Coldheart and Iron: Part 31

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


“Shit.”

“Tiffany?”

“I’m out of grenades and I’ve still got two doors to trap. You two got any?”

I let go of my rifle and rolled onto my back, unbuckling my belt as I moved to toss it to Tiffany who deftly caught it on the stump of her left arm. “Just make sure you bring the belt back. If we need to run, I’m going to need that to hold up my pants.”

“Marshall, you’re wearing a full-body snowsuit.”

I looked over at Natalie who was still steadily firing at any of the monsters that moved away from the main body attacking the Enclave. I shrugged, more for Tiffany’s sake than Natalie’s because her face was still pressed to the scope of her rifle. “It’s the principle of the thing, you know?”

Tiffany rolled her eyes and walked away. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, you two had better move.”

“How dare she disrespect me like that.” I rolled back onto my stomach with a huff. “She’s still only a trainee Wayfinder. She’s too new to disrespect me like that.”

“Shush, Marshall, I’m trying to aim.” Natalie fired again, taking out the monster I was settling my sights on. Without missing a beat, I swapped to the one behind it and, after a quick exhale, fired.

“How is that supposed to impact your aim?” I fired and took out another monster, this time pausing to watch the shattered metal fall to the ground before moving on to the next one. “You ears aren’t involved in aiming at this distance and I feel I have a right to prattle on if I want since it looks like everything’s going to hell.”

Natalie sighed, pausing after the exhale to take out a monster, and then leaned back to reload her rifle. “I know, Marshall. Just try to keep it down. There’s no reason to lead everything to our location any faster than shooting at them will.”

“I mean, the rifles are kind of a dead giveaway to anything with half a brain or whatever the monsters have.” I shot another two monsters in quick succession for emphasis. “Everyone more or less knows we’re here. I just hope we can make the jump to that building over there when the time comes.” I jerked a thumb at the building next to us, separated by about ten feet of open air. “It’s a good fifteen feet lower than us, sure, but we might just go through the floor or miss entirely.”

“Stop being such a pessimist, dear.” Natalie chambered the first round and got back to shooting monsters. “No one likes a pessimist.”

“Don’t kid yourself. You love and accept me just the way I am.” I took my last shot and then reloaded my gun, hands taking me through the familiar motion almost before I could think of what to do next. “Are you watching the time?”

“Yes. Seven minutes.”

“Neat. I’m gonna see if I got eyes on anything around us.” I grabbed a set of binoculars from my pack and started looking up the side streets east of the main force of monsters. There were still monsters wandering away from where they’d been penned in by the Enclave defenders, but most of them seemed intent on the hole in the wall one of them had created when it blew itself up. The other Wayfinders and sharpshooters were doing a good job preventing the monsters from flanking around the Enclave defenses, but I saw two more groups of bandits creeping up on various sniper nests.

“I hope the spotters are keeping an eye out.”

“It’s standard procedure, Marshall. Either they remember their training or they don’t. We can’t help them now.”

I dropped back to my stomach, lined up my rifle with the first group I’d seen, and shot one of the bandits in the chest. I looked through my scope at the bandits as they ran for their lives and saw the mess I made of the bandit I shot. “Whoops. I should change back to regular ammunition if I’m just shooting bandits.”

“Or you could keep firing on the giant mass of monsters and help us save the city, trusting the lives of the Wayfinders to the people protecting them who can’t fire on the monsters, anyway.” Natalie fired again and then reloaded, shooting me a glare I mostly ignored as I swapped out the heavier ammunition we used for the monsters with the standard, pre-collapse ammunition we used for bandits.

“Just one clip. Enough to let them all know they’re not as clever as they think they are.”

Natalie ignored me and went back to her shooting while I found the second group right below one of the sniper nests. I popped the bandit at the door in the head and watched the rest of the bandits flee. I spent the next five minutes finding groups of bandits and scattering them. When I was debating whether or not to keep shooting bandits, Tiffany showed back up and crouched down behind us.

“Doors are trapped and the bandits have entered the first floor. We’ll get a few of them on the way up since I double-trapped every route, but we’ll likely still need to defend this point.” Tiffany shrugged so that her gun fell into her arms and smiled wickedly. “I haven’t gotten much practice with this yet and I’d love to finally get back to business.”

“Or we just jump to the next building, pick a different sniper nest, and keep doing our job.” Natalie looked back at Tiffany and over at me. “Maximize our efficiency and do our best to keep the Enclave from getting swarmed.”

Tiffany was about to respond but I held up a hand. After Tiffany closed her mouth, I turned back to Natalie. “Is this you telling me that you think we still have a chance to hold?”

“I don’t know, Marshall. It’s been fifteen minutes since they blew a hole in the wall and it’s too soon to know anything for sure.”

