Fin (Valkyries, Chapter 14)

Over the next two weeks, we slowly and quietly moved all of our forces to various places in and around New York City. We didn’t want to tip our hand, so we focused heavily on secrecy and stealth. We moved teams by night, or we sent them one by one to wherever we were housing them, never staging more than three or four people together in one place. It was a truly nerve-wracking process; everything hung on the element of surprise. We needed to have the battle on our terms, in the location that we had decided on. We couldn’t afford to have the Horsemen catch wind of our movements and attack before we were ready.

In time, however, we were ready. When everyone was in place, the dons called us. We had one last meeting, confirming that everything was going according to plan thus far, and setting a day and time for everyone to converge upon the battleground. We decided we should move as quickly as possible, so we set the attack for the next morning. We finished the meeting, wished everyone good luck, and went back to where we were staying and got as much rest as we could with our nerves on edge.

When morning came, we gathered every Valkyrie in a field outside the city. Once everyone was accounted for, I climbed on top of one of the trucks and addressed them all.

“Valkyries, we stand here today, ready for battle. This is what we train for, and this is what we dream of. We have an opportunity to wipe the evil stain of the Horsemen’s reign from the face of the earth for good. Now, I can’t guarantee that all of us will live through to see the next sunrise, but this is our place in the world; we place our lives on the line in defense of the masses. Fighters, your world needs you today! They have been crying out for help for quite a long time now, and today is the day we answer the call! Today, we fight for liberty, justice, and the satisfaction of laying our enemies to waste! Tell me, are you with me?!”

The Valkyries roared as one, and with that, we jumped into the trucks and tore off down the road towards the old United Nations headquarters. We had to park several blocks away, as by the time we arrived, the mafia had organized a giant riot leading all the way up to the front door of the building. Surrounding the place was a thin line of soldiers in full riot gear. The Valkyries all made our way to the front of the crowd, staring down the men who stood between us and our goal. Far to my left, I could hear bottles breaking and men shouting, indicating the army had shown up right on time. We stood there, waiting…the army drew nearer, and the rioting crowd became more and more agitated. In the distance, a clock rang out the top of the hour, and all at once, every single member of the resistance launched themselves into action.

Shots rang out, and the mafia’s rioters, instead of breaking the line and scattering, grew angry and pressed forward, bringing the fight to a hand-to-hand distance almost immediately. The Valkyries rushed up the steps and ripped through the guards encircling the U.N. building, and charged our way inside. Anticipating more resistance just inside the doors, we kicked the doors in, tossed in a few flash-bang grenades we had gotten from the dons, and pushed onward through the entryway.

As we expected, things got really ugly inside right away, but we were still riding the first wave of fury and frenzy, so the numbers we encountered did little to slow us down. Men broke left and right, cutting through any that stood in their way, and within a few minutes, the first floor had been cleared. Pausing to take a breath, I looked towards the stairwell, and my heart sank a little bit. Slowly descending the stairs was a group of masked, sword-wielding fighters; there were at least fifty of them, coming straight for us. We took a collective deep breath, and rushed our opponents, throwing everything we had at them.

As I ran, I drew a flame all the way up my blades, and I could hear electric bolts being fired over my head. It was almost peaceful for a moment; in the seconds between rushing at the enemy and the moment that the first sound of crossed steel hit my ears, I had a very transcendental experience. Watching it all happen from above, two groups of highly trained killers rushing at each other with hate and anger in their eyes…call it the calm before the storm, I suppose.

I leapt up the first few stairs to the landing where the stairs turned before rising again, I dropped to my knees and slid under the first row of attackers, cutting the four of them clean in half. Finishing my slide, I used my momentum to stand again, and then the fight really began.

I found myself in a bit of  tight situation, as my fellow Valkyries had been several steps behind me when I began my assault, so I was alone on the stairs for a second, trying to hold off the entire wave of masked soldiers by myself. I flipped backwards back to the base of the stairs, crouched, and timed my next attack to coincide with the rest of my men reaching the stairwell.

As they did, I jumped towards the attacking forces, knocking away the sword of the man in front of me with one blade, and impaling him with the other. Using him as a human shield, I bowled over three or four men behind him before the force of the attacking soldiers pushed back. I again found myself at the base of the stairs, spinning, slicing, and parrying in a flurry of motion. I slipped into battle-mode, and everything slowed down. I kicked, cut, and burned my way through every man who stepped within reach of my blades.

After what felt like ages, I saw him descending the staircase and coming my direction: the captain who had nearly killed Wade. I don’t know how I knew it was him; there was something about the way he carried himself that simply set him apart from all the others. Seeing him, I ducked under a swing and ripped a man’s ribcage open, and began stepping towards my new target.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs, we rushed each other all at once. The combined force of our first strikes clanging against each other sent a vibration through my entire body, and nearly knocked me off my feet. Recovering quickly, I swung again, and was again matched by my opponent. This went on for several minutes; one would attack, and the other would flawlessly parry the attack, with the battle speeding up exponentially from blow to blow.

At one point, there was almost no time to parry a blow before the next one landed, and the man managed to land a slight blow, catching me with the very tip of his blade. He barely nicked me, cutting me from my right eyebrow to the right cheek, missing my eye by mere millimeters. I blinked reflexively, and the man took advantage of the brief break in my concentration. Spinning and landing a roundhouse kick to my chest, he knocked me back about eight feet and throwing me off balance.

He raced at me again, and I regained my balance enough to start stepping backwards as I warded off his attacks. He walked me all the way to the wall, with the intensity of his attacks never slowing down for a second…until my back bounced off the wall. When he saw he had me pinned, he geared up for a haymaker blow, one he fully intended to use to break my block entirely (and possibly breaking my arm in the process.)

