New to the series or certain you’ve missed a chapter? You can find the introduction Here and the table of contents Here.
True to their word, Cam knew where the guns were. Unfortunately for both of us, they were all within sight of the guard post separating the two wings of the prison. If we wanted to spend time figuring out which of the keys fit, if any of them did, we were going to need to take out the guards first. Cam explained we should probably just sneak up on the guard post as we examined it from around the corner, saying “if we have enough time to try to open one of the armories, we’re better off using that to get close. At least then we can kill them quickly rather than try to snipe them out from behind a door or corner or whatever.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the two bodies proper up against the wall, slowly oozing blood onto the floor. The section of hallway behind us had no doors for us to tuck them into, and we came upon them as they were jogging toward the guard post. I assumed they knew something was wrong, but we hadn’t stopped to ask them since either one of them shouting would have given us away instantly. The two Wayfinders we’d found along the way were back at the other end of the hallway, clubs in hand, as they watched our back.
When I looked back to the front, I saw Cam glanced back at me. I ducked out of the way as they waved and then signaled to the other two Wayfinders to stay put and find Lucas if we went down. After that, I had barely a moment to steady myself as Cam glanced around the corner and then went sprinting down the hallway.
I followed immediately behind, doing my best to move as quietly as I could, but moving quickly required some amount of noise. Thankfully, since I was matching my strides to Cam’s it took them a moment to realize it was more than one person running towards them and that was all the time we needed to close the distance. Cam sailed through what would have been a glass window in a proper installation but was just empty air here as they tackled the closest guard to the floor. I followed them in, a few steps behind, rushing through the doorway to plunge the knife I’d taken off a Cultist guard into the side of the guard spinning toward Cam.
As both our targets staggered and fell, we moved on. There were three more guards in the room, all of them spinning to face us in alarm as the two watching the eastern wing we were leaving gurgled and fell. Cam threw their knife, hitting one of the Cultists squarely in the throat, as they crashed into another one. I kept my knife in my hand, not trusting my balance and eyesight with a throw yet, and tackled the final guard at the knees. As he crashed to the ground, he let out a panicked yelp and fired a bullet into the ceiling. I managed to get my dagger into his side before he could do anything else, but I knew we had seconds, a minute at most, before reinforcements showed up.
Not stopping to see how Cam was doing, I stripped the gun, chest armor, and ammo off the guard I killed and poked my head out the window to the western wing of the prison, aiming down the sights of what I instantly recognized as one of the Wayfinder rifles. As I kept watch, I heard a few more gurgles behind me as Cam finished up and gave a low whistle to the Wayfinders behind us, sending the all-clear.
“I’m staying put. I’m a decent shot still, but that beating my head took is making running difficult, Cam. You take the other two and go. I’ll stay here to hold the guardpost and start putting a defense together.”
“Aye. Stay sharp, Marshall, that’s an order.”
As Cam and the two other Wayfinders ran past me, I quickly flicked my vision to the eastern wing and then through the windows I’d been ignoring to the north. These ones had actual glass in them, reinforced by the looks of it, which meant we had some cover but not much once the reinforcements showed up. I started bustling through the guard post, grabbing keys out of pockets, stripping armor off, and listening for any approaching footsteps, all while keeping most of my attention shifting between the three sets of windows.
I quickly closed and locked the door between the guard post and the rest of the complex and then hunkered down at the wall opposite, hoping the reinforced glass in the windows would stop anyone from shooting me the instant they saw me so I could take cover from the other two hallways and whoever might be coming from those directions. Fortunately, the glass held when the first guards showed up from the north and started firing at me. Unfortunately, I had barely enough time to duck for cover by the low concrete walls beneath the windows before the glass shattered completely and rained down on me.
As I heard footsteps running toward the door as the occasional bullet pinged into the wall across from me, I held up the gun and quickly squeezed off a few shots without looking. I was rewarded with a couple cries of pain and some thuds as people fell to the ground but didn’t keep firing. I only had one more magazine before I ran out, so I had to be careful with my shots. The approaching Cultist guards, though, had no such problem and kept a hail of bullets flying into the guard post while they retrieved their companions.
