The couple returned to the inn and bolted the main door shut behind them. Rohita flicked on the electric lights before extinguishing the lantern. Azarola peered at the stairway leading to the floor above. “Let’s make sure that this place is empty before we settle in. Our former friend out there had to come from somewhere.” With his hand on his hidden holstered pistol, he moved through the inn, room by room. There were no bodies, living or otherwise, to be found in the building, save for Azarola and Rohita.
In the front room of the inn, Azarola examined the floor standing radio console, while Rohita picked up the telephone at the front desk. The curious musician played with the dials on the elegantly carved wooden face. “This place was making some good money to get something like this,” he remarked as he turned a knob to search for a signal that carried something listenable.
Rohita nodded along and dialed for the operator. “I don’t think I’m getting a dial tone. To be honest, I haven’t used a telephone much at all and the only reason I know about how to work this one is because a short film on it ran for at least a month last spring.”
“I was on the road last spring, so I missed that one.”
“It was just for Ixpoli.” She frowned and set the receiver on the hookswitch. “Nothing. I’m not even reaching an operator.”
“We have electric lights and a radio, so there’s something to fight off the dark and the idle mind.” He twisted the knobs back and forth, “Well, if I could get this work, we would have radio. I know it can’t be that hard to work one of these things. Moving pictures always show it as turn knob and music plays. I’ve tried all of these knobs!”
“It’s a little cute how you still marvel at modernity,” Rohita giggled, “It makes me wonder how you would react to seeing the home I came from.”
“I’d probably want to touch all the buttons and flick all the switches,” Azarola grinned, “But this is just a country inn in Aestas and it’s not quite as modern as that. I can’t get in as much trouble.”
“Small favor.” She leaned forward to try her hand at the radio controls. After a few minutes of twisting knobs, she stepped back in retreat. “I don’t think there’s a signal out here for the radio to pick up.”
“Then why would a place like this have a radio? Just to have something that looks pretty?” His stomach growled loud enough for Rohita to hear. “Maybe we’ll find something worth our while in the kitchen.”
Rohita’s finely shaped eyebrows raised and she followed him out of the front room. “You’re hungry? We had dinner not that long ago.”
“I’m always hungry,” he replied, “What we got this evening was good, but I’d like to have more. I don’t know when we’ll have a chance to eat again. Besides, if the owners aren’t coming back, they’re not going to miss some food that would otherwise spoil.”
With a flick of a switch, bare electric bulbs glowed and cast their light on the kitchen. Azarola turned his head towards Rohita. “I’ll follow your lead on this one.”
She scowled at him. “What makes you think that I know how to cook? Az, just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean that I can magically master the kitchen. I know how to plan a menu, but that’s about it.”
Dumbfounded for a moment, Azarola stared stupidly at her, while he tried to comprehend what she just said. “Really?” He knelt down in front of the kitchen stove and opened the firebox. “Well, I do know how make a few things. We’re not completely out of luck.” He poked at the remnants of coals. “First thing to do is get this fire going again. After that, I guess it’s up to me to do some pantry raiding. Eggs, sausages, maybe grill up some toasted bread. Just need some salt, pepper, and a bit of butter.” He smiled at the thought of a hot and hearty meal. “Nothing fancy.” His smile turned sheepish and he shrugged. “It’s all I know how to do other than coffee and beggar’s stew.”
Rohita watched as Azarola wadded up an old newspaper lying nearby and stuffed it into the firebox. Spotting the matches on the table nearby, she handed them to him. With the strike of a match, a few small splits of wood, and a little patience, a fire warmed the cast iron stove. Next to the stove sat a bucket of coal and a metal scoop. The musician spread a layer of coal onto the flames and closed the firebox. “That should do it.” He set an iron skillet on the range to heat it.
Rohita scrounged up eggs and cured sausages. “Here’s a start. I’ll get the rest.”
