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.

New Recruits (Valkyries Chapter Eleven)

 

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin

 

For two years, we quietly rebuilt the Valkyrie Order. The world continued to change and tumble further into chaos, and we continued to assemble an army to fight back. In that time span, we were able to recruit and train a lot of new fighters. It was nowhere near enough time to train them as extensively as we had been trained, but it was enough time to teach them to stay alive.

Our attack on the Council building may have been less successful than we had hoped, but our relatively low numbers did play in our favor on another front: we were able to blend in and disrupt the function and growth of the new regime with a guerilla-style quite effectively. We could send in a few fighters, have them cause a ruckus, and get out without losing a single man most of the time.

After losing two-thirds of their leadership the Twelve realized they couldn’t call themselves “the Twelve” anymore, so they changed their name to “the Horsemen.” They wanted a name that inspired fear and loyalty from their subjects, and what better way than to call yourselves by a name that invokes an image of the bringers of a biblical apocalypse?

Anyway, so the Horsemen set themselves up as the supreme governing force, but they quickly realized that in order to maintain control over the populace, they would have to keep the Tri-Council in some sort of governing capacity. The Horsemen made all the rules, but they kept the Council as their puppet. It really wasn’t going well. In fact, their takeover caused so much unrest, that they found they didn’t have enough soldiers to keep the peace. They instituted a draft program for their army, forcing young men from their homes. These men were usually stationed near where they were from so that when people from their region started getting out of hand, they would be forced to punish their friends and families.

This went over about as well as a lead balloon, so once the draft went into effect, we saw a rise in our own numbers, as some of them would escape and defect over to the resistance. In the two years after the attack on the council building, we slowly became a force to be reckoned with. While the world was falling to pieces, hope was still on the rise.

The safehouse in Dublin was our first new base of operations, but we soon outgrew it, and were forced to go looking for a new place to muster our forces. There was an old bunker outside of Seattle that we found, and we quickly were able to renovate it and make it into a functional base. It was big enough that we could house and train the majority of our forces at once. It was under these new circumstances that I found myself at the Seattle base, making my way to a strategic planning meeting with Trodaire, Tragedy, Raven, and Wade.

As everyone arrived, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the last two years had changed us all. We all seemed so much older and wearier than before. The struggles had affected us all quite heavily. Wade seemed to carry the weight of things in his expressions; he always seemed to be thinking of something else, and the stress had permanently etched itself into his face. Raven had developed a thick gray streak in her hair (which actually was pretty cool, there was just no proper time or place these days to admire such trivial things). Tragedy had changed the most, it seemed. It was more than just the lines and expressions on her face; it was the way she carried herself, her attitude, and her personality. The effort of holding the resistance together had worn her out, for sure, but it had also given her the motivation to redouble her efforts and keep pushing forward. So while it had affected her just as heavily as the rest of us, I couldn’t help but wonder what she would do with herself once the war was over. If we won, and we survived, would the current break-neck pace fully catch up with her?

I shook these thoughts from my head as we began the meeting. Tragedy straightened her jacket, adjusted her glasses, and checked the notebook in front of her.

“Alright…just a few things to discuss real quick before we get down to the meatier topics. Let’s start with…” She clucked her tongue as she ran down the list with her pen. “Uh, Wade, how are things looking out East?”

Wade sat up and cleared his throat. He shrugged. “Things are still pretty quiet. The Horsemen haven’t made any further moves or developments since the last attack. No troops have been shipped in, and obviously no bombs have been dropped, so I’d say they have turned their attention elsewhere; for now, at least, things are fine on that front.”

Tragedy nodded. “Okay, that’s good to hear…Raven, any updates from Recon?”

Raven, who was chewing gum and in the process of popping a bubble, was clearly surprised that she had been called upon. She nearly swallowed her gum, and Tragedy rolled her eyes as Raven coughed and sputtered.

“Uh, sorry…um…yeah, as far as Recon goes, we’re starting to hit a bit of a wall. Either the Horsemen are getting better at hiding their actions, or they are slowing down and making fewer moves. Very little has been observed or reported in the last several months, and things have crawled almost to a standstill in the last few weeks. They seem to be simply sitting still.”

“Any idea why that is?” Tragedy asked.

Raven pursed her lips and shook her head. “No, as far as I can tell, there is no development coming down the pipeline. It’s almost like they are just tired and taking a break.”

“Perhaps they are having internal issues that are inhibiting worldwide activities,” Trodaire proposed.

There was a collective nod at the table. “Perhaps it is time for another attack, then?” Wade asked quietly.

“No, we don’t have the numbers yet to risk an attack. Soon; am I correct in assuming we should be ready soon, Trodaire?”

The man gave a single nod in response.

“Good. Speaking of which, that is actually why I called this meeting. We have a batch of troops going through training right now that I am very interested in getting an update on.”

Trodaire took a breath. “I am immensely proud of the current batch of recruits. They are highly skilled and very intelligent; they are the most promising group I have seen yet. I fully expect to be forging more than a few pairs of blades very soon.”

“How many teams are you expecting?”

“I believe we will be able almost fully replenish our Valkyrie numbers (so fifteen new Valkyries or so), and any who do not pass the Valkyrie test will make a tremendous group of fighters in their own right. I don’t think we will have a single washout from this group whatsoever.”

“That is excellent news. As soon as those teams are ready to hit the field, we will be ready to go forward with the plan. Is everyone still on board with this?”

There was another collective nod from those at the table.

“Good. Keep up the good work; we have fought so hard to get where we are. We can see the end of the road finally; it is still a long way off, but we have a legitimate chance of turning all of this around. Don’t lose heart. You’ve done so much and come so far. Hang in there; things will get better. Now, unless anyone has anything else to say, I think this meeting can be brought to an end.”

We all stood. The news about the Horsemen backing off their attack and Trodaire having success with the new recruits was great, but we all knew that we were hanging on by a thread. One well-timed attack by the Horsemen’s army, or one unlucky break for us, and we were toast. We were doing really well, but things were still very touch and go. It was hard to enjoy the victories we were experiencing when we were always so violently aware of the immense danger we were in.

Raven walked over to me after the meeting ended.

“I see Tragedy didn’t put her golden boy on the spot today.”

“Ah, well…what can I say; there are perks to being good friends with your boss.”

She smiled. “I guess. She called on me, and I wasn’t expecting it at all; I gave her a report on Recon two days ago, so I thought she’d just pass me up. Then out of nowhere she calls me out, and I almost needed someone to give me the Heimlich.”

“I noticed. That’s what you get for being so nonchalant during an official meeting.”

“I never thought bubble gum would be my downfall,” she said, shaking her head. “But I suppose that’s the price I have to pay for being a badass. I can’t have you guys thinking that I care about anything; that would ruin years of work. I have a reputation to uphold.”

“I suppose that’s fair. I wouldn’t want you to compromise who you are for anything as trivial as the fate of the human race.”

“Exactly.” She clapped me on the shoulder as she continued, “Blazer, you just get me. I love it.”

We laughed together for a moment. “So, Blaise…what DOES Tragedy have you doing these days?”

I shrugged. “Mostly security details here and there. I will run the occasional night raid, but I haven’t even done one of those in a few months. With things being so quiet, I’ve kind of just been sitting on my ass. Not a whole lot for me to do until the recruits are ready for the test.”

“Gotcha. Kinda like the days back before all this stuff started.”

“What do you mean?”

“Ever since the whole business with the Twelve started, you were on dangerous assignments, risking your life on a daily basis. Before all this kicked us all in the ass, you were on pretty basic missions, for the most part. You had the occasional scare, but basically you were sitting around waiting for something to happen.”

“I suppose; the difference these days is I EXPECT something big to happen, as opposed to the days when I WISHED something big would happen. I seriously dread the coming of the days where I am actually needed. It seems like there is so much more at stake than there used to be.”

“I don’t see it that way; the stakes are the same. The risks are the same. I think you are more aware of the risks nowadays. Now that there is a threat that has proven it can stand up to you, you’re a little shaken. I mean, it’s understandable; the last two years have been absolute hell. We’ve all seen friends and colleagues die; way more than we imagined we ever would. We all had that nightmare where people died and there was nothing we could do about it, but I don’t think any one of us believed it was an actual possibility.

