The next morning the five of us gathered out back as Trodaire brought out the fresh new blades. They had to cool and rest after the initial forging, so they were ready for use by the time we awoke that day. They were jet-blue, with a swirl of black sweeping its way down from hilt to tip. They had a slight curve, being almost imperceptibly wider towards the tips.
“These swords,” Trodaire began, “are an extension of you. They have been made with your gifts and fighting style in mind. They will blend with your shifting ability, as well as conduct as much electricity as you can conjure. They will work well with your adaptive style, and they can withstand any blow you are forced to block.”
He flipped the swords in the air, catching them by the blades, offering the hilts to Luke. As he took them reverently from Trodaire, the man continued, “They are very special weapons, designed to be the most deadly tools of the most deadly assassins. These swords are assassins in their own right; treat them with the respect they deserve.”
Lucas bowed his head, sheathing the blades in the scabbards he carried on his back. The man had no idea what to say; he was blown away by the entire experience.
Wade clapped him on the back. “Welcome to the Order; you’re a Valkyrie now.”
Raven giggled. “Well, he was one already, but now he has the calling card to prove it.”
Trodaire nodded slowly. “Remember, boy: I only make these blades for those whom I deem worthy. That is not something to take lightly.”
Lucas shook his head vigorously. “Of course, sir. Of course.”
“Good man; let’s get you back to Tragedy so she can put you into play. You’re a part of a bigger game now, and there’s probably a lot she needs to catch you up on.”
And so to base we returned yet again. Tragedy took Luke into the conference room where his new team was waiting. She spent a few minutes introducing them, and then left them alone to get to know each other. She walked back down the hall to her office where Wade and I were waiting.
“Thank you for going on that little excursion for me, boys. I felt it was important for him to have that experience alongside a few people he could look up to.”
“Well, I don’t know about all that, but it was a good experience. It reminded me of the day I received my blades; good memories all around,” Wade replied.
Tragedy nodded once, folded her hands, and continued, “So, back down to business. Wade, I’m working on getting something for you and your team, but for now, the only lead I have is going to be followed up by Team 1. There is an informant with whom I have been in contact in Chicago. He is a part of one of the families out there, and he has agreed to talk to you. I am unsure of what he can give us or what he knows, but any information we could get our hands on would be useful at this point.
“His name is Matthew Valentia, and he goes by ‘Grubbs.’ He will meet with you when you arrive, and depending on what he has to say, we will go from there. So, Blaise, the sooner you can get your team out to Chicago, the better.”
“Alright; I’m on it.”
“Good; you’re free to go. Wade, I’d like to talk to you a little bit more. I was wondering how well you have been healing up since the injury…”
I walked out of her office and back down to my apartment, where Dianna and Ricky were waiting for me.
“Hey, stranger; how’d it go?” Dianna asked as I walked up.
“It went well; he’s a very talented kid. I think he’ll fit in just fine on Terry’s team.”
Ricky fist-bumped me (why, I have no idea), and asked, “So did Trodaire completely own him during the sparring match?”
“Not really; Luke is a really good fighter, and he held his own for a while.”
Dianna threw her fist in the air, exclaiming, “PAY UP, LOSER!”
Ricky groaned and rolled his eyes as he pulled twenty dollars from his pocket. “Dammit…I thought for sure the kid would go down easy against the old man.”
Dianna took the money, tapped her temple, and squinted at Ricky. “You know what I
like about you? You don’t do any research before making a stupid bet. I’ll take your money all day long, McMannis. All. Day. Long.”
I looked back and forth between the two of them for a second. “If the casino is closed for the day, we’ve got work to do.”
They both perked up, and I continued. “Yeah, Tragedy wants us in Chicago to meet with another informant, ASAP.”
As they rushed off to grab their gear, I reflected on how much of my life was spent travelling. Under different circumstances, it would probably be really nice; I got to see so much of the world, always heading somewhere different. I had been to almost every country on earth at one time or another, and I had seen some beautiful places. I just happened to be there for less-than beautiful reasons. I decided instead of being so damn broody about it, I should enjoy it for the perk it was; I got to see the world, which did somewhat make up for the REASON I got to see the world. These days it was getting rather difficult to have a positive outlook on things; everything was so unsure and unsettling. I had no idea how Ricky and Dianna managed to be so upbeat all the time.
Anyway, we flew to Chicago, and we met with Grubbs at a local coffee shop. Walking into the place, we knew it was him just by how much he was sweating. He was squealing internal secrets on his home turf; he had every right to be more than a little nervous.
