As I kneeled in the window, my upper torso and head fully exposed to whoever might choose to send a bullet my way, I resisted the urge to scream in defiance as I aimed down my rifle at the charging swarm of Cultists. I had planned to duck down after a couple shots, or at least start bobbing from side to side in hopes of throwing off the aim of the Cultists providing covering fire from the forest’s edge, but nothing came my way. Instead, every single one of them kept firing on the first floor as their companions charged toward the door.
I fired into the mass of Cultists, barely bothering to aim, and felt my heart sink even further as I realized that there was no return fire from any of the fortified positions the Laborers and Naturalists should have been holding. Either they hadn’t noticed the Cultist charge, were too threatened by the heavy covering fire to risk firing back, or were all dead. I fought against the anger welling up inside of me as I kept firing as quickly as I could, but I only managed to shoot a dozen of them before they reached the door. If I’d had one of the semiautomatic rifles the other Wayfinders carried instead of the rifle all the snipers carried, I could have easily shot far more than that.
As they crowded against the door, the few in the front all grabbing onto some large metal object one of them had been carrying, I leaned out and fired a couple extra shots into their midst. Finally, a couple of them seemed to notice where I was and turned their guns on me. I ducked back down behind my barricade, but they were close enough that they could fire through the wall and floor beneath me.
I curled up against the barricade, putting my torso on the metal plates that kept the barricade standing and breathed a sigh of relief when a few bullets pinged off it. My relief was cut short when a shower of splinters and bullets flew up from the floor near my legs. My heavy thermal pants protected me from the splinters, but one of the bullets ripped right through the floor, my pants, and the meat of my calf on its way towards the roof.
I stifled a cry of pain, settling for a sharp grunt instead, and blindly fired out the window toward where the group had been massed near the front door. I was rewarded for my efforts with a few more cries of pain, but that noise was interrupted by the sound of the door splintering apart and then the deafening clap of some kind of flashbang. The house began to shake as people pushed through the broken door below me and the ringing silence following the flashbang, a mere annoyance thanks to my earplugs, was quickly replaced by automatic gunfire and screaming.
I quickly slammed a fresh magazine into my rifle, banished mental images of everyone on the first floor dying, and tried to heave myself to a crouch. I started to topple over when I put weight on my injured leg, but managed to catch myself before I could thump against the floor and remind all the Cultists that I was upstairs. I moved away from the window and the sightlines of anyone who might be looking through it, leaning against the hallway wall as I went, and pushed myself to a standing position. One hand still on the wall as support for my injured leg, I hobbled down the hallway and around the corner to the top of the stairs.
As I turned, I noticed that every window on the eastern wall was empty. At some point during the last few minutes, the Naturalists on lookout duty must have moved downstairs to help their friends. I didn’t waste my breath on cursing and instead focused my full attention on the stairs as the noise of gunfire, rage, and pain became even louder.
Not knowing how to handle the stairs without going slowly or using my injured leg, I opted to toss myself down the stairs. I controlled my tumble with my uninjured leg and an empty hand, bracing myself at the landing where the stairs turned so I was on a knee with my rifle in firing position as I came to a stop.
I looked past the blood, death, and smoke to focus on the camouflage snowsuits of the Cultists. Before they could even begin to turn toward the stairs, I was firing, ignoring my scope in favor of using the hundreds of hours of practice I’d had with this particular gun to fire into the center mass of every Cultist I could see.
I took down ten of them thanks to my quick firing and the noisy confusion of the battle on the first floor., but the eleventh and twelfth turned to fire in my direction as I reached for a new magazine. Before they could bring their weapons to bear, though, they were shot through the wall they stood beside, collapsing to the ground in a shower of blood and plaster dust.
I slammed a fresh magazine into my gun as a pair of Naturalists, one of whom I recognized as Elder Brianna despite the plaster dust coating her face, poked their heads out of the room they’d been in and looked for more Cultists to shoot. When Brianna saw me, she nodded and then waved at the room behind her. A group of Naturalists followed her wave, pouring silently out of the room and splitting up to head in either direction down the first floor hallways. I pushed myself to my feet as they did and carefully limped down the last few stairs to the first floor, leaning heavily on the banister for support.
There was still some gunfire in the building, but it wasn’t the intense panic of just a few moments earlier. It was the steady, rhythmic sound of groups sweeping through the house and engaging until, a few seconds later, silence fell again. Outside, I could still hear the occasional burst of gunfire, most of it coming from the east now, but it seemed like most of the battle was over.
I thumbed the safety on my rifle and looked around, careful to keep my gun up and ready in case any of the Cultists moved or appeared from around corners, but Brianna shook her head. “We’ve got most of them.”
“You pull back from the windows?”
“Yeah. Not fast enough, but yeah. I don’t think more than a couple got past us and they’re probably down now. I can lead the clear.”
I shook my head. “I’m fine. I just couldn’t manage stairs.”
