Making a Monster

Creating a good D&D 5e homebrewed monster is a matter of balance. Like all things within the bounded-accuracy system of fifth edition, most of the specific numbers for attacks, armor class, and attributes are unnecessary. What you need to know is how to land within certain likelihoods for damage input and output, understand how to balance the action economy of fifth edition, how the difficulty of a fight is set, and the purpose of legendary/lair actions. While this seems like a lot to keep in mind, most of it falls under a series of general rules that make it easy to adjust a fight as it happens so you wind up with what you, the Game Master, expected. 

Continue reading

Coldheart and Iron: Part 31

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


“Shit.”

“Tiffany?”

“I’m out of grenades and I’ve still got two doors to trap. You two got any?”

I let go of my rifle and rolled onto my back, unbuckling my belt as I moved to toss it to Tiffany who deftly caught it on the stump of her left arm. “Just make sure you bring the belt back. If we need to run, I’m going to need that to hold up my pants.”

“Marshall, you’re wearing a full-body snowsuit.”

I looked over at Natalie who was still steadily firing at any of the monsters that moved away from the main body attacking the Enclave. I shrugged, more for Tiffany’s sake than Natalie’s because her face was still pressed to the scope of her rifle. “It’s the principle of the thing, you know?”

Tiffany rolled her eyes and walked away. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, you two had better move.”

“How dare she disrespect me like that.” I rolled back onto my stomach with a huff. “She’s still only a trainee Wayfinder. She’s too new to disrespect me like that.”

“Shush, Marshall, I’m trying to aim.” Natalie fired again, taking out the monster I was settling my sights on. Without missing a beat, I swapped to the one behind it and, after a quick exhale, fired.

“How is that supposed to impact your aim?” I fired and took out another monster, this time pausing to watch the shattered metal fall to the ground before moving on to the next one. “You ears aren’t involved in aiming at this distance and I feel I have a right to prattle on if I want since it looks like everything’s going to hell.”

Natalie sighed, pausing after the exhale to take out a monster, and then leaned back to reload her rifle. “I know, Marshall. Just try to keep it down. There’s no reason to lead everything to our location any faster than shooting at them will.”

“I mean, the rifles are kind of a dead giveaway to anything with half a brain or whatever the monsters have.” I shot another two monsters in quick succession for emphasis. “Everyone more or less knows we’re here. I just hope we can make the jump to that building over there when the time comes.” I jerked a thumb at the building next to us, separated by about ten feet of open air. “It’s a good fifteen feet lower than us, sure, but we might just go through the floor or miss entirely.”

“Stop being such a pessimist, dear.” Natalie chambered the first round and got back to shooting monsters. “No one likes a pessimist.”

“Don’t kid yourself. You love and accept me just the way I am.” I took my last shot and then reloaded my gun, hands taking me through the familiar motion almost before I could think of what to do next. “Are you watching the time?”

“Yes. Seven minutes.”

“Neat. I’m gonna see if I got eyes on anything around us.” I grabbed a set of binoculars from my pack and started looking up the side streets east of the main force of monsters. There were still monsters wandering away from where they’d been penned in by the Enclave defenders, but most of them seemed intent on the hole in the wall one of them had created when it blew itself up. The other Wayfinders and sharpshooters were doing a good job preventing the monsters from flanking around the Enclave defenses, but I saw two more groups of bandits creeping up on various sniper nests.

“I hope the spotters are keeping an eye out.”

“It’s standard procedure, Marshall. Either they remember their training or they don’t. We can’t help them now.”

I dropped back to my stomach, lined up my rifle with the first group I’d seen, and shot one of the bandits in the chest. I looked through my scope at the bandits as they ran for their lives and saw the mess I made of the bandit I shot. “Whoops. I should change back to regular ammunition if I’m just shooting bandits.”

“Or you could keep firing on the giant mass of monsters and help us save the city, trusting the lives of the Wayfinders to the people protecting them who can’t fire on the monsters, anyway.” Natalie fired again and then reloaded, shooting me a glare I mostly ignored as I swapped out the heavier ammunition we used for the monsters with the standard, pre-collapse ammunition we used for bandits.

“Just one clip. Enough to let them all know they’re not as clever as they think they are.”

Natalie ignored me and went back to her shooting while I found the second group right below one of the sniper nests. I popped the bandit at the door in the head and watched the rest of the bandits flee. I spent the next five minutes finding groups of bandits and scattering them. When I was debating whether or not to keep shooting bandits, Tiffany showed back up and crouched down behind us.

“Doors are trapped and the bandits have entered the first floor. We’ll get a few of them on the way up since I double-trapped every route, but we’ll likely still need to defend this point.” Tiffany shrugged so that her gun fell into her arms and smiled wickedly. “I haven’t gotten much practice with this yet and I’d love to finally get back to business.”

“Or we just jump to the next building, pick a different sniper nest, and keep doing our job.” Natalie looked back at Tiffany and over at me. “Maximize our efficiency and do our best to keep the Enclave from getting swarmed.”

Tiffany was about to respond but I held up a hand. After Tiffany closed her mouth, I turned back to Natalie. “Is this you telling me that you think we still have a chance to hold?”

“I don’t know, Marshall. It’s been fifteen minutes since they blew a hole in the wall and it’s too soon to know anything for sure.”

“If you watched for a few minutes, would you have a better idea?”

“I could maybe make a few educated guesses, but that’s all they’d be. We’re still better off continuing to focus on the mission we started until the Enclave is clearly lost, no matter what I see.”

I nodded, thinking for a moment. “Alright. Tiffany, keep your focus on the bandits and let us know what they’re doing. If they make it to the doors soon, we’ll move out and jump to the next building. If we’ve got more time, I’d rather wait since I don’t like the idea of jumping unless we absolutely need to.”

Natalie nodded and got back to shooting as I reloaded my gun with the heavier ammunition. Tiffany looked at me for a moment and then shrugged. “I’ll try to set up an ambush point.”

“Sounds good.” I gave her a thumbs up and then let myself fall back into the rhythm of firing and reloading. I lost track of time as we continued shooting and so it caught me by surprised when I heard a bang and felt the building shake. I realized one of Tiffany’s traps had gone off and halted shooting for a minute to wait for the next one. When it didn’t go off, I went back to shooting but kept my ears open for anyone approaching.

A few minutes later, Tiffany came back, chuckling under her breath. “Turns out that there’s a weakness in the staircases. If the door blows up, it takes the landing with it and then it takes out three of the landings beneath it as well. I moved the grenades to another door and I’m going to booby trap as many doors and staircases as I can. We’re good for now.”

I gave her another thumbs-up but kept my focus on shooting monsters. To my left, Natalie’s steady firing stopped and I felt her pull the binoculars away from my side. “Going to look now?”

“Yeah. I’m hoping the fact that the monsters are still trying to flank the walls indicates that the Enclave’s defenders are holding their ground at the hole. If they are, we still have a chance.”

“Cool. Just let me know if we should move, otherwise I’ll keep shooting.” I returned my attention to my scope and kept firing, trying to keep my mind focused on my task as the seemingly endless stream of monsters made their way east of the main body, looking for a path over the wall. I lost myself in the motions again and I was once again brought back to reality by the rumble and shake of explosives going off somewhere in the building. My arms were stiff and the pile of magazines beside me had shrunk considerably. I looked around me and noticed that Natalie had gone back to firing a while ago, judging by the diminished size of her own ammunition stock. Behind me, Tiffany sat with her back to a wall.

“That’s one of the stairwells collapsing.” Tiffany gestured toward the interior of the building we were occupying. “Even if any of them survive, they’ll find another trap in every stairwell and once behind each door leading to this floor. I wouldn’t worry about them until we feel the blast wave of a trap on this floor going off.”