We walked over to him, sat down, and ordered our coffee. We didn’t bother introducing ourselves.
“You know who we are and why we’re here, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, I owed Tragedy a favor for pulling me out of a jam some years back; I have a condition before we start though.”
“…okay…what would that be?”
“Well, word has gotten around about the Old Man. Rumor has it, he was talking to you guys just before he bit the dust. I got kids, man; I can’t have that happening to me.”
“Alright, that seems fair. We can call Tragedy as soon as we leave here and have her send out a protection team to ensure that you are left alone by whoever might want you eliminated. Our protection teams know what to look for, and after a month or two, you should be perfectly safe without their oversight.”
“You’re sure that will do the trick?”
Ricky set down his coffee. “Dude, remember who you’re talking to? We’re the best there is.”
Grubbs shivered. “That’s what I’m told, but these days, I’m not so sure.”
“What makes you say that?”
“That group the Twelve? Yeah, they’re getting more and more involved in local affairs. One of their guys has been back and forth a few times in the last month, meeting with the family heads about ‘business.’”
My team looked at me. I nodded, steepled my fingers, and asked, “Do you have any idea when he will be back in town?”
“Yeah, I figured that was what you guys would want to talk about. There’s supposed to be a big group meeting in three days. This will be the first time he meets with all of them at once, so there’s been a lot of chatter going around about it. I don’t know much, just who and when. That would be every don in the city, three days from now. If you’re here, you can’t miss it. Having all of them together in one place is going to be a big deal.”
“That’s good stuff. Any idea where they’ll be having this meeting?”
He shook his head. “Not for sure. There was talk that they were all getting together for a meal that night, but that may have just been chatter.”
“Alright, Grubbs; is there anything else you can tell us?”
“That’s pretty much it; what I know, you know.”
“Sounds good. I’ll call Tragedy on my way out the door and get that team here by tomorrow morning.”
He smiled wearily. “I appreciate that. I can’t be home with my family, looking over my shoulder all the time. The stress alone would kill me.”
“I understand; keep your nose clean, and if you have anything else for us down the line, get ahold of Tragedy.”
We shook hands and went our separate ways. I called Tragedy and asked for that detail, and told her we would be staying in Chicago to follow this lead. Then, my team and I set up shop, watching the dons as they came and went. Let’s just say it was a boring few days.
During our days of boredom, it definitely seemed like the families were excited about something. There were people in and out constantly. Nothing big happened; they were gearing up for something, so it seemed like Grubbs’ intel was good. In the evening on the third day, the dons, their wives, and their protection details all gathered together and went out to dinner. Grubbs was serious when he said it was a big deal. Eight dons, their wives, and twenty bodyguards formed a convoy and made their way over to a local restaurant. It appeared they had bought the place out, since they were the only people there.
Dinner was kind of a wash; mainly because that’s all it was. They ate, they laughed, and they had a generally good time. No business, no visitors…nothing. After dinner, they all went out to see the symphony orchestra. Ricky was quick to point out that they had whole-heartedly embraced the stereotype, having had dinner at an Italian restaurant and then going to see the symphony.
During intermission, the dons left their wives with about half of the security detail and discreetly snuck into a back room. We followed them and ducked into an adjacent room. I pulled out a listening device (some contraption the Order’s techies had put together a while back; basically you stuck the amplifier to the wall, and it transmitted the sounds to a set of earpieces…it was remarkably helpful in situations like this.) I handed out the earpieces, and Dianna and Ricky kept a watch while we all listened to what was happening on the other side of the wall.
After the men in the room settled down, there was silence for a moment. Then one of them began speaking.
“Good evening, gentlemen. Thank you all for meeting me here tonight. The Twelve send their sincerest apologies, but they had last-minute matters that they needed to attend to. I assure you that the conversation we have tonight can go on as planned, however. As their personal assistant, they have advised me on the entire matter at hand, and have sent me with a very specific message.
“My employers would like to offer you their highest praise for working so seamlessly together and staying out of trouble while still preforming business as usual. One of the issues that came up actually has to do with your less-sophisticated counterparts. The street gangs would do well to learn a thing or two from how you operate. Remaining under the radar is crucial at such an important stage in the plan as this. We have done what we can to keep the eyes of the Order off of your operations over the last few months by offering up certain…distractions.”
