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The Conceited Crusader

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There are times Jon regrets being the Eagle's official tipoff guy.

He's been summoned down to the docks in the middle of the night, told there's a showdown in the making. So far, so good. But when they first sneak into the boarded-up warehouse, Jon does a double-take, then whispers, "Hey, I think this mission might not be for me."

"Where's your sense of adventure?" hisses the Eagle. His sidekick, the actual eagle known as Junior, fluffs its feathers in indignant agreement from its perch on the costumed crimefighter's shoulder. "Your fearlessness in the face of danger?"

"I'm up for adventure!" protests Jon. "I'm even okay with a little danger! But this?" He nods to one of the swastika-emblazoned tapestries that are tacked up on all the walls. "This is really not my scene!"

"Oh, that," says the Eagle, voice low but dismissive. "Don't worry, Jon, they're not your kind of Nazi."

Before Jon can protest, they both hear the chanting.

They're coming up on a closed door that has light flickering behind it, orange and uneven, from a fire, or maybe a lot of candles. It's only the door to a catwalk that runs over the main body of the warehouse, but there's still a lone figure standing sentry, muscular with cargo pants and buzzed-short hair. It takes Jon a couple of seconds to pick out that she's a woman. The Eagle hunches his shoulders like a cat about to pounce, then waves his hand in a loose arc, and a forcefield pops into being around her.

She whips around, raising her fists in a boxing stance, and urgently scans the hall. In the dim light Jon realizes her mouth is moving, but he can't hear a word. "Soundproof?" he whispers.

"One of my favorite types to cast," murmurs the Eagle proudly. "Stay put while I tie her up."

He and Junior leap forward, feathers fluttering in the shadows, and a second field appears around all three of them. "Soundproof field number two, maybe 20 feet in diameter," says Jon softly, holding the mic right up against his lips. "Never seen him cast one that big before...okay, there we go, he's already shrinking it as he approaches. And he's airborne! She's fast — and I'm getting the sense he doesn't actually know anything about boxing — wait, Junior's dropped something on her — and she's in her own field again! Let go of the Eagle to grab for Junior. Bad move."

Sure enough, a minute later the sentry has keeled over, knocked out by whatever chemical Junior let loose to be sealed with her in an airtight bubble. The Eagle clambers to his feet, panting, and straightens his cowl before beckoning Jon forward.

"She called me a male chauvinist pig," he pouts, as he undoes the sentry's belt and uses it to lash her hands to an exposed pipe. "That's completely unfair! I was beating her up for reasons that had nothing to do with her gender."

Normally Jon would wince at that, but he kind of figures that if you're wearing a swastika on your chest, that's asking for it. "Let's just get inside."

The Eagle throws a couple of mini-forcefields up around the hinges and doorknob, and the door is whisper-silent as he pushes it open.

On the floor of the warehouse below them, ringed by boxes and crates with more Nazi banners tacked up everywhere, a dozen more women are kneeling in a circle. They're the ones chanting, surrounded by candles. Someone's drawn an elaborate chalk sigil on the floor, full of symbols and script that Jon doesn't recognize, though he doesn't think they look good.

And in the very center of the circle....

All of a sudden the Eagle shoves him backward, casting a forcefield around them both. "Change of plans!" he says, hushed, urgent. "I don't get paid enough to deal with something like this."

A wave of cold horror rushes over Jon. "You can't be serious," he hisses. "There was an infant down there! Probably one of the missing ones!"

"I am totally serious! And if you understood what they're about to summon—"

"I don't care what they're summoning!" barks Jon. "You're supposed to be a hero! Act like one!"

The Eagle goes statue-still.

Jon catches his breath and taps the pearly forcefield where it curves up over his head. "You did make this one soundproof, right?"

The costumed hero's hands tense into furious claws, but he keeps his temper, just barely. "If you don't want to make this any worse, stay here and shut up!" he snaps. The forcefield flickers off and on, leaving Jon outside of it, as he and Junior leap forward.

No time to stop and record narration now. Jon plasters himself against a wall draped in shadow and holds his breath. There's shouting from below, screams, machine-gun fire, an eagle's screech.

Then the Eagle crashes back through the doorway, his current forcefield banging against the frame. Metallic, heavy creaks and groans echo in his wake. "Jon! Are you still here?"

"Right here!"

"Great! Hold this!" He shoves the infant into Jon's arms — dark face framed by fine curls and a lemon-yellow onesie, eyes glazed, terrifyingly still — Jon doesn't have time to think before there's the searing pain of Junior landing on his shoulder, claws digging through his un-padded T-shirt — "Hold on to your seats!" cries the Eagle, a double layer of forcefields popping into existence around them, and Jon barely has a chance to drop into a sitting position on the innermost field before the whole group is crashing out the nearest window, shards of glass raining down around them.

Jon's heart is jumping out of his ribs, lungs seized so tight he couldn't breathe if he wanted to. The double forcefield soars over the docks, drops through the air, skims across the surface of the harbor in a crashing wave —

— and that's when the warehouse explodes in a titanic ball of fire.

The Eagle steers them around behind the hulk of an old World War II battleship that's now used for educational tours. Past its shadow on either side Jon can see the flames reflected on the waves, with the occasional splash from a falling piece of debris.

"Wh-what the hell was that?" pants Jon with his first breath.

"Hell," says the Eagle, like he's correcting Jon's pronunciation.

"That's what I said."

The feathered crusader slowly draws them upward, seawater dripping from the bottom of the outer forcefield as they rise. He comes to a shaky landing on the deck of the battleship, where both bubbles pop at once and he sits down heavily against a plaque describing the role of code breakers in winning the war.

"No," he intones, "I mean, it was Hell. Capital-H." He points at the flames. "That's what happens when you have the gall to summon Satan without a proper sacrifice waiting."

Jon turns frightened eyes on the infant in his arms. In the light of the high flames, he now recognizes the face from the photos they ran next to the last article on the kidnappings. "I can't tell if he's still alive," he says faintly. Breathing and pulse, if they're there, are too weak for him to feel.

The pain in his shoulder flares up again as Junior takes off, talons digging into his flesh one more time. Instead of flying over to its partner, as Jon might have expected, the bird lands in front of him and claw-walks up to his crossed legs, then rests its head against the baby's chest.

A few seconds later it raises its head, looks Jon right in the eye, and gives him a sharp nod.

"Oh, good," breathes Jon, leans back against a life preserver, and quietly passes out.