Crone

That crazy bitch said seven.

Seven of them, but she didn’t say which seven. She didn’t say where they were or how to find them!

Fuck!

Why did everything have to be so damn cryptic? He hated all the mysticism and bullshit.

Peter recalled that conversation, the last normal conversation he’d had. “Seven Devils, boy. You have to kill them all at once, or they come back.” She laughed, sticking her bony finger in his face.

“What the hell are you pointing at?” He slapped at the finger, but she was too quick. Old age had taken nothing but her looks away from her.

“I can see them,” she cackled. The last three teeth in her head were black. The urge to strangle the life out of her was overwhelming.

“I can’t see them. How can I kill what I can’t see?” he spat back at her.

“No, you choose not to see them, but they see you.” Her laughter became hysterics, her eyes watered as she cawed. She pushed back from the table trying to stand. Her back arched with decades of arthritis and rough living.

“We’re not done here!” Peter slammed his fist on the table. The crystal in the center bounced out of its holder and rolled to the edge, but it didn’t fall. The damned thing stopped itself as if out of pure defiance.

The old woman whirled around so fast, Peter saw nothing but a blur of black fabric. She pointed her gnarled finger at him again. “Don’t upset the glass, boy. There are worse things in there than your ill-tempered petulance.” She waddled back and picked up the ball, caressing its smooth surface like a lover.

“You want to rid yourself of them, you need to start from within,” she squawked, leaving the tent from the back.

Peter’s rage took hold and he stood, tossing the table aside as if it were made of balsa. He stormed after her; he was going to have another victim!

The old woman whipped around the flap where she’d left and made contact with his skull, using only that damned finger. Peter fell on his ass. His teeth smacked down on his lip, and he tasted blood.

The old woman hovered into view as Peter’s vision cleared.

“I didn’t say we were finished, boy. Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s impolite to wander through someone’s tent smashing their things?” She was an inch from his face now and he could smell the stench of those three rotting teeth.

“Take this box and hold it until midnight. Open it on the stroke of twelve and not a second before or you’ll regret it.” The old woman dropped the box into his lap. The pain was immediate. The box was ironwood and whatever was inside felt like it weighed a ton.

“Midnight and not a second before, if you know what’s good for you, now get out!” She cradled the ball in her arms and waddled back out of the tent mumbling something. He didn’t know what it was; he couldn’t speak the language but he had an idea it was derogatory.

Peter picked himself up and took hold of the box. For a moment, he had a strong urge to leave it on the floor and take off, but it passed and he walked out to his motorcycle. The bike was a used piece of shit he’d bartered for when he arrived. He needed a fast getaway; if all else failed, he’d ride all night.

He left the Wanderer’s encampment the way he’d come in; with no answers and the urge to kill seething from his fingertips.

Peter glanced at the horizon. It was well past noon, heading into dusk, and he needed to lock himself in somewhere or there wouldn’t be anything left of this old bitch or her family by sun up. The urge to kill rippled through him as he mounted the bike. This had to stop.

Peter kicked the old bike into life. Smoke billowed from the tailpipe. He hoped the bike would make it the hundred miles to his rented place before dark.

As the desert tore past him, he let his mind wander. How many had he killed so far? More than he wanted to count, but he forced himself to. He needed to stay in control of whatever this was long enough to lock himself in before he convinced himself to ride back to the camp site and…

The sound around him faded to quiet and the wind buffeting his face didn’t seem as strong. When he looked at the gauges, he broke into a cold sweat. He’d only gone twenty miles when the bike’s engine stalled. He’d never make it back in time.

All the killings played on in his head. At first, they were like a slide show; pictures without sounds, but then the images started to quicken. The slide show gave way to a stilted projection film; a shitty 8mm movie.

He watched as each successive murder got more brutal, more imaginative. Peter screamed and slammed his hands over his eyes waiting for the horror reel to stop. It didn’t stop. Hundreds of organs were ripped out, necks broken, faces torn off. Peter fell onto the desert hardpan, writhing and screaming at the horror. He blacked out.