When silence briefly fell, a young but confident voice called out to me from the hallway. “Surrender now and we’ll just take you back to your cell, coward. You’re no good to us dead.”
“You’re no good to me alive, so I think I’ll stay here.” I picked up a chair that had fallen over by one of the legs and waggled it above the wall as far to my left as I could reach. It was immediately shot out of my hands. “See, you’re just going to kill me the instant I pop up.”
“We aren’t going to play games with you Wayfies. Surrender now or we’ll drag you out of there when our reinforcements show up and make your death as slow and painful as we can.”
“Talking to you is already torture, so I’m not sure that’s as much of a threat as you think it is.” I had to muffle a chuckle as a few more bullets zipped through the window above my head. I could feel the tension bubbling in my stomach, making my already hazy mind loopy as I struggled to stay calm.
In the silence that followed, I heard one of them saying “is he making jokes?”
Another voice said “he’s going to die and he’s making jokes.”
I called out, interrupting their conversation. “I am making jokes. Isn’t that obvious? Are you playing dumb so that I let my guard down? Wrong choice. Dumb people with guns are way more dangerous than smart ones. The least you could do is make a few back.”
The authoritative voice spoke again, a trace of annoyance coloring their words. “Are you going to surrender or should we just blow apart the wall you’re hiding behind?”
“I’d be willing to give surrender a shot if I wasn’t pretty certain that you’re going to do the same thing, but more literally.”
There was a moment’s pause and then the second voice said “that’s not even a funny joke.”
The authoritative voice cut through the murmuring responses, asking “does anyone have any grenades on them?”
“You don’t think that was funny? I’ll take it under advisement. After all, I’m gunning for comedian of the year.” As I said that, I tossed a piece of the chair upward and then sprawled to the side as it was blasted to pieces by gunfire. As the remaining chunks of plastic rained down, I popped up and squeezed off another few shots. I ducked down immediately, dodging a few stray return shots, but I could tell I’d taken at least two more of the Cultists out of the fight.
“You can come get me if you want, but I’ll warn you that people usually find my behavior rather disarming when we first meet in person. I’d really like to avoid jumping the gun on our future relationship.”
There was another hail of bullets, most of them impacting the low concrete wall separating me from the Cultists, and I could feel it shudder and vibrate more with every hit. Unable to repress it any more, I cackled madly and shouted over the bullets “gun to my head, I’m pretty sure I could take your group out single-handedly if you came in here. Best keep your distance.”
I rolled to the side, changing windows entirely, as concrete dust and chips sprayed into the air. I fired a couple more wild shots out the window and felt something graze the rifle as I pulled it back behind the wall. As more bullets flew, I glanced down either hallway and noticed Cam and their entire combat squad, now free, rushing out of a door down the hall to the western wing. I was about to wave them back when I saw that Cam was holding a bandolier and immediately dropped my gun.
Seeing my attention was fixed on them, Cam pulled a grenade free, threw it through the window to me. I caught it and, in the same motion, spun to throw it down the hallway toward my attackers. A second later, cutting off shouts of alarm and dismay, the grenade exploded and took my hearing with it. As the dust slowly settled, I poked my head up over the window and took a last couple shots, taking out the guards that had survived the grenade or managed to retreat far enough to be mostly unhurt. By the time my hearing started to return, Cam and their squad had run up beside me and started barricading the windows with the desks and surviving chairs in the room.
Using hand signals, I told Cam I was going to go grab gear from the bodies outside before reinforcements showed up. Cam nodded their assent and barked a few orders I couldn’t really hear to their squad. Except for one staying behind to watch the other two hallways, we all quickly dashed out the door as I unlocked it. Everyone but me and one of the other Wayfinders, Remmie, kept their guns up. The two of us quickly gathered guns, ammo, and surviving body armor, tossing it through the door unceremoniously.
Thirty seconds in, Cam barked another set of orders and we all fell back into the guardpost, closing and locking the door again, just as another group of guards stumbled down the stairs into the mess and hail of bullets we left behind for them. The exchange didn’t last much longer than that, thankfully, as the group of Cultists dragged their injured people back up the flight of stairs and out of sight.
