The Defiant Challengers

Light crept through the slits between the barn’s wooden siding casting beams of crisscrossing illumination painting the space with shadow patterns. Grandpa Doug had used the barn as his workshop and little had changed since Jeremiah’s childhood. Smelling of sawdust, burnt oil, and chicken shit the dusty air coated his tongue with a faintly metallic chemical taste of insecticide. A total assault on the senses, to most the barn would represent a necessary evil, useful for storing his grandfather’s plane and the tools and chemicals needed to keep it functioning but otherwise a place best avoided. To Jeremiah it was a haven, a place away from his thoughts where he could work with his hands and fondly recall childhood memories of helping his grandpa run the damn chickens out of the hidden nooks before they could lay eggs.

His disassembled Rocket pack was laid bare before him taking up nearly all of the long wooden workman’s bench. Methodically, rhythmically, and gently he hammered the metal housing of the left rocket. The fight against Collateral Damage hadn’t affected the rocket’s functionality but had done a number on it aesthetically. Normally Jeremiah wouldn’t bother with hammering out the dents, instead purchasing new materials and forming an entirely new outer casing for his grandfather’s prototype. He just didn’t have the time.

The funeral was today.

Or rather, the “memorial service” was today. There wouldn’t be a real funeral until the investigation into the disappearance of Blackbird’s body was finished. Which more than likely meant that the dead heroine would be denied a proper burial. Jeremiah was still mad about that. His fellow mask had been died defending the city and the coroner’s office couldn’t even prevent some nut job from stealing her corpse. Worse whoever, or whatever, had removed her body had taken his friend’s appearance as their own. A video store clerk had tweeted that she had visited his store a few hours after her death fighting Collateral Damage. At first no one believed the kid and the coroner’s office vehemently denied the young man’s story. Then camera footage from an ATM outside a bank near the rental place had been released showing Blackbird walking down the sidewalk blowing the story wide open. Local media had dubbed the fiasco “Birdgate” and for the better part of the week it was the number one story on the news.

“Goddammit” he said quietly. Blackbird was a friend maybe not a close one but still a friend. They’d even saved the city once, defeating Iron Butterfly as a team. They’d laughed together, protected each other, and triumphed together. So what if they had never spent time together with their masks off? She was still a friend and the thought of someone or something walking around the city pretending to be her made him sick.

Why couldn’t she just be left in peace?

Not a particularly religious man Jeremiah still believed that good people were rewarded after they passed on. He tried to take comfort from his belief, but now he found that it just seemed hollow. Desperate to get his mind away from thoughts of death and the afterlife he instead looked at his handy work. The smaller dents were completely gone looking as if they had never happened. The largest, a hand shaped impression caused when Collateral Threw him like a skipping stone down the street, had beat out okay but left the metal looking warped and thin. He’d have to do a proper replacement of the whole outer housing later but for now…

“Good enough.” He said and started reassembling the rocket pack.

It didn’t take long for his hands to default to muscle memory as they performed the same tasks for the millionth time. Allowing his mind to wonder again.

…I’m sorry Blackbird, but I know that wherever you might be you’re at peace now…

Despite his personal feelings towards the Freedom League Jeremiah had to admit they had one hell of a club house. Located in the very heart of the city Freedom Hall was surrounded by beautifully maintained courtyards of dark green grass and crystal clear fountains. The Hall had a modern look to it despite its decades of use, its sloped glass walls gave it a strong yet somehow comforting appearance that hinted at an idealistic dreams of a better tomorrow. The building had, for as long as Jeremiah could remember, been the beating heart of the heroic world and in that capacity often served as something akin to ”’holy ground’. Even with his biased view of the League Jeremiah couldn’t think of a more fitting place to hold the memorial than here where heroes from all parts of the world could come to pay their respects and say their final farewells to one of their own without the intrusions of the “civilian” world. Landing just outside of the compounds ornate golden gates Jeremiah took a deep breathe.

“God, I hate funerals.” He said as he began to walk towards the gate.