I nodded and stretched my arms out, moving them from side to side before pushing myself back from the ledge. Once I was safely out of sight from the battlefield stretching below me, I hauled myself into a sitting position and took a few sips of water from my canteen. “How long have we been at this?”

Natalie replied from her position. “Two hours and about fifteen minutes.”

“It’s been about an hour and a half since the first bandit group showed up here.” Tiffany tossed me a granola bar that I pensively chewed as I started calculating how many monsters we must have killed.

After a few seconds of getting nowhere, I abandoned it and turned to Tiffany. “How many bandit groups have attacked us? Is this only the second?”

“Yeah. We’re higher up than most of the other sniper nests and pretty far east of the main body. The bandits have to sneak past a ton of blind alleys, most of which could have a monster wandering through them at any given time. The other nests are much easier targets.”

“Shoot.” I filled my mouth with water and swished it around to get as much of the granola out of my teeth as possible while I thought. A few moments later, I had an idea. “How easy will it be to completely collapse the stairs so no one can get up or down?”

“Pretty easy.” Tiffany shrugged. “The only thing left entirely intact at this point is a fire escape and that cuts off a floor above the ground.”

“Neat.” I started digging through my backpack for my lantern. “Is everyone alright if I turn my attention on the bandits trying to attack the sniper nests and make us a target for every single one of them?”

“Sounds like a blast.” Tiffany smirked and stood up. “I’ll go trap the fire escape if you’ll give me your grenades, lieutenant.”

Natalie rolled over, slipped off her grenade belt, and slid it back to Tiffany. I looked over at her and offered her a sheepish smile that she returned. “‘Better us than them’, right?”

I nodded and started filling my snowsuit pockets with ammo. “I love that you get me.”

“I know.” Natalie winked at me and rolled back over to continue firing, accompanied by gagging noises from Tiffany.

Once I’d grabbed everything I could fit in my pockets, I snatched my rifle from the ground and retreated into the dim interior of the building, following Tiffany to another vantage point that was better suited to my task. After leaving me to get set up, Tiffany disappeared further into the building. Getting settled took a while longer than I would have liked, especially because I had to finish the magazine of heavy ammo first, but I was soon set up and shooting.

Any group of bandits I saw lost at least one person. They moved less predictably than the monsters did, so I missed a few shots, but the way they started creeping forward and using cover made it clear that they’d figured out someone in my area was targeting them. After setting aside my gun for a moment, I took the reflector out of my lantern and set it in the remaining window to my right. Satisfied, I went back to shooting bandits until I noticed every crew I saw was heading in our direction.

Soon, I couldn’t look through my scope without seeing a group of bandits approaching. As I counted them, my heart fluttered with the realization that at least half the group of bandits that we’d expected to attack the Enclave were now on their way to our location. Whoever had united them was pretty clever. Get the monsters to attack the Enclave, take out the snipers so more monsters make it into the Enclave, and then rush in once everyone was exhausted or most of the monsters had been destroyed. Simple and effective.

It was clear, though, that they hadn’t dealt with many Wayfinders, though. Or at least not big groups of them. As far as I could tell, most of the sniper nests were still operating and the ones that weren’t had likely stopped due to a lack of ammo rather than anything else. The bandits would have needed to send in more than six to ten people at once if they wanted to overwhelm our defensive positions and the groups clearly lacked much in terms of specific plans. They had communication between groups and a plan to take out sniper nests, but they just wandered around, looking into buildings, and approaching each nest they found with only their one small group since they never discovered that another group had already failed to take out the sniper nest.

Only after I got their attention did they all start to move like they had a plan. They all slowly started to converge on the building, moving from bit of cover to bit of cover. I took shots where I could, but I didn’t get many hits. I could still hear Natalie firing away several rooms down, so I started the second part of my plan. I pulled my gun and the reflector from my lantern away, packed up all my stuff, and turned on one of the walkie talkies I had in my pocket. I tied the communicate button down and dropped the little signal bomb at the edge of the room.

I sprinted back to Natalie’s side and started packing up all of our gear. As I clattered empty rifle magazines into my bags, Natalie looked over at me, a question in her eyes.

“Keep shooting, but let me know as soon as they start coming this way and how many of them do.”

“Marshall.” I turned away to grab the pile of magazines and loose ammo Tiffany had been combining during her down time. When I didn’t answer, Natalie spoke again. “What did you do, Marshall?”

“I turned on one of the walkie talkies we were given and tied the ‘talk’ button so it’d stay on.”

“What?”

“I am doing to the bandits converging on our position what they tried to do to us. They’ll surround the building, start trying to make their way up here, find the traps, try even harder, and then they’ll be surrounded by monsters.”

“So will we!” Natalie turned all the way around to face me. “Jumping to the next building won’t work when the monsters are here. They’ll just follow us! We won’t be able to sneak through the crowd of them even if they don’t spot us jumping to the next building.”

“Which is why we leave as soon as the bandits set off the first trap. I’m going to grab Tiffany, so just keep shooting. Keep track of how many of the monsters start coming our way.” I shoved the last of the magazines into a pack and then ran off down the hallway, almost bowling Tiffany over as she rounded a corner.

“Captain!”

“C’mon, Tiffany. We’re making the jump as soon as the first trap goes off.”

“What? What happened to making a glorious last stand here?”

I pulled her along with me, back to where Natalie was. “I’d rather take a chance at surviving since, if my plan works, it should buy the Enclave enough time to fix the hole in their wall.”

“What plan?”

Natalie appeared in the doorway to the blown out room we’d been using, lugging the packs behind here. “He set up a radio and every single monster not a part of the main press on the walls is heading our way. I estimate at least five hundred of them, and those are the ones directly west of us. I’m sure there are more to the north and south.”

“Cool.” I grabbed my pack, slung it on my back, and tightened all the straps until it was almost painfully gripping my chest. “Now let’s get ready to jump since the bandits won’t be far behi-”

The first explosion rocked the building, carrying with it the sound of shrieking metal. Tiffany shook her head and started toward what used to be a conference room with floor to ceiling windows. “Of course they went for the fire escape first.”

I helped Natalie get her pack on and then helped Tiffany tighten down her straps while we all jogged toward the spot we’d picked as our jump point. By the time we got there, another explosion had gone off and Tiffany was muttering a commentary on the bandit’s location as I sprinted toward the empty window pane and leapt.

I had a moment of open air and grey, cloudy sky as time stood still. I fought the urge to wave my arms and kept my body compact as I hung, exposed, in the air. Before my heart had a chance to sneak even one beat in, time came rushing back. The wind whistled in my ears, the light-grey blur of the mid-morning sky became the dark grey blur of an approaching ruined building, and I landed in the best roll that I could. I felt something give way as I made impact and then the grey faded to black as the world fell silent.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 30

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


When I left the Wayfinder office, Natalie stayed behind to continue pulling records. Camille would only be a few minutes behind me, though I knew she would be running off in a different direction. While I ran down the road, I thanked the star I was born under, every god I’d ever learned about, and a few gods I made up on the spot. When Natalie had begun pulling records, we discovered more Wayfinders than I thought had opted to retire in the Chicago Enclave. A few hundred had, in fact, and a little under half of them seemed to be involved in the government or military in one way or another.

