The Kingdom of Dawnshire: 237 AG
For as long as they could remember, the citizens of the tiny village of Peargrove had always been warned to be wary of cloudy weather.
Now, to be clear, this wasn’t out of any concern for the weather itself. Dawnshire, the kingdom in which Peargrove was situated, was actually a fairly temperate country, with long summers, winters that weren’t too cold and was far enough in-land that it rarely suffered from storms of much renown. A cloud-filled sky in Dawnshire might signify some oncoming rain, or a bit of a chill, but it was unlikely to be much more of a threat beyond that.
But it wasn’t the clouds themselves that were the danger. No, it was what lay behind them.
Cloudreavers. Not monsters, not beasts, but men of the worst kind.
They would drop from the clouds, the stories said, like a vulture swooping down from the skies, and take or burn anything you value. Money, gold, possessions, even people were taken in their raids, as they carried their plunder back to their strange Cloudships, craftworks that, true to their name, could sail upon the very clouds themselves. Even Prime, during his long and troubled reign, had been unable to stomp out their menace for good.
Still, it had been nearly 80 years now since the Cloudreaver Empire had been at its peak. 80 years since almost every secluded house or town had required some form of defense from the skies or face being plundered and sacked until there was nothing left. Time had reduced the Cloudreaver menace to a fraction of what it once was and now all that was left were a few marauding bands with outdated Cloudships, scavenging whatever they could.
Certainly, every once in a while, one heard stories of a far-off village being razed to the ground by a surprise Cloudreaver attack, but, as far as the citizens of Peargrove were concerned, those stories were the rare exceptions rather than the rule.
As such, it was safe to say the entire village was taken badly by surprise that cloudy day when several dozen ropes suddenly dropped from the sky, closely followed by nearly four dozen reavers, each heavily armed and ready for plunder.
“Round ‘em up!” Marrlo, the Cloudreaver Captain shouted as thatched huts burned around him. “I want every man, woman and child brought here immediately!”
Screams rang out as groups of sharp-teethed Cloudreavers broke their way into houses, roughly dragging out the inhabitants. Pleas went unheard as the townsfolk were dragged into what was once the village square. Children clung to parents in fear as the Cloudreavers sneered at them and shoved them around roughly, like a herd of livestock.
One woman, picked out by a couple of leering Cloudreavers, was dragged from the crowd and pulled towards a nearby hut. She fought and screamed as she went, but the Cloudreavers were too strong. A young girl, barely 7 or 8, broke away from her sister’s grasp and ran after them.
“Get away from my Ma!” She screamed as she sank her teeth into one man’s leg.
The man hissed in pain. “Oh, you little-!”
He shook the young girl off and delivered a sharp kick to her face. The girl’s head snapped backwards and she tumbled painfully to the ground. Her mother let out a shriek as she fell, but she was still restrained by the second man.
The girl, Rana, tried to get to her feet with a whimper, but the Cloudreaver delivered a hefty boot straight to her chest. Rana fell back, both coughing and sobbing from the pain. The man growled as he delivered another kick to the prone girl.
“You little shit!” He snarled. “You really think you can fuck with me and get away with it?!”
“Ahem.” A calm voice loudly clearing its throat made the Cloudreaver flinch.
Hesitating, the Cloudreaver looked up to see a masked man standing in front of him. The man was rather thin, dressed in a fine blue tunic and a fanciful green cloak, the likes of which almost certainly cost a small fortune. A shimmering bejewelled mask was perched upon his face with almost practised ease. The mask covered most of his features, but left his mouth visible. And from the expression on his lips, this man was not happy.
“B-Baron Kristalknight!” The Cloudreaver backed away, stuttering. “I-I-I-!”
“If I recall correctly,” Kristalknight said in a dry voice, “your instructions upon this task were to avoid causing unnecessary injury to these people until they were safely within our territory. Your actions here will not only make them more difficult to transport, but will also anger my master.” His gaze sharpened. “I hope you understand that Emperor Gier does not like his merchandise damaged.”
“Y-You have my apologies, Sir Baron!” The Cloudreaver said, bowing deeply.
“Good.” The Baron said. He glanced down at the bruised and whimpering form of Rana. “Treat her injuries and take her back to the rest. After that, you may do with the woman as you will.”
The Cloudreaver’s eyes lit up. “Thank you, Sir Baron!”
Baron Kristalknight turned away as the Cloudreaver called over a couple of his fellows to take the injured girl, before turning his attentions back to Rana’s mother.
He ignored the screams as the woman was dragged into a nearby hut. He was not particularly comfortable turning his back on these mercenary scum, but he knew they had enough common sense to try anything.
He was Gifted after all. And only a fool attacked a Gifted who was expecting them.
Kristalknight casually walked across the village square, ignoring the terrified looks the villagers shot his way. He spotted the Cloudreaver Captain, Marrlo, watching the proceedings with a grim face.
“How is our objective proceeding, Captain Marrlo?” Kristalknight said, strolling over. “Are your men almost done?”
“I think so.” Marrlo said gruffly. “Just a few stragglers left, then we can start loading them onto the skycarts to transport them onto the ship.”
“Good.” Kristalknight nodded. “My Emperor rewards punctuality.”
Marrlo’s lips tightened. Kristalknight narrowed his eyes at this.
“Is there a problem, my friend?” He asked. “Surely you and your men are satisfied with the payment the Emperor provides for this service?”
Marrlo grunted. “The money’s fine. I just don’t like doing jobs in this territory.”
“You’re not worried about the Dawnshire Knights, are you?” Kristalknight chuckled. “Your men seem like they’d be more than a match for those overworked guards. And that’s not even taking into account my Gift.” He raised his hand and a glimmering crystal appeared at his fingertip.
“It’s not the Knights I’m worried about.” Marrlo said. “This is one of the villages that he defends.”
Kristalknight’s smile vanished.
“Really, Captain Marrlo.” He sighed, shaking his head. “To think you’d be so frightened of some unknown wraith in a cloak and mask. This mysterious phantom of yours is probably little more than a two-time hack with some weak Gift. The stuff of gossip and urban legends, not reality.”
