Jac had the unfortunate experience of walking, a task he would forever rue, to the nearest city south of the obliterated Caldyn. The ten day march left him time to think, strategize, plan. Menso being the closest city to Caldyn meant there could be traces of this cult, or rumors of traces. Jac did not have any illusions and knew that he was chasing phantoms, grasping not at straws but the smoky wisps of straws.
Still, Menso would have stables and he could find a new horse, though none could replace Fire Eater.
Jac let out a sigh as the skyline of Menso towered over the horizon line.
The city was on high alert for obvious reasons, entry into the metropolis would require some questioning and a search of his things. His fingers brushed against the iron revolver slung on his hip. The thought of someone else getting their oily hands on his gun’s pristine finish made him ill.
Jac approached the gateman and was greeted by a hard face.
The burly man asked for a name and reason for entering the city.
“Jac, and I’m just passing through. I need a horse.”
The guard raised a brow. “Wouldn’t a car be more suitable for travel?”
“A car is loud and troublesome. When it runs out of fuel, you are back to walking.”
“Surely you have heard of a gas station?” The guard asked amused.
“My destination has no roads.” This statement was true in more than one way.
“And where would that be?” The guard questioned.
“Whatever ditch my target crawls into.” Jac said this the same time his revolver was being inspected. They’d noticed it was a master crafted weapon, though immaculately cared for, aged with use and stained with many souls. One could feel the death emanating from it, the way an ancient weapon in a museum would.
“A bounty hunter.” The guard stated, rubbing his evening chin shadow.
“You are the captain of the gate.” Jac realized.
“I am. Menso is on edge.” The guard inspecting Jac’s weapon handed the pistol to the captain.
“Caldyn was destroyed.” Jac said.
“The news is creating a panic. We’ve put the city into curfew until it settles down. I’ll be honest with you, the last thing we need is a bounty hunter here. A high profile death could start a chain reaction.”
“I was there. I saw Caldyn get swallowed by Diamak.”
“No one has surv-”
“No one has survived,” Jac cut him off, “until now. I was outside the city walls when the trembling started. From underground the monster emerged and tore the city and the very ground apart.”
There was an exhaustion to Jac’s eyes that the captain noticed, one that could not be faked.
“I’m hunting the cultists associated with the monster, and then the monster itself.”
“That’s a madman’s mission.”
“It killed my woman and my horse, I’m very mad.”
The captain leaned back on his chair and thought for a moment. “Tell you what, I can escort you to the upper city. I won’t lie, Menso is facing a lot of corruption. You might be able to track down someone affiliated with the cult, I don’t know.”
“Four cities have been utterly annihilated by this monster. I’m not going to delude myself into thinking we won’t be targeted. Maybe not the next city, or even the one after that but it will come at some point. I don’t see the Pact for Survival formed by all the cities doing anything to stop Diamak. Caldyn is evidence of that.
“It started with ground quakes around the countryside. Set up seismographs in a twenty kilometer radius around Menso. You won’t have long, an hour or two at most to evacuate.” Jac warned.
The captain nodded, “I’ll see what I can do.” He stood. “You’ve got one night up there. Any longer and the mafia will hunt you down once they hear you asking questions. I’ll have a horse prepared at the south gate.”
“You are a remarkably kind man.” Jac said graciously.
“My job is to keep this city safe. The biggest threat is that Diamak and nobody seems to care. It’s like they’ve given up, chosen to ignore the growing shadow in their vision.”
“When faced with a reality you can’t comprehend, most people shut down.”
The escort arrived to lead Jac into the upper city. They went through a series of blast doors and then up an armored elevator. The skyline of Menso stood roughly twelve stories high. Named the upper city, the rooftops were connected by bridges and entire buildings and communities were created. A second, much shantier city was quite literally built on top of the metropolis of Menso.
The escort departed, leaving Jac to take in this new environment.
As one could imagine, this was a haven for black market dealings and gangs. It was surprisingly well thought out, though it was still clearly a sprawl. Wind barriers walled off the intense drafts and tarps were hung over random sections here and there. People had sheds, stalls for selling goods, and miniature vegetable gardens. Solar powered generators and small wind turbines provided heat and energy to its surroundings with thick surge protected wires.
Jac made his way through the first of these corridor towns carefully. In some areas, the bridge was seamless from one rooftop to the other with planking and walls. The upper city of Menso felt more like a cave than a skyscraper. The occasional peaks of light shooting through gaps in the canvas and boarded pathways with the background noise of wind rushing were the only reminders of their distance from the ground.