Almost two hundred of them would already be on alert and either leading units against the monsters or moving out to delay them. If Gerry had built his entire sallying force out of Wayfinders, then we’d have at least two additional hours to prepare before the monsters showed up. Maybe more, if they were still as good as they were when they retired. Either way, there were at least as many more Wayfinders who had retired completely, content to live out their days on their earnings and pensions. Some of them would have likely retired due to injury, but Natalie’s records indicated we should get at least one hundred healthy, if rusty, Wayfinders to help us out if we went and asked all of them.

As I ran down the streets, dodging soldiers bustling to their positions and all the residents poking their heads out to see what was going on, I glanced down at the top of the paper I was holding, checking the address against the streets I was passing. I’d looked at a map before leaving, but I didn’t remember exactly how far it was before I needed to turn. Thankfully, Natalie had thought of everything and her instructions would lead me from one house to another. It blew my mind, sometimes, to be reminded how quickly she could write and how thorough she always was.

Another mile of running passed quickly and I arrived at the first house. A confused woman with only one eye opened the door half a minute after I pounded on it. “What the hell is going on?”

“Sorry. Is this Gianna Fields? Retired Wayfinder?” I gave her my best smile while trying to regain control of my breath.

“Yeah. What’s going on?” Her eye went from my face to the paper I held to the sky outside. “Sirens? Are we under attack?”

“We will be, soon. Someone placed a radio on the wall and we expect to be attacked by the monsters living off to the north. Are you willing to fight? We’ve got plenty of guns and the Wayfinders are placing a bounty-”

“Yeah. Where’s muster?”

“It’s in one of the communal buildings near the center of the Enclave. I just moved into the Enclave today, so I’ve got no idea what the address is. Look for the other Wayfinders.” I took a step backward but paused, watching her before I ran off to the next address.

“Got it. See you there, Captain.” The woman saluted and disappeared back into her home. As I jogged off toward the next address, I tried to remember if I’d ever worked with her before. I couldn’t think of any other reason she would have known my rank but, after five more houses, I still couldn’t place her. Nor could I place any of the other people I talked to who seemed to all know my name and rank.

The next hour passed in a blur as I ran from house to house, trying to recruit as many ex-Wayfinders as I could. Surprisingly, every single one of them who was fit to shoot a gun immediately agreed to help and it wasn’t until I asked Natalie how everyone knew me during my last stop at the Wayfinder office, that it all became clear why they were so eager to help and why they all seemed to know me by sight.

“You started the Wayfinders, moron. Of course everyone knows who you are.” Natalie shook her head as she continued to write out my next sheet of instructions. “You’re a living legend to anyone who wants to live outside an Enclave and your pictures are in half the promotional materials we put out.”

“Wait, we have promotional materials?” I sat upright and then clutched my side as my abdominal muscles spasmed. “When did that happen?”

“A few years ago. Where did you think we got the recruits from?”

“I always thought everyone just wanted to be a Wayfinder. Like cowboys when we were growing up. It was just something you wanted to be, not something someone proposed as a legitimate occupation.” I took slow breaths and resisted the urge to guzzle the water bottle Natalie had tossed me when I collapse in the chair. “I just thought we were famous. You know, as a whole.”

“Sure, but we wouldn’t have as many recruits as we needed if we just waited for people to want to join us on their own. Plus, we probably wouldn’t be getting the right recruits.” Natalie set down her pencil and started scanning the sheet.

I took a small sip of water and hauled myself to my feet. “Huh. I never would have guessed. You put them out, then?”

“Yes. You left me in charge of logistics and having enough people to do our jobs falls under that, so I had something made up more than a decade ago and I bring it up to date whenever we stop in an Enclave.” Natalie held out piece of paper, smiling slightly. “Worked like a charm. Now get running. Camille has done almost half again as many trips as you.”

“That’s not a fair comparison.” I took the paper and one last deep breath before I started around her desk toward the door. “She’s unstoppable. I’ve known her for almost thirty years and I’ve never seen her tired. I’m just some poor Human. How can I expect to keep up with Wonder Woman there?”

“Quit griping and get moving.” Natalie smiled and swatted me on the butt as I turned to go. I smiled to myself and waved over my shoulder as I lumbered out the door and up the street. Half an hour later, I collapsed into a chair inside the commune and started yanking my snowsuit off so I could change into dry clothes. While I gasped for breath and kicked off my boots, I watched Lucas direct traffic through the building.

Wayfinders came in the front door, signed in, picked up their preferred weapon, told Lucas about their particular skills, and then was given a Wayfinder unit number and sent to the Enclave defense council with a message to say they were either to be assigned as a unit or sent out of the city to pick off monsters as they got closer. As either a solo Wayfinder or as a team of just Wayfinders, they’d be able to do stuff Enclave defenders wouldn’t risk.

By the time I’d cooled down, changed into dry clothes, and rehydrated myself, Camille had turned up with a group of the best marksmen she could muster. All of them retired or still-working Wayfinders, of course. I watched them all sign in and pick up through the rifles Lucas and Tiffany had set aside. Camille gathered them up once they’d all picked a gun and all the ammunition they could carry and, without more than a nod to myself and Lucas, lead her sharpshooters away.

“Bit chilling, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. Like death just passed through.”

“On that note, I’m off.” Lucas grabbed a gun, slung it over his shoulder, and gestured to all of the Wayfinders we’d brought into the Enclave.

“Wait, what? Who’s going to run the command center?” I hauled myself to my feet and forced myself not to flinch when my muscles spasmed and twitched.

“We don’t need it, Marshall. Everyone has their orders, they all know to follow their training, and no amount of communication from us is going to help them. I suggest grabbing a gun for yourself and Natalie, find a spot for the two of you to hole up that’s outside the city, and make sure you’ve got enough food in your pack for a week.”

“Right.” I slumped back into my chair and suddenly the pain in my muscles didn’t feel as bad as it had before I remembered the city was probably going to fall between the monsters and the bandits. “Did y-”

“Your bags are packed. I’ve got ‘em right here.” Lucas gestured at the other side of one of the kitchen islands. “Rendezvous is the Nomad’s old home. Be there ten days after the fighting is over.”

I nodded and did my best to smile as all of my Wayfinders left until only Lucas and I remained. I watched him head toward the door and paused, one hand on the knob. “I really wanted to retire here, Marshall. I’m sorry there isn’t more we can do.”

“I know, Luke. I know. I’ll see you there. Ten days or less.” After a moment more of hesitation, Lucas stepped through the door and closed it behind him. I stared at where he was for a moment before hauling myself to my feet to see if my snowsuit had dried out yet. While I poked around for damp spots, I muttered to myself. “Stupid defeatist attitude. It’s not over until it’s over. He better come back alive or else I’m going to find his corpse and use him as a scarecrow.”

“Gross.”

I spun around, only barely staying on my feet as my socks slick on the cheap linoleum. “Tiffany? What’re you doing here?”

“I live here, duh.” Tiffany placed both her wrists on her hips and shook her head at me. “I swear, it’s like you forget I’m alive sometimes.”

“No, I just assumed Lucas would have taken you with him.”

“Yeah, if I could hold a gun. Still working on that, since I lost my dominant hand, so I’m going to go with you and Natalie. Act as your spotter.”

“Oh, that’s good thinking.”

“Now c’mon, bossman. We’ve got monsters to shoot and a city to save.” Tiffany smiled and kicked my boots across the room to me. I smiled and started tugging on my snowsuit. While I slipped on and laced-up my boots, Tiffany grabbed three packs from behind the island, and started grabbing rifles. Five minutes later, as I modified the forward grip on one of the semi-automatic rifles and showed Tiffany how to hold it with what remained of her left arm, Natalie walked through the door.

“Everyone’s already gone?”

