The Pain didn’t keep Torren from mumbling, while his hand smothered the bullet that hung from a string around his neck. His heart was racing the sun’s plunge into the abyss of ruins burnt as black as the foreboding night. All around the tides of nightfall rose around him to stain the green sky as if to sneer at his praying. Kissing the back of the hand that held the Talisman, Torren bowed his head and let his heart surrender to the prayer.
“Through the night that binds us,
I am the hearth that warms the meek,
Come ye lost to the light of my fire
Flee ye wicked for I’m the devourer-”
There was a metallic slap that made Torren spin breathlessly around. His eyes narrowed as Walt finished loading his shotgun from beside the dying campfire, and looked at him like with the indifference of a fed tiger contemplating an easy kill. Putting aside the shotgun, Walt began tying his long black hair in a half pony tail without a care in the world.
It was the most they had spoken since the south fell silent. Torren turned around knowing without the sounds of gunfire and battle to occupy the air, sooner or later they would be forced to use words. The peace he had felt in prayer turned to a pallid despair as held the shotgun a little tighter and gritted his teeth.
As nightfall finally swallowed the jagged metals and concrete flesh of the skyscrapers along with the bones of their previous occupants, Torren found himself muttering to the disappearing city:
“Nightfall is the closest you’ll ever get to a burial.”
The city didn’t reply but Walt stood up with a grunt and announced:
“I’m going to warn the village.”
Torren let out a sigh. Holding the air in his lungs he moved his finger to the trigger of his rifle, and faced Walt.
“No, you’re not.”
Walt’s own rifle was hanging on his side with his fingertips just touching the body. Torren stood uncomfortably against the waves of anger that came rushing out of the soldiers eyes.
“The Commander should have sent a runner by now.” Walt told him with a spiteful calm. “We have to warn the Town.”
“If I let you leave, you’re going to run as far west as you can.” Torren growled back before pointing the rifle at Walt, “You have made it clear you don’t give a damn about the village or any of us.”
Walt’s fingers didn’t go to his rifle, he didn’t move at all except to shrug and say:
“Then come with me. It doesn’t make sense to stay here anyway.”
“Someone has to man the minefield…make sure the Mutts don’t make it to the village.” Torren replied, feeling his bravado dissipate.
“Not if you leave them on.”
Torren opened his mouth to speak, which Walt ignored without hesitation and said:
“If the commander drove back the Mutts then a messenger would have reached us by now. The same goes for the wounded. Best scenario, they slowed their advance. That, however, doesn’t mean they won’t attack during the night. “
Torren glared at him and spoke in the same voice he prayed in.
“The mother is with us. She won’t let anything harm the Commander—“
“Which is unfortunate if you’re under the age twelve,” Walt snarled before his reflexes sent him ducking as the butt of Torren’s shotgun came slashing towards him.
Walt felt it go past his head as he came up to uppercut Torren from below the chin, before kicking him in the solar plexus. It was enough to send Torren tumbling back with Walt shouting:
“The mutt scout we caught,” he growled as Torren slowly got to his feed, “How did the Commander question him?”
When Torren didn’t answer, Walt took a step forward as Torren stepped back.
“Tell me you’re not defending him.”
“He saved us—“
“SO that he could rape you like he did to that boy we caught.” Snapped Walt.
The words rang like a gunshot that had passed through them both. Fists turned to powerless fingers. Two pairs of eyes stared at one another in disbelief and shock, but it was Torren who looked to the ground.
Walt regarded him with his a cold look that was full of disgust. When Torren looked at him the shock was gone. His voice trembled and echoed as it growled each word.
“I went because you told me to.” Torren said to with tears of rage. “You said it was the only way he would let us in the brotherhood. Do you remember what you said? “
Walt looked away.
Tears seeped from Walt’s eyes as he looked back at Torren and answered,
“I told you we’d laugh about it someday…” his voice trailed away as Torren let out an angry breath.
“I was just a kid…” Walt stammered with panic and fear, “it was supposed to be just one time I didn’t think…there was another way for us to survive.”
This time it was Torren who looked away, casting his eyes at the half buried skull on the ground. The scratches and grooves on its surface were packed with dirt and ash, and in the light of the campfire it stared back with indifference. It gave him the chills.