Human ingenuity knows no limit. This is in contrast to their tolerance for one another which is thinner than the air is at a hundred and twenty meters from the ground.
Jac spotted a tavern sort of place. A sign that read, Briggs Brews in flickering neon lights marked the location. A rug had been stapled over the entrance. It worked surprisingly well at insulating the brewery and keeping the noise contained within, so much so that Jac did not anticipate the several dozen drinkers inside.
Where man makes his home, he will find a way to brew alcohol, where alcohol is brewed, the rumors flow like the beer. This place was promising, decided Jac. And he could use a drink.
Jac didn’t feel too many eyes on him. This was likely a neutral territory. Benches, tarps, car seats, wooden planks and warehouse boxes made up the dining in this place. Cans, bottles, caps and anything remotely colorful were used as decor for the walls and hung from the ceiling which itself was made by a combination of materials. Jac spotted a mosaic of glass arranged into a flagon and a hole poked from behind so that the glass was illuminated like a sign. Some glass bowls stuck in the ceiling acted as lamps as sunlight diffused randomly based on the design of the bowl. The lighting was dim with patches of light here and there but Jac’s eyes had already adjusted.
Jac stood at the bar counter.
“What’ll you have today? We’ve got City brew or my famous Briggs brew.”
So this was the owner, Briggs.
Jac half expected the beer to come in a paper-mache cup but was surprised to see an actual decanter, stamped with the owners name. Connections from the city or was there an actual glass blower in the upper city?
Jac slapped money on the counter and inspected the beer. He needed to get to business but gathering rumors required rapport.
Jac noticed some particles floating in the decanter. “You brew the beer in these?” Jac asked the owner. Briggs was an imposing figure, thick features and a solid frame.
“Aye, the larger kegs are too hard to store and they take longer to brew.”
Jac tried his first sip. There was a hint of sourness, counter notes of sweet and spicy, something bitter and the finish was savory. Jac was shocked by the depth of flavors in this shanty brewery. He wrote off his surprise as simply being thirsty and worn out from everything that had happened. The second sip was more complex because this time he only tasted the sour and sweetness. The third sip was bitter and spicy. Jac tried a larger gulp and this transformed the taste further as the the distinct flavors blended and mixed.
Jac’s eyes were wide by now. “This is the best drink I’ve ever tasted!”
Briggs winked. “Been doing this for thirty years. I’ve learned a thing or two.”
Jac took a good look at Briggs. “You don’t look a day over thirty.”
“I’m sixty!” Briggs’ laughter boomed out.
“This stuff floating in here is yeast?” Jac asked.
“It is. I filter most of it but a few always stay in. It adds to the taste.”
“And what a taste! I feel it changes with every sip.”
A bar regular joined in the conversation, the way that they do. “You must be new here. Everyone knows about Briggs’ beers.”
“I am traveling through.” Jac admitted.
Briggs received several empty decanters and rinsed them out. Jac watched him prepare the next batch of brew in those decanters.
“Five days and these will be ready to drink.” Briggs explained as he noticed Jac was watching.
“I’ve bred this yeast for three decades to learn how to brew my recipe. On top of that, brewing smaller amounts at a time is faster.
“That is possible?” Jac asked before taking another swig.
“Rather than discard the yeast I filter out, I have several pots where they live and I reuse them for each batch.” As he said this, Briggs took a wooden mixing stick from one of these pots and used it to swirl the ingredients in the decanter. “It’s the same family of yeast you could say. Each generation gets better and better.”
“You have honey, tamarind, plum, and rice. Where is the spice coming from?”
“The honey. I’ve got a buddy a few blocks from here with a hive and a pepper farm. He mixes the pepper into the honey.”
No end to human ingenuity, Jac thought again.
“The complexity of the flavors is due to the order of ingredients I put them in. The yeast ferments each one slightly differently as I’ve trained the yeast for each ingredient separately.”
“I wouldn’t believe you if I wasn’t tasting it right now.”
“Another?” Briggs offered.
The regular left to join another conversation. Briggs set the new decanter down and went to work preparing Jac’s finished glass for a new brew.
“Tell me, traveler. Nobody comes to the upper city for sightseeing. You are a man with a purpose, but your genuine interest in my craft has won me over.”
“You don’t miss much.”
“I’m a bartender, that is my job.” Briggs grinned. “There is no violence in here, that is the rule, aye and should be the rule of everywhere.” Briggs pointed to Jac’s concealed holster.
