In with the New

Posted: January 8, 2016 in Fiction
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The first story of 2016 was inspired by a prompt stipulating a setting of “Weird West”. Thinking on that, I came up with “Memento Vitae”:

    The desert of this new land reminded her of her home and that was the only thing she liked about it. All about her stretched red, sandy wastes covered in low scrub and strange, spiny plants that the natives called “cacti”. These passed by at blur as she looked out the dirty glass pane of the train car’s window, and in the skies above she could see hawks and vultures wheeling lazily as they rode the rising, hot air.

    Within the passenger car, she could feel the overly-curious and half-hidden stares that her fellow passengers gave her, but those were something – like the oddities of fashion, invention, and society – to which Vicky had tried to grow accustomed. “Vicky” was not her true name, she knew that deep in her bones, but the appellation was much like the plaster and leather mask that covered her face: a thing of convenience. Idly, she flexed one of her gloved hands and kept her dark eyes pointed out at the desert that passed by, forcing the self-conscious thoughts that buzzed within her awareness – “Gaping commoners! How dare they stare at me so?!” “They see the wraps and think me injured, disfigured.” “If only my king were with me…” – into the back of her mind. They served her no useful purpose, and like any useless servant they were to be brooked no mercy.

    It was several minutes later when Vicky realized that she was gently stroking the handle of one of her holstered revolvers with her left thumb, the object a dull and distant sensation through the leather of her glove. Frowning as much as she could behind the mask and linen wraps, she made a small sound of displeasure and rose from her seat, making her way to the back of the car, her hands absently smoothing her bolero jacket, vest, blouse, and canvas trousers. She had nowhere to go, though: the passenger car had no corridor or doors to the rest of the train. Instead, Vicky simply leaned against the car’s rear wall, arms crossed over her chest, and stared forward.

    After several long moments any of the passengers who had been gawking averted their eyes and busied themselves with such distractions as newspapers or needlepoint pieces. After several more minutes, even Vicky grew bored and lowered the brim of her hat, casting her gaze and mask in shadow, as she closed her eyes. She didn’t sleep, she didn’t dream. She simply felt the pull that drew her forward, drew her westward. The pull resonated in her heart and chest, vibrating like a deep, bass chord. Vicky meditated upon it, feeling it grow incrementally stronger as the miles passed under the train’s wheels.

     Sooner than she would have expected, Vicky felt the train’s speed begin to slow. She heard the squeal of the brakes.

    Vicky opened her eyes and pushed off from the wall, seeing the waning sunlight casting long shadows through the car. She moved smoothly and sinuously forward to where her seat had been, pulling her simple duffel bag down from the rack. She adjusted the long braid of black hair she had coiled loosely on her shoulders as she hefted the bag up and made for the passenger car’s door. It opened a moment later, a somewhat shocked conductor taking a step back on the platform as he saw the masked and imposing Vicky standing directly in front of him.

    “My apologies…madam,” he said, sounding rather flustered.

    “Think nothing of it,” Vicky replied, her voice rough and slightly muffled behind the mask. She stepped down from the train and once on the same level with the conductor, found herself a half-head shorter than the man. Even with the disparity in height, the man took another few steps back, tipping his cap minutely out of instinctual politeness as Vicky moved past him.

    The rigid codes of conduct and enforced deference toward women was one of the few things that had pleased Vicky about this era once she had gotten past the culture shock that had accompanied her awakening. It had afforded her much latitude in her pursuits.

    The town of Miller’s Crossing was smaller than some of the cities she’d passed through in the eastern reaches of this land and the rainy island of England. But, that meant it was generally cleaner and the air less choked with smoke and factory fumes. She walked down the boardwalk that lined one side of the main street that ran through the town, her gaze flicking through the windows of various businesses and stores, until she came to the stables adjacent to the town’s most prominent inn. Vicky bypassed the hotel, instead immediately entering the barn where she found a man grooming a large, palomino courser. She came to a stop just within the open doors of the barn.q

    “Hostler, I require a horse,” Vicky rasped.

    He was a dark-haired man of what Vicky had learned was known as “Italian” stock, his frame lean but powerful in clothes dirty with aged dust and sweat. The hostler paused in his brushing of the horse and cast a glance at her with a crooked eyebrow across the yards between them. “Come again, ma’am?” he asked with a slight accent to his words.

    “I want to buy a horse,” Vicky stated, speaking louder to counter the muffling effect of the mask. Though there were times, like this, that she felt frustrated by the thing and wished to be rid of it, but she knew that wearing it was a necessity should she continue to operate with any freedom in this new world.

