New to the series or certain you’ve missed a chapter? You can find the introduction Here and the table of contents Here.
I blinked rapidly, trying to clear the sleep gunk from my eyes without moving my hands. I even held my breath temporarily, doing my best to fight down the immediate urge to lash out without knowing what the full situation was. All I had to go on at the moment was the dull grey sheen of a distant light reflecting off the barrel of a gun. As my eyes cleared, though, the gun came into sharper focus, bringing with it a pair of faces.
The older of two, a man maybe a couple years younger than me, with fresh-looking salt and pepper stubble across his face that matched the hair atop his head, had his eyes locked on mine. “That’s right. Stay still and nobody gets shot.” When I didn’t move or say anything in response, the man cracked a smile. “You get it. With age comes wisdom, they say. Just stay wise like this and maybe you’ll get to keep gettin’ older.”
As he looked around us, my eyes darted away from his face to the person crouched above my head. Past the barrel of the gun was the hand and face of a younger man, maybe in his early twenties at the oldest. His attention was entirely fixed on me, so much so that he barely seemed to be blinking. When he noticed my eyes on him, he didn’t speak or move at all, but I still felt the pressure increase as he pressed the barrel of the gun more firmly to my forehead.
I didn’t wait to see if he’d blink, instead returning my attention to the older of the two men as he shifted his position so that he was squatting over me, one foot on either side of my sleeping bag. The fact that he’d managed to get this close without me noticing had me worried about what else had happened while I was asleep, but I couldn’t see anything from my position on my back other than these two men and the gun.
As he finally settled into what seemed like a comfortable position, he turned his eyes back on my face. “I know you’re Wayfinders and I hope that tells you I’m not here without enough of my folks to put a stop to whatever dumbass plan you’re currently cooking up. You’re outnumbered three to one at least, though I haven’t exactly stopped to count. What we’re going to do, here, is have a small conversation. You can talk back to me, but answers only. No questions unless I say so. You move at all and your brains are all over the floor. Am I clear?”
“Yes.” The man’s smile widened, showing brilliantly white teeth.
“Excellent.” He turned his attention back to the room at large. “You hear that, everyone? Your leader is cooperating. You should do the same unless you want to get him killed. ‘Cause I’m starting with him and then anyone else foolish enough to resist. Y’all Wayfinders like to lead from the front or whatever, so just make sure you know I’m gonna lead with your front, too.”
The man chuckled as he turned his attention back to me, enjoying his joke. After heaving a sigh of contentment, he fixed his eyes back on mine. “You’re probably wondering why we’re talking at all right now, yeah?” He paused like he was waiting for an answer, but I stayed still and didn’t say anything. Unperturbed, he carried on. “Well, we are definitely going to take all these supplies you’ve spent so much time gathering, but I need more than just stuff. I need labor. I need smart labor. I need the kind of knowledge all you Wayfies got tumbling around your heads.
“Now, I know this seems like a shit job interview, but think of it as more of an opportunity to become a part of a last glorious endeavor rather than some mere business transaction.” The man smiled again as he reached out to lightly tap both sides of my face with his fingers. “You Wayfies can be difficult to control, but you usually see reason for a while and you’re all just so strong and smart. So talented.” The man kept tapping both sides of my face but started slowly increasing the strength of each hit as he talked. “But you always wind up trying to escape and getting yourselves killed. It’s a tough job, keeping your kind in check.”
He paused just as his blows were approaching the strength of a slap. “I can tell you’re just burning with questions, so how about you ask a couple.” He held up a finger just as I opened my mouth, cutting me off as he added “don’t forget to be respectful and stay still. If you get too mouthy, I’m going to have to slap you.”
After a couple deep, slow breaths to make sure he was finished speaking, I asked “What do you want?”
My head rocked to the side, briefly displacing the barrel of the gun, as the man slapped me so hard my vision briefly went dark as my head rang. Just barely audible over the ringing was the man’s voice, repeating my question. “What do you want, sir?”
While I waited for my vision and hearing to clear, my head was rocked back the other way, as the man slapped me again before repeating himself a bit more loudly.
Not even bothering to swallow the blood I could feel welling up in my mouth, I asked my question again. “What do you want, sir?”
As my vision began to clear, I could see the man still squatting over me, hand wiping at his eyes as he silently laughed. I waited, watching his hands for any sign that he was going to slap me again, until he finally spoke again.
