Lucas returned well before nightfall. It was barely noon, in fact, when he jogged into camp alone, waving his way past the guards as the rest of the group was taking a break for lunch. I was midway through my lunch when I saw him approach and, thanks to the snow goggles I was wearing, could see the dark mass on the horizon behind him.
Instead of tossing aside my lunch and going to meet him away from everyone else in an area I could give him a proper chewing-out, I took the time to finish eating. I may have also ignored him standing at attention for a minute or two while I tidied up and focused on my breathing to keep my temper in check, but that also gave everyone around me time to make some space around us so we could talk in relative privacy.
Once I had taken the time I needed to work through my anger, I signaled for Lucas to drop his salute and said “what did you find?”
“Now Mar, I know you’re mad” Lucas had his hands up in a placating gesture and a familiar smile plastered across his face, neither of which hid the nervousness beneath the facade. “But I couldn’t just leave them.”
“They’re not cats, Lucas. You could have left them.”
“No, Mar. They have kids. Pregnant people. Folks our age.”
I tore my eyes away from Lucas’s grinning mask and watched some of the tension leave his face out of the corner of my eye as I stared at the dark mass of people slowly moving towards us. “What are they?”
“Naturalists. A couple dozen families. About one hundred people, all told, counting kids and elders. Not a lot of either, mostly people in their twenties and thirties from what I saw.”
“Naturalists.” I sighed and looked around the camp. I spotted Cam a few dozen feet away, giving anyone who came near Lucas and I a glare that said “back off” better than any sign could. When they glanced over in my direction, seeming to sense my attention, I gestured for them to join us. Ever prepared, Cam waved a hand at someone behind the supply sledges and Lucas’ second-in-command, Jonathan, came out to join us.
“Tell us everything, Lucas.”
Lucas nodded and launched into his report. “They have ninety-eight people. Approximately sixty are combat capable, the exact number fluctuating based on your personal definition of the phrase. Five are elders, older than us, and seven are a year or two under eighteen, even if the leader I spoke to, a woman named Brianna, called them adults as well. Twenty five are children who are mostly too young to work, let alone fight, and the rest are a mixture of elderly folks who are noncombatants.”
Jonathan’s hands danced through the air as he mimed writing all of this down in his mental journal, a technique he used to aid his already incredible memory, and Cam stared off into the distance, looking at the smudge on the horizon slowly approaching us. I kept feeling my gaze drawn to this group of anti-technology naturalists, people who chose to live as close to nature as they could manage without the aid of any modern or recent technology, since it felt better to stare into the distance than to stare holes into my oldest friend. “Purists or practicalists?”
“Practicalists. They’ve got firearms and a decent supply of ammo. Nothing post-Collapse, but all in good condition and serviceable, according to Brianna. The stuff I saw gave me reason to believe her. Enough firearms for every combatant, a few bows and melee weapons as well. Well armed, which is probably how they’ve survived this long.”
“Why are they wandering around?” Cam turned their head to stare at Lucas, much more comfortable staring holes into him than I was. Lucas swallowed nervously, reacting to the heated glare of his older sibling as he always did.
“They were pushed out of their base northwest of the Chicago Enclave by another group who were much more comfortable with a war of attrition than they were. They took their supplies and planned to move north to settle in one of the more open spots in Wisconsin, but ran afoul a group of cultists who-”
Cam and I started swearing at the same time. I swore quietly, but Cam was almost shouting as they reached over and grabbed Lucas by the shoulders. “What the fuck did you do?”
Lucas brushed Cam’s hands aside and took a step out of their reach. “They’re being hunted by a group of cultists, Cam! What was I supposed to do, let them all get killed?”
“Yes!” Cam stepped forward again, reaching for Lucas, but I stepped between the two siblings.