“If you watched for a few minutes, would you have a better idea?”

“I could maybe make a few educated guesses, but that’s all they’d be. We’re still better off continuing to focus on the mission we started until the Enclave is clearly lost, no matter what I see.”

I nodded, thinking for a moment. “Alright. Tiffany, keep your focus on the bandits and let us know what they’re doing. If they make it to the doors soon, we’ll move out and jump to the next building. If we’ve got more time, I’d rather wait since I don’t like the idea of jumping unless we absolutely need to.”

Natalie nodded and got back to shooting as I reloaded my gun with the heavier ammunition. Tiffany looked at me for a moment and then shrugged. “I’ll try to set up an ambush point.”

“Sounds good.” I gave her a thumbs up and then let myself fall back into the rhythm of firing and reloading. I lost track of time as we continued shooting and so it caught me by surprised when I heard a bang and felt the building shake. I realized one of Tiffany’s traps had gone off and halted shooting for a minute to wait for the next one. When it didn’t go off, I went back to shooting but kept my ears open for anyone approaching.

A few minutes later, Tiffany came back, chuckling under her breath. “Turns out that there’s a weakness in the staircases. If the door blows up, it takes the landing with it and then it takes out three of the landings beneath it as well. I moved the grenades to another door and I’m going to booby trap as many doors and staircases as I can. We’re good for now.”

I gave her another thumbs-up but kept my focus on shooting monsters. To my left, Natalie’s steady firing stopped and I felt her pull the binoculars away from my side. “Going to look now?”

“Yeah. I’m hoping the fact that the monsters are still trying to flank the walls indicates that the Enclave’s defenders are holding their ground at the hole. If they are, we still have a chance.”

“Cool. Just let me know if we should move, otherwise I’ll keep shooting.” I returned my attention to my scope and kept firing, trying to keep my mind focused on my task as the seemingly endless stream of monsters made their way east of the main body, looking for a path over the wall. I lost myself in the motions again and I was once again brought back to reality by the rumble and shake of explosives going off somewhere in the building. My arms were stiff and the pile of magazines beside me had shrunk considerably. I looked around me and noticed that Natalie had gone back to firing a while ago, judging by the diminished size of her own ammunition stock. Behind me, Tiffany sat with her back to a wall.

“That’s one of the stairwells collapsing.” Tiffany gestured toward the interior of the building we were occupying. “Even if any of them survive, they’ll find another trap in every stairwell and once behind each door leading to this floor. I wouldn’t worry about them until we feel the blast wave of a trap on this floor going off.”

I nodded and stretched my arms out, moving them from side to side before pushing myself back from the ledge. Once I was safely out of sight from the battlefield stretching below me, I hauled myself into a sitting position and took a few sips of water from my canteen. “How long have we been at this?”

Natalie replied from her position. “Two hours and about fifteen minutes.”

“It’s been about an hour and a half since the first bandit group showed up here.” Tiffany tossed me a granola bar that I pensively chewed as I started calculating how many monsters we must have killed.

After a few seconds of getting nowhere, I abandoned it and turned to Tiffany. “How many bandit groups have attacked us? Is this only the second?”

“Yeah. We’re higher up than most of the other sniper nests and pretty far east of the main body. The bandits have to sneak past a ton of blind alleys, most of which could have a monster wandering through them at any given time. The other nests are much easier targets.”

“Shoot.” I filled my mouth with water and swished it around to get as much of the granola out of my teeth as possible while I thought. A few moments later, I had an idea. “How easy will it be to completely collapse the stairs so no one can get up or down?”

“Pretty easy.” Tiffany shrugged. “The only thing left entirely intact at this point is a fire escape and that cuts off a floor above the ground.”

“Neat.” I started digging through my backpack for my lantern. “Is everyone alright if I turn my attention on the bandits trying to attack the sniper nests and make us a target for every single one of them?”

“Sounds like a blast.” Tiffany smirked and stood up. “I’ll go trap the fire escape if you’ll give me your grenades, lieutenant.”

Natalie rolled over, slipped off her grenade belt, and slid it back to Tiffany. I looked over at her and offered her a sheepish smile that she returned. “‘Better us than them’, right?”

I nodded and started filling my snowsuit pockets with ammo. “I love that you get me.”

“I know.” Natalie winked at me and rolled back over to continue firing, accompanied by gagging noises from Tiffany.

Once I’d grabbed everything I could fit in my pockets, I snatched my rifle from the ground and retreated into the dim interior of the building, following Tiffany to another vantage point that was better suited to my task. After leaving me to get set up, Tiffany disappeared further into the building. Getting settled took a while longer than I would have liked, especially because I had to finish the magazine of heavy ammo first, but I was soon set up and shooting.

