New to the series or certain you’ve missed a chapter? You can find the introduction Here and the table of contents Here.
The first attack came in the middle of the night. I was doing a round of the farmhouse, making sure everyone was awake at their posts or getting what sleep they could, when the low call of a hawk echoed through the night. I instantly rushed to my post at the southeastern corner of the farmhouse, ignoring the confused looks of the Laborers and Naturalists that I passed. They weren’t going to be needed yet. One or two tried to ask me questions, but I shushed them as I threw myself down beside my rifle.
As I peered through the scope of my rifle, I was able to find the cultists approaching from the east without an issue. They were moving low, hiding in the fresh snow using some excellent camouflage that would have rendered them almost invisible if the type of hawk call hadn’t told me exactly where to look. Each of them also wore a set of some kind of complex mask and goggles that hid their face and probably aided their vision as well, given the level of technology that most cultists used. Against anyone else, their silent, lightless, and camouflaged approach would have been almost undetectable and incredibly effective.
Once I’d located them and gotten a sense of the range, I pulled my eye from my scope so I could glance down at the watch sticking out from between my glove and jacket sleeve. I watched as the last few seconds ticked and then, once fifteen seconds had passed after the initial call, I planted my face in the crook of my arm.
Right as I did, there was a series of sharp cracks and blinding white light coming from the traps we’d set up in a ring around the farmhouse and barn. As the flashbangs detonated, someone gave off a sharp whistle that was immediately followed by the sudden crackling sound of a dozen chemical flares exploding to life, bathing the area in their harsh green light.
As the fizzing roar of the flares began to fade, I pulled my face out of the corner of my arm and planted it back on the scope of my rifle. Already mostly on target, I sighted on one of the cultists staggering through the snow and, as Cam taught me all those years ago, let out my breath, paused a heartbeat, and squeezed the trigger. The cultists in my crosshairs went down and, without pausing to see what effect my shot had, I moved on to the next target. Exhale, heartbeat, squeeze. I repeated this process three more times after that, taking down a total of four cultists before another whistle called a halt to our firing.
I watched through my scope as the few remaining cultists tried to flee back the way they came, staggering and blind after the bright light of the flashbangs was amplified through their night vision goggles. They were only able to make it a few paces before the Wayfinders buried in the snow to either side of their path popped out in a rapid blast of silenced gunfire. After the last standing target fell, there were a few seconds of silence and then the same hawk call was repeated twice in quick succession.
I watched through my scope as the other Wayfinders went about their duties with swift competence. Those who’d thrown the flares ran out and doused them, returning the area to its original darkness as they saved the partially used flares for future battles. The once-hidden firing teams moved through the cultists, finishing off the few who’d tried to hide behind their allies or those who’d taken non-mortal wounds. Another crew followed behind them, pulling bodies out of the way and confiscating their gear, which they brought to Jonathan and his squad by the barn who carefully searched through it for anything that might be transmitting a signal.
When it was clear that there was no more shooting to do, I set aside my rifle and pushed myself to my feet. There was a crowd of Naturalists and Laborers gathered around every window looking east except mine, thankfully. I started answering questions about what had just happened, reminding them that they’d been commanded to stand down until I told them to engage, and commanded them to return to their positions. I did a few rapid rounds of the farmhouse, making sure that every post was still occupied and that the noncombatants were still secure in the basement, before returning to my position.
My work had taken only a few minutes, but already all signs of the battle had been cleaned up. The snow wasn’t as smooth as it had been prior to the ambush, but it was still coming down so that was only a matter of time. All the bodies, the blast holes from the flashbang traps, and the churn from the fleeing cultists had been smoother over and hidden once more.
As I scanned the field, admiring the handiwork of the other Wayfinders, I noticed a group of people emerging from the trees to the south. I glanced through my scope and saw Natalie and her squad emerging from the tree shadows into the faint light seeping through the overhead clouds and snow. Natalie waved a series of hand signals towards the barn and then waved for her group to hurry back to the barn with her.
