Cassara and Sora both stared up at the brightly lit neon sign attached to the large two-story building. The sign was a giant caricature of a yellow cat with huge green eyes and blue slit pupils, its tail piercing the tavern's name: Puss 'n' Boots. People of every race and species entered and exited the building, most entering with serious expressions on their faces and leaving giggling and happy.

"This is quite the place," Sora commented into Cassara's ear, watching the people. "I'm sure you can find a mercenary in there."

Cassara felt herself frown. She hadn't been excited to hear the name of the tavern and she was even less thrilled about actually seeing it. In Frost Castle, a tavern was a place where gentlemen and their ladies conversed about politics, economics or just played a game of cards while enjoying a warm beverage. Puss 'n' Boots was a place for ruffians and the uncouth, the perverted and disgusting sludge of society.

As she watched the front door, hesitating to go inside, two men burst out of the tavern, fists and feet flying, savagely beating on each other and yelling cruel insults that caused Cassara's ears to burn. The two men fell to the ground in front of the door, the one on top crashing his fist repeatedly into the other's face to the sick sounds of breaking bones. The man on the bottom stopped struggling and, soon enough, stopped moving entirely. People walked by, giving the fight a cursory glance, but doing nothing to stop it.

"Quite the place," Sora said again when the other man got up, dusted himself off and went back into the tavern.

Cassara took in a deep breath to help her calm her nerves, releasing it slowly. Before she could hesitate again -- there could be other places with mercenaries, she thought once -- she stepped around the savagely beaten man (who was only unconscious, she noted with relief) and pushed open the door, unleashing a near-deafening blast of sound from within.

It took a moment for Cassara to distinguish one sound from another. She recognized odd, repetitive music, the chatter of fifty different languages from two hundred mouths, the clank and rattle of plates and dishes and the sizzling of something cooking from the kitchens in the back. She let her eyes wander around the large common room, which was insanely busy. Every sturdy plastic table was occupied with at least one person and waitresses scurried back and forth between them, quickly depositing food and drinks. Smoke hung low over the heads of the bar's denizens, fouling up Cassara's sense of smell and causing her eyes to tear.

Sora clung tightly to Cassara's hair, standing up on her shoulder to get a better vantage point of the room. She looked excited about her new surroundings and Cassara almost envied the tiny fairy, wishing she were just as pleased to be in this pit.

Cassara slowly made her way to the back of the tavern, where she had spotted the bar through a clearing in the smoke. Halfway there, a beefy hand touched her rear end and she gasped in surprise, whirling around to find the culprit. It was a toothless old man who was chuckling loudly, withdrawing his hand -- which only bore three fingers -- and laying it on his sheathed sword. Cassara tried to shake off the feeling of being molested and concentrated on making her way to the bar. She noticed a great number of swords, axes, spears and bows propped against the tables or held tightly by their owners. She suddenly felt very vulnerable in the presence of so many weapons and the people who knew how to use them.

She finally made her way to the bar, which was tended by a cat. Cassara remembered the building where a person could get biological modification done. This woman -- at least, it resembled a human woman to some degree -- had probably gotten bio-mods as well. Her fur, which covered her entire body, was a soft yellow. Her tufted ears had been relocated to the top of her head, above her bright green eyes with their slit pupils. She smiled at a customer, displaying sharpened teeth, handing him a drink with a clawed hand. Behind her, a long tail swished back and forth.

The cat woman turned to face Cassara, fixing the young woman to one spot with her bright green gaze. "What'll ya have?" she purred.

"I'm looking for a mercenary," Cassara squeaked quietly. The cat leaned forward, turning one of her ears towards Cassara. "A mercenary," she repeated.

"Don't know how to make that..."

"A person to hire!" Sora shouted, cupping her tiny hands around her hands around her mouth to amplify her words. "We want a man to guard us!"

The woman scratched at her chin with a clawed finger. "Take your pick," she shouted back, sweeping her arm over the crowd of barflies. "Anyone here will watch your back...for a price." Without another word, the cat turned to another customer, hastily mixing a drink with surprisingly nimble hands.

