was only helped along by the hot tubs and the attendant changing rooms. Uncle Luke had insisted on a rather awkward arrangement for optimum coverage by the concealed internal defense guns. Like most Criminal Scientists, Luke tended to view internal defense as a weird sort of shooter video game. But most criminal scientists didn’t have to worry about children, that they were responsible for, becoming collateral damage. Mrs. Quillan, the housekeeper, was having an animated discussion with Luke in yet another dustup between Social Function and Security. JJ noted with amusement that there was a small playground being assembled for the toddlers-to-tweens, and another area that looked suspiciously like a refuge for the old folks. He wondered which area would be designated the ‘gawky teenager’ haven, when his cell phone rang. He had to remember which of his cell phones was ringing. It was the one in his rear pocket, crowding out his wallet. That was the one that JD had given him last ni- er, early that morning. Pulling it out, he found that he had a text message that informed him that there was a special package at the loading dock to be picked up. The message ended ‘-JD’.

Well, as JJ had heard several times from different members of his family and their associates, ‘no one looks at the mailman’; or, more to the point, no one looks very hard at someone who looks like he’s doing something everyday. JJ casually walked over to one of the stashes of workmen’s stuff and helped himself to one of the overalls. He stepped into it, picked up a toolbox and walked over to the elevator. Taking the elevator down to the loading dock, JJ found his ‘special package’, a black 3-foot cube that was featureless except for a keypad- and a slot. He had a couple of workmen wrestle the curiously heavy cube onto a dolly, and then they helped him get it to the elevator. When he got the cube up to the party area, JJ’s phone gave him annoyingly precise, downright persnickety instructions as to exactly where to place the cube, which had to be repositioned six times, with absolutely no consideration for either Luke or Mrs. Quillan’s arrangements. Then the cube prepositioned itself minutely, and there were sounds of connections clicking into place and secure bolts being screwed into place. When that was done, JJ simply draped a tablecloth over it, and left it to Luke or Mrs. Quillan as to how it would fit in. Then JD’s smartphone gave JJ more instructions: to unfold an interface prong from the phone, and which socket to plug it into. JJ paid special attention to where that socket was. Then JJ simply shed the overall, and for all practical purposes reappeared after an unnoticed disappearance.

He just disappeared on his birthday, and no one noticed. Families do have such a way of making you feel special, don’t they?

Then, finally, they either managed to pull everything together just in time, or ran out of time and stopped fussing over the details. Nick informed those assembled that the first guests had been picked up and were arriving through the security corridors. Mara called her children together, and made sure that they were presentable. Only JJ had to stand through the reception line, but she wanted to be sure that they did the family proud, no matter what.

Nick had arranged it so that the families would come up one at a time, allowing for proper introductions, and to keep the ‘new guy’ factor as brief as possible. Oh, and for one other thing as well. The elevator opened, and a small family of three, a dapper man in a dark red semi-formal suit, a tall, strapping, handsome (if rather imposing) brunette woman in a tight fitting red dress, and a petite girl with her dark brown hair in an over-elaborate hairdo, who was trying way too hard to look older and sophisticated, when JJ knew all-too well that she was eight months younger than he was. “NICK, old man!” the father figure of the trio called out. “Just wait until I tell you about the coup we scored in Cincinnati last Christmas!”

“Father forgive him,” Nick misquoted back, “For he knows not what he’s talking about! From what I heard, you got chased out of Cincinnati by a gold angel!”

Damian Heller, known more widely by his nom de crime ‘Cardinal Sin’, waved that off as they approached the reception line. “Please! A winner may not always get what he came for, but he makes sure that he walks away with something!” Heller silently urged his daughter, Angelica, to hand JJ his birthday gift. Angelica gave JJ a mocking smirk and handed him a wrapped package that had the right heft and feel for a packet of either underwear or socks. “And from what I’ve heard, you’ve been getting your chops handed to you, in your own backyard.”

Nick grinned snidely at Damian. “You’ve been listening to the sour grapevine. A winner is someone who finds a way to win, no matter what. Come, walk with me, and let me show you what my boy JJ here managed to score not yesterday…” Nick draped a comradely arm around Damian’s shoulder and walked him around the scaffolding to show him the Synthesizer.

As their fathers viewed the triumph and their mothers traded witty barbs, Angelica leaned over and peered into JJ’s eyes. “Still brown, I see.”

“So are yours, I see,” JJ riposted.

“Looks like you’re a squib,” Angelica smugged.

“Oh? You managed to manifest your powers, and keep those enchanting pools of mud then?”

“I have time,” she returned with a feline grin. “Something you’re running out of.”

“Of course, there are operatives who manage to work without the crutch of a superhuman power.”

“YOU? A master criminal?” Angelica snorted. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“Ask your father to take you behind those tarps and show you what Dear Old Dad is showing him.” Angelica looked at the tarps and scaffolding, with a curiosity that almost killed her.

She waited for several excruciating minutes until Nick walked Damian back to the party, saying, “So, of course, I have to choose who I pass the crucible on to. And, far more importantly, what I’d expect in return.”

Mr. Heller walked alongside Nick, carefully weighing the options. “So what would you say would be a reasonable expectation?”

“Please! Damian!” Nick chided him, though his eyes danced merrily. “You’d haggle at a birthday party?”

Angelica started to ask her father what was so important, when the chime for the elevator sounded. The doors opened up, and there was a strange sense of déjà vu. Again, there was a father, a mother who was both taller and more physical than her husband, and a daughter. But Professor Oberon was shorter and considerably chubbier than Damian Heller, and he was wearing his ‘working outfit’ of a white on white evening suite with a matching greatcoat, top hat, and a magnificent beard that fanned out from his face. There was some debate in supervillain circles as to whether the beard was real or not. Both Cardinal Sin and Professor Oberon where skillful weavers of perplexing illusions. The exact nature of those illusions were a matter of discussion as well. Where Linda Heller was tall and strapping and wore a stylish modern party dress, Titania, the Professor’s wife, bodyguard and main enforcer, wore a long glittering dark gown that had been originally designed as a costume for the Queen of Air and Darkness in a production of Mozart’s opera ‘the Magic Flute’, and a matching tiara. The daughter clearly favored her mother. While she didn’t have her mother’s curves yet, she moved with a sure grace, a fluid physicality that promised much for her future.

“Oh, look,” Angelica said through a clenched smile, “it’s the Little Mer-Dyke.”

Ariel Oberon walked up to the reception line and handed JJ a well-wrapped package. “Hello, Wimp,” she said evenly, not making it clear as to whether she was addressing JJ or Angelica. It was quite evident that while her mutant trait hadn’t manifested, she was clearly quite confident that she could wipe up the place with either one of them.

Damian Heller cleared his throat and asked the Professor, “You came in your work clothes?”

“Well, we can’t all swank around in red dress,” Oberon sneered back, making the most of the razor’s edge of his Cosmopolitan European accent. He looked imperiously around the party area. “So much room, so little to fill it,” he said in Nick’s direction.

“You’re the second to arrive,” Nick told him. Then, pulling Oberon from his family, Nick said, “And while we’re waiting, why don’t I show you my family’s latest triumph?”

But, before Nick could steer the Professor over to the Synthesizer, with a chime the elevator arrived again and le Compte du Maugris stepped out wearing his late 19th Century best, along with Nero, his Great Dane familiar, at his side.

“Oh Christ,” Angelica didn’t quite whisper, “who’s this? They’re really dragging out all the old fossils for this one.”

“GRAN’PERE!” Asha greeted him, rushing up to him for another big hug.

“That’s my Grandfather,” JJ said with a smirk. “And be respectful. He’s older than everyone else here put together.”

Ariel made a rude noise. “So what? If he’s that old, all it means is that he doesn’t even know how to program a VCR, let alone a LAN server.”

Once du Maugris had put her down on the ground, Asha imperiously told him that he wasn’t to sit off in a corner and sulk. He was going to TALK to people! She dragged him by the hand with all the irresistible force of a 6-year-old girl and ruthlessly introduced Professor Oberon to Gran’Pere.

“Ah yes,” Angelica said with all the snide dismissal that her Mid-Atlantic accent imparted. “definitely a very dangerous man.”

Nick had some mercy on his father-in-law by taking him and Asha along with the Professor on his little tour of the Synthesizer.

“So,” Angelica asked, “are there going to be any boys at this party?” JJ shot her a silent look saying ‘I’m a boy’, which Angelica simply responded to with a cold glare that said, ‘I meant real boys.’

“So, what happened to your brother? Y’know, the cute Harrow.” Ariel asked, looking around.

“That’s a very good question.”

Angelica and Ariel then completely cut JJ out of the conversation and started verbally fencing with each other. His mother noticed this, but she had her hands full with their mothers, who were playing a less virulent version of the same game as their daughters. JJ just stood there, sort of the geek in the corner at his own birthday party.

Nick hadn’t made it back with Asha, Gran’Pere and Prof. Oberon when the elevator opened up again. This time, a tall man in an old-fashioned white lab coat, the type that buttoned up close to the neck, and two children, maybe 7 or 8 years old, stepped out. Saying that the man was cybernetically augmented would be understatement. Half his face was covered with the classic ‘metal skull’ façade, and his white coat may have covered the fact that both of his arms were prosthetics, but it hardly concealed it. The two children were very normal, even perfect to the point of blandness, boy and girl versions of each other, with curling blonde hair, round cherub faces, and large, unblinking round eyes. “THRESHOLD!” Uncle Luke, who had quite sensibly held back out of the line of crossfire, stepped forward to greet them. “So good of you to come! And I take it that these are Alfie and Betty?” Luke leaned down and smiled at the two kids, grinning with a manic glee that showed all too well through his emotive mask.

“Ew!” Angelica recoiled, “Perv much? Who IS that Pedo, anyway, and why did you let him at your party?”

“That’s my Uncle Luke,” JJ said with a heavy ‘at least have the minimal good grace to feel awkward, if you can’ undertone. “This is his place. And he’s not a Pedo. And even if he was, he’d have the cool to not do it at a party with everyone watching.”

Ariel, who had been studying ‘Threshold’ closely, shifted her gaze to ‘Alfie and Betty’ for a moment, and then groaned, “Omigawd….”

“What?”

“They’re androids,” she said, clearly still putting things together. “He brought a pair of androids to the party. That’s Threshold, he’s, like, HUGE into Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Intelligence, Next-Step Heuristics, Transhumanism and like that. There was an idea back in the 1960s, that you would build a human-appearing self-aware robot, and release it into the general public, just to see what happened.”

“Has anybody done that?”

“I think Threshold’s doing it.”

“Alfie? And Betty?”

“How much you wanna bet that in a few years they have a brother and sister named ‘Charlie’ and ‘Dee’?”

“Well, that would explain the look on Uncle Luke’s face- er, at least mask,” JJ said. “It wasn’t pervo lust, it was Mad Science Greed. I just hope that he can keep a grip on himself.”

Luke managed to restrain himself, and when Nick came back with Asha, the Count, and Prof. Oberon, Luke introduced Alfie and Betty to Asha, and sent them off to play. Mara and her father sent Nero and Accolon, in its default form of a terrier, to keep an eye on the children. “Well, that should be interesting,” Ariel said. “A little squicky maybe, but interesting.”

“You have a very off idea of ‘interesting,” Angelica sneered. She said that she was looking around for something to drink, but she pointedly ignored the punch bowl, the bottles of sparkling water, and the cans of soft drinks. She was warming up to make some sort of snotty remark when the chime rang and the elevator opened. Two women, actually a woman and a teenage girl, stepped out. Angelica was just about to make a remark when she froze, mouth open, and groaned, “Ohh… bugger…”

The woman and girl, obviously mother and daughter, in one of those slightly creepy near-lookalike situations that was emphasized by the nearly identical sheath dresses and high heels they wore. The woman was a classic Italian beauty in the mode of Sophia Loren or Monica Bellucci, with a squarish face, magnificent cheekbones, upturned nose, large almond-shaped incredibly green eyes, wide full lips and small chin. She had long silky midnight black hair pulled back in a deceptively simple arrangement. The sheath dress didn’t conceal, but rather framed a magnificent body with delicious curves, and long slinky legs. The girl looked like her mother, stepped back in time. Aside from a few inches of height and a more slender physique, the real thing that differentiated the mother from her daughter was that the woman was clearly very comfortable in her own skin and absolutely confident of herself in this situation. The daughter, in stark contrast, was not. She was steady on her high heels, but she looked out into the room with a decided ‘deer in the headlights’ stare.

“Omigawd!” Angelica gasped, “That’s Celestina Valocco! What’s Celestina Valocco doing here?”

“Same as we are,” Ariel smirked. “She’s also the Black Strega. What? Doesn’t your daddy let you in on little trade secrets like that?” Ariel’s smirk dropped. “But who’s the girl? And where’s Fino?”

“Didn’t you hear?” Angelica said with a retaliatory snip, “Celestina’s got a daughter who nobody knew about until there was a thing in Massachusetts a few weeks ago.”

‘Yeah, I remember that,” JJ said. “But still… where’s Fino?”

“CELESTINA!” Mara greeted her guest with gusty good cheer, advancing with arms and smile wide (if both a tad stiff), and gave Ms. Valocco the proper brief hug and air-kiss to avoid mussing dress, makeup or hairstyle. “So GOOD of you to come! And who’s this?”

“MARA,” Celestina Valocco purred back through teeth clenched in a tight smile- or muted snarl. “So GOOD of you to invite us. Why, this is my daughter, Sophia!”

“Oh, so THIS is the mysterious daughter that caused such a fuss!” Mara’s eyes glittered dangerously. “As a mother- of six- I can understand, especially as you only have one. But really, Tina, did you have to hold all of dear Paree hostage?”

“Why all the fuss?” Celestina shot back. “It was only Paris. And it’s not like Paris is really important anymore, not like New York or Peking or Mumbai.”

Mara and Celestina verbally fenced back and forth for a while. Ariel whispered into JJ’s ear, “Why doesn’t your father stop them?”

“Why?” JJ whispered back. “They’re having fun!” After trading a few more witty bitcheries with Mara, Il Strega slinked her daughter over to JJ’s stretch of the reception line and urged her to give JJ his present. Appearing extremely uncomfortable, Sophia handed over the package with a distinct ‘sorry about this’ air to it. JJ sensed a movement at his back. Looking behind him, he saw that Angelica and Ariel had pulled back a bit and were whispering to each other. Whatever animosities between them had been paved over in the face of a girl who, quite frankly, blew them both off the stage.

JJ accepted the package. From the heft of it and the way that it shifted in his hands, he was guessing socks. Oh well… you can do things with socks. Like play fetch with your dog. And Things. “So! Sophia!” JJ said brightly with a ‘maybe if we bulldoze through the awkward silence, we may actually find something to talk about’ subtext laden opening line. Which Sophia responded to with an ‘I’m really out of my comfort zone and have no real idea of what I’m supposed to do in this circumstance’ laden rambling statement that led off into more of that awkward silence.

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PARTY CHATTER

“So why do you think he asked for underwear?”

* * *

“Oh, by the way, have you ever run into an Operator called ‘the Crimson Claw? Well, if you do, avoid him. Total ratsass. I was running a operation in Cincinnati, and he just screwed it seven ways to Sunday. We managed to recover and try a new angle, but he botched the hell out of that one too!”

* * *

“Yes, I’m keenly aware that the-how do the English put it?- ah, ‘Good Neighbors’ have been returning, and taking human hosts. Names, ancient names are being spoken again. Nothing good can come of it, I tell you. The Fair Ones, *pfui!* Fair faces, horrific hearts…”

* * *

“So, tell me… what can you share about… The Bloodline…?”

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JJ

“I hate to tear you away from your chit-chat, son,” Nick said, “but you have to do your duty to greet your guests.”

“Guests?” JJ looked at the elevator, which hadn’t opened.

Nick shook his head and pulled out his cell phone. He hit a button. High above them, a platform that was suspended by some cables suddenly detached from two of the cables, swinging down, and dumping several dark figures. The figures spilled, but managed to reach out and grasp each other long enough to give the entire grouping some sort of leverage. They all managed to land lightly, and were briefly visible as human-shaped puddles of darkness. Then they each blurred and resolved into a very normal seeming Japanese family with a Father wearing a dark western-style suit, a mother wearing a dark blue homongi kimono with a black obi, a teenage son of maybe 17 years old also wearing a dark western-style suit, a daughter of maybe 14 years wearing a blue and white irotomesode kimono with a vividly blue obi, two boys maybe in the 9-to-11 age range, both wearing semi-formal jackets with shorts, and a young girl in the 5-to-7 age range wearing an elaborate blue ‘loligoth’ dress festooned with white ruffles and lace. Attached to, but clearly not leading the family was an elderly Japanese man in Happi and Hakama. Blandly ignoring the fact that they’d just fallen into a trap, the family bowed politely to Nick. “Ah, Enenra! So good of you to drop in!” While he wasn’t so gauche as to gloat, Nick was clearly pleased at getting in the first touch of the evening in on the Kaitos.

“Your father invited ninj-”

But JJ shushed her. “NO,” he said quietly but definitely. “Do NOT use the N-word.”

“Nipponese?”

“No, the other N-word. Look, the Kaitos are what translates as ‘phantom thieves’, with hefty side orders of smuggling, con artistry and several other dodgy pursuits. They use an eclectic blend of martial arts, Ki skills, magic, exotic chemistry, and very advanced technology to do all of that. BUT. They do not, I repeat NOT, practice the arts of military or political espionage, assassination, or theft of sensitive documents. There are families in Japan that do that, and they’re very well connected, and they can get very NASTY when grubby phantom thieves start calling themselves… er, the’N-word’. Mind you, they don’t get that bent out of shape if these crafty tricksters sucker gullible gaijin into thinking that they’re, ah, refugees from an anime. But it’s best all around if Mr. Kaito can say with 100% honesty that not only haven’t they claimed that they were, ah, N-words, but nobody at this party even USED the N-word. Mr. Kaito has been playing one-upmanship games with my dad for years, and we’d hate for anything bad to happen to them before we definitively prove that we Harrows outclass the Kaitos in every way, shape and form.”

“One-upping them is that important to you?”

“One-Upmanship is very important to our families!” JJ said stiffly. “It’s kept us on the top of our games. The secret to greatness isn’t doing great things; it’s constantly being a little better than you were before. And having someone who’s almost as good as you- not AS good, but almost; like the Kaitos- constantly upping their game is a great way of staying sharp.”

As JJ was quietly explaining this to Sophia, Kaito Enenra was formally introducing his father Osabi, his wife Ikiryo, his eldest son Akateko, his older daughter Tenka, his two younger sons Janjabi and Jubokko, and his youngest Yosei. Nick had already met each of them, but one thing that both families agreed on was that good form mattered.

Nick introduced Mara and the Count, and then directed them to the birthday boy. Tenka, the older daughter approached JJ holding a wrapped package, which she presented with the proper element of demure panache. JJ accepted the package with both hands. He didn’t bow, but deeply nodded his head, acknowledging the bow without mangling it by imitation. By the heft of it, JJ could tell that it was neither socks nor underwear. Of course, with the Kaitos, JJ’s money was on that it was expensive, exquisite, exceedingly hot, and maybe not insulting, but certainly had some element of teasing. There would be some tweaking of JJ’s or the Harrows’ entire noses, which they couldn’t refuse, because it was a gift.

That part done, the Kaitos separated to interact as individuals. Osabi sidled over to Juliet, to continue his intentionally farcical ‘wooing’ of her. “Yosei!” Asha called out and scurried over. Asha and Yosei traded bows, and Yosei immediately started chattering to Asha in French as Alfie and Betty looked on with detached curiosity. Mara shot Ikiryo a curious look. From behind a fluttered fan, Ikiryo explained, “We recently traveled in France and the Low Countries, and, ah, saw many elegant things. Yosei is going through a phase where she’s enraptured by all things French.” The matriarch of the Kaito family gave a sad weary mother’s sigh. Janjabi and Jubokko had made their way over to where Vic and Bart were hanging out, and by some strange protocol that eludes the adult mind, they were already embroiled in a good-natured brawl. Tenka bustled over to where Angelica and Ariel were, bowed and leaned in to get the good dish. Dad took Enenra off with Celestina to show them both the grand prize, and maybe to stir up the bidding a little.

But Akateko stalked up to JJ and asked, “And where is your older brother?” with undertones of ‘I certainly wouldn’t waste my breath with you otherwise’.

“That’s been the Question of the Day for almost a month, Akateko,” JJ said calmly. “A few weeks ago, JD went off to pull his debut raid as a supervillain. And… that’s the last the family’s heard from him.”

“And you’ve done nothing to find him?” Akateko said coldly.

“I wouldn’t say THAT…” JJ jerked a thumb at the scaffolding, where you could just see Mr. Kaito and Ms. Valocco at the very top, peering down into what was probably the opening at the top of the Synthesizer. Akateko sniffed and stalked off.

“What was HIS problem?” Sophia asked.

“Oh, from what I hear, Akateko learned how to walk a week before my brother JD did, but JD learned how to ride a bike without training wheels a month before he did. The rest of the Kaitos have a sense of humor about the whole rivalry thing, but Akateko takes it seriously. But then, Akateko takes everything seriously.” Sophia made a noise of acceptance. JJ leaned over and whispered, “And watch yourself- under her demure ‘lotus blossom’ act, Tenka is a shark with stainless steel teeth.”

Then the chime rang again, and this time it was a small family of three that stepped in. They looked like something off the cover of Town and Country magazine; the mother and father were still in a trim, handsome prime, and the son was athletic, good-looking and chipper. They were stylishly dressed, just formal enough for Society, just casual enough for a knocked-together do. Well, that is if you accepted that large live snakes were fashionable neckwear, as the lividly green serpent draped over the woman’s shoulders was. And even if it wasn’t, she managed to pull the look off with élan. “Adam! Eve! Welcome to our garden! So, remind me,” Nick waved a finger between the familiar and the son, “which one is the serpent?”

