A Fearsome and Bloody Saint
By Bobby Derie
Moxie’s sneaker kicked a child’s skull. The parched white bone clitter-clatted across the road before coming to rest at the base of a sign. Whitesbog, N.J. – 3 miles. Pins and needles played at the base of her brain, a hint of static reached her ears. Stomach growling, sun hidden by an endless expanse of gray cloud, Moxie shifted her backpack. She hated the ones with kids.
Moxie didn’t have anything like a plan yet. It could be anything that came out of the night to snatch those kids. Werewolf, maybe, or the Jersey Devil, if there was such a thing. The possibilities run through her head like the plots of a dozen z-grade horror movies, minus the tits and fake blood. She needed to get her bearings, snoop around, sleep with a cop or a reporter if that’s what it took to get the details. She couldn’t afford to go into this thing unprepared. Not again. Heading into a situation without knowing what was going on was how people died.
Still, the whole damn set up with the children stirred a dead memory. Something between bad luck and destiny has led her here, the black serendipity that saw Moxie stumble into most every patch of badness and horror in her life. She knew she’d cross path with this thing eventually—she just hoped it was before it got any worse. Like that thing in the basement in Newark, the nuckelavee.
She had half a mind to check out abandoned houses first, the ones the kids hung out at. Maybe stare at the graffiti, pick out the name of a local boogieman. So she walked, turning when it seemed right, the grass on the side of the road giving way to sidewalks, the sidewalks cracked and then fell away to reveal older stones, punctuated with grass.
The afternoon sun finally began to burn through the cloud cover when she felt or heard the rumble of an old black Cadillac DeVille coming up the road. Moxie kept walking as it crept toward her, watched it’s reflection on the glass windows of passing houses. The Indian girl driving it was carefully going five miles under the speed limit on the residential streets and stopped at ever sign and light, giving assiduous care to her turn signals. Moxie knew that style of driving; it’s the one where you couldn’t afford for the cops to pull you over for anything. The Caddy pulled up along side her, passenger side window rolling down to reveal a shock of bottle-blonde hair, and stopped right next to her. There was a chink as the back door unlocked.
Moxie gave the girl in the passenger seat a long look. A bottle of bleach had been sacrificed to remove all trace of color from the blonde mane on the head of a woman that could be either side of thirty. She radiated all the bubbly energy of a fifteen-year old; her eyes hidden by big plastic sunglasses and most of the rest of her was covered by a grey sweatpants/hoodie combination advertising some unknown sorority in pink letters—Moxie caught the hint of a neat line of razor marks around her eyes, where the shades were slipping.
“Moxie Hateman?” said the peroxide victim in the passenger seat.
“Not really, I just prefer girls.” The woman laughed.
“Justine. Get in the car sweetie. I sussed you out pretty good.”
The blonde stuck a henna-dyed hand out the window, nails painted alternating pink and black. Around the wrist hung a bracelet of wooden beads and a wooden inverted cross. It was old and Moxie knew she’d seen it before. A farm, up in Pennsylvania, lifetimes ago; an old man with the hex on him, praying.
Moxie clambered into the back seat.
The driver, the Indian girl, watched her. Moxie buckled herself in, and the Indian girl turned back to the road, the car lurching forward. Sitting next to her in the passenger seat is a bruiser, six feet a half if an inch, arms as big around as her thighs, buzzcut black hair shot through with grey; wearing about three white v-neck t-shirts and new bluejeans tucked into old Army boots. He flashed her a grin and a mock salute. A scar shaped like an inverted cross was burnt into the flesh right above his breastbone.
“That’s Davan, Mox.” Justine said, then turns to the driver. “And this is Priyanka.”
Priyanka, the driver, was Indian—nut brown skin, long straight dark hair, raven eyes just like Moxie herself. From the back seat, all she could make out was Priyanka’s slim leather jacket over loose-fitting pants and shirt of some light material in an exotic cut; that and a necklace of some kind of gold dagger dangling between her breasts.
Moxie felt the names and images sink into her. These people were like her, she could feel it, feel that black serendipity tie itself in knots in her stomach.
