It was a day like any other as they made their way down the Central Highway. The crisp, chilly winter air
nipped at their skin, though because noon wasn't that far off the chill wasn't too harsh as the sun had been out
long enough to warm the air some. Kai and Kim passed the time doing what they normally did; talking. Today
their conversation had led toward what kind of sea life was usually encountered in Kai's home village.
"So there's razorfish, dolapi, sea crawlers, whitefish, helix snails and... what else?"
"Boxfish," Kai told Kim.
She frowned. "That's a dumb name for a fish."
"You got no argument from me over that," he told her. "It doesn't even look like a box, but I guess it got that
name because its natural armour gives it a bulky angular shape, even though it's more circular than square. It's got
armour plates all over its head, body and pectoral fins, and its face is completely flat."
"I've never seen an armoured fish before. Is it like a floating shell or something?"
Kai shook his head. "The rest of its body from its dorsal fin all the way down to its tail fins isn't armoured, but
its scales are still tough as nails. The first time I tried to de-scale one it took me nearly two hours, and I cut myself
on them three times. If they didn't taste so good then they wouldn't be worth the effort to catch and prepare. They
can only be caught at dawn because that's the only time of day they come up to feed. For the entire rest of the
day and night they hide in the sands at the bottom of the bay to protect their exposed tails by passing off as a
"In that case, why aren't they called rockfish?" Kim asked. "That's a much more fitting name for them than
boxfish, especially if they're not even square shaped."
Kai shrugged. "Don't ask me, I didn't name them. There's also another armoured fish we see all the time called
the platefish, and that name actually fits. They're like the boxfish with all the armour covering the main parts of
their bodies, except it's really flat like a plate. Those ones we usually just toss back in the water, though. Their
shells are even harder to crack open than the boxfish because their crevices are too small for our tools to fit
through easily, and there's barely any meat on them at all."
"I didn't know there could be that many types of fish in one place," Kim said.
"Well, technically two of them are crustaceans, but those are just the most common ones we deal with in
Garrath. There are way more types of fish out in Anoran Bay." Kai looked over his shoulder at the girl. "Didn't
you say Hurita was a port city? I'm sure they'd have way more fish to choose from than my home village."
She shrugged, and in a somewhat arrogant tone said, "My knowledge encompasses all things of significant
trade value. Fish isn't the best food for trading. It tends to spoil fast unless you cover it in salt to preserve it, and
at that point you might as well be shipping sticks of salt since any trace of the fish's original flavour would be
gone. Your father definitely knew his stuff with fishing, though, if he was able to teach you all that."
"It was my friend's father who taught me, actually. I don't think my dad did a lot of fishing."
"What did he do then?"
"He was a warrior who liked to travel. In fact, that's how he met my mom. A band of bandits rolled into her
home village one day, and my dad just happened to be passing through at the same time. He drove all of them out
and saved her village, and he and my mom hit it off right away."
"He took them out all on his own?" Kim asked, and Kai didn't miss the tone of disbelief in her voice.
"He was just that good," he told her. "As far as I know no man was ever able to beat him in armed combat,
even if he was outnumbered. Not long after that my mom left with my dad to travel Horagothien together."
"But your dad travelled alone before that, right? Even with a therasus it's pretty dangerous to go anywhere
"Not with my dad's therasus, Chaka. My mom says he was the biggest therasus she had ever seen." Kai gave
his mount a pat on the neck, to which the beast responded with an annoyed chuff. "He was even more ferocious
than Trak here if you'll believe it, and almost twice as big. Some of the bandits my dad faced in my mom's village
ran away just because they were so afraid of Chaka. Anything the wilderness tried to throw at my dad, Chaka
would tear it apart, chew it up and spit it back out."
"He sounds more like a monster than a mount."
"From what my mom told me, that's not far off. But, he was also the most well-trained monster in all of
Horagothien. He would listen to any order my dad gave him, and he never attacked anyone unless he was told to.
He was so well trained, in fact, that if my dad told him to stay he would stand perfectly still until he was told to
move again. Even if it meant having to stay still all through the night, he'd still be standing there come morning."
"Okay, now I know you're tragshitting me. No therasus in Horagothien can be trained that well."
Annoyed, Kai shot back, "Well, Chaka was."
"Therasi can be trained to a certain point, but they're still predators at heart. If you go too far trying to hammer
obedience into them they'll just rip your arm off. They're only truly obedient to someone, or something, that's
stronger than them. The only stories I've heard of therasi being trained that well came from Uxikuul, and that's
only because those uxlians are as bloodthirsty as the animals and would tear chunks out of their beasts' hides
when they disobeyed. You keep talking about Chaka in the past tense. Have you ever even seen him before?"
"Well... no, but my mom always told me stories about him and my dad when I was a kid."
