“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.