“Yeah. Lieutenant Lucas left about ten minutes ago with the last of the Wayfinders unless there are a few who haven’t shown up yet. We’re heading out in a couple minutes to find someplace to snipe monsters.” Tiffany smiled as she deftly slung the gun over her shoulder and hooked her pack with her left arm.

“She’s terrifyingly good with that arm already.” I looked over at Natalie who eyed our packs with some apprehension. “She’s been practicing with every spare moment, it seems. It’s almost like she was born one-handed now.”

“Why do you have our bags packed?” Natalie stepped in and hefted her bag. “And why does it feel like there’s enough in here for several days away from the Enclave.”

“We’re picking a sniper position outside of the Enclave in case it falls to the monsters or the Bandits.” I looked over at Natalie and caught the grim look in her eye. “I don’t think it will come to that given how prepared the Chicago Enclave is, but it never hurts to be ready. Would we really be Wayfinders if we didn’t plan for this?”

“I suppose not.” Natalie sighed and slipped on her pack. “I suppose you’ve got a place in mind, Marshall?”

Before I could even open my mouth to speak, Tiffany stepped forward. “I picked out a place while Lucas was coordinating. If we leave out the Northern gate and head west, there’s a taller building still standing that we can climb up. If we seal stairwells in the building, we could even fortify the position long enough for us to escape to one of the shorter neighbors in the event that they target us.”

Natalie smiled as Tiffany pulled a map out of her pocket and pointed out our route. “Lead on, Tiffany.”

A little under an hour later, we lay at the edge of a blown-out room on the seventeenth floor of an old office building and surveyed the monster army approaching the Enclave. The group the Enclave defense council had sent out to delay them had done a good job, taking out most of the stragglers and causing the main body of them to bundle up tightly. If we’d had explosives of any kind, we could have taken out most of them right then, but no one had access to the bunkers anymore and using anything with that large of a heat signature would have attracted the attention of every monster in the Midwest. So we boxed them up and waited for them to get in range of the machine guns mounted on the Enclave walls.

Our part would be to start taking out any monsters that tried to break out of their tight formation and swing around to flank the machine guns. The other Wayfinder groups would be doing the same thing, mostly, but also be applying pressure to the rear, taking out any stragglers who fell behind or tried to go further back before swinging wide to flank. The monsters’ tactics were good, but rather static. Any force that survived an encounter with them had a much better chance of surviving a second one.

After Natalie and I placed our rifles, set up our scopes, and had Tiffany start calling out targets, I settled into a groove. The monsters didn’t really care if you shot at them since it was difficult to land a killshot and they’d always ignore snipers in favor of machine guns since they had an easier time finding the giant heat wells machine guns created. Since most snipers posed little threat to a monster, they generally ignored them until the end of the battle.

Wayfinder snipers, though, were different. One of the tests you had to pass in order to become a Wayfinder is to label each and every vital area on a monster from a mile away, no matter which direction they were facing. Most Enclaves trained their people on where the vital areas were, but they didn’t have as exhaustive a test as the Wayfinders did. Most Enclaves also didn’t require you to perform the test using a live monster that you then had to kill in order to join. Wayfinders did. So when Natalie and I started firing, we were dropping one with each shot.

I always felt a little uncomfortable when I looked at the monsters. People had originally called them robots because they used swarm processing and had electrical parts like a lot of the robots Humanity had been producing, but the idea of robots as something humanoid was too strong and people rejected it in favor of ‘monster’ since they were anything but humanoid.

They moved around using what can only be described as large limbs, sort of quickly twitching their way forward in a way that bent the mind into strange shapes. Their entire body could flow into one of these limbs so that it resembled a large greenish log than it’s normal tendril, and it would still manage to undulate forward like some kind of nightmare worm. Once they attacked, they pistoned all of their limbs into the ground and fired bullets made of the same greenish metal making up their bodies out of tubes that appeared once they were stabilized. If they wanted to trace you, they’d fire smaller pellets that hit with the same force as a bullet, but their rounder shape meant they generally didn’t punch through and the fact that they were hollow meant they’d disintegrate on impact, enter into the bloodstream, and begin to replicated until one or more of the monsters showed up to kill whoever had been hit.

The closet thing they resembled was a cross between an alligator and an octopus. They had the same sort of heavy bodies and lurching strength as an alligator, but they had the limbs and body fluidity of an octopus. Their shape was closer to the later, but they could be any part of the octopus they wanted to be, and any percentage of it.

As of yet, no one had figured out their tech or the metal alloy they were made of. Attempts to study them had been stopped because even a dead monster was still detectable by it’s fellows and whole labs had been destroyed before we figured that bit out. They had circuitry like you’d imagine robots would, but it contained some kind of liquid electricity we’d taken to calling plasma. They apparently created their own since you could drain one of them of all their plasma without destroying it. It would then it would then proceed to kill you, disappear somewhere to refill it’s plasma circuits, and then return to kill your friends.

The only way to kill them was to hit them in a vital spot that acted a lot like a fault like in a rock. If you could hit it at the right moment, the whole thing would essentially shatter. Whatever parts of it had been pulled in or stretched out would crack, all of its plasma would leak out, and it would collapse. There were other ways to kill them, hitting them with a blunt instrument at one of those points or by cutting open their circuitry until you got to the whirling ball of solid plasma at their center that was basically their heart, but sniping was the most effective because they couldn’t fix a shattered monster. If you cut them open but didn’t destroy the heart or only knocked a limb off, they’d just put the damaged monster right back together again as soon as they’d run you off.

Their smooth movement and ungainly bodies seemed like they should always be at odds with each other, but they never stumbled or tripped on their own. You basically had to take off a limb supporting it to cause it to fall and even then it didn’t fall far before on of the other limbs came in to catch it. It was always satisfying to hit one in a vital spot and watch it crumble to the ground, but there were so many today that I just skipped from shooting one to finding another to shoot.

Between Natalie and I, we took out over one hundred of the monsters, leaving a trail of shattered metal and leaking blue plasma from the nearest building by the wall to the main body of monsters which, despite a steady stream of bullets, seemed to be making headway against the wall. In fact, as I turned my attention back to looking for stragglers, I heard a low rumble followed by Tiffany cursing.

“Shit! One of them blew itself up against the wall. I didn’t know they could do that. Did you?” Tiffany looked between Natalie and I as we shook our heads. Tiffany pressure her scope back to her eye and peered down at the way. “There’s a hole. They’re inside three hours before our worst case scenario projection and there are still thousands of them trickling in. What do we do?”

I looked down my scope at the hold in the wall and watching a slow stream of monsters step through it. “Keep picking them off from out here and hope they’re able to contain the breech. If not, then the city is lost.” Natalie nodded and we both got back to work, trying to shoot faster than we had been before.

After a few more shots, Tiffany tapped us both on the shoulder. We looked up and she held her left arm to her lips. After adjusting her position so she was laying down next to us, she spoke so quietly I could barely hear her over the distant gunfire. “We’ve got bandits creeping toward our spot from the north. Keep firing for now, I’m going to set up some traps quick.”

After Natalie and I nodded, Tiffany silently crawled backwards until she was lost in the shadows of the blown-out room we picked as our sniper nest and slunk off into the building proper. I tried to focus on killing Monsters, but it was starting to feel like a waste of time. Unless a miracle occurred, the Enclave was lost. We had Bandits trying to ambush us while we sniped and the same was probably happening to Wayfinder nests all over the area. If we weren’t careful, we might wind up dead, and we were almost certainly homeless once again. As I swapped magazines on my rifle, I clenched my jaw and focused on killing one monster at a time, hoping that we’d eventually save everyone if we just kept firing.

