She rode across the desert, her fiddle slung across her back and her hat pulled down to shield her searching eyes. Forty days, she'd ridden these dusty trails, looking for a town few had seen and none had returned to tell of.
EREBOS, the signpost said in faded, crooked letters. A chupacabra skull beside it grinned out its own macabre warning.
At the town's farthest edge, fumes rose from a murky river, a few sleek stones the only path across. Ofira dismounted and let the reins fall loose; her mare would know not to wander these desolate places or drink from the stagnant waters.
The stepping stones were slick, and a hot desert wind threatened to throw her into the now-bubbling stream, but Ofira stepped lightly. She crossed into the town that was found on no map, that many insisted was mere myth. Fired-brick buildings like tombstones lined the center street, though not a soul wandered the dusty path, nor did a single wisp of air swirl about it. The sun seemed brighter here, its heat an unquenchable fire that sent ripples of sweat dribbling down her neck and creeping along her spine.
The hawks who'd borne the message had said she'd find him in the tavern, so she followed a creaking pipe organ's tune until she found the swinging doors. She took one last breath of dusty air, one last glance at the golden band on her finger, one last moment to gather her courage before stepping inside to strike a deal with the devil who dwelled within.
The tavern was darker than was natural, as though its walls had swallowed the light, but its patrons' eyes were luminous, and when the organ breathed its last, the silence that followed was unearthly still. Every eye turned to her, and the cards in each hand wore the frozen, screaming faces of men, rather than the suits Ofira was accustomed to.
In the center of the room, a thin-nosed man—clearer in form than the others—rose and set down his glass of frothy black liquid.
"The fiddler has arrived." His voice rolled like thunder, but his laughter was sharp as lightning.
"You know who I am?" Of course he did, Ofira realized; the hawks had no loyalty to her. Their master was chaos, or perhaps this unnamable being who now stood before her without a drop of sweat upon him, despite the sweltering heat.
"Everyone knows the fiddler of Fire Gulch," he said, "who can charm birds and beasts and coax the rocks to dance. I've long waited to hear for myself whether the boasts were true."
"Is that why you took Yuri? Why you allowed me to find this place?"
"That your husband's posse stumbled across my protégés was opportune. I'll admit, when I discovered who he was, I sent the hawks to spread the news of his survival in hopes that you'd be willing to strike a deal."
"I will," Ofira said without hesitation.
"Play for me, and I will release him."
The man—if that's what he was—settled into his seat as Ofira pulled out her fiddle and bow, glancing about the room at her audience's shadowy forms. Where was he holding Yuri? Could she trust him to honor the bargain?
Ofira pulled the bow across the strings, and the rafters shivered with anticipation.
With a flick of her wrist, she pulled music from the air, note after golden note from the ether. She played slowly at first, like the soft glow of a sunrise gradually separating shadow from light. Fingers whispered over strings. The bow fell and rose. The tavern fell still around her.
Then her music lit up the room with a cool breeze of luminance, leaving droplets of ice on every glass surface, shimmering in the brilliance of each tone. It swelled and washed away the darkness, sending streams of light from the strings, rushing forcefully from her instrument as a swift-flowing river running across a bare and rocky land.
The crescendo broke the shadows' hold completely and, as the final note echoed around the tavern walls, the card-players faded out of existence.
When she finally set down the bow, the darkness rolled back into place, but the only beings who remained beside Ofira were the thin-nosed man and—kneeling beside him, battered and bleeding, with his silver badge still pinned to his blue jacket—her husband.
"Yuri!" She fell to her knees and cradled his face. He was alive but weak, his eyes swollen shut. She needed to get him out of here. She threw his arm over her shoulder, but when she stood, the man-who-was-perhaps-not-a-man blocked her way.
"You promised we could leave," she said firmly.
"I did, and I will keep my word." The man wiped his eyes with a handkerchief of black silk. "But if you look back before you both cross the river, you'll remain here as my personal musician, forever."
Before Ofira could argue, the man clapped his hands and from somewhere in the dark came the snarling of coyotes. Ofira's fingers ached for the fiddle to subdue them, but she couldn't play and guide her husband, so instead she pulled Yuri closer and stumbled out the swinging door.
The once-still air now swirled with rust-colored dust that bit at their eyes and nose. They hurried on, leading the coyotes through the storm. Ofira dared not look, but she could tell from their howls that the beasts were gaining on them too quickly. They'd never reach the stream in time. Their breath was on her heels.
"Follow my music!" she cried out to Yuri and released him to reach for her fiddle. The notes burst forth, plucking tones from the whirlwind and scooping harmonies from the dust. The coyotes fell silent, their snarling subdued, but still there was no escape from the storm. "Follow my music!"
Her feet keeping time with the rhythm of her strings, Ofira reached the river. With staccato steps, she leaped across. She dropped to her knees, playing on so that Yuri could hear her and follow, never once letting the music wane.
And still, she kneels there, playing to hold back the coyotes, refusing to look behind and allow her adversary to win, refusing to give up hope that someday her husband will cross the river and take his place by her side. And her music flows like a stream across the desert.
This story originally appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination.
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Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she's left her cup of tea. Her time travel novella, THE CONTINUUM, is now available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com