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The Devil Shovels Coal (IC)

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The Devil Shovels Coal (IC)

August 1, 2012

Freedom Hall

The invitation had come by mail to Carson O'Keefe and Tarrant McLeod, an official Freedom League dispatch that invited both of them to Freedom Hall on the morning of August 1, 2012. Though it had said nothing about their secret identities, a summons from the Freedom League to two superheroes had a special weight all its own!

It was a warm summer's day as they arrived, the streets of Freedom City were bustling with people and the usual tourists around Freedom Hall were out in full force, taking pictures and looking expectantly around for arriving heroes; though of course they had no way of recognizing most heroes if they had come without costume.


Fletcher Beaumont IV might be the rookie among the League proper, but he was still a veteran superhero. All that aside, he was nothing but polite to the Freedom League reservist who was one of the reasons they were there in the first place. "I know it's a little weird, but every place likes to welcome the new guys a little differently. Johnny had a big surprise cooked up for you and your group back in the day, but that thing with the Bee-Keeper sort of got in the way..."

He and Fleur de Joie were sitting in the small private meeting room the League reserved for inductions; the League's golden seal on the wall and its Latin motto today joined by the pictures and newspaper articles illustrating the most famous cases and adventures of the heroes Gabriel and Gaian Knight, the newest prospective members of the Freedom League.

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Tarrant had pondered long and hard on how to answer the invitation - it had arrived by mail, so it was clear they already knew who he was (which earned a rueful chuckle), but it was ultimately unlikely that the League was interested in 'Tarrant McLeod, Geology Professor' joining their ranks.

In the end, he erred toward drawing less attention: he made his appearance in plain clothes, brown slacks and a slate grey vest over lighter grey tie and a dark red shirt. His shoes were significantly less formal: true to form, he'd shunned 'nice' footwear in favor of a better pair of simple brown hiking boots. One hand was in his pocket as he entered the room, the other up at his shoulder to hold onto the strap of a large, sturdy duffle bag - it had gotten him some looks, but the invitation had apparently been enough to let him take it in. He never felt right without it nearby, anyway.

"Hah!" The wall of accolades had caught his eye as soon as he'd come through the door, and the professor's free hand went up to rub the back of his neck. "....man. That's...kind of embarrassing, actually. I didn't think I got noticed that much - I mean, the bridge thing, sure, but - aw. Tell me they don't have the picture with the cat. That wasn't dignified at all."

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Carson had been slightly surprised by the mail, but he supposed that others in the community knew who he was, and the League was generally discrete about identities if the member so desired. Besides, the sheer honor of the invitation demanded he show up for the meeting. If nothing else, Sonya might be working, and she'd give him such an earful if he snubbed the invitation for anything that wasn't an immediate emergency.

So he showed up quietly at Freedom Hall, dressed in an appropriate shirt and pants combo, eschewing a tie in the rather warm weather the city was still experiencing. He fiddled with his watch, checking the time once more before slipping past the crowd around the entrance. He spoke quietly for a moment with the front desk before heading upstairs. He arrived just as Tarrant said something about a cat-related incident that lacked dignity.

"The reporters seem to enjoy getting the "scoop" on those stories. I'm just lucky none of them caught what happened with the hot dog stand that one time."

Opting for a somewhat classical "job interview" approach, Carson walked over to Bowman and offered him a hand.

"Pleasure to meet you, sir, and a real honor to be here today. Fleur de Joie, always a pleasure."

He gave Fleur a deep nod and a winning smile before he stepped back and found a seat.

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Stesha greeted her friends and neighbors with a warm smile, just as she would've if they'd met up on Sanctuary. She was in uniform today, as was appropriate for Fleur de Joie while she was working for the Freedom League, but she'd taken off her domino mask and pushed back her cowl, leaving her head uncovered. "I'm so glad both of you could make it," she told Quentin and Carson, then chuckled. "It seems almost weird to see both of you on Prime these days. But Fletcher and I thought that for something like this, Freedom Hall was a more appropriate venue than Sanctuary. I just wish the others could have made it." She looked to Fletcher expectantly, folding her hands on the table in front of her.

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"Thank you both for coming," said Bowman IV seriously, the heir to the historic heroic legacy shaking Carson and Tarrant's hands with a firm archer's grip. He smiled, all cocky swashbuckler for a moment, at Tarrant and Gabriel's comments. "Hey, at least you didn't have your junior high prom pictures up there. I still can't believe Bowman kept those old shots," he joked. Growing more serious again, he went on, "Doctor MacLeod, Mister O'Keefe, thank you for coming. As I'm sure you know, with the League's focus on international and interstellar affairs recently, we've been looking to recruit local heroes with a solid reputation for dependability, courage under fire..." he gestured to the wall behind them, "and saving the day when it really mattered. You both have been highly recommended, from both Fleur de Joie and Freedom Angel, who unfortunately couldn't be here today, and looking into you we've found nothing but praise for you and what you've done from everyone in town. And beyond."