Twice more after that, we saw someone poke their head down the stairs. We let the first one go, but Cam took out the second one themselves. In the lull after that shot, as the ringing in my ears slowly faded to the point where I could hear again, Cam signaled to me that we would need to attack soon.
“We can’t afford to push without more people backing us up.” My voice sounded echoey, like my ears were hearing it slightly after I said it. “How much longer until everyone else turns up?”
“I dunno, Marshall, but if we don’t take those stairs and whatever guard post sits at the top soon, we’re going to be stuck here permanently.”
“Can’t we just leave?”
“Sure, assuming all our stuff is in these wings, and that none of our people got dragged into the main base.”
I sighed, flinching at the rough way it sounded in my head. “Which isn’t an assumption we can make yet.”
Cam just nodded and signaled to the rest of the group to armor up. I took a moment to adjust the straps on the body armor I’d picked up, trying to get it to cover as much of my abdomen as I could. It helped that I was on the shorter side, as far as the armor’s maker was concerned, but I was also a lot thicker through the chest and shoulders so it still wound up feeling uncomfortable.
By the time everyone was strapped up, Lucas was dashing down the hallway from the eastern wing with a crowd of Naturalists and a couple more Wayfinders behind them. Cam filled him in on the situation as the two additional Wayfinders also started armoring themselves up. When they were done, Lucas jerked a thumb down the hallway Cam had come from. “Did you finish your wing?”
Cam shook their head. “I handed off my keys and came back to back up Marshall. Figured we needed to get moving on this before I’d be done over there.”
Lucas nodded and then turned to face the western hallway. “I’ll head down there, see what I can rustle up. Try to get more people armed since it looks like you’re almost out of ammo.”
Cam paused, running their eyes over the dwindling pile of unclaimed weaponry and the magazines their fireteam held. After a moment’s consideration, they nodded. “Fine. Eastern hallway should have some doors with stuff behind them. Send some people to get whatever’s in there and take the rest of the naturalists with you. Once you’ve got an armed squad with some Wayfinders to lead it, send it after us.”
Lucas nodded and then, after a quick salute to his sibling, called for the Naturalists to follow him down the hallway they’d just cleared. As I watched him go, I glanced over at Cam to see how they were feeling, but their face was an impassive mask as they squared their shoulders and started flashing the hand signals to order the squad forward.
Quickly, with practiced efficiency, the Wayfinders advanced, clinging to walls and cover as we slowly rolled forward, someone always prepared to provide covering fire as another person moved forward. Another person, slightly behind those leading the charge. was standing by in case someone needed to be pulled back from around a corner. It felt excruciatingly slow as we moved up the switchback stairs, sweat beading on my brow as I expected each turn ahead to lead directly into gunfire, but we made it to the top of the stairs without incident.
There, waiting us, was a steel-clad wall with a heavy, banded steel door set in the center. There was a sliding hatch in it, likely to let someone look out, and the baleful eye of some kind of scope peering down from above it. When Cam made it to the front of the line, they gestured for everyone to fall back out of the scope’s view, except for two people tasked with keeping an eye on it.
Down the stairs and around the corner, Cam held out their hands. “Every explosive. We’ll need to head back down the stairs and into the guard post to be safe, but it should be enough force to blow open the door if we toss everything at once.” As grenades started filling their hands, Cam started pulling zip ties out of a bundle on their belt and rigging the grenades together so they could be set off at once. “I’m tossing this once everyone but the guards are clear and then we’re running. Move out.”
Dutifully, I followed Cam’s orders and beat a hasty retreat to the guardhouse. Once our group was there, I called out an all-clear and then hunkered down behind the same spot I’d used as cover for gun fire. The Naturalists down the eastern hallway, mostly milling around the two doors into what I hoped were armories and not other storerooms, started to turn in our direction just as I saw Cam and their two remaining Wayfinders come sprint down the stairs. They all dove through the open door or one of the blown out windows as a ball of fire and force rolled down the stairs behind them.
As the last bits of debris started to settle, Cam ordered the squad back into ready position and we repeated our maneuver up the stairs. This time, we found the steel door missing. It had been blown out, taking a chunk of the steel-clad concrete walls with it. As we swept in, I found myself idly thinking that if they’d built the base correctly, with reinforcements in the concrete, we probably would have been stuck on the other side of that door unless Lucas found enough grenades to repeat that explosion another two or three times.