“How’d you know my name?”
“I felt the edge of your thoughts before you got in the car.” Priyana replied. “To be sure you were not an enemy. I am sorry for that intrusion, but Justine can feel your power, but she cannot see into your mind or heart.”
“Okay. Okay, yeah. Makes sense. Um, I don’t want to be rude or anything, but do you guys have anything to eat? I haven’t had a proper meal in a couple days.”
Davan pulled up a small cooler that had been resting at his feet, and opened it to reveal two sodas and a small trove of plastic baggies: six sandwiches, carrot sticks, raisins, apple slices just turning brown.
“Help yourself,” he said. “I always get a might peckish myself.”
“Yes, please eat. We spent some time driving around trying to find you, and now we are running out of daylight.” Priyanka added.
“You were looking for me?” Moxie said.
“Not ‘xactly.” Justine said. “We’ve been together for about eight months now, tracking something.” she licked her lips “Or maybe someone—that’s been moving down the East Coast, making signs in the forgotten places, painting old altars, awakening old evils and emboldening those that had kept quiet in their predations. It’s been three steps ahead all the time—and this is the next stop. I was trying to find the source of it when I happened across you. Like a candle floating on a sink full of water with the drain pulled out, little flame flickerin’ down the whirlpool.”
Moxie weighed her words. Had things been on the rise? She’d been busy in the Appalachians for months, and down through the Pine Barrens it had been one thing after another. She didn’t know about any of that, just like she didn’t know what was preying on the kids in this town.
“I think it is a fear elemental.” Priyanka said. “Sorry, you were thinking pretty loud.” Her accent was strange to Moxie’s ears, the cadence of the words unfamiliar, the accent on every syllable—definitely born in India, English as a second language.
“I tried to suss it out direct.” Justine said, holding up a New Jersey road map covered in pink highlighter. “I can’t draw a bead on it. Something makes my mind go slidewise when I try that head-on.”
“We been searching our memories.” Davan said. “Fear elementals are creatures of dark belief, nightmares given substance. They like young minds, fertile imaginations. Werefolk now, they tend to be messy, and the Old Folk from across the seas, they have their peculiar ways. This ain’t their style at all.”
“I remember,” Moxie said, in between bites of sandwich “the old fear spirits, in Ninevah, the Allu…”
“…Abhartach among the Irish and Qiqirn of the Iñupiat…” mumbled Davan, getting a thousand yard stare in his eyes.
“Careful now, y’all. This ain’t no time to get lost in the old memories.” Justine said.
“Indeed.” Priyanka said “There is too little we know of this thing to be sure we have encountered it before. All we have is the negative psychic nexus Justine has divined, where we believe it hides. We are going there now.”
“An abandoned house.” Moxie half-guessed, half-knew.
Moxie felt the car slow down and finally stop, rocking back slightly. Priyanka shut off the engine.
“We walk from here. If there is anyone in the house, I don’t want to spook them. Time to bundle out and load up.”
Moxie felt the chunk as the trunk popped open, and the four climbed out of the DeVille. Moxie left her backpack behind on the floor. Davan got to the trunk first began handing things out: Justine and Priyanka both got a snub-nosed .38 and a gigantic metal flashlight that could double as a club; Davan took out an old, curiously wrought sledge hammer, then opened up an old duffle bag.
“Don’t know precisely what you’d prefer.” the big man said, drawing out a sawed off double-barrel shotgun and a massive, old and peculiar looking revolver with two barrels, one on top of the other. “But you can take your pick.”
Moxie held up a hand, palm out. The base of her skull tingled, like a thousand pins and needles, and she let the static flow down her spine, her arm. She felt as much as saw the glow on her fingertips, smelled ozone, heard the snap as they began to spark and sputter into five finger-length electric arcs like a handful of glory.
“I’ve got my own, thanks.”
Light reflected off Davan’s smile as he closed the trunk and picked up the sledge. “Suit yourself. One last thing.” He held the hammer out to her, head pointed at her heart. It could have been a hundred years old, with some old and warn engravings on the both the steel head and the striped wooden handle. Down near the base of the head, where the metal almost seemed to merge with the wood and a dozen years of rust or grime, she made out a tiny cross.