“Just keep your chin up, though. I know all this stuff is depressing and kinda scary, but this is our world. We deal with the scary stuff and laugh in its face. Someday, that’s exactly what I plan on doing to each one of the Horsemen. That’s the kind of stuff that has to carry you through, Blaise: you gotta have hope that everything you do, and everything you have done, is worth it. Because it is. Everything we do is going somewhere, and regardless of how long it takes, we will put things right in the world.”

I laughed dryly. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course I am,” she said as she winked at me. “I always am, remember?”

As she walked away, Wade and Trodaire made their way over to where I was standing.

“Hey, Blazer; Trodaire has some more good news for us.”

I turned to Trodaire as he began, “The current group of recruits are almost ready for the test. I plan on having them take it in a day or two, and then they will be ready for team formation and leadership training. If you want to make your way to the cottage within the next couple of days, we should be ready to begin.”

“Yeah, that sounds good. We’ll be there.”

“Well, gentlemen, I would love to stay and chat, but I have to get back to the cottage and get everything ready for the recruit test. I will be seeing you very soon.”

“Indeed, sir. Be safe.”

The man smirked. “Come on now, boy; let’s remember who taught YOU how to be safe and careful. I think I’ll be alright.”

As Trodaire walked away, Wade crossed his arms. “Did you ever think it would come to this?”

“Come to what, exactly?”

“You and me, training the new recruits, inducting them into the Order.”

“I guess eventually, if the job didn’t kill us first. Of course, I thought we would be older, closer to Trodaire’s age, when we got here.”

He nodded. “I guess I could never see that far down the road. I thought I’d just be in the field for the rest of my days. I never expected to be the one they all looked up to. We are to these kids what the General and Trodaire were to us when we first got inducted. They look at us like we’re superheroes.”

“I mean, I guess, in a sense, we kind of are. A century or two ago, people could only dream of doing the things we do today.”

“You know what I mean though, right? I guess what I wasn’t expecting was the…I don’t know…”

“…responsibility? The weight of such a lofty leadership role?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much hitting the nail on the head. I just always saw myself as a fighter.”

“I’m sure Trodaire did as well. He still talks like he’s just some lowly swordsmith, and yet he taught us everything as recruits. At some point, those of us who survive become the teachers. It’s the way it has to be if order is to be upheld. Don’t get me wrong, though; I still want to die with a sword in my hand and blood on my face.”

“You’re damn right.”

“What do you say we make our way out to the cottage and take a look at the fresh meat in action before the induction?”

“That sounds like a plan to me.”

So we travelled to Trodaire’s place and watched the recruits as they trained for a couple of days. Finally, the test day came, and just as Trodaire expected, all of the recruits passed, with fifteen scoring high enough to qualify for the Valkyrie Order. Afterwards, the regular soldiers and fighters were sent back to Tragedy, Trodaire set off to begin forging the new blades, and Wade and I gathered those who qualified for the Order for an induction ceremony. When they were all lined up in front of us, Wade gave a speech he had prepared.

“You fifteen have been identified as being fit to bear the title of Valkyrie. This is not a name that is passed on lightly. It carries with it the responsibility of both upholding the honor for which the Order stands, and that of protecting the citizens of this world. Right now, we are in the midst of the greatest war the Valkyrie Order has ever been a part of; we are facing the greatest threat to humankind since the Great Plague.

“You are being called upon today to stand and fight in defense of the masses. I won’t lie to you: you may not live to see brighter days. You will see battle, and soon; you will be forced to pick up your blades and fight until every ounce of strength you possess has been spent, and then some. Your road is a dangerous one, and I would not blame any one of you if you decided to back out now. There is no shame in doing the work of a foot soldier. If that is your decision, the Order will honor that; we understand that the risks we undertake as Valkyries cannot be forced upon anyone. The name of the Valkyrie Order must be taken up willingly, as once it is taken up, there is no going back.

“If there are any of you that are having second thoughts, and wish to step aside, now is the time to speak up. Once this ceremony is over, you are Valkyries until you die. Now…are there any that have decided that the life of a Valkyrie is not for them?”

There was silence, and no one stepped forward.

“Good; I believe that each and every one of you will be a fine addition to our Order. Congratulations, welcome to the finest fighting squad this world has ever seen.”

There was a roar that was surprisingly powerful that arose from the fifteen newest members of the Order. Wade continued when the cheers died down, “Alright, Blaise and I have been watching you, and we believe we know your skill sets well enough that we can form you into teams of three. Over the next few days, you will work alongside your new teammates; get to know them better than you know yourselves. Your teammates are now your family; in many ways, they are more than that, though. Your team is an extension of you. You must learn to trust each other without reservation, relying on each other more than you have ever relied upon anyone in your lives. The exercises we will be performing will teach you to anticipate their actions, and help you to rely on them as much as the very breath in your lungs.”

After Wade was finished, I said, “During this time, we will also be watching you closely to determine team leaders. We already have a fairly good idea who will be leading each team, but the final decisions will be made towards the end of the week. Once team leaders are assigned, there will be several more days of training, during which time your blades will be issued to you. After training is complete, we will all return to base, where you will continue to train until you are assigned to your first field missions.”

After forming the new teams, we spent the next three days putting them in situations where they were forced to work together. We would take them out into the forest and drop them in fifty foot holes in the ground, or we would have four teams attack one team all at once, among other exercises we remembered from our training days with the General. At the end of the third day, we picked one member from each team and assigned them the role of team leader. Once all had been chosen, we marched them right back into the woods for two more days, pushing them to their physical and psychological limits, all the while impressing upon them the weight of their responsibilities as leaders.

While we were gone, Trodaire continued to work with the remaining members, helping to fine-tune their fighting styles, skills, and use of their gifts. When we returned with the team leaders, we reunited them with their teammates and gave them a solid night’s rest before resuming team-building exercises. The next morning, we threw the teams into a brand-new scenario and stepped back to watch how they would handle themselves.

Halfway through the exercise, one of the team leaders grew incredibly frustrated with his teammates and began shouting at them and belittling them. Wade and I rushed over to him, knocking him onto his back. Kneeling down on the man’s chest, Wade called the other teams over to where we were.

“Everybody, gather around; this is important. In fact, this may be the most important thing I have to teach you.” Looking straight into the eyes of the man on whose chest he was kneeling, he said, “Why did we choose you to lead? Was it because we thought you were better than your teammates? Not at all, recruit. Not by a long shot; in fact, team leaders are generally the worst and least talented members of their teams. No, we chose you because we believe you have what it takes to bring out the best in your teammates.

“You have the ability to make them better. You can do nothing without them. They are better skilled, stronger, faster, and it seems in your case, more level-headed. As team leader, you have to learn to squelch your frustrations and figure out how to LEAD your team. Don’t abuse them; INSPIRE them.”

Wade then stood and helped the recruit up to his feet. “Fight me,” he challenged.

I tossed each of them a pair of training batons, and the recruit quickly lost. It was almost embarrassingly quick.

“Why are you fighting by yourself? Weren’t you listening to me? You can do NOTHING without them.”

The recruit turned red in the face and called his team into the fight, and as they passed me, I handed them both a pair of batons as well. With all three of them fighting, they lasted a minute or two longer, but the team leader was still fighting separately from them, so Wade was easily able to divide them and finish them off quickly. As they stood, Wade nodded to the team leader, saying, “Show them how to be better. You know the fight, and you know your team; guide them.”

The team leader huddled up with his teammates, telling them where he believed Wade was weak, and instructing them on where to strike first, and encouraging them to use their gifts. When he had finished, they lined up and attacked as one. Their first attack pushed Wade back a bit, allowing two members to encircle him, forcing him to continuously duck and spin as he fought. The battle lasted for almost ten minutes, with Wade finally knocking them all down. He was smiling and panting as he helped them all up from where they had fallen.

“That was much better. As a team, use your strengths to boost each other up; as a team leader specifically, use your strengths to improve theirs. Nice work, rookie.”