Behind the now-gaping hole in the wall was another guard post. This one was larger, with a bunch of moveable barricades I recognized as being made by other Wayfinder groups and a series of doors ringing the room. Two doors each to the west and east, a gaping hole to the south, and another heavy steel door to the north. This time, the lock was on our side and Cam quickly ordered it sealed as they looked around for another scope like the one now dangling from the ceiling above the southern entryway.
As the rest of the Wayfinders started checking and clearing the other doors, I helped Cam find the covered viewport for what turned out to be a periscope of sorts. When they looked through it, their face fell and they swore. “They broke it. They let us have this room.”
Just then, the two groups poked their heads in from the side rooms. One of them, Tiffany, called out “we’ve got a bit of gear, but it looks like it got cleaned out in a hurry. Some of our stuff, too. Plenty of food and some medical equipment, but it seems like they focused on taking the guns and ammo and stuff first. Not much of that.”
The other wayfinder, Remmie added “Sort of the same here, but no food or medical supplies. Lots of ammo, though. Most of it wrong.”
Cam muttered under their breath for a moment, staring between their subordinates, and then gestured for them to move together. “Well, start getting it all in one spot and maybe some of the guns Tiff has will use the ammo you’ve got, Rem. Or maybe Lucas’ group will have compatible guns. I want everyone else with me, you too Marshall, and we’re going to see what’s on the other side of this door.”
I nodded and slid up along the wall beside Cam, watching as they carefully examined the door for traps or explosives that would go off when they tried to open it. After an excruciatingly slow minute, during which time everyone but Remmie and Tiffany stacked up alongside the door, Cam flashed the all-clear hand sign. Then, taking cover to the side of the door, they pushed the little shutter on the steel door open.
Immediately, a hail of bullets flew through the window, embedding themselves in the wall around the gaping hole where the southern door used to be or ricocheting down the staircase. Even more slammed into the door, most of them bouncing back down the hallway they came from where they were met with cries of pain and surprise. As the bullets tapered off as whoever was commanding the Cultists called a cease fire to prevent more self-inflicted casualties, Cam poked their head into the opening and then started firing a few shots down the hallway.
When they ducked back behind the door and gestured for the nearest Wayfinder to carefully slide the shutter closed, Cam took a deep breath. “They’ve got a machine gun nest set up out there. Nothing fancy, looks hand-cranked, but it’ll chew us up if we so much as open the door. Only thing preventing them from chewing up the door is all the bouncing. I took out the person operating the crank just now, but they probably have extras.”
I nodded and looked around at the other Wayfinders. “I don’t think those are particularly difficult to operate, unfortunately. Guess we’ll need a plan.”
“I think we’re stuck here until we’re ready to make a full-out assault. If we can slow that machine gun down enough that we can pop the door, set up a couple barricades, and keep up the covering fire long enough for us to run down the hallway, we should be good. It’s just the one hallway, about thirty feet long, with a much less fortified door they’ve filled with their gun emplacement. The map says that’s a sort of antechamber, a reception room of some kind, with hallways to the other sections of the base, so I bet there’s more people waiting in those halls if we ever make it past the nest. Maybe even more machine guns. Hard to say.”
“Full out assault, then.” Remmie looked over from parceling out magazines. “At least we’ll have plenty of ammo to use with the two guns we’ve found that use it. Autopistols, unfortunately.”
“Or maybe we just leave?” I shrugged. “I know we haven’t gotten all our supplies, but so far we’re all pretty unhurt and we’re near a town we can pick through enough to probably get to an Enclave. It’ll be rough, and we might need to hold this place until dawn if we’re going to do it, but we should be able to get something decent if none of our gear is in the storage areas behind us.”
Cam nodded slowly. “There’s no doors, but it’s just concrete. Enough time or some explosives will get us through it.”
I could see some of the tension in the group start to ease a bit as everyone slowly absorbed that we might not need to fight our way out. As people relaxed, Cam flashed a few hand signals to hold our position and set up shifts of standing at the ready near the door in case the Cultists tried an assault of their own. Wordlessly, we followed their commands, me joining the first resting group since I was still struggling to stay focused and should probably move myself to the injured reserve group. I resisted the urge, though, since I would be the only member and I didn’t want to rest while everyone else risked their lives.