“We really are reversed, you know that?” Azarola remarked as he set the sausages into the pan. “I’m the one wearing the apron! There’s something just backwards about that.”
“Not for a professional chef,” Rohita pointed out, “And that’s what you are tonight.”
“Then our little restaurant is going to get horrible reviews by your society friends. I really don’t know much more about cooking than you do.”
“You can cook sausage and eggs and toast. That’s a great deal more than what I know.”
“It’s still not quite right.” He poked at the sausage links, wishing the skillet would heat up faster. “This isn’t hard to do. Do you want to try?”
“Trying to put me in my rightful place, Az?” Though her tone was mischievous, there was an edge to her voice.
His eyebrows rose high. “What? No! Nothing like that! I thought that you might want to learn to make your own in case not I’m not around. It’s not as if learning to cook an egg will chain you to the stove.”
A knock at the front door of the inn startled the both of them. Azarola reached for his gun and Rohita picked up her purse from where she left it on the table. The musician muttered, “Maybe turning on the lights and starting a cookfire wasn’t a good idea.”
“Not our brightest moment,” Rohita agreed, “Now what do we do?”
“I don’t know,” he replied without any thought. His ears focused on the sounds of knocking. “Might as well take a peek. If it turns out to be the wrong kind of friends, I have a friend of my own.” He patted his jacket over the inner pocket that held his pistol.
A man’s voice called out from the other side of the door. “Hello? Anyone here? Anyone at all?”
As Azarola approached the door, he could hear the murmur of a woman’s voice, but it was too quiet to be intelligible to him. With his hand on his concealed pistol handle, he cautiously opened the door. A bespectacled man with stooped shoulders and a lovely woman with short white-blond hair in soft waves stood in the faint light. The man adjusted his glasses and glanced over the long-haired young man, visibly surprised to see a Senviran youth answer the door to an Aestan country inn. His surprise quickly shifted to relief. “Oh, good. We are not too late. Are there lodgings here?” He frantically searched for the signage to reinforce his assumptions.
Rohita smiled and pulled the door open further. “Yes, you’re at the right place! Come in!”
The bespectacled man glanced at the empty streets before entering the inn. “It’s rather strange. Our automobile stopped running at the edge of town. There was no warning at all that there was something wrong. It just… stopped.”
Azarola sucked in a breath and waved them inside. “That’s not a good sign.” He closed and bolted the door behind them. “Come on back to the kitchen. I’m getting a little something to eat cooked up.” At the confused expression of the newcomers, he added, “No point in waiting in the dining hall. There’s no one here. Not in the building and, as far as I can tell, not in the town.”
“Then you are not the owners of this establishment?” the man asked.
“No,” the bob-haired redhead answered, “My name is Rohita Bisera and this is Azarola. We’re from Ixpoli.”
“Galtero and Maeva Werranholst,” the bespectacled man answered, “From Kaerras.” Galtero sat down at the kitchen table. “Our car gave no warning before it stopped. I couldn’t get it to start again, so I thought we would get a couple of rooms for the night and have a mechanic look at the thing in the morning. It wasn’t hard to find this place; it was the only one with any lights.”
Azarola returned to the stove. “Did you see anyone else out there?”
“Not a soul.”
“Then you were luckier than us. The last man we saw in this town tried to put a screwdriver between my ribs.” Azarola held open one side of his jacket just enough to display the bloody tear in his shirt.
Rohita gasped and darted towards him to examine the wound. “Az! You were hurt?! Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It’s not that bad. It’s not going to kill me.” He pulled back the torn cloth along his side to get a closer look at the dark clotting. Grimacing at the injury, he covered it up again. “That would explain why it stung so much. Might even leave a scar.” The sizzle of sausage in the iron skillet pulled his attention away and he poked at the links.
“You hadn’t even looked at it?”
“It’s not the first time I’ve been scratched, Ro.” Azarola waved his fork dismissively, “It’ll be fine. A little alcohol or iodine will clean it up with a nice healthy sting and it’ll heal.”
