Coldheart and Iron: Part 18

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When we opened the door, the rain of bullets flying out met nothing but empty air. One grenade rolled out, but Camille kicked it back as she and two other Wayfinders chucked a handful of grenades through the door. Half a second later, the bang of the grenades exploding was accompanied by the shriek of metal and the screams of whoever had been trying to keep us out. Camille dropped to the floor, peeked around the door, and then waved us in.

At the end of the hallway, right in front of the next door, was a machine gun mounted on top of what used to be a metal barricade. All that was left of the checkpoint was some gore, twisted metal, and the acrid smell of explosives. I stacked up on the door, two Nomads behind me and Tiffany, one of the Wayfinders trainees, across from me. I nodded to her and, after nodding back, she pulled the door open.

I fired at the first bit of movement I saw and heard someone curse as they dodged away behind one of the I-beam pillars. As I took in the rest of what looked like a large gathering hall, I noticed there were barricades set up around the bases of each of the pillars. A closer looked showed they were our barricades, but I had to duck behind the door again before I could get a count of how many there were.

“They’ve got our barricades set up!” I yelled over the din of gunfire from the gathering hall to Camille who was still looking around the corner at the far end of the hallway. “We’re going to need more grenades.”

“But your barricades!” One of the Nomads, a man who looked maybe a few years older than I was, poked his head out into the open doorway for a moment before a bullet whizzed past his face. He flattened against the wall again, his eyes glassy with a mixture of fear and adrenaline. “Won’t you need them?”

“Not if we’re dead. Pull!” I grabbed one of the grenades tossed forward by Camille and, after pulling the pin and waiting a second, tossed it high into room. It landed behind the barricade my first target had hidden behind and I watched as three bandits scrambled out from cover to get away from the grenade. They weren’t fast enough.

One of the grenades that had landed near the center, short of the others, burst into smoke and, after a few seconds, I waved my group forward. We rushed forward and off to the side, directly toward the now-smoking ruins of the barricades I’d hit with my grenade. With the Nomads covering us, Tiffany and I did our best to reassemble the barricades in a dozen seconds, took cover behind them, and cleared out the next set of barricades from our position. After trading places with the Nomads, Tiffany and I rushed forward again, to the next barricade, moved them around, and then settled in for a longer slug fest.

All across the smoke-filled room, we listened to the crack of rifles as our squads moved through the smoke to engage the bandits. Every so often, a bandit would pop up from behind a barricade to shoot and Tiffany or I would take them out. Just as the smoke started to clear, a grenade sailed out of the smoke and landed next to us. I kicked at it, scooting it across the floor, but Tiffany tackled me away from the barricade, swept around to the front, and then started pulling me around it as the grenade went off.

A few bits of shrapnel hit me in the left leg as I was being dragged around, but the barricades protected us from the worst of it. I started to roll around to the front, but Tiffany slumped over on top of me. I immediately pulled her around the other side of the twisted barricade and fired a few blind shots over it to cover me while I checked her out.

The battle raged around me as I provided first aid to a bullet wound in her side. Thankfully, it had mostly just taken a chunk out of her side as it went rather than going through her or hitting bone, but she was definitely out of the fight. I covered it with gauze, wrapped the whole thing in some duct tape, and then told her to get back to the rest of the injured people when we cleared the room. After she nodded, I wrapped some tape around the oozing shrapnel wounds in my leg, and rejoined the battle.

A few minutes that felt like hours later, we’d cleared the hall, blocked all the doors but the our retreat, and started taking the wounded back to join the rest. No one died, thankfully, but we had two more Wayfinders out of commission, including Tiffany who was angry she wouldn’t be able to help rescue Natalie, and only one Nomad. After collecting the surviving bandits, we took their remaining ammo and grenades before tying them all to tables, spread eagle so they couldn’t move.

While I was heading that up, trying to ignore the pain in my leg as I walked, Camille rigged up traps on every door but the first one we planned to search. There had been no sign of Natalie, Jonathan, or the bandit leader, so we were going to have to search through what the map we found called the dormitory, the training rooms, and the ‘homes,’ which were basically large apartments that went underground rather than further up. Apparently, the bandits had planned to make this a permanent city.

After Camille was finished, we stacked up on the door again and repeated our earlier procedure, this time with the help of the mobile barricades we hadn’t wrecked. Open door, let bullets fly, grenades, approach, cover, return fire, and then throw a couple of grenades or shoot until all bandits are killed.

The first door, to the training rooms, went quickly. There were almost no bandits in there and, after we blew up the checkpoint and machine gun nest, the rest surrendered. The apartments weren’t even dug up yet, so the hallway ended in a gigantic empty concrete room–larger than even the gathering hall–with a dirt floor covered in digging equipment. By Camille’s count, we’d only killed a little over half of the bandits we’d seen and only a handful of the Laborers. As a result, we changed strategies a little bit when it came to assaulting the dormitory.

This time, when we opened the door, we just threw in a few grenades and then slammed the door shut again. After they went off, we opened it back up and fired blindly down the hallway. When no response came, we peeked around the door and found the checkpoint deserted. The machine gun, a chunk of twisted metal at this point, resting on the ruined remains of the metal barricade.

“Camille.”

“Yeah, Cap?”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, Cap.”

“What now?” I stepped into the hallway, following Camille as she silently stalked forward.

Camille shook her head and signaled me to stop following her. I fell back to the door, gesturing for every else to do the same. She held her rifle tightly to her chest and crept forward until she was pressed against the wall next to the door. She carefully put an ear to the door and didn’t move for a couple of minutes. Eventually, when she finally heard whatever she was listening for, her face hardened and she made her way back to us, silently but swiftly.