“Greetings, Defender of Freedom.” A voice said suddenly as the wide gate swung open to allow his passage. The disembodied voice startled him and he was glad that his expressionless helmet covered his face. He’d never live it down if a supe saw him nearly have a panic attack because a hidden camera, or perhaps maybe a sorceress enchantment, allowed the gate to recognize him. Taking a second to catch his breathe he made his way towards the Hall.

The front door like the majority of the structure was made of glass and like the front gate it also opened at his approach, though thankfully it didn’t talk to him. Inside the doorway Jeremiah found himself in a large lobby.He couldn’t help but feel he’d accidently walked into a particularly slow bank lobby or doctor’s office. A middle aged woman with a pleasant smile sat behind a circular desk in the middle of the room and greeted him warmly.

“Hello, how may I help you?”

“Oh, uh..Hello, Ma’am. I’m…uh…I’m here for the memorial service.” Jeremiah said, suddenly unsure of himself. He’d never actually been inside Freedom Hall and in all the mental scenarios he had run through as he approached the door he hadn’t imagined the Freedom League to have its own receptionist.

“Of course dear, and please. Call me Cynthia. Ma’am makes me feel like an old maid” She said with a smile. “Just take the elevators, the ones on your left over there, press R, and you’ll be where you want to go.”

“Thanks.” Jeremiah said as he made his way towards the designated elevator. Once inside the elevator he turned and pressed the small round button labeled “R”. Cynthia only smiled at him as the door closed shut.

The elevator opened and Jeremiah stepped out to find himself atop Freedom Hall. The normally blue gray concrete roof had been covered in a thick layer of perfectly manicured grass and as he walked he felt himself sink as the ground slightly gave beneath him.

“How the hell…”Jeremiah was shocked by the unexpectedness of it all. When he flew into town the building looked the same as always. The flat roof having its trademarked “F” painted across its helipad. There is no way he couldn’t have noticed this on his descent. A booming voice broke through his confusion pulling him out of thoughts.

“Skye Raider,” the unmistakable timbre of Captain Thunder’s rumbling voice greeted him. “Glad you’re here.”

The leader of the Freedom League had forgone his traditional regalia in favor a dark blue suit over a white button down shirt. A silver tie reminiscent of storm clouds rounded out his outfit. By his side stood a woman almost as well known as Captain Thunder, his wife Nancy Gardener. A petite woman in her late forties or early fifties, with short chestnut colored hair and large brown eye, Nancy had become a legend when her husband’s secret identity had become public knowledge. Refusing to sacrifice their marriage because of the sudden flurry of media attention Nancy had quickly become a key member of the Freedom League serving as the day to day administrator of the organization as well taking an active role in the variety of community outreach and charity work the League sponsored across the city.

“Nancy, dear. I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. If not for this young man the damage caused to the city the other day could have been catastrophic,” Thunder said with a smile turning to his look at his wife while wrapping an arm around her. Jeremiah felt a pang of jealously, not over Nancy though he was certain that she must have been beautiful when she was younger, but because the way Captain Thunder looked at his wife and she looked back reminded him of what he had lost.

“A pleasure to meet you.” Nancy said as she extended her hand. Even the normally cynical Jeremiah couldn’t doubt the sincerity in her voice.

“Nice to meet you too Ma’am, I’m Jeeeeer-Skye Raider.” He caught himself. And after a moment of awkward silence the three shared a laugh at his expense.

“I understand, I really do.” She said smiling. “We had to keep Raymond’s identity secret for years before it broke to the world who he really was. I just want to thank you for all that you’ve done for this city and its people. If not for men and women like you, my husband, and Mrs. Collins I couldn’t imagine the type of world we’d live in. Now if you’ll excuse us Skye Raider, I believe Mysteria the Magnificent is trying to get our attention. ”

…Well, that explains the grass… He thought. Mysteria was a magic wielding super based out of Salem. Turning a helipad into a garden was child’s play to a woman who could control the very fabric of reality with a spoken word. He’d never actually met the Mysteria before, but from the “water fountain” gossip of other heroes he’d heard rumors of her rather unique personality. To say that she was off her rocker was an understatement, or so they said. Still she’d done her part to protect the the Eastern Seaboard from various mystical threats for decades so Jeremiah decided she couldn’t be all bad.