“This is the tool of Johann, who twice-preceded me. It is the hammer of idols and idolaters. Touch it, be known as a true friend, and it will never harm you.”
Moxie reached out one hand, and sparks leapt from her finger tips, tracing the old carvings on the wood and metal. It was cool to the touch, but something in it reminded her of her own bottled lightning.
A desolate For Sale sign swung over the dead brown grass of the lawn, the windows were unboarded and unshuttered. An old house, looted and abandoned by the younger relations. Perfect magnet for teens and tweens. Whatever was in there wouldn’t have even had to go hunting; the children would have come right to the front door, or wherever else they could bust in. A nagging image came to her mind of a mud-brick temple, and a bronze statue whose flaming belly held the charred bones of babies.
On a power line leading into the house perched a murder of crows, staring at the four humans.
Priyanka stared at the house. The Indian woman turned to address them all, and her eyes were black as the crows. “There are people in the house. I can taste their fear. They don’t think they’re alone, but I cannot see what they are afraid of. Justine, can you find it?”
The bubbly blonde took off her glasses. Five razor-thin scars made a raccoon-band across her face, past empty, gaping sockets, and across the bridge of her nose. As Moxie watched, the sockets lit from impossibly deep within. It was like seeing the light from a torch play on the walls of a cave, but not the torch itself.
“No. I can’t fix my Sight on it.”
“We must draw on our link together—to share thoughts and memories, bolster faith, combat illusion, and layer gifts. Davan, you are our hammer and shield; Moxie, you are our purifying flame; Justine and I will guide and protect you as best we can.”
Moxie frowned. “Yeah, okay. Just don’t go poking around in my brain while you’re there.”
“I never have, in any of our incarnations.”
Moxie blinked. For a moment, looking at Priyanka, Davan, and Justine’s ruined face, she saw they all had black crow eyes—and somehow, she knew she did too. Priyanka kept talking.
“I would like you and Davan to enter from the front; Justine and I will circle around the back. Be careful with your spark, but do not fear to use it if you must. Better that we should all burn and take this monster with us.”
Moxie nodded her assent, and the other two women took off to the left around the house. It was weird; she still knew where they were as they walked out of sight, just like she could tell the position of the sun by the heat on the back of her neck. Davan caught her eye with his.
“No telling what’s in there, so you stay behind me ‘til we get to the front door, secret fire or no.” Something edged into his voice, and when he spoke again she heard someone else speaking with him. “I am thy Shield, thy bulwark, martyr to thy cause; the waves shall pound against me and fail, your enemies shall break against me, their teeth and their nails, to fall back with bloody fingers and bloody mouths as old men.”
Hammer in hand, Davan strode forward, eyes straight ahead as he walked across the dead lawn toward the front door. Moxie matched him step for step, a few paces behind, sparks snapping from her fingertips as she called the fire to her, ready at hand.
The door was cheap, badly painted green some yesteryear, and the realtor’s lock box hung from the handle. Davan tried the handle, but it wouldn’t turn. From his pocket he took a curious brass key, inserted it into the lock, and tapped it gently with the head of the hammer a couple times; the key turned in the lock and the door swung free.
“Bump key. Daddy was a locksmith, sorta, taught me the trade.”
Moxie followed Davan into the house, looking for anything. The house wasn’t very dark yet, not with all the windows open and without curtains, but the afternoon sunlight cast long shadows.
The small central room there were in was empty, and led into what might have been a living room. Pale, unstained rectangles on the carpet gave the outline of bookshelves and chairs that hadn’t been moved for thirty years or more, but were now gone. Moxie gave full rein to her senses, looking for any clue, any scent or sound. All she heard was the buzzing crackle at her fingertips, the slight hint of ozone and old dust. Davan looked much the same: tense, alert, eyes and ears drawn to the shadows and the dark corners.