That got some reaction from the larger man. He tilted his head slightly to glare at the Baron.
“You wouldn’t be saying that if you came face to face with him.”
“On the contrary!” Kristalknight chuckled. “I would actively welcome his appearance. It’s far too rare that I get to test my skills in a match against Gifted.”
Marrlo’s expression was unreadable as he looked Kristalknight up and down. Then he snorted.
“Be careful what you wish for.”
The raid continued more or less as expected. Soon, most of the villagers had been successfully rounded up. Marrlo had his men bind their hands for easier transportation. Now it was only a matter of bringing the skycarts into the square and loading up the soon-to-be slaves so they could be carried up to where the Cloudship was waiting, high above the heavens. Two of Marrlo’s men were sent to retrieve the carts from where they’d been dropped off earlier and bring them into the town.
Captain Marrlo knew he’d have to be quick. One of the village’s emergency beacons had been lit in the panic and the Dawnshire Knights in the outpost nearest here were more than likely to receive the message soon. While Marrlo was confident he and his men could avoid capture once they were in the air, it would make things significantly more difficult if he had to load up the prisoners while fighting off several dozen angry knights.
Marrlo was just thinking through a potential strategy to hold off the Dawnshire Knights when a shout caught his attention.
“Captain Marrlo! Captain Marrlo!” A grubby figure desperately scrambled past the other Cloudreavers. Marrlo recognised him as Vryat, one of the men he had sent to retrieve the skycarts.
“What the hell are you doing back already?” He growled. “Didn’t I tell you to get the carts and bring them here? And where’s Attilo?”
“He’s gone!” Vryat sobbed. “Attilo and the carts are both gone! He got them!”
That got Marrlo’s attention. In the corner of his eye, he spotted Kristalknight getting to his feet with a sudden interest as well.
“Who?” Marrlo asked. “Who got the carts? What happened?”
“It’s…” Vryat let out a sob. “Me and Attilo went to where the carts were hidden, right? But when we got there, they were gone, taken away somewhere.”
Marrlo let out a growl. The skycarts were one of the only methods they had of getting their plunder up the main Cloudship, stationed far above the heavens. Without those skycarts, transporting the prisoners up to the Cloudship would be next-to impossible, not unless his reavers were willing to carry each of the villagers up a rope or a ladder. And there was no way he could transport them across land. Not only would they be forced to trek on foot across several hostile borders, the Dawnshire knights would be able to ride them down within days.
“What happened to Attilo?” He asked.
“W-We were looking around for the carts, right?” Vryat stuttered. “We thought the drifting lines might’ve gotten loose or something. So we went into this foresty area and…” His voice turned ragged. “Something snatched Attilo! Something in black dropped down from the trees and yanked him away!
Marrlo let out a snarl. He knew exactly what this meant.
“It’s him, isn’t it?” Baron Kristalknight said. A handful of glimmering crystals appeared by his hands. “He’s here.”
Marrlo ignored the Baron, instead turning to his men. “Stand to alert! All of you! We’ve got an intruder loose in this village and I want him dead!”
The jovial attitude vanished in a flash. The Cloudreavers scrambled into action, grabbing weapons and armour and grouping up amongst each other. Marrlo stormed towards one of his lieutenants.
“Krog, I want a complete headcount of every man in our group.” He said. “If he’s been here long, I’d bet he’s been picking off our men while we weren’t looking.”
Krog nodded, before calling over a couple of his men. Marrlo watched them split up and begin to take count of their numbers. He did his best to present a calm front, but nothing could conceal the worried look now on his face.
“I trust you have a plan.” Baron Kristalknight said, joining him from where he was brooding. “Because without those carts, we will be unable to transport the prisoners. And the Emperor is not particularly fond of failures.”
“Yes, I am aware of that.” Marrlo scowled. “Worse comes to worse, some of my men can probably construct some new skycarts out of some of the shit lying around here.” He did not mention that by that time, the Dawnshire Knights might very well have arrived and laid siege to their group.
Minutes passed in tense silence, as the Cloudreavers grouped up in anticipation of their uninvited guest. The villagers, sensing that something was wrong, were huddled together in silence, but there was a glimpse of hope on their faces. A feeling, a sense, that they might not be doomed as they once feared.
It didn’t take long for Krog to return with a full headcount.
“10 of our men are missing, including Attilo.” He growled.
Marrlo felt his teeth set. Ten men. Nearly a fifth of their fighting force, snatched away without him even noticing.
“Most of them were raiders who were probably away from the group when they were attacked,” Krog continued, “but the worrying one is Darren. He was stationed to guard the square for most of the raid. Nobody has seen him for a while.”
Marrlo’s eyes narrowed. “Where was he seen last?”
“Dragging some poor wench into that house.” Krog said, pointing to a large, solidly built wooden house.
This time it was Kristalknight’s turn to react, shock visible on his face. That was the house that that little girl’s mother had been dragged into earlier, barely a few minutes after he had scolded the men assaulting her. Their foe had been in there the whole time? And no-one had even noticed?
“Group up.” Marrlo ordered Krog. “Get 5 men and search the house. If there’s anyone in there, try to flush them out.”
Krog nodded and called a nearby group of Cloudreavers to him. The group picked up a selection of hefty weaponry and headed towards the house. Krog signalled to two of the men and indicated for them to go around the back. The Cloudreavers nodded in agreement and headed out of sight.
Moments later, there was a loud crash. Then another. The sound could be heard of someone grunting in pain before falling silent.
Krog let out a war cry and battered down the front door, his men following behind him. More crashes could be heard, the sound of steel hitting steel, a scream cut short with a snap. Then, once more, silence.
In this time, Marrlo and his men had taken the chance to surround the building fully. Each man was armed, except for Kristalknight, who was surrounded by several floating crystals. However, there was hesitation within the ranks. Nobody wanted to be the first to go in, to face whatever had beaten down their comrades.