Kim sighed, not in an insulting manner but rather in a way a parent would when they had to introduce reality to
a childish fantasy. "I'm not saying your mother is a liar, but don't you think it might be a little more likely that she
exaggerated some of those stories to make you happy?"
Kai took up the same stance he had always taken whenever someone back home had asked him the same
question. "Nope," he said in a simple yet definitive tone.
"Come on, Kai..."
"I know my mother, and I know how much she loved my dad. He's the one thing she would never, ever lie to
Kim rolled her eyes at that. "Whatever you say." Her expression shifted to a thoughtful look when she asked,
"You keep talking about your dad in the past tense, too. Did something happen to him?"
"There's Amar," Lukan said, interrupting their conversation.
They saw the village further down the road. At their current pace it would still take them a little while to reach
it, but they could already make out the modest sprawl of houses that made up the village's center. The houses
spread out the further they were from the center with wide pastures taking up the spaces between. They passed by
a few of those lone homes and pastures as they continued on down the main road.
"So, is there anything special about Amar?" Kai asked.
"Not of particular note, not," Lukan told him. "It's just a simple ranching village."
Kim added, "My uncle says the inn here makes a killer trag steak, but that's about it."
"Sounds like a boring place," Kai said, though the thought of a well cooked steak sounded really appetizing
after spending days out on the road eating nothing but rations and the occasional beast they hunted. Lukan was a
decent cook over the campfire, but after experiencing the different kinds of foods the inns along Horagothien's
major roads offered he had started to develop a more demanding taste.
"Not every place you visit in the world is going to be special," Lukan told him. "For every Rebachec and its
famous brewery, there's at least ten villages of barely any note that are simply doing their best to get by. You
should know that, you came from one such village after all."
"Yeah, I know."
They came by one of the trag pastures on their way toward the village. A not so smart looking trag stood at
the edge of the pasture adjacent to the road and chewed absently on one of the fence posts. As they got close to
the creature Trak let out a low growl, though Kai ignored it as the mount just being in another one of his moods.
However, as they passed by Trak swung his head out and snapped at the oblivious creature. The trag cried out in
surprise as it reared back, then made a distressed wail while lumbering over to the rest of its herd. Trak snarled
viciously as he turned toward the fleeing trag, as if readying to run it down.
Kai yanked hard on the reins. "Down, Trak! Knock it off!" In response to his command, Trak swung his head
around to look at Kai through one eye and let out a vicious hiss. "Enough!" Kai all but yelled as he gave the reins
another forceful jerk. The animal growled low in his throat, but eventually he turned his head forward again and
kept walking. Kai silently thanked Terralus that the situation ended before anything bad could happen. He glanced
over at the trag that Trak had scared and saw it grazing mindlessly with the rest of its herd as if nothing had
Kim shoved the back of Kai's shoulder. "We keep telling you, you have to stop him before he gets the chance
to flip out."
"I can never tell if he's going to lash out or if he's just in a bad mood," Kai shot back.
"He's a therasus, he's always in a bad mood. It doesn't matter what you think he's going to do, you have to
snap him out of whatever's got his attention before he has the chance to act on his urges."
"She's absolutely right, Kai," Lukan said. "Just like I told you when we were at Draton City, you need to
discourage him as soon as you hear him start to act up. Even if he's not going to attack something, by not
responding to his bad behaviour you're only enabling him."
"All right, so what exactly am I supposed to do?" Kai asked. He knew from his experience just outside Nethric
City what he had to do if his therasus went completely over the edge, but that was more of a last resort technique
rather than a response to some ornery growling. Lukan had also given him some tips when they were at Draton
City, but those were for when he was leading Trak by the reins on foot instead of in the saddle.
"In the wild when a juvenile therasus starts to misbehave its mother will nip its neck and hiss at it. She doesn't
bite hard enough to make the youth bleed, but just enough to give it a little pain to get its attention. If done
consistently, the juvenile will associate that pain with its bad behaviour and refrain from lashing out as often."
"Trak's not exactly a juvenile," Kai said as he looked down at his mount.
"It's more difficult to break an adult out of an established behaviour, yes, but it's not impossible. It just takes
consistency and a lot of patience."
Kim reached her arm around Kai and crooked her fingers like claws. "When Trak starts to growl, you need to
make a hand like this and smack the back of his neck." Kim did so to demonstrate. Kai flinched at the audible
thump her palm made on impact and how her fingers dug into Trak's scales. Trak's entire body jerked in
response. He swung his head around to look at both of them and let out a harsh hiss. Kim responded by hissing
right back at him loudly and harsh enough to force a bit of spit to pass between her teeth. Trak's head jerked back
a bit as he was obviously not expecting such a response out of such a smaller creature. His upper lip curled back
to expose his fangs as he growled. Kim smacked him again and made another hiss. Trak's growling died down,
but Kai swore he saw the animal give the girl the stink-eye before turning his head back.
