Azarola’s long fingers danced over his guitar strings while the falling rain drummed a steady rhythm against the pub’s windows. Bouncing with the music, the end of his long black ponytail hopped and swayed. From his chair in a dim corner, he relished the warmth of the room and the visage of his lovely company. A fashionable beauty with bobbed wavy red hair tapped her T-strap heels to his music. Her fur-collared coat and yellow cloche hat draped over the back of a nearby chair to dry. Rohita’s knees daringly peeked out from her skirt and her painted beestung red lips curved up in a smile.
Both visitors caught the eye of the sturdy, workaday men who ate their evening meals and drank their fill of beer. Enjoying the attention, Rohita’s grin turned mischievous. “Az, do you think any of these men would dance with me?”
Not pausing in his playing, the musician answered, “Maybe, but you might have to teach them a few steps. This isn’t a nightclub in Ixpoli.” His eyebrows rose over his green gaze. “You might have to teach them what a taxi dancer is, too.”
One man sitting nearby, earthy in clothes and complexion, set down his beer. “Taxi dancer?”
Rohita giggled and leaned over the table. “I dance with the poor, unfortunate men who come to the nightclub without a partner. They buy a ticket and we share a song.”
“Ain’t that like whoring?”
Her smile evaporated. “Hardly.” She speared the chuckling Azarola with a glare.
“What? I never heard it described like that, either,” he defended.
Rohita leaned back in her seat and crossed her shapely legs. “If the men don’t behave, a rather large gentleman escorts them outside,” she explained, “No funny business allowed.”
“So, no whoring.” The regular looked around the pub. “Not much room to dance in here and there aren’t any nightclubs around.”
Her violet eyes regarded the room and she pouted. “I think you’re right on that.”
The regular lifted his beer glass again. “So, what is a nightclub dancer from the big city doing all the way out here? With a Senviran of all things?”
Rohita grinned at Azarola. His long black hair identified him as part of the traditionally nomadic Senvira, an underclass group that ranged through the whole of Inexa and beyond. She wasn’t surprised that the pub customers here could not tell that he also bore Inexan blood in his veins. While the Senvirans were darker and sharper featured than most Inexans, few ever looked closer than hair and costume at Azarola. This was especially true when he played the fiery music often associated with the Senvirans. “Az and I are traveling the whole province of Aestas for the season,” she answered, “We’ll entertain at festivals and resorts. Though, with the weather like this, we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
Azarola turned his head to face the window, still playing his songs. “It’s still early. We’re not at spring equinox, yet.”
“We’re almost there,” Rohita reminded, “I’m willing to bet that the weather will stay wet. There’s a reason why Aestas is famous for being green.”
A plain woman brought out a couple bowls of hearty beef and mushroom soup with large slices of dark bread for the musician and dancer. “You’ve played long enough for your keep.”
Setting his guitar in its scuffed and battered case, Azarola smiled with well-practiced charm. “Thank you! It smells good and I’ll bet it tastes even better.” He pulled a steaming bowl closer to him and inhaled the savory aroma. “Here’s the other reason why I like traveling through the summer in Aestas. They have good food and good beer. You might be soaked to the bone on the outside, but the fire will never go out inside.” He lifted his spoon in a cheery salute to the god of drink and celebration. “Sabazen!” Both he and Rohita dug into their bowls and filled their bellies.
Sated, Azarola and Rohita dashed through the rain to the hotel where they rented a room for the night. Unlike the brightly painted stuccoes and stone found in the metropolis of Ixpoli, the Aestan town of Renwald sported drab brick and wood facades and the mossy rooftops common to the area. The wide muddy streets and swept wooden boardwalks glistened under the light of the new and modern street lamps. Parked automobiles lined the avenue, some still sporting crank start handles.
With the flick of a switch, the warm glow of an electric lamp filled the small hotel room. A pair of suitcases peeked out from under the bed and a wood and canvas packboard sat along the wall. Azarola set his guitar case next to the backpack and picked up the newspaper on the nightstand. The bed creaked under his weight as he settled down on top of the covers. Green eyes scanned over the headlines and squinted at the small newspaper font. Azarola held the paper as far away from his face as he could and frowned. “Every now and then, someone decides to use the extra tiny print,” he groused, “I’d like to get past the byline about gang warfare.”