“They’ve got something prepared on the other side of that door.” Camille was whispering as she pulled everyone back from the hallway and closed the door.

“We need to figure out how to spring their traps safely. Can we blow through the door?” I held up my last grenade.

“Probably not.” Camille held up a single grenade. “We’ve only got five left and it took almost two dozen to get that first door open. I’ve got a different idea.”

I put my grenade back on my belt and stood back. “You’re in command. You don’t need my permission.”

She nodded but I the hard look on her face still hadn’t faded. “Grab some of the injured but still mobile prisoners.”

“Ah.” I took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. “You sure?”

“I said it, didn’t I?” Camille gestured to two of the Wayfinders. “Each of you pick out a prisoner and bring them back here.”

Five minutes later, hands tied to their empty guns, Camille sent them forward to stack up on the door and, after a moment, open it. Judging from the way the prisoners eagerly went along with the plan, Camille seemed torn about changing it. Before she had a chance to change it, the prisoners rushed forward and yanked open the door. As they did so, we all dove for cover and prepared for the worst.

A moment later, the door into the hallway was blocked by concrete and everyone outside it was covered in aggregate dust. “Shit.” I coughed.

Camille stood up and shook most of the dust off her head. “Everyone up and get your guns on that door way! I want Marshall, Alice, and Lauren to set up barricades to cover our backs if they show up through some secret door. Everyone else, pair up with someone and take turns getting your faces clear. Move!”

A busy minute later, we were all set up around the filled doorway, waiting for something to happen. A few more minutes ticked by until, finally, we heard the voice of the bandit leader somewhere above us.

“A pity that trap didn’t catch more of you. Three should be enough, though. There are so few of you left.”

We all looked up. At the top of the main hall, some thirty feet above the ground at the opposite end that we’d originally entered from, a light had turned on and a small balcony was being lowered. I could see figures standing in the shadows of the alcove that must lead to somewhere in the dormitories.

“You’ve done an excellent job, but it ends here. You’ve got some of my soldiers, and I’ve got some of your commanders. We can trade and you can be on your way with whatever you’ve got in your hands, or we can kill your commanders and then shoot you from up here. There’s not enough cover for you to hide behind, at this angle.”

Al stepped forward, pulling Natalie by her elbow. From the bloody look of her face, they’d apparently been interrogating her. Jonathan didn’t look any better. They both had their hands restrained behind their backs and both got prodded to the edge of the balcony by Laborers wielding automatic rifles. “If you do anything but lower your guns, we push your people to their deaths.”

“Cam.” I whispered, not even daring to move my mouth. I heard her clear her through and the almost silent click of safeties being released. “How do we know we can trust you? What’s to stop more of your people from gunning us down as soon as we lower our weapons?”

“My word.” Al spread his hands smiled his same, vile little smile. “That’s all the assurance you’ll get fro-”

Five rifles cracked in unison and Al, two bandits, and the two Laborers with their guns trained on Natalie and Jonathan, all fell. Natalie spun, ducked, and pulled her hands around to the front. She grabbed one of the automatic guns and kicked the other to Jonathan. They both opened fired into the alcove and the rest of the Wayfinders weren’t far behind. A few seconds later, it was all over.

I ran forward and started stacking tables with the help of the other Nomads while Camille got the rest of the Wayfinders into a better position to monitor the alcove. Within a few minutes, we had a stack that was high enough for Jonathan and Natalie to drop down onto. Instead of them both hopping down, Natalie lowered Jonathan to me. “Grab him!”

I grabbed Jonathan and helped him to the floor, Natalie following behind. When he got there, I realized he’d been hit in the chest during the firefight, only staying on his feet due to adrenaline. “Shit!”

Natalie swept up, grabbed my first-aid kit, and started cutting off Jonathan’s shirt. “Hold him. I need to see if it came out the back.”

I called over two of the Nomads and we gently rolled Jonathan onto his side as Natalie continued to cut his shirt away. A moment later, I heard her swear. “No exit?”

She shook her head. “It’s still in there, somewhere. Where’s Tristan?”

I gritted my teeth. “He died in an ambush at a checkpoint when we first broke out.”

“Can you do it?”

I looked down at my suddenly nerveless hands. “I can try. I don’t know nearly enough for this, though.”

Jonathan coughed suddenly. “I can…” Jonathan coughed again and I saw blood fly out of his mouth. “W-walk you through it.”

“Sure thing, Jon. Just take it easy.” Right as I turned to yell, two Wayfinders appeared with a stretcher. “Get him on that and get him into one of the storerooms. They’re cleaner than this place, right now. Grab all the first-aid kits you can find and see if they still have Jonathan’s pack in the storage room.”

I leapt to my feet, pulled Natalie to hers, and gave her a kiss. “I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Ow” Natalie winced.

“Sorry.”

“You’re okay. I’m glad you’re safe, too. I love you.” Natalie pushed me toward the door, where the Wayfinders bearing Jonathan had already disappeared.

“I love you, too.” I ran after Jonathan. “While I’m performing my first surgery, send someone else to tell the other injured people to do something longer-term about their injuries.”

“Aye, Captain.” Camille saluted. “We’ll take care of rooting out the rest of the bandits and Laborers. You save our surgeon.”

I fought down the urge to scream as I ran and settled for a single word as I entered the makeshift surgery suite. “Shit.”


 

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