Cassara pouted and turned away from the bar. She was used to getting what she wanted, and she had expected this cat lady to comb the bar's denizens for the perfect mercenary to protect her and help take back the jewels. She stuck her hands in her pockets, looking over the riot of people. Her hands came into contact with the Cat's Eye jewel and she flinched, as she had almost forgotten the stone was there. She could use it to see which one of these men she would end up picking, saving her the time...

No, not here, she thought. If any of these cutthroats saw the valuable jewel, they would probably stampede to take it. No, better do this the old-fashioned way.

She searched frantically for an empty table, but could see nothing through the swarm of bodies and choking smoke. Eventually, she made her way towards one of the walls and the tables lining it. While there were fewer people, there were still no empty tables. She decided to take a chance and sit with someone else, maybe strike up a conversation that would eventually lead to hiring someone's services. She was very gifted in the art of speechcraft, after all.

"How about him?" Sora suggested after Cassara told her the plan. "He looks strong." Cassara looked towards where Sora was pointing and saw a huge, hulking four-armed beast sitting by himself at one of the tables. He was naked above the waist, revealing a pebble textured flesh that had been scarred repeatedly. Two of his arms were bulging with muscles, while the other two -- sprouting from his shoulders -- were small and looked like they had been seldom used. His head was triangular and sported a black topknot, two beady eyes and a thin slash for a mouth. Behind him, propped against the wall, was a long, heavy-bladed spear.

Cassara sat herself in the empty seat across from him, wincing as she felt something wet against her bottom. She grinned disarmingly at the behemoth, who only stared back at her, his face like a stone. Cassara saw Sora smiling as well, mimicking the woman's every move.

Cassara felt uncomfortable under that intense stare and looked to her left, seeing a man in a flowing, wide-sleeved white jacket sitting beside them, his feet -- clad only in sandals -- propped up on the table, his black hair covering his eyes. His arms were crossed over his chest and a sheathed sword was pinned under his feet. He looked totally asleep, which was an amazing feat in a place as loud as this. She considered going over to that table and waking the man, convincing him to be hired instead. However, Sora was right; this beast in front of her looked strong. She would need strength in her hunt.

She mustered her own strength. "Hi," she said to the beast. "I'm Cassara."

The creature used one of his smaller arms to point at his chest. "Bogark," he said, his voice rumbling.

Cassara nodded, unsure of what to say next. While a gifted speaker, she was unsure of how to proceed to the topic of mercenary business. She would have to work her way there somehow. She was surprised at the next thing to come out of her mouth. "This is my first time here."

"In bar?"

"In Port Town," she explained.

Bogark grunted, keeping his cold stare trained on her. He reached forward with one huge arm and picked up a large tankard of some drink, sloshing amber liquid on the table. It reeked terribly and Cassara tried not to gag. Sora purposefully turned her back, fluttering her wings frantically to push away the tainted air.

"You here alone?" Bogark asked after downing a large portion of his drink.

"Just me and Sora," Cassara replied, gesturing to the fairy on her shoulder.

"You need protector," Bogark said, nodding to himself.

Bogark is making the first move, she thought happily. This might be easier than I thought.

"I do need someone to protect me," she agreed. "I'm willing to hire someone."

Bogark shook his head, sending his topknot flying. "Bogark protect for free."

The man seated beside them laughed, tilting back his head slightly. Bogark, Cassara and Sora all looked in his direction, but his eyes were closed and he failed to notice their looks. His smile was broad, displaying straight white teeth.

"That line never works," he said in a light voice that carried a sharp edge.

Bogark's thin line of a mouth turned down into a sharp frown. He stood up at a height that was almost seven feet, all of his fists clenching and unclenching. Without warning, he grabbed for his spear, using the butt to smack against the lone two chair legs that were supporting the napping man. The man started to fall.

With lightning-fast speed and reflexes, the man's palm slapped against the floor as the chair clattered under him. He heaved upwards with his one hand, sending his body into a complete flip that put his feet under him, landing him in a low crouch. Cassara and Sora stared at him in awe while Bogark glared hatefully.

