The journey south to Orien happened without incident. The metropolis based its economy around fishing and cargo ships which transported goods to and from the Sister continent. As a harbor city, Orien focused primarily on its maritime ventures and very seldom involved itself in the politics of the rest of the Brother continent. So it came to some surprise to Jac that they would be constructing a massive fleet. Battleships, frigates, even a couple aircraft carriers.
Insurance in the event Orien is destroyed? It meant they could secure enough weapons to resettle and dominate whatever comes next. Playing the long game, thought Jac.
The ruler of Orien was called the Grand Admiral and it seemed he successfully brought his city together to work towards the future. People needed an outlet, a task to occupy them and give hope.
Jac spent a night in Orien, resupplying his provisions and giving his new horse time to rest. It was a good horse. Lots of stamina but lacked the explosive power and trust of Fire Eater.
When dawn came, Jac departed for Cavus, the next city on the way to Kasim. He had several options for how to travel. He could go along the coast, riding on the beach, through the mountain pass or stick towards the swamplands, the fastest but most dangerous course.
Jac decided to stick to the beach. He needed more time to bond with his horse and establish their trust. Besides, dealing with the leeches, mosquitos and ticks of the swamps was too much of a hassle. The last thing he wanted was his horse getting diseased. The mountain pass would be the busiest and Jac wanted to avoid as many people as possible.
So the beaches it was.
This second leg of his journey was without incident as well. Ocean salt was refreshing to breathe and he enjoyed galloping on the beach. He could rinse in the ocean between days and sleep on the soft sand at night.
Jac made decent time, cutting several days from his itinerary by moving away from the beach and riding along the highway.
Cavus was a fortress metropolis. Protected by the swamp on the north, the ocean to the south and the mountains to the west with smooth plains to the east. The natural defenses were easily bolstered by intricate trenches and bunkers dotting the landscape around the city.
Cavus had the strongest military of the southern cities and strong-armed the neighboring cities for cheap import taxes and yearly tributes. They weren’t tyrannical so much as just taking advantage of their superior might. They did promise defensive support in return for their forced demands.
It would not be easy to gain entry into the city so Jac decided it was best to stick to the countryside and stay at local inns when he could. The most probable point of trouble would be crossing the bridge at the river that naturally divided Cavus and Kasim.
Jac polished his gun one night, just outside the bridge crossing. Cavus owned the rights to patrolling the border and decided who and what could go across.
Jac was prepared to pay a hefty tax to use the bridge. The alternative routes would add weeks to his trek as there was only a single bridge.
One of the biggest in the world, it was a true architectural marvel. It wasn’t a particularly long bridge, but it was wide, spanning eight kilometers from side to side. The bridge was often called the mini metropolis as contained in the bridge were half a million residents and entire neighborhoods. There were hotels, casinos, restaurants and many amenities. It even boasted underwater tunnels with further housing.
It arched unnecessarily high over the river. The builder apparently wanted it to survive the worst conceivable floods. That extra space between the underside of the bridge and the river was of course used for more facilities and housing.
A strong military presence guarded the bridge city. Jac spurred his horse forward and hailed the border patrol.
Thankfully they didn’t care who he was, so long as he paid the toll. It turned out to be twice as much as Jac anticipated but he handed over the money rather than cause a commotion. It was the last of his funds so he’d have to rely on hunting for the rest journey.
It took an hour to cross the bridge. Kasim was only a few days’ ride from here.
Jac couldn’t help feeling worried how tame the countryside was. There were no confrontations, not even wild animals or bandits. Everything was quiet.
Jac’s instinct told him that such peace in one part of the world meant there was another part of the world more than making up for the lack of violence.
Still, his mission was the same. Reach Kasim, find the cultists supposedly gathering there and dispatch them all. Jac would consider himself lucky if the leader of this cult was there.
Jac was skinning a rabbit a half day’s ride from Kasim when a stranger approached his camp. “Greetings, camp.” the voice called.
Jac signaled the stranger to join him, but kept his hand at the ready. His horse was tied to a tree, grazing on tall grass.
“I was just preparing dinner.” Jac told the man.
The stranger was average looking. He wore casual, travel stained clothes, short brown hair and an easy smile.
He gestured for permission to sit. Jac nodded. The man rolled an extra chunk of firewood to use as a seat.
Jac prepared the spit for his rabbit and tied its legs for the roast.
Jac set the rabbit between two branches over his campfire.
“Diamak sends his regards.” the stranger said.