***

Peter came to, slowly. His eyes opened and he could taste desert in his throat. Grit coated his face and hair. It took a minute to realize his eyes were open. Stars began to appear slowly as his eyes adjusted. He hadn’t made it to the cage in the rented house.

Peter tensed, remembering the horror film that had played over and over in his head and waited for the terrible images to start up.

No images came but the old woman’s words did. The memory of the box did.

Peter found the bike and the box and began to walk. The urge to kill was still there.

The night crept forward and he walked with his head down, waiting for the moment when he couldn’t control his impulse anymore, his devils.

The last conversation he had echoed back in his head. “…all Seven Devils, all at once.”

He’d have to find and kill them quickly but he hadn’t even figured out what they were. Something was tormenting him, pushing him to take another person’s life with no excuses and no apologies. He hated himself every minute of every day for it and he was powerless to stop.

As Peter walked deeper into the desert he felt  control slipping. He decided that if the sun peaked over the horizon and he hadn’t figured out where these seven devils were, he’d kill himself. He’d use the ironwood box and smash himself over the head or leap off a mesa. He’d run straight at the edge, close his eyes and let go.

Hours passed and Peter walked. The images returned but they were low compared to the bloodlust he felt. His legs hurt but he kept on walking, head down. He started to mumble to himself but he didn’t know when.

His sanity slipped away with each passing step. The urge to find someone to kill and the need for this to be over pulled in equal measure.

The end was coming, one way or the other. He looked out at the dark background for a place to jump and saw nothing. He didn’t know what time it was.

He stopped walking and held the box out. Something in him screamed to drop it, run for the encampment, but he held onto it as if his life depended on it.

The old crone’s voice spoke up over the babble, “Open it boy, and see what’s inside.” She cackled, echoing across the desert.

Peter opened the box and stared. It held a gun and a single bullet. What the fuck was he supposed to do with one bullet?

“You said seven, you bitch!”

“Seven indeed, boy. It’ll come to you if you want it to,” she said, not unkindly.

Peter looked at the gun in the box and then at the bullet. It wasn’t silver and appeared normal, but the math didn’t work. He had to kill seven of something with one bullet.

He plucked the bullet out of the box and then the gun. He threw the box to the ground and glared at the solution, not seeing it yet.

How the hell was he supposed to… His thought trailed off. The voices all stopped and so did the images. The emptiness was staggering and he took a step back.

Peter laughed.

“You said seven, you old bitch.” Peter laughed again. He laughed until his eyes watered.

“It starts from within,” he said and looked for the moon. It was time.

A single gunshot echoed across the flat desert land as seven devils died, all at once, altogether.

~ Christopher A. Liccardi

© Copyright Christopher A. Liccardi. All Rights Reserved.

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Place of Beauty

In shards the morning broke, shattering high, high above the gunshot reports, the torches, the thick plumes of smoke.

She watched them fall like black drops of rain in the distance. First came a crack, echoing like faraway thunder, then their plummet. Crack, then plummet.

The plate slipped from her soapy fingers into the bubbly grave of the sink. Beyond the grimy pane, beyond the flaked paint of the porch, swaddled by butterfly weeds and Echinaceas, her daughter sat, ruddy cheeks tilted toward the sky. “Isabella,” she gasped, tossing the wet rag aside. “Isabella!”

Her little girl could not hear her. Crack, then plummet.

Crack!

She turned, ran, bare heels squeaking like frightened mice atop the wood. Through the dining room, down the hall; sunlight traipsed from the front door, beckoning just paces away. Each gunshot shook her skull. She burst onto the porch, mid-July scathing inside her lungs.

Silos jutted, arthritic fingers against the horizon, from the flat expanse of land. She tracked the figures, so frantic in the sky, weaving and dipping like grand bats. Her mind raced as she crouched low in the meadow, summoning her daughter. “Isa, come.”