“I want a base. You Wayfies already saw it, I know that much. It’s not really finished, though. It needs some work so we can stay in it during The Cullings without getting Culled ourselves. Needs to be tough enough to survive that, safe enough to defend, and cozy. After all, if I’m going to establish my clan there long enough to make sure that this world is cleansed of Humanity’s filth, we need room to grow. Space to expand. Places to live. And places for folks like you who help us make that happen.”
“Culti-” My head rocked to the side again, though this time I was expecting it at least. The word had slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it, but I’d been able to roll my head with the blow enough to lessen the impact a little bit.
“Now, I’m a reasonable man” he said as he inspected his hand, glancing at the traces of blood that dotted it as he turned it back to front and back again. “So I will let you speak. But you keep that word out of your mouth or, so help me, I will break your jaw and find someone smarter to talk to.”
I swallowed the blood in my mouth and did my best to take a deep breath. “What would you like me to call you?”
The man smiled again as he reached down to wipe his hand on my sleeping bag. “I represent The Order of The Final Flames. I am its highest cleric and greatest wizard. I am the forefather and the final memory. I am he who endured the cold and gained truth. You may call me Sir Greg, Sir, Cleric Greg, Wizard Greg, Father Greg, and so on. You get the idea.”
“Then, Sir Greg, why would you tell us all this? If we know you’re just going to enslave us and sacrifice us, why should we do anything but fight? We’ve got nothing left to lose.”
“Dying can be a nasty thing, Captain Wayfie. It doesn’t always happen right away. Just because you want to go down swinging doesn’t mean we have to let you.” Greg smiled again, more widely than before. “Plus, you wouldn’t want to have anything happen to those cowards in the other room? All those kids, all those families. Sure, I might start killing you lot first, but if you all force my hand, I’m going to make every other death after slow and painful.” Greg reached out and grabbed my face, turning it to directly face him as he pressed down on my bruised cheeks. “Got it, Wayfie?”
“Yes.” I took quick breath through my nose and added “Sir” just as he started to shift his weight to slap me.
Instead, he smiled even more widely and nodded. “Good. You’re getting it. Any other burning questions for now?”
“What happened to my people?”
“Nothing too bad, of course. We had to take care of some guards, but they should all live. Didn’t want to hurt the merchandise, you know?”
“If you killed any of my-”
“You’ll what, Wayfie? Acting up is only going to get your precious charges killed.”
I paused for a moment, trying to think of what to say, but managed to cover my silence with the heaviest, meanest glare I could manage.
As I threw it up at Greg, he rocked back temporarily and then, after a quick inhale, laughed. “You got a mean glare on you, Wayfie. No wonder you’re the leader, with eyes like that.” Without another word, he leaned down and punched me upside the head, landing his fist just above my temple. “Not very polite of you, though, is it.”
I flinched back, expecting a second blow, but none came. It took a bit longer for my vision to clear this time and the ringing of my ears seemed to settle at a soft hum rather than disappear entirely. I resisted the urge to check if any of my teeth had come loose.
“Now, shitbrains, you better behave yourself or else I’m going to just kill you. You’re all outta warnings. Be polite. Be respectful. Behave yourself, and you’ll see that I can be quite a generous master.” He looked down at me and then up at the younger man holding the gun to my forehead, and then back down at me. “Ryan there is just itching to blow your brains out. His family, his pack of brothers, was killed by Wayfies while they were sleeping. Survived getting his throat cut.”
Greg gestured at Ryan who carefully, without taking his eyes off me, tipped his head up enough to expose a jagged, sloppy scar across his neck. “Can’t talk much anymore, on account of that, but he’s plenty angry enough to kill you even if I don’t tell him too. He won’t, though, since you’re my property now and he respects my claim. When I give the word, though, he won’t hesitate.”
“Fine.” I growled through the blood in my mouth. “Congratulations, Cleric Greg. You captured the largest group of Wayfinders in the area. I hope you’re proud of breaking into a shelter, threatening innocents, and getting the drop on us.”
“You bet your dumb ass I am proud.” Greg grinned and looked around the room. “I can’t talk all the credit, of course, but it was surprisingly easy. All it took was a little pressure, a bit of negotiating terms, and the growth of my clan.”
