New Recruits (Valkyries Chapter Eleven)

 

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin

 

For two years, we quietly rebuilt the Valkyrie Order. The world continued to change and tumble further into chaos, and we continued to assemble an army to fight back. In that time span, we were able to recruit and train a lot of new fighters. It was nowhere near enough time to train them as extensively as we had been trained, but it was enough time to teach them to stay alive.

Our attack on the Council building may have been less successful than we had hoped, but our relatively low numbers did play in our favor on another front: we were able to blend in and disrupt the function and growth of the new regime with a guerilla-style quite effectively. We could send in a few fighters, have them cause a ruckus, and get out without losing a single man most of the time.

After losing two-thirds of their leadership the Twelve realized they couldn’t call themselves “the Twelve” anymore, so they changed their name to “the Horsemen.” They wanted a name that inspired fear and loyalty from their subjects, and what better way than to call yourselves by a name that invokes an image of the bringers of a biblical apocalypse?

Anyway, so the Horsemen set themselves up as the supreme governing force, but they quickly realized that in order to maintain control over the populace, they would have to keep the Tri-Council in some sort of governing capacity. The Horsemen made all the rules, but they kept the Council as their puppet. It really wasn’t going well. In fact, their takeover caused so much unrest, that they found they didn’t have enough soldiers to keep the peace. They instituted a draft program for their army, forcing young men from their homes. These men were usually stationed near where they were from so that when people from their region started getting out of hand, they would be forced to punish their friends and families.

This went over about as well as a lead balloon, so once the draft went into effect, we saw a rise in our own numbers, as some of them would escape and defect over to the resistance. In the two years after the attack on the council building, we slowly became a force to be reckoned with. While the world was falling to pieces, hope was still on the rise.

The safehouse in Dublin was our first new base of operations, but we soon outgrew it, and were forced to go looking for a new place to muster our forces. There was an old bunker outside of Seattle that we found, and we quickly were able to renovate it and make it into a functional base. It was big enough that we could house and train the majority of our forces at once. It was under these new circumstances that I found myself at the Seattle base, making my way to a strategic planning meeting with Trodaire, Tragedy, Raven, and Wade.

As everyone arrived, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the last two years had changed us all. We all seemed so much older and wearier than before. The struggles had affected us all quite heavily. Wade seemed to carry the weight of things in his expressions; he always seemed to be thinking of something else, and the stress had permanently etched itself into his face. Raven had developed a thick gray streak in her hair (which actually was pretty cool, there was just no proper time or place these days to admire such trivial things). Tragedy had changed the most, it seemed. It was more than just the lines and expressions on her face; it was the way she carried herself, her attitude, and her personality. The effort of holding the resistance together had worn her out, for sure, but it had also given her the motivation to redouble her efforts and keep pushing forward. So while it had affected her just as heavily as the rest of us, I couldn’t help but wonder what she would do with herself once the war was over. If we won, and we survived, would the current break-neck pace fully catch up with her?

I shook these thoughts from my head as we began the meeting. Tragedy straightened her jacket, adjusted her glasses, and checked the notebook in front of her.

“Alright…just a few things to discuss real quick before we get down to the meatier topics. Let’s start with…” She clucked her tongue as she ran down the list with her pen. “Uh, Wade, how are things looking out East?”

Wade sat up and cleared his throat. He shrugged. “Things are still pretty quiet. The Horsemen haven’t made any further moves or developments since the last attack. No troops have been shipped in, and obviously no bombs have been dropped, so I’d say they have turned their attention elsewhere; for now, at least, things are fine on that front.”

Tragedy nodded. “Okay, that’s good to hear…Raven, any updates from Recon?”

Raven, who was chewing gum and in the process of popping a bubble, was clearly surprised that she had been called upon. She nearly swallowed her gum, and Tragedy rolled her eyes as Raven coughed and sputtered.

“Uh, sorry…um…yeah, as far as Recon goes, we’re starting to hit a bit of a wall. Either the Horsemen are getting better at hiding their actions, or they are slowing down and making fewer moves. Very little has been observed or reported in the last several months, and things have crawled almost to a standstill in the last few weeks. They seem to be simply sitting still.”

“Any idea why that is?” Tragedy asked.

Raven pursed her lips and shook her head. “No, as far as I can tell, there is no development coming down the pipeline. It’s almost like they are just tired and taking a break.”

“Perhaps they are having internal issues that are inhibiting worldwide activities,” Trodaire proposed.

There was a collective nod at the table. “Perhaps it is time for another attack, then?” Wade asked quietly.

“No, we don’t have the numbers yet to risk an attack. Soon; am I correct in assuming we should be ready soon, Trodaire?”

The man gave a single nod in response.

“Good. Speaking of which, that is actually why I called this meeting. We have a batch of troops going through training right now that I am very interested in getting an update on.”

Trodaire took a breath. “I am immensely proud of the current batch of recruits. They are highly skilled and very intelligent; they are the most promising group I have seen yet. I fully expect to be forging more than a few pairs of blades very soon.”

“How many teams are you expecting?”

“I believe we will be able almost fully replenish our Valkyrie numbers (so fifteen new Valkyries or so), and any who do not pass the Valkyrie test will make a tremendous group of fighters in their own right. I don’t think we will have a single washout from this group whatsoever.”

“That is excellent news. As soon as those teams are ready to hit the field, we will be ready to go forward with the plan. Is everyone still on board with this?”

There was another collective nod from those at the table.

“Good. Keep up the good work; we have fought so hard to get where we are. We can see the end of the road finally; it is still a long way off, but we have a legitimate chance of turning all of this around. Don’t lose heart. You’ve done so much and come so far. Hang in there; things will get better. Now, unless anyone has anything else to say, I think this meeting can be brought to an end.”

We all stood. The news about the Horsemen backing off their attack and Trodaire having success with the new recruits was great, but we all knew that we were hanging on by a thread. One well-timed attack by the Horsemen’s army, or one unlucky break for us, and we were toast. We were doing really well, but things were still very touch and go. It was hard to enjoy the victories we were experiencing when we were always so violently aware of the immense danger we were in.

Raven walked over to me after the meeting ended.

“I see Tragedy didn’t put her golden boy on the spot today.”

“Ah, well…what can I say; there are perks to being good friends with your boss.”

She smiled. “I guess. She called on me, and I wasn’t expecting it at all; I gave her a report on Recon two days ago, so I thought she’d just pass me up. Then out of nowhere she calls me out, and I almost needed someone to give me the Heimlich.”

“I noticed. That’s what you get for being so nonchalant during an official meeting.”

“I never thought bubble gum would be my downfall,” she said, shaking her head. “But I suppose that’s the price I have to pay for being a badass. I can’t have you guys thinking that I care about anything; that would ruin years of work. I have a reputation to uphold.”

“I suppose that’s fair. I wouldn’t want you to compromise who you are for anything as trivial as the fate of the human race.”

“Exactly.” She clapped me on the shoulder as she continued, “Blazer, you just get me. I love it.”

We laughed together for a moment. “So, Blaise…what DOES Tragedy have you doing these days?”

I shrugged. “Mostly security details here and there. I will run the occasional night raid, but I haven’t even done one of those in a few months. With things being so quiet, I’ve kind of just been sitting on my ass. Not a whole lot for me to do until the recruits are ready for the test.”

“Gotcha. Kinda like the days back before all this stuff started.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ever since the whole business with the Twelve started, you were on dangerous assignments, risking your life on a daily basis. Before all this kicked us all in the ass, you were on pretty basic missions, for the most part. You had the occasional scare, but basically you were sitting around waiting for something to happen.”

“I suppose; the difference these days is I EXPECT something big to happen, as opposed to the days when I WISHED something big would happen. I seriously dread the coming of the days where I am actually needed. It seems like there is so much more at stake than there used to be.”

“I don’t see it that way; the stakes are the same. The risks are the same. I think you are more aware of the risks nowadays. Now that there is a threat that has proven it can stand up to you, you’re a little shaken. I mean, it’s understandable; the last two years have been absolute hell. We’ve all seen friends and colleagues die; way more than we imagined we ever would. We all had that nightmare where people died and there was nothing we could do about it, but I don’t think any one of us believed it was an actual possibility.

“Just keep your chin up, though. I know all this stuff is depressing and kinda scary, but this is our world. We deal with the scary stuff and laugh in its face. Someday, that’s exactly what I plan on doing to each one of the Horsemen. That’s the kind of stuff that has to carry you through, Blaise: you gotta have hope that everything you do, and everything you have done, is worth it. Because it is. Everything we do is going somewhere, and regardless of how long it takes, we will put things right in the world.”

I laughed dryly. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course I am,” she said as she winked at me. “I always am, remember?”

As she walked away, Wade and Trodaire made their way over to where I was standing.

“Hey, Blazer; Trodaire has some more good news for us.”

I turned to Trodaire as he began, “The current group of recruits are almost ready for the test. I plan on having them take it in a day or two, and then they will be ready for team formation and leadership training. If you want to make your way to the cottage within the next couple of days, we should be ready to begin.”

“Yeah, that sounds good. We’ll be there.”

“Well, gentlemen, I would love to stay and chat, but I have to get back to the cottage and get everything ready for the recruit test. I will be seeing you very soon.”

“Indeed, sir. Be safe.”

The man smirked. “Come on now, boy; let’s remember who taught YOU how to be safe and careful. I think I’ll be alright.”

As Trodaire walked away, Wade crossed his arms. “Did you ever think it would come to this?”

“Come to what, exactly?”

“You and me, training the new recruits, inducting them into the Order.”

“I guess eventually, if the job didn’t kill us first. Of course, I thought we would be older, closer to Trodaire’s age, when we got here.”

He nodded. “I guess I could never see that far down the road. I thought I’d just be in the field for the rest of my days. I never expected to be the one they all looked up to. We are to these kids what the General and Trodaire were to us when we first got inducted. They look at us like we’re superheroes.”

“I mean, I guess, in a sense, we kind of are. A century or two ago, people could only dream of doing the things we do today.”

“You know what I mean though, right? I guess what I wasn’t expecting was the…I don’t know…”

“…responsibility? The weight of such a lofty leadership role?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much hitting the nail on the head. I just always saw myself as a fighter.”

“I’m sure Trodaire did as well. He still talks like he’s just some lowly swordsmith, and yet he taught us everything as recruits. At some point, those of us who survive become the teachers. It’s the way it has to be if order is to be upheld. Don’t get me wrong, though; I still want to die with a sword in my hand and blood on my face.”

“You’re damn right.”

“What do you say we make our way out to the cottage and take a look at the fresh meat in action before the induction?”

“That sounds like a plan to me.”

So we travelled to Trodaire’s place and watched the recruits as they trained for a couple of days. Finally, the test day came, and just as Trodaire expected, all of the recruits passed, with fifteen scoring high enough to qualify for the Valkyrie Order. Afterwards, the regular soldiers and fighters were sent back to Tragedy, Trodaire set off to begin forging the new blades, and Wade and I gathered those who qualified for the Order for an induction ceremony. When they were all lined up in front of us, Wade gave a speech he had prepared.

“You fifteen have been identified as being fit to bear the title of Valkyrie. This is not a name that is passed on lightly. It carries with it the responsibility of both upholding the honor for which the Order stands, and that of protecting the citizens of this world. Right now, we are in the midst of the greatest war the Valkyrie Order has ever been a part of; we are facing the greatest threat to humankind since the Great Plague.

“You are being called upon today to stand and fight in defense of the masses. I won’t lie to you: you may not live to see brighter days. You will see battle, and soon; you will be forced to pick up your blades and fight until every ounce of strength you possess has been spent, and then some. Your road is a dangerous one, and I would not blame any one of you if you decided to back out now. There is no shame in doing the work of a foot soldier. If that is your decision, the Order will honor that; we understand that the risks we undertake as Valkyries cannot be forced upon anyone. The name of the Valkyrie Order must be taken up willingly, as once it is taken up, there is no going back.

“If there are any of you that are having second thoughts, and wish to step aside, now is the time to speak up. Once this ceremony is over, you are Valkyries until you die. Now…are there any that have decided that the life of a Valkyrie is not for them?”

There was silence, and no one stepped forward.

“Good; I believe that each and every one of you will be a fine addition to our Order. Congratulations, welcome to the finest fighting squad this world has ever seen.”

There was a roar that was surprisingly powerful that arose from the fifteen newest members of the Order. Wade continued when the cheers died down, “Alright, Blaise and I have been watching you, and we believe we know your skill sets well enough that we can form you into teams of three. Over the next few days, you will work alongside your new teammates; get to know them better than you know yourselves. Your teammates are now your family; in many ways, they are more than that, though. Your team is an extension of you. You must learn to trust each other without reservation, relying on each other more than you have ever relied upon anyone in your lives. The exercises we will be performing will teach you to anticipate their actions, and help you to rely on them as much as the very breath in your lungs.”

After Wade was finished, I said, “During this time, we will also be watching you closely to determine team leaders. We already have a fairly good idea who will be leading each team, but the final decisions will be made towards the end of the week. Once team leaders are assigned, there will be several more days of training, during which time your blades will be issued to you. After training is complete, we will all return to base, where you will continue to train until you are assigned to your first field missions.”

After forming the new teams, we spent the next three days putting them in situations where they were forced to work together. We would take them out into the forest and drop them in fifty foot holes in the ground, or we would have four teams attack one team all at once, among other exercises we remembered from our training days with the General. At the end of the third day, we picked one member from each team and assigned them the role of team leader. Once all had been chosen, we marched them right back into the woods for two more days, pushing them to their physical and psychological limits, all the while impressing upon them the weight of their responsibilities as leaders.

While we were gone, Trodaire continued to work with the remaining members, helping to fine-tune their fighting styles, skills, and use of their gifts. When we returned with the team leaders, we reunited them with their teammates and gave them a solid night’s rest before resuming team-building exercises. The next morning, we threw the teams into a brand-new scenario and stepped back to watch how they would handle themselves.

Halfway through the exercise, one of the team leaders grew incredibly frustrated with his teammates and began shouting at them and belittling them. Wade and I rushed over to him, knocking him onto his back. Kneeling down on the man’s chest, Wade called the other teams over to where we were.

“Everybody, gather around; this is important. In fact, this may be the most important thing I have to teach you.” Looking straight into the eyes of the man on whose chest he was kneeling, he said, “Why did we choose you to lead? Was it because we thought you were better than your teammates? Not at all, recruit. Not by a long shot; in fact, team leaders are generally the worst and least talented members of their teams. No, we chose you because we believe you have what it takes to bring out the best in your teammates.

“You have the ability to make them better. You can do nothing without them. They are better skilled, stronger, faster, and it seems in your case, more level-headed. As team leader, you have to learn to squelch your frustrations and figure out how to LEAD your team. Don’t abuse them; INSPIRE them.”

Wade then stood and helped the recruit up to his feet. “Fight me,” he challenged.

I tossed each of them a pair of training batons, and the recruit quickly lost. It was almost embarrassingly quick.

“Why are you fighting by yourself? Weren’t you listening to me? You can do NOTHING without them.”

The recruit turned red in the face and called his team into the fight, and as they passed me, I handed them both a pair of batons as well. With all three of them fighting, they lasted a minute or two longer, but the team leader was still fighting separately from them, so Wade was easily able to divide them and finish them off quickly. As they stood, Wade nodded to the team leader, saying, “Show them how to be better. You know the fight, and you know your team; guide them.”

The team leader huddled up with his teammates, telling them where he believed Wade was weak, and instructing them on where to strike first, and encouraging them to use their gifts. When he had finished, they lined up and attacked as one. Their first attack pushed Wade back a bit, allowing two members to encircle him, forcing him to continuously duck and spin as he fought. The battle lasted for almost ten minutes, with Wade finally knocking them all down. He was smiling and panting as he helped them all up from where they had fallen.

“That was much better. As a team, use your strengths to boost each other up; as a team leader specifically, use your strengths to improve theirs. Nice work, rookie.”