“Does it matter?” she called back with a chuckle, “They’re both the apples of my eye!”

“Those?” Sophia said in a flat disbelieving murmur, “Are Supervillains?”

“Not. Quite,” JJ allowed. “Those are Adam and Eve Eden, and their son, Seth.”

“Seth?”

“They didn’t want to press their luck by naming him either ‘Cain’ or ‘Able’. They’re Society Witches.”

“Society Witches?”

“You’ve heard of ‘Society Doctors’ and ‘Society Shrinks’ and like that? Same bit, only the Edens provide discreet and reliable hexes, charms, potions and such to the very best families of the Main Line, Back Bay, Park Avenue, Horse Country and Newport. Going to ramshackle huts in nasty owl-haunted backwoods is SO inconvenient,” JJ finished with a drawl through clenched teeth, mocking the infamous ‘Larchmont Lockjaw’.

“Okay, and what are they doing here?”

“They also do a brisk business in referring supervillain services to the haut monde.”

Seth, the son, bounced on his heels as his parents made nice with the Harrows. He scanned the room and seemed heartened equally at the quality of the girls at the party, and the fact that so far, his only competition was JJ. As he strolled in their direction, Sophia made an unhappy noise. “I think that he’s going to stir up some trouble.”

“Dear God, I hope so!” JJ said brightly. “It may be my only chance of getting through this without making a run at the hard liquor!”

“Hey, JJ,” Seth smirked as he shoved the ‘birthday gift’ at him- but never taking his eyes off Sophia. “I hear that you’ve developed a kinky taste for men’s underwear.”

“Well, what can I say?” JJ breezed back, “Once you feel the cool crisp cotton of Fruit of the Loom™, there’s no going back. Oh, this is Sophia, you know Viv, Ariel and Angelica, that’s Tenka Kaito with them, and Godzilla is climbing out of the bay and headed in this direction.”

“Great to hear it,” Seth smirked, not taking his eyes off Sophia’s cleavage.

“You DO know that my mother’s right over there?” Sophia pointed over to where Celestina was holding court, with the Count, Latigo, Ace, and Prof. Oberon all in rapt attendance.

Seth’s gaze flickered in that direction on pure reflex, but the sight of Celestina Valocco in that sheath dress reached out and seized his teenage horndog attention. Looking back and forth between mother and daughter, Seth’s sleek veneer of cool cracked badly. “Hah? How?”

“That’s Celestina Valocco,” JJ explained. Lowering his voice, he added, “Y’know, the Black Strega? The woman who overran Paris a few weeks ago? Because someone kidnapped her daughter?”

The sass well and truly knocked out of him, Seth factored that into his thinking, and certain consequences for his plans became clear. “Thanks for the heads-up, dude,” Seth muttered as he made his way to the safer grazing where Vivian was holding court.

Sophia shot JJ an arch look. “Hey, Seth’s a lot of fun. When he’s not being a stabbing pain in the ass.”

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PARTY CHATTER

“Doctor Diabolik? *Pfui!* All that I know is that he’s making it almost impossible to keep good minions!”

* * *

“But if you know who Golden Eagle IS, why don’t you do something about him?”

“I already HAVE.” <evil grin>

“My God! You’ve got him Klinked?”

“’Got him Klinked’?”

“It’s from an old 1960s sitcom, you see… nnnrrrggg… too complicated and too silly to explain. The short form is that Nick doesn’t have to do anything about Golden Eagle. Because he’s got him under control. Hell, he doesn’t even want to do anything about Golden Eagle. Because if he did, then some other superhero might come in to fill in for the Magnificent Five, and he’d actually be competent!”

“Oh, Golden Eagle’s competent enough. Hell, he and his four buddies are very good at keeping obnoxious punks with masks and gimmicks from getting out of hand. And I’d hate to go to all the trouble of getting another set of white hats broken in.”

* * *

“Musette is not responding. Is her communications interface offline?”

* * *

“The thing to keep in mind about the Knights of Purity is that preparation is EVERYTHING for them! If they know who they’re dealing with and have a decent workup on him, they are deadly! But if they go in cold, without a decent idea as to what they’re dealing with? Three Stooges with Miniguns!”

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Sophia stayed by JJ’s side instead of joining Seth and the girls. This was a tad awkward for JJ, who wasn’t used to extremely attractive girls hanging around him, unless they were working him for something, like getting close to his brother. Lacking anything better to say to the drool-worthy morsel, JJ told her about the Synthesizer behind the scaffolding. He’d just gotten to the part where he’d tracked down Vic and Bart when the chime for the elevator came to one of their rescues (exactly which may be a bone of contention eventually). Two people, a woman and a teenage boy stepped out. The woman was in one of those uncertain primes, beautiful in a gamine way that she wasn’t quite too old for, lithe, and wearing a trendy clubbing outfit that she would have been too old for, if not for her raw panache. The boy was a half-head taller than she was, and had the long, lean looks that you usually associate with intense young intellectuals. But he didn’t move with the rambling, careless semi-clumsiness of half-grown academics. Rather, he moved with the spare economy of movement that Latigo and Lynx did, of people whose bodies did what they damn well told them to without making a big deal about it, the way that people who moved with pantherish grace did. He was dressed semi-formally with a black leather blazer, and made a reasonable impression without the studied attention to fashion that Seth paid.

The mother twittered sociably to Mara for a bit as the son hung back with an air of absent amusement. Mara brought them over to JJ and introduced them. “Dear, this is Josephine Pellegrini-St. Germaine, also known as ‘Madam Hex’. This is her son, Arsène. They made a bit of a splash in the news recently, too,” Mara added to Sophia.

As if spurred by that mention, Nick turned his gaze on Ms. Pellegrini-St. Germaine, and asked, “And speaking of that, precisely how does Arsène’s father feel about you bringing your son here tonight?”

‘Mdm. Hex’ merely pooh-poohed that and deflected the question with a vague comment about how the custody matter was still being ironed out, and she had to get time in with her boy while she still had it. Arsène’s reaction to this was a practiced blank expression of ‘oh this again’. Mdm. Pellegrini-St. Germaine, despite her claim of wanting more time with her son, urged him and Sophia to join the clutch of girls that had formed around Seth.

‘And yet again, the hawt chick goes off with the tall guy,’ JJ thought sourly to himself.

This time, when the elevator opened, it was packed. But only two people got off. Nick had told his son about Boulder, but even so, JJ’s eyes popped when the first guy stepped out of the elevator car. He was fucking Huge! No, huge didn’t cut it; this guy was MASSIVE! He had to be at least 6-and-a-half feet tall, and over 250 pounds. He didn’t have the sculptured ‘Greek God’ physique that bodybuilders work for; rather, his muscles were simply LARGE, and he just breathed a sense of raw brawn. He looked around, eagerly taking in the party with no sense that he minded the looks of the people around him. He was wearing a luridly blue-and-white Hawaiian print shirt over white duck trousers and sandals. JJ’s sense of the ridiculous primed him to expect that Boulder’s son would be this wimpy pathetic little runt who barely came up to his father’s belt.

No, wait, that WAS Boulder’s son.

Boulder himself rose head and shoulders over his son, had a large mustache, and a far more defined physique. He wore a red-and-gold Hawaiian shirt with white duck trousers and sandals. And the kid was definitely a chip off the old Boulder. Worse, they appeared to be the ‘best buds’ type of Father-and-Son team. “Hey Slingshot!” Boulder bellowed with good humor, “This is my boy, Teddy! Something else, ain’t he? Just wait until his mutant trait kicks in!” As that sank in, Boulder looked around. “Hey, where’s the Grub? You said that there’d be GRUB!”

“We’re having a sit-down dinner later-”

“aw, don’t gimme that crap, you promised us a real DINNER! Is this how you treat GUESTS?”

“Enough!” snapped du Maugris with the tone of a biblical patriarch confronting the Unholy. “It is bad enough that you force yourself and your get upon this celebration unasked, unwelcome, and empty-handed you great gangling graceless gorilla! But to insult my Son-in-Law’s hospitality this way! NEVER! Nicholas was buffaloed into accepting you at this soiree, so he is obligated to put up with this boorishness. But *I* am NOT! There are things called ‘Manners’, you maundering malodorous mastodon! You may have heard of them; they’re things that civilized people have.”

Boulder looked at du Maugris with a ‘WTF are you?’ look. Not bothering to really get angry, he reached over- and was caught flat-footed when du Maugris simply stared him in the eye. Boulder had dealt with psychics before, but this was something different. Psychics were all mooshy and prodding in your mind, trying to find buttons and weak points. But this wasn’t inside his head; it was right there in his eyes, battering away at him like an avalanche of ice. No, this wasn’t psychic power- this was raw AUTHORITY, the concentrated disapproval of a thousand Second-Grade teachers, forcing him… forcing to… THINK about what he’d done! The secret to Boulder’s success was that he never thought about anything, he just DID things, and let other people deal with it. The thousand voices of condemnation, making him consider… no… CONSEQUENCES! Boulder broke away like a whipped dog. Teddy stepped up to defend his dad, but the Count brushed him aside with the merest glance of that arctic gaze.

Boulder lay there shivering not so much in pain or fear or humiliation, but rather in abject confusion. He was a huge man; he’d always been huge, even as a boy. He’d always been able to simply shove his through anything to get anything he’d wanted. Well, not always. There’d been people who’d gotten in his way. But there’d always been big fun fights and lots of whooping and hollering. He’d never been just slapped down before.

“Enough!” du Maugris broke off with the air of a man finishing an odious chore. “Get up, you Brobdingnagian Boob! Nicholas has accepted you at his table, so we must endure your company. But be warned! Madam Quillan has informed me that she has prepared twenty times the usual amount of food each, just for you. So, Gargantua, Pantagruel, limit yourselves to those twenty-fold portions! If you are peckish, perhaps Nicholas can find you some automobile tyres to gnaw on. And behaves yourselves, you uncouth behemoths, lest I lose my sang froid and become… unkind.”

With that, du Maugris speared Boulder and his son with the icy blue eyes that are the hallmark of the family, adjusted the fit of his jacket and returned to his flirtation with Celestina Valocco.

The elevator chimed, and a man and a teenage girl stepped out. The man was dressed as a classic evening dress stage magician, with the tux, a red-lined opera cape, a domino mask, and a white turban fixed by a large red crystal. The girl was more or less dressed as his assistant, with a sequined tail coat over fishnet stockings, and her mask and turban matched his. The man looked around the room, took in the civilian dress and gave a wide embarrassed smile. “I’m afraid that I misread the invitation. I thought that we were all coming in costume.”

Nick stepped forward and said, “Our fault, apparently we should have worded the invitation more carefully.” He finished with a look cast in Professor Oberon’s direction. But then he looked curiously at the girl. “But where’s Artie, that son you were so proud of?”

Mr. Magic gave an embarrassed chuckle. “ah, this IS ‘Artie’. Her name’s really Gwen. It’s… a long story…”

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PARTY CHATTER

“Have you been in New York lately? I used to be able to get around the Shadowmage pretty regularly; just confuse him and you could get away any time! But lately? On my last job in Brooklyn Heights, I barely got away at all! I lost three good henchmen and he trashed six Minion conjurations that I’ve been nurturing for years! Something’s going on with him, and I rather doubt that his getting some regular action with that perky little sidekick is the reason!”

* * *

“Power Gems? I don’t trust them. Power of that sort doesn’t come cheaply.”

* * *

‘Yes, that’s a very generous offer. But you have to understand that this whole ‘Great Quest’ thing has been an absolute money pit for us. Except for a bunch of items that Mara got out the back door of the local University’s Historical warehouse, we haven’t seen a DIME on this!”

* * *

“Oh, British superheroes are a reasonable lot for the most part, and British Law Enforcement is very professional. But the British MEDIA? Now THEY are NASTY!”

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JJ

Teddy sidled up to JJ, lacking anyone closer his age. “Who the hell IS that guy?” Teddy asked JJ, kiting a nervous look at du Maugris.

“Why, that’s my Gran’Pere!” JJ answered with justified pride. “Le Compte d’Aigremont!”

“Le Compte d’Aigremont?” Professor Oberon, who had been watching du Maugris with an air of baffled, frustrated recollection, gasped. Then the penny visibly dropped for him. “MAESTRO!” he cried at du Maugris with the sound of an opera lover meeting Enrique Caruso in person. He rushed over, took the Count’s hand and kissed his ring.

“Have we… met?” the Count asked, taken aback.

“Do you remember the Linz Reichstag Bank Train Robbery in 1950?”

“Of course! I was a part of that! We stopped a train carrying 250 million dollars American- back when that was still a lot of money- in gold from the Nazi bank reserves, which was to be War Reparations for the Soviets. We stopped the train in the middle of the Weinsberg tunnel, and removed the gold using a forgotten side tunnel.”

“Precisely! I was there as well!”

“I’m… afraid that I don’t recall you,” du Maugris admitted.

“I was working for M. Cauchemar at the time,” Oberon said. “I was using the nom de crime ‘Grand Guignol’.”

The Count was almost visibly racing through his Palace of Memory, but then, he snapped his fingers. “Grand Guignol! You were the clever little fellow with those nasty puppets!”

Oberon glowed with pride at being remembered. “Actually, I never animated those puppets. I have the ability to create convincing illusions, and being a novice with that at the time, I used my vicious little friends as a physical context, around which I wove my bloody nightmares.”

Du Maugris nodded, seeing the craft in it. “But why are you so glad to see me? Yes, the robbery went off as planned- well, except for that fiasco with Oberst Schleicher- but the aftermath was a bloody mess, especially that muddle at the Schloss Jeseniky!”

“Yes, Maestro, I was M. Cauchemar’s man at the time, but even so, I was inspired by watching you work! The skill! The finesse! The panache! The incredible timing! The way that you used the players’ preconceptions on not only each other, but themselves? Masterful! The way you played the comic befuddled, half-senile aristocrat who let himself be used and manipulated by all sides? Inspired! The way that you played the final trump card at the dénouement at Schloss Jeseniky, walking away with everything, and leaving everyone else gaping, and grasping at straws? It was a privilege, even though I was on the receiving end of it! All the prime players, Cauchemar, ODESSA, G2, MI6, the NKGB, Stasi, the Deuxieme, the Graustark woman, all of them so proud of their Tradecraft, and all of them made fools of by the man they thought they’d been manipulating! They all scoured Europe for months, looking for you and the gold! What did you do?”

“That was YOU?” Celestina favored the Count with eyes wide with admiration.

Du Maugris chuckled and explained, “I recast the gold into the form of olive oil cans, painted them up, and shipped them to Switzerland, where I cast them back into bullion. But to be honest, I can’t really claim credit for all that; the Reichstag Bank gold wasn’t really my target in all of that. But when the rest of you all started dashing around madly like characters in a Moliere farce, what could I do, but take a hand?”

Oberon blinked in confusion. “Then what were you after?”

“A cache of texts that had been stored in the Vatican’s Special Archives was removed for safety, from the bombing of Rome, during the Invasion of Italy. Somehow, I’m still not entirely sure how, Thule Gemienschaft got their grubby hands on all 600 texts, and stored them at the Catholic-Theological Private University in Linz.”

“Then that entire traviata at the University was YOU? Using the chaos to remove the texts?”

“Well, if you had them all so completely baffled,” Celestina asked with a note of censure, “then WHY didn’t you just walk off, leaving them utterly in the dark? Why did you insist on the big denunciation of everyone involved, rubbing their faces in it? After all, the best theft is one that no one knows about.”

“Because…” du Maugris paused, as though summing it up in his mind, “It was my finale. When I left France for Brazil in 1940, I was ashamed of my hand in the political morass that allowed the Boche to take the Sudetenland and the Rhineland, and… and to be honest, my general inability to admit that la Belle Époque was over. To me, Crime was always a means to a social or political end, rather than a craft unto itself, as it is for you. I decided to retire, and devote myself to my studies of the Great Arts. But when the war was over, I grew restless. In 1950, I returned to Europe and weighed the current players of the Great Game. I weighed them, and found myself wanting. I didn’t understand the forces or drives of this new era. Atomic Bombs that could end civilization, if not life entire! Radio networks that spanned the globe. Universities overflowing with plebeians. Aristocracy was a stale joke. The Bolsheviks were in their golden prime. I looked around and found that my time was over. So, I decided to have one last Grand Hurrah, and then disappear back into obscurity. And, well, renewing my reserves of cash as well. I’d been getting by on swindling expatriate Nazis in Brazil and Argentina. Then I learned of the Thule Gemienschaft cache of texts, and well from there, the Riechstag Bank Train robbery rather grew organically. But what good is a Last Hurrah, if you don’t take any bows?”

Du Maugris paused, took note of the heavy tone he’d descended to, looked Celestina over and asked, “And while we’re gossiping about old victories, ma Dame la Strega, is it true that you were behind the audacious theft of an entire oil freighter in the Adriatic, in 1953?”

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PARTY CHATTER

“So, do you have any idea what Gizmatic was up to with that ‘Drow Princess Royal Wedding’ thing a while back?”

* * *

“And THEN, just to cap off a complete cluster fuck of a mission, I have to explain to Golden Eagle, that NO, ‘I’ hadn’t called him and talked him into all those stupid things, it was some cunning criminal mastermind who hacked my son’s cell phone for some reason. AND... and the real capper, I had to act all hero-worshippy over the phone. I had to get rid of a perfectly good cell phone, because I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore!”

“By the way… how DID you talk the Magnificent Five into doing all that?”

* * *

“Yeah, my folks have been at me to go to some *ahem!* ‘Special School’ for mutants, but hey, I got the school I’m going to locked down tight! Why should I give up my choice of boyfriends, the leadership of the most popular clique in school, a guaranteed place on the Student Council, and a lock on being Prom Queen, just to go to some stupid school in New England, just because I’m a mutant?”

“Oh, you’re talking about Whateley? You don’t know what you’re missing!”

“You’re going to Whateley? I’m pre-registered to go as soon as my traits surface. It’s a coin toss as to whether I’ll favor Papa or Mama as to which traits I get, but it’s a given that I’ll manifest. What’s it like?”

“Oh, it ROCKS! Just on terms of being a school, it is head and shoulders above the private school that I went to before. Better books, better equipment, and the TEACHERS! Ah! Okay, Quintain’s a walking sleeping pill, but even HE, once he really gets going, just blows the teachers in my old school away. Athletics? Dear GOD, the Olympic Training Center should have their equipment! We have a freaking martial arts MASTER, from JAPAN, teaching Basic Martial Arts and we have an entire mini-STAFF of advanced martial arts teachers! We have our own freaking Firing Range, where you can learn to shoot anything from pistols to heavy machine guns! And the Advanced Technologies Program! MIT envies them the projects they work on! Pop has opened up a special banking account, just so that I can commission kicking new gimmicks from the lab rats! They have a JROTC program that could take out a small nation! Okay, maybe not Karedonia, but definitely Ecuador or Ghana. I’m in the Mystic Arts program-”

“They have a Magic course?”

“No, not ‘magic course’, Mystic Arts program! I’m taking the Intro to Basic Mystic Concepts class- it’s a little stiff, but I think I’ll pass- but I’m telling you, the catalogue for the Second Year courses are totally off the HINGE!”

“But… they let you go, even if you’re the kid of a supervillain?”

“Of course they do! Didn’t I say that I was pre-registered? Where have you been? Everyone knows about Whateley! It’s strictly neutral, and the parents and alumni make sure that no one tries to muscle the kids while they’re at school.”

“Yes, but they really stick it to the Supervillain parents. Daddy is gearing up to rip-off a bunch of Narco Trafficantes in Mexico, just to pay for my Freshman year.”

“Trust me- the cafeteria alone is worth it.”

“The Cafeteria?”

“Y’know how they say it’s either good food in small portions or crappy food in big portions? Nah-ah. GREAT food in HUGE proportions. Do not ask me why, but apparently there’s like this big thing in Cordon Bleu circles, like Whateley’s the killer boot camp; if you can cut the mustard in the Whateley kitchens, then dealing with Gordon Ramsay is a cakewalk.”

“And Daddy says that going to Whateley is great for making connections. Besides the kids of other supervillains, there are all kinds of up and coming inventors, mages, and like that. And I’ll bet there are bunches of kids who aren’t connected to the supervillain network, who’re looking to hook up as, like, trainee minions.”

“Are you kidding? Jadis says that she has to constantly cope with yoyos who want to hook up with her and be her minions, and she’s not interested.”

“Jadis?”

“Yeah, Jadis Diabolik? The daughter of Dr. Diabolik? She was in the news last Spring Break?”

“By the way? Vivian? Why didn’t you want to go to Whateley again?”

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The chime rang again, and this time a couple walked in with no junior. In the lead was a trim blonde woman in a very beautiful mid-prime, wearing a black leather bolero jacket over a lacy LBD. Just behind her was a tall, well-dressed, athletic, good looking man with dark red hair, who came in with the air of a man who’s used to entering parties where he doesn’t know anyone.

“Melissa!” Mara cried out. She hurried over and gave her sister a far more genuine hug and kiss than she’d given to most of her guests. “And who’s this?” she asked, looking at the young man.

“Oh, this is Rafe Devoss. We met three years ago, admiring a collection of Russian religious artworks.”

“Yes, I was admiring a 17th Century Christ Pantocrator ikon, and she was admiring 16th Century enamel and filigree Oprichnina crucifix with a trick spring blade in the haft. Both of them, masterpieces. Unfortunately, they were in a private collection at the time, and the owner didn’t appreciate us admiring them in the middle of the night. We barely got out with our lives- and the ikon- and the crucifix- and a few other items,” he finished drolly.