Any group of bandits I saw lost at least one person. They moved less predictably than the monsters did, so I missed a few shots, but the way they started creeping forward and using cover made it clear that they’d figured out someone in my area was targeting them. After setting aside my gun for a moment, I took the reflector out of my lantern and set it in the remaining window to my right. Satisfied, I went back to shooting bandits until I noticed every crew I saw was heading in our direction.

Soon, I couldn’t look through my scope without seeing a group of bandits approaching. As I counted them, my heart fluttered with the realization that at least half the group of bandits that we’d expected to attack the Enclave were now on their way to our location. Whoever had united them was pretty clever. Get the monsters to attack the Enclave, take out the snipers so more monsters make it into the Enclave, and then rush in once everyone was exhausted or most of the monsters had been destroyed. Simple and effective.

It was clear, though, that they hadn’t dealt with many Wayfinders, though. Or at least not big groups of them. As far as I could tell, most of the sniper nests were still operating and the ones that weren’t had likely stopped due to a lack of ammo rather than anything else. The bandits would have needed to send in more than six to ten people at once if they wanted to overwhelm our defensive positions and the groups clearly lacked much in terms of specific plans. They had communication between groups and a plan to take out sniper nests, but they just wandered around, looking into buildings, and approaching each nest they found with only their one small group since they never discovered that another group had already failed to take out the sniper nest.

Only after I got their attention did they all start to move like they had a plan. They all slowly started to converge on the building, moving from bit of cover to bit of cover. I took shots where I could, but I didn’t get many hits. I could still hear Natalie firing away several rooms down, so I started the second part of my plan. I pulled my gun and the reflector from my lantern away, packed up all my stuff, and turned on one of the walkie talkies I had in my pocket. I tied the communicate button down and dropped the little signal bomb at the edge of the room.

I sprinted back to Natalie’s side and started packing up all of our gear. As I clattered empty rifle magazines into my bags, Natalie looked over at me, a question in her eyes.

“Keep shooting, but let me know as soon as they start coming this way and how many of them do.”

“Marshall.” I turned away to grab the pile of magazines and loose ammo Tiffany had been combining during her down time. When I didn’t answer, Natalie spoke again. “What did you do, Marshall?”

“I turned on one of the walkie talkies we were given and tied the ‘talk’ button so it’d stay on.”

“What?”

“I am doing to the bandits converging on our position what they tried to do to us. They’ll surround the building, start trying to make their way up here, find the traps, try even harder, and then they’ll be surrounded by monsters.”

“So will we!” Natalie turned all the way around to face me. “Jumping to the next building won’t work when the monsters are here. They’ll just follow us! We won’t be able to sneak through the crowd of them even if they don’t spot us jumping to the next building.”

“Which is why we leave as soon as the bandits set off the first trap. I’m going to grab Tiffany, so just keep shooting. Keep track of how many of the monsters start coming our way.” I shoved the last of the magazines into a pack and then ran off down the hallway, almost bowling Tiffany over as she rounded a corner.

“Captain!”

“C’mon, Tiffany. We’re making the jump as soon as the first trap goes off.”

“What? What happened to making a glorious last stand here?”

I pulled her along with me, back to where Natalie was. “I’d rather take a chance at surviving since, if my plan works, it should buy the Enclave enough time to fix the hole in their wall.”

“What plan?”

Natalie appeared in the doorway to the blown out room we’d been using, lugging the packs behind here. “He set up a radio and every single monster not a part of the main press on the walls is heading our way. I estimate at least five hundred of them, and those are the ones directly west of us. I’m sure there are more to the north and south.”

“Cool.” I grabbed my pack, slung it on my back, and tightened all the straps until it was almost painfully gripping my chest. “Now let’s get ready to jump since the bandits won’t be far behi-”

The first explosion rocked the building, carrying with it the sound of shrieking metal. Tiffany shook her head and started toward what used to be a conference room with floor to ceiling windows. “Of course they went for the fire escape first.”

I helped Natalie get her pack on and then helped Tiffany tighten down her straps while we all jogged toward the spot we’d picked as our jump point. By the time we got there, another explosion had gone off and Tiffany was muttering a commentary on the bandit’s location as I sprinted toward the empty window pane and leapt.

I had a moment of open air and grey, cloudy sky as time stood still. I fought the urge to wave my arms and kept my body compact as I hung, exposed, in the air. Before my heart had a chance to sneak even one beat in, time came rushing back. The wind whistled in my ears, the light-grey blur of the mid-morning sky became the dark grey blur of an approaching ruined building, and I landed in the best roll that I could. I felt something give way as I made impact and then the grey faded to black as the world fell silent.

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