Ten slow minutes passed, interspersed with the sound of machine gun fire as the Cultists outside occasionally fired into the wall around the door, maybe hoping to slowly chew through the concrete without leaving themselves too vulnerable by exhausting their ammunition all at once. For our part, Tiffany and Remmie finished their inventory quickly and started distributing the supplies we’d gained. It wasn’t much, but it left us in a better position for dealing with any assault the cultists might mount against us.
After that ten minutes, Lucas showed up at the head of a mass of Wayfinders and Naturalists. He and Cam quickly sorted them into combatants and non-combatants. The two Wayfinders who had been on guard duty, who were in worse shape than even I was with a busted leg and two broken arms between them, were left with the noncombatants as Cam started creating squads out of the combat capable folks. They also brought with them a huge arsenal of weapons and most of our gear, which lowered the tension in the room even further. There wasn’t much food in what Lucas recovered, but all of our camping and insulating gear was present so we’d at least be able to safely move through the tundra outside.
All of those details quickly faded from my mind as I looked at the group of Wayfinders milling about, gathering and dispersing as people quickly reunited and then moved off to handle the assignments Cam was giving them. I glanced over at Lucas who, after giving Cam a quick hug, moved toward me with a sad look on his face.
“Natalie, Jonathan, and Elder Brianna are all unaccounted for.” Lucas stepped close to me and put a comforting hand on my arm. “I checked everywhere, Marshall. I couldn’t find any trace of them.”
The fuzz and ringing in my head was suddenly more distracting as one thought echoed around my mind. After a few failed attempts, I managed to finally give voice to it. “Which means they’re in the Cultists’ side of the base.”
Lucas nodded, glancing over his shoulder at Cam who was already getting the squads they had formed set up for an assault. “Yeah. Cam says we’re getting them back.”
I swallowed, took a steadying breath, and nodded. “We should tell the Naturalists to-”
“They know. They’re not leaving without their leader. They’re just as loyal as we are.” Lucas smiled and gently punched me in the shoulder. “They’re not leaving anyone behind, just like us.”
I nodded again, unsure of what else to do as I forced my head to clear and my mind into proper working order. “Good. Let’s show them why they shouldn’t mess with Wayfinders.”
Cam swaggered over, hands on hips as they stood to their full height. They paused a couple steps away from me and turned to face the whole room as the gentle susurrus of preparation fell silent. “Once we go through those doors, we’re not stopping until every single one of those miserable Cultists and Laborers is dead. We’ve got friendlies in there somewhere. Natalie, Jonathan, and Brianna, so check your fire. We’re not mounting a rescue just so we can shoot them ourselves. We’re saving them. We’re going to destroy this place and leave the ruins intact as a warning for anyone else who thinks they can attack Wayfinders without revenge.
“Wayfinders, take the shot. You know our policies. If we leave these people alive, it’s just going to embolden them. This route won’t be safe anymore. It already wasn’t. It’s on us to make it safe for everyone else. Never forget that this is the real job. Guiding people keeps us fed, but taking out Cultists and saving lives is what we do. It’s why we’re here.” Cam looked over the entire group, moving from face to face as we all exchanged a nod with our military commander.
Once they’d met everyone’s eyes, they turned to the Naturalists, most of them huddled around the room the noncombatants were staying in as they said their goodbyes. “We’re going to count on you to add covering fire and backup as we push in. Make sure you keep our flanks and the rear safe so we can focus on the path ahead. Don’t worry about keeping up, just make sure nothing else sweeps in behind us. You’ve got your leaders, they know what to do, follow their commands. We’ll get through this.”
There was a slow wave of nods in the mass of Naturalists and, without waiting for more, Cam moved up to the door and, hand on the lock, said “let’s show them why no one messes with the Wayfinders.” With that, they threw open the lock, tossed open the door, and tossed a handful of grenades down the hallway. Over the cries of dismay and the staccato blast of a bunch of loose grenades going off, Cam held up a hand and gave us the signal to advance.