There was a collective chuckle from around the room, and he continued. “So news of our other endeavors has made its way around the table. Yes, we are quite pleased with the way things have played out. Now, on to business. I’m sure you don’t want to sit here all night away from your wives.
“The street gangs have been chosen to be foot-soldiers, taking the majority of the front-line casualties due to their lacking intelligence. I’m sure you agree when I say they are merely pawns in the coming stages of the game. The families here, along with the Yakuza and the Triads, have been chosen to take a more organized role in our machinations. Considering you and your men are much more loyal and far more reliable, you will make up the ‘real’ army, as it were.
“Your dignified manner puts you in a more important role in the coming days. When the plan has come to fruition, we fully intend to continue on with you as business partners, facilitating the freedom you have sought for generations in your various endeavors. Our focus right now is actually in the corporate side of things; we encourage you to continue to make friends in high places and maintain your legitimate businesses. There will be no need to branch any further into the government, as the Twelve have that side of things handled. It is imperative that you increase your influence in the corporate world and as when we make our move, that will be your reward. Business and finances will be almost entirely under your control, allowing you to improve your quality of life significantly.
“The business you obtain and continue to grow will be allowed to flourish under your supervision as long as you allow us to conduct our business with the same level of freedom. After the war is over (and it will be a short one, I assure you), we will rule the world, gentlemen. There will be no facet of the world we do not have complete control over. Society will be our footstool; to borrow an old saying, ‘the world will be our oyster.’ My employers have obtained what they were searching for in this phase of the plan, and everything is going better than expected. We are far ahead of schedule.
There was another pause in his presentation before he opened the floor to questions. One of the dons coughed, and then spoke. “When the plan reaches fulfillment, what sort of regulations will we be working under? Will there be any sort of governmental supervision for our endeavors, or will we be exempt from police intervention?”
“Ah, very good question. You see, we plan on eliminating the police force altogether, and instituting the army of the Twelve in their place. You will only work under the regulations you place upon yourselves. We expect you to continue to work together, determining territory and boundaries amongst yourselves.”
Another of the dons asked, “What do you expect from us when all this is over? Right now you require our men and our influence, but after the plan rolls out, what is your cut?”
“Well, the Twelve will request a small portion of the profits in order to continue our personal business, but the vast majority of your profits will belong to you, basically tax free.”
There was some small chatter around the room for a moment. “Sirs, it seems we have reached the conclusion of our meeting. Unless there are other concerns you would like to address or if there are any further questions, we are adjourned. My employers will be in contact with you soon with an update on the next phase of the plan.”
With the meeting over, my team and I were in a tough spot. We wanted to take this “assistant to the Twelve,” but in order to do so, we would probably have to kill just about everyone in the room. We had no idea how many guards he had in there with him, and on top of that, we had no idea what the repercussions of kidnapping him would be. We still knew next to nothing about the Twelve, so we had no clue how harshly they would react, or if they would recede back into the shadows until they were ready to use this “army” they seemed to be building.
All the men in the next room filed out, and we waited until there was no one left in the hall to slip away. Once we were out of the theatre, I called Tragedy and wired her the recording I had made of the meeting.
“Alright,” she said with more than a hint of urgency in her voice, “I think it’s high time we hunt down this other swordsmith Trodaire was talking about. We probably should have done this before, but I’m not sure that was really an option until now. If we can nab this guy, then maybe we can get out ahead of their plans. Good work; I’ll pour over that recording and see if there’s anything else we can glean from it. I’ll run it through voice-recognition and see if we can I.D. this assistant guy. Your job now is to track down Eric Carver and bring him in.”
“Sounds like a good plan; where should we start looking?”
“Let me have the research crew bring me the intel they dug up on him; hang on.” About ten minutes went by before she gave me an address in Marseilles, which was his last known address (as of four months ago.) The Order had thankfully kept a loose watch on him in the years since Tragedy took over. Time to pay him a visit and see what we could dig up.
We made it to Marseilles without incident. Exhausted from running straight from the meeting of the dons to the airport, we went straight to the closest hotel. Even with as urgent as this task was, we would be no good to anyone if we weren’t rested and on top of our game. Six hours later, we hit up the address Tragedy had given me.
The place was deserted. The back door was ajar, so we let ourselves in. The place had been ransacked; it looked like whoever HAD lived here had either left in a hurry, or they had been taken rather violently. We picked through the mess for a few minutes before gathering in the front room.
