Cowboy King: Chapter 0 – The Black Carriage
The moon rose over the land, looking like nothing more than a silver dollar from some far off land. Its most prominent crater was sharply defined that night, looking like the eye of a great, predatory bird scanning the parched landscape for prey.
There was prey out and running that night, but it wasn’t the moon that was hunting it.
Dressed in a care-worn tweed suit and Sunday go-to-meeting shoes that had no business out on the prairie, a man topped one hill and half leapt, half slid down it, stumbling the whole way. The tick-thorn weeds had shredded his pants up to the calf along with the black socks underneath, leaving shallow, bleeding cuts on his tan skin. The brass and silver pocket watch, the symbol of his office, thumped against his hip as it swung from its chain.
Fear made him ignore the wounds and mounting fatigue. He didn’t know where he was going, where he was, or even where he could go if he knew that. Even screaming seemed futile now, even if he could muster the breath. All he knew was that he couldn’t stop running or else he would die.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, he pounded out of the thicket of tick-thorn weed and onto the relatively sparse plain beyond. There was another rise a few dozen yards ahead, and in the distance, glowing in the moonlight, the foothills of the San Mara Quero Mountains. Maybe, just maybe he could reach them and hide out up there…
Behind him, the sound of wheels on bad terrain grew louder alongside the sound of hoofbeats. There was no urgency to either of them.
At length, a carriage, drawn by a pair of dappled gray mares in full Toria-style livery and black-plumed champrons gained the hill. It was double the normal length for a carriage and black; the color lacquered onto its surface until it gleamed in the moonlight. Just behind it, a man on a bay gelding also reached the top of the hill.
He was dressed in shades of brown: a long, dark coat and chaps over lighter pants and vest, all tailored for riding hard. His boots were worn, but well maintained, and the wide brim of his hat was creased slightly to one side to keep it out of his eyes.
The shutters over the carriage’s side window opened and a few words were exchanged between one of the passengers and the rider before they snapped shut again.
With a nod, the rider pulled a long rifle from the holster attached to his saddle, leveled it, and fired. The sharp crack of the shot echoed from miles around, shattering the tranquility of the desert. The man in tweed collapsed where he’d been standing at the top of the next rise. Gravity took things from there, and he tumbled down the other side and out of sight.
A short curse issued from the carriage. The driver, a man in all-black so that he blended into the coach in the gloom of night, snapped the reigns again, sending the horses on their way once more.
A short while later on the other side of the hill, the harsh spotlight of a bullseye lantern swept the far hillside, following the telltale trails in the loose earth where something like a body might have tumbled down. Its path ended in a bramble patch thriving in the shaded space between that hill and the next.
The man in tweed’s corpse had landed in them and in his death throes, become tangled in them.
“Ugh.” said a voice from behind the carriage’s shutters, drawling in a rich baritone. “Get him out of there and be careful about it. He’s no good to me torn up.”
With a grunt of acknowledgment, the rider dismounted, never letting the light of his lantern to leave the body. His boots kicked up puffs of dust as he hit the ground heavily. When he started forward though, he kicked up not a speck and hardly made a sound, belying his bulk. He moved like a mountain cat, all power and deadly grace even though the prey he was approaching was already dead.
After a moment of silence, the voice spoke from the carriage again. “Wilson. Get it ready.”
“Yes sir.” the carriage driver—Wilson’s voice was thinned by age but cultured, the voice of a nobleman’s valet, not a man who skulked about the arid night partaking in nefarious deeds. Whatever age was in his voice, evidently wasn’t in his body, as he jumped down from the driver’s seat with ease and moved around to the back of the carriage.
Unlike the rider, he could have been heard a mile away by a skilled ear even before he began to jangle the iron locks on the carriage’s rear doors. Soon enough, the doors added their own complaints to the desert air. Joining the noise were smells: wood polish, burnt spice, hot metal and a subtle underlying hint of grave dirt.
The latter was especially appropriate because the rear compartment of the carriage contained a coffin. This was no cheap pine box like the folks in any of the little frontier settlements would all one day find themselves in. In fact, it was nicer than most of the mayors and land barons could hope for in that blighted territory. The wood was cherry, sanded to perfect smoothness and stained dark. There were polished brass handles and hinges with accents of pure silver along the edges.