In the half-second where he reared back before the blow, I dropped straight down and swept his legs out from under him. As he fell, he kicked out, causing him to slide several feet away, and as he regained his footing, I ran at him, bringing my blades down on him with all the force I could muster.

He blocked all my attacks, but I was able to continue to beat him back several more feet before changing my style suddenly. Remembering Trodaire’s swift changes in fighting style, I tossed one of my blades straight up in the air, then knelt down and drove the other through the man’s foot, pinning him to where he stood. I spun around him, stood up, caught my flying sword, and in one motion, ignited the blade with the angriest, hottest flame I had ever conjured, and slammed it into his back and out through his chest.

There was a moment of shock, as he reached up and removed his mask, sweat pouring off his face. I renewed the force of the flame, roasting him entirely from the inside out. After a few seconds, I felt him begin to fall forward, so I ripped my blade from his body and pulled the other out of the floor. He fell, and I noticed that he had a black burn mark that stretched out six inches in each direction from the hole in his back. Good freaking riddance.

I looked around and saw that several of the Valkyries had fallen, but most were still alive, and they were finishing off what was left of the force that had attacked us. I made eye contact with Wade and pointed to the stairs with my chin. He nodded and waved everyone on. I raced up the stairs beside Dianna and Ricky.

“How are you guys holding up?”

“Oh…we’re fine…just another day at the office…” Ricky quipped, out of breath.

“Yeah, we’re fine. We’re not really used to you going all ‘army-of-one’ like that, but you know, we adapted just fine,” Dianna piped in.

I would have laughed, but I was just as out of breath as they were. We would have continued our banter, but at the top of the stairs, we ran into a small group of soldiers. They were instantly dispatched, but it reminded us that this wasn’t exactly the time for lighthearted joking. So floor by floor, we made our way to the top. Finally we reached the top floor, we saw the Horsemen stood swords in hand, behind a large group of guards.

Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem for twenty Valkyries, but we had just run of more than a few flights of stairs, all the while fighting off various groups of soldiers. We were a bit tired; I’m sure you understand.

Anyway, the battle was hard fought. We were matched blow for blow by our enemies. Outside, we could hear the cheers of the mafia’s rioters, indicating they had been victorious. The cacophony distracted the guards enough for us to make our move. Several of us broke past the line of guards, and one by one, the Horsemen fell. The final Horseman, the one from the hanging, took off down a hallway, and I gave chase. After a moment, he turned around and attacked.

He was quite skilled, I’ll give him that. With as tired as I was after all of this, it was all I could do to fend him off. We went blow for blow for a couple of minutes before he slipped past my guard and ran me through with his blade. He hissed at me as he pulled me further onto the sword before letting me drop to the ground with the sword still in my gut.

I slumped to my knees, dropping my own blades. The world around me seemed to go silent. All I could hear was my own heartbeat and a faint ringing in my ears. Suddenly, I was furious. With the last of my strength, I stood, pulled the sword from my stomach, and used it to chop the Horseman’s head clean off his body. “Cut the head off the snake…” I said. His face was frozen in shock; in all honesty, mine probably would be too.

His head hit the ground and tumbled away, and I slumped back to the ground. The others must have finished off the rest of the guards on that floor, because Wade came sliding in behind me, catching me just before I hit the ground. Raven knelt down and cradled my head as Ricky and Dianna attempted to stop the bleeding from the fist-sized hole in my torso.

“Hang in there, buddy; you’re going to be okay,” Ricky yelled.

It was no use, though. Between the internal damage and the massive amount of blood I had already lost, I was already beginning to fade. My eyes fluttered open one last time, and it took me a second to focus my vision. I looked at them all, and I realized something.

“I…I always thought I did all this for the world. I thought that I did my duty to protect all the ones who couldn’t protect themselves…but…but that’s not true at all. All of you. All of you are the reason I fought so hard for so long. You are the part of the world I most desperately wanted to keep safe…”

 

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Thomas Jefferson

 

Strange Bedfellows (Valkyries chapter thirteen)

Raven, Trodaire, Wade, and my team all went back to the cottage. We sent the rest of our group back to Seattle to lay low until we decided what our next move should be. When we arrived, we had a small ceremony for Tragedy, and we set her up on a funeral pyre. We figured since she was one of us, she deserved a warrior’s funeral. Trodaire read a passage from an old book while we watched the flames transform her.

“The path of the warrior is one of many trials and tests; arrows shall beset him on all sides. The warrior carries within him an unquenchable flame; it urges him onward, even when he is oppressed from above and below. The warrior presses onward, with one goal in mind: to release that fire shut up in his belly, for he came into the world upon a fiery wind, and when his time has come, he shall leave it riding upon a fiery mare, sword in his hand and the taste of battle on his tongue.”

We continued to watch the fire in silence long into the night, until there was nothing left but smoldering ash. Just like that, our time of mourning had to come to an end. We could not afford to continue to wallow in our loss; the world was still upside down.  We had embarrassed the Horsemen in front of the entire world, and we were concerned that they would make an attempt at getting their revenge.

They didn’t, however. It confused us all; things basically just went on as they had for years. We would perform small raids around the globe, and they would swat at us like a gnat flying around their heads. We lost soldiers here and there, they took losses…the balance was never disrupted. We never quite had the resources necessary to launch another head-on assault on them, and they never had the ability to annihilate us completely.

Without the Council in their pocket, the Horsemen had a much harder time keeping the peace. As time went on, they were spending more time putting down rebellions that had nothing to do with us than actually fighting us. We began to realize that if we didn’t find a way to remove the Horsemen soon, the world would fall so far into chaos and anarchy that society would collapse into complete pandemonium.

So the leadership team of the Valkyrie Order gathered together and did what we did best these days: we had a meeting. It was infinitely frustrating; it seemed like all we did was have meetings and shuffle pieces across a chess board. Nothing was getting accomplished, and the worldwide situation was only getting worse. With this fact on my mind, I walked into the conference room a little steamed.