Rohita set her chin on his shoulder and peered at the columns. Skimming over the advertisements for radios, tires, and a new talking picture, she found the article that caught Azarola’s attention. Her fingers ran through his waist-length black tangles as she read aloud. “Unrest erupts into gang warfare. The Senviran District of Ixpoli is under police enforced curfew following a bloody week of fighting between local gangs.” Rohita’s pale face turned towards Azarola’s darker one.
Azarola set the newspaper down on the nightstand and took a breath. “I’m glad we’re long gone from there.”
Rohita pecked a kiss on his cheek. “As am I, dear.”
The lean young man grinned and stretched out on the bed. “I wonder if anyone is going to catch on that we’re not really married?”
“I wonder what my father would do if he heard about this?” Rohita flopped down onto her pillow. “Heart attack? Aneurysm? Oh, he’d probably disown me.”
“Then it’s a good thing I didn’t marry you for the money.” Azarola smirked when she swatted his arm.
Rohita rolled onto her belly and kicked her up heels. “On the way here this morning, I had a thought about what I could do to help make money. Instead of singing when you play your guitar, like I first planned, how about I do fortunetelling? I have the cards and a book on it. I was even taking lessons on it from Madame Zuri before we left the city.”
“Sounds like it might work. It would save on your voice.”
“I would need to dress up and look the part. Perhaps get a little tent to set up outside to protect my cards from the weather. A little table, a couple of folding chairs, maybe even a little lantern.”
“That sounds like a lot to carry,” Azarola remarked, thinking of the weight his backpack already carried.
“We’ll figure something out.” Rohita yawned and cradled her head on the pillow. “I should change into my pajamas before I fall asleep in my dress again.”
“Calling it a night sounds like a good idea.” Azarola unbuttoned his dingy white shirt and tossed it onto his backpack. A black tattoo of Senviran design embedded into his left arm at the shoulder advertised his previous gang allegiance. It was a small reminder of a rough winter in the vast city of Ixpoli. Three spirals within a circle reached out of the black ring with long hooks suggestive of scythes. Dots marked the center of each spiral, the center of each of the three large gaps between the spirals, and six dots followed the curve of the ring under the scythe blades. He poked at the sharp, bold lines. “I wish I could go into the public bathhouses without covering this up. With the way the news is right now, something like this won’t earn me any kindness.”
Paying no mind to her modesty, Rohita slipped out of her dress. “Strangely enough, I’ll bet that it will cause you less grief here in Aestas than in Ixpoli. Not as many people know what that mark means.”
Azarola turned his back to give her some privacy. “Aestans aren’t very friendly to Senvirans to start with,” he reminded, “I only get away with playing my music in this province during the summer because people will let themselves enjoy it during the festivals. It’s good money in the resort towns, but then again, they’re usually full of tourists from all over Inexa trying to escape the heat.” He put on a wide grin and peeked over his shoulder. “I like tourists.”
They settled down under the blankets for the night, listening to the rain as they fell asleep. Azarola savored every second of content comfort. Though the ebbing touch of winter chilled the room, the blankets soon warmed with shared body heat and the couple drifted into slumber.
The soft, gentle stroke of a hand caressing Azarola’s tattooed shoulder pulled from him a deep sleep. Smiling in the dark, he pressed his cheek deeper into his pillow. “That’s nice,” he mumbled to Rohita. The rhythmic rubbing against his shoulder continued and then shifted to tracing the pattern embedded into his skin. “Can’t sleep, huh?” A murmured reply brushed against his ear. Azarola stifled a yawn and asked, “What was that?”
Rohita responded groggily from the opposite side. “What?”
Azarola’s eyes snapped open in the dark and he jumped out of the blankets. Flicking on the lamp, he stared at the bed with only a bleary-eyed Rohita in it. His frantic search of the room confirmed no other occupants. “If you were on that side, who was on the other?”