“You really oughta treat your paying customers better, shitbrains. Might not be in this mess if you respected folks more.” Greg’s grin shifted down into a smirk. “Some people don’t like being told what to do all the time. Some people take their losses seriously. You keep pushing people, and maybe some of them decide to open a secret little door for some people who don’t care for you. You’d be surprised what you can get just by promising someone like that a little revenge.”
Greg turned his head toward where the door out of the Wayfinder room was and shook his head in bemusement. “I’ve never seen someone carry a grudge like that man. He was positively burning with it. I’d call it beautiful, if I didn’t recognize it as just one more stain on mankind’s soul, destining us all for oblivion. With hate like that, who can blame the earth for deciding to remove us from it?”
When he turned his head back, Greg’s smile had softened and gained warmth. “That’s how I knew he’d fit in, him and his people. Can’t survive in a mission like ours without something burning deep inside you, driving you on. Need something to fuel that fire within you until, at least, it’s your turn to be snuffed out.”
I resisted the urge to look toward the doorway, where I imagined Representative Lex stood. The young man with the gun seemed to notice my eyes flicker because he leaned forward a little more and pressed the barrel of the gun painfully into my forehead. As my curiosity vanished, I took a deep breath and focused again on laying still.
When Greg looked back down at me, the smile had slid off his face, leaving an impassive mask. “Tell you what, Wayfie. You let my people bind your hands and feet without a struggle and I’ll let you sit up to see your people while we keep talking. Think you can agree to that?”
I started to nod, but thought better of it. “Yes, sir.”
Greg gestured to some people outside of my field of vision who came forward, unzipped my sleeping bag, and put a few heavy-duty zip-ties around my ankles and wrists, tight enough to draw a little blood. They bound my wrists in front of me, not seeming to want to roll me over, but the young man with the gun was focused enough that I didn’t ever consider the possibility of escape. After checking the work of his grunts, a trio of men maybe even younger than the one with the gun, Greg gestured for two of them to pull me into a sitting position. The one with the gun slid the barrel over my head so it was pressed against the top rather than the front, but I couldn’t see his face anymore.
“If you look past your friend Alexander there, you will see the guards we had to subdue.” Greg gestured past Representative Lex, who was standing in the doorway with one of our rifles in his hands, probably taken from one of the guards laying on the ground behind him. “All of them are unconscious. Nothing a bit of rest and doctoring won’t fix.”
Greg droned on a bit about how he felt about not hurting his future labor and making sure that their injuries were seen to before we moved anywhere, but I was only half-listening. I did a quick count of the armed figures in the room and noted there were fifty-two I could see, plus Greg, the young man with the gun, and one of the young men from the trio who had tied me up, all of whom were behind me. There was a small corner of the room behind me as well, that I hadn’t been able to glimpse while getting propped up, but I knew there couldn’t be more than another five people in there.
I filed that information away, along with a note that these Cultists were all masculine. From what I could tell, except for Greg, they were all half my age or younger. I doubted any of them were older than the youngest of the Wayfinders, which meant it was unlikely any of them save Greg had known anything but the Post-Collapse tundra. I considered trying to stare down a few of them to get a sense of their commitment, but my head and ear were still throbbing from the last few punches. Instead, I glanced over the other Wayfinders I could see to make sure none of them were injured.
As I watched a couple of the Wayfinders near the door start to get bound up like I was, I realized Greg had stopped talking. I raced through the last bits I had heard, but nothing he’d said seemed to expect a response so I stayed silent. After a few more heartbeats of silence, Greg gestured to a few of the people standing around him who rushed forward and started binding Natalie, Cam, and Lucas beside me. I caught Cam’s eyes as they were unzipped from their sleeping bag and spun around so their hands could be secured behind their back, but they just shook their head. It was a subtle movement, hidden in the way their captors tossed them around, but I got the message to wait a while longer.
As Cam was spun around to face away from me, Natalie was spun to face me. I saw the rage blaze in her eyes as the ties were pulled tight around her wrists, probably drawing blood like mine had, but she stayed still and silent. I couldn’t see what Lucas was doing, since he was hidden behind the people tying him up, but I expected he was just as angry as Natalie was. As I watched more and more of my friends get tied up, all of them with guns to their heads, I did my best to breathe slowly and deeply, to remain calm as I fought against the rage surging inside me.