Trodaire began the process once everyone was seated. “Alright, we all know what brought us here today. We absolutely must find a way to pull out of this rut we have slipped into.”

I rubbed my temples and snorted.

“Blaise, is there something you would like to say?”

I stood up. “We haven’t done anything in months. Our last big operation was a complete failure; now all we’re doing is annoying the ruling party and pretending we’re doing what needs to be done for the benefit of the masses.”

“I understand your frustration, but that’s exactly why we’re in here today.”

“Do you? ‘Cause I’m not sure you do. This stuff doesn’t seem to faze you in the slightest. We’ve been sitting on our asses since Tragedy died, justifying our lack of action by saying that we’re biding our time and waiting for our numbers to grow.”

Trodaire sighed, and I continued my rant.

“When are you going to wake up and realize that if we don’t do something drastic right away, there’s not going to be a civilized world left worth protecting?!”

Trodaire slammed his fist on the table. “That is enough! Remember who you’re talking to, boy. I understand you are dealing with a lot of stress right now, but the rest of us are in the same sinking ship that you are. If you don’t reign in your emotions and sit down with the rest of us, you can leave this meeting. You’re pissed off. Well, boo-freaking-hoo, we’re all a little pissed at the way things are going. Flying off the handle isn’t going to change anything. Sit your ass down, calm the hell down, and shut your trap until you can contribute in a more constructive manner instead of yelling at the people on your side of the line.”

I glared at him for a moment; he was right, and that pissed me off more than anything else. I had let my frustrations eat me up, to the point that I was blaming the only people in the world who were trying to make things better. I sat slowly.

Trodaire nodded. Raven coughed, and asked, “So…does anybody have any ideas? At this point, we need to consider every option, regardless of how crazy or far-fetched it might be.”

Wade looked at the ceiling and stroked his chin before replying. “I think I might have something.”

Trodaire gestured for him to continue. “The floor is yours; let’s hear it.”

“Okay, so remember at the beginning of all this, during that meeting between the Twelve and the mafia dons, that the guy from the Twelve said that the mafia would be allowed to conduct their business for a small fee, and the Twelve wouldn’t interfere? Well, it seems to me that the Horsemen have not kept their word lately. I’ve heard rumors here and there about the Horsemen raising the fees they are charging the families, quite significantly, too.

“At the same time, a few of the families have been attacked by battalions of soldiers, presumably sent by the Horsemen. Given all that, the families can’t be too happy with the Horsemen right now. I’ve been in contact with an old informant of mine in the mafia in Chicago, and he thinks that the families might be in a position to switch allegiances. With the way the Horsemen are treating them, it might be better to go back to the way things were, rather than put up with the current circumstances.”

We all turned it over in our minds.

“I think this may be our only real option. We can keep nipping at their heels until they find a way to kill us all, or we can team up with a group of people who have just as much of a reason to fight back as we do,” Dianna said.

Raven sighed. “I have to agree; this looks like our last hope.”

“Alright, I don’t think we need to, but let’s take a vote on it. All in favor?”

All of us raised our hands.

“Very well, then. Wade, get in touch with your contact in Chicago. Tell him that we have a proposition for the families, and we need to set up a meeting with the dons right away.”

The meeting was adjourned, and sixteen hours later, we were getting off a plane in Chicago. Raven, Ricky, Dianna, Wade, and I had flown out there together, representing the Order. Trodaire stayed behind to monitor daily operations while we were gone. So after we landed, we grabbed our bags out of luggage claim and met with Joey, Wade’s contact, outside.

“Joey! Thanks for picking us up, buddy.”

“Yeah, don’t mention it; you gotta have people you can rely on, even when it comes to simple stuff like this. Toss your bags in the back of the van and let’s get going. I’m taking you directly to see the heads of the families.”

“Oh, we’re going straight there? I thought we might have to wait until tomorrow or something,” I said.

“Nah, the dons recognize that this is a time-sensitive issue, and they feel the pressure as well. The quicker an alliance can be made, the quicker the Horsemen are off the throne, and that spells good news for everybody.”

“No kidding.”

We all climbed into the van, and as he drove, Joey told us just how rough things had been lately.

“Yeah, you couldn’t have called me at a better time. Things around here have been really rough. You’ve got battalions of soldiers that ‘randomly’ come through the city, demanding payment from family-owned businesses. There have been a lot of fights, a few shoot-outs…The Irish tried to barricade the city a few weeks back, trying to keep the soldiers out. It didn’t go well for them. Out of the thirty or forty that went to fight that day, there’s only three or four that made it out with their lives.

“They’ve been killing our boys, taking our money, and stealing from our stores. Food, money, products; you name it, they’re taking it. It has to stop. Teaming up would have been a ridiculous idea three or four years ago, but with all the crap that’s gone down since they took over, it looks like the only thing we can do. None of us can fight back by ourselves.”

He pulled up to the curb outside a small bar. “Alright, this is your stop. I can’t go inside with you, but I’ll wait right here and we can go wherever you need me to take you after you’re finished inside.”

Wade shook his hand. “Thanks again, Joey.”

“Hey, no problem. It’s my pleasure.”

We all filed inside, where we were immediately shown to a back room marked “EMPLOYEES ONLY.” We waited in there for a few minutes, watching the door. Finally, eight men walked in, four dons and four body guards. The dons sat down at the table in the center of the room, with one of them beckoning for us to do the same.

“Please, sit; you are guests in our establishment. Are you hungry, or thirsty?”

“Uh, no, we’re good for now, thank you,” I stuttered.

“Come now, we know you have had a long plane ride. Eat with us.” Turning to one of the guards, the man said, “Max, have the kitchen bring in enough appetizers for the thirteen of us. We may be in here a while, so having something to munch on will hopefully tide over our guests until they feel comfortable enough to eat. Also, bring in water for everyone, and a few bottles of vino. I am feeling somewhat parched.”