The other four teams clapped and cheered, and the training continued. Several days later, the blades were ready. There was a small ceremony as they were assigned to each new member, and afterwards we allowed the teams to celebrate a little bit. The next morning, we escorted them all back to base, thanking Trodaire for his help before we left. When we arrived, Tragedy congratulated the new members on joining the Order, and told them that she would have missions and operations for them soon, but they could all rest for a day or two until she was ready for them.

When the rookies had all left, Tragedy turned to us.

“I hate to do this to you, but I need you two back on the plane and in Dublin as soon as possible. I need you to meet up with your teams there and get caught up on whatever changes may have occurred since you left for Ukraine. Now that the teams are here, I can prep them and ship them out fairly quickly. The plan should be ready to go into effect shortly.”

And just like that, we were on our way back to Dublin.

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The Wounded Take Revenge

The next morning, we all gathered in the dining room for coffee. The morning news was on the t.v. in the background, but none of us were really paying much attention to it. We were all anxiously waiting to hear what Trodaire had to say. The man silently came into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. He paid no attention to the seven pairs of eyes pointed at him until he had finished his first cup of coffee and poured himself a second.

“We must fight back,” he said. “There is no other option. To live in hiding for the rest of our lives is a coward’s way, and I do not think any of you to be a coward. The question remains, then, of how we go about our resistance. It must be done intelligently and strategically. Our opponents have shown themselves to be very cunning and very capable; an unorganized assault would be squelched before it even began.

“Blaise, you mentioned last night that there was potentially another team that had survived the attack, correct?”

I panicked for a moment. “Shoot…in the mess of things that were going on, I forgot to try and get ahold of them.”

“Calm…be calm. There is nothing that can be done about that now, and frankly, it is completely understandable. You cannot be expected to consider everyone involved when your own life is in constant peril. What you must do is contact them. If they are alive and free, have them meet us in Dublin. Once you are sure that it is truly them, you can give them the address of the safehouse I have there. We will set up our base of operations there. I do not believe this cottage to have been compromised, but I would still prefer to keep this as a safe haven in case some other unforeseen catastrophe strikes us. We will gather there in a week’s time. I will meet you there, and we will begin to formulate a plan to strike back. In the meantime, I am going to do some research and field work on my own. I will try to get some information from some of my old contacts, and hopefully have a better idea of what we are up against. Until then, hunker down in Dublin, stay out of sight, and wait for me there.”

“I’m coming with you,” Raven said.

“No, my dear, I want you to go with the Valkyries. I will be safer if I am alone. An old man by himself will be less conspicuous than if he has a young woman at his side.”

“That’s massively sexist…”

“And yet it is still true. No one will give me a second glance, whereas if you are traipsing across Europe with me, we are more likely to be seen. We are all safer if you wait with them until the time for action comes along.”

With a “harrumph,” Raven crossed her arms and began tapping her foot. The conversation probably would have gone further, but something on the news caught our eye and captured everyone’s attention. The t.v. went fuzzy for a moment, and the morning news was replaced with an image of a long, curved table, and at the table sat twelve masked men. One of them stood and began to speak.

“Citizens of the world, we are the Twelve. We are a conglomerate of men who believe that the world is in need of a drastic change. We demand that the Tri-Council surrender their authority over to us and allow us to put the world in its proper order. If the Tri-Council does not surrender, their seats will be taken by force. We believe that they have become fat, weak, and soft in their current state, and the world has suffered greatly because of it. They have become an infection to our species; an infection that must be removed immediately.

“We have brought the Valkyrie Order to its knees. They, too, had become weak and needed to be replaced. We have taken control of various local governments and corporations, and we have built an army that is ready to wage war upon any who oppose us if a new world order is not established. It is not our desire that any blood be spilled, but if it is necessary, we are more than prepared.

“Any rebellion will be crushed without mercy. Any who wish to join our ranks, however, will be welcomed with open arms and shown just how reasonable we can be. Any remaining members of the Valkyrie Order are encouraged to join our cause. You will be given positions of authority as captains and generals, and you will be properly compensated for your contribution to society. Any of your Order who resist will be killed, and your bodies will be displayed as a warning against any further rebellion.

“We are not monsters; we believe that this transition can be accomplished without any violence. We do not wish that any would die, but that, together, we can remake the world into a place of utopian bliss. We are the Twelve; we will be heard, we will restore order, and we will not be opposed.”

Just as quickly as it began, the broadcast ended. The news returned to the screen, but the newscasters were so stunned that they could not speak. Likewise, those of us in the room sat in complete silence.

Trodaire stood and turned off the t.v. and straightened his shirt. “They are cunning, that’s for sure. They almost sound reasonable there. That is all the more reason for us to move quickly. We must stop them before they take control of the Council. These men will stop at nothing to rule the world and make its citizens their slaves. The code of the Valkyrie Order must be upheld; we must protect the people at all costs.”

Trodaire’s speech broke the spell that seemed to be holding us all. We rose, gathered our things, and left the cottage. I was able to contact Terry and tell him to meet us in Dublin. The seven of us slowly made our way across Europe. We were concerned about being spotted; Terry had told me that there were roaming groups of soldiers, turning over every rock, looking for us.

It took us several days to get there, but we finally made it to the coast and took a boat to Ireland. Terry and his team arrived mere hours after we did, and when he did, we all shut ourselves in at the safehouse. We kept a constant eye on the news, watching for any more announcements from the Twelve as we waited for Trodaire to arrive. Six days after the broadcast, Trodaire arrived with five other people. When he had reached his contacts, they all insisted that they wanted to help in any way they could. So our little army grew to sixteen.

When the newcomers had gotten situated in the house, Trodaire decided to address everyone present.

“Times are dark; I think we can all agree on that. We are up against a very powerful enemy. They use deception and guile just as easily as they use their brute force. These times make me want to trust no one, and I am already a very cautious man. However, if we are to overcome this beast, we must trust each other like never before. I have the upmost faith in every one of you. It will be an uphill battle every step of the way, but we can succeed; we MUST succeed. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say the fate of the world rests on our shoulders.

“We have two missions, in my mind. We must fight back, obviously. But we must also find Tragedy. It is possible that the Twelve did not kill her, and if she is still alive, she will be a valuable asset to us. She has led the Order for some time now, and has proved her exceptional ability to lead time and time again. If she is still alive, she is vital to this fight. If she is not, all hope is not lost. We still can overcome the Twelve. We must make a move immediately to eliminate the Twelve. We cannot take on their army as we stand, but we CAN take out their leadership. Regardless of what happens next, the road to reestablishing peace will be a long one. We must move quickly and begin the process.”

Over the next few days, we rested up and began to plan an attack. During the week between the cottage and everyone arriving in Dublin, the Twelve had taken the Tri-Council building in New York by force. They had established themselves as the ruling party, keeping the Council hostage there. We decided that our only option was to attack the building and eliminate the Twelve there. It was the only place where we knew we could find them all.

When we were ready, we made the trip back to America. We knew we had to attack them during the day, when they were all there together. On the day of attack, we lined up across the street and simply charged the front door. Sometimes insanity is the answer; the unexpected, surprise attack was our best bet, and they would least expect us to attack them in broad daylight. In theory, at least. Either way, we marched across the street for freedom.

We blasted through the front door, charging straight for the council room, cutting through anyone who stood in our way. It was surprisingly easy going at first. Once we burst through the council room doors, things got really hairy. The Twelve were seated at the table, and between us and them stood thirty armed soldiers. As we fought through them, a host of guards came pouring through the door behind us, as well as dozens jumping down from the balcony above.

Remember the training exercise with my team in the simulator? The one with the never-ending horde of opponents in the hallway? It was a lot like that. We were getting separated and cut down. Fire, lightning, and bullets flew through the air in the council room. Dianna and I made it through the horde to the Twelve, and just started going into a frenzy. While we attacked the Twelve, we were fending off attacks from behind us, as the guards kept pressing into the room.

I swung my blade at the first member of the Twelve I reached, and he just sat there, like he didn’t expect me to kill him. His head went flying, and Dianna jumped over the table, taking two down in one motion, driving her blades through their chests. She stood, and a guard came flying over the table at her, knocking her onto her back. I wasn’t able to help, as the second member of the Twelve I rushed, pulled a gun from under the table and started firing. The first shot missed me, but the second hit my left elbow, shattering the bones and causing me to drop my blade.

I chopped his gun hand off with my other sword and ran him through. When I withdrew my blade, I was pushed forward over his dead body by a wave of people rushing in behind me. I grabbed my fallen blade with my good hand and shoved in into the sheath on my back, and then stood to continue fighting. When I regained my feet, the sight before me was abysmal. Our rag-tag group of fighters was falling to pieces. In a moment, everything shifted. Wade got knocked down, and one of the soldiers with a blade, went to impale him. Lucas saw this happening and launched himself at the man, opening a hole in the wall of madness for Wade to get up and, along with Jackie and Ricky, race towards the back of the room.

Everyone but Luke was running towards the back of the room. When he hit that guard, the man had turned the tip of the blade towards Lucas, so while he had driven his blade through the soldier’s head (and the faces of everyone he subsequently bowled over), he couldn’t avoid being impaled himself. He had just enough strength to stand, withdraw the sword from his chest, and collapse. Right as he fell, I saw Trodaire running my way, slicing guards to ribbons as he passed them. He vaulted over the table and tackled me, throwing us both out the picture window behind me. What was left of our little battalion followed suit, and we all hit the ground running.

“We’ve done what we can today, Blaise; it’s time to retreat, regroup, and live to fight another day,” Trodaire said to me as he pushed me along.

We ran to the trucks we had waiting nearby and took off, driving until we were three hours outside the city. All told, we had killed eight of the Twelve, but it had cost us dearly. The only ones of our group to survive the day were Blaise, Jackie, Trodaire, and my team. There were only six of us left, and we were all beat up pretty good. We made our way to an old Valkyrie safehouse nearby to gather some bandages and food before we went back into hiding. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found it had been burned to the ground.

We got out of the truck and sifted through the wreckage, looking for anything that might have survived the carnage. At one point, Trodaire picked something up, turned it over in his hands quizzically, and walked over to us.

“I want the five of you to go back to Dublin and wait for me there. You need to rest and heal from your wounds, and I have just remembered something that I need to look into right away. No time for explanation and no room for argument. Take the truck; I’ll go on foot from here.”

With that, he tossed the keys to Ricky, who was the least injured of all of us, and took off running towards the woods. Considering we didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, the rest of us climbed back into the truck and began another secretive trip to Dublin. We spent two weeks hiding out there, our wounds healing more and more each day. By the end of the two weeks, I was almost able to use my arm again.

While we concerned ourselves with basic survival after the bloodbath at the Tri-Council building, Trodaire was off on some secret mission, and during those two weeks, we never heard from him. One day, he simply walked in the door, saying, “I have big news.” And he did, because right behind him was Tragedy.

After our initial shock at seeing her, we all clamored for an answer. Trodaire held up his hand. “Hang on, give me a moment to explain what happened. When we saw that the safehouse had been burned down, I found an old Roman Catholic cross necklace that had belonged to the General among the ashes. I used to have one as well, and we marked them individually on the back, so that we would know they were ours.

“We used to use them as a message; when we knew we would be gone before the other arrived somewhere, we would leave the cross behind, which meant for them to meet us at an old cabin the General had in Virginia. Well, considering mine was around my neck, and he had given his to Tragedy, I had a hunch that she knew about our little system. I took off, stole a car, and made my way to the cabin. I found her holed up in the back bedroom with a shotgun aimed at the door with both barrels loaded.”

At this point, Tragedy took over the story. “On the day that the Twelve took the Base, they had me locked away in one of the rooms. They were trying to get me to contact the teams in the field. I got ahold of Wade, but they didn’t find my message satisfactory, since it raised more alarm bells than tripping the laser wire at Fort Knox, so they took my phone away from me and started sending things out themselves. After they started that little riot they had going on, I was able to bust loose from the ropes they used to tie me up and escape. I didn’t think anyone else had survived the attack until I saw their broadcast a few weeks back.

“I figured you guys would make some sort of attack of your own in New York, so I went to the safehouse there. They had already torched the place, so I dropped the cross there in hopes that Trodaire would make it out alive and come find me. If he didn’t, I was on my own.”

Raven and Dianna hugged Tragedy, and she said, “There’s more to the story, though. Some of my old contacts aren’t too fond of the Twelve. They have been doing some recruiting for me, and they say they are gathering a reasonably sized group of fighters willing to stand up to the Twelve. Given what you guys accomplished a week ago, with a little training, we might just be able to cut these guys down to size.

“We have to rebuild the Order so that we can restore order. As a group, we must live up to the Valkyrie name and fight back. You lost so many in the last several weeks, but your attack on the Council building has left them crippled. You took out two-thirds of their leadership in one blow. This can be done. It’s time to rise up; you are named after angels of war, and the time has come to wage war and make the blood of these tyrants flow in the streets.”

And The Devil Leaves The Shadows (Valkyries Chapter Nine)

The next morning the five of us gathered out back as Trodaire brought out the fresh new blades. They had to cool and rest after the initial forging, so they were ready for use by the time we awoke that day. They were jet-blue, with a swirl of black sweeping its way down from hilt to tip. They had a slight curve, being almost imperceptibly wider towards the tips.

“These swords,” Trodaire began, “are an extension of you. They have been made with your gifts and fighting style in mind. They will blend with your shifting ability, as well as conduct as much electricity as you can conjure. They will work well with your adaptive style, and they can withstand any blow you are forced to block.”

He flipped the swords in the air, catching them by the blades, offering the hilts to Luke. As he took them reverently from Trodaire, the man continued, “They are very special weapons, designed to be the most deadly tools of the most deadly assassins. These swords are assassins in their own right; treat them with the respect they deserve.”

Lucas bowed his head, sheathing the blades in the scabbards he carried on his back. The man had no idea what to say; he was blown away by the entire experience.

Wade clapped him on the back. “Welcome to the Order; you’re a Valkyrie now.”

Raven giggled. “Well, he was one already, but now he has the calling card to prove it.”

Trodaire nodded slowly. “Remember, boy: I only make these blades for those whom I deem worthy. That is not something to take lightly.”

Lucas shook his head vigorously. “Of course, sir. Of course.”

“Good man; let’s get you back to Tragedy so she can put you into play. You’re a part of a bigger game now, and there’s probably a lot she needs to catch you up on.”

And so to base we returned yet again. Tragedy took Luke into the conference room where his new team was waiting. She spent a few minutes introducing them, and then left them alone to get to know each other. She walked back down the hall to her office where Wade and I were waiting.

“Thank you for going on that little excursion for me, boys. I felt it was important for him to have that experience alongside a few people he could look up to.”

“Well, I don’t know about all that, but it was a good experience. It reminded me of the day I received my blades; good memories all around,” Wade replied.

Tragedy nodded once, folded her hands, and continued, “So, back down to business. Wade, I’m working on getting something for you and your team, but for now, the only lead I have is going to be followed up by Team 1. There is an informant with whom I have been in contact in Chicago. He is a part of one of the families out there, and he has agreed to talk to you. I am unsure of what he can give us or what he knows, but any information we could get our hands on would be useful at this point.

“His name is Matthew Valentia, and he goes by ‘Grubbs.’ He will meet with you when you arrive, and depending on what he has to say, we will go from there. So, Blaise, the sooner you can get your team out to Chicago, the better.”

“Alright; I’m on it.”

“Good; you’re free to go. Wade, I’d like to talk to you a little bit more. I was wondering how well you have been healing up since the injury…”

I walked out of her office and back down to my apartment, where Dianna and Ricky were waiting for me.

“Hey, stranger; how’d it go?” Dianna asked as I walked up.

“It went well; he’s a very talented kid. I think he’ll fit in just fine on Terry’s team.”

Ricky fist-bumped me (why, I have no idea), and asked, “So did Trodaire completely own him during the sparring match?”

“Not really; Luke is a really good fighter, and he held his own for a while.”