 

Coldheart and Iron: Part 29

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


By the end of the day, we were all set up in our new homes. The Nomads had been taken to a series of houses in one of the older neighborhoods and my Wayfinders and I were given a small commune near the center of the enclave. It wasn’t as nice as the homes the Nomads had, but we shared a kitchen and a bunch of common living areas so we got to stay together as a group. I let everyone fight it out over who got which room while I worked with Natalie, Lucas, and Camille to get our maps and plans up to date.

Camille and Lucas were going to lead groups to raid the Bandit staging areas while Natalie coordinated groups of Enclave defenders who would go after the munitions depots she’d marked. I was going to serve as the coordinator, managing the messengers between each group and making sure our groups never accidentally found each other while looking for Bandits. Over dinner, we shared our plans with the rest of the Wayfinders and started making plans for later that evening. Now that we had a base and reliable terrain, we’d be able to easily move around at night so we could start using the darkness to our advantage.

After dinner, Natalie and I took our maps and information to head of the Enclave defenders while Camille and Lucas rested. The Enclave defense council was a small group consisting of a couple of retired Wayfinders and some people who had been in the National Guard back before the Collapse, but they worked like a well-oiled machine with none of the politics or arguing we were using to seeing in other Enclave councils. As soon as Natalie stepped in the door, someone was debriefing us, making copies of our maps, providing us with larger, more detailed maps, and adjusting plans they’d already made to account for the information we provided.

Four hours later, after a rush of discussions, debates, and arguments about how to best deploy the forces we had, I left Natalie to finish up organizing the munition runs while I went back to our compound to rouse the Wayfinders for their first mission.

It was a relatively simple one, but it was probably the most dangerous mission we’d planned for the next few days. I filled Camille and Lucas in on the details before sending them off to finish their preparations and meet the additional soldiers they’ve have under their command. A short while later, I sent the rest of the Wayfinders after them, so it was just Tiffany and I left in the compound. While Tiffany puttered around, trying to keep herself busy while everyone else was off on their mission, I settled in for a quick nap on a couch that felt softer than a thick pile of clouds, trying to make up for the sleep I’d been sacrificing. I had been avoiding the bed because I was certain I’d never want to leave it after sleeping on a cot or the ground for the past ten years. However, Natalie walked into the compound before I managed to do more than start to doze.

“Marshall?”

“Mmm?” I covered my eyes with and arm and peered out from underneath it at her. “What?”

“There’s work you need to do, yet. No times for naps right now.”

I hauled myself to my feet and tried to clear the sleep from my head. “What’s going on?”

“One of the scientists on the council wants to talk to you about low-frequency signals and something about a clamp. I didn’t realize he was talking to me right away so I didn’t catch all the details, but it’s pretty clear he’s got something going on in terms of communication that he wants to discuss with you as the coordinator.”

“Oh.” I hauled myself to my feet and felt my back cry out in sadness. “I suppose I’d better get over there.” I shuffled over to the door where I’d hung up my snowsuit and boots. “Anything else come up?”

“No.” Natalie sat down next to me and started stripping off her boots. “Seems pretty straight-forward. I helped them update their maps and got a tablet with all of their information on it to peruse tonight. I’ll do some checking against my maps to see if there’s anything I overlooked or can add to their local info.”

“Sounds like a plan.” I zipped up the legs of my suit and then stuck my feet into my boots. I’d had them for about five years and only constant care at every Enclave we stopped at kept them insulated and waterproof, but it was worth the money because they were the most comfortable things I’d ever worn on my feet. After burying my feet between the cushions of that couch for a while, though, they felt like they were made of iron. “Thirty minutes on a couch and I’m already going soft again.”

“Did you touch one of the beds yet?”

“No, I’d never leave.”

“I almost made that mistake. I managed to get out of my room in time, though.”

“I’d have had to come get you.” I smirked up at Natalie as I laced up my boots.

“That would have been even worse! Then we’d both have been stuck.” Natalie smiled down at me and winked. “Just awful.”

“I can think of worse things than getting stuck in bed with you.” I sat up and leaned over to give Natalie a kiss. As I did, I caught sight of Tiffany in the kitchen who was smirking as she watched us. I froze, mid-lean.

“Don’t stop on my account. You two are adorable.”

Since I wasn’t moving, frozen like a deer in the headlights, Natalie chuckled “If you insist.” She leaned over the rest of the way and kissed me. I recovered in time to participate, but I felt my face heat as Tiffany laughed.

“Did you really think you two were a secret, Captain?”

I stood up and zipped up my snowsuit to buy myself a couple of seconds. Once I’d mastered my expression, I turned back to Tiffany and Natalie, who was smiling up at me from her seat with her boots off and her snowsuit only partially unzipped. “Yes, I did. I thought we did a good job of keeping it under wraps.”

“Please. It’s obvious. I bet half the Enclave already knows.”

I sighed and shook my head. “What else haven’t I noticed?”

“That you should hurry up and talk to that scientist! He’s in the command building.” Natalie shooed me towards the door as I opened my mouth to protest. “We can talk about this more once we’re finished helping the Enclave and all settled in, now get.”

“Love you.” I smiled at Natalie and watched Tiffany make fake retching motions behind her. Natalie blew me another kiss and I hurried out the door. It took me a few minutes to get back to the Enclave defense headquarters since it was after dark now, but I found it eventually and made my way inside.

After wiping my boots off, I made my way into the main room where the council and their aides were pacing around a few large tables full of maps and papers. In one of the alcoves, most of which were filled with runners taking naps while waiting for a message to carry, a heavyset man with long hair pulled up in a neat bun waved at me. I walked over to him and sat down in one of the chairs he cleared off.

“Captain! I’ve got some important information for you!”

I sat silently for a moment, waiting for him to go on, but he didn’t say anything else. After a few more awkward moments of silence I nodded. “Sounds great. What is it?”

“Since you’re going to run the communications operation for us, I thought I’d give you the rundown on the comm system I invented.” The man leaned forward and help out a paper booklet. I took it from him and started glancing through it as he spoke.

“We have short-range radios for you to use. Effective communication radius is only one mile and we can’t have more than four active at a time, but it’ll be enough for you to follow the groups you’re managing and then send any information back to a bunch of runners closer to the Enclave. If we have more than four, then the signal would be strong enough to be noticed by the monsters. You also can’t be inside when you’re using them but you can be on the ground. In fact, don’t use them outside the city or above the fifth floor of any building because then it’s more likely they’ll pick up your transmissions.”

The scientist held out four walkie-talkies and pointed to the dials on the top. “Simple channel selection, though never use anything above channel ten or else you’ll attract monsters.  They work just like walkie-talkies from before the collapse, so make sure to watch out for people holding the button down for too long.”

I looked through the booklet for the section on channels and saw a more detailed version of what he just said. Instead of reading it, I looked up at him. “Why are there more than ten channels if anything above ten attracts monsters?”

“Since these communicate in bursts, some of our defense forces use them to silently attract monsters to a location so they don’t have to fight whatever bandits are around. The higher you go above ten, the further the signal reaches.” The man pointed to the booklet. “You can find approximate mileage numbers in there if you want. Additionally, they only have a battery life of two days, so don’t plan on being out for very long, and they have a tendency to chase away animals with better hearing than Humans so don’t expect to find any animal life while you’re out and they’re on.”

“Got it.” I looked at my booklet and then at the walkie-talkies. “How is it possible that the monsters don’t just pick these up immediately? I thought they detected almost every signal we knew of.”

“They detect all signals we know of, not most.”

“That’s beside the point.” I leaned forward and grabbed the walkie-talkies out of his hand. “How do they not pick these up immediately?”

