The dawn was like any other. Morning light awakened the land, evaporating the dew and taunting the flowers who tried to reach up to touch the golden teardrop. A rabbit pounced from clearing to clearing, avoiding the snake holes and hawk nests. A scorpion found a jutting rock to house under, preferring to wait in the dark for prey. A man in riding boots and tan pants with a leather jerkin was attempting to pull a bucket from a well.
Somehow it had become lodged at the bottom of the well.
The piece of wheat straw in his mouth snapped off when he grit his teeth too hard yanking the rope up. No budging.
A woman came out of the nearby house, wearing a cotton dress and slippers. “Jac! Why don’t you leave the old thing and come in for breakfast?” she called.
Jac, the man trying to pull the bucket up, had been at it all night. Refusing to lose to the bucket.
“My father taught me one thing, Annoline,” Jac said between pulls. “Never leave a bucket at the bottom of the well.”
“Last week you said your father only taught you to never let your gun get lonely.”
Jac stopped what he was doing for a second. “I was lying last week.” He went back to work.
“The eggs are getting cold!” Annoline tried convincing Jac one more time.
“I’ll eat them out here! We need the water, Annoline.” Jac explained.
“Oh alright.” Annoline went inside, prepared a plate of breakfast and came out to the well. “You should just cut the rope and get a new one from Feddy’s General Store.”
“Like I said, my father taught me to never leave a bucket at the bottom of the well.”
Annoline rolled her eyes. Jac grabbed her hand and pulled her in. She yelped as he swooped her in and gave her a kiss. “Thank you for the breakfast,” before spinning her out.
Annoline turned red and forgot what she was going to say. Jac started eating the eggs and bacon. Annoline had been his woman for the last year. So far it had been great. Jac always enjoyed not having to shoot his woman for being a hired gun to take him out. Life was less stressful that way.
Before he could finish his breakfast two men came rushing around the house.
“Jac!” one of the men said breathlessly. “We need your help, there’s been an accident in the mine.”
What’s happened?” Jac put down his plate.
“Jarry and Tomoas were working in the pit and a cavity opened up and now they are stuck down below. We tried to let a rope down there but some of the mine caved in over them and its too narrow to pull them out. We need some extra muscle.”
“Damn. You lads head back then, I’ll saddle my horse and meet you.”
The two tired men turned and started running back in the direction of the mine which was a couple kilometers away.
“Can I come?” Annoline asked.
“You better. I’ve got a bad feeling about today.”
Jac took a final look at the well. Perhaps a cavity had opened up down here as well, he thought?
He ran over to his horse and tossed his saddle on it. He stroked its mane and gave it an apple to eat while he checked his revolver, tied a rope to the saddle and donned his hat as the sun kept a bright angle.
Annoline came running out, wearing riding clothes and had her own pistol holstered on a belt that hung lopsided on her hips.
They only had the one horse and Jac hoisted her up to sit behind him on the saddle.
Jac’s horse had a white arrowhead on its face, so naturally he named it Fire Eater.
“Come on!” He spurred Fire Eater to a gallop and they soon passed the two runners and arrived at the mine’s entrance.
A crowd had already gathered here, a majority of the shanty town’s population were trying to figure out the best solution.
The mine was important as allegedly there was gold to be found which would make everyone wealthy on top of saving the two trapped miners inside.
“It’s Tic-Tac Jac,” whispered one of the townsfolk. The rest turned around to see him and Annoline on a horse.
Tic-Tac Jac was not from around here. He had traveled in several months ago, clearing the town of a criminal organization taking advantage of the gold mine. It freed the town up to search for the gold themselves. He was a bit of a legend among the poor townsfolk.
Jac dismounted, “let me through.” A path opened up and Jac entered the mine. Several voices were arguing about what course of action they should take to get the miners out.
Jac strode in, ducking under the low hanging stalactites and silencing the arguments.
“I can’t believe this happened. We tripled checked the stability. It could’ve sustained dynamite. They was only using pickaxes.” The one man was saying defensively.
“Where’s the crystal?” Jac demanded.
“The what?” the man blinked.
“The crystal ball. The one I told you all to place in the corner there.” Jac pointed to a part of the cave wall that had a narrow ridge, probably eroded from water millions of years ago. A marble could be placed on the top portion of it which was flat enough it wouldn’t roll down on its own. One could trace where the particular erosion happened, trailing down the cave wall and around a jutting stalagmite.
Jac instructed the miners to place a crystal ball there months ago as a warning system in the event of subterranean earthquakes that would suggest an imminent cave in. Jac followed the little ridge and found broken pieces of crystal some meters from its original spot.
Jac squat down and fingered the pieces. “This cave could collapse any minute.” The well and this cave were not coincidences. Cavities were forming all over the countryside. This had to be the explanation. More could easily follow.
“But Jarry and Tomoas…” Protested a miner.