Dianna threw her fist in the air, exclaiming, “PAY UP, LOSER!”

Ricky groaned and rolled his eyes as he pulled twenty dollars from his pocket. “Dammit…I thought for sure the kid would go down easy against the old man.”

Dianna took the money, tapped her temple, and squinted at Ricky. “You know what I

like about you? You don’t do any research before making a stupid bet. I’ll take your money all day long, McMannis. All. Day. Long.”

I looked back and forth between the two of them for a second. “If the casino is closed for the day, we’ve got work to do.”

They both perked up, and I continued. “Yeah, Tragedy wants us in Chicago to meet with another informant, ASAP.”

As they rushed off to grab their gear, I reflected on how much of my life was spent travelling. Under different circumstances, it would probably be really nice; I got to see so much of the world, always heading somewhere different. I had been to almost every country on earth at one time or another, and I had seen some beautiful places. I just happened to be there for less-than beautiful reasons. I decided instead of being so damn broody about it, I should enjoy it for the perk it was; I got to see the world, which did somewhat make up for the REASON I got to see the world. These days it was getting rather difficult to have a positive outlook on things; everything was so unsure and unsettling. I had no idea how Ricky and Dianna managed to be so upbeat all the time.

Anyway, we flew to Chicago, and we met with Grubbs at a local coffee shop.  Walking into the place, we knew it was him just by how much he was sweating. He was squealing internal secrets on his home turf; he had every right to be more than a little nervous.

We walked over to him, sat down, and ordered our coffee. We didn’t bother introducing ourselves.

“You know who we are and why we’re here, right?” I asked.

“Yeah, I owed Tragedy a favor for pulling me out of a jam some years back; I have a condition before we start though.”

“…okay…what would that be?”

“Well, word has gotten around about the Old Man. Rumor has it, he was talking to you guys just before he bit the dust. I got kids, man; I can’t have that happening to me.”

“Alright, that seems fair. We can call Tragedy as soon as we leave here and have her send out a protection team to ensure that you are left alone by whoever might want you eliminated. Our protection teams know what to look for, and after a month or two, you should be perfectly safe without their oversight.”

“You’re sure that will do the trick?”

Ricky set down his coffee. “Dude, remember who you’re talking to? We’re the best there is.”

Grubbs shivered. “That’s what I’m told, but these days, I’m not so sure.”

“What makes you say that?”

“That group the Twelve? Yeah, they’re getting more and more involved in local affairs. One of their guys has been back and forth a few times in the last month, meeting with the family heads about ‘business.’”

My team looked at me. I nodded, steepled my fingers, and asked, “Do you have any idea when he will be back in town?”

“Yeah, I figured that was what you guys would want to talk about. There’s supposed to be a big group meeting in three days. This will be the first time he meets with all of them at once, so there’s been a lot of chatter going around about it. I don’t know much, just who and when. That would be every don in the city, three days from now. If you’re here, you can’t miss it. Having all of them together in one place is going to be a big deal.”

“That’s good stuff. Any idea where they’ll be having this meeting?”

He shook his head. “Not for sure. There was talk that they were all getting together for a meal that night, but that may have just been chatter.”

“Alright, Grubbs; is there anything else you can tell us?”

“That’s pretty much it; what I know, you know.”

“Sounds good. I’ll call Tragedy on my way out the door and get that team here by tomorrow morning.”

He smiled wearily. “I appreciate that. I can’t be home with my family, looking over my shoulder all the time. The stress alone would kill me.”

“I understand; keep your nose clean, and if you have anything else for us down the line, get ahold of Tragedy.”

We shook hands and went our separate ways. I called Tragedy and asked for that detail, and told her we would be staying in Chicago to follow this lead. Then, my team and I set up shop, watching the dons as they came and went. Let’s just say it was a boring few days.

During our days of boredom, it definitely seemed like the families were excited about something. There were people in and out constantly. Nothing big happened; they were gearing up for something, so it seemed like Grubbs’ intel was good. In the evening on the third day, the dons, their wives, and their protection details all gathered together and went out to dinner. Grubbs was serious when he said it was a big deal. Eight dons, their wives, and twenty bodyguards formed a convoy and made their way over to a local restaurant. It appeared they had bought the place out, since they were the only people there.

Dinner was kind of a wash; mainly because that’s all it was. They ate, they laughed, and they had a generally good time. No business, no visitors…nothing. After dinner, they all went out to see the symphony orchestra. Ricky was quick to point out that they had whole-heartedly embraced the stereotype, having had dinner at an Italian restaurant and then going to see the symphony.

During intermission, the dons left their wives with about half of the security detail and discreetly snuck into a back room. We followed them and ducked into an adjacent room. I pulled out a listening device (some contraption the Order’s techies had put together a while back; basically you stuck the amplifier to the wall, and it transmitted the sounds to a set of earpieces…it was remarkably helpful in situations like this.) I handed out the earpieces, and Dianna and Ricky kept a watch while we all listened to what was happening on the other side of the wall.

After the men in the room settled down, there was silence for a moment. Then one of them began speaking.

“Good evening, gentlemen. Thank you all for meeting me here tonight. The Twelve send their sincerest apologies, but they had last-minute matters that they needed to attend to. I assure you that the conversation we have tonight can go on as planned, however. As their personal assistant, they have advised me on the entire matter at hand, and have sent me with a very specific message.

“My employers would like to offer you their highest praise for working so seamlessly together and staying out of trouble while still preforming business as usual. One of the issues that came up actually has to do with your less-sophisticated counterparts. The street gangs would do well to learn a thing or two from how you operate. Remaining under the radar is crucial at such an important stage in the plan as this. We have done what we can to keep the eyes of the Order off of your operations over the last few months by offering up certain…distractions.”

There was a collective chuckle from around the room, and he continued. “So news of our other endeavors has made its way around the table. Yes, we are quite pleased with the way things have played out. Now, on to business. I’m sure you don’t want to sit here all night away from your wives.

“The street gangs have been chosen to be foot-soldiers, taking the majority of the front-line casualties due to their lacking intelligence. I’m sure you agree when I say they are merely pawns in the coming stages of the game. The families here, along with the Yakuza and the Triads, have been chosen to take a more organized role in our machinations. Considering you and your men are much more loyal and far more reliable, you will make up the ‘real’ army, as it were.

“Your dignified manner puts you in a more important role in the coming days. When the plan has come to fruition, we fully intend to continue on with you as business partners, facilitating the freedom you have sought for generations in your various endeavors. Our focus right now is actually in the corporate side of things; we encourage you to continue to make friends in high places and maintain your legitimate businesses. There will be no need to branch any further into the government, as the Twelve have that side of things handled. It is imperative that you increase your influence in the corporate world and as when we make our move, that will be your reward. Business and finances will be almost entirely under your control, allowing you to improve your quality of life significantly.

“The business you obtain and continue to grow will be allowed to flourish under your supervision as long as you allow us to conduct our business with the same level of freedom. After the war is over (and it will be a short one, I assure you), we will rule the world, gentlemen. There will be no facet of the world we do not have complete control over. Society will be our footstool; to borrow an old saying, ‘the world will be our oyster.’ My employers have obtained what they were searching for in this phase of the plan, and everything is going better than expected. We are far ahead of schedule.

There was another pause in his presentation before he opened the floor to questions. One of the dons coughed, and then spoke. “When the plan reaches fulfillment, what sort of regulations will we be working under? Will there be any sort of governmental supervision for our endeavors, or will we be exempt from police intervention?”

“Ah, very good question. You see, we plan on eliminating the police force altogether, and instituting the army of the Twelve in their place. You will only work under the regulations you place upon yourselves. We expect you to continue to work together, determining territory and boundaries amongst yourselves.”

Another of the dons asked, “What do you expect from us when all this is over? Right now you require our men and our influence, but after the plan rolls out, what is your cut?”

“Well, the Twelve will request a small portion of the profits in order to continue our personal business, but the vast majority of your profits will belong to you, basically tax free.”

There was some small chatter around the room for a moment. “Sirs, it seems we have reached the conclusion of our meeting. Unless there are other concerns you would like to address or if there are any further questions, we are adjourned. My employers will be in contact with you soon with an update on the next phase of the plan.”

With the meeting over, my team and I were in a tough spot. We wanted to take this “assistant to the Twelve,” but in order to do so, we would probably have to kill just about everyone in the room. We had no idea how many guards he had in there with him, and on top of that, we had no idea what the repercussions of kidnapping him would be. We still knew next to nothing about the Twelve, so we had no clue how harshly they would react, or if they would recede back into the shadows until they were ready to use this “army” they seemed to be building.

All the men in the next room filed out, and we waited until there was no one left in the hall to slip away. Once we were out of the theatre, I called Tragedy and wired her the recording I had made of the meeting.

“Alright,” she said with more than a hint of urgency in her voice, “I think it’s high time we hunt down this other swordsmith Trodaire was talking about. We probably should have done this before, but I’m not sure that was really an option until now. If we can nab this guy, then maybe we can get out ahead of their plans. Good work; I’ll pour over that recording and see if there’s anything else we can glean from it. I’ll run it through voice-recognition and see if we can I.D. this assistant guy. Your job now is to track down Eric Carver and bring him in.”

“Sounds like a good plan; where should we start looking?”

“Let me have the research crew bring me the intel they dug up on him; hang on.” About ten minutes went by before she gave me an address in Marseilles, which was his last known address (as of four months ago.) The Order had thankfully kept a loose watch on him in the years since Tragedy took over. Time to pay him a visit and see what we could dig up.

We made it to Marseilles without incident. Exhausted from running straight from the meeting of the dons to the airport, we went straight to the closest hotel. Even with as urgent as this task was, we would be no good to anyone if we weren’t rested and on top of our game. Six hours later, we hit up the address Tragedy had given me.

The place was deserted. The back door was ajar, so we let ourselves in. The place had been ransacked; it looked like whoever HAD lived here had either left in a hurry, or they had been taken rather violently. We picked through the mess for a few minutes before gathering in the front room.

Ricky cracked his knuckles nervously. “What do you think, chief?”

I pursed my lips and furrowed my brow. “You know…I’m not sure. They either ran out of here as fast as they could, or they were ripped from this place with a vengeance. Did you see anything that tripped that sixth-sense of yours, Di?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think they left on their own. This place has been ripped apart; I think they were taken. My guess is Mr. Carver and his family have been taken by the Twelve. From what I see here, I would say he’s not working for them by choice.”

As she finished her thought, five masked men came flying down the stairs, swords pointed our direction. “Oh, come ON!” Ricky groaned.

I took a flying leap at the first one down the stairs, knocking him backwards into the man right behind him. The other three leapt over my head, engaging Ricky and Dianna. The two still on the stairs regained their balance quickly, attacking me as one. I ducked and spun to my left, swinging at the exposed backside of one of the men. He slipped just out of reach as my blade swished through the space he had just vacated.

The two of them squared off against me again, and I had to back up a few feet to keep from succumbing to the flurry of blows. I dropped down and slid beneath one of them as he swung at me, slicing the tendon on the inside of his knee as I went by. His partner realized they were going to lose the fight and he must have been a torcher, because he blasted a series of fireballs around the room, engulfing the entire area in flames.

The three facing Ricky and Dianna must have done the same thing, because within seconds, the entire house was ablaze. I grabbed the man I had cut down and dragged him out front, where I met up with my team, who had knocked on of their attackers unconscious and carried him out with them.

“Everybody alright?”

“Yeah, Blazer, we’re fine,” Ricky said.

“I guess we have the answer to our question, then,” Dianna quipped.

I wiped my brow. “Yeah, I’d say that’s a bit of an understatement. They were waiting for us…”

Ricky finished my thought, saying, “…which means they knew we would come. They’re a mile ahead of us.”

Dianna shook her head, and kicked the man I had carried out as he tried to crawl away. “But why did they only send five guys? We’ve wiped out more than this dozens of times.”

“Not lately; recently, we’ve been more evenly matched man-to-man,” I replied.

I slugged our escapee and knocked him out, and we tied up both of our unconscious prisoners. I called Tragedy and told her that we hadn’t found Carver, but we had two captives we could interrogate. She instructed us to come back to base, and she would debrief us when we arrived.

Getting two bound men through security at the airport proved to be somewhat difficult, but Ricky was able to convince the authorities that we were transporting two prisoners back to the U.S. because they were escaped criminals. In my opinion, it was one of his best acting performances ever. He kept demanding that they get the Council on the phone, and that he was going to report them for inhibiting a global matter. It worked out quite well; we rode first-class all the way home, and Tragedy herself picked us up at the airport to take us back to base.

When we arrived, Tragedy took us to the conference room. “Just stay here for a minute, and I’ll be back after I deal with our other situation.”

She then left, locking us in the room. As soon as we heard the door lock, we ran to the window and raised the blinds just in time to see half the people outside, including Tragedy herself, shift into other people and start killing the people around them. The person we thought was Tragedy smiled wickedly at us as he walked past the window. It was the most helpless I had ever felt.

We watched as what seemed like the entire Order was slaughtered right before us, and we were unable to do anything about it. The conference room was designed to be the safest place on base; the windows were reinforced bulletproof glass, the doors were six solid inches of spidersteel, the strongest material on the planet. We were trapped until they decided it was time to come and kill us as well.

After an hour, the door opened and then quickly closed. A voice from the air said, “Not to sound cliché, but come with me if you want to live. Wade sent me in to get you.”

Considering we were in no position to refuse, we went along. As we stepped out into the hall, Jackie, Wade’s shifter, came into view. She gave us a reassuring smile, and then shifted to look like one of the soldiers who had ransacked the base. She firmly escorted us right out of the building, and then broke into a run.

“Our team is right over the hill. We need to get the hell out of here; Wade can explain when we are safely away.”

We raced away from the base and over the hill, where Wade was waiting with his other team member in an SUV.

“Get in!”

“Wait!” I said as firmly as I could without yelling. “How do we know it’s you?”

Wade groaned loudly. “Uhhh…when we were in recruit training, you broke four of my ribs during a sparring match. LET’S GO!”

That was good enough for me, so I climbed into the truck, followed quickly by my team. We were ten minutes down the road before Wade started to explain what was going on.

“So, considering you were inside, I’m sure you know that the Twelve hit the Base. My team and I had been out on a short surveillance mission, a throw-away to kill some time, when I got a message from Tragedy that something had come up. No explanation, no orders, just ‘something came up.’ I decided to cut the mission short and come back, when all three of us got an Order-wide message telling all agents in the field to return to Base immediately. I got a funny feeling about it, so we parked the truck where you found us, and I sent Jackie in to scope out the situation. She came back right away and said that guys dressed like the ones we had fought on the rooftops were cutting people down left and right.

“I couldn’t believe it; we had somehow been infiltrated and taken down from the inside. I had Jackie go back inside and see if there were any survivors. She saw you wherever you were holed up and brought you back to me. Now…well, frankly, now I’m not sure what we do. I’m assuming Tragedy’s dead or taken. We need to find a place to lay low and figure this crap out.”

I nodded, taking it all in briefly before snapping into action-mode. “Okay…I know Terry’s team is out somewhere training. Hopefully we can contact them before they get back to Base and tell them to find a place to hide. We should probably get ahold of Raven and Trodaire. The Twelve may not know where they are, so we could have a safe place to hunker down and formulate a plan.”

“What about the other teams?” Dianna asked, saying out loud what we were all wondering.

“I’m…I’m not sure what to do about the other teams. I know at least half of us were at Base when this hit the fan, and who knows how many of the teams were out and responded to the message that was sent out. We have to assume that we are on our own, and hope that’s not truly the case.”

As we continued to drive, I called Raven. I gave her a brief rundown of what had happened. We agreed that the safest place for us right now was the cottage, and we would meet there to determine how to proceed. It was a very stressful journey. It took us three days, because we were doing everything we could to stay under the radar. We were constantly looking over our shoulders, expecting to see an army running after us, ready to destroy what was left of our Order.