Max nodded and left the room.

“Okay…let us start with introductions. I am Gio, and my friends here are Manny, Alex, and Jason. Together, we oversee the business and well-being of the united families in Chicago and much of the northern Midwest. We understand that you have a proposal for us, but first…your names.”

“I’m Blaise, this is Wade, Ricky, Dianna, and Raven. We are five of the six leaders of the Valkyrie Order. Trodaire is the sixth; he would have come, but someone has to oversee the day-to-day stuff while we are away, and he drew the short straw, as it were.”

Gio nodded. “Welcome to Chicago, Valkyries. Now, on to business.”

“Yes. Uh, this was actually Wade’s idea, so I should let him start us off.”

Wade cleared his throat and leaned forward.

“Thank you, Blaise. So, we know that you have been oppressed by the Horsemen’s regime. We know that the promises they made to you were broken, and now they are feeding on you more and more each day. We know that things were better for you under the previous world order.

“We believe that things were better for everyone under the Tri-Council. Global finances were under control, both of our organizations were able to conduct our business accordingly, and a lot fewer people were dying. That is our main concern; the well-being of the populace as a whole. We have a proposition for you.

“If you help us take down the Horsemen, we will leave you alone when the Council is reinstated. If you fight alongside us, we will let you conduct your business as you wish. The local police will be your only concern (and honestly, when have they EVER been a real concern for you?)  You won’t have to worry about us breathing down your necks because of crooked deals and scams.”

Raven spoke up at this point. “I will personally guarantee that the Order stays out of your affairs. We will stay out of family business…unless you try to take over the government, of course.”

The dons chuckled. At this point the food arrived, and Gio said, “We have heard what you have to say. Allow us to think it over while we eat, and once we have finished, we will step outside for a moment to speak in private. For now, let us eat, drink, and laugh. We must enjoy these quiet moments; they do not come often anymore.”

So we ate and joked with the mafiosos. That’s kind of an absurd thing to say, but given everything we had already been through, it wasn’t the most unbelievable thing we had ever experienced. After the food was gone, the dons finished their wine and left the room. They were gone less than five minutes, and when they returned, Gio gave their answer.

“Valkyries, there was a time when we would have killed you before you walked in the door. We were natural enemies years ago. The world has changed, however, and a new enemy has risen. They have abused us both, and I think both our parties can agree that going back to the way things were is the best course of action. We accept your proposal and your terms. We will contact the family heads in New York and Kansas City, and we will ensure that they are on board with this decision. When we have reached all of them, we will contact you to make plans going forward. This should only take a day or two, so please, stay in the city. We will house you and feed you while you are here, if need be.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Wade replied. “I have a friend here in Chicago, and he will probably let us stay with him.”

Gio smiled. “Ah, yes; Joey is a good man. His judgement is another reason you are here today. He trusts you, and therefore, so do I. Let me know if there is anything you need while you are here.”

The dons walked out of the room before Wade could ask them how they knew about Joey. Apparently Joey wasn’t in any danger, so he decided to let the issue lie, and ask about it later if he had the chance. We were ushered back outside, where our ride was patiently waiting for us. Before we climbed in the van, Ricky paused for a moment.

“So…what are the chances they’ll turn on us?”

Dianna laughed softly. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about there. They are in such an uncomfortable position that getting in bed with us is their best option. They hate the Horsemen more than they have ever hated us.”

“They are reasonable people; as long as you propose a sound idea, they will listen. They realize that working together is the only way that we will all survive this madness,” Wade said as he hopped into the front seat.

Joey looked at all of us, and he knew what we had been discussing just from what he had just heard Wade say.

“I’m assuming things went well, then?”

“Indeed. They are on board with the plan.”

“I knew they would be; they’re not stupid, you know? They see the world as it is, and even though they may be involved in some sketchy stuff from time to time, they really just want what’s best for everyone.”

He pulled away from the curb and started down the road before adding, “You don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to the families. They are all about loyalty. As long as you hold up your end of whatever bargain you struck in there, they will hold theirs up too. The dons are pretty simple guys; they conduct business tit for tat.”

Wade nodded. “We’re banking on that, for sure.”

We stayed with Joey and his family for the next couple of days, laying low and taking it easy until we heard back from the dons. Raven had gotten ahold of Trodaire when we got back from the meeting, but apart from that, we had no contact with anyone outside Chicago. We were fairly certain how things were going to play out, there was still an ounce of uncertainty. It really is surprising how much that “ounce” can weigh on a person’s mind. We found ourselves pacing, and trying to distract ourselves, passing the time in any way we could (that mainly turned into playing lots of board games and watching embarrassing amounts of t.v.)

Finally, after what felt like several weeks (but in reality was only two and a half days), Joey received a phone call.

“Alright, time to get the ball rolling, you guys,” he said to us after hanging up. “I’ve been instructed to get you guys back down to the bar tonight for a very important meeting.”

“Awesome. Let’s move out, then,” I said.

The ride back to the bar had a strange, sub-electric vibe. We were all so pent up, feeling both excited and still somewhat worried; we were so wound up that none of us said a single word the entire way. We simply stared out the windows, eyes open but minds so busy none of the images before us registered until we pulled up to the bar.

“Here we are, folks; good luck in there,” Joey said, breaking the trance that seemed to have befallen the rest of us.

We climbed out, and I took a deep, slow breath, settling myself before walking inside. We walked up to the door, and it was opened for us by two of the guards from before. We were again escorted to the back; this time, the back room was jam-packed. We were shown to the only open seats at the table, and Gio opened the conversation.

“Gentlemen, we welcome you here yet again. As we discussed before, we passed your proposal on to the other families, and they readily accepted the agreement that we put forth. Sitting here with you today are the heads of the families from across the country. We all felt it was necessary that every major player be here for this meeting.”