Jac nodded, acknowledging the rule. “I’m looking for information on a specific group.”
“You can sign your tip here. It’s so when you black out there’s proof you agreed to the amount.” Briggs handed Jac a pen and a note page. He was good.
Jac wrote a single word.
Briggs took the note and pocketed it.
Jac resumed his drinking while Briggs handled some other customers.
After a few minutes he came back. “How do you know that word?” Briggs said in a hushed voice.
“I was at Caldyn.” Jac said morosely.
Briggs took two decanters and handed one to Jac. The other was for himself.
Jac finished the one he was working on and flipped the seal on the third. Briggs left the empty bottle alone.
“Some say it is the end times.” Briggs started.
“It was for those at Caldyn, and the cities before.”
“What is your plan?”
“Kill it. And kill those associated with it.”
“What is it?”
“How to describe it… It was huge. It was insectoid but draconic too. It breathed fire and leveled buildings with tendrils. It had a maw with countless teeth and curved horns as big as the skyscraper we are on. On its back is a shell that reflects blinding light. Had I been in the city I would have died. My companion and horse were slain. It knew I had seen it and lived.”
A man with a red scarf came to the bar counter, cutting short Jac and Brigg’s discussion.
“What can I get for you?” Briggs said his usual line.
“We know everything.”
“I’m sorry?” Briggs asked.
Jac moved his hand.
The rug was torn open and a hail of bullets rained down on every patron inside. Jac pitched to the side as he saw Briggs take two to the chest.
Jac rolled around the counter.
Jac could tell from the shots that the gunmen were using old and cheap weapons. Not well funded so most likely a local gang hired for a hit.
Jac was on the side of Briggs’ counter who was on the ground, groaning from the gun wounds. Jac checked his pulse. It was strong for now.
“Forget the rules.” Briggs muttered.
There was silence for a moment as the gunmen finished their first clip of munitions.
“Check the bodies,” an order was given.
Never let your gun get lonely. The voice of Jac’s father sounded in his mind.
The revolver slipped into his hand like an alcoholic’s bottle and his thumb pulled down the hammer ever so familiar.
Jac leapt from the counter and fired six shots. Eight jugulars burst as two of the shells punched through their targets and into their comrades behind.
Jac evaded the return fire and knocked the empty shells out of his pistol. Six new shells found their brief home in metal cylinders.
The remaining gunmen had taken cover. Jac stood and waited for someone to peek out.
The first found a bullet lodged in his brain through the eye.
Another gangman regretted peeking out and returned to cover. The wooden bench did not stop Jac’s superior revolver from sending one through.
Jac swayed to the side, dodging a reckless shot. His own gun eagerly flashed and took the shooter’s life.
One man tried to dash out the exit but Jac turned and ended his journey with a shell that burst out his sternum.
Briggs managed to get himself up, one knee at a time and reached for a hidden shotgun.
Jac continued to pick out the gunman, one by one.
The man with the red scarf emerged from a corner and created a flaming skull. The skull whistled like a hundred screaming children as it flew toward Jac.
Briggs fired his shotgun at the skull and it shattered into pieces.
Another ear piercing scream signaled a skull’s approach. Jac turned toward where the Specter with the red scarf was but did not see the skull.
Briggs shouted a warning.
The skull appeared from the ceiling bearing down on Jac.
Jac dove as the skull picked up momentum and crashed into the floor, lighting the carpet ablaze.
Several skulls appeared at once, each coming from a random direction, materializing from the walls, floor and ceiling, all screeching and echoing in the tavern building. It was impossible to make out where they were coming from with sound alone.
Briggs fired at a skull but a gunman who had hid until now fired two more into Briggs, hitting his stomach and shoulder.
Briggs grunted and blasted the gunman.
Jac was moving and shooting. The skulls were all homing in on him. He reloaded and risked a glance to where red scarf was chanting. Jac fired a shot but a new skull appeared in front of the Specter, taking the bullet instead.
The fires were spreading and the smoke was blowing around intensely from the holes in the wall.
Briggs was back on the floor, blood pooling out at an alarming rate.
Jac was struggling to keep up with the skulls. Briggs realized Jac was staying in the tavern to help him.
Fool, thought Briggs, I’m dying. There was too much blood in his lungs to say this to Jac.
Briggs’ shotgun was out of ammo. He crawled to his pots and reached for a cabinet and pulled out a jar.