"The hissing's important," Kim explained. "It's how therasi communicate their irritation with each other, so it's
the easiest way for you to communicate yours with Trak. He's not going to care how loud you yell at him, if
anything yelling might just make him roar back at you."
Kai curled his fingers the same way Kim had so he would remember the form. Nodding, he said, "All right, I'll
try that next time."
They arrived in the center of the village a half hour later. There wasn't too much activity since it was the middle
of the day and most of the ranchers were likely out in the fields tending to their herds, but there were still a few
people milling around. Amar itself was peaceful. Right away Kai could feel an air of calmness around the village
that he rarely felt from any of the other settlements he and Lukan had passed through since they left the Kuluth
checkpoint. He wondered briefly if anyone had been drafted from Amar to fight the Austranvians, because if they
were then no one else seemed at all worried or upset about it. Did these people have so much confidence in
Horagothien's government that they had no doubt their loved ones would come back home safe and sound? They
heavy presence of guards in the otherwise unremarkable village seemed to indicate that trust was well placed.
"How come there are guards here?" Kai asked as they passed two who looked to be heading out for a patrol.
Their uniforms reminded him of the guards from Orakko. "None of the other villages we've come through ever
had this kind of protection."
"Although Amar is unremarkable, its location on the Central Highway makes it a crucial supplier of food stuffs
to the surrounding towns and cities," Lukan explained. "Almost all of Orakko's meat comes from Amar, and
whatever is left over gets sent to Galathi and Draton City or is picked up by traders to be taken even further to
"If Nethric City didn't get all of its meat from Traghaven then the stuff from here would be taken there, too,"
"The Central Highway is arguably the most important road that runs through Horagothien because it connects
four of the country's five major cities in a single route. Therefore, every settlement in its path is an important
supplier to Horagothien's economy and requires proper security to keep protected. Bandits and criminals can
strike anywhere, even this close to the nation's center."
As they were speaking, a trag-led cart filled with hay came down the road toward them. The trag let out a
pathetic moan, and the man leading it by the reins on foot rolled his eyes and reached for a handful of hay to feed
it. As they passed the farmer and his trag, Trak growled again and stared at the other creature with hungry eyes.
Remembering what Kim had told him earlier, Kai crooked his fingers like claws and smacked his mount's
neck. The therasus's entire body bucked, and Trak curled his neck around to hiss viciously at his rider. Though
Kai's heart was suddenly pounding against his ribcage, he refused to give in to fear and back down. He gave the
animal another sound smack and hissed right back at him. Trak stared scornfully at Kai through one eye as his
upper lip curled back to show his fangs again, but Kai didn't relent. For a few moments rider and mount stared at
each other, then, more annoyed than pissed, Trak snorted dismissively and finally turned away. By that time the
crisis was averted, and the farmer and his trag had continued on their way none the wiser of what had just been
Kim gave Kai a solid thump on the shoulder that made him wince. "See? You've got the hang of it. Just keep at
it and in a few years you might just have a half-way disciplined therasus." Kai rolled his eyes. Although Kim was
probably exaggerating for the sake of joking, considering Trak's current temperament she was probably more
accurate than she realized.
They rode the rest of the way into the village and found the inn. It was a modest looking establishment with its
simple wooden walls that bore the marks of age and wear from decades of rain and wind. It was, however, larger
than most of the other inns Kai had come across in their travels so far, having three stories instead of two. He
imagined three-storied inns were more common in cities, though this would be the first time he would be staying in
one. The only other two he had ever seen were in Nethric City and Orakko, though both were in passing as he had
stayed in the guest quarters of the cathedral back in Nethric City and they hadn't stayed the night in Orakko. They
secured their therasi to a nearby hitching post before taking their packs and heading in. There was very little
activity within the main floor's tavern at the current time of day. A few men were sitting alone at some of the tables
eating lunch, a group of three men were playing cards together off in a corner, and the innkeeper was cleaning up
the bar. There was one patron sitting at the bar who didn't wear the same type of ranch-faring clothes as the rest
of the men in the room, which led Kai to believe he was a fellow traveller of sorts. His upper body was draped
over the top of the bar with one arm cradling a large mug of ale. The only indication that he wasn't completely
passed out was the occasional hiccup that escaped his throat now and then.
The innkeeper perked up when he saw them approaching the bar. "Good afternoon. I take it from your
baggage you're looking for a place to stay the evening?"
"You would be correct," Lukan said as he lifted one pack onto the bar so he could free his hand to fish out his
coin purse. "How much for a room for three?"
"One silver and fifty copper."
As Lukan counted out his coin, Kim asked, "Do you have a place where I can wash up?"
The innkeeper nodded. "Our washroom is on the second floor at the end of the hall. We just rinsed out and
refilled the basins this morning, so the water should still be fresh."