Finally, however, we arrived. Trodaire ushered us into the dining room immediately, and when everyone was settled, I told him everything I knew, from start to finish. It took a few hours, with my fellow Valkyries adding information and telling points of the story occasionally.

“…so here we are. Our base has been compromised, our Order has been decimated, Tragedy is dead or dying, and this is the only safe haven we have in the whole world.”

Trodaire sat stroking his chin, as he had during the entire tale. His eyes darted back and forth as he thought, not really seeing what was before them; he mulled over the information for several minutes in silence before saying anything.

“Raven, get everyone a cup of tea; they have been through quite an ordeal, and they deserve some rest and comfort.”

As Raven brewed the tea, Trodaire stared at me intently, rapping his fingers against the table. He looked up at the rafters of the cottage after a while and took a deep breath.

“It seems times have suddenly become much darker than even I had anticipated. To call this a dilemma or a catastrophe would be a gross understatement. I am going to need some time to think this over before I can be of any assistance going forward.”

With that, he took his pipe and went out front. After the tea was ready, Raven served everyone and gave everyone a place to lay down for the night. Within an hour, everyone inside except for Raven and myself had passed out. Raven and I refilled our mugs and stepped out back. The sky was clear and calm, with the stars shining bright and strong against the inky blue.

“It’s almost like nothing happened,” she said after a sip of her tea.

“What?”

“Being out here, it’s so calm and quiet; it’s deceptive. You wouldn’t even know anything had happened. The world has changed drastically this week, and looking up at those stars, you would think that nothing had changed at all.”

I looked up and stared off into space. She was right; it was too quiet. It felt like there should be a disturbance in the heavens, considering how a violent rip had torn its way through the world so suddenly. Behind us, Trodaire stepped forward, puffing his pipe like a chimney.

“It could be argued,” He said, “that chaos is the way of humankind, and thus the natural state of the universe. From the perspective of the stars, nothing has changed. History is simply a collection of stories about one group of people killing another. However, this was the very reason the Order was organized to begin with. From a strategic standpoint, this is the smartest thing our opponent could have done. The problem is in making their very violent entrance to center stage, they have angered the most deadly group of individuals to ever walk the face of the earth. They no longer have the element of surprise on their side, and sooner or later, we will find them and exact a very specific type of justice.

“We simply need to formulate a plan to maximize the use of our resources. I believe I have a plan to do just that, but it will require more thought and refinement, along with a little more information about what is going on in the world and the gathering of the remaining Valkyries. In the morning, we will discuss my plan as a group, but for now, I am going to sleep.”

He turned around and walked back inside, and Raven and I followed. I placed my mug in the sink and found an empty couch on which to sleep. The days of peaceful sleep were over; peaceful or not, however, it was still necessary.

The Forge

The next morning, I called Tragedy and told her what had happened. I told her that Wade should be cleared for travel in a day or so, and that we had recovered the broken pieces of the blade that Dianna had cut in half. She said that as soon as Wade was ready for travel, we should get Team 2 back to Base, and we should take the shards to Trodaire for inspection. The next day, Wade was healthy enough to take the flight back to base. We put him on the jet with his team, and we took a commercial flight to see Trodaire.

Tragedy must have contacted Raven beforehand, because she met us at the airport and drove us to the cottage. When we arrived, Trodaire was outside, smoking a pipe while reading the newspaper. Ricky and Dianna took their things inside, and I walked over to Trodaire and shook his hand.

“A pipe, huh? Where do you even get pipe tobacco anymore? These days it seems like everything is either synthetic or vaporized.”

He took a puff off his pipe and snuffed it out. “I have a friend down the road who grows it himself; but I doubt you visited me in order to discuss my vices, correct?”

“Right down to business, then.” I pulled the two halves of the broken blade from my backpack. “We got into another scrap with some of the Twelve’s goons, and Dianna broke one of their swords. They all had them this time.”

He took the pieces from me and inspected them one at a time, humming and mumbling to himself as he did so. “I didn’t make this.”

“Well, we kind of figured that.”

“Let me finish. I didn’t make this, and that is both good news and bad news. It is good news because the blades are obviously of lesser quality than the ones carried by the Order. The bad news is they are very well crafted, and they mimic my style almost perfectly.”

“What does that mean for us?”

“Come inside; I have yet another story that all four of you need to hear.”

We went inside and sat at the table while Trodaire began his tale.

“When the General and I were first commissioned to form the Order, there was another swordsmith who worked with us for a time. He was assisting me on the design of the Valkyrie blades. He disagreed sharply with us on a number of things, and eventually we parted ways. He left before the final design was finished, but because of the knowledge he had of the Order, we kept an eye on him. By the time I retired (or I should say by the time I came here), our surveillance on him had diminished almost completely. I’m not even sure the General told Tragedy about him; he seemed to be of no threat by that time.

“He is the only other swordsmith I know of who could forge the blade you see before you. Smithing has been a dying art for centuries; it was fading even before the Great Plague. I would advise finding this man and interrogating him. My gut is telling me that the Twelve consulted him, having somehow found out who he was and what he was capable of.”

“…is that all?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you have us sit down for that? That took, like, two minutes.”

“Because I felt like sitting down in my own house; is that a problem, Blaise?”

“Well…no…I’m just surprised, is all.”

“What did you expect, for me to stand outside, take off my shirt, and spar with you while I told you a long, arduous tale?”

“Um…yes, that’s pretty much it exactly.”

“You have been spending too much time with Ricky, my boy; his imagination is rubbing off on you.”

I sat flabbergasted as the other four laughed.

“Getting back to the matter at hand, you must find that man. His name is Eric Carver. Find him and take him back to Tragedy.”

Trodaire served us dinner, and then everyone settled down for the night. I wasn’t able to sleep, so in the middle of the night, I threw on a hoodie and stepped outside to the front porch. To my surprise, Trodaire was sitting in his chair smoking his pipe, staring at the stars. I walked over next to him and gazed up at the sky. We stayed there silent for almost an hour before he repacked his pipe and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

“I have had a significant amount of trouble with my dreams of late,” he said. “Nightmares chase me from the time I lay down until I wake. The current state of the world has made me very uneasy; it feels as if we are taking a deep breath just before taking a plunge into deep, dark waters. I expect the world will become a much more dangerous place very soon. You would do well to prepare yourself, Blaise.”

I stared at the night sky a moment longer. “How would you suggest I do that?”

“Sleep would be a good start, my boy. Who knows how many peaceful nights you will have until this is all over; make the most of the ones you have and get some rest. Let us old timers stay up all night contemplating the universe. The world will soon need you well rested and at your best.”

I sighed and watched the fog from my breath slowly dissipate in the brisk air. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course I am. Go to bed; I’ll wake you if we are suddenly beset by anything other than sleeplessness in the middle of the night.”

I smiled and went back inside. After tossing and turning for a while, I fell asleep; it was a surprisingly peaceful sleep, all things considered.

The next day, we returned to Base. I had a quick meeting with Tragedy, recounting everything Trodaire had told us, and she informed me that Wade would be able to get back in the field in a few days.

“Wade’s recovery is quite timely, as I have decided on a new recruit to replace Sydney. I will need the two of you to spend the next week or so training him. When you have finished and you feel he is ready, we will evaluate him on the hangar course. If he passes his evaluation, your next field mission will be to take him to Trodaire and get him a pair of blades.”

“Yes, ma’am. Where’s Wade? I want to check in on him before I go meet the new kid.”

“Actually, he’s in the training hangar with the recruit and his team. Take your team out there, introduce yourselves, and get started. We need this kid ready to go as quickly as possible.”

“I’m on it.”

I promptly left Tragedy’s office, gathered my team, and made my way down to the training hangar. When we arrived, the image that greeted us was rather impressive. A scrawny red-headed kid was sparring with Wade’s team while Wade looked on, arms crossed. The kid was not only defending himself from every blow, but he was actually on the offensive. Now, I wasn’t sure how hard they were pushing, but for someone to take on two of the most highly trained fighters we have and hold their own….well, that’s something to sit up and take note of.

Wade saw us walk in, and called for everyone to take a break. We all walked over to Wade, who was tossing water bottles and towels to the three fighters.

“That was good; I want to see you keep your head up and continue to anticipate their moves. Be confident, but not cocky.”

The recruit nodded vigorously and took a giant swig of water.

Wade continued, “Luke, meet Team 1. Between the six of us, we intend to have you ready for your evaluation in the next few days.” Turning to me, he held up a hand and said, “I know Tragedy probably told you a week, but this kid is pretty much physically ready to start training with his team, and considering he’s been in the Valkyrie recruit program for a few years already, he’s got all the basic protocols and procedures down pat. He just needs the green light so he can get to know the team.”

At that point, the recruit stepped forward and shook all of our hands.

“Lucas Carter, Valkyries recruit, fourth year; shifter, secondary spark. It’s an honor to meet you all.”

Ricky laughed. “Dude, no need to feel honored. If you’re as good as Wade says, you’ll be at the same paygrade as the rest of us.”

Luke turned bright red. “Still…for the last four years, there has been a group of eighteen of us who have dreamed of the day when we could join the ranks with you. Our training exercises have been based on missions the six of you were involved in. Your mistakes and your successes have helped drive us all forward, and here I am with the opportunity to meet you…it truly is an honor.”

Dianna bowed her head in acknowledgement. “In that case, the honor is all ours; we don’t consider ourselves anything special, so to be so highly praised by someone as skilled as yourself is the real honor here.”

Ricky chortled. “Speak for yourself, Di; I consider myself to be exceptionally special.”

I decided to step into the conversation here before the two of them took off down THAT rabbit hole. “The pretty one is Dianna, the narcissistic one is Ricky, and I’m Blaise, team leader. Glad to meet you, and I hope to have you armed and in the company of your new team by the end of the week.”

Luke grinned from ear to ear and shook my hand again. “Sounds good to me, sir.”

Over the next two days, Wade and I put Lucas through every simulation in the system, helping him learn to adapt to ever-changing scenarios and conditions. When we didn’t have him in the simulator, we were running combat and self-defense drills with him, all of which he aced. Wade was right; this kid was more than ready for the field.

After the two days were up, we decided he was ready for his evaluation. Tragedy, Wade, the simulation instructor, and myself gathered with the recruit early in the morning on the third day in the training hangar. Tragedy, Wade, and I lined up in front of Luke while the instructor fitted him with the simulation equipment.

“Today, you will be pushed to your limits. This test does not end until you cannot carry on any longer. Your problem solving, combat skills, and covert abilities will be tested, as well as your physical fitness. You will be individually graded by the four of us, and at the end of your simulations, you will be informed of whether you have passed the benchmark or not. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Ms. Thompson.”

Tragedy cracked a small smile. “Please, call me Tragedy. We have the upmost faith in you, Lucas. Make your trainers proud and prove that you deserve to be counted among the ranks of the Valkyrie Order.”

Looking to the instructor, she asked, “Are we ready?”

He responded with a swift nod, and we made our way over to the monitors, leaving Luke in the center of the hangar. When we were all ready, the instructor called out, “Alright, you’re going to see everything digitize, and then you will see a large countdown in front of you. When it reaches zero, you may begin.”

With that, the kid was off to the races. The average time for an evaluation was around four hours. The point of the exercise was to see how long the recruit could hold out before their body gave out on them. It might seem somewhat cruel at first glance, but it was necessary; if we didn’t know how far the agents could be pushed before they went out into the field, there was no way of knowing if they would cave under pressure when they were sent out on missions.

The simulations started off fairly tame, and then increased in difficulty as time went on. The first few courses could be completed in mere minutes, while the later sims generally took half an hour or more. We watched as he fought off hordes of opponents, worked his way through various puzzles, snuck around guards, and fought his way through booby-trapped mazes. Finally, four and a half hours after he began, he stumbled. He was in the middle of a seemingly endless wave of enemies, and his right knee gave out. Just as one of the simulated attackers was making a lethal blow, the instructor ended the sim and closed the program.

Wade and I made our way over to where he had collapsed and helped him up, giving him water in the process. Wade patted him on the back and told him to take a seat by the monitors while final scores were tallied. When we had made our decisions, Tragedy again took the lead.

“Each of your evaluators will give you an overall score out of twenty, with one being the worst and twenty being the best. The highest score you can receive is an eighty, and in order to pass, you must have a score of sixty-eight or greater. Let us begin: I have given you an overall score of eighteen.”

The instructor was next, pausing to look over his score sheet once more before saying, “Eighteen as well.”

Wade crossed his arms and simply said, “Nineteen.”

It all came down to my score. All four of them stared intently at me. Even with as exhausted as he was, Luke was leaning forward, almost standing, as he awaited my answer. I sighed deeply and shook my head. I paused, perhaps for just a little bit too long, before quietly saying, “Nineteen.”

Lucas slumped back into his chair in relief as Tragedy said, “Congratulations, Mr. Carter; with a total combined score of 74, you have passed. Welcome to the Valkyrie Order.”

Wade laughed and clapped me on the back. “You’re an ass for making him wait so long.”

I grinned. “Don’t act like you would have done it any differently.”

Tragedy stepped over to Luke and shook his hand. “Mr. Carter, we will be seeing a lot more of each other in the coming days. Today, however, you have earned your rest. I will have someone escort you to your new living quarters, and tomorrow you will go with Wade and Blaise to have your weapons forged. Congratulations again.”

We lingered a while, the three of us. Luke was rather impressive; for someone who had never been in the field, he certainly seemed ready.

“Have you told the rest of the team that they have a new member coming in?” Wade asked.

Tragedy sighed. “Yes. It was rather difficult; it was absolutely necessary I get them a third member, but I know they have yet to fully come to terms with the loss of Sydney.”

I nodded. “That’s one hell of a blow, for sure. I can only imagine what it would be like to lose Di or Ricky. How did they take the news?”

“They seemed to understand. They handled themselves quite well, all things considered. They know that while I am not TRYING to replace Sydney, to some extent, that’s exactly what I have to do. There are certain dangers that come with the work we do; you all know that. It kills me to have to be so business-minded when it comes to this situation, but the world depends on the Order’s ability to carry on regardless of what tragedies may befall us.”

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown, eh?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “You have no idea.” Tragedy reopened her eyes and straightened her skirt. “You should probably go pack. I need you and Wade to take Lucas to see Trodaire first thing in the morning. When you get back, I should have something for you to do.”

“Will do. I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

I left the hangar and returned to my apartment. Packing didn’t take me too long, so when I was done, I decided to take Trodaire’s advice about enjoying the peaceful moments. I spent the early afternoon flipping through a book. At some point I must have fallen asleep, because all of the sudden, I wasn’t reading anymore.

I found myself in the middle of an empty white room. I walked to one of the walls and paced around the room, looking for a way out. After making my way around a few times, I decided there was no way out, so I sat down and waited for someone to come get me. As soon as I sat down, however, the walls around me began to shake and heave, as if they were breathing.

All at once, the walls crumbled around me, revealing a red-orange sky above, with a hill rising ahead of me. At the crest of the hill stood twelve silhouetted figures. The silence that had filled the room was replaced by the scream of jet engines and the sound of gunfire. I was enveloped in the concussive sound of explosions in the distance. The twelve figures on the hill mounted horses as lighting flashed across the bloody sky. They began to gallop towards me, and I looked around frantically for something with which to defend myself.

Finding my blades on the ground not far from my feet, I ran and snatched them up, flipping them in my hands before taking a defensive stance. I was puzzled for a moment, as the twelve horsemen had disappeared from view, when suddenly they crashed down upon me from above. One of the horses knocked me down, and as I stood again, the twelve had turned as if to take another pass at me. They paused, however, with the horses stamping and snorting. Their breath hung in the air, as the sounds of war died away and the weather sharply grew colder.

One of the riders pointed a sword at me, and in a devilish voice, he said, “War is not coming, Valkyrie; it is already on your doorstep. The streets have turned on you already, and you are no longer king. Rivers will run red with your own blood before you even raise a finger.”