He took a breath and added, "Now, this isn't a formal induction ceremony, that'll have to wait until the rest of the League gets back from Argentina. But if you're interested, we'd like to offer both of you a space in the Freedom League Reserve."

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Tarrant just stood there blinking for a moment, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it became apparent that there was only the one shoe.... What. "That's...uh, wow. I don't even know what that is. I honestly hadn't expected-"

The geokinetic hero cut himself off, chuckling. "Man, listen to me. Informal or not, I'm honored, sir," he said, giving Bowman a formal nod - the bag he was still holding over his back kept him from a more cheerful bow. "I'd be more than happy to join if you want me."

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Gabriel smiled a bit, not seeming totally shocked.

"I wondered why I was getting something in the mail from the Freedom League. I can't say I expected this offer, but now that it's here, I'm not surprised."

He leaned back a bit, giving the two League members present a slightly curious look.

"Before I agree for sure, I just want to make sure I understand the basics of what being in the Freedom League Reserve entails. I trust the League, but it's a general policy of mine to understand what I'm agreeing to, out of respect for both myself, and the other party in the agreement."

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"We do want you," said Bowman with a grin to Tarrant, "but now that you mention it, you should make sure you want us, too. As a League reservist," Bowman answered Carson, "you'll be the one the League deploys when our big guns are elsewhere. That means you'll primarily, but not always, be working in the Freedom City area, since of course we'll generally go ourselves to deal with really big problems. There's a living wage that comes with it if you need it, and potentially living space in Freedom Hall; we don't want anyone in the League to go broke because they've been a hero at the wrong time. You'll have keycard access to Freedom Hall, and we'll issue you a League teleporter key." He gave both Gabriel and Tarrant a serious look at that. "All that comes with the idea that when the call comes in, you'll be ready to take action. Is this still something you want to do? There's no pressure, and we will purge our files of your names if you prefer."

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Carson leaned back in his chair, clearly thinking on the matter for several long moments. He unconsciously grasped the rosary around his neck for a few moments. Finally, he leaned forward, a confident smile on his face, and nodded.

"Yes. I agree to take on the responsibility and privilege of being of being a Reserve Member of the Freedom League. Is it safe to presume there will be a secure line of communication? One that could reach Sanctuary, if necessary?"

He nodded his head to Fleur for a moment.

"I don't know if Fleur informed you, but there is a place there I go to sometimes, as something of a "retreat". Mostly on the weekends right now. I'm hoping I can continue my tenure at the college; we can't have the next generation bereft of their education of the classics, hm?"

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Tarrant chuckled and shook his head, shifting his bag a bit on his shoulder. "Don't worry, I have no reservations about being a reserve member. If it lets us do a little more good out there, I'm fine with it - and if it unexpectedly cuts into my work, well, that's what we have TAs for."

"I do have to echo the communication question, though," he thoughtfully added, pointing to Carson. "Even if I'm not...ah, way outside normal signal range, I spend an unsurprisingly high amount of time underground, and signals don't always carry so far down there. I'm sure you guys have some pretty fancy technology, considering, but it's worth bringing up."

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Stesha smiled broadly at her friends. "I'm so glad you're going to join the team! We've been shorthanded for months, and you never know when something is going to crop up. I can't think of anyone better suited for the League than the two of you." Impulsively, she stood up and hugged them both.

"As for the communications issue, I have a comm beacon on Sanctuary that allows the League to contact me there," she told her friends. "You'll both get receivers too, patched into the same beacon, so they can reach us from Prime whenever there's need. I'm not quite as sure about underground," she admitted to Gaian Knight, "but I bet that it's something the League has dealt with in the past."

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"We use a neutrino-based vibrational frequency for subterrean communications," Bowman assured Gaian Knight. "It's the same we use when communicating with people in the Terra-King's realm, or below. It was tested down to the inner core in '03, so it should be able to reach you anywhere on, or under Earth, as long as you're not in any particularly energy-dense rocks. At least, that's how Daedalus puts it," he said, raising his hands in surrender. "He had a feeling you might ask, but I only understand about half of that. As for reaching Sanctuary, we've been calling Fleur de Joie there for years. It won't be an issue."