"Thank Terralus." Kim all but dropped her bags into Kai's arms. The extra weight of them on top of the packs
he was already carrying made him sway and almost fall over. Ignoring Kai's struggle to remain standing, Kim
fished through one of her bags for a fresh set of clothes and a small leather sack. "I haven't had a proper bath
since we left Nethric City. Take the rest of my stuff up to our room for me, would you? I'll meet you guys back
down here for lunch when I'm done."
"Can't you at least wait until we pay for our room?" Kai asked as he deposited his new burden onto the bar
next to Lukan's pack.
"Nope!" she called back as she hot-footed around the corner and up the stairs.
Kai rolled his eyes and let out an annoyed sigh.
"You were the one who wanted to bring her along," Lukan reminded him as he handed the coin over to the
"Don't remind me."
"Can I get you gentlemen anything while you're taking you bags up to your room? We have some tragmeat
stew simmering over the hearth, made fresh this morning."
"That sounds good, I'll have some of that," Lukan said.
The man nodded, then turned to Kai and asked, "And you, sir?"
"My friend told me your inn makes an amazing trag steak. I'd like to try some of it, if it's not too much
"It's no trouble at all. We'll put a fresh slab in the oven just for you." He turned back to Lukan. "Is your other
travelling companion having anything?"
"I'm sure she'll be ordering something when she's finished with her bath," Lukan said as he reached into his
coin purse again. "How much for the stew, steak, and two ales to wash them down?"
"Fifty eight copper." When Lukan handed the coin to the innkeeper, the man said, "I'll have the stew and ale
ready for you by the time you're done offloading your belongings. The steak will take a little longer to cook, I
hope that won't be a problem."
"It's no problem," Kai said as he gathered up all his and Kim's packs. "Thank you."
Their room was on the third floor facing the south-east. From their window they had an unobstructed view of
the fields and pastures that spread out for a couple miles and the open grasslands stretching out beyond. On the
horizon they could see the Ashen Mountains, the lone mountain range of the southern Horitan province. In the
middle of the range standing taller than all the mountains around it was a single volcano that coughed out a steady
stream of black smoke high into the sky. Kai remembered Father Kenneth mentioning that volcano's name at one
time during his childhood lessons, but for the life of him he couldn't remember what it was. It was on the tip of his
tongue, though. His mind kept going to Orada and Oraka, but those didn't sound right to him. He set it aside in
his mind for the time being. They'd be able to see the mountain range in the east well into the Galathien province,
so he was sure the name would come back to him at some point in the coming weeks of their trip. Seeing the
volcano made Kai realize just how far they had travelled. It felt like only a couple weeks since he had left Garrath,
the only home he had ever know since he was born, and here he was literally half-way across the country. Once
he was done unpacking he spent a few more minutes simply watching the smoke rise, and he felt a sense of elation
at the thought that among all the rest of the kids in Garrath, and probably most of the adults, he was the first to
ever see an active volcano.
"Enjoying the view?" Lukan asked as he set aside the last of his own belongings.
"I've never seen a volcano before, or even mountains now that I think about it. Just taking in the sight while I
can, since I won't be able to see them once we get deep into Galathien."
"Don't worry, you'll get the chance to see them again soon," Lukan said as he headed toward the door. "Let's
find someplace to sit for our lunch."
Kai spent a few moments removing his armour and gauntlet and putting on his leather glove before the two of
them went back down to the main floor. The moment they found a table the innkeeper came by to give them their
ale and Lukan's stew. "Your steak is cooking now," he told Kai. "I guarantee it'll be one of the best steaks you've
ever tasted. We managed to purchase some special Eurian spices from a recent merchant caravan. They're so
good that our cook has been putting them on almost everything."
"That sounds great, I can't wait." When the innkeeper walked away, Kai turned to Lukan and said, "This place
is a lot nicer than some of the other inns we've been in."
"Like I said before, this village is on one of the most travelled highways in Horagothien so it sees a lot of
traffic, especially from merchants. As such, it has a reputation to uphold if it wants to continue business."
"But, it's the only inn for miles. Wouldn't anyone who passes through Amar have to stay here regardless of its
reputation?" Kai asked.
"Yes, but most men are less inclined to haggle for cheaper rooms and food if the accommodations are already
worth the price. Merchants would also be more likely to give bargains for their wares to the places they like. Word
tends to travel far and quickly between merchants, you can ask Kim. A good recommendation by a well travelled
merchant will ensure continued business from others in the future, as merchants are always happy to trade with
"Is it hard to find honest shops and inns?" Kai asked.
Lukan nodded. "You'd be surprised. I arrived in Horagothien at Zimnroff Edge, the port city on the south-
easternmost point in the Norrim province, and on my way north toward Garrath I passed through a village called
Frome. They leave their bed sheets unwashed for weeks on end, and they overcook all of their food to the point
of nearly burning it. I'm glad I had opted to sleep in my tent on the outskirts while I was there, because the next
morning I overheard some other travellers complaining about bad rashes and itching. It's not uncommon for lice
to infest inns when the bedding isn't washed regularly. I can tell you that any sane merchant who even just hears
about that will do the same thing I did and camp outside, which means less coin for that inn's owner."