Wilson pulled back his hood to see better, exposing white hair growing long around his ears—too long to be fashionable back in Toria—and a thick, bushy mustache to the moonlight. He reached beneath the casket and pulled out two iron pins that attached to the floor on thin chains, freeing the thick, oak plank the casket was sitting to move freely on the rollers beneath it.
With the help of the rollers, it took only his own strength to pull the casket out of the back of the carriage. Just pas the halfway point, the plank tilted down, allowing the casket’s bottom edge to rest on the ground while the rest was elevated at an angle, the top even with the coach’s roof.
On the front of the casket, at chest level with whoever the occupant might be, was a complex clockwork of brass, copper and iron, the front piece worked into the shape of a snake, its jaws open and ready to devour its own tail, thus completing the infinity symbol its body formed. There was a brass plate beneath the clockwork assembly with a hole in it surrounded by angular letters from an alphabet not native to the Territories or Toria.
Wilson was careful not to look too closely at those. Every time he did, he heard of saw things just at the edges of his sense that made him uneasy.
He looked around the corner of the carriage and was nearly blinded by the light from the bullseye lantern. The rider was returning, the lamp hooked to his belt so it faced forward and the dead man over his shoulder. As he came closer, the door to the carriage stung open.
Duke Beretta’s physique made the rider’s look skinny by comparison. Between his broad shoulders and wide chest, he had to come out the door sideways. His boots were huge, thick soled and meticulously well looked after, befitting a man of his stature and reputation. Tonight he wore simple trousers of white cotton, white shirt with a black bolo tie, no vest, and a white, suit coat.
He was hatless, his thick, dark hair long and done in sausage curls like a Torian pirate, complete with a luxurious black beard and mustaches. In one beefy hand, he carried a cane of ebony wood, topped with an opal in a silver setting.
He turned dark eyes toward the rider, then looked up at the moon, hooking his thumbs in his best to the sides of the huge, silver buckle depicting crescent moons surrounding a snake eating its tail. “How bad is he, Slade?”
Jonas Slade, the rider shook his head. “Scratches. Hands tore up a bit. Not bad.” That said, he continued on around to the rear of the carriage in silence.
Beretta grunted in mocking imitation to Slade’s usual mode of expression, then stepped away from the carriage door, extending a hand to his fellow passenger. “Come on now, Miss Ophelia. Time for you t’ earn your keep.”
The woman that appeared at the carriage’s door was a lovely specimen: petite, pale, and with her raven hair pinned back so severely as to seem painful. Her green eyes seemed just a bit too large for her head, giving her a look of innocence. She wore a fine dress of sky blue with a white bodice and long, white gloves that reached almost to her shoulders. A thin, steel chain was fitted close around her neck, holding a steel rendering of a snake eating its tail in place.
She declined to take Beretta’s hand and stepped out on her own.
The moonlight revealed her for what she was. Green eyes caught it and reflected yellow will platinum veins appeared in branching networks extending from the corners of her eyes back to her hairline. The ghostly outlines of indescribable things flitted around her, just maddeningly on the edge of sight.
Miss Ophelia maintained eye contact with Beretta for a long moment as if daring him to comment. After that moment, however, she opened her parasol and interposed it between herself and the moon, shrouding her in shadow and concealing the overt signs that was was not wholly a mortal woman.
“Don’t test me, darlin’” said Beretta, his baritone voice low and dangerous. His thumb traced a pattern atop the opal on his cane and Miss Ophelia gasped as the snake emblem at her throat started to heat. “Or do you think you can survive Tarnation’s touch a second time?”
Defeated in even that small a show of independence, Miss Ophelia lowered her gaze and headed to the back of the carriage where Wilson and Slade had the casket open and were placing the dead man inside.
It was in her blood now; magic, power, weird—whatever it might be called. In her blood and in her eyes. She could see the casket, not just as it appeared, but the vast, harness powers that went into it, the otherworldly corruption that rolled off it. She might have been touched by Tarnation’s power, but the casket had been steeped in it—was still connected to it.