With both men in on the League's secret, Bowman took this opportunity to first unmask, revealing the chiseled features and playboy good looks of Fletcher Beaumont IV, one of the most eligible young bachelors in Freedom City, before he took the two new recruits on a tour of the storied structure of Freedom Hall. It was a well-built place, as one might expect, equipped with the latest in super-technology for defending Freedom City and the world. There was the Hall of Heroes of those who'd fallen along the way, Daedalus' super-equipped laboratories, Lady Liberty's library and Raven's crime lab, even Siren's personal shrine and mystic artifacts from her career as a divine champion.

"It's bad timing with those Mayan golems coming to life this week, but what can you do?" said Fletcher apologetically as they made the trip. "Fleur and I figured it was better not to wait to get the two of you on the team. Is there anything in particular you'd like to see?" he asked as they walked through the Pegasus bays.

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"Nah, it's fine," Tarrant replied, looking around with avid interest as they went. "There's something to be said for the quiet, off-hours tour - it lets you get a good appreciation for the place. As for things to see...ah. Well."

"If we're ever headed back down that way - now or later - I guess I wouldn't mind seeing what I'm guessing is a fancy geothermal tap." He grimaced a little, sounding a touch embarrassed. "I don't want to sound like I went poking around, or anything - it was just kinda hard to miss when I got near enough. I always kept my distance, but it'd be nice to see up close."

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"In our line of work, quiet and boring is good. I get enough excitement corralling college students for a theater class. And yeah, there's a lot to see. I'll have to go back and look at the memorial hall again sometime, on my own, so I don't hold up the group or anything. I guess that's one plus, eh?"

He lapsed into thoughtful silence for a moment, before continuing.

"Do you have any examples of art or anything? Probably a silly question, but hey, just curious. Beyond that, I think I might like to see the library again for just a couple minutes. Though power generators sound like they'll look cool even if I don't have a clue how they work."

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The geothermal taps turned out to be older than most technology of the day, one of the first generation of geothermal heat pumps patented in the late 1940s. "These were actually built by the first Freedom Eagle," said Beaumont as he pointed out the technical details from the small, deep underground control room, "but the League has been upgrading them ever since. Right now the original copper core is sheathed in a daka weave to draw in more heat." They're one of the few things in the building that survived the Invasion of '93 completely intact." Only Gaian Knight could perceive the deeply-driven metal structures beneath the building without the use of the monitoring equipment in the room, but it was very exciting stuff for the geologically-inclined.

Upstairs, the League had an ample library and small art gallery, mostly pictures of well-known League members over the years and the occasional production of League members with artistic talents. "The Hall is attacked enough that we don't have anything irreplaceable here," said Beaumont, glancing up at a small selection from the Centurion's personal library of Greco-Roman history. "But we do have a-FWEET FWEET, FWEET FWEET-"

First his, then Fleur's, belt communicator went off, indicating a League priority alert. Bowman shot a look at Fleur, then took a few steps to the nearby computer panel, where his access code quickly pulled up a map of the greater tri-state area, a red flashing light visible inland in New Jersey. "Looks like...one of the dimensional alarms has been triggered, out in the Pine Barrens. What do you think, Fleur, can you get us out there?" Bowman and Fleur had never fought alongside each other in a large group, but he was familiar with her capabilities. "And are you two in, Gaian Knight and Gabriel?" he added.

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Tarrant glanced up from where he was crouching; as soon as they'd pulled up the map he'd dropped his bag, opened it up, and started pulling off his tie and vest. "It'd be an awfully bad first day if we didn't," he chuckled, dropping the discarded items onto the floor next to his foot as he pulled out a familiar-looking sword and a collapsed piece of metal that was probably his breastplate. "I'm not just going to stick around here and cool my heels because I haven't gotten a communicator and a badge yet."

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In the time between Bowman looking toward Gaian Knight for just a moment, and his gaze returning to Gabriel, the latter was already clad in his silver and white "work clothes", his shining spear held firmly in his right hand. A humorless smile graced his lips.

"Like Gaian Knight said, it would be terribly rude of me if I didn't lend my talents to this endeavor. Besides, it sounds like someone's come to visit Earth Prime. We should go welcome them warmly, don't you think? Once we're there, I can do some quick aerial reconnaissance, so we know what we're up against before we face it directly."

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Fleur quickly tugged her hood up to cover her green braids, then fished her mask from her pocket and donned it. "Yes, there should be plenty of plants out that way," she assured Bowman, "it won't be a problem." She looked to her friends, grinning when she saw they were both already dressed and ready to go. "You guys are quick! Stand close, now." A touch of her fingers to the crown of tea roses in her hair had them all rocketing out of Freedom Hall, through a world of soft green light and the smell of freshly-cut grass. Seconds later, they popped back into reality on the other side of the city.

Fleur immediately began extending her senses through the plants, looking around to try and see the source of the alarm. "We don't know if there's anything hostile here," she reminded the others, "the League's alarms are simply an early warning of an unknown dimensional traveler."