“Perhaps if we set fire to the house-“ Kristalknight began to suggest, but was cut off by Marrlo.
“Not while my men are still inside.” He growled. “Either he comes out, or we go in to get him.”
Suddenly, there was a shout. “On the roof! There he is!”
Every eye looked up to see a figure standing confidently on the edge of the roof. He wore a sweeping black cloak, that billowed in the wind. Two short wooden batons were adorned at his hips, fixed to a tight brown belt. His face was mostly concealed by a hooded cowl, but the stern look he wore could be clearly seen as he looked down upon the motley crew beneath him.
As his eyes swept across the crowd before him, his gaze met with Marrlo’s. The edge of his lips twitched slightly. Then he raised his foot and casually pushed something off the roof with his boot. Whatever it was, it landed with a loud clatter on the ground below.
Keeping a careful eye on the cloaked figure, Marrlo leaned in for a closer look. It was a small pile of weapons, wrapped in an old fur coat. Six in total. It took Marrlo a moment to make the connection. He had sent six men into the hut, including Krog. Six men with those exact weapons.
Marrlo snarled and tightened the grip on his battleaxe. He knew who this was. Every criminal in Dawnshire knew who this was. The vigilante Gifted who interfered in every unlawful affair he could find.
The Black Cowl had arrived.
“Consider this a warning. I don’t particularly like fighting.”
The Cowl took a deep breath. His voice was surprisingly mellow and youthful for a man with such a fierce reputation. But, despite his soft tone, he spoke with a commanding presence and every man, woman and child listened to his every word.
“However,” he continued, “I also don’t like bullies or thugs. So I’m going to pull a Prime here and give you an ultimatum.” He raised a single finger. “Your options are thus. First option. Leave now and do not return. I will not chase you, nor will I personally tell the Dawnshire Knights of which way you went.”
There were a few disgruntled sounds and nervous looks among the Cloudreavers. Marrlo caught one or two them glancing at him cautiously. With a single look, he made it very clear what he would do to deserters.
“Second option!” The Cowl raised another finger. “Surrender. I will vouch for you to the Dawnshire Knights, ensure you receive a fair punishment and help you find good work to sustain you afterwards.”
This time, the reaction was more incredulous than anything. There were a few chuckles and sneers among the Cloudreavers at such a foolish idea. The Cowl frowned at this. It was clear that this had been his preferred solution.
“Final option.” The Cowl folded his arms. “I come down there and sort this situation out myself.”
The atmosphere turned icy. There were a lot of clinks and clanks as soldiers fingered their weapons nervously. Everyone was unsettling by the Cowl’s words. Not just his declaration, but the absolute confidence he had in his voice when he spoke. Never mind that he was outnumbered nearly 35 to 1, there was no doubt in his mind as to the result of this fight.
He would win. And there wasn’t a man among them who thought otherwise.
“Fourth option.” Baron Kristalknight said, stepping forward. Crystals trailed behind him. “You come down here and you lose. We beat the arrogance out of you and deliver you hand-wrapped to Emperor Gier, along with the rest of these common folk.”
The Cowl’s eyes narrowed. “You’re one of Gier’s men? One of his Gifted?”
Kristalknight reached his hand out and bowed low. “Baron Duerrie Kristalknight, at your service, Sir Cowl. A Minor Arcana of some repute.”
“Never heard of you.” The Cowl said bluntly.
Kristalknight twitched slightly.
“Well.” He dusted off his cloak and more crystals formed at his side. “I suppose we shall have to do something about that, shan’t we?”
“I suppose we shall.” The Cowl drew both of his batons, holding one in each hand.
“Hmph.” Marrlo’s snort interrupted their face off. “You seem to be missing something, Cowl.” He tilted his head towards the villagers. “We have hostages. And we’re more than willing to hurt them if you try to attack us.”
The Cowl’s face twisted in distaste. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to let us settle this honourably like men?”
“Hah!” Marrlo’s bark answered that question better than words could.
“Alright then.” The Cowl said. “How about this? You need your skycarts to transport all those people to Empire Lands. And I’m the only one who knows where they are.”
Marrlo’s lip curled back in a growl. So the Cowl was indeed the one responsible for that particular theft. Not that Marrlo had really thought otherwise, but it was irritating to have it confirmed. “We can make more.”
“But not before the Dawnshire Knights arrive and this place turns into a bloodbath.” The Cowl said. “I give you low odds of escaping unscathed, even if I don’t get involved.”
“But the villagers will be hurt.” Marrlo said. “You don’t want that.”
The Cowl’s eyes narrowed. “You’re right. I don’t.”
“A stalemate, then.” Kristalknight said, imposing himself back into the conversation. “How do you suggest we solve this issue?”
“Simple.” The Cowl pointed a finger directly at Kristalknight. “You and me have a one-on-one duel to decide the fate of these people. Man against Man. Gifted against Gifted. If I win, you leave them unharmed. If he wins, I tell you exactly where those carts are hidden.” He opened his palms. “Sound fair?”
Marrlo thought the proposal over in his mind. There was no obvious trap that he could see. Clearly the Cowl was depending on his superior fighting skills and strength to overcome in this bout. And if his exploits were even fractionally true then, even with Kristalknight’s boundless experience, it would be a tough fight.
Kristalknight met eyes with Marrlo. The glance lasted a moment, but the sentiment was clear. Marrlo paused, then nodded slightly.
A smile grew beneath Kristalknight’s mask. So it was settled. Even if the Cowl were to win, Marrlo’s Cloudreavers would merely capture him and torture him for the information. One way or another, they would be getting those carts back. The Cowl had simply signed his own death warrant.
Truly heroes like this were gallant fools.
“I accept your challenge.” Kristalknight said gallantly, bowing deeply towards his foe. “A one on one duel will settle this.”
The Cowl’s lips tugged up. “Good.”
With that, he stepped forward and took a light jump off the roof’s edge. He plummeted to the ground, no signs of fear on his face, before landing firmly on his feet below. The men nearest to his landing point instinctively backed away as the Cowl, completely unharmed, stalked past them and towards Kristalknight.