The other four teams clapped and cheered, and the training continued. Several days later, the blades were ready. There was a small ceremony as they were assigned to each new member, and afterwards we allowed the teams to celebrate a little bit. The next morning, we escorted them all back to base, thanking Trodaire for his help before we left. When we arrived, Tragedy congratulated the new members on joining the Order, and told them that she would have missions and operations for them soon, but they could all rest for a day or two until she was ready for them.

When the rookies had all left, Tragedy turned to us.

“I hate to do this to you, but I need you two back on the plane and in Dublin as soon as possible. I need you to meet up with your teams there and get caught up on whatever changes may have occurred since you left for Ukraine. Now that the teams are here, I can prep them and ship them out fairly quickly. The plan should be ready to go into effect shortly.”

And just like that, we were on our way back to Dublin.

The Wounded Take Revenge

The next morning, we all gathered in the dining room for coffee. The morning news was on the t.v. in the background, but none of us were really paying much attention to it. We were all anxiously waiting to hear what Trodaire had to say. The man silently came into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. He paid no attention to the seven pairs of eyes pointed at him until he had finished his first cup of coffee and poured himself a second.

“We must fight back,” he said. “There is no other option. To live in hiding for the rest of our lives is a coward’s way, and I do not think any of you to be a coward. The question remains, then, of how we go about our resistance. It must be done intelligently and strategically. Our opponents have shown themselves to be very cunning and very capable; an unorganized assault would be squelched before it even began.

“Blaise, you mentioned last night that there was potentially another team that had survived the attack, correct?”

I panicked for a moment. “Shoot…in the mess of things that were going on, I forgot to try and get ahold of them.”

“Calm…be calm. There is nothing that can be done about that now, and frankly, it is completely understandable. You cannot be expected to consider everyone involved when your own life is in constant peril. What you must do is contact them. If they are alive and free, have them meet us in Dublin. Once you are sure that it is truly them, you can give them the address of the safehouse I have there. We will set up our base of operations there. I do not believe this cottage to have been compromised, but I would still prefer to keep this as a safe haven in case some other unforeseen catastrophe strikes us. We will gather there in a week’s time. I will meet you there, and we will begin to formulate a plan to strike back. In the meantime, I am going to do some research and field work on my own. I will try to get some information from some of my old contacts, and hopefully have a better idea of what we are up against. Until then, hunker down in Dublin, stay out of sight, and wait for me there.”

“I’m coming with you,” Raven said.

“No, my dear, I want you to go with the Valkyries. I will be safer if I am alone. An old man by himself will be less conspicuous than if he has a young woman at his side.”

“That’s massively sexist…”

“And yet it is still true. No one will give me a second glance, whereas if you are traipsing across Europe with me, we are more likely to be seen. We are all safer if you wait with them until the time for action comes along.”

With a “harrumph,” Raven crossed her arms and began tapping her foot. The conversation probably would have gone further, but something on the news caught our eye and captured everyone’s attention. The t.v. went fuzzy for a moment, and the morning news was replaced with an image of a long, curved table, and at the table sat twelve masked men. One of them stood and began to speak.

“Citizens of the world, we are the Twelve. We are a conglomerate of men who believe that the world is in need of a drastic change. We demand that the Tri-Council surrender their authority over to us and allow us to put the world in its proper order. If the Tri-Council does not surrender, their seats will be taken by force. We believe that they have become fat, weak, and soft in their current state, and the world has suffered greatly because of it. They have become an infection to our species; an infection that must be removed immediately.

“We have brought the Valkyrie Order to its knees. They, too, had become weak and needed to be replaced. We have taken control of various local governments and corporations, and we have built an army that is ready to wage war upon any who oppose us if a new world order is not established. It is not our desire that any blood be spilled, but if it is necessary, we are more than prepared.

“Any rebellion will be crushed without mercy. Any who wish to join our ranks, however, will be welcomed with open arms and shown just how reasonable we can be. Any remaining members of the Valkyrie Order are encouraged to join our cause. You will be given positions of authority as captains and generals, and you will be properly compensated for your contribution to society. Any of your Order who resist will be killed, and your bodies will be displayed as a warning against any further rebellion.

“We are not monsters; we believe that this transition can be accomplished without any violence. We do not wish that any would die, but that, together, we can remake the world into a place of utopian bliss. We are the Twelve; we will be heard, we will restore order, and we will not be opposed.”

Just as quickly as it began, the broadcast ended. The news returned to the screen, but the newscasters were so stunned that they could not speak. Likewise, those of us in the room sat in complete silence.

Trodaire stood and turned off the t.v. and straightened his shirt. “They are cunning, that’s for sure. They almost sound reasonable there. That is all the more reason for us to move quickly. We must stop them before they take control of the Council. These men will stop at nothing to rule the world and make its citizens their slaves. The code of the Valkyrie Order must be upheld; we must protect the people at all costs.”

Trodaire’s speech broke the spell that seemed to be holding us all. We rose, gathered our things, and left the cottage. I was able to contact Terry and tell him to meet us in Dublin. The seven of us slowly made our way across Europe. We were concerned about being spotted; Terry had told me that there were roaming groups of soldiers, turning over every rock, looking for us.

It took us several days to get there, but we finally made it to the coast and took a boat to Ireland. Terry and his team arrived mere hours after we did, and when he did, we all shut ourselves in at the safehouse. We kept a constant eye on the news, watching for any more announcements from the Twelve as we waited for Trodaire to arrive. Six days after the broadcast, Trodaire arrived with five other people. When he had reached his contacts, they all insisted that they wanted to help in any way they could. So our little army grew to sixteen.

When the newcomers had gotten situated in the house, Trodaire decided to address everyone present.

“Times are dark; I think we can all agree on that. We are up against a very powerful enemy. They use deception and guile just as easily as they use their brute force. These times make me want to trust no one, and I am already a very cautious man. However, if we are to overcome this beast, we must trust each other like never before. I have the upmost faith in every one of you. It will be an uphill battle every step of the way, but we can succeed; we MUST succeed. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say the fate of the world rests on our shoulders.

“We have two missions, in my mind. We must fight back, obviously. But we must also find Tragedy. It is possible that the Twelve did not kill her, and if she is still alive, she will be a valuable asset to us. She has led the Order for some time now, and has proved her exceptional ability to lead time and time again. If she is still alive, she is vital to this fight. If she is not, all hope is not lost. We still can overcome the Twelve. We must make a move immediately to eliminate the Twelve. We cannot take on their army as we stand, but we CAN take out their leadership. Regardless of what happens next, the road to reestablishing peace will be a long one. We must move quickly and begin the process.”

Over the next few days, we rested up and began to plan an attack. During the week between the cottage and everyone arriving in Dublin, the Twelve had taken the Tri-Council building in New York by force. They had established themselves as the ruling party, keeping the Council hostage there. We decided that our only option was to attack the building and eliminate the Twelve there. It was the only place where we knew we could find them all.

When we were ready, we made the trip back to America. We knew we had to attack them during the day, when they were all there together. On the day of attack, we lined up across the street and simply charged the front door. Sometimes insanity is the answer; the unexpected, surprise attack was our best bet, and they would least expect us to attack them in broad daylight. In theory, at least. Either way, we marched across the street for freedom.

We blasted through the front door, charging straight for the council room, cutting through anyone who stood in our way. It was surprisingly easy going at first. Once we burst through the council room doors, things got really hairy. The Twelve were seated at the table, and between us and them stood thirty armed soldiers. As we fought through them, a host of guards came pouring through the door behind us, as well as dozens jumping down from the balcony above.

Remember the training exercise with my team in the simulator? The one with the never-ending horde of opponents in the hallway? It was a lot like that. We were getting separated and cut down. Fire, lightning, and bullets flew through the air in the council room. Dianna and I made it through the horde to the Twelve, and just started going into a frenzy. While we attacked the Twelve, we were fending off attacks from behind us, as the guards kept pressing into the room.

I swung my blade at the first member of the Twelve I reached, and he just sat there, like he didn’t expect me to kill him. His head went flying, and Dianna jumped over the table, taking two down in one motion, driving her blades through their chests. She stood, and a guard came flying over the table at her, knocking her onto her back. I wasn’t able to help, as the second member of the Twelve I rushed, pulled a gun from under the table and started firing. The first shot missed me, but the second hit my left elbow, shattering the bones and causing me to drop my blade.