“Cam, quiet down. You’re going to upset everyone.” After waiting for Cam to take a deep breath, I turned to Lucas. “And they’re right, you know. We have a group with us. It would be one thing if this was a smaller group or we didn’t have thirty people who paid us to get them safely to Des Moines, Lucas. But this more than doubles our group! You can’t just endanger everyone by bringing in a bunch of-”
“They spotted us, Mar.” Lucas cut in and continued before I could interject, wiping across his face with his hands as he did, a nervous tic he’d had since our days in college together. “They were the group that found us last night. Or their scouts did, anyway. They were always going to make contact. They were going to follow us no matter what we did. At least this way, we can work with them.”
“You don’t get to just decide that, Lucas!” I lifted my goggles up and covered my eyes, suddenly feeling every single one of the thirty-one years I’d been doing this. “You were supposed to report back first. We could have lost them.”
“Fuck you both if you think I’m going to abandon a bunch of kids to be sacrified by a death cult.” Lucas took a deep breath, shifting his long, lanky frame to stand at his full height as his chest rose and fell as he fought through his own anger. “We’re here to save as many people as we can and we can save all of them. It’s just some cultists who will be all too happy to charge into whatever ambush we set. The Naturalists have already killed a few. They have their own supplies, their own scouts, and their own maps. It wouldn’t hurt us to help them.”
I felt Cam start to push past me, ready to argue, but I held up my hands again and said “it’s too late. Unless we want to forcibly repel them, we’re stuck with them. You’re officially in trouble, Lucas, but we’re going to handle that later since we’re going to need Jonathan to help integrate their supplies and skills rather than take over heading up the scouts.”
I turned to Jonathan, who was studiously avoiding the brewing altercation, and took another deep breath. “Jonathan. I’m going to need you to go with Lucas and inventory their supplies. When we camp tonight, I’ll need a report on every combatant’s abilities, excluding anyone under eighteen. Take them hunting to assess their scouts if need be and hopefully we can use whatever they find to help butter up the Laborers. Tell Natalie I’ve given you permission for whatever supplies you need outside of our essentials. Try to use what they’ve got before dipping into our stuff.”
“Lucas.” I turned to my lead scout who was doing his best to ignore the fuming Cam behind me. “Once you’ve brought them up here, I’ll need you to introduce me to whoever is in charge. Once they’re handed off to me, you are to backtrack with your squad until you locate these cultists. Figure out what and how many we’re dealing with. If you think you can hit them without getting hit back, do it. Silencers only. No reason to draw more attention than we already have.”
“The more of them we can scare off with the Wayfinder reputation, the better.” Cam’s voice came from behind me, a lot calmer than I expected it to be, and I turned to find their jaw still clenched in anger, but they were stepping into their task as our military commander. “I’ll set up a couple small drops at good ambush points that we pass. Make sure you look for them as you head back to the group. Only two. Make sure you find and use them both.”
I nodded and added “I’m going to stay here to deal with the Naturalists. I’ll let Natalie know she’s in charge until I get back, but you’ve got full command until this group is dealt with, Cam. Make whatever plans you need, but make sure we’re not running towards some trap. We wouldn’t want another Indianapolis on our hours.” Cam nodded and, without saluting, jogged off toward where the Wayfinders would be waiting, geared up and ready to move thanks to Cam’s earlier preparations.
Finished, I nodded to Jonathan and Lucas who saluted and rushed off to do as ordered. I looked around for Natalie only to find her standing near the supplies that Jonathan had been hiding behind. “You hear all that?”
“Yeah. I’ll take care of it.” Natalie nodded and I turned away to stare at the slowly approaching dark spot on the horizon that marked the location of the Naturalists, with Lewis and Jonathan a low blur of color in the snow between us.
I turned back to Natalie and cocked my head quizzically.
“I think you have every right to lay into Lucas for endangering everyone, but he’s right. We’re here to save as many people as we can. So maybe take a deep breath and don’t decide what you’re going to do until you’re not angry about him breaking the rules.”
I clenched my jaw and was about to retort when I caught myself. I let out a puff of air that misted through my scarf and, after a deep breath, I nodded. “Yeah. You’re right. Thanks, Nat.”