    “Si, I can sell you a horse,” the hostler said. “What kind do you want?”

    Vicky reached into her vest and withdrew her leather wallet, opening it and pulling out some of the larger denominations of printed paper that these foreigners used as currency. “Your freshest one, ready to ride.”

    The eyebrow remained arched. “Now? Ma’am, you would not want to get caught out in the desert at night. The coyotes alone–”

    “How I spend my evenings is my business,” Vicky interrupted him, holding out the money. “The horse, please.”

    The man looked from her – from her mask, she reminded herself – to the paper bills in her hand, then back to her mask. He shrugged. “Fine. I warned you.”

    The hostler turned, setting the brush he’d been using down on a nearby stool, before walking down the length of the barn to another stall. The man lead a black palfrey down to her and before they were within three yards of where Vicky stood, the horse began to rear gently, neighing in a way that communicated its unease. The hostler calmed the horse, casting a suspicious glance toward Vicky once the beast was quieted but saying nothing, and brought it the remaining distance. He took the proffered bills from her gloved hand, replacing them with the reins. The horse made more sounds of disquiet before Vicky laid her other hand gently upon its muzzle and whispering indistinctly.

    “This is too much, ma’am,” the hostler said.

    “I will also need a saddle,” Vicky said. Though she was quite capable of riding bareback, she had come to appreciate the practicality of using a saddle. The hostler grunted and disappeared into the recesses of the barn for a few moments before returning with both a saddle and blanket, which he strapped onto the palfrey. Once that was accomplished, Vicky secured her duffle to the back of the saddle and swung up into it, wordlessly spurring the horse into a trot as the hostler watched her ride out toward the sunset.

    The moon was a quarter of the way through its heavenly journey when Vicky felt the deep bass thrum in her chest drop an octave.

    She was close.

    Letting the palfrey rest on a ridge overlooking the cold, night-darkened desert, Vicky could see the flicker of a campfire on the horizon.

    There. He was there.

    It had taken her nearly two years, but she had finally tracked down the thief.

    Nodding minutely to herself in quiet resolution, Vicky reached up behind her and undid the leather cords that held the mask to her face, turning slightly in the saddle to stow it securely within her duffle. After that, she delicately removed the glass eyes from her sockets, placing them within the breast pocket of her blouse for safe keeping. She stared out at the horizon, her hollow eye sockets fixed upon the glimmer of firelight in the distance, as she drew one of her revolvers from its holster. The light of the full moon glimmered off of the steel and illuminated the dark, desiccated skin of Vicky’s face, her brown teeth inadvertently bared in a feral grin due to the tightened skin pulling her lips back, her long empty eyes shrouded in shadow beneath her brow.

    After a long moment, she gently prodded the palfrey with her booted heel, guiding it warily down the ridge.

    As she rode, Vicky’s mind drifted back to that night almost two years prior when she had woken from her long sleep. The process of waking had been disorienting and confusing, not the least of which because she was not in her tomb. Her memories were a blur but she remembered several men in a large room around her, their hands full of her grave goods, and her own name – her true name – on the tip of her tongue before it was gone. She had wandered, the men’s screams of terror and their hurried flight from where her sarcophagus had lain dim echoes within her memory, until she had come upon Ignatius. Her now trusted servant had been but a young scribe of some kind, working within the monumental building filled with curiosities and treasures to which she and her goods had been taken. Once she had been able to force her way past his fear, he had dutifully aided her in escaping the building and acclimating to the alienness around her.

    It had been Ignatius who had given her her name. “You have a nose like the Queen’s,” he’d observed distantly as she had rested in his apartments. From there, he’d smuggled some of her possessions out when he could — some she needed to maintain her current state, others were sold to provide usable wealth. While her memories of the night of her awakening were blurred, her memories of her life before being entombed was fragmentary at best. She remembered being a ruler, she remembered her husband – her king – but not his name. Or her own.

    Ignatius had stayed behind on the dreary and pluvial island while Vicky had travelled on, following the thrumming of her ib ever westward for the men who had stolen those objects most valuable to her.

    A hundred yards from the campfire’s light, Vicky dismounted and tied the palfrey’s reins to an ancient and gnarled tree before continuing on foot. She unholstered the other revolver, both guns gripped loosely in her gloved hands as her boots tread softly across the dirt. The soft plucking of a guitar’s chords reached her ears when she’d walked half of the distance and she thumbed back the hammers of both pistols.

    “Thieves!” Vicky’s raspy voice roared out of the darkness, eliciting movement from three of the five figures she could see arrayed about the fire, their silhouettes bolting upright from where’d they’d been lying upon the ground.