“What?” she repeated. This time she was a little more awake and sat up. “What happened?”
Azarola stared into the dresser mirror, searching for anything odd in the room’s reflection. “You weren’t on the side I thought you were and someone was touching me!”
“What?” Rohita repeated again. “Did you have a bad dream?”
Finding nothing of interest in the mirror, he paced the room. “I don’t think so. I’m sure I was awake.” He rubbed at his tattoo. “Someone was really interested in this.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t a dream?”
Rohita’s hands dived into one of her suitcases and pulled out a small gold disk amulet inset with a sunstone. “You wake up because an invisible someone was touching your tattoo? Do you think it’s Enuri? Do you think she got away and followed us out of Ixpoli?”
“I hope not, but you might be right. She used my tattoo to try to curse me and she had wandering hands.” He shuddered at the memory of the old witch. “What are you doing?”
“Something Madame Zuri taught me.” She rummaged two small poppets out of her suitcase and set them down next to her. “Take the mirror off the wall and prop it up on the floor against the bed.”
He obliged her, while she opened her makeup box. On one of the tiny white cloth dolls, she dabbed a little of her lipstick onto it and plucked a wavy, red hair from her head to wrap around its neck. On the other doll, she hastily drew a copy of Azarola’s tattoo with her eyeliner and wrapped one of his long, black hairs around its waist. She set the dolls down in front of the mirror and then scrawled a Senviran glyph onto the mirror with her lipstick.
“Here,” she beckoned to Azarola, “Sit with me and hold onto that edge of the mirror.”
Again, he obliged, wrapping his arm around her lithe waist. “What is all this?”
Rohita unclasped the amulet, put her head next to Azarola’s, and then secured it around both of their necks. Her slender fingers wrapped around the edge of the mirror. “Misdirecting magic. Madame Zuri helped me put it together when we were dealing with Enuri, but I never needed it until now. I don’t even know if it works.”
“Card reading, witchcraft… Anything else Madame Zuri teach you?”
Just as Rohita opened her mouth to reply, the thumps of footfalls echoed down the hall. Cloth rustled against wood as the poppets slid across the floor to the door, pulled by an unseen hand. Azarola spat an obscenity. Rohita pressed her ribs against his and he felt her heart racing keeping pace with his own. The dolls jammed against the door and then slid up to its center. There they stayed, held by something that the couple could not see. The footfalls continued down the stairs and out onto the street.
Azarola urged Rohita to move with him towards the window. Still clutching the mirror, he peeked past the curtain to the unlit street below. Barely visible dark shapes traveled the avenue, all going the same direction. “Maedra’s fire,” he muttered under his breath, “It looks like the whole town is heading out. What do you think the odds are that this isn’t just a weird local ritual event?”
“I think it’s very good odds.”
He blew a harsh sigh. “Just our luck.”
“What should we do about it?”
“What can we do about it? Run after them? Ask them what’s going on? Shake some sense into them if they don’t have a clue? That’s if we don’t get caught up in the migration.”
“We can’t very well do that while we’re stuck together like this.”
“How long do we have to sit here?”
Rohita gave her shoulders a slight shrug. “I don’t know. Until whatever is going on ends, I suppose.”
Minutes slowly ticked by and the inn and town fell silent. Azarola’s free fingers flexed and twitched against Rohita’s waist as he longed for the comforting weight of his pistol, despite knowing that gunpowder and bullets did nothing against the strange forces he faced. “If I had to rank all of the weird things I’ve seen lately, it’d be hard to choose which one goes on top,” he remarked with his gaze fixed on the poppets. They dropped to the floor and lay still.
Rohita relaxed her grip on the mirror. “I think it’s over.” She unclasped the amulet and held it firm in her hand. “Let’s go, Az.”
She stood and planted her hands on her hips. “After the people! We should find out where they went. If it really is Enuri, then they’re in trouble.”