Her little girl paid no mind. Chubby fingers marked the descent of each black drop, tracing the sky. Crack! Her tender folds involuntarily shuddered.

A shrilling—high-pitched like that of a hawk, but full of desperation; human at some point in its life.  Its violent death roll cut the air, spiraling, spiraling away from its pack. No further than fifty yards from the porch, it slammed the ground, mowing a swath through the meadow.

Rallying to it, the keen barking of a dog.

She hurried to her daughter. The toddler tilted her head, all smiles, all giggles. Too young still to comprehend. “You will stay here for Momma.” She spoke slow, measured. “Do you understand?” Without waiting for an answer, she crept away.

It bleated weakly, lost amidst the grass, the strangled mewls answered by the nearing bark in turn.  She propelled forward, nearly upon all fours, the distressed utterances serving as her beacon call. Bees roused, lifting from the stalks and buds, seeking further riches from summer. Memories of childhood invaded her nose; so simple then, the pollen rich fragrance of sky, the honey glaze of sun. Her own parents had given her up much too early. Wisps of shadows they had become—their touch, their guiding voice mere ghosts. She wished no such thing for her Isabella, but knew now it was too late.

At last, she reached it. Gasping atop the matted butterfly weed, its blood soaked the ground. Upon its back it writhed, bald skull lifting up against the dome of summer, back down, laden with an agony it once doubted could exist.

A bloody bubble popped from the corner of its mouth. It sensed her presence. Upside down, slit eyes locked onto her own. She saw the wound, an angry hole straight through its sagging, bare breast. The perennials trembled; the retriever burst through the swath then, as was its inherent duty, clamped its jaws around the hag’s neck.

The retriever dug its hindquarters into soft earth, hauling its prey back to its master. She lunged, seized the snout, pried open its jaws, allowing it no fight. A savage twist; its muscles went limp. She pushed the heap of fur aside. “I cannot help you further, not now, not without jeopardizing us all. Lay still, and I will return for you.” She took its gnarled fingers within her own. “Forgive me, sister.”

The hag nodded.

She dashed back toward her Isa, aware that the exerted breath of man would soon be chasing behind. Her little girl waited diligently, as instructed. In seamless fashion, she scooped the child into her arms, ran full out without breaking stride. Gunshots, screams; mid-July succumbed all around her. Ahead, the porch; thirty yards, twenty. A husky command echoed; a taunt. Crack! The air whistled above her shoulder. The top step of the porch exploded, slivers of wood and paint.

The front door waited, still ajar. She took the steps, then up onto the porch, splinters pricking her toes. Across her threshold, as the door jamb disintegrated loudly beside her. Instinctively, she pulled Isabella against her chest. “My precious little bean, you must know that we are condemned by man.” She ran through the house, the rooms, the hall, straight toward the back door. “They see us as abominations.”

She threw the door open to a green expanse. There, twisting skyward in the middle of the glade, a solitary tree. “But all things of nature have their place of beauty, my love.” She traveled the distance, rounding the far side of the tree. From within her home carried the ransacking fury of the hunter.

The trunk rose, thick and noble, bark twining in cords around a darkened hollow. Within this, she placed her child, but not before kissing each cheek. “The Ancients will raise you now,” lips lingered upon tender flesh, “then you will emerge stronger than even me, my Isa.” Away the tree swallowed her, and the child was gone.

From the trunk protruded a long, slender knob, identical to a spear, driven at its end to a sharpened point. She retrieved the offering from the tree. As the hunter closed the expanse, she sidestepped into view, driving the pike through his throat, clearing the body of head. The torso ran several paces, then dropped.

Propping the spear against the tree, she slipped free from her clothes. The safety of her coven compromised, her sisters needed her now. Someday soon, her daughter as well. Again she took the spear, straddled it, relishing the power upon her sex. Then she commanded the sky; the still gaping head lay impotently upon the ground.

Mid-July bled until no man shared the whispers of the High Priestess. Or her slaughter.

~ Joseph A. Pinto

© Copyright 2017 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

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