I was suddenly bound in chains, and I sat on my knees with my head being forced down on a chopping block. I could see Dianna, Ricky, and Wade bound and kneeling not far from me, being forced to watch by a host of twenty or more guards. The horseman who had been speaking to me climbed down and walked over to me. He leaned in close and whispered in my ear.

“Tell me, who will save them from me when you are gone?”

He stood upright and swung his blade at my exposed neck, and just as it made contact, I awoke. I was standing on my bed, breathing heavily with my swords in my hands, and Wade was standing in my doorway.

“Whoa, killer, it’s just me. You weren’t answering your phone, and we need to get going.” He paused as I calmed down and woke up fully. “You…Are you okay, dude?”

I nodded and took a deep breath. “Yeah…let me change real quick and I’ll meet you down at the hangar.”

“Alright, sounds good.”

Wade left and I walked into the bathroom. I opened the faucet and splashed my face half a dozen times, then looked in the mirror. This whole situation was taking a bigger toll on me than I realized. The stress of waiting for something to happen was wearing me out; I was glad all-out war hadn’t broken out anywhere yet, but I almost would have preferred it.

Shaking my head to clear the thoughts from my mind, I threw on a clean set of clothes, grabbed my gear, and raced down to the hangar. Wade and Luke were talking to Tragedy, and when they saw me, they both boarded the plane. As I approached, Tragedy turned to me, rubbed my shoulder, and said, “Be safe and get back quick.”

I nodded and tried to smile, and then boarded the plane myself. As soon as we took off, I was able to fall asleep again. Thankfully it was a dreamless sleep this time. Having an episode like that on a plane could end rather poorly…

I woke up (calmly) about twenty minutes before we landed. Like last time, Raven was there to meet us at the airport. Seeing her helped lift my spirits a little bit.

“Is this the fresh blood?” she asked as we walked up.

“Yes, ma’am; Lucas Carter at your service.”

Turning to me and Wade she raised her eyebrows. “And he’s polite, too. You boys could learn a thing or two from this one. C’mon, kid; just for that, you’ve earned the shotgun seat.”

On the ride to Trodaire’s cottage, Raven told stories from our various adventures together, some embarrassing, some exciting, but all entertaining.

“Remember Abu Dhabi, Blaise?” she asked from the front seat at one point. Briefly looking to Luke, she continued, “So Blaise and his team are on assignment in Abu Dhabi a few years back, and they get into a high-speed chase through the streets. The problem is Blaise has rented some sedan, while the guy they’re chasing has some Italian freak-of-nature car that’s pulling away from him like he’s standing still. The cops got involved, and the cops down there have suped-up cars too, and they apparently didn’t even see the guy Blaise is chasing, they just see this clown tearing through their streets at a hundred miles an hour.

“Three cop cars block him in pretty quick, and during the entire chase Blaise is on the phone with Tragedy. What he didn’t know at the time was she had me in Abu as backup, and I was smart enough to sweet-talk my way into a car with a little bit of power.

“So Blaise is there pulled over and getting arrested while I’m tearing by, flipping him off and laughing the whole time. I caught up with the perp and beat the living snot out of him, tied him up, and took him back to my room. I called Dianna, who DIDN’T get arrested, and she came to keep an eye on the guy while I went and bailed Ricky and Blaise out of the slammer.

“The four of us went and hopped on the jet with the guy they were after and took him back to base. Tragedy calls us all in for the post-op briefing, and Blaise is squirming and fidgeting like nobody’s business, trying to tell Tragedy what happened without looking like a fool. I’m trying my hardest not to laugh as he gets to the end of the story, and he’s like ‘It was…um…less than ideal. The situation got away from me…’ At this point, I lost it, ‘cause Ricky pipes in and says, ‘Yeah, a lot of things got away from you.’ Oh, gosh, it was fantastic.”

Luke and Wade laughed. I must have turned beet red, because Wade looked at me and falls into a renewed fit of laughter before saying, “Hey Raven, we should change the topic; I think this is still a sore subject with Blazer back here.”

So we rolled up to Trodaire’s cottage with my three companions laughing hysterically at my expense. In all honesty, it was kind of comical, but I’d never admit that to her. I already knew I wouldn’t ever hear the end of it.

We got out of the car and went inside. Surprisingly, Trodaire wasn’t in the house, so we waited about ten minutes before he came in the back door, covered in soot.

“Sorry about the wait; I had to fire up the forge so it’s hot when I go to make my masterpiece. This must be the new recruit.”

Luke again introduced himself in his overly-polite manner, which amused Trodaire about as much as it did Raven.

“Alright, Luke, there are a few things I need to know before I start working on your blades. First off, you and I need to have ourselves a duel.”

Trodaire reached under the table and pulled out four wooden swords, tossing two to Luke. We all made our way out front, where Wade, Raven, and I sat down on the porch while Lucas and Trodaire faced off. Trodaire stuck one of his swords in the dirt behind him and tucked his left hand behind his back before he began.

He stood motionless for a minute or two before attacking Luke with lightning speed. Luke parried his blows, circling around Trodaire, trying to find a way to go on the offensive. He jumped back at one point, throwing Trodaire slightly off balance. He used that moment to knock Trodaire’s blade out of the way, striking right at his left shoulder.

At the last second, Trodaire ducked and spun the other way, swinging his blade at Luke’s now-exposed ribs. Luke dropped to his knees, the blade whistling over his head, and he hacked at Trodaire’s legs. The older man dove over Luke, tucking and rolling before coming to his feet and facing his opponent again.

Lucas stood again, taking a high guard with one blade and a low guard with the other. Trodaire laughed. “You’re learning, boy. Alright; let’s see what you’ve got.”

Luke rushed forward, never breaking his guard. Trodaire flipped his sword, knocking the low hand away, and Luke jumped up, kicking Trodaire in the chest. The two men tumbled, and in the process, Trodaire kicked one of Luke’s swords out of his hand. They stood again, and Trodaire took a fencing guard, striking repeatedly, with Luke parrying all the way.

After a few minutes of this, Trodaire tossed his sword straight up in the air, swept Luke’s feet out from under him, catching his blade as it came down, and smoothly placing in against Luke’s throat. Luke had expertly hung onto his own blade, and had the tip pressed firmly under Trodaire’s ribcage. Trodaire smiled and helped the man up.

“That was excellent, good sir; you adapted well as we went along. Now the only thing I need to know is your gifts; what are they?”

Lucas stood and between gasps, he said, “Shifter…shifter and….spark.”

Raven laughed from where she sat. “Winded already? He only used one hand!”

Luke turned red in the face, and stammered, “Have you ever fought him?! He’s a beast!”

Wade chuckled. “There’s a reason they called him ‘blade master’ back in the day. He’s the best there is.”

Lucas shook his head in amazement. “Yeah, I believe it.”

We went back inside, where Luke gulped down a few glasses of water. Trodaire went out back to the forge and got to work. The sound of clanging steel and the “whoosh” of the bellows could be heard from where we waited, with the occasional crackle of electricity and a series of strange, loud clicks here and there. The rest of the day, Trodaire spent working, coming inside just as the sun was slipping below the horizon, dripping with sweat. “They are finished,” was all he said. He then promptly went to bed.

Globetrotting, For Business (Valkyries Chapter Seven)

As soon as I walked into the main hangar, I sent Raven a quick message as promised and my team and I went in search of Tragedy. As it turns out, we didn’t have to look far, since once she heard we had arrived, she came looking for us as well. She saw us from down the hall and called out to us.

“Team 1! Get yourselves settled in and meet me back at my office in twenty minutes. Team 2 got in an hour ago and we have a briefing in twenty; I’ll roll both teams into one briefing so everyone can get all the information at once.”

We rapidly made our way to our apartments and unloaded all our gear, making it back to Tragedy’s office just behind Wade and his team. They looked rather ragged; it looked like they hadn’t slept since we were all last here. The six of us filed inside, and Wade’s team collapsed into the three chairs in front of the desk.

Tragedy was her typical self; she tied her hair up tight, folded her hands in front of her, and promptly began the meeting.

“Alright, we’ll start with Team 2. To catch Team 1 up to speed, Team 2 has been following the hit squad you ran into. Wade got a tip from an informant of his that they had been seen in Madrid. I sent them there first, and gave them the authority to follow these mysterious ‘ninjas,’ as you call them, wherever the leads took them. Wade?”

Wade sat up straight in his chair and cleared his throat. “Yeah, we got a lead that they had been seen getting off a plane in Madrid at a private airstrip. My contact said it was kind of a fluke that she saw them at all, but had heard we were looking for them. She didn’t say how she knew we were looking, she just gave us the information and pointed us in the right direction. We wound up spending a day in Madrid just waiting for them to turn up. We caught wind of them over the police band radio (thankfully Jackie knows Spanish; it all seemed like gibberish to me.)

“Anyway, we tracked them down, running across the rooftops away from the crime scene. Apparently, they paid a visit to someone working late in the capitol building, leaving a trail of bodies along the way. They left the official alive, for some reason, though. We caught up to them and fought them a while, but they were able to give us the slip. We were, however, able to get Sydney’s blades back.”

Wade pulled Sydney’s swords, swaddled in black cloth, from a baseball gear bag at his feet. He gently placed the cloth on the desk and unwrapped them, handing one of them to Tragedy for her to inspect. She looked at it for a minute, examining it from hilt to tip.

“Hmmm…it doesn’t appear to have been tampered with, but we should probably get them back to Trodaire just to be sure.” Returning her gaze to Wade, she continued, “It concerns me that these men are being so bold all of the sudden. Before, they were nothing more than a myth, on par with a campfire tale. Now, it seems they are unafraid of being noticed, and almost welcome the attention. If the Twelve know we are hunting them, we may have lost the element of surprise.

“Now, it could be that they feel unstoppable at this point, or they are about to make a big move and secrecy is no longer necessary for them. Either way, we should proceed as if they are watching for us everywhere they go; take even more care when you are out in the field. Blaise, fill us in on how things went on your end.”

“We got to the meeting place, and we were almost ambushed. Raven sprung us from the trap and took us to Trodaire’s cottage. She said that the men she fought off knew why we were there. I’m assuming they knew what we were after, and either were trying to keep us from reaching Trodaire, or they were hoping we would lead them to him. Regardless, we escaped.

“When we arrived, Trodaire told us that he knew what was going on with the Order and this whole Twelve business, and he wanted you to know he would be in touch; he wants to help out in any way he can. Also, Raven said you need to call her; she needs to have a chat with you.”

Tragedy nodded. “Well, as seemingly uneventful as that sounds, it is actually very good news. When Trodaire was with the Order, he could hunt anyone down, no matter how cold the trail might be. His input and assistance in this matter will be a great asset to us going forward. As for Raven, I knew she wouldn’t be able to keep her nose out of this one. She may be a pain in the neck at times, but she is just as valuable as any of you when it comes to field work. This puts my mind at ease, somewhat.

“I have already mapped out your next steps. Both teams will be heading to Paris. We have it on good authority that the team Wade has been tracking are stationed there for some reason. I want you to draw them out; disrupt them somehow, if you can. Try to capture them. All six of you together should stand a better chance against them than just three at a time. Until we can come up with more information, we are stuck trying to grab one of them and make them squeal. The plane is being prepped; wheels up in twenty.”

Wade looked incredulous. “We don’t get to take a nap or anything?”

“I’m sorry, there’s no time. It’s a long plane ride; you can try to catch a few hours then. That’s the best I can do for you right now. When all this settles down, I’ll give you a week’s undisturbed vacation.”

Twenty minutes later, we were tearing down the runway and hopping into the sky. The last thing anyone heard before we all passed out from pure exhaustion was Ricky muttering, “France or bust, bro; France or bust.”

Long story short, we wound up spending a week in Paris. It would have been beautiful and relaxing if we hadn’t been on the lookout for a murderous group of highly trained soldiers. We posted night watches in the sketchy parts of town, we tracked down Order contacts to try and get a lead, and we stopped the occasional street crime in progress. In a week’s time, we got nowhere; Tragedy finally called us and told us to pack up and ship off to Moscow. There had been a report of several murders there recently, with the victims bearing deep cuts all over their bodies, as if they had been tortured with a blade before being killed.

On the plane to Moscow, I found myself lost in thought. The soft “whoosh” of the air outside had lulled most of the others to sleep, so the flight was very quiet. I was turning the entire situation over in my mind. It wasn’t that long ago that the world was a fairly safe place. We knew who the bad guys were, and we knew how to handle them. Now, it felt as if we were on the brink of war. Tragedy was stressed to the max, pushing us to find the Twelve and crush them. I had my suspicions that she knew more about them than she was telling, but we had to trust her. She had never withheld any information from us before (as far as I knew, at least,) and if she felt she needed to do so now, there was probably a damn good reason.

I wasn’t sure if it was the mystery of not really knowing what we were up against, or the fact that one of our own had already been killed, but everything felt so dangerous. Every new city, every new lead, they all brought on a new feeling of morbidity and anxiousness. I kept coming back to something the General used to say to us during our training sessions; “You can’t fight what you can’t see.” We couldn’t see what we were up against; how on earth were we supposed to come out on top if we didn’t know where the punches were coming from?

What started in Moscow definitely didn’t stay there. By the time we arrived, there was an identical report in Istanbul. We got right back on the plane and resumed the chase. We spent nine days following a trail of bodies across Europe; Berlin, Rome, Kiev, and Milan. There was no way to keep up. We would never catch them if we simply followed the wreckage; we had to get out in front of them somehow.

When the wheels hit the ground in Milan, I called Tragedy. “We’re getting nowhere, boss. We’re going on a tour of mutilated bodies. Tell me you have some sort of plan to cut these maniacs off…”

“Well, there is a connection between the victims, as loose as it may be. The victims have all been connected to either the local government or big business in some way. If we are right in assuming the killings are the work of the Twelve, then we can safely say they are targeting the sources of power in Europe’s central cities. Of the largest cities in the continent, there are only a few they haven’t reached yet. London MUST be on their list, and they just haven’t gotten around to it. Go straight there and wait for them to arrive.”

“That’s great, I just have two questions: first, who or what are we looking for in London, exactly? And second, they have been really bold about their actions recently; they obviously know we are watching them. Are they setting up a trap, or are they simply being arrogant?”

“As far as London goes, start with the government. Big business there can survive a ‘thinning of the herd;’ the government would have a harder time recovering from the loss of their leadership. Where your second question is concerned, the answer is ‘yes.’ They are undoubtedly growing quite pompous, given their recent ventures. I would suspect that they have a reason for being so public and open with their violence, but if there is a trap being laid, it is not likely that it is in London. They are playing a longer game than that; they are most likely preparing for some move down the line. This is where our jobs differ, Blaise: it is your job to put out the current fire, and it’s my job to prevent any further conflagrations. When I have any information for you, you can be sure that I won’t hesitate to contact you. Until then, I need you to hunt these bastards down and cut them down like the animals they are.”

As with most of our conversations, she hung up abruptly. I had my marching orders: on to London to lay a trap for our elusive hit squad.

Travelling the world non-stop for a week and a half can be rather exhausting, so the flight to London was filled with sleep and unremembered dreams, rather than the pensive, anxious thoughts that had dogged me through the rest of the trip. Even though we were trained to go without sleep and food, and to withstand the harshest of circumstances, the jet-lag was getting to me. I welcomed the rest.

Upon our arrival, we set up shop across from the Parliament building. If our opponents were going to stick to their pattern, they would strike late in the day, just as everyone was preparing to leave. Wade and I set up three of our team members on scopes to watch the street, the near-by buildings, and Parliament itself, while the rest of us simply waited. Those of us not on watch passed the time by playing cards, sleeping, and reading. When you spend as much time on stake-outs as we do, you learn to be entertained by the most mundane things. It only gets boring if you let it; even the simplest of activities can burn hours of empty time.

For a day and a half, we sat on the rooftop, with everyone taking their shifts watching for our elusive enemies. On the second day, we finally saw something. Ricky was laying on his back staring at the sky, when suddenly he exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kidding me…Blaise, incoming.”