When the two men were satisfied that the corpse was in place, Slade pulled the lid close don the coffin, turning the handle until hidden clockworks slid bolts home inside it and the casket was locked. Only then did Beretta choose to join them, coming to to stand with Miss Ophelia in front of the thing.
He didn’t say a word, just used his cane to heat the thing at her neck. The message was clear: she was not to stall any longer.
From her bodice, Miss Ophelia produced the key: a thick cylinder of iron with notches carved into it and raided ridges are seemingly random intervals. She held it out in the moonlight and the true key became visible: writing in the script of Tarnation, which matched that which was etched around the keyhole. She mouthed the words and aligned the key with the hole without attempting to move any closer to the casket.
Slowly, she turned it until she met resistance signaling that the key was lined up correctly. Then she pressed it forward until something in the clockwork on the casket clicked. Still speaking the words, she let go of the key and it began to turn in the air, matched by clicking noises as the inner gears in the casket began to engage. By fractions and in jerking progression, the snake’s tail entered its mouth.
After three inches, the snake’s jaws snapped shut and locked onto a notch built into the tail at the point. A hiss, more steam-like than ophidian, emanated from the seal around the casket’s lid. The clockwork shook in its housing, making a sound uncannily like a rattler. Then it took on the dull orange glow of hot iron.
While the smell of heated metal filled the air and the air around the casket started to shimmer like a desert afternoon, the temperature in the rest of that little valley between hills dropped precipitously. The breath of the three men puffed out as mist and sweat began to freeze on their necks and brows.
Miss Ophelia paid none of it any heed. Her attentions were locked on the casket and the weird being worked within. She felt rather than heard when the heart began to beat once more. Her slender hand reached up and took hold of the key. Like the clockwork, it was searing to the touch, but to her, it was merely pleasantly warm. Straining, she forced it to turn in the opposite direction.
Hot metal screamed and the snake’s mouth came open with a jarring clang. The tail returned to its original position as steam blasted out from all around the clockwork and from beneath the casket’s lid.
And then, as suddenly as the ruckus started, the night was once again plunged into silence. A light breeze caught up the gouts of steam and blew them aside like an intangible curtain as the orange glow on the snake faded to a dull, metal glint.
Miss Ophelia placed the still hot key back in her bodice. “It is done.” She said, no emotion in her voice.
The lupine grin this drew from Beretta glinted under the moon. “Slade, open it up.”
Wordlessly, the other man complied, twisting the handles to disengage the locks and pulling the casket open with a single mighty effort. As soon as he did, he drew a forearm up to block his mouth and nose, then stepped back. A cloud of foul smelling humors rolled out of the open casket. It carried a thick, decidedly organic stench with subtler hints of copper and burnt chemicals.
Amid this cloud, lying back in the coffin as if he’d just happened upon it and decided to take a nap inside, was the man in tweed. His eyes were open now, and his chest rising and falling with steady breath.
“Check him.” Beretta ordered and Slade pulled open the tweed jacket before ripping open the man’s shirt. Burned directly over the man’s heart was a brand: a snake eating its tail. Something about this prompted Beretta to bark out a harsh laugh. “I s’ppose, Mayor Calhoun, that you were thinkin’ about tryin’ t’ make it… where? New Ives? Maybe tell someone there all about how you think the Ouroboros Club is up to somethin’ mighty wicked?”
Horton Calhoun, Mayor of the town of Bristol Plain, stared at Beretta with an unfocused pair of eyes, incapable of responding.
Duke Beretta stroked his thumb across the opal atop his cane. “S’ppose the answer don’t matter no more anyhow.” He let out another mocking laugh as the formerly deceased mayor slowly pulled himself out of the casket and took a few drunken steps forward. “Seein’ as you just joined the Ouroboros Club.”
He stepped up to the still dazed mayor and put a huge hand on the man’s shoulder, leaning in close to speak in his ear. “Much obliged havin’ you as a member, y’honor. Now shake them clouds out of your head—I got big plans for the whole of the Territories. Startin’ right here in Bristol Plains.”
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