I was about to set aside my scope and return to keeping watch in the farmhouse when I saw Natalie turn and send me the hand signals to return to the barn for a briefing. Suddenly nervous, I jumped to my feet, slung my rifle over my shoulder, and trotted off to find Elder Brianna and Representative Lex.
After a quick reminder to keep up the watch and only engage if they saw targets coming from the west or south when I wasn’t there to command then, I left the farmhouse. It was a short run to the barn, but it felt like eternity as I moved through the now-empty and completely open space between the two buildings. I made it safely inside, but my heart was hammering as if I’d just finished a much longer run than a few hundred feet between the two buildings.
Inside, I found Cam and Natalie already in a rapid but quiet discussion. As I hurried over, I heard Natalie saying “…before we could start picking through the now-empty camp for supplies, the lookout spotted the main force coming in from the east. In the middle of the night! We grabbed what we could and sabotaged a few easy things, but most of their supplies are still there.”
Cam wiped down their face with their hands, stretching it out as they did in a look of pure exasperated frustration. “Fucking shit.”
“What’d I miss?” I did my best to quiet my breathing, but my heart was still hammering and I didn’t have much success.
Natalie turned her head to face me, closed her eyes, and shook her head a little. “Not much. Took out guards, tried to empty camp, spotted incoming force. We’ve got maybe an hour before they attack if they decide they’re going to push through the night.”
“That’s practically dawn, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, sure is” Cam muttered. “No chance of a rest for anyone I guess.”
“We’ve dealt with longer times without sleep.” I clapped Cam on the shoulder and smiled.
“Sure, but we were a lot younger back then.” Cam closed their eyes and heaved another sigh. “And Lucas’ squad is already on their second sleepless night. I’ve got them trying to rest right now, but if all they get is an hour, that’s barely enough to do more than lose track of what’s going on.
Natalie nodded. “And the snow’s slowing down.”
I arched an eyebrow at Natalie and Cam let go of their face long enough to squint in confusion.
Natalie pursed her lips and glared at us both. “That means we’re going to have breaks in the cloud cover in an hour or two. If they come in from the east again, we’re going to be staring into a blinding dawn, between what sunlight gets through the clouds and all that fresh snow.”
“Ah, shit” Cam rolled their head and cracked their neck. “And our goggles will limit our field of vision enormously. I’ve gotta make new plans.”
Before Natalie or I could say anything Cam marched off toward the pile of boxes they used as a map table and started staring down at the map Jonathan’s squad had made of the area. While they did that, I turned to Natalie. “How’re you holding up?”
Natalie’s frown disappeared and she looked off to the side, breaking eye contact. “You know I don’t like killing people.”
“It’s one thing if they’re shooting at us. It’s another thing if they’re just standing guard or sleeping.” Natalie wrapped her arms around herself, took a deep breath, and slowly let it out.
I raised my arms a little bit to silently offer Natalie a hug, but she shook her head and took another deep breath. After another moment of silence, she continued. “I know Cam always said that killing cultists is better than fighting them. That every threat we eliminate before it threatens us makes the world a safer place for us and the people we guide, and I can’t say that they’re wrong even though I hate how it makes me feel.”
“I’m sorry, Nat.” I tuned into the racing of my own heart for a moment, letting the familiar fear and worry wash over me. “You know I don’t like it when we have to fight and kill people. But we can’t-”
“I know, Marshall.” Natalie cut me off. Her expression shifted from frustrated and upset to worn as she turned back to me. “I know. I wouldn’t still be here after thirty years if I didn’t agree. I can hate it and still agree with why we have to do it. I’m just tired of the constant struggle out here. I’m tired of living in a world where we have to kill most of the people we find because they want to stake us outside in a blizzard to help usher in the end of the old world or however they’re phrasing it these days.”
Natalie dropped her arms to her sides with a long sigh. “I’m fine, Marshall. You can stop looking at me like that.” I blinked quickly a few times as I realized I’d let my shoulders slump and my face drop as Natalie spoke, but Natalie didn’t react as I schooled my expression. “I just don’t like doing this. I’ll keep doing it as long as we’re dealing with actual cultists and we need to strike first in order to stay safe out here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be upset at taking human lives like this.”