"You travelled a long way in Norrim just to get to a small village like Garrath," Kai remarked. "It seems like a
big trip for such a small place. How were you sure you would find someone like me there?" He made sure to
refrain from mentioning anything about angels or the Watchers since they were in public.
"We always try to search through remote locations for new members as much as the cities and towns. In fact,
we prefer looking in small villages like yours since a new recruit's absence from their home wouldn't be widely
noticed, whereas in a city someone may know dozens of people who would notice they were gone, which means
more lines for enemies to potentially trace back to their loved ones."
"That's the only reason?" Kai asked. "It still seems like a long way to go when it's more likely you wouldn't
"True. If I'm being completely honest, a large reason I chose Garrath was to visit Father Kenneth. He and I go
back a ways, we used to work together a lot before he was transferred to his... I suppose you could call it his
"Really? He didn't seem to recognize you when you two reconnected."
"We hadn't seen each other in over two decades," Lukan ran a hand over his short beard when he added, "and
I changed my looks since last we met. I almost didn't recognize him, either. His age has definitely caught up with
"Hold on. If you knew who Father Kenneth was and what kind of post he was transferred to, how come you
needed directions when you showed up?" Kai asked. "The chapel is the biggest building in Garrath, it's pretty
hard to miss. My friend's ranch is also pretty out of the way for you to check first if you're coming in from the
Lukan looked to his left, then to his right, as if scanning the room to make sure no one was listening. He and
Kai were seated in the middle of the room, but the few other patrons in the tavern were all spread out outside of
earshot and were otherwise preoccupied with their own food or company. Nevertheless, Lukan leaned in and
spoke softly so as not to be overheard by anyone else. "When I arrived in Garrath I felt something that I
recognized as... a familiar presence. I decided to investigate it before visiting Kenneth, which is what led me to
you. I still had to confirm my suspicions with Kenneth, but in my gut I knew you were just the person I was
Lukan leaned back in his seat as the innkeeper arrived with Kai's lunch. "Here you go, sir. Enjoy."
The steak was well-done, cooked to an appetizing light brown. Kai liked his meat rare, and this steak was a
little more cooked than he usually preferred, but the aroma that wafted from it made him forget all about that and
even caused his mouth to start watering a little. The smell of the fresh cooked meat was mixed with another scent
that was woody and a little sharp to his nostrils, but not unpleasantly so. He noticed the meat was sprinkled with
small black speckles which he assumed was one of the spices the inn keeper mentioned his cook was going nuts
over. He cut into the meat and took his first bite, and his taste buds were met with a spicy sensation he had never
tasted before in his life. It prickled his tongue and left a pleasant woody aftertaste in the back of his throat, which
ended up being a wonderful compliment to the steak's natural flavour as the meat's sweet juices all but oozed out
of the piece as he chewed it.
"What do you think of the steak?" Lukan asked.
"It's great!" Kai waved the innkeeper back over. "Excuse me, what is this spice exactly?"
"The merchant we bought it from called it black pepper. Apparently there are different colours of pepper, like
white, green, orange, red, and even pink if you can imagine it, but the black stuff is the most common and a big
favourite among the Eurians."
"I love it! The meat is great, too. I've never had steak like this before."
The innkeeper smiled. "Our chef will be happy to hear that. He takes great pride in his cooking, he actually
used to work as a top chef in Galathi City for the Grand Marshall's staff before he came here to settled down for
his retirement. He's the best thing that's ever happened for our little inn."
"He definitely lives up to his reputation," Kai said before sawing off another slice of his steak and stuffing it in
The man nodded. "Well, if there's anything else either of you want, just give me a wave."
Kai let out a muffled "thank you" through his food as the man returned to the bar. His mother had taught him
to never speak with his mouth full, but the steak was so good he just couldn't bring himself to stop shovelling in
slice after slice for even a moment. He ended up finishing his meal before Lukan, though the older angel wisely ate
slower to savour the flavour of his stew.
"That was amazing," Kai said after swallowing his last bite. "I know what I'm having for dinner tonight, too."
"If you enjoyed it that much then I just might try it, too," Lukan said between sips of the last bit of his stew.
Picking up where they had left off when his food had arrived, Kai asked, "So, what was Father Kenneth like
when he was younger?"
"He was always a devout man, but he was definitely wilier than he is now. We found him while he was still in
the Breniston University studying for his priesthood. He was actually about to be expelled before we stepped in if
you can believe it."
Kai stopped his mug of ale that he had just started raising to his mouth. "Father Kenneth? Expelled? No way,
not the stuffy old priest I know."