“You should get tha-”
“Only once I’ve cleared the building.” I waved Brianna’s offer of help away and started limping through the first floor, clearing rooms and collecting the surviving Naturalists and Laborers as I went. It took only about a minute to do the whole floor, but by then we’d gotten the all-clear sign from the Wayfinders outside. Only after I’d returned to the entry hallway, as Brianna took charge of the Naturalists to start collecting and triaging the injured, did I collapse into a chair so I could inspect my leg.
As I carefully pulled up the leg of my thermal pants, I rolled my head and hunched my shoulders to dislodge my earplugs. It was an awkward motion that felt like I was trying to crack my back and my neck at the same time, but it meant I could now hear all the sounds of pain around me along with the distant and unintelligible calls of the Wayfinders outside.
It only took a quick inspection to see that I’d just been grazed by the bullet, so I packed the wound, wrapped it up, and then pulled my pant leg down again. I wrapped the pant leg in duct tape to seal the tear for now and prevent it from jostling the quick dressing I’d down to my calf, and heaved myself to my feet again. It still hurt to walk, but it was a lot easier to do than before I’d wrapped it. I wouldn’t need to lean on anything to keep limping along and I could easily support myself on my uninjured leg when I wasn’t.
Satisfied I’d be good until the worse injuries were treated, I moved into the room Brianna was using for triage and went to work. I was one of two backup medic and surgeons in the Wayfinders, good only for quickly dressing field wounds and the most basic operations like removing bullets, but that meant my skills were absolutely in demand at the moment.
A minute or so later, as I was setting up in the make-shift operating room upstairs, swapping out my thermal gloves for a pair from the sterile box I kept in my pack, I saw Natalie poke her head in through the door. I offered her a tired smile and she smiled back, glad to see I was alive, and then ducked out. After that, I focused all of my attention on providing what field aid I could and sending the rest of it to the barn where Jonathan would have set up his surgery room for anything worse than I and the other backup surgeon could handle. The Naturalists also had a surgeon, Kelsey, the woman whose husband had been angry about alleged marital infidelity, who seemed to be somewhere between mine and Jonathan’s skill level.
Between the two of us, we saved everyone we could. We had a particularly tricky bullet removal that should probably have gone to Jonathan, but Kelsey was confident she could do it with my help and her confidence proved warranted when she managed to fish it out and I quickly closed the wound before the Laborer could bleed out.. We had a few other people helping as well, doing stitches and assisting us out where they could, so it only took about an hour for us to see to every injured person. Unfortunately, the Cultists hadn’t left many in their wake. As they pushed into the house, they’d finished off any of the still-living people they encountered.
After cleaning up, I limped over to the barn to find Cam and trade status reports. Natalie had checked in two more times while I was working, but she hadn’t stuck around when she saw how busy I was. I found the barn doors open, a small group of Wayfinders mostly piled around in the opening as they ate, talked quietly, or worked on their gear.
As I scanned for Cam, I only counted about half of the total number of Wayfinders that should have been there and my look of concern must have been enough to let everyone know what was on my mind. One of the younger Wayfinders, Germaine, jerked a thumb over their shoulder toward the map tables. “Captain’s over there, Captain.”
I waved my thanks and quickly limped over to Cam who looked up and smiled warmly when they saw me. I gave them a hug when I reached the table and then plopped into one of the chairs beside it. “Status report. The Naturalists took the worst of the attack. A quarter of them died when the Cultists breached the building with flashbangs and a few others were taken out in the firefights before and after that. In total, almost a third of the Naturalists combatants died and almost everyone else except a handful were injured. Laborers lost six people and another five were injured. How’d we do?”
“One dead Wayfinder.” Cam put their hand on my shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Jay. Got hit by a couple lucky shots as he popped up during the last push. I’m still waiting on the final injuries reports, but it looks like nothing too major. Couple of flesh wounds, yourself included it looks like, some through-and-throughs that’ll put people on light-duties for a bit, and two surgeries.”
“Better than we could have hoped for.” I resisted the urge to wipe my face, not wanting to break any of the scabs that had formed or jostle any splinters I’d missed. “We got a medic free for me? I’ve patched myself up, but I need a once-over.”
“I’ll send Jonathan over as soon as he’s done cleaning his gear. Shouldn’t be more than a couple minutes.”
“It’s just stitches, probably.”
“Jonathan will be the judge of that. We’re not taking any risk with a leg wound. You should know better.”
I sighed and nodded. “Scouts?”
“Scouting. No news yet and they’ve already cleared the area here and around the Cultists’ camp. It’ll be a few hours before we get a report on whether or not any of them managed to flee. I’ve got anyone who wasn’t injured digging graves. We’ve got all day, sure, but better to get them working now, before they crash from the adrenaline.”
Cam paused and I turned my head to the south, as if I’d be able to see through the barn wall to the small copse of trees where all of the uninjured Wayfinders, Natalie included, would be using picks to break through the frozen ground so they could bury the bodies before they froze completely. This vein of thought was quickly interrupted, though, as Cam said “Flashbangs?”
“Yeah. On top of decent training and at least one or two sensible commanders given the way they all focused on keeping me pinned down at first. They seemed a bit more prepared and ready for us being holed up here than I like.”
“There’s no way. It was just luck.” Cam snorted and shook their head. “We killed any scouts they sent here. There’s no way they could have known.”