Jac cursed. He took a bullet shell from his ammo pouch and layed the brass on its side on the ridge. “You watch this bullet. Don’t take your eyes off it or we’ll all die. If it moves, even a millimeter. You shout us a warning.”
The man nodded gravely.
“We don’t have much time. Lead me to the spot.”
Jac was led through a winding passage with support beams placed at regular intervals. The mine had many branching paths as it had been worked on daily for several years in the frantic search for gold.
“Watch your step.” warned the miner leading Jac. Several meters below was the cavity, rocks lodged over it, blocking any chance for a person to climb out.
“Hello!” one of the trapped miners shouted.
“Don’t leave me again.” The one miner sounded very young. Just a teenage kid trying to help his town out.
“We won’t. We brought Tic-Tac Jac.”
“Oh thank goodness.” Apparently the kid worshiped Jac.
“Jarry’s ankle is good as broke.” So the kid was Tomoas.
“What’s it look like down there?” Jac called down.
“It’s real tight. The ground just opened up and swallowed us in like it was trying to eat us.”
“How much room exactly?” Jac pressed.
“A couple arm’s length in each direction.”
“Is there a spot with something of a roof? A solid rock over you?”
Tomoas felt around with his hands for a second. “There’s a bump that kinda’ sticks out.”
“Move under it as best you can.” Jac ordered.
Jac heard Jarry grunting as they moved into place.
“What are you planning?” a bearded miner asked.
“Tie this rope around your waist. You’ve been mining this place awhile so you know the rock best. You walk down the cavity, break open a large enough chunk then we pull them both out.”
Another man argued. “You’ll crush them or you’ll cause a cave in!”
“The actual cave is sturdy. The cave in was caused by something else.”
“What else?” the bearded miner tying the rope around his waist asked.
Jac stayed silent. “Something big.”
His eyes widened.
“That’s why we need to get moving.”
Jac and four other miners held onto the rope as the bearded miner slowly walked on the side of the depression, having the counter weight hold him upright.
He found the largest opening and took a swing at it.
A voice came from near the cave entrance, echoing down the passage. “It’s vibrating!”
“Just hit it!” a miner shouted.
The bearded miner gave it another good whack and the first bit crumbled down to the helpless Jarry and Tomoas below. The bearded miner didn’t waste time checking if the hole was big enough, a quick distance judge of his pickaxe head going through one portion of the hole would be confirmation enough. He discarded his pickaxe.
“I’ve got footing. I’m untying my rope so we’ll just feed the same one down and lift them up.
Jac liked this bearded miner, he was decisive and level-headed.
Jac and the other four miners fed extra rope down.
“Jarry you go on first, I can push you up since you won’t have your feet.” Jarry didn’t argue and held onto the rope. Tomoas helped push him up the first meter but then he was freely in the air, being pulled by the five miners and Jac.
Jarry reached the opening and the bearded miner bent down to grab his arm. The fit was narrow and a sharp piece of rock gashed Jarry on the way up but he made it through.
Jarry shouted in pain as blood streamed down. The bearded miner hauled him up and Jac leaned down waiting for Jarry to be close enough to grab.
A quake shook the whole cave and dislodged the wounded man as the miners holding onto the rope fell. Jarry plummeted down and landed with a cringing snap. He shouted in pain but managed to say, “leave me…Get the boy out.”
Back on their feet, the miners dropped the rope through the crevice once more.
This time the miner watching the bullet came running to the passage. “The bullet’s rolled down!”
“Get out of here. Tell everyone to evacuate! We’ll be out once we get Tomoas.” Jac instructed
“I’ve got the rope!” A scared Tomoas called out.
“Pull!” the bearded miner shouted.
The cave was beginning to crumble. Loud rockfall could be heard crashing in other parts of the tunnel system.
Tomoas was out faster than Jarry as he could use his legs and was overall much thinner. Tomoas was up and over the cavity and stayed to help get Jarry.
“There’s no time.” One miner warned.
“We can’t leave him!” cried Tomoas.
“I’m dead weight. My back’s broken.”
The bearded miner lifted Jarry onto his shoulder and took hold over the rope, walking back up the side of the cavity in an impressive feat of strength. The miners, Jac and Tomoas supported the combined weight of the two men with great effort. The bearded miner spilled Jarry over the edge first, then finished climbing out.
Two other miners picked up Jarry and the whole group made their way back to the cave entrance, abandoning all the supplies and rope.
The cavity behind them disappeared and formed an abyss. Stalactites were falling and the ground tumbled. A miner hit his shoulder hard on the cave wall but got up with a grunt and kept moving.
They made it out of the cave just as the earthquakes were settling to a stop.
It took a moment for the black splotches in Jac’s vision to adjust to the light. When his eyes adjusted, the black splotches remained.