While he normally avoided this, Nick causally prodded Rafe. This gentle poke was expertly deflected, almost to the point of being reflexive. ‘Oh ho, the boy’s got the ‘nimbus’,” Nick thought to himself. The ‘nimbus’ the ‘halo’ that mystics are supposed to see around the psychically endowed. ‘And she’s bringing him here to this party… where dear old Papa is.’ Nick mused that maybe he should clue Mel’s date in on what he’d gotten himself in for. Things like the fact that Mel’s over 60 years old and practices low-level magic, about her father (including the fact that he was there), and Alberic and Melusine, a couple of problematic Exes, the importance of children within the du Maugris family, and a few other salient points that he himself would have appreciated knowing when he first met Mara.

But as Melissa and Rafe walked over to JJ, Mara grabbed his arm, and kept him from taking Rafe aside. “Now, now, dear. Melissa’s my favorite sister. And given the way that Melusine and Alberic are, I don’t want to risk alienating her by you spoiling her fun.”

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PARTY CHATTER

“The Iron Dragon? Please! He’s a relic of the days when the sun never set on the British Empire! He couldn’t beat the Manchu, he couldn’t beat the British, he couldn’t beat the Japanese, and he couldn’t beat the Communists! These days, he’s a slightly embarrassing antiquity to the modern Chinese. Him take power in China? You’ve been reading too many old Sax Rohmer books.”

* * *

“And get this! The machine guns and Gun Drones had been printed up on a 3D printer! A 3D printer! If they were good for 100 rounds each, it would be a miracle! And the goons he used? He didn’t even hire them! He just grabbed winos and junkies and runaway kids off the street and implanted them with behavior compliance chips! He even cheaped that out! He just ran a laser over a bunch of recycled Playstation 3 CPU chips. I’m telling you, Dr. XXX doesn’t have to worry about the Onsen or the Syndicate- if the Henchman’s Union ever gets their hands on him, it’s all over!”

* * *

“So… Arsène… are you seeing anyone?”

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JJ

The room was beginning to fill up, despite the amount of space. Several distinct groups had formed, mostly around age, but there was some individuals switching back and forth between the clusters. The drinks and snacks were light, pre-dinner fare, and JJ wished that he could get some of it, but he was stuck on the reception line. Receiving packets of underwear.

The elevator opened, and again it was an adult couple. JJ recognized his Uncle Virgil, who was impeccably dressed as always, Virge’s Scottish Terrier familiar, Naimon, and a strapping woman of the same order as ‘Titania’ and Mrs. Heller: tall, athletic, busty and almost glowing with a barely restrained vigor. The woman was blonde in the Nordic manner, and moved in the way of a trained fighter, with that odd blend of loose motion and tight control. ‘Oh, Uncle Virge has another new partner’, JJ mused silently.

“Virgil!” Mara greeted her brother with a more perfunctory kiss and hug than she’d given Melissa. Mara had had to clean up far too many of Vergil’s messes to be that fond of him. “And who’s this?”

“This is my new partner in crime, Jana Kolbe, recently of the Sonnenkinder’s External Projects Executive.”

“The Sonnenkinder?” Mara and Nick echoed in chorus.

“WHY do people always react that way?” Jana asked with a slightly halting British Received Pronunciation accent.

“Well…” Nick hedged, “To be honest, I didn’t think that it was possible to leave the Sonnenkinder.”

Jana nodded with a sour moue. “I hear that a lot. But there will be more.”

“Why?”

“They made the mistake of excoriating me to the Rank and File. But instead of screaming for the blood of the traitor, the general reaction was ‘you mean you can DO that? Just LEAVE?’” Jana let out a gusty breath. “Right now, the Reichsmarshal is putting all of his efforts into preventing any more defections, but believe me, I’m just the first of a wave. What the Reichsdirektorat will do then? Not my problem.”

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PARTY CHATTER

“Oh, Mara and me? We get along. Melusine, now SHE has her nose out of joint by a mile, because she used to be Papa’s glowing favorite. Then, of the lot of us, it’s Mara who finally has a kid. Suddenly, marvelous Melusine was out of the spotlight. And then Mara goes on to have five more! And so far two of them have shown the nimbus! Me? Well, I was never the favorite anyway, so all that happened for me was that I got him off my back, nagging at me to give him grandchildren!”

* * *

“No, I don’t particularly LIKE the Jews, but so what? Most of the Jews that I’ve met are reasonable enough, if you give them the chance. And as for the Sonnenkinder? Well, how seriously can you take someone who’s entire mission in life is to re-fight a war that was lost 60 years ago?”

* * *

“Oh, you mean you have been kidnapped, held as a broodmare, overcome a madman with a literary fetish, and escaped from a logistically improbable airship citadel? Really? And I thought that it was just me.”

* * *

“No, the MCO in Japan is very helpful, very encouraging of integration into the mainstream. And that worries me.”

* * *

“What does that little bitch think she’s doing, kissing up to Arsène like that?”

* * *

“UGH! Riddle Clues! Let me tell you about riddle clues!”

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JJ

This time, when the elevator opened, it disgorged the largest group yet, a chattering mass of well-dressed, very attractive sophisticates ranging from an elegant lady whose many years could diminish neither her panache nor her sex appeal to a delightful young girl of 6 or 7 years in a party dress.

JJ bucked up at the sight of the LeMalins. They were another rival family of career criminals, though they relied more on various magics than on mutant gifts. The friendly rivalry with the LeMalins was friendlier than the rivalry with the Kaitos. Or at least, JJ thought it was. Still, it was always fun to hang with Anastasia and Georges, who were roughly his age. Aurelie, the eldest always acted like she was way too cool for him, and Felix was hand in glove with Vic and Bart. “Marine!” Asha called out to the darling youngest, and all but dragged Yosei over to Marine, and they all started yammering at each other in French. At least Marine did; Asha and Yosei were doing their best, but it could hardly be called French.

Isabelle caught sight of Juliet and purred, “Well, Juliet. Aren’t you looking… redoubtable…”

With that, the LeMalins just fanned out into the party, each finding a group that suited them and starting up the party machine. JJ called out to first Anastasia, and then Georges, but the LeMalins as a group just flowed past him, leaving him there alone.

With a packet of French underwear.

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PARTY CHATTER

“Oh, enthralling all of Paris wasn’t that hard. It was really just a matter of the power of Suggestion and mob psychology. When you get people all upset, they’re actually very easy to control. And I had not only Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité, the Freedom Triplets to act as bellwethers, but Le Coq as well. Once I had them, the rest of the heroes of Paris were easy, and once I had them, well! It was more a matter of keeping them busy than anything else! Indeed, the really hard part was getting Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité to agree on something. ANY thing!”

* * *

“Your problem is that you always get too theatrical with your illusions! An effective illusion is one that no one realizes is an illusion! In order to be effective, the illusion must be plausible! Preferably things that people think they understand, but don’t really comprehend, like explosives. They see a bomb, and they go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a BOMB!’ They panic, and from there, you can get them to do almost anything.”

* * *

“No, I don’t mind that Wall Street and the mainstream Industrial sector is getting interested in High Tech. What pisses me off, is that after all these years, they STILL can’t be bothered to LEARN anything about it!”

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JJ

“Why do you want me to greet your next guests?” du Maugris asked, a tad peeved at being taken away from his ongoing flirtation with Isabelle LeMalin.

“Our next guests, or far more to the point, our LAST guests, are the Gages, representatives from the White Lady in Chicago. The White Lady is-”

“The leader of a magical crime family that dominates the Occult rackets in Chicago,” du Maugris cut him off. “I’m retired, Nicholas, not addled.”

Nick nodded, humoring his father-in-law’s attitude. “The point is that it’s almost time, and we haven’t seen or heard so much as a whisper from Akelarre or Dr. 30 or that damn Highwayman. That means that the auction, such as it is has to go on. I want the White Lady to take the Synthesizer. First, it will help along the deal that I invited those reps here to discuss in the first place. Second, she can take possession of it quickly, and get it the fuck OUT of here before sunrise, something that we really need to have happen. Third, she can offer certain considerations in Chicago that I’d vastly prefer over cash. And fourth, if Akelarre tried to take the Synthesizer-”

“Le Dame Blanche would reduce her and her goats to smears on the pavement,” du Maugris finished for him. “It would be like a chipmunk trying to accost a rhinoceros in a back alley.”

“Precisely. The problem is that the White Lady’s Family has a reputation for a ‘My Way or the Highway’ style. But they are also understandably very proud of their French heritage-”

Du Maugris chuckled. “And realizing the limitations of your own skills as a negotiator, you wisely turn to someone with decades more experience in coping with such delicate deliberations,” du Maugris said drolly. “Bravo, Nicholas, I commend you on your insights as to your shortcomings.”

“Not. Funny. Papa,” Mara said severely.

“Just… talk with them, warm them up for me, and try to get them to understand that just bulldozing us over and taking that thing is a BAD idea.”

Mara gave her father a withering glare and du Maugris told his daughter that he’d behave, and do his best for the family. When the elevator opened, a couple and a teenage girl stepped out. The woman of the couple, a formidable looking female in her late 40s with immaculately kept hair and clothing, was clearly in charge of the trio. The girl, a trim, confident teenager with champagne-colored hair and her mother’s less-than-fortunate nose was subordinate to her mother, but no one else. The man of the trio, though he was of an age to be the woman’s husband and the girl’s father, looked as though he was just there to carry the bags. The woman stepped forward and introduced herself as Clarice Gage, the representative of <dramatic pause> the White Lady.

Clarice was clearly amping up to dominate the discussion, party or no party, but du Maugris stepped up smoothly and introduced himself in fluid flawless French as Marc-Thierry du Maugris- St. Denis, le Compte du Aigremont.

Clarice responded to du Maugris’ introduction in French, but the Count smoothly took control of the conversation by reminiscing about Madeline St. Clair during her faltering first days as the White Lady, and mentioning certain favors done in times of dire need, which were still unpaid. He mentioned that Madeline was a formidable woman, but still not the walking nightmare that her immediate predecessor had been. Du Maugris mentioned in passing certain nasty errands that the White Lady’s organization had done for him in halcyon days before the Germans attempted to surround Paris during WWI. Then he casually took Clarice by the arm and strolled over behind the tarpaulin to observe his family’s latest triumph.

When they came back, Clarice was simply nodding and du Maugris handed her off to her husband with instructions to enjoy the dinner, which was nigh.

As the Gages went off, JJ asked. “Gran’Pere, what did you just DO?”

“Oh, I simply convinced Madam Gage that the negotiations were already over, and her presence here was merely a formality. That the White Lady has already agreed to the terms your father desires, and all we need are to sign a few tiresome papers, and she should make preparations to move the Synthesizer immediately.”

“Why would she think that?”

“Because she thinks that the Family of the White Lady owes me favors for getting them away from France after the death of the fourth White Lady during the shelling of Paris.”

“And do they, Gran’Pere?”

“Of course not! My dealings with that family were strictly cash on the barrelhead. Becoming enmeshed in the affairs of that pack of jackals is an invitation to disaster! But Mdm. Gage doesn’t know that,” he finished with the smirk of an incorrigible rascal.

“Really? I’d have thought that the White Lady would have sent someone savvier than that.”

“Oh, Mdm. Gage is very redoubtable,’ du Maugris allowed. “BUT, I made every effort to keep the conversation in French. As you said, the White Lady’s family is very proud of their French heritage. And like most Americans, her French is atrocious. And she knows it. And she is ashamed of it. And she would rather commit hari-kari with a soup spoon than admit it to anyone. So she let me do the vast majority of the talking.”

“But what will happen if she tells the White Lady that you zoomed her?”

“She won’t. She is deathly afraid of the White Lady, and she would go for the soup spoon before letting her beloved matriarch become aware that she was taken in. Besides, that Synthesizer is a rare prize, so le Dame Blanche will simply assume, frantically abetted by Mdm. Gage, that the negotiations were a pitched battle, and that Mdm. Gage acquired this treasure over bloody opposition from those in attendance.”

Nick gave his father-in-law an exasperated glare, but shrugged, let out a gusty sigh and said, “Well, so much for that.” He look out his cell phone and told ABBY to ring the chimes and prep the champagne.

The chime rang out, stopping the conversation, and ABBY and the handful of living servers passed around glasses of champagne to the adults (and ginger ale in similar glasses to the youngsters). Addressing the assembled guests with a glass in his hand, Nick addressed them: “Friends, Relations, Honored Colleges, Respected Competitors- oh, and you too, Boulder- Scoundrels, Thieves, Bandits, Burglars, Outlaws and Supervillains! Everyone who’s responded has arrived, so the party can now begin in earnest! I welcome you to this lair to celebrate the birthday of my Son, JJ. Mrs. Quillan tells me that dinner is ready to be served. But first, I offer you all a toast!

“Besides our histories together, I have invited you all here today because this is about Family, and you all understand Family. Whether large clans, or simple Parent and Child- aaannnd.. otherwise-” Nick shot a sideways glance at Threshold, Alfie and Betty, “you understand, you care about this simple, basic, HUMAN bond.

“But my toast is to The CODE! The Code of the Honorable Outlaw! Some supervillains may sneer at the Code, saying that it’s for weaklings, but they merely make themselves valid targets by doing so. They have no honor, they have no mercy, they have no respect, there is nothing they won’t do. They know no friendship, they enjoy no peace. Everyone is their enemy, because they are everyone’s enemy. BUT! With the Code! There is Honor, there is Mercy, there is Respect, there is Friendship, there is Family. The Code honors Hospitality, which we offer you now. So whatever feuds and conflicts you might have between you, leave them at the doorstep.

“I would say leave all your quarrels at home, but where’s the fun in that?

“So, keeping in mind that there would be savage repercussions for anyone violating that hospitality, I finally offer that toast! To the Code!”

“TO THE CODE!” in keeping with the tradition, all the guests raised their glasses along with Nick and Mara and JJ. The glasses raised-

And stayed there.

JJ stopped short and looked around. Everyone was stock still, their glasses raised. Latigo and his Security crew, and Mrs. Quillan and the servers didn’t have their glasses raised, but they stood as still as statues. JJ was the only one moving. JJ looked over to his parents. Their eyes were blinking furiously, but past that, they were locked into the positions and expressions that they’d had when making the toast. JJ recalled vaguely that blinking was a semi-involuntary function; you could do it intentionally, or you could do it on automatic, like breathing or swallowing. So they could breathe and didn’t have to worry about drowning in their own spit. “Dad? Mom? Gramma? Gran’Pere? Uncle Luke? Anyone?” JJ asked as he checked each of them in turn.

Then JJ became aware of a mild creeping sensation crawling all over his body. It connected that this must be the paralysis field that the Highwayman told him about. The bracelet on his wrist was jamming the field. how, he had no idea. Reflexively, JJ’s eyes tracked down the table where the Paralysis Inducer or projector or whatever it was called was, disguised as a table by a simple tablecloth and a few opportunistically placed stacks of dishes.

JJ turned to see if anyone else was not paralyzed, when there was a buzzing at his chest. His Smartphone! Well, one of them, anyway. Pulling it out, he saw a red arrow pointing in a 25-degree angle. JJ turned 25 degrees and the arrow now pointed up and poked upwards. Following the arrow, JJ came to a section of wall, and an icon of three hexagons in a vertical row appeared. An arrow pointed at the middle hexagon and it turned. That section of wall was secured by groups of three bolts in vertical rows. It took a couple of tries, but JJ found one ‘bolt’ that was actually a switch. The switch opened a hidden panel in that section, and the Phantom Highwayman appeared in the doorway. As if in response to JJ’s unspoken question, ‘why didn’t you just phase through the walls?’, JD muttered lowly, “The wards, remember?” Then he added in a louder voice, “Welcome us in.”

“Come in,” JJ said reflexively. “Us?” JJ’s implicit question was answered as a squad of four goatmen in construction worker’s outfit walked through the door after the Highwayman. They carried toolboxes and several lengths of piping and electronic modules. They said nothing, and immediately set to assembling the piping into a crude doorway, fixed the plug-and-play modules into place, and plugged it into a heavy power outlet. It only took a few minutes to put together and only another few to power it up. When a green light lit, the Phantom Highwayman inserted a key into a lock, and a tunnel in the air appeared behind the lashed-together doorway.

Vague figures appeared in the tunnel, and then Dr. 30 in his ‘I’m ready to kick ass’ power frame (with the Stinger kludged in crudely) and Akelarre, standing bolt upright, appeared in the doorway. “Welcome us in,” Akelarre intoned with the cadence of high ritual. “You are a son of this house, and you can give us permission past the wards that protect this place.” Even through her golden mask you could see her shoot Dr. 30 a dirty look. “No matter how fancy the doorway.”

XXX just shot a sneer you could see through his full-visor helmet and snapped, “Is the AI under control?”

“If it wasn’t, then Greensleeves here and the Capri-kids would already be hamburger,” JJ pointed out.

“Very insightful,” Akelarre growled. “Now give us permission to enter, or we’ll be char-broiled hamburger.”

“Are our agreements still in force?”

“YES!”

“Then as long as you uphold those agreements and observe hospitality YOW!-” JJ yelped as a large glossy black scorpion the size of a terrier leapt on him and prepared to sting him with its tail.

“CRAP!” the Highwayman grabbed Accolon by its tail and threw it off JJ. Then he drew both his ‘flintlocks’ and covered JJ as two enormous snarling dogs with glowing red eyes flanked them. “Not to worry! I can handle them!”

“They don’t worry me!” JJ said, looking around frantically. “There’s a snake familiar around here somewhere! It’s always the one you can’t see you have to worry about!”

“IDIOTA!” Akelarre screamed, “Just invite us in, and we’ll step on them like bugs!”

“You can’t do that!” JJ yelled. “I’m going to take a crap-ton of shit for this from the folks as it is! I can’t afford to let you hurt their familiars!”

“Very well, we WON’T hurt the vicious puppydogs that are trying to tear your throat out!”

“Okay, okay, as long as you- *urk*!” JJ gagged as Alfie choked him with the same strange curious yet disassociated dispassion that he did everything else. At the same time, with the same distant disengaged interest, Betty attempted to disconnect the power cord from the gateway. The Highwayman pulled Alfie off JJ, and the goatmen jumped Betty. As soon as Aflie’s fingers were away from his larynx, JJ grated out, “As long as you observe hospitality, you may enter!”

XXX’s cyborg amazons burst into the room with the kind of speed and coordination that comes from being bionically augmented. After them, a group of eight goatmen in combat gear followed at a more reasonable speed. Accolon, Nero, Naimon and the snake (JJ never did find out what it was called) were rounded up and contained. Containing a shapeshifter like Accolon was more easily ordered than done, but it was done. The Highwayman bagged Accolon using a strange sort of capture grenade that kept it from changing form. Akelarre lost a goatman bagging Naimon, and another bringing Nero to heel, but it was done. “By the way,” JJ asked Akelarre as she sort of…slid, moving without using her legs, but never leaving the ground, into the lair, “where do you keep getting all these goats from? I mean, you lost a bunch at the U, and a bunch more at the Onsen- where are they all coming from?”

“From a finite- and rapidly diminishing- pool that I have been nurturing for almost a century,” Akelarre answered coldly. “What you see here are literally the last of this breed. They are like my children.”

”But… you keep throwing them into the meatgrinder.”

“Well, of course! That’s why I brought them into this world in the first place! Why else would I bother to produce them?” JJ silently mused that it was one thing to hear or read about dysfunctional parents; it was an entirely different thing to see one up close. He made a mental note to do something nice for his mother.

XXX’s bionic bimbos also managed to capture Alfie and Betty without harming them. If anything, they seemed to be extremely interested in the dynamics of the process. “Okay, now that that’s done, can we get this OVER with?” JJ demanded. “This is gonna be a nightmare to explain as it is; every minute that they’re like that is gonna make them even madder.”

JJ led the trio of intruders past the assembled throng of partygoers, their glasses raised in toast. The Phantom Highwayman broke off, walked over to Nick and took the glass from his hand. Pulling up his mask, the Highwayman drank the champagne, and then returned the empty glass to Nick’s hand. Seeing this, Dr. XXX and Akelarre did likewise, taking Luke and Mara’s glasses and drinking them in their faces. JJ cleared his throat loudly. “Y’KNOW, gloating in the face of helpless victims has sort of gone out of style? These days effective supervillains get on with the job?”

“Agreed,” Akelarre said in a flat tone, “the sooner done, the better all around.” She sent her goatmen back through the tunnel, and JJ had a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ moment. Two goatmen brought in a gold-clad chest with two winged figures facing each other on the chest, carried between them on two wooden poles. Akelarre noticed JJ’s expression and said in a weary voice, “Yes, yes, I know. But that the prop in that movie was based on specifics from the exact same source that I used: the Book of Genesis. Oh, and that artist, Tissot as well. It may not be a radio for speaking with God, but it works wonderfully as a charging vessel- and concealing reserve – for empowered items.”

Indiana Jones would probably have been appalled as the goatmen went back into the tunnel and brought back three more. Then they brought two large wooden barrels, six large industrial drums that were sealed with biohazard seals, and three old-fashioned steamer trunks. The barrels were hauled up the groaning gangplanks of the scaffolding to the ring of planks surrounding the opening at the top of the Synthesizer. The Synthesizer itself was powered up and running at full charge, though the water pipes had been removed. JJ felt his skin crawl as he followed Akelarre and the barrels up to the top. Akelarre didn’t walk up the gangplank, or even float, she sort of glided, but the bottom of her dress still touched the ground, like she was rolling along in some way. It occurred to JJ that he’d never seen Akelarre when she wasn’t sitting down before. As the goatmen opened the barrels and poured a lot of water into the Synthesizer. “Okay, everyone else obviously knows what that is, so I’ll have to ask for myself: What IS it?”