I chopped his gun hand off with my other sword and ran him through. When I withdrew my blade, I was pushed forward over his dead body by a wave of people rushing in behind me. I grabbed my fallen blade with my good hand and shoved in into the sheath on my back, and then stood to continue fighting. When I regained my feet, the sight before me was abysmal. Our rag-tag group of fighters was falling to pieces. In a moment, everything shifted. Wade got knocked down, and one of the soldiers with a blade, went to impale him. Lucas saw this happening and launched himself at the man, opening a hole in the wall of madness for Wade to get up and, along with Jackie and Ricky, race towards the back of the room.

Everyone but Luke was running towards the back of the room. When he hit that guard, the man had turned the tip of the blade towards Lucas, so while he had driven his blade through the soldier’s head (and the faces of everyone he subsequently bowled over), he couldn’t avoid being impaled himself. He had just enough strength to stand, withdraw the sword from his chest, and collapse. Right as he fell, I saw Trodaire running my way, slicing guards to ribbons as he passed them. He vaulted over the table and tackled me, throwing us both out the picture window behind me. What was left of our little battalion followed suit, and we all hit the ground running.

“We’ve done what we can today, Blaise; it’s time to retreat, regroup, and live to fight another day,” Trodaire said to me as he pushed me along.

We ran to the trucks we had waiting nearby and took off, driving until we were three hours outside the city. All told, we had killed eight of the Twelve, but it had cost us dearly. The only ones of our group to survive the day were Blaise, Jackie, Trodaire, and my team. There were only six of us left, and we were all beat up pretty good. We made our way to an old Valkyrie safehouse nearby to gather some bandages and food before we went back into hiding. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found it had been burned to the ground.

We got out of the truck and sifted through the wreckage, looking for anything that might have survived the carnage. At one point, Trodaire picked something up, turned it over in his hands quizzically, and walked over to us.

“I want the five of you to go back to Dublin and wait for me there. You need to rest and heal from your wounds, and I have just remembered something that I need to look into right away. No time for explanation and no room for argument. Take the truck; I’ll go on foot from here.”

With that, he tossed the keys to Ricky, who was the least injured of all of us, and took off running towards the woods. Considering we didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, the rest of us climbed back into the truck and began another secretive trip to Dublin. We spent two weeks hiding out there, our wounds healing more and more each day. By the end of the two weeks, I was almost able to use my arm again.

While we concerned ourselves with basic survival after the bloodbath at the Tri-Council building, Trodaire was off on some secret mission, and during those two weeks, we never heard from him. One day, he simply walked in the door, saying, “I have big news.” And he did, because right behind him was Tragedy.

After our initial shock at seeing her, we all clamored for an answer. Trodaire held up his hand. “Hang on, give me a moment to explain what happened. When we saw that the safehouse had been burned down, I found an old Roman Catholic cross necklace that had belonged to the General among the ashes. I used to have one as well, and we marked them individually on the back, so that we would know they were ours.

“We used to use them as a message; when we knew we would be gone before the other arrived somewhere, we would leave the cross behind, which meant for them to meet us at an old cabin the General had in Virginia. Well, considering mine was around my neck, and he had given his to Tragedy, I had a hunch that she knew about our little system. I took off, stole a car, and made my way to the cabin. I found her holed up in the back bedroom with a shotgun aimed at the door with both barrels loaded.”

At this point, Tragedy took over the story. “On the day that the Twelve took the Base, they had me locked away in one of the rooms. They were trying to get me to contact the teams in the field. I got ahold of Wade, but they didn’t find my message satisfactory, since it raised more alarm bells than tripping the laser wire at Fort Knox, so they took my phone away from me and started sending things out themselves. After they started that little riot they had going on, I was able to bust loose from the ropes they used to tie me up and escape. I didn’t think anyone else had survived the attack until I saw their broadcast a few weeks back.

“I figured you guys would make some sort of attack of your own in New York, so I went to the safehouse there. They had already torched the place, so I dropped the cross there in hopes that Trodaire would make it out alive and come find me. If he didn’t, I was on my own.”

Raven and Dianna hugged Tragedy, and she said, “There’s more to the story, though. Some of my old contacts aren’t too fond of the Twelve. They have been doing some recruiting for me, and they say they are gathering a reasonably sized group of fighters willing to stand up to the Twelve. Given what you guys accomplished a week ago, with a little training, we might just be able to cut these guys down to size.

“We have to rebuild the Order so that we can restore order. As a group, we must live up to the Valkyrie name and fight back. You lost so many in the last several weeks, but your attack on the Council building has left them crippled. You took out two-thirds of their leadership in one blow. This can be done. It’s time to rise up; you are named after angels of war, and the time has come to wage war and make the blood of these tyrants flow in the streets.”

And The Devil Leaves The Shadows (Valkyries Chapter Nine)

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.

“Everybody alright?”

“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.

“Get in!”

“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.

“What?”

“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.

The Forge

The next morning, I called Tragedy and told her what had happened. I told her that Wade should be cleared for travel in a day or so, and that we had recovered the broken pieces of the blade that Dianna had cut in half. She said that as soon as Wade was ready for travel, we should get Team 2 back to Base, and we should take the shards to Trodaire for inspection. The next day, Wade was healthy enough to take the flight back to base. We put him on the jet with his team, and we took a commercial flight to see Trodaire.

Tragedy must have contacted Raven beforehand, because she met us at the airport and drove us to the cottage. When we arrived, Trodaire was outside, smoking a pipe while reading the newspaper. Ricky and Dianna took their things inside, and I walked over to Trodaire and shook his hand.

“A pipe, huh? Where do you even get pipe tobacco anymore? These days it seems like everything is either synthetic or vaporized.”

He took a puff off his pipe and snuffed it out. “I have a friend down the road who grows it himself; but I doubt you visited me in order to discuss my vices, correct?”

“Right down to business, then.” I pulled the two halves of the broken blade from my backpack. “We got into another scrap with some of the Twelve’s goons, and Dianna broke one of their swords. They all had them this time.”

He took the pieces from me and inspected them one at a time, humming and mumbling to himself as he did so. “I didn’t make this.”

“Well, we kind of figured that.”

“Let me finish. I didn’t make this, and that is both good news and bad news. It is good news because the blades are obviously of lesser quality than the ones carried by the Order. The bad news is they are very well crafted, and they mimic my style almost perfectly.”

“What does that mean for us?”

“Come inside; I have yet another story that all four of you need to hear.”

We went inside and sat at the table while Trodaire began his tale.

“When the General and I were first commissioned to form the Order, there was another swordsmith who worked with us for a time. He was assisting me on the design of the Valkyrie blades. He disagreed sharply with us on a number of things, and eventually we parted ways. He left before the final design was finished, but because of the knowledge he had of the Order, we kept an eye on him. By the time I retired (or I should say by the time I came here), our surveillance on him had diminished almost completely. I’m not even sure the General told Tragedy about him; he seemed to be of no threat by that time.

“He is the only other swordsmith I know of who could forge the blade you see before you. Smithing has been a dying art for centuries; it was fading even before the Great Plague. I would advise finding this man and interrogating him. My gut is telling me that the Twelve consulted him, having somehow found out who he was and what he was capable of.”

“…is that all?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you have us sit down for that? That took, like, two minutes.”

“Because I felt like sitting down in my own house; is that a problem, Blaise?”

“Well…no…I’m just surprised, is all.”

“What did you expect, for me to stand outside, take off my shirt, and spar with you while I told you a long, arduous tale?”

“Um…yes, that’s pretty much it exactly.”

“You have been spending too much time with Ricky, my boy; his imagination is rubbing off on you.”

I sat flabbergasted as the other four laughed.

“Getting back to the matter at hand, you must find that man. His name is Eric Carver. Find him and take him back to Tragedy.”

Trodaire served us dinner, and then everyone settled down for the night. I wasn’t able to sleep, so in the middle of the night, I threw on a hoodie and stepped outside to the front porch. To my surprise, Trodaire was sitting in his chair smoking his pipe, staring at the stars. I walked over next to him and gazed up at the sky. We stayed there silent for almost an hour before he repacked his pipe and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.