"Oh yes. He had a penchant for seeking knowledge and asking questions every chance he had. He'd always
question his teachers on everything and call out any inconsistency he found in their lessons. He'd spend house in
the library reading texts that were well above his grade. At one point he even found an inconsistency in one of
them regarding something mentioned about the battle between Krazatan and Rekai, and he went so far as to
inform the librarian and suggest that the centuries' old text be re-written to correct the error."
"Wow, I take it they didn't like that."
"They did not. In any other profession he would have been considered a model student for his intellect and
thirst for knowledge, but unfortunately with most religions in Pangaea faith and obedience is most valued and
intelligence is punished if it undermines those two traits."
"How did you keep him from being expelled?" Kai asked.
Lukan finished the last spoonful of his stew and pushed the bowl aside before leaning in again. "We have a
few people on our side in the university who hold very respectable positions," he said in a low, quiet voice. "We
got them to... persuade his teachers not to report him. Of course, even with our initial intervention Kenneth would
have still been kicked out if he continued his ways."
"Did you get him to stop asking so many questions after that?"
"Absolutely not. A man with a mind as inquisitive as his is an asset to our cause. No, we didn't get him to stop
asking questions. We just taught him... subtler approaches to finding the answers he was looking for."
"So you trained him to be some kind of covert agent?" Kai asked, also keeping his voice down.
"That's exactly what we did. We're always on the lookout for folks like you and I, but when it comes to
extended operations that take years and years people like Kenneth are far more valuable. You and I don't age like
everyone else, so if we were to spend decades in one place we'd run the risk of being caught when we stay
looking the same while everyone around us grows older."
"What about Gwen?" Kai asked, remembering the ice angel in Nethric City who was the acting high priestess
of Order for the region. "She's like us, too. Aren't people going to start asking questions when she doesn't change
after a while either?"
"She's an exception. She's a very persuasive woman, and we needed someone with her prowess in a position
of power that put her in close proximity with Grand General Moragin. But, yes, after a while she'll have to step
down before people start to notice her stunning good looks never change."
Kai was still trying to wrap his head around everything he had just learned about the stuffy old priest from his
home village. "This is unbelievable. Father Kenneth used to spy on people for you? I would never have expected
it. I didn't think that old man was capabl
"Gwen worked with the two of you, too?" Kai asked.
Lukan nodded. "I was the one who trained her, and when she became a full-fledged member of our group I
would take her with me on missions. Kenneth came into the picture sometime later, but once the three of us were
together we were able to get into just about anywhere we wanted. Priests of Order are welcome just about
anywhere they go, so Kenneth would insert himself among a court's staff under the guise of an instructor and
preacher. Some courts were more difficult than others to infiltrate, and often times we needed a feminine touch to
gain entry, which is where Gwen stepped in. Any information uncovered between the two of them would be fed to
me, not just about the individuals within the court but the layouts of buildings, secret entrances, guard rotations
and patrol routes, and anything else that would aid me in acting on what they found."
It was Kai's turn to look around to double-check that they weren't being overheard. Most of the men who were
just in the tavern for lunch had since finished their meals and headed back to their pastures, so the room was
emptier than it had been when they arrived. The man at the counter had just ordered another drink so it was
unlikely he'd be sober enough to notice any conversation happening around him, much less hear one happening
several tables away. Still, Kai made sure to lean in closer before whispering, "When you say 'act on', do you
mean, like, assassinations?"
Lukan shook his head. "No, we always look for subtle, non-violent methods of carrying out our missions. We
may incriminate a corrupt individual to have him thrown in prison or incite a rebellion to overthrow a tyrant, but
taking them out ourselves is always a last resort. There are systems in place in the nations of Pangaea designed to
prevent violence and chaos from spreading, and those systems need to succeed in order to maintain stability in
the world. If we took matters wholly into our own hands we'd be robbing mankind of that opportunity. Instead,
we simply... nudge certain things in the right direction to help those systems fulfill their intended purposes when
the need is greatest. To do anything more would make us no better than the very elements and individuals we fight
It made Kai feel better about being part of the Watchers knowing they weren't just a bunch of assassins killing
anyone they perceived as a threat. He still didn't know how to feel about stuffy old Father Kenneth being some
kind of master sleuth in his youth. Before he could ask anything else about the priest, though, he spotted Kim
coming down the stairs. She looked remarkably more refreshed than when she went up. She wore a clean, loose
fitting tunic and light, slim-fitting trag-hide pants that were tailored more as inside wear than something meant for
the saddle and country side. Her short light auburn hair was still damp from her bath, though it looked to be neatly
combed. The leather bag she had brought with her was now full with what Kai guessed were her dirty clothes.
"I definitely needed that," Kim said with a sigh as she approached their table. She frowned when she noticed
the empty plate and bowl that used to hold Kai and Lukan's lunches. "Did you two really get food without me?"
she asked accusingly.
