New to the series or certain you’ve missed a chapter? You can find the introduction Here and the table of contents Here.
As the final notes of the hawk call lingered in the air, I threw myself out of my meditation pose and scrambled over to where my gun lay beside my barrier. I’d set up the collapsible barricade and my gun on the landing at the top of the stairs, right beneath a pair of windows on the corner of the farmhouse. One pointed east toward the now-rising sun and the other pointed south towards the copse of fir trees that grew a bit over two hundred feet away from the farmhouse.
It took a moment of disorientation and fumbling, but I got my rifle back into position facing the east, slapped my goggles down over my eyes when I was nearly blinded by the light of the rising sun reflecting off the snow, and then eventually sighted the shielded forms of the Cultists moving forward in a tight formation. They were moving incredibly slowly, but they formed a tight wedge that allowed them to plow through the snow rather than have to pack it down as they walked. It looked exhausting, but there was no sign of faltering or slowing in their movement.
I watched them, waiting for another signal to tell me what was coming next, but the air hung empty and silent. I ignored the whispering voices in the halls and rooms around me until I heard the steady beat of Elder Brianna’s crouched footfalls approach me.
“Is this it, Captain Marshall?”
“No. Stay hidden, no firing, only those at their posts can look. Get everyone else ready to defend themselves and behind something until I give the signal.”
“Yes, sir.” There was the muffled noise of canvas scraping canvas and then the sound of Elder Brianna moving away, but I resisted the urge to look away from my scope. Per Cam’s orders the previous night, I was only to start firing once the main force had been engaged, and only if I was given the signal. The best hope we had of keeping the Laborers and Naturalists safe was keeping the Cultists focused on the Wayfinders attacking from the barn.
As I watched through my scope, I saw one of the shieldbearers in the front, a large masculine person with a full beard visible through the clear material of his shield, stagger and then drop to the ground. As Cultists around him froze where they stood, some bending to pick him up, more and more of them started to drop. Only after almost half a dozen people had fallen did they seem to realize what was happening and close ranks to reform their shield wall.
Their advance momentarily stymied, the Cultists behind the shieldwall moved around, pulling their fallen companions out of sight as more shields popped up behind the first layer and then around the edges as they prepared to be flanked. I watched in silence as a few potential shots between the unsteady shields passed in front of my scope, but kept my finger off the trigger. The other snipers would have seen those shots as well, but none of them fired at the Cultists.
As the group started to advance again, a bit faster this time as they chose to trample the snow rather than push it aside, I noticed they were getting closer to the bit of still visibly-churned snow where the previous Cultist attack had been stopped. Whoever was leading the group also noticed it and directed the wedge of Cultists to move around it, right over one of the traps that the other Wayfinders had made. I hadn’t been able to see who in the wedge gave the order, but the smoothness with which the whole group pivoted made it clear someone was calling the shots, probably from the center of the wedge.
As the broad edge of the Cultist formation came into contact with the loose, seemingly untouched snow hiding the shallow pits, there was a sharp crack as the covering gave way and the front rank of Cultists tumbled down. The second rank started advancing to fill in the gaps in the wall, but as they did, there was a line of thundering bangs as the explosives at the bottom of the pit went off, showering the Cultists in snow, blood, and dirt.
From my position, I couldn’t see what was happening through the cloud of snow that was drifting through the air after the homemade mines had gone off. The sharp crack of rifle fire coming from the barn told me that the snipers had removed their suppressors and the scattering of automatic fire from where the Cultists were standing told me they knew where the Wayfinder snipers were hidden.
As the cloud of snow began to clear, I could see the Cultists moving to either take cover behind the heavy shields they bore, layering them in hope of surviving a high-caliber rifle shot, or sprinting for the natural cover of the nearby trees. A few smart Cultists ran back the way they came, directly into the blinding glare of the rising sun, but Cam had been prepared for what would have otherwise been a sound strategy and a couple Wayfinders hidden to the north popped out of the snow in time to take down the fleeing targets.
Those running towards the forest to the south fared better, as about half the total Cultists from that group made it and took shelter behind trees while those still out in the snow behind their shields were systematically taken down by the snipers firing in quick succession. The steady rate of fire and the fact that one person behind two shields was taken out by two bullets in quick succession told me that Cam was overseeing the snipers directly.