    “The Hell–?!” she heard a man’s voice call as the lazy guitar playing suddenly ceased. “Who’s the there?”

    “Give me what is mine!” Vicky replied, raising both barrels in a tracking motion as the silhouettes around the campfire rose to their feet.

    “Oh, God!” she heard one man on the far side of the fire cry in an accent similar to Ignatius’. “It’s that Egyptian demon!”

    “GIVE ME WHAT IS MINE!” Vicky roared, her voice like the howling of a sandstorm. She saw more of the men move but before they could draw their own weapons fully, both of her revolvers blossomed fire and thunder ripped asunder the still, night air. Two of the men’s heads simply exploded in a misty spray of blood and bone, their bodies falling lifelessly to the dirt before Vicky thundered forth death once more. One man screamed and spun as a bullet ripped into his left shoulder, the force knocking him onto the fire, which elicited more screams of pain as he attempted to roll off and put out the flames that now ate at his clothing and skin. The man who had recognized her screamed in terror and she watched him stumble his way out of the fire’s light into the nighted desert as Vicky continued implacably forward. Her guns roared again and again as she fired, and though the other men fired back at her, she felled them as though they were nothing more than paltry game birds.

    As she passed through the camp, she holstered the revolver in her left hand as she fired her last round into the head of the man who’d fallen on the fire, silencing him. She flicked the cylinder of her remaining revolver out and let the spent shells tumble onto the earth below her as casually followed the fleeing survivor, feeling the overwhelming thrum of her ib pulling her toward him. She reloaded, keeping her eyeless gaze upon the dark silhouette of the coward has he ran, and when finished raised the revolver and carefully aimed before squeezing the trigger.

    One more thunder clap erupted in the still night air of the desert, followed by a terrified cry of pain. He was trying to crawl, his fingers clawing at the hard and rough earth of the desert, as she came upon him. Vicky cocked back the hammer of her revolver as she stepped on his left calf, placing her weight upon the bullet wound she had put there. He screamed in pain again and stopped his futile crawling, instead curling up into as much of a ball as he could.

    “Give it to me,” she said, her voice dry and rough.

    The man blindly dug through an inner pocket of his coat and tossed a small bundle, barely larger than her palm, at her. “Take it! Take it!” he cried out fearfully, not even looking at her. “Just let me live!”

    Bending, a movement which placed more pressure on the man’s leg wound and elicited a hissing whimper from him, Vicky picked up the bundle and felt the hum of the power it contained with her gloved fingertips. Opening it, she gasped inaudibly as moonlight fell upon a small, golden falcon – its wings stretched out to either side – with a regal woman’s head.

    Her ba.

    Carefully, Vicky discarded the cloth the man had wrapped around it and unbuttoned a portion of her blouse slipping her hand inside and tucking the golden amulet securely between some of the linen wrappings over her breast bone. Immediately, she stumbled backwards several steps, her head light and dizzy as power washed over her in the darkness.

    “Neferu,” she whispered softly as she regained her bearings. “My name…is Neferu.”

    Her gaze rose from the earth at her feet as the intuitive knowledge washed over her, toward the man who lay in the dirt a few steps away.

    “Where is the rest of me that you filth stole?” she asked harshly. “My jars – where are they?!”

    “Please, don’t kill me! Please! Please!” the man babbled.

    Growling in frustration, she crossed over to the man and bent down, gripping the front of his shirt in her gloved fist and lifting him easily from the ground, possessing a strength now belied by her small and desiccated form. “The jars!” she rasped angrily, shoving the barrel of her revolver up under the man’s chin.

    “New York!” he cried out deliriously. “And San Francisco! And-and…Havana! They were sold to private buyers. Please, that’s all I know! Don’t kill me.”

    She frowned as much as she could at that, though her lips lifted into the semblance of a wicked smile as the words of a heka drifted unbidden into her mind. “No,” she hissed softly. “No. You won’t…die…”

    And then she pulled the trigger.

    The rosy light of Ra was beginning to touch the eastern horizon by the time the spell was finished and she had made her way back to the palfrey. Vicky – who was Neferu, but the woman was mindful of how powerful true names could be, especially to one in a state like hers – hissed in annoyance to see that the horse had been shot by accident during the firefight and had bleed out over the preceding hours.

    “Come, Hm,” she croaked after removing her duffle and donning both her glass eyes and mask once more. “We have much travel ahead of us.”

    Vicky made for the direction of Miller’s Crossing and in her wake shuffled the mostly-headless corpse of the cowardly thief.

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