“High-frequencies don’t go very far before the air just causes them to fade out. There’s a lot more to the science of why, but that’s essentially it. These use high frequencies, thus the short battery life and potential to scare away animals, and while the signals extend past the one mile range, they don’t make it past two miles. Our scouting reports have all of the local monsters staying on the north side of the city, so you should have at least fifteen miles between your theater of operations and the nearest monster. If, for whatever reason, the monsters detect your signals, you can just leave and they’ll attack the bandits instead.”

“I think I get it.” I picked set all of the walkie-talkies aside and closed the booklet. “Is there anything else you wanted to discuss?”

“Just don’t use the monster attracting signals for the next few days. Based on the monster wander patterns our scouts have put together, they’d walk right through the Enclave if they noticed you.”

“Got it.” I stood up and stuffed the walkie-talkies and booklet into a pocket on the front of my snowsuit. “Thank you.” I held out my hand. “I’m sorry we didn’t do introductions earlier. I’m Marshall. The only people who call me Captain are the Wayfinders under my command.”

“Oh, well, I’m Horace, head comms scientist. The barrier was my idea and I appreciate you volunteering your time and skills to help us defend our home as we get it working.” He stood and shook my hand firmly. “I hope the radios work out for you.”

“Thanks.” I pumped his hand, gave him a midwestern awkward smile, and then quickly left the building. As I headed back toward the Wayfinder commune, I absently touched the radios in my pocket. It was weird to think that we’d not only be using these as a part of our operations for the next few days but that we’d also be able to use stuff like these as soon as the barrier went up. I hadn’t used any kind of remote communication device in fifteen years, since we discovered the monsters could find any signals. Some people in enclaves still used hardline telephones, but all of those were wired and heavily shielded and they only worked inside the Enclave since no one was willing to spend the years it’d take to bury new shielded cables from one Enclave to another.

My head was filled with memories of last people I’d talked to on a cell phone before the satellites and towers when down during the collapse as I walked into the commune and hour after I left. I was so distracted it took me a moment to register what I was seeing. The common area was filled with Wayfinders again, all sitting around the living area still in their snowsuits and boots as Lucas and Camille paced. Natalie sat off to the side, pouring over the tablet she’d gotten, and Tiffany sat with her, flipping through a book of some kind.

“What’s going on?” I paused in the entryway, not bothering to take off my snowsuit or boots.

“Our mission failed.” Camille stopped pacing and shrugged.

Lucas, still pacing and angrier than I’d seen him in a long time, turned his head toward me as he stalked around the coffee table. “It didn’t fail. There was just no one there. You can’t take out Bandit leadership if the entire bandit army you’re expecting to find has suddenly just left the city.

“Left the city?” I took a step forward. “Does the Enclave defense council know about this?”

“We just got back. Their scouts found out the same time we did.” Camille held her arms behind her back. “All the signs Lucas could find pointed to them moving out during the day today and heading west, out of the city. A few groups splintered off the main force, but they probably didn’t break fifty Bandits, total. The main force of a couple thousand just left.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Lucas snarled and stopped pacing. “And now we’re going to sit tight here while we wait for the defense council to figure it’s shit out and decide what to do instead of chasing them down and trying to figure out why they left.”

“Oh.” I kicked the snow off my boots and pulled the walkie-talkies out of my pocket. “In the meantime, have a radio. One for you, Camille, one for Lucas, one for me, and one for Tiffany.” Tiffany looked up from her book, excitement in her eyes. “Yeah, there’s gonna be a group of runners I’ll be communicating with and you get to be my voice with them. One hand shouldn’t impede you there.”

Everyone took their radios, but Lucas looked at his like it was a grenade while I briefly outlined the rules Horace had given me and pulled out the booklet. “If you’ve got any further questions, wait until after I’ve read the manual. Once I’m done, I’ll put it on the coffee table. Everyone got it?”

I watched everyone nod, even Lucas, and was about to head over to talk to Natalie when someone knocked at the door. I turned around, ignoring the chatter breaking out behind me as people remembered that most people don’t just walk into other people’s homes, and walked back to the door. I opened it and gestured for the messenger to step inside.

“Sorry to bother you, Captain, but the Enclave defense council has requested you and your officer’s immediately.”

I nodded and gestured behind me. “What’s this about?”

“I don’t know, but they said it was important and you were to report immediately.” the woman saluted and stepped back. “I’ve got a few more people to tell. Please head over right away.”

“Of course.” I opened the door again and closed it behind her. “Three times in twelve hours. This is a busy day.”

“Speak for yourself.” Lucas walked over and grabbed Natalie’s snowsuit and boots. “All I’ve had to do today is make some fun plans and go on a long walk. It’s about time something happened.” He tossed the suit to Natalie and then handed her the boots. “I just hope it isn’t another false alarm.”

Five minutes later, we entered the defense council hall to find everyone running around and shouting over each other as messengers darted in and out of the building. One of the retired Wayfinders, Gerry, walked up to us when we did our best to get out of everyone’s way.

“Thank god you’re here, Marshall. We need you to gather up every Wayfinder you can get, retired or active.” He was standing so close our boots were almost touching and he still had to shout to be heard.

“What’s going on?” Natalie, Camille, and Lucas leaned in.

“Someone started broadcasting a radio signal from the top of one of the walls. It was an old, battery-operated ham radio and it was pointed north, right toward where the monsters have been the last few days.” I could see the panic in Gerry’s eyes as he spoke and I felt Natalie and Lucas stiffen beside me.

“How? When?”

“We don’t know for sure, yet. I suspect it was the bandits, since they all so conveniently disappeared today, but no one saw anything. We got the first report a couple minutes after you left and it wouldn’t have been long before then that it was discovered. We’ve got patrols on the wall that pass every ten minutes, so it didn’t sit there for very long either. It doesn’t need to be long, though. A ham radio is easily picked up by any monster, so we expect to see them in one or two hours.”

“I knew it.” Lucas took a deep breath and sighed. “Shit.”

“I’ll start rousing everyone I can. It’ll take more than an hour to look up all the Wayfinders who retired here, though.” I looked to Natalie for confirmation and she nodded. “There should be a lot, though.”

“That’s fine. Just hurry. We’ve got a group leave in ten minutes to do the most they can to delay the monsters, but it might not buy us much time. Just send them here and we’ll get them all sorted into units.”

“On it.” I nodded to Camille and Natalie. As we all headed toward the door, I turned to Lucas. “Go rouse the commune and get everyone down to the Wayfinder barracks we used yesterday. I want you to grab every gun, bullet, and explosive you can find. Bring it all back to the commune and start setting it up as a command center. I’ll have all the Wayfinders report to you first so we can set up our own units and communications. It’ll take some of the load off Gerry.”

“Yes, sir.” Lucas saluted and ran off as soon as he was out the door. I jogged to catch up to Natalie and Camille as we made our way toward the small Wayfinder office we maintained for tracking pay and resource acquisition in every Enclave. All of our records would be there and, thanks to Natalie being the designer or our organization system, Camille and I would be able to start knocking on doors right away.

The walls would be able to hold out the monsters for a couple hours, at least, but dawn would probably bring fighting in the streets unless the defense forces managed to delay them long enough or we managed to get a bunch of Wayfinders right away. Every defense force trained in killing monsters, but no one could kill monsters as quickly and efficiently as a Wayfinder, even if they’d been in retirement for a few years. If we could get a hundred Wayfinders set up with guns and enough ammunition, then it would only be a question of time before the monster army fell. The only real problem I saw was whether or not the Enclave would survive long enough.

