As soon as they left the woods behind them, rolling hills covered in yellow-green grass spanned out before them. The path beneath their feet followed a winding hill and over an enormous lake that was only passable by crossing over a massive wooden bridge. Jaycee did his best not to peer over the edge for fear of falling in. His comrade seemed unbothered as his pace quickened. The scene that played out caused his stomach to churn as his eyes drifted over the flimsy barrier that kept them from plunging to their death.
“Can we slow down?” Between his anxiety of heights and lack of rest, he feared his body would soon fall over from exhaustion.
Alec didn’t even glance back, and instead hastened his steps. “We’re almost there. Look, you can see the village ahead.”
Jaycee stayed his tongue as unsavory words threatened to escape his lips. Begrudgingly, he looked ahead. To his surprise, as they made their way down, a town in the distance caught his attention. A village with many tall buildings stretched out as far as the eye could see, reaching high into the sky. The closer they moved, the more they saw. Jaycee’s nose picked up the scent of the lake, an earthy, musty yet fresh aroma that ravaged his senses.
In front of him, Alec’s hair thrashed around in the intense breeze. The few times it smacked Jaycee’s skin, it hurt more than he would have liked to admit, so he fell in line next to him to avert further damage to himself and his ego.
Around them, the raging waves crashing against the bridge were almost methodical and analogous, like white noise. It put his weary mind at ease. Before long, the structure ended where the grass began. Their destination was now within reach. He could still breathe in the chilly lake aromas.
The gate to the city, already open, allowed people of all kinds to travel in and out with ease. A large sign, plastered for all to see, had the name Rusticus splayed across it. Townspeople traveled back and forth, destinations unknown. The air became humid the farther in Rusticus they went.
Alec pulled his fan out. “There’s a well-known bar here that has the latest gossip. We should check there for any news on Leon.”
“Shouldn’t we meet Kyla first?” They had left her to fight alone. Was he the only one worried about her wellbeing? The minute Jaycee thought he understood the man before him, something would alter his perception.
“I bet she already heard that they captured Leon and is investigating where to find him as we speak.” He gradually ran his finger along the top of his fan. “Let the tomboy do her job. We have our own matters to attend to.”
Jaycee doubted Alec’s morals. “And that would be?”
“To check out a place I frequent every time I come here. The food is tasty and the drinks are charming.” He walked off smiling to himself, the fan doing little to cover it. His figure became lost in the sea of villagers. Before taking the plunge, Jaycee took a deep breath to calm his nerves. That was a mistake on its own. The pungent stench of body odor infiltrated his insides, making his eyes water and throat itch.
He cursed Alec under his breath as he sifted through the throng of people, struggling to keep up with the red hanfu disappearing farther into the distance. Many people, adults and children alike, shoved into him on all sides. By the time he escaped the crowd, he was already tired and worn.
Jaycee stood in the face of a small building, sandwiched between two others. Although nothing in Rusticus looked new, the building was decrepit with its smashed in windows and decaying wooden structure. The steps leading up to the door were missing a board, which Jaycee almost stepped into, catching himself at the last second. Alec was nowhere in sight, so he suspected the man had already gone inside.
The door creaked as he pushed it and the low lights on the inside landed on him, blurring his view for a moment while they adjusted to the abrupt change. Every table in the cramped room had patrons relaxing and chatting away. With all the ruckus, finding Alec took longer than he liked. Being surrounded with no accessible exit was his worst nightmare come true. Luckily, he spotted the man he needed in the corner on a stool at the bar, surrounded on each side by women and men alike, a smile alight on his face.
As Jaycee was deciding how to approach him, their eyes met and Alec waved him over. Hesitantly, he made his way. The patrons got up as quickly as they discovered him, eyes looking him up and down as if judging him. Matters to attend to, he said. All Jaycee saw was Alec flirting with a bunch of strangers.
“Did I miss something?” Jaycee plopped down on the hard wooden stool. He tried to ignore their stares.
“Nothing of importance.” Alec rested his elbow on the glossy oak countertop and held his head in his hand, staring straight at Jaycee. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He guessed Alec missed the way the others glared at him at his approach. “Did you find anything out?”
“Some local gossip.” He paused, tilting his head to spare a glance around him. “Sheol and Fioma’s military are both here in town. According to the locals, they brought someone in early this morning and locked them up in a warehouse on the outskirts.”
“Leon?” asked Jaycee. The timing was too perfect to be anyone else. The real question was why were Fioma and Sheol’s military present? They didn’t even get along, on the brink of a war themselves.
“Most likely.” Alec turned in his seat toward Jaycee and brushed away the loose strands of hair on Jaycee’s forehead. Alec’s fingertips, warm to the touch, made Jaycee shrink back as much as he could in his chair. “We should go check it out. I know where it’s located.”
Jaycee watched as Alec’s hand hovered in front of his face before he pulled it back. In all the commotion, he had forgotten about the cut from the wolf earlier.
“How did you discover all of this out? Are you a regular here?” Not trying to avoid the subject, but his curiosity about how Alec seemed to know everything bubbled to the surface.
“Something like that.” It was impossible to miss the slight upturn of Alec’s lips. “We should leave.”
Just as they stood to leave, the entrance opened once more, light from the outside gleaming in. Before them, a familiar person entered their line of sight. What stood out was blonde hair, and a bow strapped to his back. This time he was alone, with no companions trailing him.
“Hey, I think that’s the guy from earlier—”
Alec forcefully turned him so that neither of them were facing the exit, their backs to the people talking. It was unlike him to act so strange, since in Jaycee’s mind, he never showed fear and displayed confidence in every move he made. The warmth from Alec’s grip radiated off of him, but it didn’t shake nor give away any sentiments to what he was thinking.
“Follow me. We’re taking a detour.”