As I watched all of this happen, I kept track of each person I saw, either running, falling, or already on the ground, trying to get a quick count. As the snipers worked through the last of the Cultists who’d hid behind their shields, I ran out of bodies to count at just over sixty. Taking my eye off my scope, I carefully poked my head over the window ledge until I could barely see past it and scanned the area to the east for more Cultists. When I couldn’t see any, I gave a sharp whistle, doing my best to throw the sound to the north so it would sound like it came from the barn rather than the farmhouse.
I broke the call into six trills, paused for a moment, and then repeated it, letting any Wayfinder who could hear me know that there were only sixty Cultists in the group attacking the barn. After a moment, cutting through the crack and cough of gunfire, came a chorus of sharp but low whistles, confirming my count and letting me know that the Wayfinders to the north and east didn’t see anyone else. I paused for a few heartbeats, waiting to see if any other calls came as the sounds of sniper and automatic fire worked their way through my earplugs, but none came.
Taking a quick risk, I popped up and stuck my head completely out the window to the east, quickly looking to the north and south for signs of the missing Cultists. I didn’t see any in the moment my head was exposed and couldn’t risk exposing myself for any longer, so I ducked back inside quickly. After letting a couple seconds pass, I did the same thing to the southern window and scanned the western edge of the copse of trees for signs of movement.
There, creeping through the scraggly bushes at the fringe of the forest, were all the missing Cultists, barely visible between the mixed browns and greens of their camouflage and the dead, dying, or evergreen foliage of the small forest. I tucked my head back inside, praying to any god that would listen that they hadn’t seen me, and gave out a sharp, rising whistle through the eastern facing window.
Without waiting for a response from the other Wayfinders, I rolled backwards, yanked the barricade from the wall with my foot, and army crawled down the hallway to the corner that would take me to my backup sniping location at the western facing window. As I crawled, I banged on the floor four times in rapid succession. As the wooden thump cut through the gunfire to the east, I paused for a moment, knocked four more times, and finished crawling to my new position.
All around me, as I carefully pushed my barricade into place, was a chorus of rustling fabrics as anyone not watching through an eastern or northern window silently moved to a southern or western one. If they were following our drills from the night before, every single one of them would be piling up behind the wooden barricades we assembled out of horse stalls from the barn, bits of furniture from the farmhouse, and any of the beams from the barn’s hayloft that Cam hadn’t needed to get the Wayfinder snipers into position. It wouldn’t stop every bullet, but it was better protection than the simple wooden walls and plaster of the farmhouse.
After my barricade was firmly in place between the extra boards I’d attached to the walls, I took a slow breath in and out, trying to calm the building anxiety in my stomach. When that did nothing, I checked the suppressor on my rifle, touched the spare magazines attached to my belt, made sure my earplugs were firmly planted, and then gave two rapid double-taps to the floor, signaling for the Laborers and Naturalists to fire at will.
Throughout the farmhouse, rifle and automatic fire blasted to life as I popped to my knees, sighted down my scope, and started taking shots at the exposed Cultists. A storm of bullets tore through their front ranks as they scrambled behind trees and rocks, taking whatever cover they could. I repeated the mantra Cam had taught us as I fired, breathed, sighted, held my breath, and fired again, slowly but steadily working my way through targets as they popped out to fire back.
The Laborers and Naturalists seemed to be firing blindly at first, spraying the forest and snow as a whole rather than targeting the camouflaged Cultists. Eventually, they started to hone in on their targets as the Cultists dove for cover or gave away their positions by firing back, but that meant that the first wave of shots didn’t do nearly as much damage as I hoped it would.
As I shot a fifth, sixth, and then seventh Cultist, whoever commanded them seemed to regain control as the wild return fire stopped for a moment and then resumed in a calm, orderly fashion that had everyone in the farmhouse ducking for cover. I managed to take out an eighth and ninth Cultist before someone seemed to notice, directing a hail of bullets toward me. I ducked down behind cover and hoped that this would give the Laborers and Naturalists a chance to safely return fire but, as the sounds of gunfire from below me picked back up, there were several cries of pain and anger as well.