“I’m sorry Torren…” Walt began before his face lit up with an idea and he continued, “I’ll tell you what, we’ll go to the tower, arm the mines and wait for the commander. Do it your way.”
Torren watched skeptically as Walt picked up his gear and began moving towards the building that the Commander had named the ’Tower’. Then he stopped and let out a sigh. Turning back to look at Torren he asked,
“Where you there when the Commander…was with …that scout we caught?”
The answer was the metallic slap that came from Torren’s shotgun when he cocked it. Walt flinched visibly before quickly turning back around. Torren watched as he used the rope coming out of the third story window to scale the building. After the commander had the doors and windows of the first two floors sealed up, the build had become a makeshift base of operation. It was a good defensible position considering there was only one way out that didn’t require rope.
Watching Walt climb inside, Torren suddenly regretted not going first as Walt climbed inside the tower. Running his fingers through his hair Torren looked at the moon, before once again looking at the Talisman around his neck. By the light of the moon and the campfire, he looked at the name etched on the bullet with a dull pain inside his chest. Torren Cutthroat, it read.
The words didn’t feel sacred anymore. In the palm of his hand, it was nothing but a piece of metal Walt had given him after he had returned from the Commander’s tent. In the empty night sky his mind projected the memory of two boys huddled in a shadowy corner of the city, boys with legs as skinny as their arms and skin that was tanned and scarred. Two orphans sitting under the watchful eyes of a city that was a living reminder of an age where it hadn’t mattered how many died or how much they suffered. He could still see Walt open his palms and reveal the necklaces he had made for them.
Torren and Walter Cutthroat, Torren thought fondly as he took hold of the rope and began to climb.
“We’re family now,” Walt had said pulling him into a brotherly hug. “We’ll laugh about this someday…I promise.”
Unbeknownst to Torren, Walt let out a sigh of relief as the rope descending out of the window tensed from holding Torren’s weight. The room smelled of rot and ash, but it was the dread that made it hard to breathe. Turning away from the window, Walt crouched down in front of the detonation terminal. It was a humorless gray box that folded out to reveal a keyboard and a screen. On the keyboard, he punched in the activation codes for the mines and watched the screen flicker on to reveal a green grid speckled with red. The sight of them made his stomach turn.
Then with closed eyes he quietly unsheathed his knife.
Stop it. Walt said to the dread and the guilt that begged him to reconsider as he put the blade to the rope.
With every strand of the rope that he cut away, he thought of the wretched feeling that had urged him to spy on the commander’s interrogation of the scout. He saw again the ropes that were tight enough to cut off blood circulation and rough enough to leave tear away the flesh. The commander had his back turned to Walt, with his pants on the floor, and a naked Torren was thrusting his hips, while the young scout screamed into the rag they had stuffed in his mouth.
Tears filled Walt’s eyes as the pain stayed his hand for a moment. His eyes were still closed when he heard Torren cry out.
“Walt! What are you doing?”
“Torren is dead.” Walt spat before the knife severed the remaining strands of the rope.
He listened with a steeled heart as Torren’s wail turned into the sharp crunch of breaking bones. His throat was as dry as sand as Walt fled from the window. His body felt inside out with his guts exposed to the elements as he sank into the pain like a stone cast into a lake.
Breathing fitfully he staggered through the building by the light of a flashlight all the way to the ground floor. Lost in guilt and delirium at first he didn’t recognize what he had heard. A second sound came bouncing out of the darkness behind him, and this time he knew it was a name.
Torren? Walt thought as his ears perked up and his body began to shake.
“WALT, TORREN?” The Commander’s muffled voice yelled again. “WE HAVE WOUNDED–”
On the fifth floor the terminal let out an indifferent beep, and Walt lost control of his knees from laughing.
For a violent moment, the world shook with a force that threw him around like a pebble in a tin can. Screams disappeared in to the noise of thunderous explosions. Then a billion pieces of rubble came raining down like a reminder that something, or someone, still occasionally objected to the cruelties of the world.
When the silence returned Walt couldn’t hear his own laughter over the screeching in his ears. That’s how he remained for a long while, enjoying the deathly quiet. It was a feeling as reassuring as the darkness itself. The emptiness didn’t feel as good as laughing but it felt safe. There was no sadness or guilt, just the peace that solitude brings for the short while that it can. So he lay there and whispered:
“Flee ye wicked.”