Maeva’s eyes were wide and fixed on the concealed wound. “Why would someone try to stab you?”
Azarola shrugged and poked at the sausage again. “Maybe he thought we were thieves. Maybe he was just crazy from rabies. Either way, I don’t really know. What I do know is that there’s four kinds of wrong going on here. Everyone left town, the phone doesn’t work, there’s nothing to hear on the radio, and now your car strands you here. I don’t know what to make of it…” His voice trailed off and his hand clenched around the fork handle. “What do you two know about magic? Not the sleight of hand kind that performers use. The kind that you hear about in fairy-tales where witches turn people into animals and walk through walls.”
Maeva laughed nervously, but Galtero was solemn. “It’s obvious that you are no stranger to it. Then again, the Senvirans are supposed to be close to magic.”
“Not as close as you think,” Azarola countered, “But, yeah, I’ve seen the real deal. So, what about you? You haven’t said that I’m superstitious, or crazy, or joking. You’re not even giving me the leery eye.”
“Because we’ve seen our fair share of the unexplainable,” Galtero answered, “In fact, Maeva and I have been actively exploring it. Magic and the occult, that is.” He folded his hands together over the table. “I believe that if we are to successfully master such forces in this new era, we should seek to study and understand them. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that what we have now with radio, telephone, and lights that illuminate with the simple flick of a switch would be considered magic. Why should we be so fearful? The world is undergoing great changes, great progress, all around us. We’ve harnessed lightning, just imagine what we could do if we could harness these seemingly magical forces!”
Azarola’s eyebrows raised and he pierced the skin of one of the sausages. “I’ve seen what people would do with that kind of power. People are people, after all. Everyone is out for themselves. I mean, look outside. We’re in a town that completely emptied around us and we don’t know how or where they have gone. I’m sure that they weren’t whisked away to some magical fairyland of sunshine and rainbows! For all I know, they’re all hanging on meat hooks.”
Ignoring the gruesome thought, Galtero continued on his track. “Once we understand these strange new forces and define them, we can make laws to protect innocent people from them. We can regulate it so that those who would be tempted to use this power for their own selfish ends will be dissuaded from doing so.”
Azarola stared at Galtero mutely for a good long while, green eyes wide in disbelief. Rohita clapped her hands together. “Of course! If we could control who could use magic, then we could stop it from being used to hurt people!”
Azarola’s jaw dropped. “Ro! Do you honestly think that a bunch of words on paper would stop a witch from cursing and abducting people? She would just be more careful about not getting caught! The only people who follow the laws are those who care about them in the first place! And those who care about them in the first place already know that killing others is wrong!”
Rohita crossed her arms and speared him with a violet glare. “What about you, Az?”
He jerked back as if struck and then his head bowed. “What’s more wrong? Killing someone or letting yourself get killed?” He shrugged his shoulders. “The world’s a nasty place and there aren’t a lot of easy answers.” He waved the heavy air away with his cooking fork. “But I’m not the sort to be preaching to anyone and we have other problems to deal with right now. Like seeing the dawn. I’d like to do that. I bet the morning will have a real pretty sunrise for us. It’d be a shame to miss it.” He turned his attention to the iron skillet on the stove. “So, what do you think would make everyone in a town up and disappear into thin air? Where did they all go?”
Galtero shared a glance with Maeva and then shrugged. “I don’t know. The old stories talked about spirits and gods abducting people for various reasons, but never an entire town. There are stories about settlements being destroyed in fire or flood, but that’s obviously not what happened here.” A sudden thought grabbed him and he stood. “I should bring our luggage in from the car.”
Maeva put a delicate hand on his arm. “You shouldn’t go alone. I’ll come with you.”
At this, Azarola stepped away from the stove. “I’ll go with him. You should stay in here with Ro.” He gave his fork to his fiery-haired companion. “I’m not trying to put you in your place or anything, but could you keep an eye on the food? I’ll be right back.”