Ricky cracked his knuckles nervously. “What do you think, chief?”
I pursed my lips and furrowed my brow. “You know…I’m not sure. They either ran out of here as fast as they could, or they were ripped from this place with a vengeance. Did you see anything that tripped that sixth-sense of yours, Di?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think they left on their own. This place has been ripped apart; I think they were taken. My guess is Mr. Carver and his family have been taken by the Twelve. From what I see here, I would say he’s not working for them by choice.”
As she finished her thought, five masked men came flying down the stairs, swords pointed our direction. “Oh, come ON!” Ricky groaned.
I took a flying leap at the first one down the stairs, knocking him backwards into the man right behind him. The other three leapt over my head, engaging Ricky and Dianna. The two still on the stairs regained their balance quickly, attacking me as one. I ducked and spun to my left, swinging at the exposed backside of one of the men. He slipped just out of reach as my blade swished through the space he had just vacated.
The two of them squared off against me again, and I had to back up a few feet to keep from succumbing to the flurry of blows. I dropped down and slid beneath one of them as he swung at me, slicing the tendon on the inside of his knee as I went by. His partner realized they were going to lose the fight and he must have been a torcher, because he blasted a series of fireballs around the room, engulfing the entire area in flames.
The three facing Ricky and Dianna must have done the same thing, because within seconds, the entire house was ablaze. I grabbed the man I had cut down and dragged him out front, where I met up with my team, who had knocked on of their attackers unconscious and carried him out with them.
“Yeah, Blazer, we’re fine,” Ricky said.
“I guess we have the answer to our question, then,” Dianna quipped.
I wiped my brow. “Yeah, I’d say that’s a bit of an understatement. They were waiting for us…”
Ricky finished my thought, saying, “…which means they knew we would come. They’re a mile ahead of us.”
Dianna shook her head, and kicked the man I had carried out as he tried to crawl away. “But why did they only send five guys? We’ve wiped out more than this dozens of times.”
“Not lately; recently, we’ve been more evenly matched man-to-man,” I replied.
I slugged our escapee and knocked him out, and we tied up both of our unconscious prisoners. I called Tragedy and told her that we hadn’t found Carver, but we had two captives we could interrogate. She instructed us to come back to base, and she would debrief us when we arrived.
Getting two bound men through security at the airport proved to be somewhat difficult, but Ricky was able to convince the authorities that we were transporting two prisoners back to the U.S. because they were escaped criminals. In my opinion, it was one of his best acting performances ever. He kept demanding that they get the Council on the phone, and that he was going to report them for inhibiting a global matter. It worked out quite well; we rode first-class all the way home, and Tragedy herself picked us up at the airport to take us back to base.
When we arrived, Tragedy took us to the conference room. “Just stay here for a minute, and I’ll be back after I deal with our other situation.”
She then left, locking us in the room. As soon as we heard the door lock, we ran to the window and raised the blinds just in time to see half the people outside, including Tragedy herself, shift into other people and start killing the people around them. The person we thought was Tragedy smiled wickedly at us as he walked past the window. It was the most helpless I had ever felt.
We watched as what seemed like the entire Order was slaughtered right before us, and we were unable to do anything about it. The conference room was designed to be the safest place on base; the windows were reinforced bulletproof glass, the doors were six solid inches of spidersteel, the strongest material on the planet. We were trapped until they decided it was time to come and kill us as well.
After an hour, the door opened and then quickly closed. A voice from the air said, “Not to sound cliché, but come with me if you want to live. Wade sent me in to get you.”
Considering we were in no position to refuse, we went along. As we stepped out into the hall, Jackie, Wade’s shifter, came into view. She gave us a reassuring smile, and then shifted to look like one of the soldiers who had ransacked the base. She firmly escorted us right out of the building, and then broke into a run.
“Our team is right over the hill. We need to get the hell out of here; Wade can explain when we are safely away.”
We raced away from the base and over the hill, where Wade was waiting with his other team member in an SUV.
“Wait!” I said as firmly as I could without yelling. “How do we know it’s you?”
Wade groaned loudly. “Uhhh…when we were in recruit training, you broke four of my ribs during a sparring match. LET’S GO!”
That was good enough for me, so I climbed into the truck, followed quickly by my team. We were ten minutes down the road before Wade started to explain what was going on.