“It’s Glastig Water,” Akelarre answered simply.

“What’s Glastig Water?”

“Glastig Water is water from a Spring devoted to the Green Lady, a pre-Christian figure that takes the form of a half-woman-half goat.”

“Y’know Akelarre… there’s a line between ‘theme’ and ‘obsession’….”

“How so obsession?” Akelarre shot back. “I found a Glastig spring in the countryside around Navarre as a young girl-how do you think I got into Sorcery in the first place?”

When they finished pouring the Glastig water into the Synthesizer, Akelarre had the goatmen bring up the four ‘arks’. Sneering at any divine retaliation, she opened the ‘arks’ and took out stuff, most of which were either the ‘treasures’ of her Great Quest, or had been her decoys. She lowered a bottle about the size of a wine bottle, but modeled after a Greek amphora down into the Synthesizer. Then she hung the Tao talisman from the Onsen and that censor on hooks on the opposite sides of the opening. Then she placed a huge purplish square cut jewel large enough to cover the palm of a man’s hand on one space, and from there she laid around the rim a large elaborately jeweled key, a plain shallow casket of dark teak wood, the Chetwin device (which was spinning madly, with pale blue flames moving slowly in circles over it), the Rosicrucian Mirror, the golden gauntlets, the Gnostisophists’ Lamp, the chalice from the Yerunkle Pavilion, the Eye of Lemuria (well draped, of course), Velociraptor’s power rig, and Iron Ox’s super-strength harness.

Then Akelarre led JJ, the Highwayman and her goatmen down to the floor, where Dr. XXX was setting up his own experiment, which monitored the Synthesizer’s actions during the final step of the Great Quest. When she had everyone’s attention, Akelarre proclaimed ritually, “The Final Stage of the Great Quest draws nigh! Now we begin the true distillation of the Paragon Potion, my great innovation! Above, near the mouth of this athanor, is my censor, which acts as the vessel for my djinn, a being of smokeless flame. Yes, djinn, not ‘genie’, don’t let it bother you. The djinn will, in turn, draw forth the spark that the scattering imbued into each objective of each stage of the Great Quest, and place it within the athanor. When the spark within that Iron Oaf’s strength talisman enters the collective sparks within the athanor, this stage of the Great Quest will be fulfilled! The ingredients within the amphora will be charged with the magic to create the Paragon Potion! Are you ready, Triple X?”

“As ready as I’m ever going to get,” XXX said carefully. “We’ve waited long enough- let’s see if this rigmarole actually works.”

And so Akelarre began, watching her djinn work via a scrying mirror set up on the ground. From JJ’s point of view, at first all he could see was a light jumping around at the very top of the Synthesizer. But as the process continued, the light got brighter, and the Synthesizer reacted in strange ways, and Dr. XXX swore at his instrumentation for telling him things that he couldn’t understand. At the very last, the Synthesizer glowed red hot, and the obsolete instrumentation jerked about madly. Then, there was one last convulsive shudder… and the Synthesizer calmed down and began to cool.

“Well….” XXX said looking at his input history dubiously, “something happened.”

As eager as a new grandmother, Akelarre called her djinn to bring down the amphora. It did so, and the crude crockery amphora was now made of the finest white porcelain. Akelarre took the jug from her djinn and held it reverently, her work of years finally a reality.

JJ broke the awestruck spell by asking, “Okay, so- who’s gonna test it?”

“Oh, that was understood from the beginning,” the Highwayman said. “It was agreed that I would test this.”

He reached out to take the amphora, but Akelarre pulled it away from him coquettishly. “No, no, no, Fantasmo! This is no computerological game, where you chug-a-lug a liter in a few seconds! No, while I may deride Doctor Triple-X’s materialistic methods, this time he has contrived a true innovation, something that shows he may have a least a spark of the genius he boasts of!”

“Thank you, Akelarre,” Dr. XXX said. “I think. Akelarre says that the final step of this process is to ‘energize’ the liquid with ‘spiritual fire’. She says that your proto-spirit’s energy will suffice.” He took the amphora from Akelarre and inserted three long hollow needles through the gum stopper into the belly of the bottle. He attached hoses to the needles. Then he turned to the Highwayman. “Phantom, take off your coat.”

The Highwayman did so, and JJ noticed that the ‘waistcoat’ he wore had an elaborate technological harness on the back, concealed by the cut of the longcoat. Dr. XXX clipped the amphora to a rack built into the harness, and hooked up the hoses to ducts built into it as well. JJ wondered if the Highwayman had even noticed them before. “Now, you simply go desolid, and the harness will pass the potion through you, simultaneously infusing you with the potion and infusing the potion with the energy of your proto-spirit without passing it through your digestive tract.”

“So I just ‘Go Ghost’, and that’s IT?”

“No, it would be best if you did it inside the athanor,” Akelarre said bluntly. “AFTER we remove the treasures from the boards. While they are no longer as potent as they were with the shards in them, they still have their original virtues, possibly enhanced by the experience.”

The Highwayman shrugged, swaggering confidence radiating from him even through his blank mask. “Meh! What’s life without a little risk?” XXX went to start up the Synthesizer again, and the Highwayman lifted up under his own power. He hovered over the mouth of the Synthesizer as Akelarre and her goatmen replaced the treasures in the arks, and the goatmen lugged the arks back down to the floor. When the mouth was clear, the Highwayman dropped through the opening into the main body of the Synthesizer and called to Dr. XXX to ‘start her up and crank it up all the way to ELEVEN!’

This time, the action was quicker and more explosive. The athanor reacted as though it was a volcano, and erupted green fire from its peak. The Phantom Highwayman flew out of the top of the Synthesizer with a whoop. “YES! That was FANTASTIC! I feel GREAT! I even think that the power of my proto-spirit has been boosted!” He flew down to the thrown together ‘camp’ at the base of the Synthesizer and picked up one of the ‘arks’. The gold clad box must have weighed at least 1000 pounds empty; with the various relics inside, it must have weighed easily three times that. But he lifted it without straining. “YES!”

Akelarre eagerly skittered over to the Highwayman, and unclipped the amphora from its harness. The glassy bottle had been milky white, but now it was emerald green. Akelarre passed something that vaguely resembled a handheld compass over the bottle and cooed over her readings. “My journals! I need to write this down NOW!” she barked at her apprentice, who scurried to obey her mistress’ orders.

“Akelarre,” the Highwayman said warmly, taking her shoulders, “I admit that I had some doubts. But now, all that I have to say is: SPADE!”

JJ immediately realized that this was the signal that he’d been told to wait for. He whipped his smartphone out of his jacket pocket and hit the ‘Spade’ icon.

At first, the only thing that was obvious was Akelarre’s apprentice stopping in mid-scurry and freezing in place. The Highwayman looked around, and waved a hand in first Akelarre’s and then Dr. XXX’s face. Then he leaned into Akelarre’s face, jabbed a finger into it and jeered, “ssssUCK-aaarrr!!”

JJ stepped up and asked, “Okay, what now?”

The Highwayman startled a bit, as though just forgetting JJ. “Oh! Right! uhm, Over there, that long aluminum case with the blue bands on one side? Open that up and get eight of the bands inside.”

JJ opened up that case. Inside, he found almost 100 plastic-wrapped units that each looked like a prop from the ST:TOS episode ‘The Gamesters of Triskelion’: circlets with roughly triangular tabs set on them. JJ took eight of the units and brought them to JD. “Okay, what are these?”

“Compliance Collars,” the Highwayman answered. “They stimulate the brain in a way that produces a reflexive submission/obedience response. Basically, you snap them on someone and they do whatever you tell them to. Well, if you have the control unit; without the control unit, they just stand around pretty much doing nothing. Like bureaucrats.”

“Okay, AND?”

“And? And snap these puppies around the necks of Thirty’s Battle-Barbies.”

“Why not just turn the Paralysis Generator off? Without the Paralysis thing, forget about the rest of the guests, Mom and Dad alone could mop up the floor with those bitches!”

“Yeah,” the Highwayman said, “but I don’t know HOW to turn the damn thing off! So you snap these collars on the girls while I cover you. Then I reset the paralysis blockers on 30 and the girls so they work again, and we MAKE Robo-Letch turn it off. I figure after working for Cyber-Sleaze they wouldn’t fight an order to beat the crap out of him that hard.”

“Sounds like a plan!” JJ affixed the collars around the XXXettes, making particularly sure that there wasn’t anything in their implants that would block the incoming stimulation. When he was done, JJ turned to the Highwayman and asked, “Okay, reset the blocker.”

“Right!” The Highwayman lunged forward, grabbed JJ by his left arm, pulled back the sleeve and pulled the ‘watch’ from JJ’s wrist. Stunned, JJ stiffened, and the Highwayman let him fall.

“sssUCK-aaarrr!!!” The Highwayman jeered down at JJ. “Oh, ‘JD that’s WRONG! We’re Supervillains, we’re Outlaws, but we’re not EVIL! Dammit, there are things you JUST DON’T DO!’” he sneered. “GOD, you are so LAME! Yeah, I hung that bitch! So what? I’m a VILLAIN, that’s what villains DO!”

He broke off and stalked over to where Nick, Mara and the others were still standing, following this as best they could with only their eyes. “But YOU!” he roared at Nick, jabbing a finger into his face. “You taught him that crap! ooohhh!! The CODE! ‘Honorable Outlaws’? Oh gimme a break, we’re all crooks! Thieves, swindlers, terrorists and murders! But we’re still just crooks! But YOU? You try to gloss it over with a candy coating of honor and fair play and all that CRAP! No wonder the kid turned out such a FAG! You always make this big noise about what a big ‘Master Criminal’ you are, with all your fancy plans and gadgets. HAH! From the very beginning of this, I’ve been three steps ahead of you, and leading you by the nose every step of the way! Y’know, your ‘Great Triumph’? Well get THIS: We couldn’t figure a way of getting the Synthesizer out of the Onsen, so we suckered YOU into getting it out for us! HAH! How’s THAT for a Master Criminal, hah? And even THEN, the kid hadda do it FOR you! Everything you have is MINE!” The Highwayman pulled his pistol and leveled it at Nick’s eye. “Even your life.”

But just as the Highwayman was about to pull the trigger, he stiffened and froze. At the same time, Dr. XXX snapped out of his paralysis, and JJ stood up. JJ held up a smartphone and showed Dr. XXX the big red button, indicating that he’d activated the emergency measure that 30 had given him for when the Highwayman turned. “Why didn’t you press that earlier?” XXX demanded.

“To be honest, I didn’t think of it until he was pointing a gun at my Dad.” JJ walked over to the tableau with Nick and the Highwayman. Carefully gripping the Highwayman, he pointedly turned him so the barrel of the gun wasn’t pointing at Nick’s face.

“Give me the control unit for the Compliance Collars. I need to get the girls back on the board.”

“What? I don’t have the control unit,” JJ said. “I don’t even know what the control unit looks like!” JJ paused and said, “Wouldn’t you have the control functions built into your cell phone or your communications rig?”

XXX shook his head. “Never double up circuits for anything as delicate and necessary as a Compliance unit control; you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, and if anything goes wrong with another aspect of that unit, it could bleed over into the other functions.” XXX gave an annoyed snort and looked around. “Okay, nothing for it. Kid, you see that blue case with the white check border at the end? Open that and set it up while I lug Captain Backstab over there.”

JJ shrugged widely and did as he was told. He had the basics of getting it unpacked done by the time that XXX had the Highwayman near the unit. As XXX finished getting the contraption all hooked up, including the main power relay and patching cables into the Highwayman’s backpack unit, JJ grew curious. “Okay, exactly what are you doing?”

“Sometimes, belling the cat isn’t enough. You have to de-claw it. I’m going to extract the proto-spirit from him. And unlike Dr. Geisten’s unit, it’s not very gentle about how it does it. Does that bother you?”

JJ shrugged again. “Hey, he was just about to blow my dad’s brains out. Go Wild, dude.”

XXX did. And Indeed, it did NOT look pleasant from the writing and inarticulate noises that the Highwayman was making. As this went on, XXX gave JJ a curious look, and asked, “By the way… exactly WHY aren’t you playing ‘Statues’ along with everyone else? The Galloping Judas here took your blocker off.”

“No, he didn’t,” JJ said. “He took off my watch. I put the blocker on somewhere else, where it wouldn’t show.”

“Why?”

“Dude! You designed the stupid thing to look like a watch, but you didn’t make it so that it told TIME! It would look suspicious if I kept checking my cell phone for the time, if I was wearing a big honking WATCH!”

“Very Clever.” Suddenly, from out of left field, XXX let out a whirling haymaker punch that literally knocked JJ up off his feet and back a good 10 feet. He hit the Synthesizer hard and slid down into a tangled mass of equipment. “I don’t trust clever people. They do stupid things at the worst times.” XXX decided that the punk was either dead or so badly hurt that he wouldn’t be a factor anymore. One less thing to worry about.

But XXX quickly regretted that move. The kid wasn’t that big a threat, and as the Highwayman had noted, XXX loved to talk. He really liked bragging, and he especially liked taunting people who were helpless and completely at his mercy. As his device finished extracting the protospirit, XXX smirked at the Highwayman and said, “Don’t you worry. My instrumentation says that you’re still in good shape. Not happy, but in good shape. That Paragon thing of Akelarre’s is living up to the hype for once. And I’m glad as hell to hear it.

“You want to know WHY?

“Because I recently came into possession of a device called ‘the Skulljacker’. The Skulljacker was invented by a guy known as ‘the Transhumanite’. It’s the only known really effective, reliable Mind Transfer device ever invented. There are three known working copies of that design, and I got one of ‘em. Yeah, all kinds of whackos have built Mind Switching gadgets over the years, but all of them have some flaw: the Switch fades with time, important memories and skills get left behind, the Subject starts forgetting things, the memories start to merge, associations become confused, they begin to go insane, and some go completely brainwipe!

“But not the Skulljacker. It’s reliable. Yeah, the Transhumanite went nuts, but that’s what happens when you jump around from body to body like that. Your mind can’t keep up with the changes in basic identification.

“But ONE jump? Into one body that you’re prepped for? Okay, a little rough for the first month or so, but after that, you and your body get used to each other.

“Mind you, YOU’RE gonna have a much harder time getting used to THIS,” with that, Dr. XXX removed his hard mask, shoving his gross, distorted, malformed face into the Highwayman’s. Even through the paralysis, the younger man recoiled from the sight.

“Don’t like it, kid? Well, get fucking used to it, ‘cause this time tomorrow, you’re gonna be wearing this body. And I’m gonna be wearing that young, fit, good-looking, superpowered body, with the face and fortune that goes along with it. Okay, I’ll have to go back to high school for a couple of years, and then college again… But you know what they say- ‘If I knew then what I know now…’ Well, now I do!

“But first things first. What I’m gonna do is take this proto-spirit stuff, and run it through this-” he plucked the dynagem that the Highwayman had stolen out from under Nick’s nose, from his jabot, “-and a bunch of the stuff that you ripped off from Dr. Geisten’s lab; oh, and by the way, kid- if you’re gonna mess around with Mad Science, read the fucking lab notes? Oh right, you’re never gonna have the chance to do that again. My Bad.

“Anyway, from what Geisten’s notes said, this array will cohere the proto-spirit, making it more powerful and more cohesive, like light being more powerful when cohered into a laser. You were complaining about your powers fading on you after you used them for any period of time? Well, you’ll still have to recharge- no, wait, that’s not your problem anymore, is it? Nope, it looks like I’m solving my own problem. Sorry to bother you about that kid! Why don’t you just kick back and contemplate your upcoming identity death?

Dr. XXX ran the protospirit through the cohesion process, which took maybe five minutes. It was a basic procedure to make the protospirit more manageable, leaving the fine tuning for when he had a lab, and he didn’t have to worry about a roomful of extremely pissed off supervillains figuring out how to get around his paralysis field. “Well!” he said to the Highwayman. “That’ll have to do for now. Now I’ll get those collars off the girls- it would be easier if you told me where the fucking control unit was, but I don’t expect you to do that- and they’ll get to work slapping collars on everybody. And after that, you’ll begin your exciting new career as a sideshow freak!”

But Dr. XXX turned to contemplate Akelarre as she stood there. “But first things first…” He clomped over to Akelarre in his power frame, powering up the Stinger as he walked. He trained the Stinger right in her face. “Green Boy only ever had one good idea in his life, but it was a keeper: take ‘em down when you can, and get it over with. Well, Akelarre, it was always a matter of who’d get in the killing blow first with us. Green Boy managed to get in the first blow, but he flubbed it. I won’t make the same mistake.”

But Dr. XXX didn’t fire. The Stinger glowed with power, but it didn’t discharge. Rather, Akelarre and her goatmen all suddenly snapped into action. Akelarre dragged herself well out of the arc of fire of the Stinger and gasped with frustrated terror from her narrow escape with mortality.

“Déjà vu all over again,” JJ said as he stepped out from behind a wall of equipment.

“Why did you wait until the last minute before you did that?” Akelarre shrieked, venting her unspent horror.

“I wanted to see what he was going to do,” JJ said simply. “Hey, I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t just yanking your chain, or wasn’t going to pull something else out of his ass. I mean, I never saw that bit with him extracting the proto-spirit out of Greenpuss, or that ‘Green Laser’ thing either.”

Akelarre sagged and nodded, giving him the point. Then something occurred to her. “Why aren’t you dead? Or at the very least, curled up on a ball on the floor coughing up blood because your ribs have been caved in? Triple-X swatted you with that stupid metal rack of his and sent you flying into the athanor! If not dead, then you should be in a coma!”

“’Metal rack’,” JJ pointed out. “That’s the key. I’m wearing a PFG- that means ‘personal forcefield generator’ – that I snitched from my Uncle Luke’s workshop. It’s a low-rez field, so it’s invisible to the naked eye. I was expecting 30 to zap me with the Stinger, and its default is a plasma bolt. Plasma bolts just bounce off electromagnetic fields. EM force fields are also good against low-velocity rounds, shrapnel- and they really blunt incoming damage from ferrous objects, like 30’s frame. The downside being that it shunts most of the incoming force into knockback, which was why I went flying like that. It also cushioned my smacking into the Synthesizer, too. Mind you, it didn’t tickle, my ribs are gonna be bruised something fierce in the morning, and I spent a couple of painful minutes getting my wind back… but I’m still in one piece.”

“Why were you wearing a Pee-Eff- whateverit wascalled?” Akelarre asked, raising one eyebrow uncertainly.

“ah, Hello? I was going to a party with Supervillains? It was my party, and I didn’t really expect anything to happen right now, but still Supervillains? I’d be stupid to NOT have something up my sleeve!”

“And how did you change the paralysis field like that?” she said, still giving him the cold fish eye.

JJ showed her a smartphone. “The Highwayman took me to talk to 30 behind your back. Big Surprise, everyone was getting all film noir. I told 30 that I didn’t trust Mr. Greenjeans. Thirty sez ‘smart boy’ and gives me this. He says ‘only push the button when things are getting dodgy’. Oh, that’s not suspicious, not at all! So I had ABBY, Uncle Luke’s AI analyze it on the sly. Basically, it reprograms these paralysis blocker bracelets we’re all wearing. I had ABBY crack the code for figuring out which code affected which blocker. So, with this, I was able to pick and choose who locked up and when.”

JJ put the smartphone away and went over to Dr 30’s proto-spirit ‘laser’ thing and poked around at it. He disconnected the component with the dyna-gem attached, a disk that just filled JJ’s hand, and was about an inch thick. JJ fiddled with the disk for a bit, and then took it over to Akelarre. “Here. This contains the Phantom Backstabber’s proto-spirit. I think. I shut it down, but you should be able to get it up and running again when you get to your workshop.” He handed the disk to her.

She took the disk and examined it. Giving him a suspicious look, she asked uncertainly, “And WHY are you just giving this to me?”

“DUH! So you’ll LEAVE?” JJ picked up the green amphora and handed it to her. “Here. You’ve got what you came for, you’ve ditched your two-faced buddies, and you’re getting a big bonus. Far be it from me to quote my dad to you, but the sign of a successful criminal is that they know when to GET while the getting’s good, and not try for that one more score.”

“And what about you?”

“Hey, leave the Phantom Fink and Dr. Triple-Cross here. We can twist everything we want out of them. Hey, no matter what’s between you two, my Mom’s still a French sorceress of the Old School; I give her ‘til midnight to have those two crying for their mommies, and give us everything they’ve got.”

“That’s cold-blooded, vicious and ruthless. Your Momma raised you well.”

“Yeah, that’s nice, but the longer you hang around, the harder it’s gonna be on me. I’ve kept my side of the bargain and you’ve kept yours, so let’s quit while we’re ahead, hah?”

“Ah, but you haven’t kept your side of the bargain yet, boy,” Akelarre purred.

“What?”

“The Price of the Goat has yet to be paid.”

“But… you’ve made the Paragon Potion, and it works, and everything!”

“The brewing of the Paragon Potion merely prepares the cauldron for my true working today. The Price of the Goat, which you sealed a Sorcerer’s Contract to allow, is a part of that.”

JJ stood there for a moment, flummoxed. “Ah, right. Yeah, no real sacrifice yet, I get it. So what ARE you trying to do, Akelarre?”

“THIS is a truly GREAT quest!” her face rapt with enthusiasm, even through her mask. “The formation of a Dragon’s Pearl, one of the most potent mystic jewels known!”

“aaahh… don’t you need a dragon for that?”

