April 8, 2028
Vallø Sløt, Denmark
The rescue squad carelessly jumped from the large aircraft when it hovered near the dense forest that lay northwest of their destination, out of sight from all eyes on the ground.
As their transport flew away, Ira quietly led his men through the overgrown vegetation. This was the most direct way they could reach their destination and infiltrate the heavily guarded castle. The mud was not so deep, in spite of the raging tempest all around them. Once they made it to the other side of the murky woods, the castle, their mark, loomed in front of them, dark and foreboding as lightning struck around the fourteenth century structure.
Between the two towers, the top most floor of the castle was exposed to the untamed elements, an effect caused by the recent years of war. The captain knew that would be their ticket out if this mission went to hell.
There were lights flashing in and out through the many windows on the different floors; Ira and his men quickly figured that it was the guards walking along the empty halls. All five men simultaneously looked up and spotted a single light in the one tower that was furthest from them, the one they were supposed to infiltrate.
That was the only window where the light remained steady.
“Is that where the asset is?” Alec asked in Ira’s ear. The howling winds made it difficult for him to be heard.
With trepidation in his voice, Ira verified with a strained, “Yes.”
The gust and volley of showers hid their presence from unwanted eyes as they stepped from the forest and rushed to the chilly moat. Though their limbs threatened to seize up from the cold water, the men persisted and cautiously made it to the other side undetected. Nearby, a sewage drain streamed rainwater. Alec and Charlie, equipped with a welding torch, severed the iron bars.
“Raven, we can’t get the bottom bars. There’s too much water and it’ll destroy the torch.”
Within a mere heartbeat, Ira took the torch and cut away the bars that were not exposed to the rushing water. Soon, he created an opening wide enough for the men to easily slip through, without injuring themselves.
“That works.” Alec thanked him with a short laugh.
“Just watch where you step,” Raven responded, handing the equipment back to him.
They carefully made their way through the drain, battling against the roaring torrent until they found the first manhole overhead. Above them, two guards strode by, speaking in Russian, Ira presumed.
There were creaks on a flight of steps, then a door noisily shut. All was silent besides the weather that thrashed against the outer walls of the castle.
Silently and slowly, Ira removed the grate and helped his teammates up; he was the last to be helped up by Alec. Replacing the cover, they moved throughout the dark and dampened basement. It was filled with crates of food and firearms. The rats in front of them scurried away in fright; their squeaks and claws were barely a whisper.
Ira halted his men with a quick hand gesture as the floor shook above them; guards marched in unison. Small clouds of dust fell from the ceiling as the heavy footsteps trudged through the upper floor. Only when their steps faded did Raven’s men resume moving, like cats prowling in the dead of night.
They reached the first and only flight of steps leading up. Just as the Captain took the first stride, the cellar door opened and two guards walked down.
By mere luck, they were arguing, so they did not notice the intruders retreat out of sight.
Hiding behind the stacked boxes, Raven waited until the men had passed then signaled Noble and Oak, who were on the other side, to dispose of the guards post haste. The two nodded, then unsheathed their hunting knives and followed the guards surreptitiously.
Stalking their quarry like looming shadows, they turned the corner. Fate befell the sentries as a silent struggle broke out. A gruff, muffled voice cried out as metal cut against flesh. Two figures fell limply to the floor out of sight; all was still again.
The two men reappeared with fresh red blood forever stained in the fibers of their gloves.
With silent speed, they made their way further up the steps and through the enclosed stronghold. Noiselessly and with grace, they eradicated any sentinel that would otherwise give them away, until they were yards from the last flight of steps that led to their asset’s lone tower.
Their pathway was blocked.
Just below were four guards standing watch. Unaware of the marauders in the hallway, the guards conversed with each other in their native tongue.
In these candlelit halls, they could not see the special operation agents. Raven gave the order to use their sniper rifles on the guards. He held his fist in the air, and his men, each of whom had their own target, waited.