“So, considering you were inside, I’m sure you know that the Twelve hit the Base. My team and I had been out on a short surveillance mission, a throw-away to kill some time, when I got a message from Tragedy that something had come up. No explanation, no orders, just ‘something came up.’ I decided to cut the mission short and come back, when all three of us got an Order-wide message telling all agents in the field to return to Base immediately. I got a funny feeling about it, so we parked the truck where you found us, and I sent Jackie in to scope out the situation. She came back right away and said that guys dressed like the ones we had fought on the rooftops were cutting people down left and right.
“I couldn’t believe it; we had somehow been infiltrated and taken down from the inside. I had Jackie go back inside and see if there were any survivors. She saw you wherever you were holed up and brought you back to me. Now…well, frankly, now I’m not sure what we do. I’m assuming Tragedy’s dead or taken. We need to find a place to lay low and figure this crap out.”
I nodded, taking it all in briefly before snapping into action-mode. “Okay…I know Terry’s team is out somewhere training. Hopefully we can contact them before they get back to Base and tell them to find a place to hide. We should probably get ahold of Raven and Trodaire. The Twelve may not know where they are, so we could have a safe place to hunker down and formulate a plan.”
“What about the other teams?” Dianna asked, saying out loud what we were all wondering.
“I’m…I’m not sure what to do about the other teams. I know at least half of us were at Base when this hit the fan, and who knows how many of the teams were out and responded to the message that was sent out. We have to assume that we are on our own, and hope that’s not truly the case.”
As we continued to drive, I called Raven. I gave her a brief rundown of what had happened. We agreed that the safest place for us right now was the cottage, and we would meet there to determine how to proceed. It was a very stressful journey. It took us three days, because we were doing everything we could to stay under the radar. We were constantly looking over our shoulders, expecting to see an army running after us, ready to destroy what was left of our Order.
Finally, however, we arrived. Trodaire ushered us into the dining room immediately, and when everyone was settled, I told him everything I knew, from start to finish. It took a few hours, with my fellow Valkyries adding information and telling points of the story occasionally.
“…so here we are. Our base has been compromised, our Order has been decimated, Tragedy is dead or dying, and this is the only safe haven we have in the whole world.”
Trodaire sat stroking his chin, as he had during the entire tale. His eyes darted back and forth as he thought, not really seeing what was before them; he mulled over the information for several minutes in silence before saying anything.
“Raven, get everyone a cup of tea; they have been through quite an ordeal, and they deserve some rest and comfort.”
As Raven brewed the tea, Trodaire stared at me intently, rapping his fingers against the table. He looked up at the rafters of the cottage after a while and took a deep breath.
“It seems times have suddenly become much darker than even I had anticipated. To call this a dilemma or a catastrophe would be a gross understatement. I am going to need some time to think this over before I can be of any assistance going forward.”
With that, he took his pipe and went out front. After the tea was ready, Raven served everyone and gave everyone a place to lay down for the night. Within an hour, everyone inside except for Raven and myself had passed out. Raven and I refilled our mugs and stepped out back. The sky was clear and calm, with the stars shining bright and strong against the inky blue.
“It’s almost like nothing happened,” she said after a sip of her tea.
“Being out here, it’s so calm and quiet; it’s deceptive. You wouldn’t even know anything had happened. The world has changed drastically this week, and looking up at those stars, you would think that nothing had changed at all.”
I looked up and stared off into space. She was right; it was too quiet. It felt like there should be a disturbance in the heavens, considering how a violent rip had torn its way through the world so suddenly. Behind us, Trodaire stepped forward, puffing his pipe like a chimney.
“It could be argued,” He said, “that chaos is the way of humankind, and thus the natural state of the universe. From the perspective of the stars, nothing has changed. History is simply a collection of stories about one group of people killing another. However, this was the very reason the Order was organized to begin with. From a strategic standpoint, this is the smartest thing our opponent could have done. The problem is in making their very violent entrance to center stage, they have angered the most deadly group of individuals to ever walk the face of the earth. They no longer have the element of surprise on their side, and sooner or later, we will find them and exact a very specific type of justice.
“We simply need to formulate a plan to maximize the use of our resources. I believe I have a plan to do just that, but it will require more thought and refinement, along with a little more information about what is going on in the world and the gathering of the remaining Valkyries. In the morning, we will discuss my plan as a group, but for now, I am going to sleep.”
He turned around and walked back inside, and Raven and I followed. I placed my mug in the sink and found an empty couch on which to sleep. The days of peaceful sleep were over; peaceful or not, however, it was still necessary.