“Definitely useful, but not strictly necessary. I have contrived to bring everything here, and as I said, brewing the Paragon Potion has primed the athanor for the task.”

“ah, Okay… but do you mind if I watch? My folks are a lot less likely to skin me alive if I can give Mom and Gran’Pere a detailed description of it.”

Akelarre made a grandiloquent sweeping gesture. “I am in my moment of triumph. I am willing to be magnanimous.”

As they had been saying all that, Akelarre had gestured her goatmen to pick up the arks, the steamer trunks and those six drums. Akelarre turned the Synthesizer up to maximum power and they all carefully walked back up the gangplank to the opening at the top. The goats arranged the arks at the four cardinal points around the opening. Akelarre opened one of the arks and removed the Stony Mill Skull. She called forth the Alpha Buck of what remained of the herd, the black goat with the streaks of silver in his fur and around his muzzle. Speaking in the reassuring tones of a mother, Akelarre told him in Spanish that he was the first of his breed, and the father of all that had come since. She reminded him of the days when they had danced together in the cabarets of Europe. She told him that his long years of service were finally going to be rewarded. She draped a ritual stole around his shoulders, and put a pouch of special herbs around his neck. She tied the Stony Mill Skull to his head and anointed him with fragrant oils.

Then she ordered him to step into the opening, and enter the athanor to begin the great working. With the pace of a sleepwalker, he stepped into the opening and disappeared. On a cue from their mistress, six of the goatmen opened the drums, breaking the biohazard seals, and poured a thick black oily liquid into the athanor. From the filthy sensation in his skin, JJ guesses that this was ‘Faex’.

And Faex is poisonous, and at those concentrations, possibly even corrosive.

A heart-rending bleating scream came from inside the Synthesizer, and a single tear rolled down Akelarre’s mask. When the scream faded, Akelarre opened one of the trunks and took out a large black leather-bound book, with black iron fastenings shut by a very serious padlock. She unlocked the book, opened it, and greeted it like an old friend, caressing the pages as she spoke. She read off something that was not French or Spanish nor Italian, or anything Latin-derived. There was a pulse from the Synthesizer, and JJ had a sense of the uncleanness in the ‘athanor’ rising up, passing through the Tao talisman that still hung there, and returning to the ‘oven’ cleansed and renewed. As that stream passed through to be purified, Akelarre arranged a line of components from the trunks.

When the purification was done, she added each component in turn, brandishing her long slender back jewel-tipped staff as she named them:

  • 9 drams of Eitr
  • 12 silver acorns
  • 7 golden apples
  • 3 jewel fruit
  • a strange liquid from a Brass Head
  • a Living Mandrake (specifically that bush that JJ had seen by her side in her library; it did indeed scream very loudly when thrown in)
  • a quart of Aqua Prima
  • an Eternal Ember
  • a Mother Lodestone
  • an Eye which Akelarre added with no further explanation (shielding her gaze as she dropped it in)
  • something alive in a cage; the cage was empty when it was drawn from the cauldron
  • 3 phoenix feathers
  • a gryphon’s egg (actually some sort of carved agate sphere)
  • and a Unicorn Horn (actually a white root akin to the parsnip; Alchemists are prone to flights of whimsy)

That done, Akelarre closed her Black Book and caressed the cover. In fluid Spanish, she told the book that it was her oldest and dearest friend, that it had been there through all the hard times, and now finally, her moment has arrived. Then she locked the book shut and tossed it in. “Did you honestly think that I’d forgotten that the price for your oh-so-helpful assistance was my Immortal SOUL? I drew you up out of the Pit, just so that I could destroy you. Now, my Soul is my own again, after all these years.”

“Wow,” JJ said, looking at the last remains of the books as it dissolved, “you mean that all of this was really to destroy the demon that you’d sold your soul to?”

“No,” Akelarre said nonchalantly. “Well that was a definite bonus, but the creation of the Dragon’s Pearl requires that you sacrifice your dearest friend, and well, there you are. Now, show me that smartypantsphone of yours.” JJ showed her the phone. With a negligent flick of her finger, she sent a bolt of electricity that fried it. “And now for the Final Shard of the Great Quest, and the Sacrifice of the Goat!”

“ah, I thought that you started this with the Sacrifice of the Goat.”

“Wrong kind of goat,” Akelarre purred, smirking at JJ, eyes glittering with malicious glee.

Oh crap.

JJ pulled out his other smartphone and turned it at Akelarre, and a strobing light blinded her. The goatman right behind him tried to grapple JJ, but he slapped on his PFG and the force field kept the man-beast from getting a grip. JJ grabbed her staff, which was floating in the air by her side, and used it to knock the goatman and his brother, who was coming to back him up, off their hooves and almost off the walkway. JJ flashed the other goatmen with a dancing light accompanied by a whining drone that induced a temporary vertigo in them. Then he jumped off the walkway, caught himself on the scaffolding and did a gymnastic descent to the floor. He dropped the staff as he hit the floor, but he didn’t bother to pick it up as he sprinted off; he was after a better weapon. He ran up to Dr. XXX in his power frame, and tore off the duct tape that secured the Stinger to the frame. The Stinger was still charged up from when JJ had kept Dr. XXX from blowing off Akelarre’s face.

Hearing hooves on the floor right behind him, JJ spun around and fired the Stinger, reducing the goatman to scraps. That reduced the charge significantly, so JJ had to resort to shifting to a stunner setting, and simply knocking out the goatman right behind.

By JJ’s count, there were still four goatmen left. They were way too savvy and fast for him to just pick them off with the Stinger, and there was no way that they’d let him disconnect the damn thing from the power frame. So he set it on area suppression autofire and ran for where the tables were. If he could disconnect the smartphone that was shackling ABBY, Akelarre and her tin-can chewing flunkies were toast.

He made it to the party area where the socket was with time to spare. Unfortunately, Mrs. Quillan had rearranged things without telling him, and he had no idea where the socket was at the moment. He trashed the tables until he found the smartphone. But just as he found it, he was wrapped up in a tangle of energy that was like unsmoking fire. Akelarre’s djinn! It had been waiting in that stupid censor all this time!

JJ grappled futilely for several minutes as the guests watched. Then Akelarre rolled up, rigidly upright, her face spitting fire as she tapped her staff into the palm of her other hand. She clocked him upside the head with the staff. As he reeled, she ordered her goatmen to take him, and for the djinn to return to bring the skull. Noticing the attention of the guests, Akelarre softened her demeanor. Giving Mara a snide glance, she said in a loud carrying voice, “The Ritual requires that a fool come willingly, and sacrifice everything for nothing. Boy, you have betrayed everything, and you gain nothing. You are the fool I need.”

“BULLSHIT!” JJ squeaked at her. “I’ve sacrificed nothing! I’ve betrayed no one! Everything I did, I did to get my brother JD back! I did it to protect my family and these guests! I KEPT my word! Hell, I was the only one who did! Akelarre, you’re SCREWED! We had a Sorcerer’s Contract! You agreed that you’d leave after I let you perform your ritual, and let my family alone for as long as I lived!”

“Ah, but our agreement revolves entirely around the Sacrifice of the Goat!”

“What? I’m not a goat!”

The djinn brought the Stony Mill Skull to Akelarre. She affixed it to JJ’s head and says, “You’re the Judas Goat who betrayed in turn your family, all your guests, the Highwayman, Triple-X and even ME! Judas Goat, Scapegoat, Sacrificial Goat: whatever boy, this time YOU’RE the goat!” Akelarre filled the vast chamber with the sound of her mocking laughter.

“Only because YOU say I am! The Sorcerer’s Contract won’t accept that kind of self-serving bullshit! You try this, and GOD ALONE knows what will happen to you!”

“Wrong!” she sang with sardonic merriment. “The ‘goat’ is the final shard of the Great Quest. The climax we’ve been building toward won’t happen without it. And the final shard of the Great Quest… is inside of YOU. I lodged the shard in that electronic comfort doll that you’ve carried around with you everywhere for the last week, that. what’s the word? Oh. ‘Smart phone’. Well, you weren’t very smart, were you? The shard embedded itself in you without anyone noticing, not even your oh-so-clever Gran’Pere who you’re so proud of! By refusing to allow the Sacrifice of the Goat, you are in violation of the Sorcerer’s Contract, and so, all you are, is MINE.”

At Akelarre’s gestured command, the goatmen jerked JJ off his feet and began to carry him. As she slid smoothly past the guests, Akelarre noticed the tears of maternal anguish on Mara’s cheeks. Perked up by that, Akelarre said chattily, “Yes indeed, this is my masterstroke. Renewal, empowerment, revenge and a tidy profit, all in one pass. Suborning Triple-X’s little war dolls will be easy enough; at least I won’t insist that they coddle my ego as they do my bidding. With the cyborgs, my remaining goatmen will have no problems in handling the rest of your guests. All their money, all their magical power, all their resources, even their LIVES all belong to me now.” She stopped at the group where Asha was raising glasses of ginger ale in the toast, along with Yosei and Marine. She stroked Asha’s cheek and savored the terrified squeak that got out. “So young and tender. There are lords of the pit that will give great boons for veal so fresh…”

Enjoying impotent maternal rage from Mara, Akelarre continued,” You know, I really did intend to imbibe the Paragon Potion and renew myself with that. But Dr. XXX’s news of the Transhumanite and his ‘skulljacker’ gimcrack opens up wide exciting new vistas! Why risk the Paragon process and wait for the possibly limited healing that the Exemplar state provides? Why not enthrall your mother, have HER risk the Paragon Process, and then simply move my mind and soul in to her body? Then I will enjoy her vigor, her telepathic prowess, her beauty, and best of all, watching her ROT inside this dilapidated carcass!” Akelarre rolled over to Mara and smirked into her face, as Mara tried to spit in her eye, but was kept from doing so by the paralysis.

“But why go through all that?” Akelarre slid over to Celestina Valocco. “Why not simply move my mind into THIS body, and enjoy all that, plus her ill-deserved fame and influence?”

Then Akelarre swiveled over to Sophia, who was frozen next to her mother. “But why settle for that broken-down cow, when I can move into THIS?” she stroked Sophia’s cheek as the girl trembled in barely restrained fear (or anger?) “All of her mother’s charms and power, and none of the mileage.”

“But still, why not THIS one?” Akelarre gamboled over to where Viv was standing, next to Arsène and Seth. “Yes, it would involve having her endure the Paragon Process first, but then, when I have Mara on the sacrificial altar, she’ll know that the hand holding the knife is her own daughter’s!” Akelarre let out with another merry laugh.

“Keep trying, Akelarre,” JJ growled through his teeth. “Maybe, if you try really, really hard, say you wiped your ass on the flag, I’d find a way to hate you even more. But it’ll be hard.”

“You’re right, I’m… what are they calling it these days? Monologuing? Yes that ‘stop talking and get ON with it’ ethos you have today. No manners anymore. Still, I CAN see the simple good sense in it. Enough of this! Come my children! ¡Adelante! Vino es dulce, pero la victoria es más dulce!”

Akelarre led the goatmen once again up to the top. At the opening, JJ snapped, “WAIT! Our Contract! You promised to fulfill my dearest wish, and to reunite me with my brother!”

“Thank you, I was getting carried away with the moment,” Akelarre said sweetly. As the goatmen held his arms and legs, Akelarre pulled his pants and briefs down.

“Akelarre,” JJ growled, “a blowjob from you is NOT my dearest wish.”

Akelarre languidly slapped his face, and then snapped a metal band stamped with mystic runes around the bridge between his scrotum and the base of his pelvis. “Your dearest wish is to be relieved of your manhood. Well, fortunately for ME, the final component of this process is the manhood of a virgin.” She gave him a dismissive sneer. “And you are obviously a virgin. The final shard of the Great Quest has lodged in your manhood, simplifying things. Well, for ME at least, and that’s what’s really important.”

“And what about reuniting me with JD?” JJ snapped.

“Oh, don’t worry. That will happen. In time...” as JJ struggled frantically, Akelarre paused and asked, “Any last words?”

“For the love of God, Akelarre! At least have the decency to let Boulder and Teddy go! None of the other families have done anything to you, but Boulder and Teddy barely even KNOW us!”

“Your last words are a plea for mercy for another? How noble! It’s a pity that we don’t have a priest to give you the last rites, so your wretched sins are still on your head. Still, a laudable last beau geste. Throw him in.”

The goatmen pushed JJ into the seething cauldron of the athanor. JJ’s screams echoed through the chamber. When they died, the Synthesizer pulsed with a surge of power that echoed through the chamber even more than the scream had. Akelarre coaxed her djinn from its censor, and ordered it into the cauldron. There was another, more high-pitched scream, and a moment later, the djinn flew up from the cauldron, and with a flourish, presented Akelarre with a shining pearly white sphere. “¡Exito! ¡Mi vida es completa!” Akelarre exulted, waving the pearl about, laughing and dancing as best she could.

But her celebration was cut short when the cauldron within the Synthesizer pulsed again and turned a livid green. Laughter, higher pitched than Akelarre’s resounded through the chamber. Akelarre leaned over and gawped gobstopped at the green goo that filled the Synthesizer. Her confusion turned to abject horror as the golden goat’s skull, its eyes blazing with emerald fire, rose up out of the liquid. “¡Corcholis!” She gasped.

As she stood there, frozen with horror, the skull flew at her. One of her goatmen loyally shoved her aside at the last minute, and was knocked off the walkway, falling stunned to the floor 12 feet below. The skull flew around the walkway, knocking the goatmen off. It zoomed around and then came straight at Akelarre, who had gathered her wits enough to erect a shield of magical energy. The skull locked with the shield, and Akelarre used that respite to build up a charge of energy and blast the skull with it. The skull popped out of its position and went flying on an arc up into the rafters that held up the vaulting ceiling. It caught on one crevice well away from the Synthesizer and stayed there. Akelarre stood there, watching this, mouth agape, completely unable to understand what was going on.

Then her attention was caught by a flurry of green cloth that rushed past her legs into the cauldron. There was some bubbling in the liquid, and then a figure erupted up out of the cauldron. She was a lovely sylph-like girl of just under 16 with an apple-shaped face, killer cheekbones, a turned-up nose, large doe-like blue eyes, full lips, long golden blonde hair that streamed past her waist, and a gazelle-like figure. She was dressed in ragged tatters, covered by the Highwayman’s green longcoat. In her hands, she held the Highwayman’s two ‘flintlock’ pistols. She grinned maniacally, her eyes gleamed with triumph, and she glowed with green power. Floating in the air, she let out a victorious laugh and jeered, “BORN AND RAISED IN THE BRIAR PATCH, BITCH! BORN AND RAISED IN THE BRIAR PATCH!”

Interestingly, Akelarre’s stunned reaction was, ‘WTF is born and raised in the briar patch supposed to mean?’

JJ took advantage of Akelarre’s befuddlement to blast at the walkway beneath the goat witch’s feet- or roller, or whatever that thing she was tooling around in was- destroying it and sending Akelarre tumbling to the ground 12 feet below. Akelarre managed to wrap herself in a sheath of protective magic before she hit, but the wooden cylinder that she was using as a mortar to move around in was cracked badly.

Looking up, stunned, Akelarre’s reaction was only, “HOW?” She recognized the girl as the Harrow boy’s mask, but HOW could she be there?

“WHAT?” Jessie jeered down at her. “Did you three stooges really think that you were being slick or something? I’ve been leading you clowns around by the nose from the word GO on this!”

That snapped Akelarre out of her funk. Pure rage, a fury born of countless snubs and defeats from that fop du Maugris and his get, blossomed in her heart. “FOOL! So you’re still alive- for now! You have Fantasmo’s proto-spirit talisman- so WHAT? I have the DRAGON’S PEARL! I am over a hundred years old, and vastly more experienced at magic than you will ever be! I know every stratagem and ploy, curse and counter-curse! No matter what tricks you have up that green sleeve, I Will WIN!”

Jessie just pulled back slightly from the edge and laughed. “Spoiler Alert, Ninny Goat! You’ve Already LOST! First of all, Mom didn’t just lay down protective wards around this place; she also put up Evocations to Zeus, in his role as Xenios, the Defender of Hospitality. When I allowed you in, I made sure that you agreed to abide by the Laws of Hospitality. Which you violated, the second that you stole that glass of champagne from Mom’s hand. Everything you do will be spoiled by the Wrath of Zeus. And everything I do to stop you will be aided by the Hand of Zeus. And speaking of that, you remember that glass of champagne? I Roofied it!”

“’Roofied’?” Akelarre echoed, baffled.

“Rohypnol?” Jessie jeered from behind the rim. “Y’know the ‘Date Rape Drug’?” Akelarre was still in the dark. “It’s a knockout drug that’s making the rounds,” Jessie said in a peeved voice. “The effects are usually felt within 15 to 20 minutes, and the first symptoms are excitability, talkativeness, and aggressive behavior; which would explain Dr. 30’s spazz-out and your little fit right now. Which means that soon you’re gonna start feeling woozy and making mistakes, and in time, yer gonna fall flat on your face! Short Form: YOU LOSE!”

“PAH!”

“Don’t you mean, ‘Baa-aa-ah!’?”

“Such a feeble novice’s trick!” Akelarre lured the stupid child into bantering with her, which she used as a cover to allow her goatlings to recover themselves and for her to work a spell that would allow her to regain the advantage. “You’re trying to use the power of Suggestion! You try to plant the idea in my mind that I’ve been drugged, so that I’ll begin to believe that I’m drugged and act that way! I’ll interpret every slip of the tongue and misstep as a sign that your drug is at work! BUT you wouldn’t TELL me that I was drugged if you’d really performed that nice little sleight of hand! You’d just let me go on and be confused as to why I was falling on my face! Besides, how could a rank amateur like you know that we’d drink that champagne?”

“Ahh… it was kind of obvious, from the timing of when 30 set off the Paralysis thingamabob. It was obvious that at least ONE of you wiseasses would take a glass, and once one of you did, the others would just have to do likewise. So all I had to do was spike Dad, Mom, Gran’Pere and Uncle Luke’s glasses. And you chumps fell for it, right on cue.”

Akelarre needed more time to finish her working, but she couldn’t afford to leave the Harrow child idle for too long. He might get suspicious and get more aggressive in his tactics. She had a ploy, but it wasn’t that effective, and it might cost her a valuable resource. But she couldn’t lose, not at this stage, not to a child! Putting her working on hold for a moment, she silently called out to the djinn bound into the censor up on the rim of the cauldron. She told it to attack the child in green, and to not try to take her prisoner. The djinn would like that; djinn are aligned with the element of Fire. And Fire isn’t very keen on ‘capture’ or ‘keep alive’ or even ‘don’t destroy everything’. If the djinn killed her, excellent! If not, she had the breathing room to finish this work, and begin on the next stage in her tactic.

There was the sound of a scuffle up above, but Akelarre couldn’t be bothered to follow it. She wove her spell into completion and was about to manifest it through the Dragon’s Pearl, when she heard the little snot call out- from the ground level, over by where the main party was!- “Now was that nice? We were having a nice little chat, and you sicced your DOG on me! Now, how would you like it if I released Nero and Accolon and Naimon, and that fucking snake, and sicced them on YOU? I mean, the capture grenades that Greencoat used on them are damn sturdy, but they ARE designed to release on command. And if I know Nero, he’s just about ready to gnaw off his own leg to get at you. But, it’s all good! As long as I’ve got this djinn by the throat, I’ll just bind it. Any binding YOU put on anything will be a snap to subvert. Y’know, it just occurred to me- the reason that thing with the Dragon’s Pearl worked is that a fool who came willingly DID sacrifice everything for nothing. But it was YOU. And you fit the bill for the Goat to be sacrificed better than I ever will!”

Akelarre, her mouth full of bitter, nauseating miasma, gestured furiously at her goatmen to go GET the little bitch! As soon as they left, she hurried up the spell, vomiting up the most nauseating brownish-yellow mist you could imagine. The Abhorrent Haze of the Regent Wyrm would have been deadly, blinding the eyes, reeling the nose, causing the gorge to rise, and slowly poisoning all who wandered about in its mists, confused by misleading shapes and whispers. Well, it would have been, if Akelarre had had the chance to finish it properly. But it would still benumb the nose and cloak the movements of anyone inside it. Which would allow her to achieve the next stage in her plan.

But then she heard the little Harrow bitch yell out- from the ground level, over by where Triple-X, his power frame, and far more importantly, that idiot energy gun that XXX was so enraptured of, were! “GOD, I knew that goats would eat anything, but Sweet Jesus, that was repulsive, even for YOU! You DO realize that with your withered lungs, it is gonna hurt you a lot worse than it does me, don’t you? Okay, I wanted to make this something that the guests would remember, BUT if you’re gonna be like that, I’m just gonna END this! I’ll just wreck Triple-Idiot’s Paralysis thingamabob. Man I hope that Mrs. Quillan covered the food. ” The voice changed tenor. “But then, that really WAS the plan all along- sucker you three doinks in here, trash the Paralysis thingie, and let the guests have fun tearing you all to itty-bitty bits…”

That made FAR too much sense to Akelarre. In a near panic, she grabbed the one goatman who’d stayed by her side and rammed a lozenge and the contents of a philter flask down his throat. As he choked on that, she inscribed an Unspeakable Name on his forehead. The caprine spasmed and writhed, and grew to almost three times his original size, over ten-feet tall. His muscles bulging, protected from the proto-spirit’s energy, the goatman gave out a loud ululating cry, and Akelarre sent him through the choking mists to get the energy weapon before the little twit managed to get it free of the power frame.