Making his way through the crowd Jeremiah couldn’t help but be impressed. Perhaps five dozen heroes had come to pay their respect. Pretty evenly split between supes and masks, at least from what he could see, it was an unusually large gathering of their kind. Most either operated out of Freedom City, or like Mysteria out of other cities along the east coast. Others like Sir Galahad, the leader of the United Kingdom based Round Table, had traveled from great distances to be present. A smattering of nonheroes were also in attendance the majority of which where law enforcement officers tied to the city’s STAR program.

A specialized unit of police officers tasked with protecting the city from super powered threats the STAR officers had a rocky relationship with many of the the more destructive Supers around the city. Luckily for Jeremiah and the other masks the occasionally tense rivalry didn’t seem to include them. He suspected it had to do with an unmentioned feeling of comradery between the various vigilantes and the police. It took a lot of balls for a regular joe to confront a death-ray wielding villain or an alien monstrosity and not crack, and besides the mutual respect they had for each other the relationship benefited both sides. Too often law enforcement found itself shackled by the very laws it was trying to enforce, the stark black and white duality of the legal system hamstringing their efforts to curb crime. Masks operating in the grey area of vigilantism could strike out at threats to the city and turn over criminals and evidence to the police. The ability to “deposit” criminals to the local precinct house for processing was a blessing to masks who wouldn’t be forced to use lethal force and provided criminals a chance at rehabilitation. Jeremiah couldn’t help but be thankful for that. As the Skye Raider he had taken lives in defense of the city before and would most likely be forced to again before his time was through, but he also believed that taking a life should only be done if it was absolutely necessary to protect his own life or those of the innocent.

Making his way through the crowd Jeremiah spoke briefly with a handful of the other mourners. He only knew a few of the assembled heroes personally, but made sure to speak with those that he did. Perhaps a dozen heroes he’d never met offered their condolences to him, apparently word that he had been there when Collateral Damage struck her down had spread throughout the Freedom League, he thanked them for their kind words and moved on. Bokor the Voodoo Doctor actually hugged him leaving a particularly pungent smell lingering on Jeremiah’s outfit.

…Whelp, that’s never washing out of my leather jacket… Jeremiah thought, as he thanked the caribbean hero for his well wishes while trying to maneuver out of range of another embrace. Slipping passed Bokor he made his way to the periphery of the gathering taking a place near the edge of the roof far from the rest of mourners. Perfectly happy with his solitary position he watched the gathering of heroes from afar surprised when Officer Carmichael, one of the attending members of STAR, made his way over to talk.

They spoke briefly, with the policemen asking for Jeremiah’s take on the ‘Birdgate’ scandal as well as fishing for various details about the fight against Collateral Damage before melting back into the crowd with a mock salute and a goofy smile crossing his face.

…Classic cop… Jeremiah thought… Always looking for the missing details… He didn’t actually believe any of the information he shared would be of any use to the law enforcement officer but he wished him the best. Maybe some good would come out of their conversation though it seemed unlikely. Turning his back on the wake Jeremiah looked out over the city admiring the view.

The sun was still high in the sky. White clouds occasionally passed over the sun plunging large portions of the city center into temporary shadows. Cars passed by below and aside from a small yellow “Action 7” News Van parked just outside the front gate it seemed like life in the city moving on at its usual fast pace. With no news choppers, or any stupid hobby drones, hovering overhead hoping for a photo op Jeremiah assumed that either Mysteria, Bokor, Arcana, or one of the other magicians in attendance was using their powers of illusion to hide the superhero gathering. He was glad, this needed to be a private affair.

Lost in his thoughts Jeremiah didn’t hear the footsteps behind him. A polite cough caught his attention and he slowly turned around. A young man, probably no older than seventeen stood before him. Sharply dressed in a black suit and tie the kid cut an impressive figure for his age, while his white shirt made his ebony skin look noticeably darker than it actually was. He held his hand out, clearly intending Jeremiah to shake it.