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At Fleur de Joie's words, the sky seemed to tear open. A red jagged portal ripped open in the clear blue sky overhead and a sleek, malevolent-looking alien starship, bulking as large as a commuter jet, came rippling through the gateway. With its blade-like crimson lines and belching black fire from its engines, it was instantly recognizable to the Freedom City heroes as a vessel from the Terminus! Swarming the ship as it came through the gateway were some thirty or forty Omegadrones, slashing at it with their pikes as it desperately weaved to avoid them! Seconds later, the gateway snapped shut with a sound like a bolt of lightning, leaving only attacking drones and desperately manuevering ship as the melee in the air swooped overhead just a few feet above the treetops and disappeared on the other side with a thunderous boom, but no sound of explosion.

"Let's move out!" called Bowman, arrow snapping easily into his hand as he fired a shot up just in time to pierce one of the passing drones through the head, then turning and running for the nearby crash site. "We've got to get to where that thing hit and destroy those drones, fast! The alarm's down, which means that may be a runner!"

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Gabriel's eyes widened at the sight of the ship...before narrowing at the sight of Omegadrones. His face went expressionless, and when he spoke it was terse, clipped tones.

"Yes. Let's deliver some mercy to the suffering."

With that, he sped off through the air, trying not to outpace the others too much. He arrived at the crash site, quickly judging the number and position of the force of Omegadrones. He raised his spear toward the collection of entropic cyborgs and gave a warning to the others.

"I'm going to try and disorient them, perhaps deafen them. Let's see if that helps our efforts."

'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. May their souls find rest as we free them from their bodily prisons.'

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Gaian Knight took the air almost immediately, the ground under his feet opening up in mid-stride to produce a solid, earthen platform to raise him up to a better vantage point. He grimly pulled his goggles down over his eyes as he sized up the small drone swarm.

Sorry, all. He raised an arm and swept it toward the Terminus minions, fingers spread; a hundred jagged stones launched out of the solid earth to sweep past friendly targets and toward the significantly less friendly ones, like a cloud of arrows from an unseen army. From what I hear, you'd thank us for this, if you could.

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Fleur winced slightly as the Omegadrone pack was ripped to shreds, but even someone as softhearted as she knew that the drones were beyond their help or pity. Omegadrones existed only to destroy. "Get the last few," she told Bowman, even as she raised her arms in a commanding gesture. All around the ship, the ground began to shift and move, shoots erupting from the earth and growing into vines the width of a man's arm. They wrapped themselves securely around the little ship and lifted it like a toy, holding it out of reach of the drones and their deadly pikes. There were no plants inside the ship itself, leaving it a mysterious blank to the plant controller's senses.

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Bowman didn't need to be told; firing off several deft headshots via razor-tipped steel arrows that instantly struck down the last few Omegadrones like bolts from the blue. "Looks that ship's been through Hell," he said, carefully approaching the fallen Terminus craft. And indeed it had; the commuter-jet sized craft was burned to sizzling brown metal along one flank and scored in a dozen different places by power pikes. It hung gently in the vines overhead, swaying back and forth in the breeze, eerily silent and still in the all-too-clean summer's day. It had all happened so fast that the moment; the gateway, the ship, the drones, all seemed to have an air of unreality about them on such a pretty day.

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Gabriel sighed in both sadness and relief as the last Omegadrone fell.

'I am sorry we could not save any of you. Please forgive us...'

He then turned his attention to the ship suspended in the vines. He turned to the others for a moment.

"Let me see if I can talk to them. They should be able to hear me, and I them."

He floated a little closer, moving in front of the main view port (if it had one) of the vessel, and willed his spear to be a ring once more. Then he held out his hands in a gesture of peace and openness; when he spoke, all living beings in the clearing, inside and outside the ship, would hear him.

"Travelers. The Omegadrones are defeated and no longer a threat. We mean you no harm; your vessel was lifted out of battle, nothing more. Please let us speak with you; we mean you no harm. We would instead extend the hand of friendship to you. If you need time, speak, and I should be able to hear your reply."

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After a moment's pause, the door to the spaceship irised open and the man inside leaned out. He was hard to make out from that high up, wearing black and red clothes that looked like leather, his face half-hidden by the vines that shrouded the spaceship. "Thank you!" he called down below. "I never realized just how threatening drones were until a couple of thousand were chasing my ship! I was getting worried I'd have to armor up before you guys got out here, and that would have looked pretty bad, huh?" He laughed, sounding happy to have avoided such a disaster. "If one of you could lower this thing down so I can get out, that'd be great. I'm not exactly what you'd call Zandar material"

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