“I have had a significant amount of trouble with my dreams of late,” he said. “Nightmares chase me from the time I lay down until I wake. The current state of the world has made me very uneasy; it feels as if we are taking a deep breath just before taking a plunge into deep, dark waters. I expect the world will become a much more dangerous place very soon. You would do well to prepare yourself, Blaise.”

I stared at the night sky a moment longer. “How would you suggest I do that?”

“Sleep would be a good start, my boy. Who knows how many peaceful nights you will have until this is all over; make the most of the ones you have and get some rest. Let us old timers stay up all night contemplating the universe. The world will soon need you well rested and at your best.”

I sighed and watched the fog from my breath slowly dissipate in the brisk air. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course I am. Go to bed; I’ll wake you if we are suddenly beset by anything other than sleeplessness in the middle of the night.”

I smiled and went back inside. After tossing and turning for a while, I fell asleep; it was a surprisingly peaceful sleep, all things considered.

The next day, we returned to Base. I had a quick meeting with Tragedy, recounting everything Trodaire had told us, and she informed me that Wade would be able to get back in the field in a few days.

“Wade’s recovery is quite timely, as I have decided on a new recruit to replace Sydney. I will need the two of you to spend the next week or so training him. When you have finished and you feel he is ready, we will evaluate him on the hangar course. If he passes his evaluation, your next field mission will be to take him to Trodaire and get him a pair of blades.”

“Yes, ma’am. Where’s Wade? I want to check in on him before I go meet the new kid.”

“Actually, he’s in the training hangar with the recruit and his team. Take your team out there, introduce yourselves, and get started. We need this kid ready to go as quickly as possible.”

“I’m on it.”

I promptly left Tragedy’s office, gathered my team, and made my way down to the training hangar. When we arrived, the image that greeted us was rather impressive. A scrawny red-headed kid was sparring with Wade’s team while Wade looked on, arms crossed. The kid was not only defending himself from every blow, but he was actually on the offensive. Now, I wasn’t sure how hard they were pushing, but for someone to take on two of the most highly trained fighters we have and hold their own….well, that’s something to sit up and take note of.

Wade saw us walk in, and called for everyone to take a break. We all walked over to Wade, who was tossing water bottles and towels to the three fighters.

“That was good; I want to see you keep your head up and continue to anticipate their moves. Be confident, but not cocky.”

The recruit nodded vigorously and took a giant swig of water.

Wade continued, “Luke, meet Team 1. Between the six of us, we intend to have you ready for your evaluation in the next few days.” Turning to me, he held up a hand and said, “I know Tragedy probably told you a week, but this kid is pretty much physically ready to start training with his team, and considering he’s been in the Valkyrie recruit program for a few years already, he’s got all the basic protocols and procedures down pat. He just needs the green light so he can get to know the team.”

At that point, the recruit stepped forward and shook all of our hands.

“Lucas Carter, Valkyries recruit, fourth year; shifter, secondary spark. It’s an honor to meet you all.”

Ricky laughed. “Dude, no need to feel honored. If you’re as good as Wade says, you’ll be at the same paygrade as the rest of us.”

Luke turned bright red. “Still…for the last four years, there has been a group of eighteen of us who have dreamed of the day when we could join the ranks with you. Our training exercises have been based on missions the six of you were involved in. Your mistakes and your successes have helped drive us all forward, and here I am with the opportunity to meet you…it truly is an honor.”

Dianna bowed her head in acknowledgement. “In that case, the honor is all ours; we don’t consider ourselves anything special, so to be so highly praised by someone as skilled as yourself is the real honor here.”

Ricky chortled. “Speak for yourself, Di; I consider myself to be exceptionally special.”

I decided to step into the conversation here before the two of them took off down THAT rabbit hole. “The pretty one is Dianna, the narcissistic one is Ricky, and I’m Blaise, team leader. Glad to meet you, and I hope to have you armed and in the company of your new team by the end of the week.”

Luke grinned from ear to ear and shook my hand again. “Sounds good to me, sir.”

Over the next two days, Wade and I put Lucas through every simulation in the system, helping him learn to adapt to ever-changing scenarios and conditions. When we didn’t have him in the simulator, we were running combat and self-defense drills with him, all of which he aced. Wade was right; this kid was more than ready for the field.

After the two days were up, we decided he was ready for his evaluation. Tragedy, Wade, the simulation instructor, and myself gathered with the recruit early in the morning on the third day in the training hangar. Tragedy, Wade, and I lined up in front of Luke while the instructor fitted him with the simulation equipment.

“Today, you will be pushed to your limits. This test does not end until you cannot carry on any longer. Your problem solving, combat skills, and covert abilities will be tested, as well as your physical fitness. You will be individually graded by the four of us, and at the end of your simulations, you will be informed of whether you have passed the benchmark or not. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Ms. Thompson.”

Tragedy cracked a small smile. “Please, call me Tragedy. We have the upmost faith in you, Lucas. Make your trainers proud and prove that you deserve to be counted among the ranks of the Valkyrie Order.”

Looking to the instructor, she asked, “Are we ready?”

He responded with a swift nod, and we made our way over to the monitors, leaving Luke in the center of the hangar. When we were all ready, the instructor called out, “Alright, you’re going to see everything digitize, and then you will see a large countdown in front of you. When it reaches zero, you may begin.”

With that, the kid was off to the races. The average time for an evaluation was around four hours. The point of the exercise was to see how long the recruit could hold out before their body gave out on them. It might seem somewhat cruel at first glance, but it was necessary; if we didn’t know how far the agents could be pushed before they went out into the field, there was no way of knowing if they would cave under pressure when they were sent out on missions.

The simulations started off fairly tame, and then increased in difficulty as time went on. The first few courses could be completed in mere minutes, while the later sims generally took half an hour or more. We watched as he fought off hordes of opponents, worked his way through various puzzles, snuck around guards, and fought his way through booby-trapped mazes. Finally, four and a half hours after he began, he stumbled. He was in the middle of a seemingly endless wave of enemies, and his right knee gave out. Just as one of the simulated attackers was making a lethal blow, the instructor ended the sim and closed the program.

Wade and I made our way over to where he had collapsed and helped him up, giving him water in the process. Wade patted him on the back and told him to take a seat by the monitors while final scores were tallied. When we had made our decisions, Tragedy again took the lead.

“Each of your evaluators will give you an overall score out of twenty, with one being the worst and twenty being the best. The highest score you can receive is an eighty, and in order to pass, you must have a score of sixty-eight or greater. Let us begin: I have given you an overall score of eighteen.”

The instructor was next, pausing to look over his score sheet once more before saying, “Eighteen as well.”

Wade crossed his arms and simply said, “Nineteen.”

It all came down to my score. All four of them stared intently at me. Even with as exhausted as he was, Luke was leaning forward, almost standing, as he awaited my answer. I sighed deeply and shook my head. I paused, perhaps for just a little bit too long, before quietly saying, “Nineteen.”

Lucas slumped back into his chair in relief as Tragedy said, “Congratulations, Mr. Carter; with a total combined score of 74, you have passed. Welcome to the Valkyrie Order.”

Wade laughed and clapped me on the back. “You’re an ass for making him wait so long.”

I grinned. “Don’t act like you would have done it any differently.”

Tragedy stepped over to Luke and shook his hand. “Mr. Carter, we will be seeing a lot more of each other in the coming days. Today, however, you have earned your rest. I will have someone escort you to your new living quarters, and tomorrow you will go with Wade and Blaise to have your weapons forged. Congratulations again.”

We lingered a while, the three of us. Luke was rather impressive; for someone who had never been in the field, he certainly seemed ready.

“Have you told the rest of the team that they have a new member coming in?” Wade asked.

Tragedy sighed. “Yes. It was rather difficult; it was absolutely necessary I get them a third member, but I know they have yet to fully come to terms with the loss of Sydney.”

I nodded. “That’s one hell of a blow, for sure. I can only imagine what it would be like to lose Di or Ricky. How did they take the news?”