Something about the silence, the shadows, and the dust tickle Moxie’s memory. The whole mood of the thing is like a story she’d read a dozen times before, and was reliving—but the actual memory wouldn’t emerge.
“Hey. How do you…” Moxie started, stopped, kept going. “Remember stuff? From before.”
“Most of the time, I don’t. Not on purpose. Easy to get lost in old lives.”
“There’s something on the tip of my brain. Something about this I’ve seen before. Not me but…well, one of me, one of us.”
“Oh.” Davan motioned that he was going into the next room, the kitchen. Moxie followed. “Mostly, it’s hard to remember anything specific. It’s like…it’s like when you think back to your earliest memory. You’re three or four years old, just a child at your momma’s knee, that kind of thing. Then you think back before that, to what happened before that. That first death is bright and clear, and then you remember what happened before that. You keep going like that, takes a damn long time.”
Moxie followed, listening, thinking. She willed the crackling electric arcs on her left hand to disappear and started checking the cabinets, then stopped and blushed, feeling stupid. Davan didn’t seem to notice, though: he opened the unplugged refrigerator, as if expecting something hiding in there…or worse, trophies.
“For me, it’s like déjà vu. Sometimes I know things, but I don’t know where I know ’em from or how.” Moxie said. “But I go some place and it seems to me I’ve walked there before, can point out where a building or tree or stone stood.”
“You getting any of that now?”
“Yeah. Tip of my brain. An empty house or temple or something, full of broken statues.”
Somewhere in the back of the house, glass broke. An image flashed through their heads of a back room and Moxie and Davan turned as one and headed toward where they felt Priyanka and Justine, moving quick. The women were in the back room, glass from a broken window on the floor. Two teenage boys were laid out on the ground, sleeping, comatose or dead, Moxie had no way to tell, but Justine hovered over them, hands checking pulses, Priyanka covering her with her pistol.
“They are alive.” Priyanka said.
“Not much alive, by my measure.” Justine mumbled. “Weak pulses, sunken eyes, dry lips—they been here for couple days, dehydrated, walking long nightmare roads. We gots to get ‘em out of here right quick.”
“We can carry them out to the car. Davan, Moxie?”
“Not a damn thing, Priya. We didn’t get much of a search on when we heard y’all break in, though.” Davan replied.
“Let’s get to it then. Can you two get them to the car on your own?” Moxie asked. Priyanka nodded her affirmative, tucking her gun and flashlight in her belt and grabbing the first child by the shoulders, but is unable to do more than shift him. Moxie heard Davan sigh and handed his sledge hammer to Justine.
“Priya, darling, I love ya but you got the upper body strength of a girl that can’t throw a softball. Gimme that here. You and Justine keep a watch of the other one ‘til I get back; Moxie you keep searching—yell if you find anything.”
With that, Davan bent down and picked the boy clear off the ground, cradling him in his arms, and headed back toward the kitchen.
Moxie moved through the silent house with her hands in front of her, a Jacob’s ladder of electricity moving up her arms, the creep of familiarity slipping over her again. In what she guessed might have been the master bedroom; a croak came from the closet. Instinctively, she drew her right hand back into a jackal’s head, and the blue-white lightning arched along her wrist like a cobra ready to strike. With her boot, Moxie opened the closet door.
Sitting on a trap door in the floor of the closet was a lone crow. A window stood open in the closet, probably how the bird—and maybe the kids—got in. The beady-eyed black bird croaked again, then flapped up onto the windowsill and looked back at her. Moxie blinked and the black bird was gone. She dared a glance through the window: the murder of crows stared back at her from the trees outside the property line. As she watched, one flew up and landed on the nearest branch, turning around to regard her again.
Moxie looked down at the trap door. Somehow she knew. This is where they came in. A trap door in a place like this—how could they not go down into the dark? The fingers of her right hand curled into her palm, thumb held straight, and the electricty flowed into a fiery spike about a foot long, spitting sparks. With her left hand, Moxie pulled open the trap door.
The basement steps were old, narrow, steep and wooden. Moxie held the lightning-dagger out in front of her, lighting the way.