We all looked up, and what we saw was almost unbelievable. Six figures, all dressed in black wing suits, were soaring in towards the top of the Parliament building at screaming speeds. We all sat perfectly still for a moment, wondering if they had seen us yet. As if to answer our unuttered question, bullets began to strike the rooftop around us.

Ricky and Dianna fired zip lines across to the building, and we sprang into action. As we zipped across the street, the winged assassins dropped their guns and fell into a collective dive in an attempt to land before we arrived. We climbed up to a flat space where we assumed they would be landing, and they cut their wings loose just as they hit the rooftop, each of them rolling into a fighting stance and unsheathing their weapons. All six were wielding short swords like ours.

The ensuing fight was one of the most intense altercations I had ever been in. Metal rang as twelve swordsmen fought with fury; lightning sprang from blade tips and fireballs raged all around. Wade and I wound up back to back at one point, and it seemed like we had been out-matched. Our opponents were faster and less conventional, putting us on a perpetual defense. Wade was fighting the leader of the group, the same man I had dueled before. I felt him leap forward as he attempted to push the man back on his heels. I followed suit, taking the offensive with a flurry of strikes and bursts of flame.

The fighters all wheeled and spun around the rooftop, and my fellow Valkyries and I slowly gained the upper hand. I kicked the man I was fighting in the chest, knocking him to the ground. As he attempted to get up, I fired off a burst of flame that burned his face right off his head. I spun around to assist my team, when things took a nasty turn.

Wade parried a strike from his opponent, and the force of the blow threw him off balance. As he regained his footing, the man slashed Wade across the chest from hip to shoulder. Wade crumpled, and the man dove backwards off the rooftop. Our remaining opponents attempted to do the same, except for the one on the other side of the roof, who was caught in a furiously close battle with Dianna.

Their swords were nothing but a blur as they fought, matching blow for blow. Her opponent noticed that his allies had abandoned him, he paused for a second, and Dianna flew into even more of a frenzy. With a scream, she swung one of her blades, a blow he barely blocked. She struck again, and cut his blade in two, and then proceeded to impale the man.

All of this happened in just a few fleeting seconds, with Dianna finishing him off as the rest of us rushed to help Wade. The four remaining assassins had launched themselves from the roof and caught hook lines from a helicopter that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. We did not have time to pursue them, and we turned all our attention to Wade. He was bleeding profusely, and he had passed out from blood loss by the time he hit the ground.

One of Wade’s teammates tore off his shirt and stuffed it into the wound. Ricky ripped open the med pack he carried in his belt and tossed Wade’s man the hemo-static salts to stop the bleeding. Pulling the shirt from the wound, he ripped the package open with his teeth. “Hang on, chief; this is gonna sting like a mother.” He poured the salts into the wound, and the bleeding stopped almost immediately. As an added side effect, Wade sat bolt-upright howling from the pain, awake and alert. As the initial pain stopped, Wade fell back, and barely conscious, he mumbled, “W-w-what the hell was that?”

Ricky leaned over him and replied, “He told you it was gonna hurt; it’s not our fault you weren’t alert when you were informed.”

With that, Wade slipped back into unconsciousness. Dianna reacted immediately.

“We have to get him to a hospital right away. Who knows what kind of internal injuries he suffered; not to mention he lost so much blood he should probably be dead already.”

Ricky repacked Wade’s injury and picked him up over his shoulder. “Thanks for that, Ms. Positivity. We could have done without someone nailing the mortality of the situation in a single sentence.” We quickly fashioned a sling to lower him to the street level. We didn’t have time to scour the rooftop and gather everything that had been dropped by our enemies before they fled, so Dianna picked up the broken pieces of the sword she had cut in half and packed them away quickly as the rest of us went over the side of the building. Once we had gotten everyone down, we made our way to the home of a near-by doctor who was a friend of the Order. He had patched most of us up at one time or another, and when we arrived, he ushered us inside without asking any questions. That was one of the reasons I trusted him (aside from the fact that Tragedy had recommended him when Ricky got banged up a few years back.) He never asked us what happened or what we were doing, aside from what he needed to know in order to treat us.

We carried Wade into the dining room, where the good doctor was clearing the table.

“We stopped the bleeding with some hemo-salts, but other than that, we haven’t touched him.”

The doctor nodded quickly. “Are there any other injuries?”

“No, he’s the only one who got majorly hurt, and that’s the only wound that we know of.”

“Good, good; I’m assuming he passed out soon after the laceration?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright. Dianna, I have blood in the cooler in the basement, along with a chart detailing the blood type of every agent in the Order. Bring me three liters of Wade’s blood type. Blaise, go to the living room closet and bring me my I.V. supplies. Ricky, go into the kitchen and get me a scotch on the rocks. This is going to be an interesting night.”

Over the next couple of hours, the doctor cleaned the wound, patching up the organs that were damaged in the fight, and gave Wade a blood transfusion. The doctor’s wife came down from the bedroom and cooked everyone dinner. The doctor and I ate in the dining room while we monitored Wade, as the others ate on the kitchen floor.

“You know, Doc, in all the years you’ve been putting us back together, I’ve never gotten your name. We’ve always just called you ‘The Doctor.’ What should we call you?”

The doctor smiled and wiped his mouth. “’The Doctor’ would be sufficient for me; however, if you feel the need to call me by a proper name, you can call me Doctor Livingstone.”

“Livingstone, huh?”

“Yes; he was another unconventional doctor, many, many years ago. Long before any of us were even born.”

“So you won’t tell me your name, then?”

He sighed and looked over to Wade’s vitals monitor. “Blaise, men are remembered by what they do, not what they call themselves. You remember me as the doctor because that is what I do; that is more than enough for me.”

“That’s an interesting thought…what do you remember me for?”

“I remember you all the same: as Valkyries. Warrior angels who dive headlong into battle in order for people like me to live our ordinary lives in peace.”

He polished off his scotch and stood. “Wade seems to be doing well after the surgery; I believe I have earned myself another drink.”

He walked into the kitchen, leaving me to ponder his words.

Trodaire (Valkyries Chapter Six)

Just in case you were wondering, we did go out for some late-night pancakes after our rooftop meeting. Interestingly enough, if we hadn’t, the Twelve very well could have slipped through our fingers again. After our meal, we decided to walk back to the hotel as opposed to take a cab. Along the way, we heard the distinct sound of running up on the rooftops above us. We looked up just in time to see several people leap across an alley between two buildings.

My team and I shared a quick glance before we launched ourselves to the tops of the restaurant district. Once we were up there, we began to give chase, with Ricky bemoaning the entire situation.

“Seriously, WHAT. THE HELL. Is it too much to ask to have something, anything, happen at ground level? What is it with all of these damn rooftop action scenes?”

Neither Dianna nor I felt the need to address his questions; he kind of had a point. We had already discussed Ricky’s shallow concerns about the job, so our attention was better spent on the situation at hand. The people we were suddenly chasing after hadn’t given us a tangible reason to run them down, but people don’t run across rooftops for no reason. It was a safe bet to assume that they were running from something, and it wouldn’t hurt to find out what it was. If they were bad guys, it was kind of our civic duty to apprehend them; if they were on our side of the law, we could probably help them get away from whatever danger they were in better than anyone else in the entire world.

After a moment, the mysterious skyline-runners realized we were behind them. Surprisingly, they stopped running and turned to face us; not in a “hey, nice to see you” kind of way, either. There were five of them, all dressed in black, wearing black masks that covered everything but their eyes. It appeared we had stumbled upon a group of ninjas…in New York…on the roof of a pizza parlor in the middle of the night. Ricky was bound to have a field day with this whole mess as soon as he caught his breath.

Anyway…our New York ninjas turned to us and withdrew weapons from the folds of their clothes. One pulled out a pair of sai, one the double kai, and two pulled out mid-length katanas. The one who appeared to be the leader of the group surprised us, however, when he withdrew his weapons. He pulled them slowly from where they were sheathed and as he did, Dianna gasped.

“Are those…?” Ricky never finished his question. There was no need. The blue-and-gold blades that he was now twirling in his hands were Sydney’s; the personalized color scheme and the signature crest of the Order near the hilt told us everything we needed to know. There was no time for an interrogation; as soon as they realized they had caught us off guard, they attacked (quite furiously, I might add.)

Five-on-three is usually a pretty easy fight for us. We take on way more people than that in our sleep. These guys were different, though; they knew what they were doing. They were trained; they attacked as one, and used their weapons expertly. Dianna and Ricky wound up back to back as they held off the main four while I took on the man holding Sydney’s blades.

Steel clanged and sparked, fighters spun and kicked, occasionally someone would grunt as a strike hit its mark or a blade struck flesh. We danced around the rooftop, with no one gaining the upper hand for quite some time. After a while, my team and I were absolutely exhausted, and we were no closer to overcoming these masked villains. Almost as one, our opponents struck with a renewed vigor, knocking me and my team to our knees. The four fighting Dianna and Ricky sped off into the night, while the leader, the one with Sydney’s blades, paused a moment.

“I don’t know who you are or why you keep getting in my way, but it would be much safer for you and your friends to steer clear of the army of the Twelve from now on,” he said over his shoulder. Then he ran away, leaving my team and I confused and out of breath.

We decided not to pursue our opponents. We didn’t know where they went or how many more of them were in the city. Since they were almost a man-for-man match for us, we couldn’t risk our lives, not while we still had information to relay to Tragedy. There would be plenty of time to hunt them down later, when we had time to prepare. We returned to our hotel and the next morning, our plane took us back to base.

We were ushered into Tragedy’s office so quickly, I’m not sure the wheels of the plane had touched the ground yet. We gave her the complete rundown of what happened in New York, and she immediately zeroed in on our altercation with the masked men.

“Army of the Twelve…are you sure that’s what he said?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well…I think it’s time we pay a visit to our friend Trodaire.”

“What does he have to do with any of this?”

“First and foremost, we’re going to need him to forge a new set of blades for the recruit we select for Terry’s team. We’re working under the assumption that Sydney has been killed, and under that premise, Terry and Kyle need a third teammate. Second, Trodaire has still not contacted the Order in quite some time, and I am concerned for his well-being, especially under the present circumstances.”

“Alright…where do we start?”

“He has a contact in Tokyo who has assisted the Order with various things in the past. He may be able to point you in the right direction.”

And just like that, we were back in the air and headed for Japan. When we arrived, there were several men waiting for us. They informed us that they had been instructed to take us to see the Rojin. They escorted us to a waiting car and drove us, in silence, to a quaint little house on the outskirts of the city. An older man was waiting for us outside. He was sitting in a chair on the front porch, contemplatively smoking a pipe. The men who had picked us up at the airport opened the car doors for us, and then led us up to the porch.

“Rojin,” one of them said as he bowed, “we have brought your guests here safely, as you have requested.”

The man nodded his head once, and replied, “Thank you, Aoto. You and Ryuki may wait inside while I converse with my guests.”

Aoto bowed again, and the two men entered the house. We stood there a moment while the Rojin looked us up and down.

“So, you are the warriors Tragedy has told me about. She says you have questions for me.”

“Yes, sir, we do. We…”

The Rojin held up a hand to silence me. “There will be plenty of time for talk soon enough; I do not, however, converse with strangers. We will become acquainted over a meal. You are just in time, too; Hiru arrived just before you did with pizza.”

The old man smirked slyly as we attempted to hide our surprise. “What, were you expecting sushi and hot sake? Believe it or not, Tokyo has some of the best pizza in the world.”

With that, we went inside to find the table set for us already, and once everyone was seated, the Rojin opened the conversation.

“I am the Rojin, as you already know. I had a name once, but when I left my old life behind, I also left behind my name. Now, I am only known as The Old Man. Many years ago, I was one of the Yakuza; I was counted in their numbers for most of my life. I eventually came to hold a very influential position within the organization. My relationship with the Valkyrie Order began with a man named Trodaire; I believe this man is the reason you have come to see me today.

“Trodaire happened to be in Tokyo during a very tumultuous time within the Yakuza. Some young members felt they could lead the organization better than those who currently held power. They set about ambushing various members of the leadership. They attacked me and my guards in one of the fresh markets I enjoy walking through in one of the small towns outside the city. They killed my guard, and they would have killed me, if it had not been for the exceptional swordsmanship and the incredible kindness of Trodaire. He saw my men and I get attacked, and he stepped in to assists us, as we were outnumbered three-to-one.

“When he had chased off my attackers, he picked me up from where I had fallen and carried me to a nearby inn. There, he nursed my wounds for several days and watched over me until I was fully healed. In those days, I came to know him as a great man, and when I had healed, I asked him if there was any way I could repay him for his kindness. He told me that he knew who I was and what I did; he said the best repayment I could give him was to make sure I never gave him a reason to regret saving my life.

“Over the next several decades, I assisted both Trodaire and your Order in numerous activities, from providing information, to providing security details, to giving housing to the wounded operatives. Now, it has been several years since I stepped down from my position in the Yakuza. My influence is not as strong as it once was, and I hear fewer stories and rumors than I did before. Yet Tragedy has informed me that I may be of some use to you still; since the tale of your misplaced blades in Chicago has made its way across the ocean and into my ears, I assume you seek the man who forged those swords you carry. Before we get into that, however, it is your turn: I must know with whom I am sharing a meal.”

My team looked at me, and I stuttered as I began, “Uh, w-well, Rojin, my name is Blaise, and this is my team. We are the premier team of Valkyries, as we stand today. The man to your left is Ricky, and the lovely lady next to him is Dianna. They are two of the best fighters on the planet, and also two of my closest friends. We have devoted our lives since we were very young to upholding justice and peace in the world. As you know, each of us wields a pair of short swords forged by Trodaire, which he individually designed for each of us. He is, indeed, the primary reason for our visit today.”

The Rojin took a bite of his pizza, and remained quiet for few minutes.

“That introduction was much shorter than mine, but I suppose I have lived quite a bit longer than you three have; I have much more to introduce than you do.” He chuckled, and continued, “I would say we have been properly introduced, nonetheless. We may now get down to business. Tell me why you are here.”

I cleared my throat and took a sip of my water before I responded. I have been in some very dangerous situations before and never felt the level of nervousness and anxiousness that I felt right then; for some reason, this man commanded more fear and respect than anyone I had ever met. It threw me off guard a little bit.

“Sir, you have heard about the operative we lost not long ago, and how his blades were recovered by the enemy. That enemy has been quite secretive about their identity and intentions, but we believe them to be the Twelve, a group long-rumored to be involved in the criminal underworld.”

I paused there, and The Old Man furrowed his brow, saying, “I have heard their name whispered before…carry on.”

“Of course…uh, well, our purpose here tonight is two-fold. First, we were wondering if you had any information on the Twelve. The second reason we came was to ask about Trodaire. We need to contact him; we need him to design a new pair of blades for a recruit soon, and we need his assistance in general. We could really use his expertise and experience right now.”

The Rojin stroked his chin. “I cannot offer you any information on the Twelve; there is nothing I could tell you that you have not heard before, of that I am certain. As for Trodaire, I have not seen or heard from him in a very long time. The last time I heard anything from him, he said he was concerned that he was being watched. He…”

Before the Rojin could finish what he was saying, the house exploded; not just a room, or part of the house, either. The entire house went from calm to exploding and being consumed in flames in the blink of an eye. We were thrown from our seats immediately, and as soon as I hit the ground, I leapt into action. The blast was over, and it had levelled a good majority of the house. What was left standing was engulfed in flame.

I pulled Dianna and Ricky from the wreckage, and we went about trying to find the Rojin and his guards in the rubble. We found the charred remains of one man not far from where we landed, and the other two we found outside, unconscious. It seemed that they had been smoking cigars and enjoying the evening air when the place went to hell (if this had been any other day, Ricky would have made a crack about how smoking usually doesn’t save lives, but this had gotten a little too serious even for his sense of humor.)