Akelarre was halfway through a frantic working that would have created a ‘web’ on the floor that would have trapped anyone who stepped on it. But she would be allowed to move along the ‘strands’ of the web at lightning speed, all but teleporting to any place in the chamber covered by the web. But just as she was gathering up the threads, she heard the sounds of a fight. She hurried up her weaving, but there was suddenly a sound like an entire bunch of celery being broken at once. There was a disturbingly suggestive quiet for a moment, and then the huge goat-minion landed in a twitching heap with a loud thud in front of her. He wasn’t dead yet, but he would be soon. His head was turned almost completely backwards, his neck obviously broken. Only the power of the magic vested in him had kept him alive that long, and he was giving out the last rattle. Then she heard clearly, from only a few feet away, “Y’know Akelarre, you should be more careful. You’re running out of these things.” Looking to the source of the voice, she saw Jessie Harrow standing there with a mocking smirk on her young face. In answer to Akelarre’s unasked question, ‘HOW?’, Jessie tapped the metallic harness strapped around her waist. It took a second, but Akelarre recognized it: it was the super-strength talisman of that big idiot superhero Iron Ox. As soon as it registered on Akelarre’s face that Jessie could now lift over 7 tons, the girl disappeared back into the yellowish-brown mists.

Letting out an inarticulate hiss of rage, frustration and hate, Akelarre drew on all the power of Mara Harrow’s Ark of Power, no matter whether the draw quenched its reserves of essence, forced it through the Dragon’s Pearl, and threw the Entangling Embrace of Bilikiu, covering the floor in webbing. Then she reached down into the dying minion’s throat, and grabbed its departing spirit, which was still entangled with the mass of dark energies that she’d forced into him. With a yank, she cheated the reaper by literally tearing his shade out of his body. Drawing again on the Ark of Mara Harrow, and forcing it through the Dragon’s Pearl, Akelarre forged the goat-wraith into a sword of dark spectral energy. That unhallowed blade could gut a god if it could latch onto one. As the wraith-blade gleamed in her hand, Akelarre drew on still more energy, and invoked the Screaming Horde of Celaeno Podarge. She kept the keening harpies under strict control as she hunkered down and waited for what she knew was coming.

“You know, Akelarre, I wasn’t bluffing about that Roofie,” came Jessie Harrow’s voice, from over… there. “You’re starting to get reckless, you’re letting your anger call the shots. Which means that in about five minutes, you’re gonna be snoring. MAN you are gonna be confused when you wake up! Oh and by the way? Those massive spells you’ve been throwing around? You’re not tapping into my Mom’s Ark. That ring you stole? It’s not an essence tap; it’s a Challenge Token. Ever since you took that ring from my hand, we’ve been in a Power Challenge for Essence. For ALL the Roses, Bitch! Hey, you want everything, you risk everything! Oh, and don’t bother trying to tap into your own Arks. Oh, yeah, ‘Arks of the Covenant’- nice touch- *blaaarrrggghhh!!* well, y’see, while I was up there with those things, beside raiding them for Iron Ox’s harness- and these kickass gauntlets- and the Minoan mirror- I slapped charms blocking your connection to them. That means all those major draws of power you’ve been making? You’ve been drawing on your OWN personal reserves of magical energy. And since I’m gonna OWN those roses in a few minutes, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t wreck them!”

With an maenad scream of rage, Akelarre let the Screaming Horde of Celaeno Podarge loose, the harpy winds sweeping free the Abhorrent Haze of the Regent Wyrm from the chamber, and created a small storm in the upper reaches fo the laboratory. The Screaming Horde would prevent the Harrow bitch from taking to the air, which she no doubt had been doing with impunity. First, Akelarre slid along the Entangling Embrace of Bililkiu to where XXX’s Paralysis Inducer was, and surrounded it with the Shielding Hands of Antaeus. Then using the little puta’s nattering to guide her, Akelarre zipped along the Entangling Embrace, and STRUCK! — cutting a table in half.

Looking stupidly down at the ruined table, Akelarre spotted the source of the blather: a small glassine rectangle set in a plastic case, which was itself set into another plastic case with what she recognized as speakers. As she looked at it, the thing was still driveling, [-and because of YOU, all that I’m getting for my birthday is UNDERWEAR! And SOCKS! Do you have ANY IDEA how embarrassing that is?]

Then Akelarre heard Jessie Harrow’s real voice say a good ten feet away, just to her left, “Your goats are dead, Akelarre- I WIN.” With her right hand, Jessie cast forward a beam of green energy that lashed out and snagged the Dragon’s Pearl from Akelarre’s hand. Akelarre kept the wraith-blade cocked but devoted all of her remaining power to drawing the pearl back into her hand.

“NO!” Akelarre snarled, “The Pearl is MINE!”

“NO,” Jessie calmly but firmly corrected her, “It’s MINE. You made it out of MY DICK, remember?”

Akelarre started to refute that claim, but Jessie simply held up her left hand, which held another of those phone things- smartphones? How many of those damned things did she HAVE? Jessie hit a button, and the smartphone in the speaker stand started flashing lights in very specific colors and frequencies and combinations, which would have induced a seizure in a log. Akelarre flinched, but kept her concentration.

Well, she would have, if the Stony Mill Skull hadn’t dropped out of the rafters right on top of her at that moment. It clipped her shoulder, and she reflexively released her grip on the pearl, which flew into Jessie’s hand. Akelarre struggled up, the wraithblade in her hand, and lashed out at the smartphone that was trying to give her epilepsy. The wraithblade destroyed the smartphone, but instead of just dying, the stupid thing exploded, knocking Akelarre off her feet.

Her legs not only bound by the ‘mortar’ she was using to get around, but useless even when unbound, Akelarre struggled to get up, only to look right into the blue eye of- Eye of Lemuria, which was floating right at face level beside her, with the protective sheath gone. The blue ball turned, and she gazed into the pupil, the true Eye of Lemuria. The force of the Eye battered at her brain, but her dwindling, withering fury still gave her enough passion to turn her face to look — at Jessie Harrow, who now had the Dragon’s Pearl in her left hand. And in her right hand, Jessie held one of the Highwayman’s pistols. “Like I said,” Jessie said calmly, “YOU LOSE.” With that, Jessie shot Akelarre with the pistol, hitting her square in her center mass, cutting straight through all her defenses, which had been weakened by her depleting her store of magic and by protecting her from repeated damage. Akelarre let out a keen of ultimate despair and fell unconscious. Jessie strolled over and said down at Akelarre, “I WIN.” Holding the Dragon’s Pearl over Akelarre, she demanded her due of the motionless witch. Streams of pale purple roses, the base unit of magic flowed up out of Akelarre, through the pearl and into Jessie.

Taking a moment to enjoy her victory, Jessie got to work claiming the due for that victory. She moved the stole that Akelarre wore over the top half of her body, revealing that the supple, agile limbs that she had passed off as her arms were just animated puppet things. Concealed by the stole were her true arms and hands, withered gnarled things draped in bangles and bracelets and rings. “If you didn’t want me to figure out that these things were dummies,” Jessie mocked her, “you shouldn’t have bitched so much about your Arth-er-eye-tis.” Not trusting Akelarre to not be dead to the world, even after all that, Jessie pointed stepped on first Akelarre’s left and then her right hand, ruthlessly crushing fragile fingers and metacarpals.

That done, Jessie leaned over and took the mask of exquisite beauty from Akelarre’s face, revealing her true visage. Lucinda-Maria Mafalda Alonzo y Sorginac, or ‘Akelarre’ was indeed a very old woman, who hadn’t led a temperate or moderate life. Her face was a shrunken, shriveled desiccated ruin, a living mummy riddled with cysts and sores. Jessie ran some magic through the mask, freezing it in its howl of pain, frustration, horror and despair. “There. I’m going to keep this, and hang it on my wall. And every time I look at it, I’ll remember this, the moment that you realized that you lost to a 15-year-old girl.”

Happily humming ‘Happy Birthday’ to herself, Jessie levitated the rings, bracelets, amulets, talismans, charms and other gauds and trinkets from Akelarre’s hands and body. Picking up Akelarre’s staff, she said, “Well, I said that it was for all the marbles, and I meant it.” Jessie examined the pelf with her Good Eye. “Wow, all the stuff on the dummy hands were booby traps. Even in defeat, you’re a twisty old bitch.” Using the staff, Jessie levitated the glittering booby traps over to a garbage can, and set the can off into a corner where they couldn’t cause any trouble.

Then Jessie calmly strolled over to where Dr. XXX was, got some Compliance Collars from that case, and snapped them around XXX’s, the Highwayman’s, the one surviving goatman (the one she’d stunned with the Stinger) and finally Akelarre’s necks. Then when she had the collar around Akelarre’s neck, Nero made a ‘hey, what about US?’ whine from where he was restrained. Jessie looked up and then realized that she wasn’t alone, that everyone was there, paralyzed. “Omigawd, I’m so sorry!” she squealed.

Reverting instantly from Triumphant Warrior Sorceress to frazzled teenage girl, Jessie skittered over to the ‘table’ that was the Paralysis Inducer, dithering away about how she’d get everyone free right away.

But when she got to the Inducer, she had the material problem that she had no idea as to how to shut it down. Well, there was always the direct approach. She simply lashed out with her fist, which thanks to Iron Ox’s power harness, carried the force of 7 tons.

She never even touched the surface. Her fist just skidded off without reaching the cube. Jessie tried again and a third time. With an annoyed snort, she reached for her pistol and blasted it. The green energy beam just bounced off. “FUCK!” she smoldered in frustration.

She looked over to Akelarre’s still body, figuring to put that wraitblade to some good use. But the unholy sword was in the process of melting into an acidic goop that simply ruined the carpet under it. “Of course,” Jessie groaned, “It’s never that easy…”

She trudged over to XXX’s power frame, disconnected the power pack for the stinger and hauled the energy weapon over to the Inducer. She tried every setting she could think of, especially the electromagnetic disruptor settings, but nothing worked. “SHIT!”

Then she smacked herself in the forehead. She pulled out her last surviving smartphone, the one that the Highwayman had given JJ to lock out ABBY, and said into it, “ABBY access resequence protocol ‘OZMA’-7773920665-”

[You don’t have to go through all of that JJ] ABBY told Jessie.

“Okay, then shut this thing down, so we can get this party back on the rails.”

[I’m sorry, JJ, but I’m not connected to that unit, and it has no wireless connections. Dr. XXX built it with the specific intention that it be very difficult to sabotage]

“What about cutting off the power supply?”

[My reading of its power usage is that it’s been leeching 343.6% more energy than it needs to maintain that field. Highest probability is that it has a high-charge battery built into it that has been recharging, and cutting off the power would simply switch it over to the battery. My estimation, given the energy intake and the requirements of the field, is that it could run on the battery for 1 hour, 19 minutes, and 43 seconds.]

“Survivable, but hardly hospitable,” Jessie sighed.

[Why don’t you ask Dr. Lucifer?]

“But Uncle Luke’s- AH! Got it!” Jessie hurried over to the nearest goatman and took the blocker bracelet off its arm. Then she slipped the bracelet onto Luke’s arm and… “Nothing,” Jessie grunted with mounting frustration. “But XXX and Akelarre bounced back… well, maybe the amount of time they’re under has something to do with it.”

[JJ, why don’t you ask Dr. Lucifer?] ABBY asked again.

“But he… OH! Right! Right!” Jessie hurried over to her Uncle Luke and placed her fingers on his face. “Unk, don’t fight me on this. I need to know how to turn that stupid thing OFF…” she started to say ‘before someone gets a cramp’, but decided to not jinx it by giving anyone ideas.

There was a tense moment, and then Luke snapped out of his trance, vigorously shaking his head. “Okay, that works too!”

Shaking his head, Luke asked, “When did you develop telepathy?”

“Oh, about three days after JD disappeared. You all were so wrapped up in looking for JD that nobody noticed the first signs.”

“Well, that would explain your sledgehammer contact technique!” Luke shook his head again.

“Sorry!” Jessie said with an apologetic smile and chirp. Luke started to ask more, but Jessie pointed out that they had guests.

“Right. I’ll bring your father out of it, and you do the same- only a little slower, hah, kid?- with your grandmother. She’s tough, and between the two of them, they should be able to snap the rest out without too much trouble.”

That went as planned but Luke said, “There’s a keypad, and I can weasel my way past that… whatever it is that Akelarre did. But I can’t get a psychometric reading off the keypad, and I have no idea what sequence Dr. Minus-30 IQ used, and from what I know about his security protocols, trying a brute-force sequence would simply shut down the pad. I’d say that he’d have a 3-try grace set, and then we’d have to wait for the hour-and-a-half. That is if he doesn’t have some sort of remote broadcast power setup, which I wouldn’t put past him. I need the cutoff sequence, and I don’t even know how many numbers he programmed into the code sequence!”

Jessie raised a finger with a ‘Got it!’ expression. She walked over to Dr. XXX, picked him up frame and all, and carried him over to Luke. She set XXX down with a thump and tore him none-too-gently out of the frame. “Here! Ask him! He’s roofied to the gills, and I’ve got a Compliance collar on him; he should give you no problems.”

Luke began a tentative mind probe, but broke off and said, “Rohypnol and Compliance collars don’t mix. He’s not fighting me, but he’s tanked to the eyeballs and free-associating like crazy. Finding that sequence is gonna be like finding one particular pea in a pot of boiling stew.”

“Hey, don’t worry about hurting him, Unk,” Jessie said. “You should have heard what passed through his mind, about the things he was gonna do to Mom and Viv.”

“You sick FUCK! She’s only SIXTEEN!” Luke snapped at 30. Then he turned to Jessie and said, “Still, this may take a while. It’s your party- do something to keep the guest’s minds busy.”

Jessie stepped into the spot where Nick and Mara had been and addressed their guests. She told them that Luke was working on shutting off the paralysis projector. “We would bring you out as we have each other, but there’s a nasty Telepathic Ethics complication there. We can’t be sure exactly how you’ll react, and I’m sure that most of you have things on your minds that you’d prefer that we don’t know about. So bear with us as we get you out of that the hard way.” Then she locked, until she saw little Asha standing there.

“It’s been said that on a birthday, logically the child should give presents to her parents, in thanks for being born in the first place. And while that’s a bit much to ask of kids, I think that on a Coming-of-Age day like today I think that it’s appropriate.

“Now, I claim all of Akelarre and Dr. Triple-X and the Phantom Highwayman’s things by Right of Conquest. Do I hear any objections?” Of course, the only objections would come from her family, and they were letting her run with it.

“So, first, starting with the youngest. Asha?” Jessie walked over to where the last surviving goatman was laying low, trying very hard to not be noticed. She picked him up like a beagle and carried him over to Asha. “Asha, you’ve always wanted a pony. Well, this is the best I can do. His name is Koko, which is short for Kokoretsi, a Greek dish of grilled goat offal- ‘offal’ is a fancy name for guts, Asha.” Jessie suddenly reached up, grabbed ‘Koko’ by the nostrils and dragged his face down into her suddenly fiercely scowling face, eyes blazing with green energy. “And if you don’t take very, VERY good care of my little sister, THAT’S WHAT YOU’LL BE! Understand?”

‘Koko’ let out a terrified bleat of comprehension and compliance, and shifted over to his quadruped form. Asha climbed up on his back and gleeped, “PONY!” ‘Koko’ let out a low plaintive bleat, as if to say, ‘where did my life go so wrong?’

Jessie walked over to XXX’s power frame, picked it up and set it in front of Vic and Bart. “Guys? Yours. Enjoy!”

“KEWL!” they gushed in chorus.

“AFTER we remove the weaponry,” Nick said severely.

“AAAAWWWW…”

“Viv?” Jessie reached around, undid the harness around her waist, removed it and handed it to her sister.

“Iron Ox’s super-strength harness?” Viv honked, holding the harness by one strap. “What good is THIS?”

“Just THINK of the bragging rights, when you return this to Iron Ox.” Viv’s eyes popped open wide as the implications registered with her. “I leave the details to the Master.”

Jessie reached her hand toward the trunks near the Synthesizer, and a whitish shape floated into her hand. “Aunt Mel? I give you the Great Pearl of the White Raja of Sarawak, a minor treasure worth a small fortune. I know that you’d rather steal it on your own, but what can I say?” she added in an undertone, “Just think of the fun you’ll have squeezing Dad for this…” Melissa accepted with a smile and a sparkle in her eye.

Next, Jessie called forth that large purplish gem that Akelarre had caught one of the shards of the Great Quest in. “Uncle Virge? I don’t know what this is; Akelarre didn’t exactly sit me down and do an inventory. But I’m sure that there are a LOT of people who are simply dying to get their hands on this. Just think of the trouble you can get in with this!” Virgil gave a roguish laugh, took it with one hand and gave his new niece a hug with the other.

“Gramma?” Jessie levitated the amphora into her hands. “After Dr. 30 sucker punched me into the baggage, and everyone’s attention was on his little drama, messing with the Highwayman’s head, I took advantage of that to snag this. I took about half of it, knowing that the Goat Witch had no intention of keeping her bargain with me. Gramma, I figure that the best gift that I can give you is TIME. You’ll still have to use the Synthesizer. It’s a rough ride, but trust me, it’s worth it. So, whether you decide to become young again, or return to your prime, or become the Silver Fox from Hell… Enjoy! You’ve earned it! That’s my gift to you: Time… and Options.”

Juliet simply took the amphora and gave Jessie a hug and a kiss, but her eyes were sparkling.

“Gran’Pere? You say that at your time of life, Money, Power and Prestige mean nothing, and all that really mean anything to you are Family and your studies of the higher aspects of the Great Arts.” Jessie levitated the Chetwin Device and the Eye of Lemuria (safely wrapped in its canvas sheath) over and presented them. “These should provide you with a few good hours of diversion, No?”

Gran’Pere gave a laugh and called out, “You see, Isabelle? There IS hope for this younger generation after all!” Nero just woofed that she’d have to do better than that to get back in his good graces.

“Uncle Luke?” Jessie called over to him. “Can you spare a moment?”

“Sure,” he said, breaking off. “It’s not that exacting, just… time consuming. I’ve got a decent idea as to where his median-memory caches are, but instead of the details of his preparations for this strike, which he SHOULD have stashed, I keep running into admittedly interesting technical notes… and his erotic fantasies.” *Yech!* Luke shuddered.

“Well, take good care of him, Uncle Luke, ‘cause he’s YOURS. Oh, and his laboratory, all of his equipment and NOTES of course, and all the notes he stole from Dr. Smart and a ton of other scientists, and his business and properties, and these minions of his- but not the accounts and liquid assets.”

“The money? Why not?”

“You’re already a millionaire, Unk! And he’s got at least 15 Mil in his Karedonian accounts. And his properties and businesses are worth a cool 20 Mil more. Oh, that reminds me- he has a construction business that he uses to hide his lairs by moving modules into the unfinished work sites- look into that! And I have to think about how I’m going to pay for Whateley and College! Besides, how many kids outside Show Biz can say that they were self-made millionaires before they were 16?”

Luke let out a chuckle and nodded. “I’ll give you this, JJ- you throw one HELL of a birthday party!”

“Hey, I have to,” Jessie shot back. “I couldn’t give anyone underwear or socks- it seems that there was a run on that recently.”

Turning aside from that snip, Jessie walked over to her mother with a glow in her eyes. “Mom… you gave me Life, you gave me Love and you gave me the best guidance you could. Jewels beyond price.” She held up the Dragon’s Pearl, the most valuable jewel in the world. “All I can give you is this.”

Though she took the pearl from Jessie’s hand with the gleam of Mage’s greed in her eyes, Mara swept her new daughter up in a crushing hug and said, “No, THIS is the best gift of all!”

“Not done!” With a puckish grin, Jessie held up a set of keys.

“What’s this? Mara asked, taking them.

“They’re the keys to the Sea Hag, Akelarre’s boat. That’s the rest of my gift to you, Mom: Akelarre, her ship, and her businesses and properties.”

“But not her liquid assets?” Mara teased.

“Hey, can you blame me? She’s worth 12 Mil in various Swiss bank accounts! World War II was very good to her. And she’s got an absolute PILE of mundane jewelry that she picked off the bones of refugees back then; we’ll figure out who gets what. Oh, and I’m keeping that gypsy wagon of hers.”

“Her wagon? Why? Come to think of it, why did she insist on dragging that shabby thing around, anyway?”

“Because that mortar that she was zipping around in wasn’t the only bit of business that she ripped off from Baba Yaga!” Jessie said. “On the inside, it’s like Dr. WHO! It’s HUGE! It’s bigger than our house! There are two stories and a full basement! At least! Hey, when I go off to College, I’ll be damned if I pay Waldorff-Astoria rates to sleep in a furnished shoebox in some DORM! And, GOD, it’s got a library! And I don’t know what she’s got on the Sea Hag, but I am not walking away from that library!”

“Dear, given who we’re talking about, some of those texts may be dangerous,” Mara said seriously. “We’ll have to vet the contents of those shelves. Some you can have now. Some you can have when you graduate from Whateley. Some you can have when you graduate from college. And some will definitely be going straight into a bonfire!”

“I’m looking forward to going at it hammer and tongs with you over every book,” Jessie smirked.

“hhhmmm… if I might offer my services as a mediator…”

“PLEASE Papa! I’m having my first mother-daughter moment with JJ! Don’t try to horn in on it!” But Accolon, having been freed from the Highwayman’s spirit capture grenade by Bart, crawled up Mara’s side onto her shoulder as a snake and hissed peevishly at Jessie. But then, familiars are not noted for being terribly forgiving. “By the way, JJ-”

“Jessie. JJ was my BOY name.”