“They seemed to understand. They handled themselves quite well, all things considered. They know that while I am not TRYING to replace Sydney, to some extent, that’s exactly what I have to do. There are certain dangers that come with the work we do; you all know that. It kills me to have to be so business-minded when it comes to this situation, but the world depends on the Order’s ability to carry on regardless of what tragedies may befall us.”

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown, eh?”

She closed her eyes and shook her head. “You have no idea.” Tragedy reopened her eyes and straightened her skirt. “You should probably go pack. I need you and Wade to take Lucas to see Trodaire first thing in the morning. When you get back, I should have something for you to do.”

“Will do. I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

I left the hangar and returned to my apartment. Packing didn’t take me too long, so when I was done, I decided to take Trodaire’s advice about enjoying the peaceful moments. I spent the early afternoon flipping through a book. At some point I must have fallen asleep, because all of the sudden, I wasn’t reading anymore.

I found myself in the middle of an empty white room. I walked to one of the walls and paced around the room, looking for a way out. After making my way around a few times, I decided there was no way out, so I sat down and waited for someone to come get me. As soon as I sat down, however, the walls around me began to shake and heave, as if they were breathing.

All at once, the walls crumbled around me, revealing a red-orange sky above, with a hill rising ahead of me. At the crest of the hill stood twelve silhouetted figures. The silence that had filled the room was replaced by the scream of jet engines and the sound of gunfire. I was enveloped in the concussive sound of explosions in the distance. The twelve figures on the hill mounted horses as lighting flashed across the bloody sky. They began to gallop towards me, and I looked around frantically for something with which to defend myself.

Finding my blades on the ground not far from my feet, I ran and snatched them up, flipping them in my hands before taking a defensive stance. I was puzzled for a moment, as the twelve horsemen had disappeared from view, when suddenly they crashed down upon me from above. One of the horses knocked me down, and as I stood again, the twelve had turned as if to take another pass at me. They paused, however, with the horses stamping and snorting. Their breath hung in the air, as the sounds of war died away and the weather sharply grew colder.

One of the riders pointed a sword at me, and in a devilish voice, he said, “War is not coming, Valkyrie; it is already on your doorstep. The streets have turned on you already, and you are no longer king. Rivers will run red with your own blood before you even raise a finger.”

I was suddenly bound in chains, and I sat on my knees with my head being forced down on a chopping block. I could see Dianna, Ricky, and Wade bound and kneeling not far from me, being forced to watch by a host of twenty or more guards. The horseman who had been speaking to me climbed down and walked over to me. He leaned in close and whispered in my ear.

“Tell me, who will save them from me when you are gone?”

He stood upright and swung his blade at my exposed neck, and just as it made contact, I awoke. I was standing on my bed, breathing heavily with my swords in my hands, and Wade was standing in my doorway.

“Whoa, killer, it’s just me. You weren’t answering your phone, and we need to get going.” He paused as I calmed down and woke up fully. “You…Are you okay, dude?”

I nodded and took a deep breath. “Yeah…let me change real quick and I’ll meet you down at the hangar.”

“Alright, sounds good.”

Wade left and I walked into the bathroom. I opened the faucet and splashed my face half a dozen times, then looked in the mirror. This whole situation was taking a bigger toll on me than I realized. The stress of waiting for something to happen was wearing me out; I was glad all-out war hadn’t broken out anywhere yet, but I almost would have preferred it.

Shaking my head to clear the thoughts from my mind, I threw on a clean set of clothes, grabbed my gear, and raced down to the hangar. Wade and Luke were talking to Tragedy, and when they saw me, they both boarded the plane. As I approached, Tragedy turned to me, rubbed my shoulder, and said, “Be safe and get back quick.”

I nodded and tried to smile, and then boarded the plane myself. As soon as we took off, I was able to fall asleep again. Thankfully it was a dreamless sleep this time. Having an episode like that on a plane could end rather poorly…

I woke up (calmly) about twenty minutes before we landed. Like last time, Raven was there to meet us at the airport. Seeing her helped lift my spirits a little bit.

“Is this the fresh blood?” she asked as we walked up.

“Yes, ma’am; Lucas Carter at your service.”

Turning to me and Wade she raised her eyebrows. “And he’s polite, too. You boys could learn a thing or two from this one. C’mon, kid; just for that, you’ve earned the shotgun seat.”

On the ride to Trodaire’s cottage, Raven told stories from our various adventures together, some embarrassing, some exciting, but all entertaining.

“Remember Abu Dhabi, Blaise?” she asked from the front seat at one point. Briefly looking to Luke, she continued, “So Blaise and his team are on assignment in Abu Dhabi a few years back, and they get into a high-speed chase through the streets. The problem is Blaise has rented some sedan, while the guy they’re chasing has some Italian freak-of-nature car that’s pulling away from him like he’s standing still. The cops got involved, and the cops down there have suped-up cars too, and they apparently didn’t even see the guy Blaise is chasing, they just see this clown tearing through their streets at a hundred miles an hour.

“Three cop cars block him in pretty quick, and during the entire chase Blaise is on the phone with Tragedy. What he didn’t know at the time was she had me in Abu as backup, and I was smart enough to sweet-talk my way into a car with a little bit of power.

“So Blaise is there pulled over and getting arrested while I’m tearing by, flipping him off and laughing the whole time. I caught up with the perp and beat the living snot out of him, tied him up, and took him back to my room. I called Dianna, who DIDN’T get arrested, and she came to keep an eye on the guy while I went and bailed Ricky and Blaise out of the slammer.

“The four of us went and hopped on the jet with the guy they were after and took him back to base. Tragedy calls us all in for the post-op briefing, and Blaise is squirming and fidgeting like nobody’s business, trying to tell Tragedy what happened without looking like a fool. I’m trying my hardest not to laugh as he gets to the end of the story, and he’s like ‘It was…um…less than ideal. The situation got away from me…’ At this point, I lost it, ‘cause Ricky pipes in and says, ‘Yeah, a lot of things got away from you.’ Oh, gosh, it was fantastic.”

Luke and Wade laughed. I must have turned beet red, because Wade looked at me and falls into a renewed fit of laughter before saying, “Hey Raven, we should change the topic; I think this is still a sore subject with Blazer back here.”

So we rolled up to Trodaire’s cottage with my three companions laughing hysterically at my expense. In all honesty, it was kind of comical, but I’d never admit that to her. I already knew I wouldn’t ever hear the end of it.

We got out of the car and went inside. Surprisingly, Trodaire wasn’t in the house, so we waited about ten minutes before he came in the back door, covered in soot.

“Sorry about the wait; I had to fire up the forge so it’s hot when I go to make my masterpiece. This must be the new recruit.”

Luke again introduced himself in his overly-polite manner, which amused Trodaire about as much as it did Raven.

“Alright, Luke, there are a few things I need to know before I start working on your blades. First off, you and I need to have ourselves a duel.”

Trodaire reached under the table and pulled out four wooden swords, tossing two to Luke. We all made our way out front, where Wade, Raven, and I sat down on the porch while Lucas and Trodaire faced off. Trodaire stuck one of his swords in the dirt behind him and tucked his left hand behind his back before he began.

He stood motionless for a minute or two before attacking Luke with lightning speed. Luke parried his blows, circling around Trodaire, trying to find a way to go on the offensive. He jumped back at one point, throwing Trodaire slightly off balance. He used that moment to knock Trodaire’s blade out of the way, striking right at his left shoulder.

At the last second, Trodaire ducked and spun the other way, swinging his blade at Luke’s now-exposed ribs. Luke dropped to his knees, the blade whistling over his head, and he hacked at Trodaire’s legs. The older man dove over Luke, tucking and rolling before coming to his feet and facing his opponent again.

Lucas stood again, taking a high guard with one blade and a low guard with the other. Trodaire laughed. “You’re learning, boy. Alright; let’s see what you’ve got.”

Luke rushed forward, never breaking his guard. Trodaire flipped his sword, knocking the low hand away, and Luke jumped up, kicking Trodaire in the chest. The two men tumbled, and in the process, Trodaire kicked one of Luke’s swords out of his hand. They stood again, and Trodaire took a fencing guard, striking repeatedly, with Luke parrying all the way.

