I coughed as I stepped out of the smoldering husk of my tavern. The fumes were thick in my nose and lungs. I sucked in deep breaths of the warm summer air and tried to expel from my chest.
There was a storm brewing within me, one that I had not felt in what seemed like a lifetime ago. The storm reminded me of who I really was, though I was not ready to become that man again. My powers were gone, but my rage and my will were not. If I was not careful, the storm would release and the quiet life that I’d known for the past year would be shattered.
But someone had destroyed the tavern. My tavern. And if that wasn’t enough, they had kidnapped one of my staff.
The first year of running a tavern had been difficult. We did not have an established name, our revenues were meager, and our customers were few and far between. But things were turning for the better in recent weeks. The barroom was busy on most nights. We had patrons that were kind and loyal. And today, I won the Summerfest Brewmaster’s Best Ale Cup.
Things were finally going well.
But now my tavern lay in ruin.
I breathed deeply as the scenes inside the burnt walls ran through my mind. My chairs and engraved tables were charred beyond repair. The long block of mahogany that made my bar’s countertop had been turned black and brittle. The ceiling above the dining room table in the main hall had collapsed. The fire even reached the storage room, burning several of my barrels and boiling my beer.
I began to laugh. I couldn’t help but see the humor of the situation. My voice rang out into the night. My chest convulsed with air and sound.
“They have no idea… they have no idea of what’s coming.”
“Master…” Charm said with her typical expression, although there was a hint of worry in her voice.
I wiped my eyes and looked over at her. “Have you found her?”
Charm hesitated, then muttered a spell. She had one hand clutched on the dress that Elsa had given her. And with her other hand was a glowing sphere. It was a spell that I’d seen her use before, but I did not recognize the incantation, nor did I understand how the spell worked.
“Charm has her location,” Charm said.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We sped through the empty streets like a pair of dark wolves. If anyone turned their eyes in our direction, they would have seen only shadows.
I felt my gateless body strain as my mind pushed to keep up with Charm. Though she did not the power of awakened gates either, she seemed to be minutely affected by the hindrance.
She did not slow her pace as we reached the end of another street. It meant that whoever we were following was also moving at a fast pace. I glanced over at her and found a flat impassive expression on her face. Even by exerting our bodies at this level, she didn’t break a sweat or let a wrinkle crease her brow.
But despite not having the Gate of Breath open, I was able to maintain my speed. Two-hundred years of experience and training didn’t count for nothing. The muscle memory was still there, as was the connection between my mind and body.
We turned a corner.
“How much farther?” I asked, feeling my body nearing its limits.
“Three blocks,” Charm said. “When we arrive, Charm will dispose of the arsonist.”
“No,” I said. “He’s mine.”
“Master is not in a state to fight. The arsonist may be dangerous.”
“Secure Elsa,” I said. “That’s all you need to worry about.”
We ran down two more blocks, made another turn, and sped down another.
A moment later, I saw a figure in the distant darkness. A large, hooded shape, moving fast, incredibly fast, for someone with so much mass. It was almost unnatural. Then it clicked. No wonder it’d taken us so long to catch up. He had the Gate of Breath open.
Slumped over his shoulder was Elsa. Her body was limp. I hoped that she was only unconscious.
He heard our steps as we closed in and turned to see us. I would have preferred to launch a surprise attack, but my options were limited as they tended to be nowadays.
Instead of picking up his speed, he slid to a stop in the alley and turned to face us.
We matched his movements, coming to a stop several paces across from him.
His eyes and nose were covered by his hood, but I could see his smile and the sharp yellow teeth behind it. Elsa’s eyes were closed, but her color looked okay.
“He told me only to start the fire,” the man said. “But if you’re here, it means I can kill you. Can’t leave any witnesses.”
I leaped forward, throwing a punch at his face. He deflected quickly, blocking it with his right forearm. I came at him with a second fist. He couldn’t respond easily—that arm and shoulder was carrying Elsa. He jumped backward, throwing her sideways, toward the ground to free his left arm. I followed with a third punch. He blocked that one as well and responded with his own now that his hands were free.
I caught his fist with crossed arms. It was a mighty blow, a real sledgehammer. I would have broken both my arms if I didn’t have the know-how to deflect the force of such a blow. I caught it like a thrown ball, slowing it before it came to a stop, and displacing its power across my whole body. It threw me back a dozen paces, and I fell to a knee as I slid to a stop.
I let out a breath. Nothing broken, but it left me winded.
He barked a laugh. “Do you see my power?”
“Do you see your hostage?” I said.
“Huh?” He looked around for Elsa, but she was not where he had thrown her.
While I was attacking, Charm had swooped in and caught Elsa. It was a strange sight to behold. Charm, the placid smaller girl, was holding Elsa in her arms like a freshly baked pie.
“She is alive but unconscious, Master,” Charm said neutrally.
The arsonist sucked in a sharp breath. “Bitch!” He moved forward at Charm, but I jumped in front of him, kicking him in the hip. It pushed him backward, but he did not fall.
“Go,” I said to Charm.
“Master should take Elsa. Charm will fight.”
“No, I already told you,” I said. “I will handle this. He burned down my tavern. He’s mine.”
“Master does not have any gates open while his opponent has one. Master is physically overmatched.”
“I’ll be fine. I beat that Radiant didn’t I?” I said.
“Through trickery and self-injury,” Charm said. “The risks are too high.”
“Cassia will be expecting us,” I said, growing impatient. “Take Elsa and leave.”
Charm began setting Elsa down. “Charm will-“
“You will leave!”
“But Master should not-“
“I HAVE COMMANDED YOU!”
The words came out of me before I could hold my tongue. I had not meant to say them.
When I turned to look, the alley was already empty. It was the second time I’d broken my promise.
The hooded giant began to laugh. “That was dumb of you,” he said. “That one seemed dangerous. But now it’s just you and me.”
The man pulled down his hood and I recognized his face instantly. It was the bear man who had made the mistake of punching Galston.
“I-it’s you… Gerlanda!”
“My name is not Gerlanda!” He shrieked. “I do not know who told you that name, but it is not mine. My real name is-“
“Yeah yeah whatever,” I said, brushing away his sentence. “Did Mideon order you to burn my tavern?”
Gerlanda frowned at being interrupted, but then he broke into a grin. “He did. Then I saw the girl. Figured it’d be a good souvenir for the boss.”
I nodded. “You killed the pumpkin man.”
“Who? Oh, you mean that old man with the wagon? I only gave him a light tap,” Gerlanda said with a smirk. “Heh, I guess I just don’t know my strength.”
I shrugged. “Well, it’s not my problem. He’s not part of my tavern.”
“How about that girl?” Gerlanda said, his grin growing uglier. “Let me tell you, after Mideon’s done with her, I’m going to ask for a turn. Then I’ll hand her off to my buddies.”
“Hmm…” I said. “Yes, I would have to say that is my problem. She’s one of my staff, you see, and for a kidnapping, I’d typically just break a couple of legs.” I crouched slowly and tightened my fist. “But I’m sorry to say that you’ve caught me in a bad mood.”
Gerlanda laughed. “Who do you think you are?”
“Haven’t you figured it out?”
Gerlanda frowned, as if unsure he had missed something.
I smiled. “I’m the one who’s going to kill you.”