All told, it took only about five minutes before all the conscious Wayfinders had been tied up. As a few of Greg’s young Cultists started moving people to sit spread out along the walls, more of them started going through and collecting everyone’s belongings. Greg chuckled as a few small arguments and scuffles broke out. “They’re hungry for loot. Not much of interest to be had in this town anymore. Usually there’s not enough for it to be worth fighting over, even, since I and my council get first pick, but this time it looks like they realized I only care about your stuff, Captain Wayfie.”
I didn’t say anything or move, but that seemed to amuse Greg. “Looks like you learned your lesson, shitbrains.” Greg stood up and moved around to stand in front of me. “You ready to cooperate, or am I going to start killing folks until there’s been enough blood spilled on you to convince you to do something stupid or fall in line?”
“As long as you promise not to hurt any of the Naturalists, we’ll cooperate. We’ll build whatever base you have. Once we’re done, though, you either let us all go or else all bets are off.”
Greg sighed and leaned forward, almost boredly cracking me upside the head. “I can’t make any promises, shitbrains. My folks get eager sometimes and some of them old-timey hippies might get ideas of their own. So long as no one tries anything, I think we can agree to part ways on neutral terms later on.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak right now. My head was still rattling from the latest punch on top of all of the earlier ones, so it was everything I could manage just to keep focused on the plan Cam had incase we got captured and not react in anger. After a few more deep breaths, I managed to put together a thought. “Can’t you just let them go? They’re no use to you now that you’ve got us all tied up. We agreed to do what you said. You don’t need them to keep us in line.”
Greg’s passive face turned to a toothy, smug grin. “They’ve already been packed off, Wayfie. Plus, you think I was born yesterday? I know the second they’re safe you’re all gonna do something dumb. The only thing keeping you lot behaving is the knowledge that you won’t reach any of your precious customers before we start killin’ them if you step outta line. Only morons give up gifts like that.”
I slumped back against the two Cultists holding me up, playing the part of the defeated or at least injured captive, a role made easier by how much my head was still ringing. While I leaned there, I tried to push my mind through the fog of pain and growing nausea to remember if there was anything else I was supposed to do or, barring that, anything I could propose that might get the Naturalists out of his clutches. When I could come up with nothing, I just tilted my head back up to look at Greg whose toothy smile faltered for a moment.
Whatever Greg saw on my face or in my eyes upset him enough that he lashed out again, striking me on the other side of the face harder than he had yet. As my vision clouded and I fought to stay conscious, I heard Greg’s voice coming from what seemed like too far away. “I know that look, Wayfie. You all get it, eventually. You think you’ve got some plan up your sleeve, some final trick that’s going to get you free. You wouldn’t be the first to think you can outsmart me and you won’t be the last. I’ve caught over a dozen of your groups, now, and not a single one has managed to do anything but get themselves killed.”
Greg’s voice grew louder as he leaned closer and spit in my face. “You’re not special. You won’t succeed where any of them failed. It’ll just get you and all your people killed.”
After that, I felt his presence move away from my face and I heard him talking to the people around me. “Get ‘em wrapped up and pile ‘em on the sleds. Their gear should all fit on their sleds if you pack it right, so just get these fucks set up so we can move ‘em to the base. Jamison and Hank are in charge of the supplies and loot. If you’re not back by nightfall, you’re all on guard duty for a week, got it?”
There was a chorus of aye-ayes and the sound of boots striking the ground. After that, I heard Greg’s voice grow quiet and distant as the noise in the room rose. After what felt like a very long battle to stay conscious that probably didn’t last more than a minute, I felt myself lifted to my feet and half carried, half-pushed forward. As I was marched forward, I heard Representative Lex’s voice and the rage inside me flared to life, briefly chasing the shadows out of my vision and the clouds out of my mind.
“What about your promise, Greg? I want my time with him. I want to make him pay for how he treated me and mine.” I saw a fuzzy shape step toward me, holding up a limb to stop the people at my sides from moving me forward.
I heard Greg’s voice coming from somewhere behind me, but couldn’t lift my head enough to turn it. “Not here. I told you you could have him once we’ve gotten home. No point in doing anything now. Wayfie’s probably one hit from passing out. Save it for later. You’ll get your-”
“You promised me! You said I could get my revenge whenever I wanted. Well, I want it now, while all his people can see him. I want them all to see me break him. That’ll show them all to look down on me. That’ll teach them respect. They won’t dare resist once they see what I can do to them whenever I want.”