Azarola handed a lit lamp to Galtero and escorted him to the dead car at the edge of town. The awkward quiet was unsettling to the musician. He wanted to fill the silence, but didn’t want to talk about the vanishing townsfolk in case it invited his own disappearance. “Normally, I play the guitar for a living,” Azarola remarked, “What sort of work do you do?”
“I make motion pictures for a studio in Kaerras,” the stoop-shouldered man replied, “Maeva is an actress. Don’t let her shyness fool you. She’s very expressive.”
“Movies? Really?” Azarola grinned in spite of the grim evening, “Which ones have you made? I don’t get to the cinema as much as I would like, so I can’t guarantee that I’ve seen them. But I have seen a lot of advertisements and posters.”
Galtero paused and pointed to motes of silver light that floated and danced under the boughs of trees just past the edge of town. “What is that?” Both men began to walk towards the lights, passing the car. Azarola focused on the shining specks, fascinated by them. Were they fireflies or something else? The air was still and quiet and the sound of their footsteps silenced while they approached the lights.
Azarola’s marked shoulder grew numb, then painfully cold, dragging his attention away from the silver lights. He absently rubbed at the mark, trying to ease the discomfort. The young man paused, knowing that he was supposed to be doing something, but he could not remember what it was. The silence that suppressed even the sound of Galtero’s feet trampling over twigs and leaves recalled an unpleasant impression of mortal fear. He called out to Galtero, but his voice was also silent. Heart beating fast in terror, the young man’s long ponytail whipped from side to side as he searched for some sort of escape. All he could see other than darkness was the dancing silver lights before him. Were they the cause of his sudden deafness?
Azarola drew his pistol, flicked off the safety, and shot at the drifting lights. The loud crack of gunfire blasted away the silence, scattering the lights, and startling Galtero into stopping. The musician grabbed the filmmaker’s shoulder and pulled him away from the trees.
Galtero blinked and stared at the trees. “What?” He searched for the car and turned completely around before he found it. “We went past it. How did we miss it?”
Orienting himself towards the nearby vehicle, the musician commented, “I think we almost found out what happened to the missing people.”
The stoop-shouldered man was still shaking off the fugue as he jogged after Azarola. “You have a gun? You have a gun!”
“Yeah, I’m a nice guy, but not a good guy,” Azarola remarked, as he put his pistol away in its holster, “I know I’m breaking the law by carrying it, but it just saved our backsides.”
“You’re a criminal?”
Azarola rubbed at the growing knot between his eyebrows. “Yeah, didn’t I just say so? I have a gun without permission. I’m breaking the law, so I’m a criminal. I’m not a convict, if that’s what you’re wondering. Besides, I don’t think it’s me that we have to worry about right now.”
“But you have a gun!”
“Yeah, I think we just talked about that.” The musician faced the balking man, taking stock of the wide, panicked eyes behind the spectacle lenses and the tense legs ready to run. “Look, pal, I get that you think that guns are scary things. Only police, soldiers, and very bad people have ‘em in Inexa and it’s been that way for a while. On the other hand, you’re chasing after something that can empty an entire town without a trace! How can you be so pants-filling scared of a bunch of metal bits put together and not of… Of…” He gesticulated wildly at the abandoned buildings. “This!” He took a breath to compose himself in front of the older man. It would do no good to drive Galtero deeper into fear. “I’m not afraid of the gun. There’s no magic to it. I know what it is. It’s only as good as the person who has it. It can’t do anything unless someone picks it up, loads it, and pulls the trigger. Something that can disappear people and mess with our heads? Yeah, I’m betting it’s magic. Who’s pulling that trigger? I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a trigger at all! I don’t understand it and it scares me. That’s why I’m out here with you. You’re not afraid of it and that tells me that you know more about it than I do. I want to know what you know. I don’t want to be afraid. So, let’s go do what we came out here to do and then we’re gonna have a little chat.”