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?”
“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.