“Quite right! Jessie, why didn’t you release Accolon and the other familiars to help you deal with Akelarre and her goats? Or destroy the Paralysis Inducer before she laid that protective shield? Or, since you’ve obviously been conspiring with ABBY, why didn’t you set her on them, once they were inside the lair? Or, once they’d drunk the drugged champagne, why didn’t you just hide and let Akelarre just rant and rave until she fell asleep from the Rohypnol? Why the big battle?”

“Because, I had to BEAT Akelarre,” Jessie explained. “I had to go toe-to-toe with her and BEAT the uncanny bitch! For a bunch of reasons, starting off with shucking the ‘loser’ rep that I’ve had to build up for the past few weeks. But most importantly, I’d initiated a Challenge of Roses with Akelarre. To gain her power, I had to BEAT her. I couldn’t just weasel around her, or outlast her, or get my mommy to beat her up, or even just be the cause of her downfall- No, I had to BEAT her. I had to face her, trade punches and put her down myself!”

Jessie then explained how she’s finessed the challenge token off on Akelarre, in the form of the ring that she’d been using to create her mask spell.

“What? You snuck into my sanctum sanctorum and leeched a connection into my Ark of Power? And how did you even know how to DO that?”

“Ah Mom? I’ve been sneaking into your magical library and reading everything that I could, since I was EIGHT?”

“You mean that you stole mystic insight, just broke into my inviolate sacred haven, and TOOK power, without permission?”

“Ah, Yeah…”

“OH, THIS IS WHEN GOOD PARENTING PAYS OFF!” Mara gushed, clutching Jessie to her, her eyes bright with tears of maternal joy. “Finally, after so long trying to get Vivian even interested, to have an heir to the Craft, who truly understands the Nietzschean Will to Power!”

“hah?” Viv grunted with incomprehension.

“That reminds me,” Jessie said from the depths of Mara’s enveloping embrace, “by Right of Conquest, I’m keeping Akelarre’s jewelry, regalia, staff and those four Arks. I’d keep her athame too, but God alone knows where that thing’s been- or what it’s done.”

Mara let Jessie go and gave her an exasperated swat. “Wait a minute,” Mara said. “I just realized- that djinn that Akelarre set on you? At first, there’s this flare of light, and then… nothing! What happened to it?”

Jessie chuckled and reached into the long green redingote and pulled out a thick cylinder about the size of a spray can. “He had this coat decked out as a utility belt, and he’s got some pretty kickass tricks up this sleeve! Including the Spirit Containment Grenades that he used to put Accolon and the snake down. I saw that, knew that he had at least one more, and used it! When I have the chance, and Akelarre sobers up a little, I’m gonna pick her brain for its True Name and bind it.”

Giving her mother a kiss on the cheek, Jessie turned at last to her father. “Dad? What can you get for the man who can steal anything? Why for such a man, the only thing that he really wants that he doesn’t already have is-” she stalked over to where the Phantom Highwayman was sprawled, trying to work up the willpower to crawl away. She gripped him by the collar of his ‘waistcoat’, picked him and carried him over to her father like a naughty dog, “-JUSTICE! Not revenge, but Justice!” She dumped him at Nick’s feet. “Justice upon the ingrate scumbag who betrayed you, who attacked you, and violated your hospitality again and again!” She tore the mask off his head. “The man who murdered your firstborn son!”

“ZACH!” Nick bellowed in betrayed pain, rage, and mortal outrage. “YOU?”

“WHAT?” Zach Kneller gabbled, “You knew? How could you know?”

‘Please!” Jessie sneered. “I’ve been wise to your ‘Eddie Haskell’ act for years! I knew that something was wrong when you started acting like a decent human being when adults weren’t around. Now, this is the part where I’m supposed to be all Sherlock and point out all the times that you slipped up, like the fact that JD never called me ‘Squirt’, unless you were there. Or the times that your voice changer squelched, and you were too busy being too smart for the room to notice.” Jessie reached around his neck and snapped off the electronic band. “Or the fact that Dr. Triple-Dunce never questioned the fact that I, as the son of the house, was helping them, while he’d only ever met me once, wearing my girl-mask. Hey, why do you think I never asked you to take off that stupid MASK, hah?

“But the sad fact is that I didn’t figure any of that out on the fly. No, I was onto you from the very beginning. You talked JD into pulling off his debut, when he was only a Junior in high school! And, you talked him into that stupid ‘I gotta pull it off all by myself’ crap! And you made a point of freezing ME out of it as well! The NERVE! Freezing ME out? So, of course, I knew every detail of your plan about raiding Dr. Geisten’s lab for the proto-spirit that you’d found out he’d obtained. You had this plan where YOU were gonna get the proto-spirit, and you two would go around doing a Corsican Brothers routine where you wore the same outfit as the Phantom Highwayman, complete with voice changer. You’d make out like there was only ONE Phantom Buttpain, to confuse the cops and superheroes, switching off and confusing the hell out of them.

“BUT, somehow, I don’t know how, and I don’t really care, you hooked up with the Goat Witch and Robo-Perv. Most likely, Cyber-Sleaze got the drop on you, and you sold us all out, and Cruella DeMented got in on the act later. So, I’m clear on the details, but the raid went off as planned; at least as far as you getting into Dr. Giesten’s booth and being empowered by the green proto-spirit. Then you stabbed JD in the back, and gave him to XXX to hold, in case something went wrong and you needed a hostage against our family. Then you came back, and made out like you didn’t know anything about it and you were coming to US to find out what happened to your best friend.”

“NO, it wasn’t LIKE that!” Zach whined, “I-”

“SHADDAP!” Jessie snarled, smacking Zach upside the head. While she’d given up Iron Ox’s super-strength harness, she was still wearing the golden gauntlets, and whatever their innate power was, it added a real kick to her punch. Zach silenced as his head rang.

“If you knew about all this, why didn’t you come to us?” Nick asked.

“Well, at first, I wasn’t sure myself and I had to nail down a few leads,” Jessie answered. “But when I was certain, wouldn’t you know it? Suddenly my PDP trait kicks in, and I have my hands full keeping my brains from leaking out my ears. You guys were in a full panic about JD so you didn’t notice, but I had the advantage of having seen JD and Viv go through it, so I was able to keep a grip on it.

“THEN, when I got my head back in working order, I went to find you to tell you what I knew. But luckily, I ran into Laughing Boy here first. Between the proto-spirit and years of experience in zooming JD and you folks, ‘Good Old Zach’ here was able to shield his thoughts from you pretty well. But he never bothered with Me or the young’uns. He asked me a few leading questions, and I picked up that he was ready for me. He’d found out something, and he was downright EAGER to tell you all something that would somehow discredit me completely in your eyes. I’m not sure what he had up his sleeve- probably he found out about my cross-dressing; he found out about it, because he knew all about it when he approached me to feed you guys the information on where they were gonna strike, so it would go down the way they wanted. With the state of mind that you were in about JD, he had it all mapped out how he’d make me look like a nutjob.

“Fuckwad here was ready and waiting to drop the hammer, so I played the one card that I knew he’d enjoy more than making me the family pariah: namely, playing the loser. So, I made out like I was trying to be the Good Son for you, and doing a bad job of it. Hey, with my PDP powers, keeping tabs on the kids was really pretty easy. The hard part was ‘overhearing’ that scumbag laughing at me behind my back, and not reaching out and pulling his BRAINS out through his nose!”

“Wait a minute!” Nick snapped. “Are you telling me that you KNEW what he was doing all along? That you were reading Zach’s mind? And 30’s and Akelarre’s?”

“Well, more like eavesdropping on their surface thoughts, but-”

“That you knew what their plans were?”

“Well, only towards the end, after I met-”

“You let us go through all that? All the worrying, all the searching, all the scheming, looking for JD?”

“Well, Zach was keeping tabs on us through Viv and-”

“And that’s how you managed to pull off those amazing coups at the Athena and the Onsen? You were reading the situation with your ESP and Telepathy?”

“Well, at the Onsen, I figure that the magic of the Great Quest was reacting to the shard that Zach foisted off on me with that bugged Smartphone- not the one that had all the strobing lights and vertigo stuff- that was in the phone that XXX gave me to trip up Zach, he probably put all of that in there to trip me up, but ABBY spotted it when she scanned it- but the one Zach-”

“You KNEW that that Smartphone was bugged? That that’s how Zach and the others knew exactly when, where and how to hit us? That’s how 30 was able to hijack the drones and the sub pod with the Eye of Lemuria in it?”

“Well, I hadda keep stringing them along-”

“You even set up THIS PARTY, bringing the Synthesizer here, where you knew that Zach knew about that secret entrance?”

“Well, if I hadn’t, they would have attacked at the HOUSE and-”

“You Stage Managed ALL OF THIS, put everyone, even the guests, at risk, just to finesse Akelarre into completing the Paragon Potion, and shoving you into that damned oven, so you could become a GIRL?”

“aaahhhh.. YEAH,” Jessie wilted.

“I am SO PROUD of you, I could BUST!” Nick swept Jessie up in his arms for a big hug, his eyes shining. “THAT’S REAL MASTERMIND THINKING! You took on two veteran schemers and a smartass punk who had the rest of us totally fooled, and you had them jumping through HOOPS! God HELP the poor Caped Clod you pick for a nemesis!”

“You… don’t mind that I’m really a girl” Jessie asked, suddenly very vulnerable.

“I’m… not in love with the idea… but so what? Boy? Girl? The important thing is that you’re not a Schnook! You were being so diligent and responsible and straightforward- you had us scared to death! We thought you’d gone STRAIGHT! And Dear God- helping Superheroes, rescuing Adventuring Scientists, keeping your brothers and sisters from wreaking havoc, protecting private property- you were making noises like you were on the road to becoming a COP! I was having nightmares about you arresting Vic and Bart, and talking about ‘the Greater Good’! J-er, Jessie, I’m sorry about the way we’ve treated you for the past few weeks, but you were acting like a schnook! You don’t wise up schnooks by coddling them; you treat them like schnooks until they wake up and smell the coffee. Okay, Vic and Bart and Asha were just being brats, but what do you want? They’re kids!”

Nick gave his new daughter a big hug. But then his glow of paternal happiness faded as he looked down at Zach, who was crouched there, shivering with terror. Nick shook his head with stunned incomprehension. “WHY? We took you in, and treated you like FAMILY! That ‘Corsican Brothers’ act, with you getting the proto-spirit? We would have respected that!”

Zack warmed up to say something but Jessie cut him off again. “Jealousy. He’s been deadly jealous of all of us for years. Despite all his whining about what a sleazewad old man Kneller is, Zach’s his father’s son. He couldn’t stand it that we got mental powers, and he didn’t. He couldn’t stand it that we were able to live outside the Law, but remain decent people, while his family USED the Law, and were still creeps. Getting powers wasn’t enough for him. He had to have it all. He had to TAKE it all. Oh, and having a boner for Mom for years didn’t hurt.”

Mara gave a ‘silly boy!’ snort of amused vanity.

“Okay, while we’re on the subject, the Highwayman’s proto-spirit gives him the powers of invisibility and intangibility. Why didn’t you use those? Given the state of Akelarre’s mind with the Rohypnol, that would have driven her over the edge with paranoia. Why didn’t you use that option?”

“Well, first, I wanted Akelarre focused- frantic, not thinking, reacting blindly, but focused. Second, I can’t DO that. Not that I wouldn’t love to be able to. No, that invisibility and intangibility that the Phantom Highwayman did was a function of that breastplate thing Zach’s wearing. I think that he ripped that off from Uncle Luke by fu-er, screwing up some data that he ran on a similar project that Uncle Luke was working on for you. He foxed the data, so Uncle Luke ditched the project as useless. Then Zach snitched the proto-type from Unk’s dumpster and fobbed it off on JD as his own work somehow.”

Luke looked up from probing XXX’s mind as though he’d been stung. “WHAT?” he roared at Zach. “You POLLUTED my data? Is nothing sacred to you?”

“Jayj-er, Jessie,” Juliet cut in, her voice thick with dread, “You said… that he murdered… the eldest son? But Mara’s scryings indicated that JD was still alive and in the area…”

Jessie nodded heavily, her face drawn with pain. “The entire reason I went through this whole Punch-and-Judy show was to get JD back. Sibling Rivalry fun and games aside, he’s still my brother, and I love him. Everything that I did was to get close to Zach and XXX and Akelarre and pick their brains about where JD was. But I’m not good enough with telepathy to probe their minds without being obvious about it, so I had to just bounce things off of them, get them to react, especially when they thought that I thought that JD was the Phantom Highwayman, and listen in on their surface thoughts.

“But two days ago, Zach took me to 30’s lair to talk to the man himself. I went along because I hadn’t gotten any whiffs of JD at Akelarre’s wagon, which would have been where she’d keep him if she had him. I got… a… sense… of JD at 30’s lair, but Zach was real keen to check on him without Triple-Dip knowing about it. I get the impression that Robo-Dork was putting the screws to Zach about something. Zach made an excuse and searched the lair while I kept the poor man’s Hugh Hefner busy. And he found JD. XXX got bit by curiosity, and opened up JD’s SKULL! He had JD’s head open and had cut into it and had it wired up like an entertainment center!” Jessie choked back a sob.

Glaring daggers of hate at Zach, Jessie grated out, “And get this: he was GLOATING about it when he took me back out! His best friend since grade school was a fucking vegetable, and he was GLAD ‘cause Dr. Lobo-Tech couldn’t hold him over his head anymore!”

Jessie looked at her father with tears in her eyes. “I wanted my gift to you to be your son back. But all I can give you is his murderer.”

“I didn’t murder anyone, you fucking FREAK!” Zach snapped. “I-”

“You handed him over to Triple-X, when you knew good and well what that psycho would do to him!” Jessie snarled, slapping him silent. “He isn’t dead, but he might as well be! Just like your scumbag old man, you get other people to do your killing for you! You take all the profit, but you never get your hands dirty, you nancy-assed PUNK!”

Nick grabbed Zach by the collar and pulled him close, almost visibly probing Zach’s mind for the truth of the matter. “Yeesss… even you can’t deny it to yourself… You envied JD, you envied me, you envied us ALL… and you would have killed or enslaved us all, just to soothe your wounded vanity… You… you knew that I wouldn’t read your mind as long as you kept your gloating silent in your mind… You FILTH! You used my own HONOR to blind me! You hid behind that mask and pretended to be my own SON to keep me from squashing you like the BUG you are! You made me doubt my own SON!” A long narrow glassine blade, equally suited to cutting a surgical incision, severing a rope or slitting a throat, popped out of Nick’s sleeve on a slide. Eyes blazing with betrayed rage and paternal wrath, Nick laid the blade on Zach’s cheek, the very tip almost but not quite poking his eyeball. “You know, Zach,” Nick stated in an over-calm voice that clearly masked a volcanic rage, “It’s a good thing that you got that Paragon Process, after all. That means that after I take my revenge on you for JD, you can heal up, and I can give you to his Mother. And then his grandmother. And God help you by the time you get to his grandfather…”

“Not so fast, Dad,” Jessie stayed his hand. “Zach has one last card up his sleeve.”

“What?”

“I’m not 100% sure. When I was poking away at Zach at first, trying to figure out exactly what he had planned to discredit me, I picked up that he has one last spoilsport measure at the house.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. Zach’s an old hand at camouflaging his thoughts, and I was only able to pick up bits and pieces of it. I think, and I stress think, that he and JD found something in the house. I’m not sure whether it’s magical or technological or supernatural or WHAT. He and JD had some sort of plan for it. But Zach’s convinced that it can somehow completely compromise the family. That’s one reason why I arranged for the Synthesizer to be brought here, not the House. Zach was really cheesed off when I did that, ‘cause he was planning to use it on XXX and Akelarre as well.” Jessie paused and added with a lowered voice. “He’s very slippery, even with that Compliance collar. Right now, he’s planning furiously how he’s going to use that to get out from under this. And even then, the only way that we can go back home… is for you to go in there, and peel his mind like a grape.”

“No need to do it here and now,” du Maguris cut in. “The proper redaction of a hidden secret from a skilled and determined opponent takes finesse and patience. You can stay at my place, and do it right,” he offered.

“That won’t be necessary,” Luke said confidently. “Because I just found out something that changes almost everything. JD’s ALIVE.”

“WHAT?” Jessie, Nick, Mara, Juliet, Vivian and du Maugris all gasped as one.

“JD’s alive,” Luke repeated as he strolled over from XXX to the power frame that Vic and Bart were already climbing all over. “What Zach saw and JJ-er, Jessie read, was a very lifelike dummy that Lumpy over there used to game Zach. He wanted Zach to think that the Sword of Damocles wasn’t over his head anymore, so he’d pull whatever backstab he had planned. But 30 hadn’t lobotomized JD. He’d kept JD under electro-narcosis, so he could use him as a weapon, depending on how the dust settled. And if he came out on top, Lumpy planned to use the Paragon Process on JD, and then use the Skulljacker to move his mind into JD’s body. That bit with him skulljacking his mind into Zach’s body was just sadistic fun and games. After all, why bother hijacking a body that’s young, good-looking, rich, and slightly superhuman, when you can move into one that’s all that, and psychic to boot?” He leaned in, popped open a console on the left arm, inserted a key and turned it.

As one, the assembled guests and servants snapped out of their paralysis, and started stretching out cramped fingers and limbs.

“When did you figure that out?” Juliet asked her son.

“A few minutes ago,” Luke admitted. “But Nick and Jessie were having a beautiful moment, and I didn’t want to spoil it.

“But you said that Johnny’s alive?” Mara asked Luke intently. “WHERE?”

Luke pointed at the ‘boom tube’ anchored by the electronic gateway that XXX had erected. “In Lumpy’s lab, on the other side of that. ABBY, can you access XXX’s link to the AI guarding his lab?”

[Already working on it, Boss] ABBY answered. [I’m prepping drones and warbeasts, even as we speak]

“Oh, and Zach?” Luke shot the sniveling boy a grin that didn’t need a special mask to be devilish. “JD isn’t just alive with his brains unscrambled; he’s awake, he knows what you did to him, and he’s MAD AS HELL at you.”

“Latigo!” Nick snapped, suddenly the commander again, “Kage! Marcel! Lynx! Get your guns and LET’S GO GET MY SON BACK!” Guns and weapons (and an entire leather roll for Kage) materialized as though by magic in the Cadre’s hands. Their eyes glittered with anticipation of some action.

“NO,” Mara said sternly, with all the incontrovertible authority of a matriarch in her voice. Kage gave her a heartbroken look, like a child who’s had his ice cream cone taken away. “Luke, YOU lead the rescue team. You’ll be raiding a Mad Scientist’s lab; you’ll be much more qualified to lead the team, and the drones will respond to you much better than Nick. Take Dr. 30’s power frame and the Stinger. Nick, your place is here, looking after our guests.”

Deflecting Nick’s objections, Mara turned the guests who were still following this even though they were no longer frozen. “Honored guests, my most abject apologies for these unfortunate complications. We were just toasting the Code of the Honorable Outlaw, and then we were given a practical illustration of exactly WHY the Code is necessary. To the children present, take note and heed: If Zach, Akelarre and Dr. XXX had shown any loyalty to each other, any loyalty at ALL, they would have won easily. Instead, their untrammeled treachery cost them everything. Learn from their mistakes.

“I’m afraid that we’re going to have to postpone the dinner for about an hour or so. Quillan, would you please see to the food, and make sure that it’s still up to our standards? Our guests deserve our best after that ordeal. Dear guests, those of you whose muscles are cramped or sore from that can take advantage of the respite to take a quick soak in our hot tubs. ABBY, please restore the water pipes to the Synthesizer? Just… pump the water through the Synthesizer, not into it?”

Luke taped the Stinger back into its hardpoint on XXX’s power frame, and strapped himself in. Blowing past XXX’s internal security like it wasn’t there, he said, “ABBY, send in the warbeasts, and begin handing that third-rate piece of artificial alleged intelligence its logarithmic ASS! Back us up with the drones! Okay crew, let’s go KICK SOME TRASH!” With that, he clomped through the tunnel in the air as quickly as the power frame would carry him.

Latigo and the rest of the cadre eagerly followed Luke, using the big frame as cover from the immediate defense measures. “HEY!” Lynx snapped, “Don’t hog all the fun for yourself, Kage!” Boulder looked wistfully after them; he was always game for a rumble but hey, it was a family matter.

Vic and Bart looked after them with all the miffed outrage of kids who’ve just had their bikes ‘commandeered’ by the old folks. They started after Luke and the others, but Nick intercepted them and dragged them away from the tunnel by their ears.

Mara addressed the guests again. “Nick here will be seeing to your needs for the next hour, while Luke brings my oldest son, John, back. Also, the Birthday Girl here needs the hour to freshen up and get dressed in something more fitting to the occasion. Take advantage of the hour to relax, use the hot tubs, converse, and possibly reconsider your gift choices,” she kited a look at the knocked over pile of underwear. With that, Mara guided Jessie to the Ladies’ room, with Juliet, Vivian, Melissa and Asha in tow.

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“I can’t believe that you’re acting like this is normal!” Viv fussed as Jessie took a shower, washing all the gunk from the athanor out of her long golden hair.

“’Normal’?” Melissa echoed wryly as she watched her sister vet the jewelry that Jessie had taken from Akelarre for safety. “When did that ever apply to US?”

“This is going to RUIN our reputation!” Viv insisted.

“Oh? How so?” Mara asked as she closely examined a large cabochon-cut ruby ring that, while a trifle gaudy, would look good with Jessie’s complexion.

“HELLO? We have an entire ROOM full of Supervillains who know about this!” Viv waved in the general direction of the main chamber. “By this time tomorrow, this’ll be all over every supervillain website on the planet! And then the minions will find out, and they’ll tell every crook who knows, and before you know it, there’ll be 4-Chan forums about it!”