“How are we going to do anything about it?” When Rohita crossed her arms and pinned him with an expectant stare, he rubbed at the back of his neck and picked up his discarded shirt. “We’ll figure it out.” As they dressed, he remarked, “We’re going to have an early night tomorrow. I won’t have the energy to stay up late.”
“I know, but if we don’t do this, I won’t be able to sleep.”
“You weren’t the one being petted,” Azarola countered, “I won’t be sleeping tonight no matter what.” His shoulder twitched and he rubbed at it. “I guess doing anything will be better than staring at the ceiling for hours.”
“I knew you would see it my way,” Rohita chirped with feigned cheeriness.
“We should hurry and remember to bring a lantern. There aren’t any streetlights where they’re going and it’ll be pitch black if the clouds thicken up again.”
The couple stepped out into the chilly night and followed the migration. Azarola saw his breath billow into the air and pulled up the collar of his jacket. “They’re not talking,” he observed of the silence, “There should be some chatter.”
Clutching her coat closed, Rohita kept pace with him. “I wonder what we’ll find.”
He chuckled uneasily. “A whole coven of witches with a giant pot to make townie stew? A naked dance party of workaday Aestans? I don’t know which would be worse.” His grin faded away under the lamplight. “I hope it’s not Enuri.”
The drumming of many feet ahead of them led the couple towards the migration. Azarola wanted to quicken his step, but he was mindful of Rohita’s shorter strides and unseen hazards in the dark. He was sure that they were gaining on the group, but the sound of their footsteps grew fainter and fewer, until they disappeared altogether. The silence that fell upon them unnerved him. “This isn’t right,” he muttered and found himself thankful to hear the sound of his own voice. The weight of the pistol in his jacket pocket holster was comforting and he touched the cool metal to reassure himself that it was still there and real.
“It wasn’t ever right,” Rohita replied.
“I was sure that we were catching up to them. So, where did they go?” Azarola slowly spun around, searching with his ears. “We should be able to hear the whole herd stomping around out here. We would hear it if they walked off a cliff. It just stopped and I don’t see or hear a single one of them.” His boots stopped short of a cluster of toadstools, spooking a tiny frog out from underneath. “It’s not like they walked through a magical witch’s gate, either. I mean, there’s no doorway or anything here! Nothing! Poof! Gone! When I said that I hoped it would be nothing, this isn’t what I meant!”
“I miss Madame Zuri,” Rohita remarked as she surveyed the grove touched by her lamplight. Pale moths flitted around the glow. “Maybe I should write a letter to her about this.”
Remembering the Senviran fortuneteller who helped unravel the curse he was under during the winter, Azarola nodded and backed away from the trees. “Might be a good idea. I don’t know how she would get a message back to us, though.”
“If only she had a telephone, then we wouldn’t need to wait around for a letter.” She turned her back to the grove. “Something will work out. Let’s go back to town. I don’t like being exposed out here.”
As Azarola and Rohita walked by the light of the lantern, they searched for any sign that they were not alone. The musician kept his hand on his hidden pistol. At each house, he detoured to investigate, and found an open door to an abandoned building. Warm air wafted out of the entrances, testament to recent occupancy. Dogs cowered within the homes and growled at Azarola’s approach.
Widening his strides, he explored the town at a faster pace. “Nothing and nobody!” His boots thumped a noisy rhythm on the sidewalk. Every window was dark, every interior devoid of people. “If this is Enuri, then she’s really brought out the big guns. She could have cleaned out entire districts of Ixpoli with something like this!” He continued along the street, venturing closer to the lantern light’s edge. “Now that I’m thinking about it, why didn’t she do something like this before? Clean out an entire neighborhood of people and then have Rijan’s gang go through and take their pick of everything left behind. Money, food, whatever you wanted. Just go through and take anything without anyone to stop it.”
At Rohita’s scream, he twisted around and bolted towards the light. Azarola could barely see her past the man who was trying to pull her away towards the woods. She kicked and hit him in a furious barrage, shrieking unladylike obscenities. The musician grabbed fistfuls of the larger man’s jacket and pulled him off Rohita. “I’d like to know why- Hey!” Azarola scrambled back to keep some distance between him and the man who was now wielding a screwdriver like a stiletto. In a mad backwards dance, Azarola struggled to stay out of striking range.