“Skye Raider.” The youth said, a note of sadness in his voice. “I’m really glad you came.”

…That voice, I know that voice…

And then it clicked

“Crane.” He said “How you holding up?” The young crime fighter had a solid grip and despite whatever emotional pain he was experiencing he smiled when he answered.

“I’ve been better.” Crane Kick paused clearly trying to organize his thoughts before he spoke further. “Life has been…hard. Since she died, ya know? I kinda feel that without Sandy I’ve lost a big sister I never realized I had.”

“Yeah.” Jeremiah said, unsure of how to comfort this young man he knew so little about. An awkward silence filled the gulf between them. As their hands came apart.

“Hey,” Crane said suddenly. “Wanna hear some real shit?”

“Sure.” Jeremiah said, thankful for anything that would fill the unpleasant void.

“Professor Summers offered me a spot at Claremont. Said that once I graduate I can join the Freedom League.”

“Oh, yeah?” Jeremiah asked. The Claremont Academy, located just outside Freedom City in the picturesque hills of the Bayview suburb was the premier school for the “young and gifted” as the faculty referred to the student body. A collection of preteen and older supers, the kids over at Claremont where trained on site to master their powers as well as get a well rounded high school education in a private boarding school environment. It was well known in the super-community that Claremont served as an unofficial “feeder team” for the Freedom League and while Jeremiah wouldn’t go so far as to call the school child exploitation but he wouldn’t be rooting for their basketball team anytime soon.

“You thinking about taking it?” He asked, masking his own feelings as well as he could.

To his amazement the young man just laughed.

“Nah, man. I finished highschool like two years ago,” something in Jeremiah’s body language must have given away his shock as the young man laughed even harder as he continued. “Sandy said that I couldn’t sidekick for her if I didn’t do my homework. Knocked out three years of work in like two months. Pissed off so many parents when I took valedictorian away from their babies. Besides, Blackbird and You? You guys never needed some dumb boy scout troop to validate what you do. I’d rather be like you guys than like them.” He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb.

Jeremiah felt oddly proud of the young man and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Good” He squeezed the young man’s shoulder in show of support. “You’ll make one hell of a mask Crane Kick.”

“Yeah, About that…” A sad smile crossed his face “I’m actually thinking of…” before he could continue the deep voice of Captain Thunder interrupted.

“I”m sorry to interrupt and I promise to keep this short. It’s not often we are allowed to come together like this. For us to gather together as heroes, as comrades, as family. I’m sure if she were with us Sandra would be happy to see each and everyone of you.” Jeremiah winced as Captain Thunder said her name. He noticed that several other heroes scuffed their feet or averted their eyes as well. “It is…it is a tragedy that we live in such a world as this. Where young people like Sandra Collins, like Blackbird, are forced to take up arms to protect innocent lives. However, it’s also a true blessing that people like Blackbird are willing to forsake their own innocence to protect others.”

Captain Thunder paused, gathering his thoughts.

“Most of us, myself included, only knew Blackbird professionally. We knew her as a woman of incredible talents and loyalty to this city. She served as inspiration to all of us, a living example of what we should strive to be. Others…” He motioned with his right hand in the direction of Crane Kick. “Others knew a different side of Blackbird we can only guess at. To them she was a cherished loved one, friend, and mentor. You will mourn the loss of your friend not because of the persona she donned but for the person she was. However, none of us will mourn the passing of Blackbird the way the city of Freedom will.”

“Blackbird…She was a hero. A true hero. And without her to see to the defence of this city untold wrongs will go unpunished. Evil will triumph and the shadows that plague this world will grow longer. I say this not to deepen your feelings of loss, but to remind you of the charge Blackbird left to us when she was so cruelly taken from this world. It is up to us, those she leaves behind, to finish the work she started. To do anything less than that would be to dishonour her memory. It’s up to us, those who remain, to protect the city she gave her life for…” Captain was forced to stop. His deep voice cracking as he teared up.