 

Coldheart and Iron: Part 24

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Tiffany and I managed to catch up to the sleds after a couple of hours. Tiffany was all too happy to collapse on the sleds rather than try to walk through the pain of her missing hand, but I was anxious because we hadn’t seen anyone from Camille’s ambush group since I’d watched her vanish to the north. Depending on how far north she got before ditching the hand, it could be a while before we got word. The monsters would lock on to the hand they’d marked once the Wayfinders leading them away stopped shooting long enough for their heat signatures to vanish, but there was no telling what would happen after that.

Camille would probably do her best to thin their numbers some more, but there was no knowing if she’d lead them further north as she killed them, or if she’d just take down as many as she could before vanishing into the snow. She could be back in a day or a week. She could send the other Wayfinders back or keep them with her the entire time. There was no way to know until they started showing back up and I fretted over the problem until we found a cave we could shelter in for the night.

While Natalie led everyone else in setting up tents or barricades inside the cave in case we needed to defend ourselves, I set up the one table we’d brought it, sanitized it, and went to work on Tiffany’s arm. It took about an hour to get everything fixed properly and sewn up, but it was a simple procedure compared to the injuries I’d tried to fix several weeks ago. Thanks to the double dose I gave her, Tiffany drowsed through most of it. She was so out of it, I had to get someone else to help me move her into the tent she shared with two other trainees.

I left her in the care of her friends and, after cleaning up, went through the motions of settling in for the night. After the slow build of tension over the last few days and the attack today, I was exhausted. Instead of sleeping, though, I left Natalie and Lucas as they cleaned up from dinner and took the first shift at the cave entrance. I sat in my corner, bundled up in my thermal gear with an extra blanket just in case, watching the snowstorm build and then blow away piles of snow.

I wound up watching all night, waiting for the signs of an attack or for Camille’s group of Wayfinders to come through the door, laughing and congratulating each other on killing more monsters. By the time we were all packed up and ready to go, there was still no sign of them. I managed to keep focused all day, but Natalie and Lucas knew something was up. That night, they insisted on me resting after I’d checked in on Tiffany. I tried to argue, but I knew they were right.

After a proper night’s sleep, the next day was easier. I got us moving a bit faster and managed to find us a cave for the evening, instead of hiding out in the first dense patch of trees we found. As we left the following morning, the blizzard started to subside. By that evening, it had mostly cleared up. Thankfully, there was no sign of the monsters, but we were still waiting for Camille to make it back.

Six days after our hurried departure, the day Tiffany started cutting back on her painkillers, Camille and the four Wayfinders she’d brought with her showed up at our camp perimeter as we settled in for the evening. I barely paused to put on my thermal gear after I heard the sentry call out. By the time I was dressed and outside, Camille was practically to our tent. After moving aside to let her inside, I did a quick visual inspection of her companions. Thankfully, the only injury was Ben’s from a few days ago, and he’d already taken care of it, so I was able to get back into the tent just as Camille was sitting down to eat.

After I’d taken off my gear and cleaned up Camille’s, she’d turned around to face me. I could see the exhaustion clouding her eyes, but we both knew she needed to report first. Once I was ready, I nodded to her.

“After we left, things went about as expected. We drew them north for a full day, before the first few started to catch up. We mowed them down pretty quickly, so we kept going for another day before the rest of the group started to catch up. After that, we ditched the tag and made our way to the rendezvous point. Unfortunately, some of them managed to track us.”

“What?” Lucas leaned forward, almost throwing himself off the campstool he’d been sitting on as he ate. “There’s no way!”

Camille shrugged. “Half a day north of the bunker, the blizzard tapered out so they must have figured out how to follow footprints or we just left worse ones than usual. Whatever the cause, I can’t argue with the results. We hadn’t been heading toward the rendezvous for more than half a day before the first of them started catching up to us.”

“But they haven’t… It’s been over fifteen years since they appeared and they never-”

“Lucas.” Natalie grabbed his bowl before he could drop it. “Calm down and let Camille talk.” Lucas nodded and, after a few slow breaths, took his bowl back.

“Anyway. They tracked us so I used every trick I knew to lose them on the way to the rendezvous. Nothing worked. So we slowed down, went a little out of our way, and then picked up your trail once we knew you’d be passed. I had one of the others scout it for us, to make sure we were staying close but not so close that we might lead them to you guys. Today, after two days without contact, I decided we should be clear of whichever of them found our trail.”

“Did you notice anything else about them that might show a change in their behavior?” I took out a notebook and started writing down everything Camille had said. After I looked back up at her, she shook her head.

“No, nothing that stood out. They were vulnerable in all the usual places, none of them looked any different, and they all still fell for my traps so long as we hid our heat signatures, so I don’t know how to explain this unless someone got tagged.

“As far as I know, only Tiffany got tagged.” I made a couple more notes in my book. “You get some rest, Camille. I’ll go debrief your group quick and ask Tiffany if she has any ideas.”

“Yeah?” Camille leaned back. “How’s she doing? She seemed pretty alright with losing her right hand.”

“She’s been out of it until pretty much today, and she hasn’t really cleared up enough to be talking yet. I’ll need to see if she’s alright with cutting back a little further so we can have a conversation.”

“What a trooper. I haven’t seen anyone else handle it that well.” Camille pulled out her sleeping bag and plopped down on top of it. “Most of them try to hide it or deny that it’s going to be that bad.”

“Well, she’s left-handed so she’ll still be able to be a Wayfinder just fine.” Natalie moved over to Camille and draped one of our blankets over her. “She’ll need to relearn a few things, but a break in Chicago will get her all the time she needs to make up her mind.”

“I think her mind’s pretty made up.” Lucas chuckled as he moved to his own sleeping bag. “She mutters about showing those sons of bitches what a badass she is every time she falls asleep on the sled.”

“Well, she’ll still have time to change her mind or retrain herself once we get to Chicago.” I started putting my thermal gear back on. “Maybe she’ll change her mind once she sees what the retirement package is for someone who loses a limb while Wayfinding.”

“They usually do.” Camille yawned and pulled the blanket over her head.

“I’m glad you made it back safely, Camille.”

“Thanks, Marshall. I’m glad you’re all safe.”

After everyone was covered up, I quickly clambered out of the tent and did my rounds quickly. All of the Wayfinders that had gone with Camille needed to be woken up, but they reported the same things she did. After a few minutes of talking to each of them, I made my way to Tiffany’s tent and, after knocking, let myself in.

“Tiffany?”

“Yes, boss?” Tiffany was sitting up against a pile of backpacks covered in a blanket, trying her boots with one hand.

“You up for a quick chat? Clear enough?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany set her boots aside and picked up the little bottle of pills I gave her every morning. “I’ve only been taking half of what you’ve been giving me at night. I sleep on the sled so much that I mostly use the nights for a bit of exercise and one-hand practice.”

I arched my eyebrows. “One-hand practice?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany poked her boots and waved her right arm at the pile of backpacks behind her. “I’m still struggling with my shoes, but packing is easy. I think the shoes will be easier once I’ve healed up and can use my arm for more than waving.” Tiffany giggled. “Which super weirds people out, when I wave without a hand. It’s hilarious.”

I chuckled along with Tiffany but cleared my throat after a moment. “You sure you’re alright?”

“No, but I’m okay for now and at least I’m alive.”

“Good point.” I sat down across from her and glanced over at her sleeping tent mates. “Are we going to disturb them?”

“Nah, they sleep with earplugs now. We’re good.”

“Okay.” I cracked my knuckles absently and read over the notes I’d been taking. “Can you walk me through what happened when you got tagged? Lieutenant Camille reported seeing some odd behavior while trying to get back to us and I’m trying to figure out what’s been going on.”