Azarola drew his pistol and automatically flicked off the first safety. He didn’t dare fire his gun with Rohita so near and the assailant so close. “Hey! We’re not thieves! I wasn’t saying that we would steal things!” he managed to explain between ragged dodges, in hope that this was all just a misunderstanding. The man didn’t seem to hear a word Azarola said and continued his relentless attack.
Azarola noticed Rohita aiming her pistol at the attacking man. “No! Ro! You might hit me!” He stumbled and the screwdriver point scraped against his side in a glancing thrust. Of all the ways to die, he never once considered such a common tool as an agent of his demise.
The next lunge drove Azarola off balance and he fell onto the ground. Without a thought, he pointed his pistol up at the man and fired. The crack of gunfire rang in his ears and he rolled to one side without looking to see if he hit. Instead of the man falling down onto the dewy grass, he turned to stab at the musician again.
Azarola fired twice more in quick succession and the man staggered and dropped, spasming against the embrace of death. The musician watched while the seizure ran its course and kept his gun pointed at the dying man. When all was still, Azarola stared down at the body prone at his feet, listening to his own heart pounding in his chest and his breathing heavy and ragged. He turned to face Rohita and her horrified expression. He followed the path of her eyes to the pistol in his hand and the dead man on the ground. His chest hitched once and he flicked the safety back on his gun. “Ro, I-I’m sorry. I never wanted to… You shouldn’t have seen that.” He couldn’t look at her any longer. “You’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” she replied. Her gaze fixed on the corpse. “Az, you killed him.”
His head drooped lower and he crouched alongside the corpse, spotting all three bullet holes. “If I were still in Rijan’s gang, I would be due for another tattoo right now.” His free hand rummaged through the man’s pockets. “I guess I should at least learn his name.”
“Oh, Maedra’s light, Az. You look like you’re trying to steal his wallet. If anyone walked in on this right now…”
“I’ll be on my way to a place where I’ll be the belle of the ball,” he remarked, “I know.”
“I’ll keep watch. Be quick with whatever it is you’re doing.”
“Ro? I just killed someone and you’re not having a hysterical fit?”
“I’m not one for hysteria,” she primly reminded him, “Now hurry up. We can talk later.” She grumbled to herself as she surveyed her status of disarray. “Bastard ruined my stockings!”
“I know you don’t have any tattoos,” Azarola muttered, “But you sure sound like you should.” He hastily searched for any sort of identification, but found none. Hearing a soft gurgle and fizz, he focused on the man’s still face. Jerking away, Azarola stumbled backwards. “He’s foaming at the mouth! Look at this! He was rabid!”
“What?” Rohita knelt down and peered at the foam wiggling out of the dead man’s mouth. “It’s moving!”
The foam congealed into a shiny, white mass and solidified into a small ball on the ground. Exchanging alarmed and disgusted cringes, the pair backed away from the body. “That’s not rabid frothing,” Azarola corrected, “I-I don’t have a clue what that is. I don’t think I want to touch him now.” The small white ball shivered and crumbled to powder. A pair of pale white moths spread their wings and fluttered out of the dust and into the woods. “Nope, not rabies.”
“I’ve never even heard of anything like this,” Rohita remarked. She lifted her lantern and reoriented herself towards the inn. “Let’s get out of this place before someone else attacks us.”
Azarola brushed off his muddied pants and walked alongside her. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere tonight, Ro.”
“I don’t want to hear that.”
“You just did. It’s too dark to see where we’re going and we don’t know what’s out there. Besides that, I don’t trust the sky not to open up on us on our way out of here.”
“Meaning that we get to stay here overnight?” Her violet eyes scanned the empty street through the lifeless town with distaste. “Lovely.”
“No sleep for us tonight no matter what we do,” he remarked, “We could take a walk in the rain, but if our dead friend has pals, we won’t be able to outrun them. So, cold and wet or warm and dry when we fight for our lives? I think I’ll go for the warm and dry.”