Caratha was a proud metropolis of blue rooftops and whitewashed walls spread across the golden hills where the swift-flowing River Crownbolt meets the wine-dark Indigo Sea. Back in my humble village of Lower Hicksnittle, in dismal Darnk, I dreamed of someday visiting this City at the Center of the World. Now I was here, passing daily by the fabulous Alcazara Palace, the Consolidated Temple of The Gods, the Grand Bazaar, and all the other wonders I once knew only from The Impressionable Lad’s Picture Book of Caratha and Its Many Marvels.
I felt strangely at home in Caratha. It no doubt helped that I was, for now, one of the richest men in the city after pocketing the outrageous price the Dark Magic Society put on my head. And that my true love, Sapphrina, was the most beautiful woman in all the Eleven Kingdoms—or at worst tangled in a two-way tie with her twin sister Rubis. Mercury was right: I prospered.
Yet all was not well in the Shining City by the Sea. Along with the Society’s money came the bitter fruit of their lies. Most of the world believed I was Arden’s Archvillain—a thief, a reaver, a slayer, a pillager of towns, despoiler of virgins, stealer of candy, and kicker of puppies. Some called me a Demon Lord in human form, who ate babies for breakfast and drank blood by the bucket. Others swore I could steal souls at a glance. Many whispered I was Death’s own cousin. Or Death’s nephew.
Possibly an in-law.
My bad reputation preceded me everywhere, repelling most decent folk. Otherwise sensible people fainted or fled in panic at the mere mention of my name.
This made it tough to be a hero. But The Gods never said being their Champion would be easy. In fact, I distinctly recalled them saying it would be extremely difficult and most likely fatal. Even so, I took the job, and I meant to do it to the best of my ability. My mission was simple: defend the defenseless, fight for justice, and prevent the Dark Magic Society, Demon Lords, or other infernal powers from turning the Next Age of Arden into a thousand-year reign of darkness and despair.
That last one was tricky.
As I told Merc, I indeed spent my days wandering Caratha’s endless streets, seeking wrongs to right and innocents to protect. I punched out purse snatchers, found lost pets, rescued orphans, picked up litter, and directed the lost. I fought zombies, wererats, and other urban menaces as needed. I felt I was getting the hang of the hero business.
But I was also frustrated. Because my name inspired such terror, I dared not reveal it to those I aided. I usually went by My Name Isn’t Important or some other alias. In the guise of Only A Concerned Bystander, A Friend of Those in Need, or Just a Man Who Hates to See Anyone Burn to Death in a Tragic House Fire, I was highly regarded. But this didn’t improve my standing as Jason Cosmo.
I also wondered if my good deeds were good enough. Trouncing thugs did little to loosen the grip of Reorganized Crime. I smashed the odd demon cult or undead outbreak, while the Dark Magic Society lurked in the shadows, unseen and out of reach. And while I chased petty thieves, freedom was stolen daily from Caratha’s four hundred thousand slaves. That slavery was now tolerated in a city the Mighty Champion founded as a home for the liberated slaves of the Empire of Fear made my heart heavy with astonishment and grief. The Mighty Champion’s battle cry Freedom For All! was the city motto, stamped on every coin. The irony of using this currency to buy people seemed lost on Carathans.
Such were my thoughts as I strolled down the aromatic Street of Meat Pies, one of the hundreds of twisting cobbled lanes winding their serpentine way through the Grand Bazaar. I was polishing off a savory lamb pastry when a tumult got my attention. A fear-crazed crowd of several dozen men appeared, surging from a narrow side passage at a dead run. Most wore the plain dress of laborers or servants, but there were gentry in the mix. The men ranged from swift-footed youths to stooped graybeards hobbling along with canes. Some fat, some skinny, some lean, some stout. All moved as fast as their legs allowed. They ran close, each careless of his fellows, arms flailing, eyes bulging, chests heaving. One unfortunate stumbled to the ground as he rounded the corner. The pack did not slacken their pace, but trampled him into the paving stones. When they passed, he climbed to his feet and staggered on, bruised and bleeding.
Coming three or four abreast, the men were a flash flood of flesh flushing down the street like a mountain stream swollen by the melting snows of spring, sweeping all before it. The swell of runners crashed into a pushcart piled high with succulent sausage pastries. The cart went spinning, fell, was smashed to bits. The mob left in their wake naught but splinters and greasy smears. Shoppers and vendors ahead of the heedless herd had either to join the flight or suffer the same fate.
Thus my sigh. How many times had my presence triggered such a senseless stampede? But something set this panic-propelled pack apart from its predecessors. I could not quite discern the distinction, though I wracked my brain trying.
Then it hit me.
Literally. The crowd bumped and jostled and flowed around me as I stood my ground. But they weren’t running from me. They were running toward me. This had never happened before.
I grabbed the next man to pass. He was a burly fellow, wearing a laborer’s brown tunic marked with the yellow badge of the Upstanding Brotherhood of Fetchers, Getters, and Lifters. The frightened fetcher flailed as my big hands gripped his shoulders, but I was too strong for him to escape.
“You! Why do you run?”
“It’s huge! Let me go!”
“What is huge? What is it, man?”
His eyes rolled wildly in their sockets. “It tore a man in half! For the love of all The Gods, let me go!”
I released him. Whatever was coming would be here soon enough. All along the street, meat pie sellers slammed the shutters of their shops. I drew my sword.
Soon I stood alone. I studied the terrain with a practiced eye. The roadway was wide enough for a wagon to pass. There was ample room for swordplay if need be. But the pavement was cracked and full of potholes. I’d needs mind my footing.
A tremendous roar startled me from my observations. The beastly challenge echoed down the street, rattling windows and kicking up little whirlwinds of debris. It sounded not unlike a barrel of rabid wolverines with bad coughs rolling down a mountain during a thunderstorm, followed by a pallet of bricks, several kegs of rusty nails, and a large temple bell.
The hair on the nape of my neck went stiff as the bristles of a scrub brush. Whatever it was, it was big, mean, and angry. A dragon? No, I had heard before a dragon’s dreadful roar. This was no dragon, thank The Gods. Gorgoratops? Bullsmasher? A pearly-eyed horngrim? Perhaps it was only the hellacious hobcat, small in size but terrible in its cry. But I doubted I’d be so lucky.
At the second roar, my fight-or-flight reflex was leaning heavily toward flight.
Then I saw her. A one-legged beggar girl staggered from the alley, wide-eyed with terror. She lost her balance, dropped her crutch, and tumbled to the pavement, blubbering and crying.
I started to her. She struggled to stand.
A monstrous shadow passed over her.
The monster itself followed, coming now fully into view.
The little girl screamed like a little girl.