Marrlo narrowed his eyes. A drop like that normally would’ve broken a man’s legs, unless they had some kind of enhanced strength. However, and perhaps it was just his imagination, but he could’ve sworn that the Cowl’s descent suddenly slowed, seconds before he hit the ground. As if an invisible rope had grabbed onto him mid-fall.
He shook his head. Whatever the Cowl’s game, it was Kristalknight’s problem for the nonce.
“Form up!” Marrlo shouted to his hesitant men. “Make a circle around them!”
The men muttered to themselves nervously. However, they did as their Captain ordered and created a tight ring around the two Gifted. Kristalknight gave the men a dismissive look as he began stretching his arms and legs, but Marrlo could see the Cowl watching them carefully out of the corner of his eye. Memorising their every position.
Marrlo did not consider himself an arrogant fop like Kristalknight. And he was not foolish enough to dismiss their enemy so out of hand. One did not survive as a vigilante as long as the Black Cowl had without at least some wit and intelligence. As such, it wouldn’t surprise him in the least to learn that the Cowl had something planned.
Then again, one didn’t last as a Cloudreaver Captain so long without some measure of intelligence as well. Whatever trick the Cowl intended to pull, Marrlo would see through it.
“Gentlemen!” He announced with a bellow. “Prepare your weapons!”
Kristalknight smirked and flourished a small rapier. Shimmering crystals appeared around him. “To what ends shall we have this duel be? Surrender or death?”
“Surrender.” The Black Cowl answered instantly. “Or incapacitation.”
“Excellent.” Kristalknight said. “My master does prefer his possessions to be delivered intact.”
“And I don’t particularly like killing people.” The Black Cowl said with a flicker of a smile. “So I guess we both win on that front.”
Kristalknight hummed. “Well then, Sir Cowl. Shall we do this?”
The Cowl glanced to Marrlo. “On the count of three?”
Marrlo grunted and gave a nod. He lifted his hand into the sky for the combatants to see and raised three fingers.
One finger dropped.
The second finger dropped.
The last finger hovered for a moment, before it too dropped.
Instantly, the Black Cowl whipped his arm up and, with frightening speed, flung one of his batons directly towards Kristalknight’s face.
The Baron’s eyes widened and he barely had enough time to duck to the side as the projectile whipped past his ear. There was a yelp from behind him as the cudgel smacked into the face of a poor Cloudreaver sod who hadn’t been quite so fortunate as to dodge.
The Black Cowl took advantage of the momentary distraction that his attack had created and darted forward, closing the distance between the two with frightening speed. Kristalknight was barely able to raise his rapier in time to deflect the sharp blow from the Cowl’s second baton. The two weapons clanged as they crashed together with considerable force.
The Cowl didn’t hesitate to follow up on his attack, raining down a series of sharp blows towards Kristalknight and keeping him on the defensive. As skilled as the Baron was as swordplay, he was clearly struggling to keep up with the constant assault and the Cowl was leaving him no openings to take advantage of. It was only a matter of time before he slipped up.
Clang! A mistimed block allowed the Cowl to strike the hilt of Kristalknight’s sword and crush the Baron’s fingers. Kristalknight’s rapier was smashed out of his hand and sent clattering to the ground.
The Baron himself was sent stumbling back, hissing in pain at his obviously broken fingers. He made it a few steps before finding the point of the Cowl’s baton pointed towards his throat.
“Submit?” The Cowl asked with a slight quirk of his head.
“Impertinent swine!” Kristalknight snarled, reaching his uninjured hand out. “Allow me to show you the difference between one of the Emperor’s Arcana and the likes of you!” Crystals began to form around his fingers.
This time it was the Cowl who was on the retreat, darting backwards across the field with an almost unnatural haste, creating as much distance between himself and the crystals as he could. Marrlo could understand his caution. One did not take anything for granted with an unknown Gifted ability.
“Ah. I see you do in fact have some level of sense in you.” Kristalknight said. The Cowl backing off had allowed him to regain some of his composure and poise. The pain from his now-mangled fingers was still clear on his face, but he was showing far more tolerance to it than Marrlo had expected from someone like him. “Avoiding my crystals was a wise move, although whether or not you’ll be able to keep it up is another matter entirely.” More crystals began to form around his body, blocking the Cowl from making another sudden approach like he had before.
“…” The Cowl didn’t say anything, instead slowly circling the Baron like a panther stalking its prey.
Eventually, the Cowl stopped walking, reached down and picked something off the ground. It was a small bucket that Marrlo’s men had missed earlier, brown in colour and half buried in the mud. Hefting the weight of it a couple of times in his hand, the Cowl reached his arm back and threw the bucket sharply towards one of the crystals, the one that was floating nearest to him.
The second the bucket struck the crystal, the crystal shimmered with a green aura before exploding outwards, buffeting the nearby area with a powerful force. There were yelps from the men as a few of them were tipped off balance by the fierce winds. One of them was even smacked in the face with the damaged bucket. Marrlo couldn’t help but a feel a little impressed. Judging from the spider-web cracks along the frame of the bucket, a direct hit from one of those crystals would easily break a man’s ribs, if struck in the right way.
The Cowl, on the other hand, was seemingly unaffected, his cloak buffeting in the wind. Behind his mask, his eyes seemed to narrow slightly.
“That was certainly…” He seemed to be considering the right word to use. “Potent.”
“I’m glad you approve.” Kristalknight sneered. “Submit?”
The Cowl snorted. “I think not.” He hefted his single remaining baton and reached his arm back to throw it. “But I am a little interested to see how you deal with this!”
He flung the baton directly towards Baron Kristalknight, who in turn made to dodge.
However, the Cowl hadn’t been aiming for the Baron himself. Instead, the baton directly struck one of Kristalknight’s crystals, one that was mere inches away from the Baron’s head. Marrlo’s eyes widened. Was he trying to use the Baron’s own power against him?
