I skidded to a stop just short of the ursine colossus. Glancing back over my shoulder, I saw a bespectacled potato sack of a man with fussy beard and a bad comb-over scurry my way. He wore a dull green robe. Pinned to his scrawny chest was a leaf-shaped badge.
“Don’t hurt the bear!” he repeated.
“Why not?” I demanded. “Is this a friendly magical bear that is not truly violent, just misunderstood?”
“No,” said the new arrival. “It’s a vicious man-eater, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Carathans, numerous foreigners, several head of cattle, a prize camel, and a shipload of rare birds from the Cycloon jungles. Not to mention thousands in property damage and unpaid bar tabs.”
“The bear drinks and doesn’t pay?”
“Yes. It prefers spiced rum, brandy, or mead. The occasional daiquiri. And of course it doesn’t pay! Nor do the fleeing patrons of any bar it enters.”
“Gotcha. But is it really an unfortunate prince transformed into a dangerous bear by an evil sorcerer?”
“An escapee from the circus, where it was cruelly mistreated, who now lashes out in blind fury against an uncaring world?”
“Family pet of a rich eccentric?”
“Are you mad?”
“Then why, pray tell, should I stay my hand?”
“Because, you fool, that’s a Long-Snouted Specklebacked Indigo Mountain Bear, one of the last of its kind!”
“And that means it’s an endangered species!”
“So you can’t kill an endangered species!”
“Even to save this poor, crippled, crying beggar girl from being torn apart and eaten?”
“Yeah!” said the poor, crippled, crying beggar girl. Cute as a bucket of buttons, she had stringy red hair, big blue eyes and a constellation of freckles across her dirty face. She was also missing her left leg below the knee. “I think it wants to eat me!”
“It matters not! By the Laws of Caratha, the Long-Snouted Specklebacked Indigo Mountain Bear cannot be harmed!”
“What kind of man would sacrifice an innocent, though admittedly disheveled, child to this murderous beast?” I cried.
“I am Chief Inspector Cierrus of the Ministry of Environmental Services and Sanctions. It is forbidden, on pain of death, to engage that bear with a deadly weapon of any kind!”
The bear grinned at me, drooling blood. It cracked its bear knuckles with a loud series of pops. The beast obviously recognized Cierrus. This was not the first time the M.E.S.S. inspector had intervened to save the animal from well-deserved extinction.
“Then how do we stop its rampage?”
Cierrus shrugged. “Once he’s had his fill, Chompy will wander off somewhere to take a nap.”
“That’s what we call him.”
“You allow this beast run loose in the city, eating whomever it pleases and give it an affectionate nickname to boot?”
“People should stay out of Chompy’s way if they don’t want to be eaten!” said Cierrus.
“What about those who can’t get away?”
“Yeah, like me!” said the poor, crippled beggar girl. “I’ve got one leg! Rats ate the other when I was but a babe.”
“I’m not concerned with filthy beggar girls,” sniffed Cierrus. “My sole concern is the bear.”
“My sole concern is defending the defenseless,” I said. “I will not let this bear eat poor little——what’s your name, dear?”
“Saka, kind sir,” supplied the beggar girl.
“I’m not going to let Chompy eat little Saka here.”
“You have no choice,” said Cierrus coldly. “Meet the M.E.S.S. Squad!” He snapped his fingers. A squad of green-uniformed crossbowmen rounded a corner and assumed firing positions. Their weapons were aimed not at the bear, but at me.
This could get ugly fast. I decided to try a compromise.
“Whatever. Suppose I fight the bear without my sword?”
“You would face Chompy unarmed?” said Cierrus doubtfully.
“On your promise that your men won’t shoot me, I’ll put away my sword and wrestle the bear instead. For the girl.”
Cierrus laughed. “You want to wrestle a Long-Snouted Specklebacked Indigo Mountain Bear?”
“Of course not! I want to kill it with my sword. Do we have a deal?”
Cierrus shrugged. “No law prohibits suicide by bear! Go right ahead!”
I sheathed my blade.
Chompy growled and shrugged his barrel-sized shoulders, as if to say let’s get on with it.
Young Saka tugged at my sleeve. “You’re crazy, sir, but thanks.”
“Thank me later. If I live.”
The bear stepped forward. So did I.
Warily, we circled each another, with Saka between us. Chompy had the advantage in weight, height, speed, and reach.
But maybe not strength. For I had the Blessing of Rae.
Every hero needs a patron deity. Mine, for better or worse, was divine Rae, Goddess of the Sun. As a sign of her luminous favor, the Bright One had granted unto me the strength of eleven men, possibly twelve, whensoever the rays of the sun touched my skin. It being a sunny day, I had at least a slender hope against Chompy.
“Okay, Chompy, let’s dance!” I raised my fists.
Without warning, the bear lunged and hit me with a combination of two left jabs, a strong right and an uppercut. I landed flat on my back, staring up at the morning sky.
Great. Just great.
Someone had taught Chompy how to box!