"Maybe if you had stuck around long enough to unpack we could have ordered something for you," Kai shot
back playfully. "It was so good, too. Your uncle definitely has a taste for great steak."
"Would it kill you to act like a gentleman for once in your life?"
"I will once you start acting like a lady."
She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I need to ask where the laundry room is anyway so I can wash my clothes.
Might as well order my food at the same time."
"The chef managed to acquire some black pepper from a trader and has been putting it on everything," Lukan
chimed in. "Kai was head over heels with his steak because of it."
Kim grinned. "Of course a simple boy like him would be."
It was Kai's turn to frown now. "Hey, it was great. Have you even tasted pepper before?"
"Did you forget who my dad is?" Kim shot back with a smug smile. "We put spices you've never even heard
of on all our everyday meals. Heck, pepper is as common to us as table salt. But, I do like the sound of a nice
black pepper tragsteak. Thanks for the suggestion, Lukan."
"Hey, I was the one who found out about it!" Kai argued, but Kim ignored him as she sauntered over to the
As Kim placed her order and asked where the laundry room was, the patron at the bar roused a bit from his
drunken stupor. He looked around until his gaze found Kim, and Kai spotted a devious gleam in his eyes before
he reached over and grabbed her ass. A sudden rush of fury overtook Kai's senses as he sprang out of his chair
and marched over, but he stopped when Kim, without a moment's hesitation or hint of remorse, reared back and
plowed her fist into the drunkard's face. The man crumpled out of his chair and hit the floor like a ton of bricks.
Kai was so taken aback by what just happened that he found himself unable to move his feet. He just stared at the
girl whole managed to down a man close to twice her weight in one hit.
"I'm so sorry, Miss," the innkeeper said, clearly flustered and distressed over what transpired as he raced
around the bar to the other man. Grabbing the drunk by the arm and lifting him to his fee, the innkeeper sternly
said, "Sir, you've clearly had enough. You need to leave."
"Leave!?" the drunk cried out, incensed by the suggestion. "That bitch just slugged me, and you're telling me I
have to leave?" The man wiped his sleeve under his nose to clear off some of the blood that trickled out of one of
his nostrils, but it did nothing to staunch the flow and created a messy red streak across his upper lip and right
"Sir, I don't tolerate inappropriate behaviour in my establishment."
"I'm not even done my drink yet!"
Kim crossed her arms and said, "You should have thought about that before you decided to act like a wasted
Furious, the man tried to surge toward Kim. The innkeeper managed to hold him back by the arm while Kai
rushed in and placed himself between the drunk and Kim. The man's angry, glassy eyes retrained on Kai since he
was his new closest target. "You want to talk about indecent? Just look at the way she's dressed. The whore was
practically asking for it!"
The fury from before reignited in full force in Kai's stomach. "You take back your words right now you son of
a bitch," he all but growled through clenched teeth. No one spoke about or harassed one of his friends that way.
He balled his hands into tight fists as he fought the powerful urge to reach for his sword.
"Gentlemen, please," Lukan said as he moved between them. He placed one hand on the drunk's shoulder and
the other on Kai's. "Let's all just calm down." At Lukan's words Kai felt a warm, soothing sensation travel from
his shoulder into his core. The roiling anger in the pit of his stomach faded almost instantly. He felt like he was
floating in a warm pool, the sensation was so nice and relaxing that he could scarcely remember what he was so
angry about. The drunk's angry face had shifted to a somewhat lax expression, which made Kai realize that the
warm feeling was the older angel's doing.
Lukan gave his full attention to the drunk. "Please, sir, you've had a bit too much to drink, you're not in the
right frame of mind right now," he reasoned as he pulled a scrap piece of cloth from his pocket and handed it to
the man for his bloody nose. "I'm sure you don't want to cause a scene and get the guards involved. Just
apologize to this young woman, go for a walk to clear your head, and we'll all forget this ever happened."
The man, still looking belligerent but remarkably calmer, snatched the cloth out of Lukan's hand and pressed it
to his nostril. "Yeah, I'll leave, but I'm not apologising." Kai had the sudden urge to grab the man and beat an
apology out of him, but Lukan dosed him with another wave of calming warmth that kept him rooted in place. The
drunk defiantly grabbed his mug of ale and took it with him out of the building, all the while muttering profanities
under his breath.
"I'm very, truly sorry you had to endure that, Miss," the innkeeper said when it was clear the crisis was over.
"You wanted to order the pepper steak, right? It's on the house, I insist."
Kim smiled. "Well, in that case I think I can overlook what happened just this one time."