The world once more lit up with a green aura as the crystal exploded, buffeting the nearby area. Both Marrlo and the other Cloudreavers had been more prepared this time, but the wind still stung at their eyes as dirt and dust was sprayed everywhere. Marrlo recovered quickest and looked with some desperation to see how the attack had affected Kristalknight.
It turned out the answer was, in fact, not at all. In fact, judging by the way the Baron had barely even swayed in the breeze from the blast, it was questionable whether he’d even noticed it.
“Naughty naughty.” The Baron said with an insufferable smirk. “Trying to use my own powers against me, were you?”
The Cowl shrugged. He seemed supremely unconcerned that his gambit had failed. “I figured it was worth a shot.”
“Well, I’m afraid this particular shot has somewhat worked against you.” Kristalknight said. With a swish of his arm, more crystals appeared. “I have an immunity to the blasts of mine own Gift. You, on the other hand, appear to have effectively disarmed yourself.”
“Have I now?” The Cowl still didn’t seem all that concerned. “Can’t say I’d noticed.”
Marrlo could see the slight flicker in Kristalknight’s smile. In all honesty, he couldn’t really blame the man for being hesitant. Yes, it was true that the Cowl had seemingly disarmed himself of both of his batons, but he’d kept his most dangerous weapon mainly hidden thus far. His Gift.
It was a common saying around the Realm that a Gift concealed was the most dangerous of all and, even with his relative inexperience dealing with Gifted, Marrlo could see the logic behind such a statement. Gifts came in all sorts of shapes and sizes and even a weak Gift wielded the right way could turn the tides in a battle. But a Gift that you knew was one that you could prepare for, even if the plan was as simple as ‘run away’. An unknown Gift could not be planned for and required the sort of gamble that could easily be fatal.
It was also presumably the main reason Kristalknight hadn’t moved forward to take advantage of his foe’s supposed weakness. One did not approach an unknown Gift lightly, no matter how seemingly secure you were. Especially as the Cowl didn’t seem at all perturbed by his apparent disadvantage in this duel. After all, he’d thrown those batons far too well and far too quickly for someone who might be overly concerned about getting them back.
“I think I’ve entertained this charade long enough.” Kristalknight said, reaching his hand out. Immediately, several of his crystals began to float forwards, slowly bobbing towards the Black Cowl in a wide arc.
“So have I.” Apparently, this was precisely the opportunity the Black Cowl had been waiting for. He reached his arm out, as if gripping an invisible sword.
A yelp of surprise from behind him was all the warning Kristalknight got. He turned to find one of the wooden batons, the one that the Cowl had flung at him at the very beginning of the bout, flying directly towards his head. The Baron barely managed to react in time, flailing his arms in a startled manner before detonating several of the crystals nearest to him.
FWOOM! FWOOM! FWOOM!
The resulting shockwave was powerful enough to knock several of the Cloudreavers off their feet and send sprays of clod and dirt into the air. However, it was also enough to knock the baton off its path and away from Kristalknight’s head.
Which was why it was all the more odd when it swiveled around in midair and flew straight back to the Cowl’s hand regardless.
Kristalknight took but a moment to regain his balance and composure. He glanced narrow-eyed between both the baton in the Cowl’s hand and the direction in which it had flown towards him. His lips twisted in a frown.
“Your weapons…” Kristalknight muttered to himself. “Your Gift allows you to return them to your hands with little more than a thought. That’s why you were so willing to seemingly throw them away.”
The Black Cowl didn’t answer. He merely raised his other hand. Seconds later, his other baton, one which had been resting near Kristalknight’s feet, rose into the air and flew into his outstretched palm. The Cowl smoothly caught it by the handle and flourished it twice, before stepping back into a combat pose.
Kristalknight, on the other hand, seemed less than impressed.
“Is that it?” The Baron said dismissively. Honestly, if Marrlo didn’t know better, he’d say he almost sounded… disappointed. “The Gift of the Great and Frightening Black Cowl is little more than a cheap parlor trick?”
If the Cowl was annoyed by Kristalknight’s taunting, he didn’t show it. “Even a parlor trick can be dangerous if used correctly.”
Kristalknight snorted. “Well, forgive me if I’m not exactly impressed. But I shall take your word for it.” He flourished his cloak and even more crystals appeared, slowly floating outwards. “Come, Black Cowl. Let us see what your parlour tricks can do.”
Marrlo frowned. The fight between the Black Cowl and Baron Kristalknight had been going on for nearly 10 minutes now and the Cloudreaver Captain was becoming more and more certain that something about it was very wrong.
The fight itself had certainly been an impressive match of skills. The Black Cowl darted around the battlefield like a streak of shadow, dodging and twisting and diving over the increasingly large number of crystals that were now covering the dueling arena. Every once in a while, he flung one of his batons out at a crystal that he couldn’t so easily dodge, detonating it with a bang, before recalling his baton to his hand.
However, in spite of this impressive display of physical capabilities, there was no doubt that Kristalknight held the advantage. The Baron had barely moved a step from the centre of the arena, in large part because he clearly didn’t need to. His crystals had slowly multiplied more and more in number and were slowly enveloping the entire arena, cutting off the Cowl’s routes of escapes and slowly hemming him in. As for the Baron himself, there were so many crystals floating around his form that attempting to approach him in close combat was little more than suicide. The only way to beat him at this point would be with some sort of ranged option.
Which was why Marrlo was confused at the Cowl’s actions. Because the vigilante had proven time and time again that he had a ranged option. Certainly, throwing batons at people wasn’t the most efficient of projectiles, but the Cowl had proven at the very start of the fight that he could at least startle Kristalknight with them. And the pinpoint efficiency with which the caped hero had been targeting Kristalknight’s crystals showed that aim at the very least was not his problem.
So why wasn’t he attacking? Why was he satisfied with leaping and dodging across the battlefield like some demented acrobat? Marrlo’s first thought was that he was trying to buy time. But for what? The Dawnshire Knights? They wouldn’t be here for hours. And if that was his aim, all he’d have to do was stay hidden with the skycarts until they arrived.