Addressing the rest of the room, he continued, “Brothers and friends, as you have probably already deduced, these are the leaders of the Valkyrie Order. It was they who approached us for assistance in the coming days. Now, we will open up the floor to them, so that they can express their intent and propose any plans they have for moving forward.”

Raven, Wade, and my team looked straight at me at that point, so I cleared my throat and stood. “Good evening, gentlemen. My name is Blaise, and I am one of the heads of the Valkyrie Order, as well as being team leader of one of the most premier teams for several years. My friends and I come to the families with this proposal: as Gio has probably told you, we come to you seeking assistance in removing the Horsemen from power. In return for your help, when our goal has been achieved, we pledge to leave family business alone. Unless your activities endanger the global population, we will steer clear of your activities. We intend to maintain this relationship after the Horsemen have been eliminated. The global community needs our cooperation right now in order to survive.

“Anticipating your partnership (mainly because we could not continue to fight for very long without you), we have come up with a plan of attack that will cut the Horsemen and their army down for good. Now, they have set up their base of operations in the old United Nations headquarters in New York, and our intel as of three days ago told us that they had hunkered down there ever since the attempted hanging.

“They will be heavily guarded there, so we will need the entirety of our combined forces to hit them there. A successful, coordinated attack there would eliminate the Horsemen, as well as wipe out a good portion of the army they command. Winning this battle will crush them as well as dissuade any of their generals from taking control in the absence of the Horsemen themselves.”

The dons nodded, and Gio slightly raised his hand.

“So you intend to launch a full-scale assault on their headquarters?”

“Yes. We believe it is the only way to achieve our goal.”

“What are your odds of success in such a maneuver?”

“By ourselves, it cannot be done. With you and your men, we can hold our own. If we combine forces in the streets, our captains will be free to attack the Horsemen and their guards while the battle wages outside. Just killing the Horsemen is not enough; we must crush them so completely that their army cannot rise again.”

Gio leaned back and stroked his moustache for a moment. Then, glancing sideways at the other dons, he sat forward again. “What do you say, brothers? Does this plan please you? Does anyone have any objections?”

For the next six hours, we discussed, debated, and modified the plan. When we were finished, we were exhausted, yet everyone was satisfied; there were no concerns left unaddressed or unanswered. When the meeting was adjourned, Gio assured us that he would personally oversee the quiet gathering of all available fighters that the families had.

“Give us two weeks to get everyone to New York; we need a little bit of time to ensure that we do not raise any suspicions. I suggest you do the same. We will contact you when we are ready, and we will move forward from there.”

“Will do; call if there is anything else that you need from us,” Wade replied as he shook the man’s hand.

Just like that, we were racing towards our final confrontation with the Horsemen. We would either run them into the ground, or we would die with our swords dripping with blood.

All Roads Lead to a Hangman’s Knot (Valkyries Chapter Twelve)

Ah, the Dublin house; over the last two years, it had become almost a vacation spot for us. Once we had too many members to house there, it reverted back to being a safehouse. We would hole up there whenever we had assignments anywhere in Western Europe. Being back there after training the new batch of recruits made it an extra sentimental experience, as it showed just how much had changed in a few short years. It astounded me; I don’t think it will ever cease to amaze me that the world was such a completely different place in such a short amount of time.

Anyway, when we arrived and settled in, our teammates were quite pleased to tell us that everything was ready for “the plan” to unfold. “The plan” went like this: while Wade and I were off training the recruits, our teammates had confirmed the locations of all of the remaining Tri-Council members. The Councilmen and women were being held by the Horsemen as a dummy government in an effort to keep the people from revolting. Where threat of violence did not deter the people, the Horsemen hoped that having their formerly-elected officials dish out the new rules and tell the people that things would be okay would keep the masses at least somewhat contained.

With their locations confirmed, our mission was to break them out and get them safely away from the grasp of the Horsemen. This was beneficial to the cause in a couple of ways. First, this took away the “hostage advantage” that the Horsemen had, and allowed the Valkyries to strike with a heavy hand without worrying about killing the political prisoners. Second, it kept the Tri-Council government alive and intact. The goal was not to uproot the Horsemen and become the new tyrant, but to reinstate the government of the people after the Horsemen were destroyed.

The Council members were being held in their respective areas of control, with the American councilmen being held in New York, the Austro-Asians in Beijing, and the Afro-Europeans in London. We would split our three main groups between the three targets, with the new teams backing us up as soon as Tragedy gave us the go-ahead. Wade would take his team to New York, Raven to Beijing, and my team would storm the gates in London.

Several days went by as we waited on Tragedy to give us the green light; Ricky, Dianna, and Jackie all maintained up-to-date surveillance from Dublin, ensuring that nothing changed before we went in for the grab. By the numbers, it was a simple asset recovery mission, but considering who we were recovering (and not to mention from whom), it was imperative that every detail be carefully considered; we needed to know exactly what we were walking into long before we made our first move.

The go-ahead came with a little surprise. One day, while we were waiting for a phone call, Tragedy walked through the front door of the safehouse and dropped a gear-bag at her feet.

“I’m going with you; we need all hands on deck. There will be no discussion about this. Yes, I am prepared for this; yes, I have absolutely thought this through. Questions?”

Ricky raised his hand slowly. “Uh…did you bring tactical clothes with you?”

“Tactical…clothes?”

“Yeah, like pants and stuff. It’s gonna be really hard to move around if all you brought was those skirts you wear around your office.”

Ricky’s query was answered by a shoe whizzing over his head (it would have nailed him right between the eyes, but he managed to duck right as it sailed his direction.)

Dianna laughed dryly. “I would say she’s ready, McMannis. Stay sharp, or the next one might just hit ’cha.”