The man rose to his feet with a sigh. He was head-and-shoulders taller than Cassara, but Bogark was head-and-shoulders taller than him. He opened his eyes, revealing orange orbs with slit pupils. Cassara gasped involuntarily. No wonder the man had the grace and reflexes of a cat: he was biologically modified to be one. He hadn't gone through enough modification to look much more like a cat, however. Cassara wondered if the process was too expensive, dangerous or if there was some other reason entirely that kept the man looking like a regular human.

"Idiot," the cat man said, picking his sword up off the table. Bogark grounded the butt of his spear and looked defiant. "You'll wish you hadn't done that." His thumb pushed against the guard on his sword, baring an inch of gleaming steel from the sheath.

"No need to fight," Cassara said hastily. "We were just having a conversation," she explained to the cat man. He shifted his orange gaze from Bogark to Cassara and she met his strange eyes evenly, lifting her head slightly to show he did not scare her. If anything, she was scared he would get beaten to a pulp by Bogark.

The man scoffed and clicked his sword back into its sheath. He picked up his fallen chair and sat down heavily, his feet again propped up on the table. He crossed his arms across his chest, his sword held in the crook of one elbow. He narrowed his eyes to mere slits but did not close them, keeping them trained on the table beside him in anger and suspicion.

Bogark did not sit down, however. He towered over the cat man for a moment, as if expecting another challenge, then turned to Cassara. Without warning, he used one of his beefy arms to pick her up and throw her over his shoulder, using one of his smaller arms to take hold of her cloak to keep her secure. She yelped in surprise and Sora flew off her shoulder, fluttering around as if unsure what to do. She fluttered around Cassara's head, a look of concern on her face.

"Bogark protect," Bogark said in explanation. "Take Cassara to home for protection."

"Let me go!" Cassara screamed, pounding on Bogark's back with her fists to no discernible effect. To her horror, the attention she attracted resulted in laughter and crude jokes at her expense. She looked through the faces for one that might have been sympathetic to her cause, but the only one who wasn't laughing was the cat man...and he looked ready for another nap.

"Help!" she yelled at him. "Do something!"

The cat man opened his eyes and turned in her direction, noting her predicament. Over the laughing and hollering, he yelled, "Just talking, eh?"

Bogark walked through the crowd, heading for the door. The people made no move to stop him, as if this was an everyday occurrence. Maybe it was, Cassara thought. Maybe Bogark kidnaps innocent women all the time and does whatever he pleases with them. She didn't wish to think what that might include.

Sora circled Bogark constantly and the beast swept his hand in half-hearted attempts to knock her from the air. Every so often, the Vie would land and try to pry away the huge fingers locked around Cassara's cloak but had to surrender her attempts when a hand came dangerously close. She kept muttering, "Oh no, oh no, oh no," a look of terrified concern on her face.

Bogark exited the bar, stepping onto the sidewalk that was far less busy now that it had been earlier. With some surprise, Cassara noted that night had fallen while she had been inside the tavern. She also noted that the unconscious man had either been dragged away or had roused himself enough to crawl away. Blood was spattered where he had been lying.

"Just put me down and we can talk," Cassara said to Bogark. "I'm looking to hire someone to protect me while I --"

"No money," Bogark said. "Bogark protect for free. Cassara come to home with Bogark."

"No!" Cassara yelled. "Just put me down!"

The door opened to the tavern and Cassara jerked her head around to see who might come to her rescue. To her surprise and dismay, she saw the cat man, his sword held loosely in one hand. He met her eyes and nodded in greeting.

"Drop the girl, ugly," he said.

Bogark turned, two hands gripping his spear. "Girl not ugly," he said.

"No," the cat man said with a sigh. "You're ugly." He paused for a moment. "And stupid."