It didn’t make sense. And the longer the fight went on, the more Marrlo was worried that they were playing straight into the Cowl’s hands.
Suddenly, the inevitable happened. The Cowl had been using his batons to destroy dozens of crystals and, while said batons certainly seemed very study, there was only so much punishment they could ultimately take. And thus, when the Cowl flung his left-handed baton to destroy a crystal that had gotten a little too close, the resulting shockwave caused the weapon to splinter into pieces, showering the crowd with splinters and debris. Marrlo even saw one splinter scratch the Cowl across the arm and draw blood.
“Well well well.” The Baron’s smirk returned. “I do believe this is the beginning of the end, Sir Cowl?”
The Cowl’s expression was unreadable. “I guess it is.” He looked across the field. “I was hoping for a little bit more, but I suppose this’ll have to do.”
Kristalknight blinked. “Have to do with wha-?”
The Baron was interrupted by the Black Cowl suddenly charging directly towards him. The caped vigilante crossed the field in a matter of seconds, dodging past crystals with ease and moving with a seeming disregard for his own safety.
“Are you insane?” Kristalknight snarled. With a gesture, a dozen more crystals formed between him and the Cowl. “Do you really think you can get past my powers?”
The Cowl didn’t answer. Instead, he flung his remaining baton forwards, embedding it into the ground before him. Then, with an almost inhuman leap, he jumped up and used the handle of the baton almost as a springboard to propel himself into the air and above Kristalknight’s crystals, before diving down towards the man himself.
Marrlo had assumed the Cowl was going for a punch or tackle to knock the Baron down, when suddenly, a small object flew from the crowd and straight into the Cowl’s hands. It was the bucket that he had used to test Kristalknight’s defenses near the beginning of the bout. With a roar, the Cowl grabbed the bucket and pushed it straight down over Kristalknight’s head, blinding the enemy Gifted.
What? Marrlo’s eyes widened. What was going on? The Cowl had Kristalknight dead-to-rights. Why would he waste his attack merely shoving a bucket over his head instead of knocking him out and finishing the fight? It made no sen-
A crystal floated past Marrlo’s face. He froze.
It took him less than a second to notice it. The battlefield was covered in floating, dangerous crystals, scattered all over the grounds thanks to the Cowl’s constant dodging and acrobatics. Some had even begun mingling across through the tightly packed crowd.
The tightly packed crowd of Cloudreavers.
That also made up the vast majority of the force besieging the village.
And were now gathered very closely together for a perfect opportune attack.
And if Baron Kristalknight was panicked by, say for example, being temporarily blinded and set off all of his crystals on instinct, then…
Marrlo’s eyes widened. “TAKE COVE-“
“Sir Cowl, once again, I can’t thank you enough.” Tristain, the elder of Peargrove said. “It’s no exaggeration to say that this entire village owes you its life. If there’s anything we can do for you-”
“It’s fine.” The Black Cowl said with a slight smile, raising a hand to calm him. “Really, I didn’t do this for an reward. I’m just glad I arrived in time to help.”
“You kicked the snot outta those bad guys!” One of the village youths said, miming the actions with a kick and punch. “It was so cool. You were like Kwam! Fwah! Boff! And then you tricked them all into blowing themselves up.”
“Aheh, you give me too much credit,” The Black Cowl gave a weak chuckle. “All that was really just something I came up with on the spur of the moment. I honestly wasn’t expecting it to go nearly as well as it did.”
That was an understatement and a half. The cataclysmic shockwave resulting from Baron Kristalknight setting off near a hundred crystals at once had flattened near the entire troop of Stormreavers, scattering them like dandelion seeds. The Cowl had managed to ride out the wave by grabbing the Baron in a death-like bear grip. Just as he had theorised, the Baron’s immunity to his own powers also extended to things he was touching, hence he barely felt a tickle from the grand explosion.
Still, the explosion obviously didn’t deal with the Baron himself, but said Baron was both less physically capable than the Cowl and also had a bucket on his head, so it only really took one good sock to the jaw to lay him out unconscious with the rest.
Meanwhile, the rest of the villagers had been secretly freed from their bonds by Ishenka, the woman whom the Cowl had rescued earlier from her would-be rapists in the hut she had been dragged into. With his dramatic appearance distracting them, most of the Cloudreavers had rather understandably forgotten about her. Hence, Cowl had sent her to blend back in with the crowd of people while he drew away the attention of the reavers. While he was duelling with Kristalknight, he was also buying time for her to secretly free as many villagers as she could and arm them with the weapons he had snatched from the Cloudreavers he ambushed earlier.
As it was, the villagers took the moment Kristalknight set off his great final explosion as the signal for them to move. They charged the few Cloudreavers who weren’t at the duel, that Marrlo had set to watch the prisoners, and quickly overpowered them. The rest of the Reavers who had been caught in the shockwave were in absolutely no position to resist and soon they had been neatly trussed up just like the villagers had once been. Most of them were still groaning in pain from the injuries they had taken, but Cowl was pretty sure they’d be fine in the long term.
“I don’t think you’ll have to hold on to those folks long.” The Cowl said, gesturing to the tied up reavers. “Their ship was spotted by a handful of shepherds on its way here. That was how I found out about it. And if I know, chances are the Dawnshire Knights do as well. They should probably have a cohort on their way now.”
“Bah.” One of the villagers spat on the ground. “Trust those overgrown pansies to arrive when the crisis is long over.”
From the look on the Cowl’s face, he didn’t entirely agree with the sentiment, but chose not to voice it outloud. “Fortunately for you, Gier’s man should have a significant bounty on his head. Collect it and you should have enough to help fix the damage caused.” He gestured to Baron Kristalknight, who was currently bound, blindfolded and hanging upside-down from a tree on the off chance he should regain consciousness before the Dawnshire Knights arrived
(For safety’s sake. And not out of spite at all. Really.)