Several large holes had opened in the countryside. Most of the townsfolk remained behind, unsure of what to do as fleeing anywhere seemed just as dangerous.
“Get him patched up.” a miner said.
“We’ve got to leave.” Jac said to Annoline who was holding the reins of the horse.
“Where are you going?” a man asked.
“To Caldyn. To warn the city.”
By now word had traveled to every remote town or village on the planet. Something was eating cities from the underground, leaving no trace of itself or survivors.
“You mean?” The man couldn’t finish the thought.
Avalaes, Tul and Arandac had been utterly destroyed within the last decade. Now it seemed Caldyn and the surrounding locales were next.
“Gather what you can from your homes and we’ll journey south to safety.” An older woman ordered. The townsfolk raced to their homes. With the exception of a few who stayed around. The threat of death made fools of all men.
Desperation turns anyone into a criminal.
A group of townsfolk approached Jac and Annoline.
“We could really use that horse.”
Jac was still an outsider after all.
“And who decides who gets the horse?” Jac inquired.
“It can carry supplies for us.” one answered.
Jac stepped in front of Annoline to the group threatening to take his horse. “Do you know why they call me Tic-Tac Jac?”
A man shrugged. He pulled out a gun. Another had a hunting rifle while the other six men carried knives or work tools.
Jac’s voice became cold. “Four years ago I was in the city of Kasim. A mafia boss had wronged me. Didn’t pay me what I was owed for a job I did for him, you see. So the following night I went into their headquarters and gunned down every single man who worked for that mafia. For eight hours, everyone in that densely populated city block heard three sounds.” Jac lifted a finger. “The gunshots.” He lifted another finger. “The screams of dying men.” As Jac lifted a third finger, his other hand, which had deftly produced his revolver, pulled back the hammer.
Jac fired at the first man, the bullet taking him between the eyes. The next shot came after the man with the rifle, piercing through his heart.
The next four died in between three heartbeats.
The two surviving men, frozen in shock and fear, turned and ran when they heard the tck tck of Jac’s freshly reloaded gun.
“Come on.” Jac lifted Annoline to the horse before jumping on its back.
“Let’s go Fire Eater!”
“Will we make it in time?” Annoline asked, holding onto Jac tightly as they rode through a changed landscape.
“We’ve got to try! Caldyn needs to evacuate.”
Annoline looked back as the town behind them was swallowed up without further ado. She gasped. Jac looked and cursed.
Everyone from that town was now dead. “They shouldn’t have tried to get their belongings.” Annoline said regretfully.
“Millions will die if we don’t reach Caldyn.” That whole effort in the cave was now for nothing.
They weren’t terribly far from the metropolis. Fifty kilometers following the river north-east. It would take an hour on horseback.
The ground continually was cracking alongside them. Trees were leaning as they became partially uprooted. Animals were fleeing in every direction and birds soared above, cawing in fear and warning.
Part of the ground would fold up on itself, creating mounds, while some places fissured and split.
Fire Eater picked out the safest route with Jac’s directions.
One could swear the whole planet was breaking apart.
The city walls loomed in the distance.
It did not appear like anyone was fleeing.
“Did they not feel the earthquakes?” Annoline wondered.
“If they thought it was just that, an earthquake, then they wouldn’t do anything.”
Jac fired his gun in the air several times, trying to get the attention of the guards posted on the wall.
At an outpost near the gate, one of the guards aimed his rifle at Jac.
“What’s your business?”
“Diamak is coming!”
“Nonsense! We could arrest you for trying to start a panic.”
“Do you not see the land changing before your eyes? When do tree moves? And the birds are all migrating.”
“Tis just an earthquake.”
The gate suddenly opened. A man walked out wearing a hooded cloak and a mask with a group of guards around him.
“Who is that?” Jac demanded.
“He’s our special guest. Our Lord Ruler invited him. We have guaranteed protection from Diamak. It was made public. I suppose his work is done.” The guard was relaxing.
“Idiots!” Annoline muttered.
Fire Eater was uneasy. “What is it boy?” He could clearly sense something wrong.
“There’s no way into the city.” Annoline said. “It’s a lost cause.” she was growing nervous too.
Jac kept his eye on the cloaked stranger.
“Come on!” He spurred his horse toward the group of guards.
Getting a better look at the mask confirmed it for Jac.
“Stay back or we’ll shoot.” A guard warned.
Jac turned his horse once more and rode away from the city. “There’s no doubt about it. That man with the mask is from the Cult of Diamak. I’ve heard of them trying to summon Diamak before. I think they finally did it!”
If someone learned how to harness that power… the force that destroyed three cities… well it was bad news.
“We’ve gotta get out of here!”
A deep rumbling, followed by a pulse, and then a great gush of wind pulling into a center located somewhere in the direction of the city stopped Fire Eater from moving and actually dragged his hooves along the grass like he was standing on ice.
