No one knew why the screamers screamed.
On a good day, when the wind blew in the right direction, you could hear them a mile off. That was when it was time to move, or else they’d come for you with their eyes dripping blood and throats gone raw. Whatever terror they saw, you’d have to be careful not to catch it too and if you looked into the eyes of a screamer, you were lost.
People had theories and rumors, of course, but no one really knew was it was like. Something just snapped and you started screaming like the rest of them until you were lucky enough that someone could put you out of your misery.
This time, there were three of them. I was up high, with eyes fixed on a point just to the left of the group. Even this far, you never knew if one of them might make eye contact.
“I don’t want to waste bullets,” Twig said from behind me. I cocked my head towards his voice but didn’t take my eyes off, well, my peripheral eye, off the screamers. “Scissor maneuver?”
I shook my head. “I can take care of them if you keep watch.”
He grunted and reached forward to rest a gloved hand on my shoulder. “Careful.”
With a nod, I stood and finally turned to look to my partner. Or rather, look down to my partner. Short and wiry, he was as comfortable scrambling across the bridges and towers of the outpost as I was to be firmly on the ground. For once, he had put some sort of order to his thinning mess of blonde hair, but the grooming attempt had ended there. Dirt, dried blood, and other filth deepened the lines of his sunbeaten face.
I frowned. He looked more strained than usual. Being out here for so long had started to take its toll, but I doubted he’d ever admit to it. Just like I wouldn’t admit to how shit I probably looked. We were both used to it after all this time together.
Twig was quick to notice my scrutiny. His voice whipped out in a defensive, “What?”
I forced a chuckle and plastered a disarming smile across my face. “Just admiring the view.”
He snorted and waved a hand at me. “Save those charms for the next generation.” With a final scoff, my partner moved around me and took up my seat on the edge of the tower. I chuckled again, more genuine, and clumped my way towards the lift.
Even at his age, twice that of my own, Twig was able to scamper up the ladder or crossbeams of the tower like a monkey. I was not so fortunate. Even with my strength, the armor strapped to me firmly suggested against testing my luck with heights. With ropes and pulleys, I could heave myself up or down on the lift platform. That was enough of a risk for me.
I didn’t care about the creak of my armor or heavy tread of my steps. If the screamers hadn’t seen me already, they wouldn’t be able to hear me over their own shrieks. I wasn’t the silent type like Twig. I was a juggernaut, a bowling ball, and the screamers were little more than pins to be knocked down.
They did see me.
One broke from the trio, those aggressive types that just streak for you like a wildcat. I hefted the hammer and turned my right side towards the runner while lifting my left arm to prepare for the blow. The poor thing wouldn’t even notice it coming.
The hammer caught it right in the ribs. Years ago, I would have winced at the impact, but I had been young and naïve back then The screamer wasn’t down yet. It lurched back, all the while its raucous cries battering at my earplugs. I still didn’t look at it. They weren’t safe until they were dead, and even then some Silencers were superstitious and thought you had to wait three days before daring to meet their eyes.
As soon as I struck one, the others perked up like dogs on a hunt. They broke into a frantic galloping run. The one I had struck wasn’t attacking yet. It could think, could plan and it knew I was dangerous.
I hated those ones.
The other two were on me and I struck one right in the face. It fell back and lay still. The other grasped and clawed at me, trying to get through my armor. I raised my eyes upward, keeping them in my peripheries. That was the hardest part, sometimes.
My hammer swung again, pulverizing the skull of the one already downed. I thrust out with my arm to try and detach the screamer clawing at me. The first one was still biding its time. That was more troubling.
I let a roar burst from my throat as I whirled and flung the annoying one off of me. My hammer was quick to follow in a rapid strike to its throat, cutting off its voice.
That was when the other finally struck.
I grunted as it slammed into me. It wasn’t as big as me; few people could match my bulk. But it still sent me staggering for a precious heartbeat and I whirled to send my hammer into its side. The black metal head whooshed harmlessly through the air and I turned further to see the shape dart further around me.
Something sharp dug into my leg and I gasped, nearly looking down, but yanking my gaze away at the last second. The damned thing on the ground had bit me through some chink in my armor to gnaw my leg to bits.
I grit my teeth and kicked at it once to break its grip before sending my hammer into its skull.
Another slam from behind, and I tripped forward over the body, just catching myself with the hammer into the dirt. Twig was probably laughing at me from up there. Sledge, the juggernaut, being walloped by a single screamer? He was sure to tell the other Silencers about that over drinks, the old bastard.
I led with the hammer, whirling to clip the thing across the jaw. It fell backwards, and its screams took on a higher-pitched wheezing quality. It wouldn’t be long before its bleeding black eyes went vacant and it’d just be another job well done.