Fire licked at his back and the bartender knew he had caught. He didn’t feel the pain of the fire. His body told him only that his heart was running out of blood to pump. It felt like a hand was inside of him, squeezing the vital organ.
Briggs used the last of his strength and a roar of defiance to toss the jar into red scarf. The Specter cursed as the glass shattered on his thigh but stayed calm as he realized it was just muck.
He grinned and sent a half dozen skulls to the immobile Briggs.
There was a small explosion as the glass decanters burst.
Jac was forced to barrel his way out a side wall as the whole tavern was now in flames.
He coughed the smoke out of his lungs and turned the corner to see red scarf escaping.
Jac reloaded his revolver.
The sun was setting and the upper city took on a new look.
Running along the shanty sprawl, everything appeared as shadowy silhouettes. The skulls were attacking him again.
Jac pulled down a canvas and mounted the roofs of these makeshift buildings. The wind was strong but Jac kept his footing.
The gunshots and fire had scared the residents and so nobody was out. The upper city was like a ghost town now, and Jac the avenging spirit.
He gained ground on the Specter whose skulls were much less effective in the open where they had to materialize from someplace solid.
The screams were distorted by the wind. Jac saw an opening on one of the rooftops and fired. It took red scarf in the leg, forcing him to limp.
Jac was surprised he landed a hit as usually he’d summon a skull to block it.
Jac stepped back into the corridors and continued the pursuit. The skulls were losing impetus and were now just randomly flying about.
Jac caught up to red scarf who looked pale and shaken. He was leaning up on a side railing.
“What did you do to me!” Red scarf accused. “Are you a Specter?”
“No.” Jac stated plainly.
Red scarf was practically whimpering. Jac saw the gun wound he’d inflicted. It looked clean and missed any vital arteries.
The stench hit Jac first.
On the other leg, where Briggs had thrown something, the leg was rotting.
“I’ve trained the yeast for each ingredient separately.” Those were Briggs’ words, Jac recalled. Might Briggs have bred a yeast to eat flesh in an instant?
Red scarfs blood was frothing. The sugars in his body were being broken down and converted to alcohol. The specter was clearly not in his normal state. His eyes were unfocused and he was rocking. He was being deeply, savagely decomposed and drowning in alcohol.
“Where is the rest of the cult?”
“You have to help me!” the specter was mumbling between coherent sentences.
Jac got close. “Diamak. What do you know?”
“Oh Diamak! That’s right! Diamak will save me, he promised.” Red scarf was slurring his words.
“I’ll take you to him.” Jac offered.
“You will! Ah man we should get going. Something is wrong with my leg.”
“I’ll carry you. Where are we going?”
“Kasim. We are meeting in Kasim. You’ve got to take me now! I don’t feel good. I think I messed up. I was supposed to kill tic-tac Jac, have you seen him?”
“Oh, that’s good. I’m getting cold. Please help me. I need to get out of here!” Red scarf was pleading and crying, his whole nervous system was crashing.
Jac enjoyed watching the man suffer.
“Briggs made a damn good beer. Best in the world I’d say. He was the type of man you meet and feel like you’ve been old buddies with a history that goes way back.” Jac had a lot to vent about and never properly processed what happened outside of Caldyn. He was also a bit drunk himself. “I don’t think anyone knew as much as Briggs. Here in this shithole he learned something I can barely understand. And dammit I got him killed! You guys knew who and where I was! How?”
Red scarf was trembling. “I need help, I don’t feel good.”
Jac uncocked his gun just to pull the hammer down.
Red scarf must have had a moment of lucidity amidst his death stupor. “You! You liar! “Legion!” He was trying to activate his aspect but nothing came.
Jac pulled out a shell casing from his ammo pouch and unscrewed the lid. He dumped some gunpower out and found a small piece of trash. Jac went to red scarfs leg and swabbed it.
Jac wrapped the trash around the clump of infection he collected and stuffed the thing into the shell. He screwed the lid back on and carved an X on the shell casing to mark it.
Red scarf started screaming in a panic.
Jac was reminded of Annolines haunting last words, “I can feel them moving in me.”
Then he thought of Briggs’ last words, “forget the rules.”
“I don’t know if this will work, but it’s worth a try, eh.”
He placed the X shell back in his pouch.
Red scarf was still screaming.
Jac left him there.
“Please kill me!” Red scarf shouted after him.
Jac couldn’t finish the specter. That was Briggs’ kill, it was his revenge.
Jac was promised a horse on the south gate in the morning so that is where he went.
Kasim was his next destination.