“You won’t take the money for yourself?” One of the village women said in surprise.
The Black Cowl shook his head. “I think you all need it more than I do.”
The caped hero looked around at the smouldering remains of several of the village houses. He’d managed to free the villagers quickly enough to stop the fire from spreading too far, but much of the village was still in tatters. Broken doors, windows, walls, livestock scattered, small crop fields burned, it would take a lot to rebuild here. The money would be a start, but there was still much more that would need to be done.
Not for the first time, the Cowl regretted that there wasn’t more he could do for these people.
A sudden shout caught his attention, followed shortly by a man’s screaming. The Cowl instinctively went for his batons as he turned to see what the commotion was. Pushing through the crowd of villagers, he followed the source of the shouts to the village square, where he found one of the tethered reavers under assault by… a little girl?
“You. Hurt. My. Ma!” The girl screamed as she shakily stabbed down with a long dagger that she’d presumably pilfered from one of the Cloudreavers. “I’ll kill you!”
“Ah! Fucking get her offa me!” The man yelled, bucking and wriggling in his bonds as he tried to avoid the clumsy blows. “Crazy kid!”
The Cowl moved quickly, grabbing the young girl around the waist with one arm and pulling her gently off the reaver. With his other arm, he grabbed her wrist and carefully peeled the knife from her fingers, taking care to make certain she didn’t cut herself on it. As he did, he noticed the girl’s face was fresh with bruises, presumably at the hands of this particular attacker.
“Hey, hey now!” He said into her ear, as the girl struggled and tried to escape his grasp. “It’s alright. Calm down, nobody’s going to hurt you.”
The girl only struggled harder as she tried to wriggle free from his grasp. However, the Cowl’s grip was strong and the more she fought, the more she grew tired and sluggish. Eventually, the fight visibly went out of her and she slumped limply in his arms. The knife dropped with a clatter to the ground.
“There we go.” The Cowl said soothingly as he placed back onto her feet, making certain to pick up the knife before she could get at it again. “Nice and calm. Now are you okay?”
“Is she okay?!” The reaver spluttered indignantly. “What about me? She fucking stabbed me!”
The Cowl briefly looked the man over with a critical eye. Then he snorted dismissively. “You look fine to me.”
Honestly, that wasn’t even a lie. The reaver had a few scratches here and there across his face and body, but none of his wounds looked anything more than shallow cuts. Obviously the girl’s inexperience with the knife and relative lack of muscle mass had worked against her in this case.
“He hurt my Ma.” The voice was so small that the Cowl almost missed it. He turned to see the girl’s swollen cheeks damp with tears as she attempted to sniff back a glob of snot. “He deserves to be hurt too.”
The Cowl let out a sigh. He offered a hand to the girl and nodded at a nearby fallen log. “Do you want to talk about it?”
The girl didn’t answer. She just let out another sniff before quietly taking his hand.
“Alright.” The Cowl said gently, taking her to the log and sitting her down. “Then let’s talk.”
He gestured to the rest of the crowd of villagers watching, signaling for them to get on with their jobs. Most of them got the hint and continued on with the repairs and general work that needed doing after the attack. There were a few reluctant to leave, although they were quickly prodded away by Tristain.
“What’s your name, little one?” The Cowl asked. He pulled out an handkerchief from a pouch on his belt and began gently wiping the snot and tears off her face.
“Rana.” The girl answered. She winced as the handkerchief passed over one of her fresher bruises.
“Sorry.” The Cowl winced in turn. Once he was satisfied that she was mostly clean, he put the handkerchief back in his pouch. “Now tell me what happened to your mother?”
Rana sniffed. She pointed to the tied-up reaver. “That man hit her. Made her cry a lot. Then he dragged her into some building and…” She trailed off as the tears started to overwhelm her again.
“It’s alright.” The Cowl gently drew her into a side hug. “It’s alright. It’s over now. Your mother will be just fine, okay?”
That wasn’t entirely a white lie. The Black Cowl had finally managed to realise why the girl looked so familiar. Her mother was none other than Ishenka, the woman who he had saved when he ambushed the reavers inside that barn. Even through the bruises he could just about see the family relation. And he could certainly see that look of determination, especially since said woman had insisted on helping him free the villagers, even as he told her she would be safer hiding until it was all over.
In the end, they had succeeded. The villagers had been freed, the reavers defeated, the day saved. However, the woman had still received a pretty hefty beating before he had intervened and had done a surprisingly good job of concealing her pain from him. She’d passed out not long after Kristalknight’s explosive defeat and was being looked after by both her eldest daughter and the village herbalist, along with the other more badly injured townsfolk.
“He hurt her a lot.” Rana sniffed into the folds of his cloak. “I wanted to hurt him back.” She hugged her knees to her chest. “I want to kill him.”
“I understand.” The Cowl said, gently rubbing her back. “Trust me, I get why you hate him so much. But hurting or killing people like that is never the answer.”
That clearly wasn’t the answer Rana wanted to hear. She drew away from the Cowl, an affronted look on her face. “Why not? He’s a bad guy! He had it coming!”
The Cowl paused. He could see the hot anger in the girl’s face, the hurt and rage bubbling beneath the surface. She’d been shaken and traumatised by the Cloudreaver and now that the danger was over, all that fear had turned into a white-hot rage. The sort of rage that could fester in people. That could grow unhealthy and toxic and lead to people getting hurt, up to and including herself. He could tell he was going to have to choose his next words carefully.
The Cowl carefully took a seat next to Rana and thought a moment. Then his lips split in a grin. “Tell you what, how about I tell you a story?
Rana blinked in surprise at the sudden change in subject. “A story?”
“Yeah, a story.” The Cowl nodded. “It’s about a little boy I used to know. Come to think about it, he was probably about your age when it happened.” His eyes glanced over her bruises and his lips quirked in a grin. “And he certainly shared your distinct lack of self-preservation when it came to challenging people bigger than him.”
Rana puffed out her cheeks and hugged her knees tighter.