Natalie nodded, her face still mostly hidden behind her snow goggles and scarf, and moved away to take command.
I sat back down on my camp stool and cleaned up the remnants of my lunch, picking out the last crumbs, folding up the meal pouch, and stowing it in my bag to be refilled and resealed at the next Enclave. After that was done, I took a few minutes to breathe deeply and clear my mind as the camp packed up around me. By the time they were disappearing to the southwest, opposite the approaching group of Naturalists, I felt more calm and in control.
After that, I packed up my things and slowly followed the trail of my group. As I walked, I pulled out a notebook and pencil to start writing down my thoughts as I walked. I created a list of everything I thought of that might be important to learn about the group, jotted down a few shorthand things about the Wayfinders and our rules so I could make sure I didn’t miss anything if I had to give them the spiel, and started creating the to-do list of tasks I could set the Naturalists on to help earn their keep and ingratiate themselves with the Laborers who could, potentially, claim we’re in breach of contract.
Satisfied I was as prepared as I could be, I tucked my notebook into my pocket and started adjusting my pack, rifle, and gear so that I’d look picture-perfect. It always helped to make myself look like the Wayfinder on the recruitment posters when I ran into people outside the Enclave. It helps sell the legend for those that know and helps people take me seriously even if they don’t.
When they were only a quarter mile away, I stopped and turned to look at the group of Naturalists again. They had a good formation, with scouts out to the sides who had long since passed me, nearly hidden but not quite, and the larger folks in front forging a path through the snow for their much larger group.They were centered on the sledge path that the Wayfinders had left and I’d been walking down, taking advantage of the already trodden snow. Everyone else was in a modified wedge formation behind the leaders, occasionally visible between the swaying and staggering snowbreakers in the front. All the gearI could see was old but still in good condition. No modern materials, but plenty of treated canvas and leather to keep the snow out.
Once the leaders caught up to me, they started widening out an area around me and the rest of the group warily settled in for what looked like a rest and brief meal. As I looked around at the group, noting the Wayfinders threaded through the group already doing as I had tasked Jonathan, Lucas briskly walked up to me and saluted. Beside him stood a woman a couple years younger than me with grey hair at the temples and her otherwise deep brown hair cascading out from beneath the cap she wore.
“Captain Marshall.” Lucas dropped his salute as I nodded in acknowledgement. “May I introduce Elder Brianna, the leader of the Engelwood Complex Naturalists.”
“Brianna, please.” Brianna held out her mittened hand for a vigorous shake. “Lieutenant Lucas here told me he was led by the famous Captain Marshall, but I wasn’t sure I could believe our luck.”
I pulled my scarf down and gave Brianna a warm smile. “Pleased to meet you. The legends are mostly overblown.”
“Overblown or not, I’m happy to see our luck has finally turned around. We’ve been through hell the last few weeks.”
I shook my head a bit, but kept my expression warm. “I wouldn’t count yourselves lucky yet. You’ve got a group of cultists following you and a whole slew of folks from the Laborer’s Union to convince that you should be allowed to join us.” As Brianna’s face fell, I let a little of the warmth fade from mine. “We’re currently under contract. I’ll do my best to prepare you to convince them to let you join our caravan, but I can’t help when the time comes. Our contract forbids me from taking on another group until we’ve escorted this one to safety.”
“Your lieutenant here told me as much. We’ve got plenty of preserved food, tons of supplies, and a lot of relatively fresh meat. Had to butcher our animals a couple days back when the cultists showed up. Too easy a target for them.”
I nodded, raising my eyebrows above my goggles. “That should do nicely. Nothing like a few nights of mandatory fresh meat to ingratiate yourselves.”
Brianna nodded safely and gestured over her shoulder toward the large sled her people had pulled up not that far behind us. “Plenty enough to win a few hearts and minds via stomach.”
“Bear in mind that you will need to follow all our rules and commands while you’re with our group.” I let a little more of the warmth slip from my face, but kept my smile pleasant. “You will be presented with a contract, of course. Standard procedure for us, with a few customizations for this unique situation.”