After a few minutes of this, Trodaire tossed his sword straight up in the air, swept Luke’s feet out from under him, catching his blade as it came down, and smoothly placing in against Luke’s throat. Luke had expertly hung onto his own blade, and had the tip pressed firmly under Trodaire’s ribcage. Trodaire smiled and helped the man up.

“That was excellent, good sir; you adapted well as we went along. Now the only thing I need to know is your gifts; what are they?”

Lucas stood and between gasps, he said, “Shifter…shifter and….spark.”

Raven laughed from where she sat. “Winded already? He only used one hand!”

Luke turned red in the face, and stammered, “Have you ever fought him?! He’s a beast!”

Wade chuckled. “There’s a reason they called him ‘blade master’ back in the day. He’s the best there is.”

Lucas shook his head in amazement. “Yeah, I believe it.”

We went back inside, where Luke gulped down a few glasses of water. Trodaire went out back to the forge and got to work. The sound of clanging steel and the “whoosh” of the bellows could be heard from where we waited, with the occasional crackle of electricity and a series of strange, loud clicks here and there. The rest of the day, Trodaire spent working, coming inside just as the sun was slipping below the horizon, dripping with sweat. “They are finished,” was all he said. He then promptly went to bed.

Globetrotting, For Business (Valkyries Chapter Seven)

As soon as I walked into the main hangar, I sent Raven a quick message as promised and my team and I went in search of Tragedy. As it turns out, we didn’t have to look far, since once she heard we had arrived, she came looking for us as well. She saw us from down the hall and called out to us.

“Team 1! Get yourselves settled in and meet me back at my office in twenty minutes. Team 2 got in an hour ago and we have a briefing in twenty; I’ll roll both teams into one briefing so everyone can get all the information at once.”

We rapidly made our way to our apartments and unloaded all our gear, making it back to Tragedy’s office just behind Wade and his team. They looked rather ragged; it looked like they hadn’t slept since we were all last here. The six of us filed inside, and Wade’s team collapsed into the three chairs in front of the desk.

Tragedy was her typical self; she tied her hair up tight, folded her hands in front of her, and promptly began the meeting.

“Alright, we’ll start with Team 2. To catch Team 1 up to speed, Team 2 has been following the hit squad you ran into. Wade got a tip from an informant of his that they had been seen in Madrid. I sent them there first, and gave them the authority to follow these mysterious ‘ninjas,’ as you call them, wherever the leads took them. Wade?”

Wade sat up straight in his chair and cleared his throat. “Yeah, we got a lead that they had been seen getting off a plane in Madrid at a private airstrip. My contact said it was kind of a fluke that she saw them at all, but had heard we were looking for them. She didn’t say how she knew we were looking, she just gave us the information and pointed us in the right direction. We wound up spending a day in Madrid just waiting for them to turn up. We caught wind of them over the police band radio (thankfully Jackie knows Spanish; it all seemed like gibberish to me.)

“Anyway, we tracked them down, running across the rooftops away from the crime scene. Apparently, they paid a visit to someone working late in the capitol building, leaving a trail of bodies along the way. They left the official alive, for some reason, though. We caught up to them and fought them a while, but they were able to give us the slip. We were, however, able to get Sydney’s blades back.”

Wade pulled Sydney’s swords, swaddled in black cloth, from a baseball gear bag at his feet. He gently placed the cloth on the desk and unwrapped them, handing one of them to Tragedy for her to inspect. She looked at it for a minute, examining it from hilt to tip.

“Hmmm…it doesn’t appear to have been tampered with, but we should probably get them back to Trodaire just to be sure.” Returning her gaze to Wade, she continued, “It concerns me that these men are being so bold all of the sudden. Before, they were nothing more than a myth, on par with a campfire tale. Now, it seems they are unafraid of being noticed, and almost welcome the attention. If the Twelve know we are hunting them, we may have lost the element of surprise.

“Now, it could be that they feel unstoppable at this point, or they are about to make a big move and secrecy is no longer necessary for them. Either way, we should proceed as if they are watching for us everywhere they go; take even more care when you are out in the field. Blaise, fill us in on how things went on your end.”

“We got to the meeting place, and we were almost ambushed. Raven sprung us from the trap and took us to Trodaire’s cottage. She said that the men she fought off knew why we were there. I’m assuming they knew what we were after, and either were trying to keep us from reaching Trodaire, or they were hoping we would lead them to him. Regardless, we escaped.

“When we arrived, Trodaire told us that he knew what was going on with the Order and this whole Twelve business, and he wanted you to know he would be in touch; he wants to help out in any way he can. Also, Raven said you need to call her; she needs to have a chat with you.”

Tragedy nodded. “Well, as seemingly uneventful as that sounds, it is actually very good news. When Trodaire was with the Order, he could hunt anyone down, no matter how cold the trail might be. His input and assistance in this matter will be a great asset to us going forward. As for Raven, I knew she wouldn’t be able to keep her nose out of this one. She may be a pain in the neck at times, but she is just as valuable as any of you when it comes to field work. This puts my mind at ease, somewhat.

“I have already mapped out your next steps. Both teams will be heading to Paris. We have it on good authority that the team Wade has been tracking are stationed there for some reason. I want you to draw them out; disrupt them somehow, if you can. Try to capture them. All six of you together should stand a better chance against them than just three at a time. Until we can come up with more information, we are stuck trying to grab one of them and make them squeal. The plane is being prepped; wheels up in twenty.”

Wade looked incredulous. “We don’t get to take a nap or anything?”

“I’m sorry, there’s no time. It’s a long plane ride; you can try to catch a few hours then. That’s the best I can do for you right now. When all this settles down, I’ll give you a week’s undisturbed vacation.”

Twenty minutes later, we were tearing down the runway and hopping into the sky. The last thing anyone heard before we all passed out from pure exhaustion was Ricky muttering, “France or bust, bro; France or bust.”

Long story short, we wound up spending a week in Paris. It would have been beautiful and relaxing if we hadn’t been on the lookout for a murderous group of highly trained soldiers. We posted night watches in the sketchy parts of town, we tracked down Order contacts to try and get a lead, and we stopped the occasional street crime in progress. In a week’s time, we got nowhere; Tragedy finally called us and told us to pack up and ship off to Moscow. There had been a report of several murders there recently, with the victims bearing deep cuts all over their bodies, as if they had been tortured with a blade before being killed.

On the plane to Moscow, I found myself lost in thought. The soft “whoosh” of the air outside had lulled most of the others to sleep, so the flight was very quiet. I was turning the entire situation over in my mind. It wasn’t that long ago that the world was a fairly safe place. We knew who the bad guys were, and we knew how to handle them. Now, it felt as if we were on the brink of war. Tragedy was stressed to the max, pushing us to find the Twelve and crush them. I had my suspicions that she knew more about them than she was telling, but we had to trust her. She had never withheld any information from us before (as far as I knew, at least,) and if she felt she needed to do so now, there was probably a damn good reason.

I wasn’t sure if it was the mystery of not really knowing what we were up against, or the fact that one of our own had already been killed, but everything felt so dangerous. Every new city, every new lead, they all brought on a new feeling of morbidity and anxiousness. I kept coming back to something the General used to say to us during our training sessions; “You can’t fight what you can’t see.” We couldn’t see what we were up against; how on earth were we supposed to come out on top if we didn’t know where the punches were coming from?

What started in Moscow definitely didn’t stay there. By the time we arrived, there was an identical report in Istanbul. We got right back on the plane and resumed the chase. We spent nine days following a trail of bodies across Europe; Berlin, Rome, Kiev, and Milan. There was no way to keep up. We would never catch them if we simply followed the wreckage; we had to get out in front of them somehow.

When the wheels hit the ground in Milan, I called Tragedy. “We’re getting nowhere, boss. We’re going on a tour of mutilated bodies. Tell me you have some sort of plan to cut these maniacs off…”

“Well, there is a connection between the victims, as loose as it may be. The victims have all been connected to either the local government or big business in some way. If we are right in assuming the killings are the work of the Twelve, then we can safely say they are targeting the sources of power in Europe’s central cities. Of the largest cities in the continent, there are only a few they haven’t reached yet. London MUST be on their list, and they just haven’t gotten around to it. Go straight there and wait for them to arrive.”