“Sure, but they might have figured it out on the fly.” I waved a hand in the air and turned my head back toward the southern wall of the barn, idly looking for any holes or gaps in the wall. “Shields as a distraction while this group snuck around behind. They saw us in the farmhouse and tried to sneak in before we noticed, but I saw them and we ruined their ambush. They tried to salvage their assault but we eventually took them all down and here we are now. Lot of dead people. It’s not like we haven’t dealt with groups like this before, with decent training and leadership. Just cause most of the cults are as ready to sacrifice themselves as other people doesn’t mean they all are.”
When I looked back, I saw Cam frowning at me. “You saw them?”
I inhaled deeply and nodded while holding the breath. “Yeah.” I let the wind gust out of and mirrored Cam’s frown. “The Naturalists wound up abandoning their posts to help their friends on the first floor, so I suspect they weren’t always keeping watch the way we told them to.”
“We’re going to need to talk to their leader about this. Whatshername. Anna?”
“Brianna. And yeah, it’s on my to-do list.”
“Alright.” Cam nodded and I nodded back, unsure of what else to say.
After a moment, I slapped my good knee and then pushed myself to my feet. “I guess I’ll go tell Brianna and Lex about the burial arrangements so they can work out what they want done for their people.”
“And help with the digging.”
“That too.” I sighed, took half a step, and nearly fell over when my injured leg didn’t properly support me. “Oh, right.”
Cam didn’t chide me as I sat back down to wait for Jonathan, a distant look on their face as they gazed off towards the east. After a minute of silence, they turned back to me and said “Why would a group with flashbangs and that much training be out here in the middle of nowhere? They chased the Naturalists, yeah, but they didn’t follow them all the way from Chicago. They were out here for something.”
“Sure, but what? There’s no major cities out here. Lots of ruins, but these aren’t even well-traveled routes. Almost no one goes from Madison to Des Moines without passing through Chicago first. Everything out here’s probably been picked clean by now and there’s not enough traffic for them to go sacrifice hunting.”
“I dunno, Marshall, but I think we should keep our guard up. Maybe there’s an even bigger group around here somewhere. Some kind of massive band of them roaming around.”
“Ugh. I hope not.” I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes.
After a moment, Cam spoke again, their voice a bit softer. “Sorry about the farmhouse. I was trying to send people over, but that was when Jay got hit and the rest of his group found themselves under immediate fire and weren’t able to act fast enough to help you out before the farmhouse got swarmed. We had to improvise a bit and, by the time we’d prevented the remaining Cultists from sweeping over to join those attacking the house, most of your Cultists were already dead.”
“I know, Cam.” I didn’t open my eyes, keeping my mind mostly focused on steadying my breathing and ignoring the throbbing pain in my leg. “We lived, mostly. More people survived than I thought would. You know, if the Cultists saw us in the farmhouse. I’ll take that as a win, even if it wasn’t a win according to plan.”
Cam chuckled and I cracked an eye open to find their face in their hands, eyes covered. “You’d think I’d get used to this after so many years.”
I pushed myself out of my chair and went over to Cam for another hug. They stayed tense for a moment before relaxing into it, slumping their long frame over my shoulders as they let all of the tension drain from them. After a few breaths, I quietly said “I don’t think I ever will.” Cam didn’t respond so I patted them on the back gently and, after a moment, said “you did great, Captain.”
Cam laughed softly and stood up, regaining some of their composure. “You bet your ass I did.” Cam put their hands on my shoulders and gently pushed away. “You don’t need to hug me after every one of these.”
“You might not need the hug, but I sure do.” I limped back over to my chair and sat back down. “Always makes me feel better after a debacle like this.”
Cam walked over to where I was sitting and gave me a friendly punch in the shoulder. I dramatically flinched away from it and pretended like they’d really hurt me just in time for Jonathan to show up as I was moaning in pain like I was dying. Jonathan rolled his eyes at my bellyaching and started seeing to my face splinters as Cam leaned back against the table.
“Once I’m sure Jonathan isn’t going to ruin your good looks, Marshall, I’m going to go talk to the Naturalists and Laborers about their guns. Do a quick check of the building, the remaining fortifications, and ammo. I’ll, uh.” Cam paused and looked down at their boots. “I’ll let you talk to the people who lost relatives, parents, or kids.”
While Jonathan was away from my face for a moment, grabbing a wipe of some kind to clear the old blood away, I nodded. “Yeah. I’ll take care of that as soon as I’m done here.”
Cam saluted and then walked away toward the barn door and the snow outside. I leaned back a little bit, trying to relax as Jonathan tended to my wounds.
I looked through one of the windows in the barn. The sky had clouded over again, but the snow hadn’t started falling again yet. In another few hours, though, it would be back and worse than ever, like it was trying to make up for lost time. I could feel it in the air, the weight of the coming snow and the weight of the conversations I was going to have with people mourning a loved one intermingling to make me feel more tired than any adrenaline crash could. My only comforting thought in that moment was that at least the cellar, where all the noncombatants had been hidden, would be warmer than the barn was.