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?”
“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?”
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?”
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.
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.