I fired the last shot from my rifle without looking, and began to quickly remove the suppressor. There no need for secrecy anymore. As I finished removing it and started reloading, I heard the unmistakable sound of Cam whistling over the din of the battlefield. It was a single note, held long and loud enough that there was a momentary lull in gunfire as everyone briefly paused in response. A lull immediately broken as a contingent of Wayfinders popped out of the snow deep in the forest and started racing toward the Cultists that had taken cover behind the trees.
I banged the floor three times with a pause between each strike, hoping the Laborers and Naturalists remembered the signal to stop firing to the south, and then banged it again four times to have them continue firing at the Cultists hiding on the western edge of the forest. After finishing my reload, I popped my gun over the window ledge and kept firing. I had to duck back down again almost immediately when Cultists returned fire before I could hit more than two targets. This time, instead of aiming for the space below the window that was protected by my barricade, they were aiming for the sides of the windows, quickly chewing through the extra wood I’d added and sending a cloud of splinters down on me as I took cover.
As I waited for the Cultists firing on me to pause or reload, I heard the same splintering noises coming from below as the Cultists seemed to decide they had enough ammo to just destroy the whole house rather than try to hit people as they popped out of the windows. There were more shouts of pain below as most of the remaining Cultists seemed to focus their fire on the first floor, but I couldn’t do anything until I had a chance to fire back.
In the pause that finally arrived after several excruciating seconds, I popped up beside the window, using a series of tightly grouped holes in the wall to hide most of myself as I fired back. I was able to get four shots off this time, before the Cultists figured out what was happening and started firing back. I ducked back down when they stopped shooting at the window and only caught a faceful of splinters when a cluster of bullets tore through the space my head had been in barely a second earlier.
As I reloaded again, curled up behind my barricade, I paused to pull a few of the largest splinters out of my face, ignoring the tingling pain as drops of blood ran down my face. I silently thanked Natalie for making sure our goggles offered some ballistic protection on top of glare protection, since I’d felt most of the splinters bounce off my goggles as I ducked.
Once I’d gotten enough out that I’d be able to use my rifle without driving any of the splinters further in, I returned to my position at the window, taking a small risk to get eyes on the Cultists as I fired off a few quick shots that were barely aimed. The quick peek showed a mass of Cultists forming at the edge of the woods, all of their attention focused on the first floor of the farmhouse. A few shots blasting through the walls to either side of the window forced me down behind my barricade and I took a moment to take a deep breath before I let out the most high-pitched, shrill whistle I could manage.
When I finally ran out of breath a few seconds later, I shook my head to end the echoing reverberation that always stuck around after I sent out the call for emergency assistance. The crashing of bullets through what remained of the splintered wood around my window had stopped midway through the whistle, so I chanced a look through one of the holes in the wall beside me rather than through the window in case someone was waiting for me to show my face again.
When I did, I saw that most of the Cultists from the forest were rushing toward the farmhouse as those behind kept spraying the first floor with bullets. I saw some of the Wayfinders off in the middle of the woods stop chasing down the Cultists who had run for cover rather than stick to hiding behind their shields and turn their attention toward the group attacking the farmhouse. I could tell they were too far away to do anything but fire wildly or start running in my direction before the swarm of charging Cultists made it to the front door.
I saw another group of Wayfinders, one of the hidden forest squads, pop up and turn toward me, but they immediately came under fire. There was still one group of Cultists operating as unit that paused their attempts to flee when this group of Wayfinders had popped up right in front of them. They had seamlessly pivoted to firing as soon as the Wayfinders began to emerge and I saw the Wayfinder squad start scrambling for cover as their attempt to come to my assistance fell apart. I didn’t have the time to watch what happened to them as I prepared myself for one of the most basic plans that we’d completely failed to prepare for. A pincer maneuver.
I chuckled to myself as I reloaded my rifle again, trying to steady myself against the building manic laughter with deep, slow breaths as I thought that I and all the people I was leading might die to a basic pincer attack rather than a complex stratagem or unending horde of fanatics. After chambering the first round from the magazine, I cleared my mind of all thoughts, fought down the laughter, and pushed myself up into a kneeling position in front of the window. All bets were off. Following the plan didn’t matter anymore because if I didn’t do something about this mass of Cultists, I wasn’t going to live long enough for Cam to chew me out.