“Well, it was pretty straight-forward, really. Almost disappointingly since I lost a hand over it.” Tiffany grabbed her arm near the stump and settled it into her lap. “Ben and I were leading a group of them toward where Lieutenant Camille was waiting, doing a few vital strikes to thin them out a bit. Things were going fine until they started to cluster around Ben a bit. He started shooting at them and I ran to help him out. Only he kept firing instead of doing bursts, so his gun probably lit up like the sun to them, so they started returning fire.

“I couldn’t tell you how he got out of that unscathed, but I caught up to him as he finally stopped firing. One of them, though, a scout, was a few paces away and lined up a tracer shot. Ben couldn’t see it, focused as he was, so I pulled him out of the way. As he fell, the scout fired and hit me in the hand with the tracer round.” Tiffany held up the stump where here hand used to be and smiled ruefully.

“The lieutenant must have seen this happening, because she started firing on the scout and all of the others right about then. After that, you know everything. She yelled at me to remove my glove, tie it off, and take my painkillers. A couple minutes later, you showed up and that’s the last bit I remember.”

“When did Ben get hit, then?”

“What?”

“You said Ben never got shot when they fired at him. When I showed up, though, he had a small wound on his upper left arm.” I gestured to my own arm, showing her where he’d been grazed. “Barely worth addressing beyond the tape to close the hole in his suit.”

“I must have missed that.” Tiffany shrugged. “I was a little busy getting shot to be paying attention to what was going on with him at that point.”

“Fair enough.” I made a couple notes and tried to ignore the icy claw scraping the bottom of my stomach. I checked her dressing quick, asked a few questions about how she was feeling and, left her tent after making sure she was going to be alright until the morning. All the while, I tried to explain away what had been happening as a string of coincidences. I tried to find any excuse I could but, before I knew it, I was outside Ben’s tent.

I went inside and smiled at him. “Sorry to be back again so soon, Ben, but I just wanted to double-check your injury before I went to sleep.”

“Oh.” Ben stood and grabbed his arm self-consciously. “I mean, it’s fine. It was barely a scrape then and it scabbed over before I got a chance to do anything with it.”

“Just to be safe. I’m the group’s medic, now.” I pulled out my medical bag and gestured to the stool near their cook stove. “Just a quick look and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Really, Marshall, I’m fine.”

“Ben, do I need to make it an order?” I crossed my arms but kept my voice calm. “Sit. Down.”

Ben sighed and sat. He held out his arm and looked away as I rolled up his sleeve. When I got past the elbow, I saw a giant white pad of gauze, much larger than he’d need for the simple scrape he claimed he had. I pulled the grimy old tape off and, as I pulled the bandage away, caught sight of a greenish patch of skin with red lines emanating from what looked like a giant pimple.

“Ben.”

“It’s fine, Captain. I empty it every night. There’s no chance for the trace to take effect if I’m constantly draining it!” Ben looked at me, careful to shift so he couldn’t see his arm. “I figured it out. This way, I won’t need to lose my arm for such a little scrape.”

I sighed and closed my eyes. “Ben. Benjamin. This is the trace. The green, the red lines, the white head, all of it. Your blood is full of it and, if we check your other elbow, we’ll see your veins starting to show just as brightly red as these.”

“But I fixed it, Captain. It was just a tiny hit and I need my arm.”

“Pull down your sleeve, put on your thermal gear, and come with me.” I stood up and slung my bag over my shoulder.

“But I need to rest. I’ve been moving almost without stopping for six days.” Ben clasped his hands and fell to his knees. “Just let me sleep, I don’t need to lose my arm. I’ll be fine! I don’t feel sick at all.”

I nodded. “You’ve got one thing right, Ben. You won’t need to lose your arm.”

Ben smiled and sank down. “Oh, thank god. That’s so good to hear. I’ll just be a minute, Captain, and I’ll be right out.”

“Don’t make me come back.”

After he nodded, I left the tent and walked up to where one of the guards was stationed. “As soon as Ben and I leave camp, get Lieutenants Camille and Natalie up. Tell them we need to break camp immediately.”

“Sir?”

“Just do it. I’ll explain once we’re moving.”

“Yes, sir.”

I went back to the tent and waited. When Ben emerged, I grabbed his uninjured arm and pulled him toward the edge of camp, leading him deeper into the forest we’d picked as that night’s camping spot. “C’mon, Ben. We’ve got a little errand to run.”

“Oh, should I grab my gear?”

“No, I’ve got my gun so we should be fine.”

“Okay.” Ben smiled and followed me past the perimeter and into the forest. Occasionally, I’d glance over at him and see the faint red like coming from his face as he leaked radio waves from the trace that had been planted and given time to multiply in his bloodstream. Once we’d walked about an hour into the words, using the excuse of needing some plants to supplement our food stores to keep him focused and quiet, I turned to him.

“You’ve got the trace, Ben. It’s too far progressed to stop at this point. Even cutting your arm off wouldn’t fix it now.” I took a few steps back and leaned against a tree, putting my body so that he wouldn’t be able to see it when I thumbed the safety off.

“We’re close to Chicago, though. They can do something about it there. I’ve heard about treatments that kill the trace and then I won’t need to lose my arm at al.”

“That’s not how it works. Your group kept getting attacked because they were tracking you.” I pointed to him for emphasis. “Now, you can either keep walking on your own, to lead them away, or I’ll kill you quickly now so you don’t need to suffer when they catch up to you.”

“What?”

“You agreed to these terms when we hired you.”

“But, I mean, I can’t-”

“You lied to us and put all our lives in danger. You either choose now or I’ll choose for you.”

“I can’t-” Ben stepped forward and I raised my gun. “I’m- I’m not going to die out here, not for some little scrap.” Ben clenched his fists and took a few steps forward this time. “I refuse! I won’t accept this. You can’t abandon me out here. You can’t leave me to die so you can live. I don’t deserve to die like thi-”

I raised the gun and fired, three times in quick succession. Ben dropped where he was. I grabbed the shell casings from the snow, slung my rifle over my shoulder, and started sprinting back toward the camp. Fifteen minutes later, I explained the whole thing between gasps and we moved out. Everyone looked over their shoulders as we went, fleeing through the forest with the prospect of a monster attack looming over our shoulders.

When we finally stopped to rest, the sun was setting again and even the people riding the sleds were exhausted. We made camp that night, inside another forest, and did our best to put our close call out of our minds. We were still a few weeks away from Chicago and every one of us was thinking only of being able to rest. Despite my exhaustion, all I could think of was Ben’s face as he tried to make excuses and the determination Tiffany had shown when she’d had to sacrifice her hand.

Every time I thought of her, seated in the snow as she waited to have her hand taken off while Ben stood over her and pretended he was fine, I wanted to go back and shoot him again. I wouldn’t get the chance, though. There’d be nothing left by the time I got back there, even if I went right away. The monsters wouldn’t leave much lying around once they finally tracked him down.

Dreams

My dreams are a dark unknown abyss
That always deny me restful bliss
As I try to sleep and only miss
Each and every attempt to end this
String of nights forever gone amiss.

My dreams often lose their frightful sheen
When they are so few and far between
I forget the horror I have seen
And eagerly await the next scene
Of whatever story I am keen
To introduce into my routine.

My dreams aren’t sweet, ephemeral things
Tied to secret hopes by hidden strings
But scaly monsters replete with wings
Moving in silence so loud it rings.

My dreams have no blood and guts and gore,
They have something even worse in store
As I toil through my nightly chore
Of knocking on the dark, horrid doors
Of my mind to find what it fears more
Than any monster to wash ashore.