He scowled at the two women briefly. Then we all remembered just how serious things were and got down to business. We all knew it would be pointless to try and dissuade Tragedy from joining us, so we simply modified the plan as necessary. We didn’t really have to change much; we simply had to account for an extra person on my team. All things considered, not a big deal; given the situation, having all hands on deck would be quite helpful.

The next day we all split off, going to our respective locations, contacting the teams that would be backing us up, and staging before the big event. We had planned on doing all the extractions at the same time; if we hit all three targets simultaneously, we would eliminate the possibility that the Horsemen would catch wind of one hit and move the remaining council members. Timing is a bitch, especially when trying to sync up three operations on three different continents, but we figured it out.

Tragedy went with my team to London, and we staged up outside the house where the Council members we being held. House may be a bit of an understatement; it was the home of a family that had been in politics for centuries. This place was bordering on being a mansion. Given the size of the place, we had to sweep through quickly and efficiently. Dianna, being the tech whiz that she was, was able to obtain blueprints for the building.

“Di, you’re a freaking godsend,” Ricky told her.

“You better believe it; I had to do some serious digging to get ahold of these damn things. They were expunged from the public records; somebody really doesn’t want them out there. It makes me wonder what else is hidden inside.”

As she looked over the prints, Tragedy remarked, “If this was two years ago, I’d have you tear this place apart until you found whatever they were covering up. As it stands, we need to get in, grab the council members, and get the hell out. Speed is key.”

I nodded, and after taking a quick look over the blueprints myself, I proposed a plan.

“Alright, it looks like we can circle our way through the house without necessarily splitting up until we get through the kitchen. Then, Ricky, you take Tragedy and one of the backup teams upstairs. We’ll post the other team at the base of the stairs, making sure we don’t get snuck up on, and Dianna and I will finish clearing this floor. It doesn’t look like there’s a basement, so if we don’t find them, we’re gonna have to check the wine cellar and breaking down walls. They’re here somewhere, and we’re not leaving until we find them.”

Ricky saluted me. “10-4, boss man. Let’s roll!”

And roll we did; we filed out and made our way down the lane like so many silent shadows. We busted down the front door and waited…no one came running and no shots were fired, so we made our way through the hallways, checking rooms as we went. We got through the kitchen, and to the stairwell. Dianna and I barely made it a few steps away when we heard Ricky whistle, signaling that they had found the hostages. They brought them downstairs, where Tragedy asked them a few questions to ensure that they were not shifters in disguise, and then we unbound them. We rushed back towards the front door, and as soon as we swung it back open, we were met with a barrage of bullets.

Instinctively, we all dove back into the hallway and took defensive positions.

“Is everybody alright? Anybody hit?” I called out.

“No, we’re good; the door took them all, I think,” Ricky responded.

“Di, how many exterior doors are there to this place?”

“Four; the closest, other than the one right in front of us, is just past the stairway where we split off before.”

“That’s a bit of a hike. Hey team, guess what we forgot to do?”

Ricky and Dianna both swore. “Guess we should watch our backs while we’re here. How the hell did we forget to finish clearing the building?” Ricky bellowed.

“No time to worry about that now; how are we getting out of here, Blazer?” Dianna asked.

“Let me think for a second; I’ll come up with something.”

“As long as it doesn’t involve us running out the front door like in those old cowboy stories, I’m all for it,” Ricky quipped.

“Unless we can find some tunnels out of here, it might come to that.”

We made our way around to the door by the stairwell, and I quietly called the soldier we had waiting in the truck down the lane. I told him to stomp on the gas and pick us up behind the estate, S.T.A.T. We waited by the back door until we heard the roar of the engine coming our way. As we started out the back door, a dozen or so soldiers bearing swords came rushing down the hall at us. I kicked the others out the door as fast as I could, all the while fending off the attackers. Once we were outside, they attempted to surround us. We kept running further away from the house as we fought, just hoping the soldier driving would have the sense of mind to put the truck between us and our attackers (running over a few in the process wouldn’t hurt either.)

When he finally came tearing into sight, we were able to separate ourselves from the onslaught; everyone except Tragedy made it to the other side of the truck. The enemy soldiers dragged her back inside the house as we jumped into the truck. We would have gone after her, but we had to get the Council members out of there, and from all around, more soldiers than I thought was possible came rushing at us. The driver, seeing this as the only opportunity he would have to get us out alive, stomped on the gas pedal and raced us away from the estate.

Ricky punched the ceiling of the truck. “Dammit! Why do we keep losing that woman?! Why did we even let her come along?!”

Dianna tried to calm him down, saying, “You know she would have done whatever she wanted to do, regardless of what we had to say. Hell, I don’t even think Blaise could have talked her out of coming with us, and she actually listens to him most of the time. There was no way of knowing it would go down like this.”

Ricky swore repeatedly, still punching the ceiling. When he had finished, we all sat in silence until we got to the plane. It was a very long, very somber flight back to Seattle. Upon arrival, we found the other two teams had returned already, and we placed all of the Tri-Council members under constant watch, with two people watching them 24/7. Once the Council members had been taken care of, my team and I met with Wade’s team and Raven in our new conference room. We told them everything that had happened during our portion of the operation.

“That’s pretty bad, Blazer…this ain’t good at all,” Wade said after I had finished explaining the situation.

“Well, no kidding, dickweed. This is freaking serious,” I shot back.

“I do have some good news that might help balance things out a bit.”

“Oh yeah? And what would that be?”

“We nabbed a hostage while we were in New York. Says he’s an assistant to the Horsemen; considers himself to be rather important. I have a nagging suspicion that he might have some helpful information.”

I squinted at Wade. “Do you think he might be…persuaded to give us this information?”

“I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt. Well, it wouldn’t hurt ME. It will probably hurt him; getting him to talk might not just be ‘like’ pulling teeth. It might ACTUALLY require pulling teeth.”