All that gathered force erupted. A huge implosion from beneath Caldyn sent buildings flying and massive boulders of concrete and debris in every direction at deadly speeds. The land sundered in a thousand places and out emerged a monstrous creature, nearly the size of the city itself.
A sonic scream shattered every bit of glass in the city. The simultaneous shattering made the hair on Jac’s arms stand.
Jac saw the creature called Diamak. It was supposedly a scarab of some sort. That’s what the rumors said. Jac had never seen a scarab with a million snaking tendrils extended thousands of meters each. Nor had he seen one with a hundred eyes, or a tail, or breathing fire, and certainly none with a maw bearing innumerable teeth and wings unfurling like those of a bat. The shell of Diamak reflected blinding sunlight. The mask that cloaked person wore actually resembles Diamak’s own face, a series of curved horns sprawling from its head, each larger than a skyscraper.
Diamak was some twisted abomination between a scarab and a dragon and seemingly combined with a parasite. The creature looked in pain as it tore the city and the very ground to shreds.
Jac’s steed regained its grip on the land and galloped away from the destruction.
But Diamak never left a mortal soul gaze upon it and live.
A tendril whipped out, dragging along the ground, tearing the solid crust apart, dislodging those slabs on its course to Jac and Annoline.
Fire Eater swerved around and stepped on one of those slabs which was now airborne. Jac led Fire Eater from one wedge of ground to the next, avoiding the tendril which somehow knew where to find him.
It curled around, wiping away the debris. Fire Eater jumped as the tendril came, leaping over the tendril and landing on the churned ground beneath. Jac felt a heatwave and saw a pillar of fire spilling out of Diamak’s mouth. The gasses released from deep below the surface of the planet combusted and all manner of electrical and fuel fires burst out as well. The resources of the city all detonating while smoke obstructed any more clear views of Diamak.
Jac whispered words of encouragement to Fire Eater as they tried racing away from the city.
The tendril bore down on them from above. Jac released six shots into it, doing little aside from denting the thinnest portion of the tendril.
He turned again at the last minute but the force sent all three of them flying. Annoline lost her hold on Jac and tumbled away. Fire Eater stood back up at once, unhurt. Jac remounted and rode toward Annoline.
“Jac!” she cried desperately.
Jac leaned in the saddle to the point he was riding on its side. He reached out and snatched her hands. With great effort, and Fire Eater lowering its center, Jac safely pulled Annoline up.
The tendril started growing threads of needlelike roots. They grew to a point and were ejected out at high speeds.
They cut through the air making high-pitched screeching sounds. Still in full gallop, Jac felt a warm liquid drip onto him. He touched his chest but felt nothing.
Annoline’s grip loosened around his waist and Fire Eater started to stumble.
He had no choice but to keep riding as far as possible, a bitter taste forming in his gut and throat.
The tendril seemed to have relented. The distant crashes eventually quieted but the smoke remained.
Fire Eater could go no further and it finally tripped and fell, throwing Jac and Annoline off.
Jac rolled up and saw the damage.
Annoline was covered in needles that were moving. They were like hair-thin parasites burrowing into her body. hundreds of them.
Fire Eater had even more on his hind legs and side.
Annoline had already lost so much blood.
Jac grabbed Annoline and placed her in his lap.
“Oh Jac, it hurts.”
“Shh. It’s okay. I’m here. The pain will stop soon.”
She was delirious from the blood loss.
“This year was the best of my life. You were so… so… cool with everything you did. Like a hero from the story books…”
Annoline groaned and coughed, blood spattering from her mouth. “I can feel them moving in me.” she said weakly.
Jac laid her down and held her hand. “Close your eyes.”
She hardly had the strength to keep them open. Jac tightened his hand around hers, letting her know he was here.
Jac fired one in the chest and one in the head.
With a blank mind he approached Fire Eater. It too was wheezing in pain.
“You were a brave heart. Thank you.” He stroked the mane of the horse before firing a shot into its brain.
Standing up, Jac looked back over the city. Diamak had clearly thought it killed him. Only Annoline blocking the line of fire saved him.
All traces of Diamak and Caldyn were gone. The dust was settling and the ground had collapsed over the sunken ruins. In a few years natural weather would settle the dirt and it would be as if no attack ever occurred.
What Diamak was, Jac could not come to terms with. Some subterranean monster. It didn’t matter.
It killed his woman and his horse.
Annoline likened him to a hero before she died.
Tic-Tac Jac was neither a paragon of good nor an outlaw. He was simply a drifter, a man always on the move, going nowhere fast.
He would bury Annoline and Fire Eater, then hunt that masked man and the rest of the Cult of Diamak. After that business was done, he’d find Diamak and kill it.
This he swore. The one constant Jac had concluded about this world was all things can die.
He filled the empty chambers of his revolver and squeezed down the hammer with his thumb.