Jac’s hand flashed and his revolver was aimed at the stranger’s chest in less than a heartbeat.
“Ah there it is. The famous clockwork mechanism in your revolver, tic-tac Jac.”
“I’ve met Diamak, he didn’t seem like the talkative type.”
The man sighed. “That old misconception is still making the rounds? Language can be a funny thing.”
“What are you talking about?” Jac’s voice was icy and impatient.
“Come now, Jac. This body is merely a vessel I have linked too. I mean no harm. You’ll over cook your meal.”
Jac turned the rabbit with his free hand but kept the pistol aimed at the stranger.
“Diamak is the name of the monster destroying the cities, is it not? What this cult is about.” Jac inquired.
“As the leader of the cult, I can assure you that is wrong.” The stranger said confidently.
“The two Fables going from city to city, they tell of Diamak and his return.” Jac countered.
“Ah the Propheteer and the Interluder! Yes they are rather aloof. They are fanatical but entirely unreliable. You could say they care only for chaos and to put on a show. They must have heard the misguided rumors and went with it. It’s really quite annoying.”
“I saw the mask of your cult around Caldyn just before it was destroyed. It resembled the face of this monster.”
“We were trying to stop it.”
“Nonsense. You could have evacuated the city instead.”
“We tried too. The aristocracy of Caldyn had heard the rumors as well and denied our entry.”
“Why the masks then?” Jac pressed.
“They are an important symbol to Diamak. We offer all that we do for his return. I am his direct bloodline.”
“This is all awfully convenient for you, seeing as I am outside of Kasim. Red scarf told me before he died, how do you explain that attack?” The memory was almost enough for Jac to pull the trigger of his revolver right then.
“Let me ask you something, Jac. You are quite famous in the underground as a bounty hunter… Might you have enemies?”
Jac refuted. “Red scarf knew where to find you.”
“Truthfully, he was an initiate I denied. He must have thought tracking you down would win me over.”
“I am ready for this conversation to end. You lie like the wind blows.”
“I will get to the point, Jac. I want to hire you. We both want to see this monster gone and so should work together for that end.”
“Your ultimate goal is to sacrifice people for the return of what I assume is a greater threat to the world than this monster? Is that correct?”
“Absolutely.” the stranger agreed.
“My finger is getting twitchy.” Jac warned.
“Does your revenge not blind you? Are you not swept in a rage for those you lost?”
“And how do you know that?”
“We know everything,” the stranger gave a crooked grin.
Jac shot him in the side.
The rabbit sizzled as it started to burn.
The stranger grunted in pain.
“So you can feel that?” Jac asked.
“It is not…pleasant.” the stranger admitted.
“I have no reason to believe anything you’ve told me today.”
“Come to Eili. My business in Kasim has already concluded. We can talk in person.”
“How do I know you aren’t keeping me from Kasim?”
“Oh please, do not insult my intelligence, and therefore your own. Such an obvious deception is beneath me.”
“I really doubt that.”
The stranger shrugged. “Fair enough. So what to do?”
“I’m going to Kasim and slaughtering the lot of you. Even if you aren’t related to the monster, your cult has sacrificed many people.”
The stranger dismissed that point. “A consequence of my Aspect. I did not choose it.”
“But you use it. I really don’t mind going out of my way to kill you anyway.” Jac said matter-of-factly.
“And how do you plan on defeating this great monster? You think mere bullets can harm it?” the stranger challenged.
“If you think I am unable to slay it, why do you want me to help you?” Jac countered.
“One can never have too many allies. Come to Eili. All will be revealed.” The stranger stood, fresh blood dripping from his side. “I like you Jac. A man of your skill is worth multiple Specters. There aren’t many true veterans of gunmanship or tracking left alive.”
The stranger collapsed. The cult leader obviously severed whatever connection he had over that stranger’s body.
Jac inspected his burnt rabbit and tossed it aside as it was no longer edible. His appetite had long since gone.
Jac saddled his horse. Waiting around would just make him overthink things.
In an hour, in the late evening, Kasim came into view. Its plumes of smoke rose into a dark smog that blanketed the city. Kasim’s primary business was diesel production. The city was industrialized so as to appear like a concrete and metal factory monolith. There were but a handful of buildings in the metropolis and most of them were connected. The air was too poisonous to stay outside for long so life inside Kasim was confined to the massive structures.
And turned his horse north to the great city of Eili, the most populated metropolis in the world.