Cassara felt the grip on her cloak loosen and she tumbled to the pavement. Her hip took the brunt of the blow, sending sharp waves of pain up her side and down her leg. She groaned and rolled over, rubbing tenderly at the sore spot. Sora sighed in relief and landed on Cassara's shoulder again, whispering apologies in the girl's ear. Cassara was too busy to notice, as she was fumbling in her pocket, trying to get to the Cat's Eye jewel. Had she broken it in her fall? She panicked, worried her probing fingers might encounter a million shards of broken glass.

Her fingers brushed against the smooth glass of the jewel and she withdrew it, carefully inspecting it for chips or scratches. The jewel was completely unmarred. She sighed in relief.

"It's okay," Cassara reassured herself, as much as she reassured Sora. She met the fairy's eyes. "There was nothing you could do." She patted Sora on the head, her eyes fixed on the two people in front of her.

Bogark shifted his grip on his spear, pointing its heavy blade directly at the cat man's chest. The cat man drew his single-edged, slightly curved blade from the sheath, tossing the scabbard to Cassara, who caught it clumsily with one hand.

"Hold that for me," he said, turning his head to face Bogark again. "I'll need it again in a minute."

"Wh-What's your name?" Cassara stammered. She needed to know the name of her only protector before he was chopped into confetti, she reasoned.


Without another word, the man named Lang leapt towards Bogark, his sword slashing the air in front of him. Bogark, caught off-guard, redirected his spear to intercept the vicious slash. When Lang landed, he immediately threw his body into a cartwheel, spinning away from a counter thrust from Bogark's spear. He ended up behind Bogark, his sword flashing in blurring arcs that flitted across the back of Bogark's knee, diagonally across the length of his back and a short slash that cut the back of his neck.

Bogark fell down to one knee, grunting, his spear used as a crutch and keeping him upright. His smaller arms clasped at the oozing wounds on his back to staunch the flow of blood. He stopped moving when Lang's sword was pressed against his bulging neck.

"That's for trying to knock me down," Lang said, his orange eyes burning, his mouth creased upwards in a sneer. "Next comes your punishment for stealing the girl." He cocked his sword over his shoulder and prepared to bring it down on Bogark's unprotected jugular.

"Stop!" Cassara shouted, causing Lang to pause and look over Bogark's shoulder to her. He waited to hear what she had to say. Bogark had his beady eyes squeezed shut, prepared to receive the final deathblow, unaware of what was happening around him. "He let me go and you taught him a lesson. Isn't that enough?" She stood up, wincing at the pain in her hip, clutching the jewel and Lang's scabbard tightly against her chest.

"Whatever," Lang said. He lowered his sword and roughly grabbed its scabbard from her, sheathing it quickly, his movements betraying his agitation. "It's not like I was going to kill him," he said. "Not in front of a kid, anyway." He sneered at Cassara.

"I'm not a kid!" Sora shouted at Lang before Cassara could respond. Cassara winced at the loud noise right beside her ear, fighting an impulse to clap a hand over it in case she smacked Sora. "I'm older than you anyway, you little freak!"

"Look who's talking!" Lang retorted, his face flushed with anger. He leaned close to Sora and shook his fist in front of her. "I'm not the one sporting bug's wings from my ass!"

"I'm not the one with the ugly eyes!"

"Enough!" Cassara yelled, pushing Lang away with one hand to his chest. She felt wiry muscles underneath his jacket and vest, a surprise for one so slight. She began to reconsider her first impression of him. If he was able to take down Bogark -- who was still cowering in fear on his knees behind Lang -- then he might prove to be a valuable ally. He was definitely skilled with a blade and as agile as a cat -- no doubt due to his bio mods.

"Stop staring at me," Lang said, interrupting her thoughts. He seemed to avoid her eyes and take discomfort under her gaze. He busied himself with slipping his sword into his belt and fiddling with it to have it at the best possible position for comfort. When finished, he crossed his arms, slipping his hands into his wide sleeves. He looked up at her, but his eyes met the jewel, still clutched in Cassara's hand, instead. "What's that?" he asked, his voice edged with awe.

Cassara gasped and tried to hide the stone but it was too late. He had already seen it, but he hadn't made a move to take it. Maybe she could trust him after all...

"I have a business opportunity for you," she said.