More at ease now, the innkeeper said, "I'll make sure our chef gives you the best cut we have. Now, you said
you also wanted to use the laundry room, right? It's on the second floor next to the---"
A high-pitch screech tore through the inn from outside, accompanied by a man's panicked scream. Kai's heart
shot up into his throat as he recognised all too well that screech. He rushed out the front door and toward the
hitching posts. There he found Trak pulling furiously against his reigns as he snapped his jaws at the drunk from
earlier. The man was on the ground with his back against the side of the building. The mug the man had taken with
him was on the ground a few feet away, and the stain marks of ale across the cobblestone road looked like they
had splattered in Trak's direction. Kai caught the sheen of liquid on a patch of Trak's scales near the base of his
tail. From the looks of it, it seemed the man had thrown his mug at the therasus in his drunken frustration, though
whether it was an accident or on purpose was anyone's guess. Thankfully Trak's reigns were too short for him to
reach the man, but the man couldn't get away without risking putting himself within biting range. To make matters
worse, the wood of the hitching post started to creak and splinter under the pressure of Trak's yanking.
Kai rushed toward his mount. He couldn't climb into the saddle and pull Trak's head back like he did outside
Nethric City since his reigns were tied up, and if he tried to untie them the animal would instantly maul the drunk.
He remembered what Kim had taught him as they were riding into Amar. He ran to the front of Trak, ducked
under his therasus's neck and put his body against the animal's chest. He curled his fingers like claws, smacked
Trak's neck and hissed as loud as he could. Trak hissed in response and tried to rear his head back to take a bite
out of Kai instead, but Kai had put himself so close to the base of Trak's neck that the animal couldn't bend far
enough to reach him. Kai didn't let up as he smacked Trak again and continued to hiss. The animal thrashed
against his reigns as he snapped his fangs and whipped his head left and right. Kai held on for dear life as he
smacked Trak's neck over and over again. For a moment he thought he would lose his grip and get torn to shreds,
but slowly his therasus stopped thrashing and eventually calmed down. Kai tried to ease his beating heart as Trak
relented, and although the animal continued to growl low in his throat he knew the crisis was over.
Kim and Lukan came to Kai's side as soon as it was safe to do so. "That was a damn close one," Kim said.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, somehow," Kai told her as he nudged the now calmer Trak away from the other man.
"You acted quick and did well getting him under control," Lukan told him. "Good job."
"I'm just glad I didn't end up being the one getting torn up instead."
With the danger passed and the therasus no longer snapping at him, the drunkard struggled to his feet. "What
in the world is wrong with your therasus, boy? It almost killed me!"
"You should know better than to piss off a therasus, regardless of who it belongs to," Kai told him. The man
scowled as he half marched, half hobbled toward Kai. He raised an accusing finger and opened his mouth to say
something. Trak, sensing the threat in the man's approach, let out a furious hiss that had the drunk stumbling back
in fear and falling on his ass. At that moment Kai felt more pity for the man than anger. "Please, just leave."
The man let out a frustrated grunt as he got back to his feet and stalked around Trak to leave. As he passed
Kai heard him mutter, "Stupid brat and his stupid lizard." Trak chuffed in annoyance as he reared his tail to the
side and swept it under the man's feet. The drunk let out a surprised cry before he landed face-first in a pile of
trag dung in the middle of the road. Kai tried to stifle a laugh at the man's misfortune, though Kim was unrelenting
as she howled hysterically. The drunk cursed viciously as he tried desperately to scrub the shit off his face. He
turned to look at Kai and opened his mouth again to yell. Trak curled his neck to look at the man dead on, and in
doing so formed a sort of protective semi-circle around Kai with his body. The therasus pulled his upper lip back
to bare his fangs as he growled. The man wisely shut his mouth, but he defiantly flipped his middle finger at Kai
before stumbling down the street.
"Now that was entertainment," Kim said as she wiped a tear from her eye. "Almost makes up for what he
"I'm just glad it's all over," Kai said. Looking around he noticed a small crowd had gathered to witness the
commotion, but now that it was all over the villagers slowly dispersed and returned to their own tasks. Even a
couple of guards who had shown up late to the action turned to go about their own business when it was clear the
danger was passed.
"I think we've all had enough excitement for one day," Lukan said. "Let's head back inside."
"I'll join you two in a minute, I just want to make sure Trak's reins are still secure," Kai said. Lukan nodded
before he and Kim went back inside. Kai checked the reins like he said he would, but when he was done he waited
for a bit until he was sure Lukan and Kim weren't coming back out for anything else. He then looked up and down
the street to make sure no one else was paying attention to him. When he was satisfied he wasn't being watched,
he turned to his mount, gave him a firm pat on the neck, and whispered the two words he never thought he'd ever
utter in his presence. "Good boy." Trak merely snorted as he turned back to the hitching post and started drinking
from a nearby trough. As much of an explosive ball of rage Trak was, every now and then he did something that
proved he wasn't all bad. Kai wasn't going to give up on him. One way or another, he'd train him into a half-way