“If you would please bow your head and join me in a quick prayer in honour of our departed comrade. I will open the floor to anyone who would like to honour the memory of Sandra Collins.”

A handful of heroes spoke after the prayer but Jeremiah tuned most of it out. Occasionally polite laughter or nods of agreement rippled through the collected heroes but most people seemed to be listening only as a matter of form. In their corner away from the rest of the gathering Jeremiah and Crane Kick spoke for a few moments longer before the young mask rejoined the rest of the assembly and shared the tale of his initial encounter with Blackbird, pulling smiles and heartfelt chuckles from the sad eyed gathering. Jeremiah was impressed at the young man’s natural charisma and decided it was probably for the best that Crane Kick didn’t plan on joining the Freedom League, as Jeremiah was sure that Crane could easily usurp the role of heir designate from Captain Thunder’s super powered son Bolt.

Once Crane Kick finished his tale and it became clear no one else would be stepping forward Captain Thunder took center stage again. Thanking everyone for their attendance he bid them to stay as long as they wanted and enjoy each others company and the refreshments.
The gathering thinned out quickly after that, though he wasn’t really surprised at the speed of the departures. Jeremiah had always said that such a small percentage of heroes, supes or masks, joined the Freedom League was because there wasn’t enough room to store the collected ego. Once the numbers had thinned out to a point where the risk of eavesdropping would be minimal Jeremiah approached Daedalus.

The Great Inventor was in deep conversation with Armory, a reformed villain turned hero who could create “living metal” which he could then mold into any variety of shapes though they almost always took the form of weapons. Jeremiah patiently waited for the ex-convict to finish what he was saying before interrupting.

“Daedalus, got a second?” He asked after catching the immortal’s attention. The inventor turned towards his conversation partner and excused himself. Promising to stop by Armory’s forge to see the latest of his creation later in the week.

“Of course, Skye Raider. How may I be of service?” Daedalus’s golden armor shined brightly in the afternoon sun making it appear as if a divine glow surrounded him. Jeremiah was thankful of the tinting on his helmets eye lenses. He wondered if the bright polish was meant to blind people in the ancient Greek’s immediate area or if it was just a coincidence.

“I wanted to ask you about the man from the other day.” Jeremiah said as two of them began to walk towards the edge of Freedom Hall’s roof.

“Man?” Daedalus asked, Jeremiah couldn’t be sure if Daedalus was trying to be coy or not and pressed forward.

“Tall guy, blond, giant axe.”

“Oh, him.” Daedalus spit out. Jeremiah was shocked, never in all their encounters had he heard such venom in the legendary man’s voice.

…I didn’t know a pronoun could be a curse word…

“He’s nothing Skye Raider, just a wandering vagabond.” Daedalus said attempting to wash his hands of the matter, but like a dog on a bone Jeremiah wasn’t quite ready to give up.

“Daedalus, come on.” He said trying his best to add as much comradery to his voice as possible. “I know we aren’t exactly best friends, but I think I know you well enough to know that whoever that guy was he got under your skin. I mean, you insulted the man’s freaking facial hair. Its pretty clear you have some history with this guy”

The immortal’s coal black eyes gave nothing away.

Jeremiah changed tactics.

“Look. I’m not trying to get in the middle of whatever bad blood is between the two of you. Whoever he is the man with the axe saved my life. You’d have spent all day mourning me alongside Blackbird if he hadn’t shown up when he did. I just want to know who I owe my continued existence to is all.”

Daedalus didn’t speak. His face showing no emotion. The blink of his eyes the only sign of life in his features. Slowly he spoke.

“That man…he is nothing, no one. A relic from the past best ignored until forgotten,” Daedalus said, his dark eyes locking on to Jeremiah’s. “Leave it alone Jeremiah.”

The use of his given name surprised Jeremiah. Who couldn’t help but look around to make sure no one heard the slip.

“He’s…” Daedalus paused…”Don’t concern yourself with him. He’s just a little man with an axe to grind.”


SparksMurphey arronhkreilick

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