Lang's room, located above the Puss 'n' Boots, was a total disaster. Clothes were strewn haphazardly around the floor, on the bed, on a rickety table and on the backs of chairs. Most of them were in horrible condition -- torn, frayed and spattered with what appeared to be blood. What confused Cassara the most was the large armoire beside the bed that looked like it had enough room to hold almost all of Cassara's impressive wardrobe with room enough for Lang's clothing.

Lang didn't seem to even notice the mess, despite Sora's loud complaints about the room's squalid conditions, which he promptly ignored. He kicked over a chair upon entering them room, tossing the month-old food boxes and beverage containers resting on it to the floor. He picked it up again and gestured for Cassara to have a seat. Cassara made a point of sitting the very edge of the chair.

Sora launched off of Cassara's shoulder and landed on the table beside her, squealing in disgust as soon as her feet touched the surface. "I think I stepped in something -- and it moved!" she complained, flapping her wings to hover an inch of the table, her violated foot kicking in the air to remove whatever might have attached itself to her. Cassara couldn't help but laugh at the comical look on Sora's face.

Lang remained standing, his arms held at his sides. His sleeves were so long that his hands disappeared completely inside the jacket, creating an image that he had no arms at all.

"A business opportunity," he prompted Cassara.

Cassara nodded. "You might have heard me talking to Bogark about hiring protection," she said.

"Anyone unarmed in Port Town needs protection," Lang replied.

Cassara ignored that. "I'm hunting down a man who stole something very valuable from me -- five somethings, actually. He's going to sell them to the highest bidder."

Lang seemed to take interest, tilting his head to one side in curiosity just like Cassara's cats did when they saw something curious. He sat down on the bed, his chin propped up with one arm. His inquisitive stare was piercing and Cassara found that she couldn't look away. She continued to explain.

"You've seen my jewel. The man stole the same kind of jewels right out of my --" She stopped herself. She had been about to say "palace" but that suddenly sounded like a bad idea. No one really had to know she was royalty, since it didn't seem she would get much more help because of it. Someone might even be so bold as to kidnap her and hold her for ransom if they discovered her true heritage. "The man stole the jewels from my father's home," she said instead. Lang didn't seem to notice the slip and she inwardly sighed in relief. "I want to get them back before he sells them and they're scattered all over Port Town."

Lang nodded. "What are you willing to pay me for the safe return of these jewels?"

Cassara shrugged. "Name a price."

Lang's lip curled in an evil smile. "Fifteen thousand."


Lang's eyes widened in surprise, obviously taken aback by the lack of hesitation at such a high figure -- a high figure for Lang, but not for Cassara to whom money was no object. She didn't have that kind of cash on her at the moment, but once she got back to Frost Castle, with the Cat's Eye jewels safely in her possession, then it was well worth the price.

"Okay," Lang said, more to himself than to Cassara. "I guess the first step is to get a hold of this guy that stole your precious jewels, eh?" Cassara nodded. "And maybe scare him a bit into talking?" Cassara shrugged. "Well, I'm very good at scaring people." He stood up at and walked to the large armoire, throwing it open and revealing a huge cache of weapons inside. There must have been weapons from all across the galaxy, Cassara figure, her eyes wide and her mouth dropped open in shock. Even Sora went quiet at the sight of the numerous swords, daggers, disassembled spears and staves, axes, bows and arrows and other things Cassara didn't even recognize.

There was one piece of clothing in the armoire, she noted. It was hidden within a suit travel bag and there was a round, polished shield in front of it. For some reason or another, she thought the suit and the shield probably went together.

Her attention drifted from the suit bag to Lang when he rummaged in one of the armoire's drawers and produced a steel gauntlet with sharp, curved talons for fingers. He grinned when he held it up to the light.

"What's that?" Cassara asked, wincing as Lang put it on. It fit neatly, covering his hands up to the middle of his forearm. It might make a good improvised shield, she thought, but holding something with those curved claws would be dangerous.

Lang clenched and unclenched his fist, tapping the claws against the metal plate under his palm. "Intimidation," he answered.