Lightning struck. The flash illuminated the dim halls for a breath’s moment, then a clap of thunder was followed by a rolling percussion; the execution order was given. With perfect precision from years of training, Ira’s team shot the four guards.
They were dead before they hit the floor.
Once clear, Raven and his men made their way up the last flight. He held everyone back except Pie. The two positioned themselves on either side of the barricaded access and heard voices.
In a gruff, deep voice, a man spoke in Russian. Then, another, softer voice, filled with malice, responded with vindictiveness. There was a loud smack followed by a dry, harsh, taunting laugh.
The operatives heard the guard speak in English, “You will never be free.”
Raven counted from three.
He and Pie simultaneously kicked open the door and breached the small candlelit room. It swung hard, hitting the wall behind it and extinguishing the candle’s flame.
Without the only light source, everyone was sheltered in darkness.
Before the shocked sentry had any time to react, the surprisingly agile prisoner grabbed the gun from the guard’s holster on his hip and shot him once in the foot; the sound of his desert eagle shook the stormy night and reverberated in the small tower room.
As the guard went down with a cry of shock and agony, the prisoner, who pulled the recently fired gun, shot him again, point blank.
He lay lifeless on the floor.
With surprising haste and dexterity, the captive slammed his fist against Pie’s face and he stumbled backwards coughing horribly through his fingers as blood escaped his nostrils.
Raven responded by aiming his gun at the man’s head.
He ordered, “Freeze!” before the captive could pull the seized gun on him.
In no imminent danger, for the moment, the others carefully stepped in, avoiding the dead man at their feet. Oak, who was last to enter, nearly tripped over Pie, who was on the ground; he helped his brother-in-arms up.
“You okay Alec?” Ira asked with his weapon still poised at the prisoner’s head. With a vigilant glare, he watched the captive’s dark figure like a hawk, dark as the room was.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Pie stifled through his gloved hand, “Damn, what a punch for skinny fingers,” he complimented as he felt the imprint of Aether’s contact on his cheek.
The slender captive was veiled in shadow. No features were discernible but he cocked his head at the sound of Ira’s voice; his long mane of hair was, apparently, unkempt and scraggly from six years of little to no proper care.
“Can that be the elusive, sly, and flighty Ira ‘Raven’ Byrne?”
The mysterious voice that spoke for the first time did not sound gruff or low, but carried a soft-spoken and even a honeyed tone.
With every flowing utterance that escaped the lips of the detainee, Ira was stunned even more at the thought of this inconceivable prospect.
“No. No way. That’s impossible!” His throat went dry as parchment; his heart raced with fear as anxiety took over his previously calmed mind. His weapon slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor with a clang, eyes widened in horror and realization, “It cannot be… no! She is dead. You are dead! Blackbird is dead!”
His hands clutched his head in frustration and confusion. He turned away and leaned against the cold stone walls. He hoped against any hope that this was not true.
It could not be true.
For six years, for over seventy-two long months, he had lived in agony after her death, until only recently, he had finally emerged from his shell. Now, in the midst of this war, she was here… alive?
Slowly with a heaving chest, he looked back at the prisoner as a catalyst of the electrical discharge struck the outside world. The luminance filled the room and for a brief, haunting moment, the flash revealed her features.
The last image that burned into all five of the men’s minds were two bright blue, twinkling orbs.
“Who the hell is Blackbird? I thought we were looking for Aether,” Charlie finally burst out, he and the others were muddled; they had never seen their captain completely lose his composure before now, and how could their asset be a woman?
“Who the hell is ‘Aether’?” the female’s shadowed arms rested on her cocked hips.
Raven did not answer; with one last effort to disprove this heart wrenching truth, he grabbed his flashlight from his belt and beamed the light on the captive’s face.
It was true.
Her slender fingers dropped the stolen weapon and flew up to shield her eyes. “Careful!” she snapped like a beast, “I’ve been locked up with nothing but candles for six years!” Then, added confirmation behind her scarred, pale hands, “I am Blackbird.”