“Don’t worry so much, darling!” Mara said without concern as she studied a very nice bracelet that had virtues to deflect the Evil Eye. “None of our guests will violate our hospitality.”

“Why? Because of the CODE? Are you kidding? Do you think that Gwen or Angelica or Ariel or, dear GOD Tenka or Aurelie will let something like The Code stop them from spreading some delicious dish like this? They’re probably already on their cell phones, telling their girlfriends about it!”

“They won’t, because the second they try, their parents will land on them like sacks of wet cement. Do you remember when Jessie was taunting Akelarre about Zeus as Xenios, the Defender of Hospitality? That’s very real. I put up Xenios wards around this lair as a matter of routine. It’s expected at these things. Remember your father’s toast to The Code? Besides reminding the guests of the mundane repercussions of trying anything, he was reminding them of the Xenios wards, among a few other pro forma measures in place. The wards protect our guests from us as much as they protect us from them, so there’s no issue of Bad Faith. Right at this moment, I’ll lay good money that your Gran’Pere has that oaf Boulder in a corner filling him in on that point. He may or may not know about the Xenios wards, but with a boor like that, it’s best to be sure. Really, Cheri, how would supervillains get together without measures like that?”

“And HOW are we supposed to explain this at JJ’s school, hah?” Viv answered her mother’s question with a question.

“Simple: we won’t,” Mara answered, moving her attention to a bracelet that might be a tad too heavy for a young girl. “There are only a few months to graduation, so we’ll just have Jessie challenge the final exams, and mask her up as JJ. And if what I’ve heard of Exemplars is true, since she’s undergone the Paragon Process, Jessie’s only real problem will be in not doing so well that the chance that she’ll look like she’s cheating comes up. I’ll spend the next few months with her on her magical training, until Summer vacation.”

“Magical training?” Vivian hooted, “Why would you be giving JJ magical training?”

“Because she WANTS it? Because she’s been doing it, no matter what we say? Because she’s empowered? Because now she’s a legitimate target for occult predators, now that she’s got- Mon Dieu how many roses was that anyway?- of Akelarre’s power in her? Because now I finally have a Craft Heir that I can be proud of?”

“What? You’re not proud of me?” Viv asked bleakly.

“Well, you’ve said repeatedly that you’re not interested in the Great Arts,” Mara pointed out. “And Jessie’s said just as repeatedly that she IS. Besides, I want her to do us proud when she goes to Whateley next year.”

“Whateley?” Viv bleated, “Why does JJ get to go to Whateley, and I don’t?”

“Because I’m PAYING for it?” Jessie called from the shower.

“But you don’t have to do that, dear!” Mara called back. “Your father and I are more than able to provide-”

“No, no, Mara dear,” Juliet interrupted her. “Let her pay for it. I’ve noticed that people who work their way through college may not particularly do better grade-wise, but they always appreciate their education more than the students who just get it because their parents are paying their way. You always appreciate the things you work for; or at least steal.”

“Why does the freak get to go to Whateley?” Viv demanded.

“Well, dear, Whateley’s expensive, but worth it!” Juliet said. “I had to pull off scores that would have set me up for life TWICE to put first Nick and then Luke through that school, but it was the best investment that I made! Top-notch Psychic Disciplines training, and Luke was absolutely in heaven in their High-Tech training labs! Nick learned his trade not only from the children of the best criminal masterminds of the day, but from the children of the best SUPERHEROES of the day! Some virtue-spouting yahoo who called himself Blue Thunder or something put him in the infirmary three times, but Nick swears that going to Whateley made him the master criminal he is today! Why, being a member of the Whateley Parents’ Association was, well, maybe not worth the price of tuition, but a definite shot in the arm for my career.”

Viv made a pathetic whine.

“What?” Mara asked, looking at Vivian surprised. “I thought that you weren’t interested in going into the family business in supervillainy!”

“What?” Viv yipped, “Why wouldn’t I want to go into the family business? Everybody I respect is a supervillain!”

“Really?” Juliet drawled, “From the way you’ve been going, we all thought that your life plan had you graduating as Homecoming Queen of that private school you’re going to, matriculating to some Ivy League college, or at least some New England pretender to the Ivy, taking a Fine Arts major or some other ‘MRS degree’ concentration, spotting some up-and-coming scion of an Old Money family, conning him into marrying you without a Pre-Nup, and then running his political career from behind the scenes.”

“Not a bad life, if you have the stomach for it,” Melissa said negligently. “Boring but comfortable and predictable.”

Viv sat back and thought about that. Now that they’d framed it that way, that life path did seem like a decorous, dignified, comfortable trail to a dry, stuffy, constricted, stifling, choking HELL. But she couldn’t rationalize her tactics or strategy at her school as leading along any other path, the well-trodden trail of the Ladies Who Lunch. “You’re right. It does kind of… work out that way… Why did I think that I didn’t want to go to Whateley?”

“I think that Zach had something to do with that,” Jessie said as she stepped out of the shower wrapped up in a bathrobe. Jessie threw her head back, and her long blonde hair stood back from her head in a stream, and water fell off of it back into the shower. “Hey Mom, which is better for your hair with a quickie hair-dry: magic or PK?”

“Well, on general principle, Magic flows more easily with organic material, but it’s bad form to use The Art for something as banal as drying your-”

“NO!” Viv jumped in, “No going off on a Magic –Geek tangent! What do you mean, Zach had something to do with it? He didn’t have any powers until a few weeks ago, so how could he influence me like that?”

Jessie tisked. “VIV, this is what Mom and Dad mean when they talk about you and JD leaning too heavy on being psychic! Zach doesn’t need psychic powers- though he’d probably love to have them- because he’s a button-pushing NINJA! To paraphrase something that Zach told me a week ago, ‘he started when he was a lot bigger and smarter than you were, he made thousands of little mistakes and learned from them without making a big deal about it’. Think about it! He was, what, EIGHT, when he first started coming here? And he managed to sucker an entire family of supervillains! How? He started small and built from there. When he put a foot wrong, he was all ‘gee, I’m just a little kid’, and learned from that. He learned how to push your buttons by watching us, and seeing what worked. He built up his ‘Poor Little Rich Boy’ and ‘You’re all I really have’, and ‘You’re like Family to Me’ acts, and used them to take us for whatever he could.”

“Come to think of it,” Mara said, “we don’t really know what the Knellers are like. I mean, God knows what Zach tells the Knellers about US.”

“The old ‘Tell a lie long enough, often enough, and people take it for the truth’ gambit,” Juliet mused.

“So… you mean that Zach managed to pull off all that, just with stupid mind games?” Viv asked, aghast.

“Viv, WHY do you think that Zach suddenly got interested in you when you got your mind powers, but ONLY over the phone?” Jessie asked. “Whenever he was here, he always kept you at a distance. Where you couldn’t read him, but you were panting for all the strokes he gave you over the phone…”

“WHAT? You mean that turdball was GAMING me all the time?” Viv snarled.

“NOW, she’s upset…” Mara snorted.

“So? Can I go to Whateley next year?” Vivian asked.

“Of course you can, Cherie!” Mara said with Gallic brightness. “All you have to do is pay your own tuition, books and expenses!”

“Well, JESSIE is paying her own way!” Juliet pointed out.

“It wouldn’t be fair!” Melissa added with a puckish grin.

“HOW am I supposed to get that much money, before the Fall?” Viv asked desperately.

“How do you think?” Juliet asked rhetorically. “STEAL it! We’re Supervillains! How else are you supposed to pay for it? Commit a crime!”

“Consider it your debut as a supervillainess,” Mara suggested.

“Hopefully, you’ll do better than JD,” Melissa said. “Let’s face it- he blew it!”

“He still gets points,” Mara insisted. “After all, he pulled off the job and wasn’t arrested. He couldn’t help it that his accomplice turned on him. It happens to the best of thieves.”

“Just don’t think that you’ll match my mark,” Jessie breezed as she ran a brush through her hair. “Honestly, I didn’t mean to set the mark so high! It just turned out that way!”

Viv beetled her brows at Jessie and growled. “Okay, okay! It’s probably time I got started with that anyway… so, what sort of crime should I pull off?”

“Blackmailing your independently wealthy sister is right out,” Jessie said.

“So… any ideas?”

“Vivian, as it’s your debut,” Melissa suggested, “I think that you should learn from the example set by JD and Jessie: you have to do it by yourself. You have to research it, plan it, execute it and make your getaway- all by yourself. And your debut will be judged on the take, the target, and how well you pulled it off.”

“Just don’t feel that you have to steal a power gem or a suit of power armor or a dynamorph, just because JD and I did,” Jessie said brattishly.

“Okay, okay, I accept the terms!” Vivian plopped down on a seat. “I still can’t believe that you’re letting him get away with this…”

“We’re not,” Mara said. “Normally, your father, grandparents, Uncle Luke and I would be outraged at JJ pulling a stunt like this, no matter how cunningly contrived and camouflaged in crisis. Jessie, you are too young to be making such a major decision! Especially without discussing it with us! Yes, Jessie, I know that you’re very happy- NOW.

“But that may change. This is one of the most important decisions about your life, and you made it not only without talking to me or your father, or anyone else that I can tell, let alone with a doctor who actually knows about these things!

“And NO, talking it over with ABBY doesn’t count!

“JJ, transsexualism is a complicated thing that isn’t very well-understood, even by mad scientists. I don’t claim to understand it myself, but I do know this: in terms of strict Statistics, the odds vastly favor that you are something else, which you interpret as Transsexualism. With this stunt, you could have trapped yourself in a position where your dream becomes your prison. It happens, JJ; there are reasons why doctors are so reluctant to treat people like you.

“BUT.

“Wittingly or unwittingly, you’ve allowed yourself a back door, a way to return to being JJ. Should that become the case, you have a way back.” Mara held up the Dragon’s Pearl. “Jessie, this jewel contains the mystic essence of your Manhood. Should it ever come to that, you can use this pearl to return to being a man. BUT, doing so will destroy the pearl, and you won’t be able to go back to being a girl. AND, you’ll have to cope with the consequences of destroying a major magical gem like a Dragon’s Pearl.”

“That, and your brothers and sisters ribbing you about it endlessly,” Juliet reminded her.

“My POINT, Jessie, is that being a woman isn’t a long carefree lark. You’re going to have to put up with all the problems, limitations and annoyances the rest of us do. The Dragon’s Pearl is a now a major asset to us; we will expend it for you- but only if you’re absolutely certain that you want to return to being a man.”

“Of course,” Melissa sighed, “the world being like that at the best of times, the very fact that she HAS that escape hatch will keep Jessie from developing that perverse regret that some people feel, that ‘the grass is always greener’ itch that drives so many people nuts.”

Mara thought that over blank-faced for a moment. “Also a possibility.”

“In the meantime,” Juliet said with a gusty sigh, “we are in the position where we must presume that Jessie will remain this way permanently. And more to the point, just at the moment, we have to present a united front to our guests. We will proceed with the dinner as though this was the planned outcome all along.”

“Yeah?” Vivian honked with disbelief, “And how are we supposed to do that? JJ’s clothes got TRASHED!” She held up the ragged remains of JJ’s suit.

“Dear…” Juliet said, “You brought along Fifteen outfits? Of which you’ve only worn Three?”

“But… But… they’re MY outfits!”

linebreak shadow

Mara and Melissa were quibbling as to how much makeup Jessie should wear for her debut. Mara was of the ‘she’s only 15; less is more’ school, while Melissa was of the ‘you can only make a first impression ONCE’ line of thinking. Juliet was tinkering with Jessie’s hair, figuring sheer practicality would demand that she cut it, but with hair like that you have to make a to-do about it and get pictures while it lasts. Asha was watching her grandmother fiddle with JJ’s hair. Vivian was fussing about the pink dress that they’d chosen for Jessie. Then Mara stopped and stiffened, as though hearing something. “He’s BACK! He’s okay!”

The assembled women rushed to the door, though Jessie stopped for something and got to the door last. Mara burst through the door. The Harrow family, servitors and guests cheering on a primal human (though less than genteel) scene: a good old-fashioned smack-down. They were all gathered around, egging on a fit, athletic, good-looking young man of maybe 17 in a lab coat as he pounded Zach in the face with a metal gauntlet with more enthusiasm than technique. Zach’s face was a bloody ruin, and his blood was smeared over the gauntlet and lab coat, and there were splatters of blood on the young man’s face, which made his snarl of fury truly savage. But Mara gasped out “JOHNNY!” as though he was a pristine angel sent down from Heaven.

Luke, Latigo, Kage, Lynx and Marcel, who were bruised, burned and cut but glowing from being in a great fight, were closest to JD and Zach, cheering him on. But they parted like the Red Sea before one of the few things that had priority over the sight of seeing a fucking scumbag traitor get what was coming to him. Sensing her more than hearing her, John Dillinger ‘JD’ Harrow paused as he was hauling back for another punch. He barely had time to say, “Mom?” before she wrapped herself around him. She squeezed him tight as she reveled in knowing that he was alive, alive, alive! Her boy, against all fear and logic was alive and well! She almost smothered him with kisses before Juliet pushed her aside and hugged and kissed him as well. Melissa, Vivian and Asha all got their turns as well. Then JD had the experience of this strange beautiful girl hugging and kissing him as well. It took him a moment, but then he picked up on the vibes flying about. “JAY-JAY?” he gawped.

“HEY, didn’t Zach turn out to be a CREEP, just like I’ve been telling you for YEARS?” Jessie demanded.

“It’s JJ,” JD groaned. “What’s THIS?”

“I’m Jessie,” she smirked back at him. “Get USED to it.” Reveling in finally one-upping her brother, she added. “MY debut went off a little better than yours did. I even managed to give YOU a un-birthday gift, like I gave everyone else.” She handed him a packet.

“What IS it?” he asked, looking at it without grasping its significance.

Jessie leaned in and whispered, “Since Zach spoiled your big debut, you get a do-over. Dr. Helen Smart happens to have an extracted proto-spirit in the main research bay of her ship, the Athena. In that packet are keys, blueprints, and security protocols for that research bay. If you can’t get in there and score that proto-spirit with all that, well then, what good are you?”

“Proto-Spirit?”

Jessie flared some green energy from her hand. “Hey, all the COOL kids have one…” As JD wrapped his head around this, Jessie exulted. Up FOUR on JD! Best! Birthday! EVAR!

“Son, why don’t you get cleaned up and change?” Nick said, steering them apart. “We were just about to go in to dinner, when this sort of dropped out of the sky. I’m sure that the guest of honor,” he indicated Jessie, “will be so gracious as to allow you, say, ten minutes? To freshen up. We’ll hold dinner for that long.

Jessie just smiled brilliantly to indicate that she would be that gracious. JD looked around with a blandly flummoxed look, not sure of exactly what had happened to the world that had up to recently been his oyster. Had that electro-narcosis fried something in his brain? Then he realized that he was still slightly out of it, and he probably looked hag-ridden. If nothing else, he could use a break to try and figure out what the hell was going on.

As du Maugris led his (still) eldest grandson to the changing rooms, Nick turned to Jessie. Taking advantage of Mara and Juliet going to help guests getting out of the hot tubs, and Melissa and Vivian keeping the other guests entertained, Nick gave Jessie a knowing smile. “So! You’re telling me that you planned that entire elaborate charade, and got Zach and the Goat-Witch and Dr. Lumpy to do everything you wanted?”

Her Smart-Aleck Kid Senses tingling, Jessie realized that while her dad had been quite distracted during the whole thing- Zach really was very good at pushing people’s buttons, either in person or by proxy- but Dad was very quick on the uptake. Jessie quickly juggled the value of saving face against the odds that her father would see right through a lie. And she decided that there was a time and a place for everything, even the truth. Especially after the morass of demi-facts and skewed logic they’d just waded through. “No,” she admitted dully. “I HAD a plan, but it was nothing like what just happened! I’ve lost track of the times that this thing jumped the rails! I’ve been tap-dancing like Bojangles- by the way, who was ‘Bojangles’ anyway?- anyway, I was tap dancing like a fiend getting this thing from going WAY out of bounds. If it wasn’t Zach, it was XXX; and if it wasn’t XXX, it was Akelarre, all trying to drag this thing off in a whole different direction!

“The only thing that went off as planned was Zach selling the other two on the idea that I was this desperate loser that needed some kind of big win, who they could use as a puppet! Believe me, if I’d been planning this, it would have been over a lot quicker, it would have been a lot quieter, and it wouldn’t have hinged on anything as iffy as drugging some drinks! And there wouldn’t have been any witnesses! Do you honestly think that I LIKE the idea of a bunch of near-strangers- oh, and the Kaitos and Lemalins, who are worse than strangers!- knowing about my cross-dressing, hospitality spells or not?”

“Oh? And what about all that stuff you were telling Akelarre about how you played her for a sap from the very beginning?”

“What was I supposed to do? Tell Akelarre that she almost had me on the ropes, and I was improvising like crazy? There I was, my ass out a mile, and all that I was coming up with was, ‘know your enemy and tailor your tactics to fit their weaknesses’. So I hit Akelarre where she was weakest- her paranoia. She was deathly afraid of being tricked and manipulated, so I told her that I had tricked her and was manipulating her.

“MAN! This entire WEEK has been one long chain of guesswork, improvising, shoring up broken bits, patching over glaring mistakes, covering up gaffs, hurrying pigeons past holes in logic, spotting problems before anyone else, and pulling last second fixes out of my ass! Dad, how do you DO it?”

Nick smirked wryly. “By being very good at guesswork, improvising, shoring up broken bits, patching over glaring mistakes, covering up gaffs, hurrying pigeons past holes in logic, spotting problems before anyone else, and pulling last second fixes out of my ass.” Jessie gave him a wide-eyed, ‘what are you talking about?’ glare. “Jessie, sweetheart, one of the Iron Laws of Strategy is that ‘No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy’. Hell, most of them don’t survive contact with the people who carry them out.”

“But DAD, it was this big convoluted MESS!”

“Jessie if you HAD planned that whole thing, I would have been worried,” Nick told her. “As you said, it was this big convoluted mess with way too many moving parts, and too many places where someone could have done something else, anything else, and it would have gone right into the dumper, and taken everyone with it. BUT, from what I’m picking up, you had a simpler, safer, more elegant plan that turned right at Albuquerque and wound up in Wackyland. Probably when I decided to hold your birthday party with all those guests here. But you managed to salvage it, and wrangle it to a rough approximation of where you wanted to go.”

“Are… you still proud of me?” Jessie asked delicately.

Nick chuckled. “Honey, planning a flawless operation and pulling it off is not mastermind thinking. Planning a flawless operation, having it go completely kablooey, and still making it work IS. Chaos is a part of the business. So, do you still want to be a master criminal?”

“Well DUH!” Jessie groaned, “I haven’t had this much fun in my LIFE!”

Nick glowed. “That’s My Girl!”

 

FINIS

Comments   

+3 # Pyro Hawk 2017-05-19 23:55
Okay, I loved this ending, and it went completely differently than I had thought it would... Well, the ending at least. Everything before Jessie came out went more or less as I had thought it would, but the ending went in the complete opposite direction...

Also, would the fact that we're seeing Seraphina Sophia Valocco again mean that we may be having her story continued sometime soon? Envy is quite possibly my favourite character so fair, though the top 5 competition is quite fierce... and the top 10's barely less so...
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+3 # Katssun 2017-05-20 12:46
Assuming that Jessie isn't rooming with her sister...should we take a guess at who will be her roommate? I'm guessing Viv will still only be able to pull in enough for tuition and end up in Dickenson.

Envy and Jessie in Melville? Socialite supervillainess central!
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+3 # Mazaki 2017-05-20 20:08
Thank you for the story and interesting finish. The only part of Akelarre plan that I am happy worked out for her is the destruction of the demon who had claim to her soul, though Mara or her father may not leave her with that for what she tried to do. Jessie has one possible friend that she did not expect with the girls at the party. It was good to see a return of some characters from earlier stories as it adds connections.
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+1 # Horrid 2017-05-20 23:47
Quoting Mazaki:
It was good to see a return of some characters from earlier stories as it adds connections.


I heartily agree. It was great to hear Bek referring to the Drow Wedding and the Claw in Cincinnati and Jadis and then actually having La Strega and Envy as minor characters in the final chapter of the story.

It gives me hope that the "Diamonds Are a Vamp's Best Friend" story is ready for publication, a June posting, perhaps (in keeping with the wedding theme)?

And La Strega and Envy were only in one story a long time ago but such a great story!

I am anticipating more Silver Ghost and Golden Angel as well. Bek, you magnificent bastard, I will wait for many years but I really have gotten some hope from this story that the author Bek is planning the reappearances of my favorites.

Thank you, Bek, and kudos aplenty! :-)
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0 # Horrid 2017-05-24 03:59
I had the pleasure of rereading the three part story "Envy and the Gilded Cage" recently and I was surprised to see that it was not one of Bek's but rather it was written by Dr. Bender.

Too bad if this means we will not see Serafina Sofia and her mom in future Bek stories either as a bit part player or a main character. I say this because I am under the impression that Dr. Bender no longer writes Whateley stories.

So I am correcting myself for having misidentified these characters as Bek's but saying again that "E&TGC" was awesome. If any of you have not read it you should.

:-)
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0 # Stickmaker 2017-05-21 20:34
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Robinson

Among many other things, he was in several Shirley Temple movies.
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0 # alisa28 2017-05-22 22:48
Great story. It took a while for my sluggish brain to catch onto the story.
Once my thoughts were in sync with this brilliant story.. .
Ahh: Bad Seeds, Masterminds, or..?
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+1 # ChattaStarhawk 2017-05-24 17:20
I can see Jessie owning the Masterminds in under a week once she gets there... and they will not see it coming!
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