“Just be careful…we’re in a bit of a gray area. Let’s not mirror the monsters we’re trying to eliminate.”

Wade cracked his knuckles. “Sometimes we have to do monstrous things in order to accomplish a higher goal, Blaise. That doesn’t make us monsters ourselves.”

“Still, don’t be unreasonable. We’re bound by a code, Wade. Don’t forget that.”

“I never do. Now, if our little moral dilemma is done and over with, I have some one-on-one time scheduled with our guest.”

Wade went into the adjacent room for about an hour. When he reemerged, he was wiping blood from his hands. “He’s not really saying much, but he did tell me that he expects that the Horsemen will be getting in touch with us soon. I don’t know how he expects them to do that, but my guess is if they realize who their hostage is, we might be able to arrange a trade. I think turning this dirt bag back over to the Horsemen is worth getting Tragedy back home.”

We all nodded in agreement. He tapped my elbow as I turned to leave.

“Don’t worry about our little friend in there; I never crossed the line with him. You had a good point; we do have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. I just hope you realize I had a valid point, too. Sometimes what we have to do won’t be pretty, but it might be necessary to do something that makes us a little sick. We do kill people for a living.”

“That’s different…”

“No it’s not. Maybe when we kill people we make sure they don’t suffer, but violence is violence. We have to be willing to do whatever is necessary to reestablish order; our standard simply holds us to find a peaceful option whenever possible.”

I nodded; I knew he was right. The lines seemed to blur for me when it came to certain aspects of what we were doing; I wished I could keep things as clear and focused as Wade did.

A couple of days went by after Wade interrogated the hostage. It was a surprisingly stressful period of time. Between what we knew the Horsemen were capable of, and what our hostage had said, we were expecting their army to come bursting through the door at any moment. This feeling of being on edge went on until one day, Wade received a phone call.

He answered his phone, and almost immediately he went as white as a ghost. “Turn on the TV. Now.”

“What channel?”

“It doesn’t matter; it’s on all of them.”

As the t.v. flickered to life, an image of four masked, hooded figures was seen standing behind someone who had been beaten to a pulp. Upon closer inspection, the entire room gasped. This poor creature was barely recognizable, but it was her; it was Tragedy. She appeared to have been tortured extensively for some time. Her face was puffy and bruised, there were cuts and scabs on her face and neck, and there was an angry red burn mark from her left temple to her chin, as if someone had taken a fireplace poker straight from the flames and placed it upon her face. One of the hooded figures stepped forward and violently grabbed Tragedy by the chin, showing the extent of her wounds to the camera before speaking.

“Valkyries, you have committed crimes against the Horsemen that are punishable only by death. We have neither time nor patience for your childish games. You know that we are capable of crushing you if the current situation were to escalate to an all-out war. We do not wish for this to happen. We have one of yours, and you have one of ours. Here are our demands.

“The members of the Council, along with our trusted assistant, are to be brought to the Parliament building in London. If you surrender them to us as we have asked, we will allow them to live. If you surrender yourselves to us as well, without a fight, you, too, shall live. If you do these things quickly, we will consider allowing your friend to live. If no surrender is made, you all shall die, starting with this one. You have forty-eight hours. Make the wise choice; no more blood needs to be shed.”

The screen went black for a moment, and then the message started over. It went on to repeat for half a dozen or more cycles as we all stood there in dead silence, too shocked to do anything but stare at the screen. As before, after some time, Trodaire walked over to the screen and shut it off.

“We should just kill that damn assistant and strike again immediately. If we attack soon enough, we may be able to save Tragedy,” he said.

I shook my head sadly. “You know as well as I do that they will have cut her to ribbons before we could even figure out where they were keeping her.”

“So they’re going to kill her anyway, then. Let us strike the iron again while it is still hot!”

“No, Trodaire, we can’t. They have us trapped. We can’t leave Tragedy in their hands. We only have one option: we must surrender ourselves.”

“But they will surely kill us all! Those lying bastards will never keep their word; as soon as we surrender, they will have us executed!”

An argument broke out between Trodaire and I, with neither listening to what the other had to say, screaming in each other’s faces.

“WOULD EVERYBODY JUST SHUT THE HELL UP?!” Ricky shouted. We all blinked and stared at him. “I have a plan…”

Ricky laid out our options to us, and we spent the next few hours refining Ricky’s idea, and when we were satisfied with it, we contacted all the team leaders and filled them in on what was going on and what we needed from them. Then, the next morning, we made the flight to London.

Later that evening, Wade, Trodaire, and I walked up to the Parliament building with the Council members and the Horsemen’s assistant. We stood outside for several minutes until finally, the front door creaked open. Thirty or more guards came rushing out, and some of them escorted the assistant and the Council members inside, while the rest threw us to the ground and handcuffed us. We didn’t fight back; we were there to surrender.

After we had been shackled, we were led inside to a makeshift holding cell where Tragedy was being kept. By now her wounds were beginning to heal, but she still looked pretty banged up.

“Blaise…you should never have come…they’re going to kill all of you.”

“What choice did we have? We couldn’t just feed you to them like that.”

“But now they have all four of us; who will lead the resistance now?”

“The fight will continue; there’s no doubt about that. It will simply look a little different after all this is over.”

Tragedy sighed and touched my face. “I hope you’re right, Blaise.”

I smiled and winked at her. “Just trust me; some sacrifices had to be made, but in the end, the good guys always win out. That’s just how history works.”

Two of the Horsemen approached our holding cell.

“So you have surrendered? Where is the rest of your Order?”

Trodaire stood and walked over to them. “What you have in this room is all that is left of the Valkyrie Order. They have been disbanded, and we, the leadership, are all that is left.”

“Then you have violated the terms of your own surrender. Therefore we are not obligated to uphold our end of the bargain. You are all sentenced to death.”

Wade laughed. “So what, you’re just gonna hang us in the town square? No explanation to the masses as to why you went back on the deal?”