“Hello Mox.” A smoker’s rasp came out of the shadows. Right in front of her, right where she was looking he stepped out of the darkness and into the light of her spike.
Déjà vu almost overwhelmed her. A face she’s seen in the mirror a thousand times, but it wasn’t her doing the looking, not her memories. They were Hank’s memories. Hank who should be dead.
Hank was as short as she was, but nowhere near as thin. He looked just as she’d last seen him, as he’d last seen himself before the Black Seal consumed him: three days unshaven, sleep deprived and half-starved, leather jacket and black gloves, Stetson drawn low over his brow, grey hair pulled back in a pony tail, black cowboy boots of some reptile leather older than snake or gator, a dozen inverted silver crosses hanging from his neck: silver, iron, copper, and gold chain, here and there studded with glass gems.
He was the one who had the spark before her. She’d felt him die, felt it pass into her, that night. Moxie had lived it herself, the final wrenching spike of iron driven into the chest, the final wound. His heart…she looked at his chest.
Uncle Hank pulled the jacket away to show her the hole, right through his wife beater, the gaping abyss in his chest. Moxie could see the fragments of bone. Some ember burned down there, in place of beating muscle, and out of the wound a trickle of black smoke worked its way out and toward the ceiling.
“It’s a hell of a sight, ain’t it? My dolorous stroke.” Hank says to her. “I tell you something else that’s a hell of a thing: when you go down at the last, like you’re supposed to, for the last time. Knowing you’ve done right what you’re supposed to, that the secret fire will be kindled in another heart. You make your peace.” His accent is just as it was, a bit of Texas, a bit of Oklahoma.
Hank let his jacket drop back, covering the hole. Moxie could see clearer now in the dark, saw how the thin smoke wreathed him, emanated from him, seeping out of every orifice and pore.
“I saw you, when you was seeing me die. Nobody ever told me about that, Mox. Might be nobody ever knew. I was glad it was you who got it.”
“You’re dead, Hank.” Moxie says. “I felt you die. This is a trick.”
“No trick, little girl.” Hank whispers. “No lies. I was dying then, you and me both felt it. My spark leapt into you. I can feel it crackle up and down your spine.”
Hank stepped forward, left hand raised, the last two fingers missing from an old encounter with a ghost rider out in Arkansas. His mutilated hand closed in on Moxie’s lightning spike, as if he wanted to feel the heat. Small sparks shot off the blade, landing on his hand, sucked up into him.
“Stay back, Hank” Moxie said, voice shaking a little. “I don’t know what you are, but don’t you take a damn step closer.”
“All our life we hunt monsters, or been hunted by them. We wade through blood and misery all our days so others won’t have to. I wrestled with the dark and burned it down to ashes, and as I lay there dying I knew I was going to hell.”
“Shut up uncle Hank.” Moxie gritted her teeth and poured current into the spike, willing it brighter to push the specter of him away, but he just seemed to drink it in.
“Don’t shush me little girl. I felt the tug of hell on my soul.” Hank said in a parental tone, his one good eye catching hers. “And so will you, I reckon. We do evil to do good—murder and thieve and every other little sin—and we don’t ask forgiveness, ‘cause we reckon we’re righteous folk. We call ourselves saints, but we’re sinners as black as some of them things we put down.”
Hank’s mauled hand almost closed on the bright construct, the tame lightning sucked into his flesh. Something like a sigh escaped his lips. Somewhere up above, Moxie heard the trap door shut. She backed against the stairs, and a bony grip caught her left wrist.
“They try to block it out, in the memories. They try to kill the stories, of those who fall. As I lay on my dying bed, something came and whispered those stories to me, of tainted blood and black saints”
Moxie felt the smoke thicken around her, smelt it, tasted it, eyes stinging—oil, cordite, brimstone, and a touch of the grave.
“I had no power left, it had all gone into you. I was promised, after the smokeless fire deserted me, I would become filled with another flame. To be something more, or maybe less, than a saint, if I could claim it. Because I was a grandchild of the fallen.”
Moxie hand shook as Hank’s grip closed on the spike, shrouding them both in darkness, and for the first time since she’d felt him die, the crackling power left her, leaving nothing but an emptiness in her skull.