“That’s great, I just have two questions: first, who or what are we looking for in London, exactly? And second, they have been really bold about their actions recently; they obviously know we are watching them. Are they setting up a trap, or are they simply being arrogant?”

“As far as London goes, start with the government. Big business there can survive a ‘thinning of the herd;’ the government would have a harder time recovering from the loss of their leadership. Where your second question is concerned, the answer is ‘yes.’ They are undoubtedly growing quite pompous, given their recent ventures. I would suspect that they have a reason for being so public and open with their violence, but if there is a trap being laid, it is not likely that it is in London. They are playing a longer game than that; they are most likely preparing for some move down the line. This is where our jobs differ, Blaise: it is your job to put out the current fire, and it’s my job to prevent any further conflagrations. When I have any information for you, you can be sure that I won’t hesitate to contact you. Until then, I need you to hunt these bastards down and cut them down like the animals they are.”

As with most of our conversations, she hung up abruptly. I had my marching orders: on to London to lay a trap for our elusive hit squad.

Travelling the world non-stop for a week and a half can be rather exhausting, so the flight to London was filled with sleep and unremembered dreams, rather than the pensive, anxious thoughts that had dogged me through the rest of the trip. Even though we were trained to go without sleep and food, and to withstand the harshest of circumstances, the jet-lag was getting to me. I welcomed the rest.

Upon our arrival, we set up shop across from the Parliament building. If our opponents were going to stick to their pattern, they would strike late in the day, just as everyone was preparing to leave. Wade and I set up three of our team members on scopes to watch the street, the near-by buildings, and Parliament itself, while the rest of us simply waited. Those of us not on watch passed the time by playing cards, sleeping, and reading. When you spend as much time on stake-outs as we do, you learn to be entertained by the most mundane things. It only gets boring if you let it; even the simplest of activities can burn hours of empty time.

For a day and a half, we sat on the rooftop, with everyone taking their shifts watching for our elusive enemies. On the second day, we finally saw something. Ricky was laying on his back staring at the sky, when suddenly he exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kidding me…Blaise, incoming.”

We all looked up, and what we saw was almost unbelievable. Six figures, all dressed in black wing suits, were soaring in towards the top of the Parliament building at screaming speeds. We all sat perfectly still for a moment, wondering if they had seen us yet. As if to answer our unuttered question, bullets began to strike the rooftop around us.

Ricky and Dianna fired zip lines across to the building, and we sprang into action. As we zipped across the street, the winged assassins dropped their guns and fell into a collective dive in an attempt to land before we arrived. We climbed up to a flat space where we assumed they would be landing, and they cut their wings loose just as they hit the rooftop, each of them rolling into a fighting stance and unsheathing their weapons. All six were wielding short swords like ours.

The ensuing fight was one of the most intense altercations I had ever been in. Metal rang as twelve swordsmen fought with fury; lightning sprang from blade tips and fireballs raged all around. Wade and I wound up back to back at one point, and it seemed like we had been out-matched. Our opponents were faster and less conventional, putting us on a perpetual defense. Wade was fighting the leader of the group, the same man I had dueled before. I felt him leap forward as he attempted to push the man back on his heels. I followed suit, taking the offensive with a flurry of strikes and bursts of flame.

The fighters all wheeled and spun around the rooftop, and my fellow Valkyries and I slowly gained the upper hand. I kicked the man I was fighting in the chest, knocking him to the ground. As he attempted to get up, I fired off a burst of flame that burned his face right off his head. I spun around to assist my team, when things took a nasty turn.

Wade parried a strike from his opponent, and the force of the blow threw him off balance. As he regained his footing, the man slashed Wade across the chest from hip to shoulder. Wade crumpled, and the man dove backwards off the rooftop. Our remaining opponents attempted to do the same, except for the one on the other side of the roof, who was caught in a furiously close battle with Dianna.

Their swords were nothing but a blur as they fought, matching blow for blow. Her opponent noticed that his allies had abandoned him, he paused for a second, and Dianna flew into even more of a frenzy. With a scream, she swung one of her blades, a blow he barely blocked. She struck again, and cut his blade in two, and then proceeded to impale the man.

All of this happened in just a few fleeting seconds, with Dianna finishing him off as the rest of us rushed to help Wade. The four remaining assassins had launched themselves from the roof and caught hook lines from a helicopter that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. We did not have time to pursue them, and we turned all our attention to Wade. He was bleeding profusely, and he had passed out from blood loss by the time he hit the ground.

One of Wade’s teammates tore off his shirt and stuffed it into the wound. Ricky ripped open the med pack he carried in his belt and tossed Wade’s man the hemo-static salts to stop the bleeding. Pulling the shirt from the wound, he ripped the package open with his teeth. “Hang on, chief; this is gonna sting like a mother.” He poured the salts into the wound, and the bleeding stopped almost immediately. As an added side effect, Wade sat bolt-upright howling from the pain, awake and alert. As the initial pain stopped, Wade fell back, and barely conscious, he mumbled, “W-w-what the hell was that?”

Ricky leaned over him and replied, “He told you it was gonna hurt; it’s not our fault you weren’t alert when you were informed.”

With that, Wade slipped back into unconsciousness. Dianna reacted immediately.

“We have to get him to a hospital right away. Who knows what kind of internal injuries he suffered; not to mention he lost so much blood he should probably be dead already.”

Ricky repacked Wade’s injury and picked him up over his shoulder. “Thanks for that, Ms. Positivity. We could have done without someone nailing the mortality of the situation in a single sentence.” We quickly fashioned a sling to lower him to the street level. We didn’t have time to scour the rooftop and gather everything that had been dropped by our enemies before they fled, so Dianna picked up the broken pieces of the sword she had cut in half and packed them away quickly as the rest of us went over the side of the building. Once we had gotten everyone down, we made our way to the home of a near-by doctor who was a friend of the Order. He had patched most of us up at one time or another, and when we arrived, he ushered us inside without asking any questions. That was one of the reasons I trusted him (aside from the fact that Tragedy had recommended him when Ricky got banged up a few years back.) He never asked us what happened or what we were doing, aside from what he needed to know in order to treat us.

We carried Wade into the dining room, where the good doctor was clearing the table.

“We stopped the bleeding with some hemo-salts, but other than that, we haven’t touched him.”

The doctor nodded quickly. “Are there any other injuries?”

“No, he’s the only one who got majorly hurt, and that’s the only wound that we know of.”

“Good, good; I’m assuming he passed out soon after the laceration?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright. Dianna, I have blood in the cooler in the basement, along with a chart detailing the blood type of every agent in the Order. Bring me three liters of Wade’s blood type. Blaise, go to the living room closet and bring me my I.V. supplies. Ricky, go into the kitchen and get me a scotch on the rocks. This is going to be an interesting night.”

Over the next couple of hours, the doctor cleaned the wound, patching up the organs that were damaged in the fight, and gave Wade a blood transfusion. The doctor’s wife came down from the bedroom and cooked everyone dinner. The doctor and I ate in the dining room while we monitored Wade, as the others ate on the kitchen floor.

“You know, Doc, in all the years you’ve been putting us back together, I’ve never gotten your name. We’ve always just called you ‘The Doctor.’ What should we call you?”

The doctor smiled and wiped his mouth. “’The Doctor’ would be sufficient for me; however, if you feel the need to call me by a proper name, you can call me Doctor Livingstone.”

“Livingstone, huh?”

“Yes; he was another unconventional doctor, many, many years ago. Long before any of us were even born.”

“So you won’t tell me your name, then?”

He sighed and looked over to Wade’s vitals monitor. “Blaise, men are remembered by what they do, not what they call themselves. You remember me as the doctor because that is what I do; that is more than enough for me.”

“That’s an interesting thought…what do you remember me for?”

“I remember you all the same: as Valkyries. Warrior angels who dive headlong into battle in order for people like me to live our ordinary lives in peace.”

He polished off his scotch and stood. “Wade seems to be doing well after the surgery; I believe I have earned myself another drink.”

He walked into the kitchen, leaving me to ponder his words.