I heard Greg’s voice again, closer, like he was standing not that far from me. “I don’t care about whatever this revenge bullshit is, Alexander. You’re a part of my clan, now, and you do what you’re told. You’ll get your time when I say.”
“You swore to me that I could get my revenge. Me and half my guys want nothing more than to see him bleed for everything he did to us. For all the people we lost. That was the whole reason we joined you, Greg. For revenge!”
“And you can have it. Just not now. We’ve got miles to travel still and it won’t do us any good if he’s bleeding out all over the sled when we-”
“Who the fuck cares if he bleeds all over his friends? Who cares if he’s already bloody when he gets chained up? Who gives a shit, Greg?”
“I give a shit, Alexander.” I hear Greg’s voice right beside me but quieter than before. “And if you keep defying me, you’re going to join the workforce. I don’t care what you want. You’ll get what we agreed to when I say and I’m not going to spend any more time here explaining why you hafta wait. You either be patient or else I’m chaining you up, too.”
The blurry splash of color and limbs in front of me leapt forward, hands reaching for my face, but a large shape from my left stepped between us, blocking my vision. I heard the shuffle of boots and a sharp crack, followed by Greg’s voice from in front of me this time. “You got guts, kid, but that’s it. No sense. No control. No strength. Just guts and hate. You put a little respect in your mouth when you address me or else you’re going to get disciplined. Same as any of my clan. You’re not in charge of shit just because you used to lead your people. They’re my people, now, and you’re just one more of them. Now fuck off before I zip you up with the Wayfies.”
After a moment, I saw the blurry shape of Representative Lex step out from behind the person in front of me. When it had vanished down the hallway, I heard Greg chuckle again. “I can see why you bossed him around. What a little shit. Shoulda killed him when you had the chance, Wayfie. Too soft, I guess.”
Greg turned around to face me, but I couldn’t lift my head to look him in the face. After a few moments of silence without me mustering up anything to say, he just walked away and I was once more marched forward.
As we moved, I felt my focus start to slip. I could see the blurry shapes of the sentry points and doors that we’d set up pass by, but I was having a difficult time figuring out what to do with this information. I was eventually piled on a large platform of some kind and lashed down. A few more people were piled around me as the Cultists packed us in, and then we had a few blankets or tarps thrown over us. I could still breathe alright, thanks to a bit of fresh air coming in through gaps around the edge of the platform, but I couldn’t see or hear much else.
Hidden from sight, I tried to muster the willpower to pull against my bonds, but they were already so tight that I bled every time they shifted. Pushing and pulling them only made me bleed more, so I quickly gave up. I could tell the people around me were trying the same thing and I hoped someone here was having more success than I was. They were hopefully less concussed and could figure something else out other than trying to break their bonds with brute strength like I was.
After that, I started to lose track of time. I noticed the sled begin to move and the initial warmth of our space under the blankets began to fade as cold air pushed in through the open edges of the blankets. At some point, I started shivering despite being in the center of this pile of bodies and I’m not sure how long it was until I stopped. All I could manage was trying to listen for the signal that I knew Cam would eventually give. I had done my part. I had kept the leaders focused on me and bought as much time for people to escape or prepare themselves as I could. All that was left to me was to wait and then act when called. So I focused and tried to listen past the droning ring in my ears.
The next thing I knew, the sled began to slow down. I was so cold and stiff from being unable to move that I wondered if I’d be able to move at all. An idle part of my mind wondered if I had frostbite yet, from the cold. The ringing, which had grown much softer at some point, without me noticing, seemed to agree that I probably at least had frostnip. As these idle thoughts spun through my mind, I tried to push past them and the fog that had surrounded me. I needed to warm up and get moving again or else I wasn’t going to be ready when Cam gave the signal.
Suddenly, the blanket over me was thrown off and I found myself squinting in the sudden grey light. Slowly, weights were taken off me as shapes moved around me in a blur of motion that seemed to jump and skip as my exhausted mind slowly slipped from consciousness. The last things I remembered before the darkness enveloped me was the sensation of being carried and the eerie silence around me as I waited for a signal that never came.