Tugged by an urge, my eyes flitted across its face the moment it lay still. Everyone wanted to at least once, even those old veterans who scoffed at such a thing and could fight wearing a blindfold if they needed to. Like Twig.
Another hammer blow put the matter to rest.
I stopped, panting. Sticky sweat collected under my armor, and I squirmed internally to know that it’d be moist and cold before long. That was the downside of being “the juggernaut”.
“That looked easy,” Twig mocked with a wide grin when I pulled myself back up to the top room of the tower. “Fall asleep halfway through?”
I rolled my eyes.
He laughed. “You can relax soon. Convoy’s on the horizon.”
I found a chair and let myself fall onto it with a clank and thud as my armor rattled. “Thank gods for that.” Lifting a hand up, I rubbed at my eyes. I couldn’t get the look on the screamer’s face out of my mind.
We had already packed up our gear from the place that morning, and doffing my armor, I started loading the lift to take it all down. When the convoy arrived, two trucks and a couple riders, we only lingered long enough for a few pleasantries with the Silencers replacing us before we were on our welcome way home.
“You gonna get that looked at?” Twig said when we had crested the hill before the Town. He gestured at the oozing bite in my leg. I looked down. The wound was shallow enough that I had completely forgotten about it among the other aches, pains, and constant itches.
“Are you crazy?” I flashed Twig a grin and raised the stump of my right pinky to him. “And give Doc more excuses to cut bits off me?”
“Good.” My partner leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms slowly. “You thought about the future at all?”
I lowered my hand as he spoke. “What about it?”
The truck jolted over the stretch of potholes, and Twig waited for the jostling and crunch of wheels on gravel before he spoke again
“Well,” he finally said. “I’m getting old, Sledge.”
I waited for him to say more, and when he did not, I reached out to clap him on the shoulder. “Not so old, old man. You still Silence with the best of ‘em.”
He twitched a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “You gotta find a different partner someday, kiddo. I mean to retire before something makes me retire for good.”
There it was.
I raised a shoulder and lowered it in a shrug. Then added a noncommittal grunt for good measure. “Not everyone works with a partner. Not everyone can keep up with me.”
“What about Wire?”
“I don’t like knives.”
“He’s a dumbass.”
“Twitch? Pix? Clinker?”
“Too unpredictable, too addicted, and I just don’t like her face.”
“None of them are you,” I added, quieter.
He turned fully to look at me, his sunken eyes soft on my face. He licked his dry lips once, chewing on his answer before tossing it out. “And no one will be. But they don’t gotta be.”
I twisted my lips to something between a smile and grimace. “Maybe I don’t mind-“
Something dark flickered in the edge of my vision. My head whipped around to follow it, but it was gone even before I had realized I reacted.
“What is it?”
I shook my head gingerly. “Just a bird or something. I’m on edge.”
“It’ll be good to get some rest.” He raised a hand in greeting as we neared the thick wall surrounding the Town. Militia patrolled the wall, clad in their armor with guns in hand. A few shouted pleasantries, but it didn’t much matter what exactly they said. I was too antsy to notice.
The trucks rolled through the gate and came to a halt in a lot just beyond. I stood and stretched my still-protesting muscles before vaulting out of the truckbed and landing with a jolt on the ground. Finally home.
“Welcome back,” someone called, and I looked up to see Sergeant striding towards us. His thin-lipped smile was infectious, and even if it wasn’t, the pouches of coin he carried were enough to make both me and Twig grin in return.
“Week’s pay,” Sergeant said, tossing over the pouches, Twig’s first. “Any bonus this time?”
I jerked a thumb at the truck. “You have to ask? Three today, plus nine from the rest of the week.”
Sergeant whistled through his teeth. “Well-earned. Want it now or on your tab?”
“Tab,” Twig said as I chimed in with, “Now.”
He nodded to us both before producing a handful of coins and offering them out to me. I stepped forward and reached for them- but hesitated. Something flickered in Sergeant’s gaze as we stared uncomfortably at each other, and for a moment I wondered how much he really wanted to keep this money from me.
Enough to pull for his gun?
I blinked the thoughts away and closed my fist around the coins.
“I’ll record your tab with the Arches, Twig,” Sergeant said as if that little standoff hadn’t even happened. Had it? “See you both around.”
Back in our cabin, I dumped my packs onto the floor and then dumped my worn-out carcass onto my bed. The blankets were scratchy but they welcomed me back with an embrace worthy of a lover and pulled me down into a hazy half-sleep. Being able to close my eyes without a care was the sweetest damn feeling I had ever known.