“No!” Moxie screamed.
“And so are you.”
Moxie screamed. It seemed to go on for a long, long time. She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t even tell if she was still making a sound. Her gut ached, tense, diaphragm still trying to push air out, and her lungs burned. The smoke was all around her, in her, crawling in through her mouth, her nose, up her sinuses. Her eyes were screwed so tight it pained her, tears forced their way out and left trails on her cheeks. Ears pounded with the staccato beat of her heart. And still she tried to scream.
Something brought her out of herself. Moxie. She could hear Priyanka, in her head. Moxie could still feel the pain, the loneliness, the fear, but it was apart from her now. You need to open your eyes now.
And she did.
Flashlight beams burn down from the trap door overhead, and Moxie saw herself gripped by a skeletal fetus wreathed in black, oily smoke, clawed hands on her stomach. It shrank from the light, screaming. Holding the sledge two-handed before him, Davan clambered down the stairs toward her. Moxie shook, not in fear now, but in rage.
A corona of smokeless fire began to writhe around Moxie’s head, and sparking snakes of white lightning shot from her eyes and mouth toward the smoke-ghost. Justine had her glasses off and from her gouged-out eyes came an impossibly pure, supernaturally bright light. In an unseen corner, where she had not noticed it before, the beam outline a brown clay idol or censer—a squat toad-shape with pendulous breasts and a pregnant, bowl-like belly belching forth the oily, noxious black smoke. Next to it was the small, dried-out corpse of a little girl, a grey corpse in a pink snowjacket and jeans. Moxie remembered another child, another corpse, in a hall of broken statues.
The smoke ghost fled away from her storm halo, back toward its clay womb. Lightning seared its black bones, consumed its smoking body in mid-air until the last fragment, the child-like ebon skull managed to fall into the yawning clay pit/belly of the idol.
Davan raised his hammer, lambent with its own flame now, muscles and tendons standing out as he pushed himself past mere human limits. Justine held her flashlight steady, eyes burning from within. The hammer fell, crashing through domed bone and statuette alike, and there was an almighty crack of flame and thunder that broke the idol in two and shook the house. Up above, Moxie could hear the crows fly away.
The hammer had opened a black hole into the floor, and as he raised the head a cold, foul wind pushed through the room, sucking the pieces down into it. Then the air was still, and it was just a cracked and broken pit in the concrete floor.
“In the old cities,” Priyanka spoke “the Allu grew bloated in power, until they set themselves up as gods. Later they diminished, and became incarnate in man-made vessels, that would sequester and hide them. I thought their hiding places all shattered.”
Justine, shades back on, laid her hands on Moxie’s shoulders, whose storm halo had diminished to a bare glow. “It’s okay honey. It’s gonna be okay. It’s over now. We need to get them two boys back to their own folks now, and out of town ‘fore the police come round.”
“Yeah, okay.” Moxie sniffed.
“What did you see?”
Moxie could feel stupid, warm tears on her face, cutting through the soot left by the black smoke.
“My uncle, Hank. Sortof. He wasn’t really my uncle, but he used to sleep with my mom sometimes and—he’s dead now.”
“Hank Elvisson? I remember him. Fought the Black Seal at that power station in Atlanta. A fearsome and bloody saint.” Davan said.
“He—it—said we’re tainted. Fallen.”
“Lies to induce fear and self-doubt. To weaken you, and draw strength from your fears. It was very old, and has faced us before. I see, in your half-memories, you have fought it off many times, and it remembered you more clearly than you remembered it.”
Priyanka said, pulling a blue and black handkerchief out of a pocket. She wiped Moxie’s face, mother-like.
“The Black Saints are a myth, a dark rumor you have heard again and again throughout your incarnations. We lead unnatural lives, but we are still human. We are flawed and imperfect vessels for the memories and forces we carry. The fear elemental capitalized on that. That is all.”
Priyanka finished wiping Moxie’s face and stuffed the handkerchief back in her pocket. “Now we have to follow the darkness again.”