One of the men tilted his head. “We will inform the public as to why you are being executed; a public hanging may actually be the best way to convey our message. The people will know that it does not pay to cross the Horsemen.”

I crossed my arms. “Seriously? You’re going to hang us? What, are you big fans of the theatrical?”

The Horseman spread his arms out wide. “In London, right out front in the street, with the whole world watching…I can think of no better end to your insignificant little rebellion. You should feel honored that we are sending you off with such a spectacle. When we find the others, they will not be so honored.”

The Horsemen walked away from our cell, and the four of us slid to the ground. There was nothing left to do but wait and sleep.

The next day, the Horsemen put out a broadcast, telling the world that what was left of the Valkyrie Order was to be publicly hanged at noon in two days. The execution would be broadcast on every channel worldwide, as a reminder to the citizens of the world what happens to those who step out of line. We saw the whole little advertisement on the t.v. down the hall from us. The Horsemen’s taste for big, public displays of power was starting to get kind of old; the news of our own executions was so over the top that it was actually somewhat boring.

And so our execution day was upon us soon enough. We were marched out in front of the Parliament building, and the sight that met our eyes was astounding. A wooden gallows had been erected right at the base of the stairs; the platform stood nearly fifteen feet in the air. The rest of the street had been decorated to look as if it were set in the late Renaissance, with banners hanging from street poles and straw scattered all around. Hay bales were arranged in the street, presumably for seating, and across the lane stood a press box, where the Council members sat facing the gallows.

After being given the opportunity to see the stage for the grand production, black hoods were placed over our heads, and we were led up the stairs and the nooses were placed around our necks. Once mine was set, a familiar voice that I couldn’t quite place began to speak. They obviously decided to suspend the Renaissance theme when it came to amplification, because as soon as the man began to speak, there was a loud squeal of feedback. Once it died down, he began again.

“Ladies and gentlemen, proud citizens of the globe, what you see before you is the fulfillment of justice. These criminals we have here are the cause of all the unrest and violence that has disturbed you for the last two and a half years. Had they complied with our demands, even as of three days ago, their deaths would not have been necessary. However, they have decided that they would rather die in discord than live in harmony; and so, the Horsemen and the Tri-Council have found them guilty of the highest of treasons.

“Here before you is Erica Thompson, long-time leader of the warrior-cult the Valkyrie Order. She has been found guilty of treason against the human race; she is to be hanged by the neck ‘til dead. Next, we have the man who helped form that same cult so many years ago. He has also been found guilty of treason, as well as causing public discord. He is to be hanged by the neck ‘til dead. Finally, we have the two strongest warriors of the Valkyrie Order. They have been found guilty of treason, conspiracy, and over fifty counts of murder each. They are to be hanged by the neck ‘til dead. People of the world, look upon their faces now; look into their eyes, and see the high price of rebelling against the new world order.”

At this point, our hoods were dramatically ripped off our heads. As our eyes adjusted to the sudden noon-time sun, the crowd in front of us came into focus. They seemed afraid; they heard the words of the Horsemen, and they saw right through the theatrics to the main point: step out of line, and they will not hesitate to kill you. This was a scare tactic, and it was working.

The Horseman on stage walked over to me, removed his mask, and spit in my face. “Nothing your precious Order has ever done has even slightly upended any of my plans. You were always ten steps behind; you should have taken my offer two years ago when you had the chance. You could have been a general; now you’ll die like a common killer.”

In that moment, I realized who he was. This man was the assistant from the meeting with the mafia. He was the man we had taken as a hostage a week ago. This man was no assistant, however; he was one hundred percent in charge. Seeing the realization come across my face, he grinned.

“Good, now we’re finally on the same page. It’s been quite difficult to keep this little secret in the bag for so long. I’ve been pulling the strings quietly for years; it’s quite nice to be recognized for all my hard work.”

I grinned right back at him. “Why do villains feel the need to monologue so much? That’s honestly the oldest cliché in the bad guy handbook. You could have killed us by now; better luck next time, I suppose.”

During my conversation with the Horseman, the Council members in the press box shifted their appearance, revealing themselves to be Valkyries. Suddenly, Raven and Dianna, who had been disguised in the crowd, faded from where they stood and teleported to the platform, cutting the four of us loose. During the flurry of activity, the Horseman disappeared, so we all began to push our way through the crowd before the army arrived. We had surprised our enemies, but there was no doubt that they had the cavalry on standby in case things got out of hand.

We finally broke free of the majority of the crowd and began racing down the streets. We had almost gotten out of sight of the gallows when a shot rang out over the clamor. Tragedy grunted, stumbled, and fell. I stopped running, picked her up, threw her over my shoulder, and took off again. There was nothing I could do for her now. Her best chance of survival was to get away from the Horsemen and dig the bullet out when we were in a safe place. After a minute or two I started to worry that she might not have the chance to dig the bullet out later; I glanced down as I ran, and what I thought was sweat soaking my shirt was actually an ungodly amount of blood. I ran as hard as I could, finally getting to where the trucks were waiting. I tossed Tragedy inside onto her stomach to examine the wound.

The shot had gone clean through her; I rolled her over to take a look at the exit wound. It wasn’t bleeding anymore, her face had gone white, and I could tell just by looking at her that she had stopped breathing.

“Dammit! We almost did it…we were almost free…I’m so sorry, Tragedy…I’m so sorry…”

As I apologized, I closed her lifeless eyes. No matter what I did, it seemed I couldn’t keep those I cared about safe. I was one of the most highly skilled human beings to ever walk the face of the earth. It was my job to protect people and to fight off the deadliest of dangers, and yet…and yet for all that skill, all the years of training, I couldn’t keep my closest friend alive. Useless…I was absolutely useless…I’m so sorry, Tragedy…I’m so sorry…