“How much is this going to cost us?”
“Our fee will be in the contract, along with the rate sheet for whatever you can bring to the group. Plus, of course, whatever you need to convince the Laborer’s Union folks to agree to sign off on it. Maybe they’ll just take food and the sense of accomplishment from helping people in need, but that’s for you and them to negotiate.”
Brianna was frowning now, consternation on her face as her eyes looked off into the distance while she did some mental calculations. After a moment, she nodded slowly. “Very well. Do you have this contract on you?”
I took a deep breath and looked over the horizon behind the Naturalists’ path, idly scanning for signs of pursuit. “No, but my logistics officer will have it ready for us by the time we catch up with my group. We’ll need to push a little harder to catch up with them before nightfall, but it should be doable.”
“Then I’ll get my people moving.” Brianna nodded and stepped away, passing from cluster to cluster of wary Naturalists who all visibly relaxed as she walked up to them, spoke softly, and then moved on.
As she did that, Lucas broke his silence and gestured at the group around us. “They’re going to be more of a help than a hindrance, I think. They’d have to be pretty good at living off the land and protecting themselves to live so close to the Chicago Enclave for as long as they have.”
“I certainly hope so.” I pulled my scarf back into place and adjusted my goggles again, getting everything into a comfortable position for a long afternoon’s walk. “We’re officially too large a group to hide from anything and we’re going to need to change our route accordingly. This is going to slow us down significantly and it’ll take no small amount of luck to get to Des Moines before the next blizzard. If these cultists force us to take cover, we’ll have to find somewhere along the way to take shelter.”
Lucas’ face fell as I spoke and when I finished, his shoulders slumped. Instead of saying anything, he saluted and walked off toward the rear of the Naturalists’ group, where his squad of scouts was now waiting.
Before he got more than a few steps away I softly called after him “just make sure you all come back safely, alright? Better that than any number of dead cultists.” Lucas paused mid-stride for a second, but then resumed walking, waving back at me without looking. I sighed and then turned my attention to the slowly reforming column of Naturalists.
Brianna got her group up and, in a matter of minutes, was moving them along the trail left by the Wayfinder group in front of us. I mingled through the group, meeting a few people as we walked, but was mostly focused on observing how the group moved through the snow, how they handled their children, and how they kept themselves safe now that the only Wayfinders in the group were Jonathan and I.
They did better than most groups would have, without the amount of training Wayfinders received, so I was able to shift my attention to helping Jonathan catalog everything once I’d finished all my own notes. Not that he needed much help, given his ability to perfectly recall anything he wrote in his mental journal. Still, it helped when I could bring him results and allow him to skip the process of going through something himself, even if he was faster at it than I could ever hope to be.
The afternoon passed swiftly and, as the first hint of darkening sky was appearing overhead, we caught up with the Wayfinders who were already setting up camp. Natalie had them preparing for a sudden influx of people, so the introduction of the Naturalists went fairly smoothly. I left Brianna talking to Lex after introducing the two of them between their respective groups, each of which was warily eyeing the other group as I collected the contract Natalie had already put together.
After a quick review of the details, I left it in the hands of Brianna and Lex, who already had their groups mingling as they unloaded a bunch of food from the Naturalists’ sled and began to prepare their food with a couple Wayfinders supervising to make sure they didn’t break any of our rules about the size of cooking fires. While they bonded and made friends over a large meal, I gathered the rest of the Wayfinders together and we started going over the plans Cam had made for future cultist attacks. Spirits were still high, as the more experienced Wayfinders joked and told stories about previous run-ins with the various death cults that preyed on folks living outside of the Enclaves, but that slowly faded as everyone started to focus on their increased duties in the days ahead.
Nothing we had ever done or prepared for involved this many people. We trained for scenarios that involved us being found or followed by cults and opportunistic hunters, but most of the time we found them first. Most of the time, we eliminated them before they knew we were nearby. Suddenly, the danger of the wintery wastelands felt more real than it ever had before.