I nodded, remembering the long conversations we’d had back in our first years of this after our fights with the newly formed winter cults. Cam was the first to suggest changing tactics from self-defense to threat elimination. It hadn’t been as easy to pick out the cultists from the regular folks who’d just gotten a little too desperate back then, since not everyone had figured out what technology to abandon to stay safe, but we’d all agreed anyway. Pacifistic ideals and giving people the chance to change were not things any of us had the luxury to hold onto, even then.
As the silence stretched longer between us, just teetering on the edge of getting uncomfortable as we both let our thoughts rattle around our heads, Cam returned. “Sorry about sending you on that mission, Nat. I needed it to get done right and we needed Jona-”
“It’s okay, Cam. I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t agree.”
“Yeah, better lay off, Cam, or else you’re going to get reminded of the morally complex situation we live in like I did.” I gave Natalie a small smile and she smiled back, banishing the lingering mild discomfort as she did.
“Well, okay.” Cam looked between the two of us before taking a fortifying breath as they shook their head. “Anyway. First contact status report looks good. Plenty of supplies to give to the Laborers and Naturalists to help in their defense. Won’t have to worry about running out of ammo now. Nothing that’ll work with our gear, but we should be able to reclaim anything that doesn’t get used at the next Enclave.”
Only two minor injuries. One Wayfinder got shot, but it just clipped their leg. Another Wayfinder, Tim, got stabbed in the upper arm by one of the cultists during cleanup, but it doesn’t look bad. Jonathan’s got it stitched up already and says it shouldn’t get in the way since Tim’s left-handed already. Tim disagrees, but is mostly just griping to gripe it sounds like. He’ll get his injury pay, but that’s about it. He shouldn’t have gotten that close without checking if the cultist was dead or not first.”
“I’ll talk to him if he’s still griping about it after we’re finished here.” I looked over at the short, barrel-chested Wayfinder who started hamming it up the instant he noticed me looking. The effect was undercut by the fact that it took him over ten seconds to notice me looking, during which he drank something out of his thermos using his right arm. I gave him an exaggerated eye roll and turned back to find Cam outlining the new battle plan to Natalie.
I listened silently as Cam showed the new battle lines to all of the Wayfinder squad leaders as they wandered over and outlined a few countermeasures in case the new force of cultists came from the east. My squad had been added to hers for the time being, as I commanded the Naturalists and Laborers, so I didn’t get any updated assignments.
If all went well, the Laborers and Naturalists wouldn’t be needed at all. We Wayfinders were incredibly practiced at eliminating groups larger than our own, since most cultists wandered in groups of about a hundred. We had to be since our only defense against the larger groups that we couldn’t sneak past was quick elimination. This would be a tough battle, but the chances were good that we’d get through it fine since we had traps, ambush points, and maps that the cultists lacked.
So long as the cultists didn’t attack from the southwest, the Laborers and Naturalists were to hold their fire unless fired upon or if the cultists tried to get into the farmhouse. Better to keep all attention focused on the barn where the Wayfinders were primarily holed up by not letting the cultists know there was anyone inside the farmhouse. Still, unless the cultists were led by an utter moron, they’d quickly realize that the farmhouse shielded them from attack and then it would turn into a real bloodbath.
A few minutes later, after Cam had sent everyone to their posts, I was doing another round of the farmhouse, checking in with people and reassuring them that their part in the plans hadn’t changed. I made sure everyone who was carrying a new gun knew how to use it and that the ammo had been evenly distributed, before settling down for a quick rest at my post. I wasn’t on guard duty, so I took advantage of the time I had to do a little meditation. My heart was still hammering, even though I hadn’t run anywhere in more than twenty minutes, and it stayed hammering as the sun began to rise and then it picked up speed as the low call of a hawk echoed through the brilliant dawn.