We continued to search the area, finally finding The Old Man beneath a heavy beam, coughing up blood. We attempted to lift it and free him, but he grabbed Dianna’s wrist and said, “NO! You must go, right away. Whoever did this will not be satisfied to think that the explosion accomplished the job. They will be here soon to finish off any survivors. Do not be here when that happens. Go.”

We all tried to object, but he mustered all his strength to scold us.

“GO! Do not disrespect me; do not let me die for nothing. Whoever has killed me most likely knows why you are here. Go, save yourselves, and make them pay for the mistake of leaving you alive. GO NOW!”

We reluctantly left the Rojin where he lay, running off in the direction of the city, using the heavy smoke to hide our escape. Once we reached the city limits, we found a little hole-in-the-wall where we could hide out for a few days until we could figure out what to do next. We discussed the possibility of calling Tragedy or going back to base, but our debates went nowhere. The truth was we were stalling for two reasons: we were hurt, and we were scared. These people seemed to be aware of our movements, and we were waiting for them to attack us head on. We needed to find a way to shake whoever was tracking and hunting us.

Luckily, the decision was made for us. Two days after the explosion, Tragedy called me.

“Blaise? Where the hell are you?”

“We’re holed up in some hotel in Tokyo. We’re fine, just a little banged up.”

“From the story I’ve heard, I’m somewhat surprised you’re alive. I got a call from Trodaire. He said he heard that someone took out the Rojin; levelled his house on top of him. Anyway…long story short, if you’re up for some travel, I need you on the move right away. I know where to find Trodaire.”

“Yeah, that won’t be a problem; where are we going?”

“Get on the next flight to Uman, Ukraine. Call me when you get there. “

After giving those instructions, she promptly hung up. I stared at the phone for a minute, trying to put it all together. My body was healing up pretty well, but my mind was somewhat hazy. While I tried to shake off the effects of my apparent concussion, Ricky and Dianna filled the silence.

“Well, Di, it seems our Tragedy doesn’t know how to say goodbye. She’s simply hung up on Blaise again.”

Dianna shook her head sadly. “Someone should teach that girl some manners.”

“Indeed. Maybe when we get back home, we can sign her up for those classes princesses used to have to take back in the day.”

Dianna laughed. “The ‘how to be a lady’ classes? I’m not sure she’d go for that.”

“Hey, you never know. Besides, I think she’s due for an intervention for to her lack of manners. Call it a ‘polite-ervention,’ if you will.”

Dianna rolled her eyes. By that point, I had pulled myself together.

“Alright, team, let’s roll. We need to get ourselves to Uman as quickly as we can.”

Dianna looked at me quizzically. “Uman? Ukraine? Why, what’s in Ukraine?”

“Trodaire.”

Without another word, we packed up our things and made our way to the airport. Less than twenty four hours later, we were on the ground in Uman. Getting outside the airport, I called Tragedy, who said that someone would meet us at a local fresh market down the street. We walked over to where we were supposed to meet our contact, and began browsing through what was being sold. We had no idea who we were supposed to meet, so our best option was to hang around and wait for someone to approach us.

After a while, two men walked up to us.

“Excuse me, have you found what you are looking for?” asked one of the strangers.

I shook my head. “No, we’re just browsing the market for now.”

“I understand; however, that was not what I asked. You are waiting for someone, no? An old friend, perhaps? I have been sent to help you find what, or rather who, you seek.”

I looked at my team. Something didn’t feel right about this, but the guy seemed to know why we were there. I figured we could go along for now; if it turned out he wasn’t who we needed to see, we could get away fairly easily.

We followed our two new acquaintances out of the market, down an alley, to an SUV where two more men awaited us. As we approached the vehicle, what seemed like a black lightning bolt fell from the sky and struck down the two men who had led us along. As the figure stood up, we realized it was a woman, and she withdrew two swords from the backs of her victims. Stretching out a hand, she used her gift to throw the guns out of the hands of the other two men, and then sped forward and drove her blades straight through their chests. She quickly dislodged them, wiped away the blood, and turned to us.

My teammates both took a sharp breath, and simultaneously whispered, “Damn…”

I was stunned. “Raven?!”

She sheathed her blades, pushed her hair back off her face, and beckoned for us to follow her.

“We don’t have much time; there are more of them in the market for backup. I’ll explain later.”

We proceeded to follow her through a complicated series of twists and turns through the side streets and back alleys, finally arriving at a nondescript 4-door sedan.

“Get in; I’ll answer your questions as soon as we’re on the road.”

We climbed into the vehicle, and Raven drove off, taking us out into the countryside outside of town.

“Now, before you bombard me with unnecessary questions, let me get the bulk of the info out there; after that, you can ask me to fill in any gaps in the story. Okay, so Tragedy arranged for you to meet with Trodaire here. He has a cottage in the country here. You were supposed to meet with me; I’m not sure why Tragedy didn’t tell you that, but whatever. Trodaire heard about what happened in Tokyo, and he immediately got ahold of her; he arranged this meet-up. Trodaire wants to get involved with whatever it is you guys are mixed up in, since not only did someone steal some of his prized work, but they killed a good friend as well. Now, did I miss anything?”

We were quiet for a second. It was quite a straight-forward situation; really there were only two questions that remained unanswered.

“So, you’re the person we were supposed to meet in the market, right?”

“Yes.”

“Um…why?”

Raven sighed. “I have a functional relationship with both Tragedy and Trodaire. I was the obvious choice, in her mind.”

My team and I shared a quizzical look. “A…functional relationship? What would that be?”

“He’s my uncle.”

Ricky nodded. “That actually explains quite a lot.”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Leave it alone. I just bailed your asses out, so I think I have earned the right to pass on the usual sarcasm.”

“That’s fair. Shutting up.”

And he did; the rest of the ride was quiet. About twenty minutes later, we pulled up to a small cottage. We stepped out of the vehicle and stretched our legs for a moment before approaching the door. Stopping short of the front door, Raven called out.

“Trodaire! We’re coming inside. You can put your weapons down; the Order is with me.”

There was a short moment of silence, and then the door creaked open. A tall, dark-haired man stepped over the threshold and into the sunlight. He looked almost the same as when I had first met him, other than perhaps showing his years a little bit more. Regardless of how old he was, he still looked like he could kick all of our asses while simultaneously sipping on a cup of tea.

He stepped away from the door and crossed his arms. The hilts of his blades could be seen peaking over his shoulders, and after looking over the four of us, he withdrew one of them. Pointing it at us as he spoke, he said, “I remember each of you. Top of your classes, exceptionally skilled in swordsmanship, especially you.”

Dianna blushed almost imperceptibly as Trodaire nodded at her. He continued, “I contacted Tragedy and told her that I had heard about some of the Order’s recent operations and I believed I could be of some assistance moving forward. I don’t necessarily have new information for you to work with, but I think I can help advise you on your next move. However, before we begin that, I would assume that you are hungry, or at least would like a cup of java.”

Without waiting for a response, Trodaire turned around and walked back inside the cottage, followed quickly by Raven. I shrugged my shoulders as I looked at my team and we followed suit. Once inside, we saw that the dining room table had been arranged with various fresh fruits, cheeses, and bread. Walking to the table, Trodaire picked up a loaf of bread and tore off a chunk before tossing it to Ricky.

“The fruit is all local, the cheese comes from a friend of mine who has a dairy farm several miles down the road, and the bread is baked fresh every morning at a bakery just outside of town. It gets dropped off by the baker’s son the moment it comes out of the oven.”

Ricky ripped some from the loaf and passed it along. “It’s still warm…this is great!”

Trodaire smiled slyly. “I find the food and drink to be my favorite perk of living in the middle of nowhere; aside from living in relative safety, that is. Now, who wants coffee?”

We all raised our hands, and Raven poured five mugs. Ricky took a sip and exclaimed, “Wow! That’s fantastic; where does the coffee come from?”

Trodaire shrugged. “Columbia. It’s Folger’s, I think.”

Dianna and I tried to stifle our laughter as Ricky turned bright red in embarrassment. Once everyone had their food and drink, we settled in to talk business. Raven and Ricky hopped up on the counter, while Dianna, Trodaire, and I sat down at the table. Trodaire leaned back and absentmindedly gazed at the ceiling for a moment, tapping his lips with his forefinger. Finally, he found the words he was looking for.

“When the General and I were tasked with building the Valkyrie Order, we decided that we wanted our warriors to be honorable as well as skilled. We didn’t want ruthless assassins, we wanted a governing force that remained untainted by corruption and evil. We both felt that having our members wield swords as their primary weapon would provide a constant reminder of who they were supposed to be; the Valkyrie blades were intended to help inspire you. The blades were majestic and honorable weapons, so we hoped that they would help the men and women who carried them to be majestic and honorable as well.

“Once I felt I had perfected the forging process, I designed seven sets on sort of a prototype basis, to show to the Tri-council. At the time, we only had seven members recruited, so there was no real rush to forge more right away. The Council spent a week testing the durability of the blades, their usefulness against other weapons (particularly firearms), and how well they could blend with the various gifts. Eventually, they gave their approval. As you can see from your experience with them in the field, they are more than adequate.

“Over the years, I have obviously made many sets of Valkyrie blades. When I retired from the Order, I made sure Tragedy understood that I would still forge blades when the need arose. Since then, I have only forged two sets. One of those is in this room right now.”

He pointed his chin at Raven, who saluted the rest of us briefly.

Trodaire smiled and continued. “I have heard recently that some of my handiwork was forcefully taken from the Order. I offer my deepest condolences; I am sure the lad was quite remarkable. He was a Valkyrie, after all. My attention, however, lies on the future. You see, I have a suspicion that whoever took the blades may try to replicate them, and that is a bigger problem than it seems.”

He held up a finger to silence our questions. “While I am miffed at the thought of someone stealing a pair of my masterpieces, which were fully intended for one person in particular, I must put my pride aside and address the larger issue. Why would they keep them? They are not a practical weapon by any means for a street thug. The mafia would have no use for them, street gangs would have no idea how to utilize them…why take the blades in the first place?

“It is possible that someone was feeling pompous and mounted them above his fireplace as a memento. But…what if they seized the blades and realized that, in the right hands, they could be incredibly useful? I have been known to be a paranoid man and, as you all know, it pays to be over-cautious in this line of work. Indulge me for a moment and listen to the conspiracy theory of an old man.

“From what Raven and other friends have told me of what goes on in the underworld these days, I fear there may be an uprising on the horizon. I have heard rumors of a uniting force, bringing together various criminal enterprises, trading them money and business in exchange for joining this ‘dark alliance,’ if you will. If that is the case, this army is being trained to go up against the Order. There is a tickling in the back of my mind that tells me that they did not acquire those blades by accident or coincidence; they know that being outnumbered means nothing to you, and their guns may as well be firing jelly beans for all the good they do against you. They need to know how to take you on hand-to-hand, and that will require that their army carry swords.”

Ricky whistled. “They’re taking this back to the dark ages, man.”

I nodded. “It makes sense. We’ve been hearing more and more rumors about the ‘Twelve’ and how they are making deals with the mafia families around the States. Then there’s that guy we fought who had Sydney’s blades who said something about the ‘army of the Twelve,’ too.”

“So they ARE utilizing them…they are bound to replicate them sooner or later, then. They may have already begun to do so. It is imperative that you return to Tragedy immediately and attempt to track down the missing blades. Keep your eyes open for copies, as well. If they are manufacturing their own versions of the Valkyrie blades, I would very much like to inspect what kind of weaponry you are up against. Bring me any you may find.”

“There is another team that has been assigned to this issue as well; they are on the look-out for the stolen blades,” Dianna said.

Trodaire stroked is chin. “Good. Tragedy is a smart girl; perhaps she has already begun preparing for this possibility. When you see her, tell her I will contact her soon. I may need a sit-down with her directly in order to determine how I can best assist the Order.”

In unison, the three of us stood and said, “Yes, sir.”

Looking to Raven, he said, “You should probably get them out of here. They have work to do. You know the safest and quietest ways out of the country; since the enemy was able to track them to the market, we must assume that they will be looking intently for them in the entire region.”

Raven pursed her lips in thought. “Maybe it would be safer if they were to lay low here for a while, at least until some of the eyes start looking elsewhere?”

Trodaire sighed and shook his head. “There’s no time for that, unfortunately. The quicker they return to Tragedy, the quicker they can begin to combat the threat that is already hunting them. I think it is safe to assume that the ones who have been tracking you across the globe are the same ones you seek. By obtaining Sydney’s blades, they may have been alerted to your presence and started following your comings and goings. Whatever the case, this is a time for extreme caution. Action must be taken, so be careful. Never let your guard down, even amongst those you trust.”

We said our goodbyes and Raven led us out the door. She drove us further into the countryside, eventually reaching the next city big enough to have an international airport. When she dropped us off, she instructed us to take a flight to Rome, take a train to Florence, and then fly back to base from there.

“If anyone is following you, you’ll figure it out pretty quickly without raising too many flags with the transit monitors.”

After saying thank you and goodbye, we shouldered our bags and headed into the airport.  We started walking away, and Raven called out from behind me.

“Blaise!”

I turned around and she ran up to me. She put her hand on my shoulder and sternly looked me in the eyes. “Be careful and be quiet. Get ahold of me when you get back to base. I’m worried about you guys.”

I smiled and grabbed her hand, giving her fingers a squeeze. “Don’t worry. We’re the most dangerous humans alive; we’ll be alright.”

“I’m freaking serious, Blazer. These people seem to know where your team is all the time. Don’t let them get the drop on you.”

“Okay, I don’t plan on it. I’ll let you know when we get back.”

“Also, tell Tragedy to call me. I have a few things to talk to her about too; I would go with you, but I don’t want to leave Trodaire here by himself with all these nut jobs in town.”

“Why, you think he’s in danger?”

Raven laughed softly. “No…I think he’s a retired assassin; he’s liable to take matters into his own hands if I don’t reign him in.”

Raven walked back to the car and drove away. I caught up to my team and headed through security. At this point, I should probably take a second to explain how we got through airport security all around the world without setting off half a million alarms. The short answer is I have no idea. I’ve been told that part of the design for the Valkyrie blades and whatever other custom gear we might carry with us was coated in a material specially formulated by the Valkyrie Order to be undetectable by x-ray and bio-scanner. Basically, as long as they didn’t pat us down (which never happened anywhere in the world except Tel Aviv), we were gold. I don’t know how the stuff worked or what it was made of, but it did the trick. We never got stopped by security. Once we were through security, we began our long trek back to base. It was rather uneventful.

Rooftops and Invitations (Valkyries, Chapter Five)

For the next two days, we were basically in a hurry-up-and-wait situation. On the second day, Wade and I decided to organize a sparring session to brush up on our swordplay. Before the Valkyrie blades went missing, the training seemed pointless, but at this point, it couldn’t hurt to be on top of our game.

Wade and I paired off against each other, mainly so we could discuss the current situation while we sparred. So amidst the clanging steel, striking, and parrying, we talked.

“So, Wade…what do you think of all this hype about the Twelve?”

“Are you asking my professional opinion, or my personal one?”

“Do they come with different answers?”

“Oh, most definitely.”

“Okay…then both, I guess.”

Wade pushed off my left blade and took a new attack stance. When he struck again, he began his answer.

“First, I guess I have to give my professional opinion. Up to this point, everything we have heard about them has been back-alley hear-say. Now, we have a witness, who may or may not be reliable, who is saying he met a representative of the Twelve. He gave us no solid information on their activities other than they have some sort of deal with the mafia in Chicago. Professionally, I say they warrant nothing more than a casual investigation. We don’t have any definitive proof that they exist at all; the whole thing doesn’t have a legitimate leg to stand on.”

We spent a few moments fighting in general silence. I kept waiting for him to continue, and after a bit, I thought maybe he had forgotten we had a conversation going.

“…what would your personal opinion be?”