Something dug its claws into my throat and I lurched for my hammer, thrashing about with a pained cry. When I opened my eyes, all I could see were black sunken holes in a drawn face, shadows oozing out between void and flesh.
“Hey- Sledge! Hey, it’s me.” Twig’s voice broke through the fog and I blinked to see just his eyes wide with concern and his hand touching my shoulder. “Just- lower the hammer, alright?”
I swallowed dryly and let it fall down onto the bed next to me.
“You fell asleep,” he said.
“Right,” I said weakly. My voice was a pathetic rasp so I wet my lips and tried again. “Right. Thanks.”
“The Arches? We could use a drink.”
“Gods, please.” I heaved myself up and made for the door.
Twig secured our usual booth and settled like a king before a tray of drinks. I stopped dead. His face stretched grotesquely, his mouth in a Cheshire grin with sharp teeth and jutting cheekbones. On the arm on his chair, gnarled talons of his fingers dug into the soft plush.
A blink later, he looked normal again.
I really did need that drink.
He said something, ending it with a laugh, but I hardly heard it. My gaze was drawn by something out the window, a movement disappearing around the corner. Had someone been watching us?
“Yeah,” I said vaguely, replying to a question I hadn’t heard. A twitch squirmed in my eye, and I blinked it away. Whatever Twig said, I only nodded along, keeping my gaze fixed out the window.
“-decided yet?” Twig asked me and I snapped back to realize he was quiet, awaiting my answer.
He nodded in understanding. “Well, there’s no rush yet. I won’t be going anywhere for some time.”
That deserved a smile, so I forced something tight and thin-lipped. “You better not.”
“You don’t look okay,” Twig said, and I was startled by the grotesque dark note in his voice. I looked up to see his brow furrowed, his lips twisted in disgust and his eyes beady and glinting. His fingers were gripping the arm of his chair again- no, one was at his side, toying with the garrote coiled at his belt.
I stood, knocking my chair back. It crashed to the ground, chasing off the shadow lurking in my friend’s eyes, leaving someone who just looked old and a little concerned.
“I need some air,” I said sharply.
Movement to the side. My head jerked around as I tried to follow it. Nothing. Just someone reaching for their money. Or was it their knife. A gun?
“Alright, alright,” Twig said soothingly. The tone of his voice sent a coil of anger rippling through me. He stood, and I realized he meant to come with me.
I licked my lips and shook my head with a snap of my voice. “Alone.”
The hammer at my side was a comfort as I stumbled away from the table and pushed out through the door.
The cool air was a sparse reprieve, settling the flushed warmth of my cheeks. I started walking, keeping from the shadows. They reached for me and I spit at them, scaring them back.
They wouldn’t get me.
One flickered by, and I whirled, panting. It was gone. Good. It had better run. “You better run,” I said for good measure. Another shadow reached for me and I crunched my boot down firmly on it, feeling no resistance but the ground.
Why did I always end up alone? That thought built its way up into a cry in my throat that I tried to choke back down. My hands were shaking. I could feel the tremors wracking at my arms. Twig would be gone forever and I’d be-
I was alone.
A shadow entered my field of vision and I jerked back, hand flying to my hammer before looking up. Twig stood before me, arms crossed and his jaw set in a frown. He wasn’t alone. I heard more footsteps approach, then stop, but my attention was all on Twig.
“Just stay right there,” my partner said. I could feel the other Silencers around us, standing in alleys and paths. Blocking any exit. Any escape.
My voice shook as badly as my hands. “Twig, wh-what’s going on?” Something wet dripped down my cheek and I cursed myself, lifting my hand to wipe at the tear. Silencers didn’t cry. I never cried. So why now-
My hand came away red in the moonlight, and I stared at my hand. I looked up to Twig again, seeing something terrible in his expression, though he didn’t meet my eyes. I swallowed, forcing my voice to steady.
“It’s not what it looks like,” I said. My voice lowered. “I’m not… I’m not one of them, Twig. I swear it. I never-“
He shook his head slow and sad, but said nothing.
His hand lifted and I stared down the barrel of the gun he pointed at me.
“Just- don’t, Sledge,” he said. He had difficulty getting the words out, and I saw something glimmer in his eyes. “Don’t make this harder than it’s gotta be.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that, and I took my eyes off him for just one moment.
One moment was long enough.
The smile dropped from my mouth as quickly as if someone had slapped it away. That wasn’t Twig anymore in front of me. The empty shadowed sockets leered at me from over his twisted grinning mouth. His flesh writhed and twitched, flaying away in dangling strips. They closed in around me, leering with empty eye sockets and a void where there should have been a soul.
And in that moment, I realized what none of them ever could.