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.”
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.