“Well…instincts play a big part in this job. Following the facts only gets you so far; sometimes you have to follow what your gut says. My gut is telling me that we missed them somewhere. Truthfully, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that there was someone pulling the strings behind some of the high-profile missions we’ve had to take on.

“It always felt like we were a step behind someone, and there have been a lot of days in the field where I felt like I was being watched. Combined with the fact that whoever chased off Terry’s team was better trained than anyone they’ve ever fought, I’d say the Twelve needs to be our priority. I think it’s safe to say that Tragedy feels the same way.

“I have been wracking my brain looking for some thread I should have followed. I wonder if they have been there the whole time, right under our noses. It’s possible they could be the most well hidden group of criminals on the planet, but we’re damn good at our jobs. It’s hard to believe that there wasn’t some clue or some mistake that could have revealed them to us earlier.”

“Why haven’t you said anything about your suspicions before?”

“I have. I’ve had this conversation with Tragedy a few times, and I voiced my concerns in more than a few post-op reports. I never had any solid evidence, so I didn’t feel the need to chase them down. I mean, I’m still not certain. It’s a suspicion, something that just sits in the back of my mind. If I hunted down every hunch I had, I’d spend my career chasing shadows. You know how it is; we have to pick which gut-feelings are worth following, and which ones we need to simply let go by the wayside.”

I would have nodded, but by this point, we had somehow intensified the duel to a feverish pitch that made it difficult to respond, let alone nod (besides, at that speed, he probably wouldn’t have noticed a little head-bob anyway.)

We continued to spar in silence for a few minutes, until I was able to flip Wade’s weapons from his hands. Upon doing so, I stepped back, assuming the fight had been won. Wade took that moment to kick me in the chest and sweep my legs out from under me. By the time I hit the ground, Wade had his knee in my sternum and one of my own blades pressed to my throat. He winked at me and said, “Never let your guard down, Blazer. The fight’s not over ‘til the enemy is dead or incapacitated.”

I shoved him off of me, and grumbled, “If I ever wind up in a sword fight against anyone other than you, I’ll try to remember that.”

I stood up and sheathed my swords before saying, “You know, if the Twelve are as dangerous as people keep saying they are, maybe the rumors of their secrecy are just as credible. Maybe we haven’t found any signs of them until now because they haven’t made any mistakes yet. Maybe we haven’t had anything concrete on them because they are just as good at hiding their tracks as we are at finding them?”

Wade snorted. “So what you’re saying is we’re in a massive game of hide and seek with a murderous, global criminal organization?”

He was quiet for a minute, mulling over the possibility as we watched the other pairs finish up their duels. After a moment, he nodded slowly.

“I suppose it’s possible that they haven’t come across our radar because they haven’t made a mistake. You made a key point, though, when you said they haven’t made a mistake YET. Everybody slips up at some point, and now that we are looking for it, we’ll be able to hit them hard as soon as they do.”

With that, he clapped me on the shoulder, called an end to the session, and left the training hangar. I stood there a little while longer, still thinking about it all. It seemed we were all wondering the same thing: did they already slip up and we just missed it, or were these guys better than us? We were supposed to be the best at hunting down the bad guys, and neither of those options were very flattering; in fact, they were downright dangerous. The thought sent a shiver down my spine. I shook it off the best I could and went back to my room. Perhaps a little bit of T.V. would help ease my mind…

The next morning, my team and I were summoned to Tragedy’s office.

“Team 1, I have spent the last couple of days considering what our next steps should be. As I told Blaise before, I have decided that I will continue to send the other teams out on regular missions, but you and Team 2 will be solely focused on tracking down leads and hunting down the Twelve. I have determined that they are a valid threat, and must be sought out. Your first mission will be to go to New York and talk to a mafia informant there. I want to know if the Twelve have had any interactions with the dons there like they have in Chicago. I’ve already arranged the meet up; it will be on the roof of a building downtown.”

Ricky raised his hand, and Tragedy said, “Ricky, this isn’t grade school; if you have a question, just ask it.”

“Well, this might sound kind of stupid, but…why are we meeting on a rooftop? That sounds like something from a crappy movie. I mean, if that’s the most strategic and defensible position where we can meet the guy, then sure, I’m all for it, but that kind of thing isn’t really how we operate.”

Tragedy removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose as she responded, “Well, Mr. McMannis, that is a very astute observation. In fact, I had this very discussion with our informant when he suggested the meeting place. I told him that, generally speaking, we prefer to have these types of meetings indoors; somewhere we can be both discreet and defensible. However, he refused to meet anywhere else; he said he wouldn’t feel safe anywhere other than there.”

“So we’re taking orders from our own informants now?”

“The information we are seeking is of the upmost importance. If this is the only way he feels safe enough to talk to us, then this is what we will do. We’re not taking orders, Ricky; we’re making compromises for the sake of the greater good. If he knows anything about the comings and goings of the Twelve, a little compromise is absolutely worth getting ahold of that intel.”

Ricky crossed his arms and cocked an eyebrow. “And if he knows nothing, we’ll have put ourselves in a precarious position for absolutely no reason.”

Tragedy sighed, bridged her fingers against her lips, and closed her eyes for a moment. When she reopened them, she stood up, placed her hands on her desk and leaned towards Ricky.

“I know you are concerned about the security of the scene; I would expect nothing less of you. You are professionals, trained to see every situation in terms of defense and safety. There are times, however, where in order to achieve an objective, certain risks must be taken. You are the best team I have; I wouldn’t send you into this situation if I didn’t have the upmost confidence that you will be back in this office, safe and sound, in two days’ time. I am quite certain that even if this was a set-up and you walked into a trap that the three of you would be perfectly fine. I have no lack of faith in you or your abilities. Now, the question I have for you is this: do you trust me? Because if you trust me, if you trust my judgement, then I need you on a plane straight away. The Twelve are out there somewhere, and I cannot entrust the responsibility of finding them to anyone other than you and Team 2.”

All eyes were on Ricky at this point. He leaned forward in his chair and rested his forearms on his knees, seeming to stare at his shoes for several moments. Then he sat upright again, looked Tragedy in the eye, and said one word: “Okay.”

Tragedy came around to our side of the desk and handed over the dossier on the informant as she spoke.

“Good. I’m glad you decided to continue with the mission. Now, here is all the information we have on our informant. His name is Anthony Russo, but he prefers to be called Mouse. Apparently, it’s a nickname that was given to him by one of the dons when he was younger, and he has gone by that moniker ever since.”

I nodded absent-mindedly as I flipped through the dossier quickly. After gleaning the major details from the file, I looked up and asked, “How soon do we need to be in New York?”

“I set the meeting for tomorrow night. You have the rest of the day to collect your things, familiarize yourselves with the given file, and do whatever needs to be done to prepare for the trip. I would like for you to be on a plane to the city by tonight. I’m assuming you would still like to have some time to secure the area, or at least do some recon before you meet up with Signore Mouse.”

“That sounds reasonable; I think we can do that.”

“Good; now, unless any of you had any other questions about the mission at hand, I believe we can adjourn this little meeting.”

Pausing a second in case there actually were any questions that still needed asking, she continued, “Alright, team; let’s get to work. Would you mind sending in Team 2 on your way out?”

The three of us stepped out into the hall, and we saw that at some point during our meeting with Tragedy, Wade and his team had arrived and were waiting for their turn. Dianna addressed them and said, “Tragedy’s ready for you guys now.”

“It’s about time; I was starting to fall asleep out here you guys took so long,” Wade replied.

“Important missions tend to have longer briefings; I’m sure you’ll be out in a cool five minutes, though,” Dianna shot back.

Wade smiled. “Ouch; you win this one, princess. That stings a little.”

Dianna laughed softly as she said, “You liked that, huh? Yeah, they call me the comeback queen for a reason. Good luck out there, if we don’t see you before you ship out.”

“Yeah, you guys too. This crap is getting dangerous; watch your asses.”

With that, Team 2 went in for their pre-op briefing, and we returned to our quarters to gather whatever we were going to need for a two day trip to New York. A good rule of thumb with any operation is to pack twice as much as you were going to need. In this case, we expected to be gone for two days, so I was packing clothes for four days. The reason for that was you never really knew how long these things were going to take. A mission could get messy and require laying low for a while, or you could run into something as simple as your informant had a scheduling conflict and had to change the date of the meeting. Basically, you didn’t know what you were in for, and it was always a good idea to be over prepared as opposed to being under prepared and ill-equipped.

We were all set to go pretty quick, and we were in the air headed for New York by five o’clock that evening. When we arrived, we took a cab to our hotel. Once there, we all went through our little rituals to ensure the safety of our rooms. Personally, I went through the room, inspecting every inch of the place, making sure the window was locked, checking for holes in the walls, looking in the bathroom and under the bed. I’m sure it all seems very paranoid (my inner cynic never ceases to tell me how crazy some of my habits are), but it just comes with the job. We were all a little more paranoid than your average Joe.

When we had finished settling in, we looked up the address of the place where we were meeting our informant the next night. Making our way over there, we staked out the neighborhood. We walked around the surrounding area, checked out the nearby rooftops, and finally worked our way up to the actual rooftop where the meeting would occur. Combing over it, we found nothing suspicious or unusual. As we looked for some cause for concern, I had to laugh to myself. We were essentially doing what we did in our hotel rooms on a larger scale. We were going through a place, ensuring that we knew every inch of it and we were not in any danger while we were there. I mean, it’s not necessarily funny to anyone else; I just found it kind of funny at the time.

Regardless, when we were satisfied with our search, the sun was just peaking over the horizon. Considering our meeting was after sundown, we decided to head back to the hotel and get some sleep. Or, as Ricky put it, “We should go hide from the sun like the vampires that we are.” As I lay in my bed, drifting slowly off to sleep, I wasn’t worried or anxious like I had been lately. Now that we had a potential lead on the Twelve, the only thought on my weary mind was “I hope we can get something useful out of this guy. The sooner we pin these guys down, the sooner we can stop chasing down leads and get back to REAL work…”

 

“…All I’m saying is we spend a lot more time on the top of tall buildings in the middle of the night than I’m comfortable with.”

Dianna rubbed her arms, trying to keep away the chill as she continued, “And why do we always do this stuff in the most densely populated areas on the planet? Would it kill Tragedy to send us someplace where we can have a ground-level conversation with the target without having to hide from six million pairs of eyes?”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Ricky tutted, “I’m disappointed in you, Dianna. You of all people should have figured out by now that we can’t take a mission without fulfilling at least six spy-thriller/crime noir clichés. All that brain power, and she can’t put two and two together. Can you believe this woman, Blazer?”

“Oh, please; give me a break,” she replied.

“I’m being serious; there’s a checklist and everything. The Order cannot go into the field without a guarantee that we’ll hit our quota. It’s in the contract.”

“What contract would that be?”

“You know…the contract Tragedy has with the Tri-Council…it’s all very technical and stuff.”

“That’s enough, you two. I’d like to discuss the ridiculousness of these types of situations as much as the next guy, but right now we’re a little busy for that,” I finally said.

Ricky raised his eyebrows as he leaned in towards Dianna.

“Oooo, look, Di: big brother is getting involved. We should probably behave now.”

“Ricky, you insufferable overgrown child, I would love to engage in more unnecessary banter with you simply to annoy the piss out of Blaise right now, but I think he may be right. We should table this discussion until later. Maybe we should have a closed door meeting with Tragedy, but for now, let’s get what we need and get out of here.”

“Ten-four, little lady.”

Thankfully those two quit their idiotic rambling before our informant, “Mouse”, walked within earshot. The entire conversation occurred as he made his way across the rooftop to where we stood waiting. As we watched him walk towards us, I pondered a small note that had been in his file; apparently he picked up his nickname many years prior. According to what we knew of him, he had been one hell of a pickpocket in his younger days. He was able to get what he wanted and scurry away undetected with great skill; when one of his bosses needed something lifted quietly, they started asking for “the mouse.” He didn’t look like he would be able to get away from anyone very fast, but they say looks can be deceiving. He addressed us as he came closer.

“Hopefully you haven’t been waiting long. Now, before we get down to business, I need to know you’re the people I’m supposed to meet with.”

Ricky couldn’t help himself. “Nope, we’re just three random people hanging out on top of this skyscraper. Sorry, dude; your princess is in another castle.”

The man blinked a few times in pure confusion. “What…what the hell does that even mean?!”

Ricky shrugged. “I don’t know; my grandpa used to say it to me. I think it might be an old-timer saying, but I can’t be sure.”

Shaking his head as if to shake the nonsense he just heard from his memory, he returned his gaze to Dianna and I. “Given he’s apparently the funny one, that must mean one of you is in charge. Now, our mutual friend will have told you what to say to me?”

I cleared my throat. “I think what you’re asking for is this: Ozymandias.”

He stroked his chin. “Alright, you guys check out. Let’s get down to it…”

Ahem…I believe you have something you need to say to me before the proceedings begin?”

The man sighed. “I am the Troubadour. Can we get this show on the road now?”

“I think that would be wise.”

“Okay…now, Tragedy said you had some questions for me, the kind of stuff that could only be asked in person. What can I help you folks with?”

“We apprehended someone last week who gave us some disturbing news involving the dons in Chicago. We’re wondering if anything similar has happened here.”

“Yeah, sure; what kind of stuff is happening out in the Windy City?”

“According to our source, a group known as the Twelve have struck a deal of some kind with the dons. We’re unsure of specifics, but whatever they are working on together can’t be good.”

Even in the dark, we could see the man go pale.

“No…you’ve got to be kidding me…”

“What is it? What have you heard?”

He swallowed hard before continuing. “I wasn’t sure it was real. The Twelve, that is. Just a couple days ago, I heard the dons here in town, and more than a few from the Eastern Seaboard, got together for an annual meeting. This year they had a special guest: from the rumors the guys on guard duty were spreading, it was a representative of the Twelve. I thought they were just yanking my chain, but I guess they must have been telling the truth.

“As far as what they want, I’m not sure. I have heard a few scant details about lining up the business sector and dividing up various aspects of the work a little bit differently, but nothing earth-shattering. I know they offered something new, a proposal, and they gave the dons some time to think it over before they agreed to it. Like I said, I thought the guys on protective duty were just spinning yarns. I didn’t press them for too much information because I thought it was all just bullcrap.”

“Fair enough; was there anything else? Anything at all about the Twelve, the new deal, or what the end goal is?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. If they have been here and in Chicago already, then I’m guessing Vegas is next on their list, if they haven’t been there already.”

“Vegas? The mafia hasn’t had a presence in Las Vegas in decades.”

“Ha; c’mon, man. It’s Vegas: that town has always belonged to them. Now, I don’t know anything else about the Twelve. Is there anything else you’re looking into that I can help you with?”

“I don’t think so; we’re here strictly doing recon on the Twelve.”

“Alright then. If we’re done here, I believe I was promised a treat if I performed all my tricks?”

Dianna pulled several cards from her pocket, bound by a rubber band, and tossed them to him.

“Here; these are tied to a temporary bank account with all the money you were promised. Make the withdrawal within the next five days, or the money disappears forever.”

“Ahh, sweet, sweet cash. Tell Tragedy if she needs anything in New York, I’m your man. Anything at all, I’ll do what I can to help out.”

Dianna had a puzzled look on her face. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but why’s a crook like you so loyal to the enemy? I mean, why are you so buddy-buddy with Tragedy?”

Mouse smiled. “Let’s just say she pulled me out of a tight situation a long time ago. Anything I can do to repay the favor.”

Mouse shoved the cards in his pocket, and with a wave, walked away, leaving us alone on the rooftop again.

We stood there quietly for several minutes. After a while, it began to drizzle, and Ricky broke the silence.

“So…who’s down for picking up the conversation where we left off? Maybe over some pancakes? Hmmm?”

Dianna sighed. “You know, that’s not a bad idea. Where did we leave off, exactly?”

Ricky’s voice took on a very serious tone as he said, “To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I do believe, however, that we should discuss in detail the whole ‘code word’ situation. I mean, seriously; which late-night B-movie is she getting this stuff from?”