The Cowl let out an amused chuckle and continued his story. “Now, this kid I knew, when he was about your age, he was an orphan on the streets. No food, no money, no family, no obvious way of providing for himself. Nobody would hire a scrawny little brat for a job and if he begged, people were more likely to give him a beating than charity. All he had were the clothes on his back and a long, sharp knife. Much like the one you had here.”
He picked up the knife he confiscated from her earlier and span it absentmindedly in his hands. He twirled it expertly through his fingers in familiar loops and patterns, seemingly unaware of the way that Rana’s fascinated eyes followed its trails.
“So, all this kid had to his name was a single knife and no food or money to speak of.” The Cowl continued. “So he did the rather obvious thing. He used that knife to rob people. To break into houses in the dead of night and steal the things that he needed to survive.” He turned to look Rana in the eye. “Now, do you think this kid was a bad guy?”
Rana had been listening to the story with some element of confusion and, beneath that, a glimmer of curiosity and interest. Now, at the question posed, she screwed up her face in thought. “Well, if he did it to survive…”
“But he was still taking from other people.” The Cowl pointed out. “Those other people might have needed those things just as much as he did. For all he knew, he might have been condemning others to the same fate he would’ve had.”
Rana’s brow furrowed. “So he was a bad guy?”
“Kind of.” The Cowl smiled. “But let me tell you the next part of the story. One day, this kid made his way to a secluded village and found an old church. Thinking it might be filled with valuables, he broke in late at night to rob the place. However, he was discovered by an priest. In the ensuing scuffle, the boy managed to cut off two of the priest’s fingers. However, the priest still managed to disarm the boy and tie him up. Now what do you think the priest did to him next?”
Rana scrunched up her face in puzzlement. “I’unno. Handed him over to the guards, I guess?”
“Not quite.” There was a twinkle in the Cowl’s eyes. “The priest sat the boy down, treated both their wounds, listened to his story and then… he let him go.”
“He let him go?” Rana exclaimed.
“Actually, he did more than that.” The Cowl said. “He fed the boy a hot meal, gave him fresh clothes, gave him what little trinkets he had and sent him on his way. It was only a week later that the boy learned that the priest was almost every bit as poor off as he was.”
“Really?” Rana frowned. “So then… why did he do it?”
“That was exactly what the boy wondered himself.” The Cowl chuckled. “So he went back to the priest and asked him why. And do you know what the priest said?”
Rana shook her head.
“He told the kid that he did it because he wanted to.” The Cowl said. “The rest of the world might only have seen the boy as ‘the bad guy’ in that scenario, as a violent thug who sliced off the fingers of a helpless priest to steal trinkets. Hell, the boy might even have seen himself as that in that situation. But the priest didn’t. Even with all his injuries, he chose to empathize with the kid and saw the desperate starving confused child beneath. And so he chose to help him, in spite of what the boy did to him. Because sometimes a little bit of kindness can make all the difference in the world.”
Rana stared down at her own hands in silence. The Black Cowl could tell she was mulling his words over.
“Is that why you helped us?” She asked.
The Cowl smiled. “A little bit.” He raised his hand to his chest. “I was lucky enough to acquire this Gift when I was young. I could’ve done anything with it. But I felt it was my responsibility to help people and pass on the kindness I was once shown.” He ruffled Rana’s hair. “Maybe one day, you’ll do the same.”
“If I get a Gift.” Rana pointed out.
“If you get a Gift.” The Cowl chuckled. “Or maybe even if you don’t. Kindness doesn’t need superpowers, after all.”
Rana was quiet for a moment. Her eyes traveled to the reaver that she’d attacked a moment earlier. “But… do I have to be kind to people like him?”
The Cowl followed her eyeline. He frowned slightly. “That’s a little more complicated. And a lot harder.”
Rana’s mouth tightened. She folded her arms and looked down at the ground. The story had calmed her down a lot, reduced the raging flame of anger into more of a simmering ember. But still it remained, burning away at her. “I don’t want to forgive him. He hurt my ma a lot. I want him to die.”
“And that’s alright.” The Cowl said, rubbing her head softly. “I’m not going to tell you that you need to forgive that reaver for what he did. Because you don’t. He did terrible things to you and your mother and deserves punishment for it. Forgiveness doesn’t mean anything if you have to force it and you’re entirely justified for feeling angry at him and wanting to see him hurt or dead.” He paused. “But he’s already been stopped. Lashing out and killing him now isn’t going to help you or your mother or anyone. It’ll only cause more pain.”
Rana’s lips tightened further. “Because he might be desperate or have people to look after or something?”
The Cowl seemed surprised that she’d made the connection. “Maybe. Or maybe he’ll end up like the boy in my story and turn over a new leaf. People can change at any age, trust me.”
“And if he doesn’t?” Rana asked. “If he keeps doing bad things?”
“Then I’ll keep stopping him.” The Cowl said gently. “However many times it takes.” His fist clenched. “Because the alternative is something I never want to do again if I can help it.” He took a deep breath. “Do you understand now why I didn’t want you hurting that man?”
“…Kinda?” Rana squeezed her hair between her palms. “My head hurts.”
The Black Cowl snorted. “Well, I suppose it was a bit much to lay on you all at once.” He ruffled her hair. “Now if you’re feeling better, we can go down and see your mother at the herbalists. Would you like that?”
Rana silently nodded. The Cowl took her by the hand and gently led her down the street.
“Hey, Mr Cowl…” Rana suddenly spoke as they got near the herbalist’s. “That boy you mentioned… What happened to him?”
“The boy?” The Cowl raised his eyebrow. “Oh, he chose to stay with the priest. Helped him with his works of charity, treated his wounds, did his best to provide for them both and anyone else who needed help. And eventually, he grew up to be…” The Cowl beamed proudly. “…a carpenter.”
“A carpenter?!” Rana exclaimed, visibly disappointed.
“What’s wrong with being a carpenter?” The Cowl sounded almost affronted at her reaction. “It’s a very useful job. Helps a lot of people. God knows that your village is going to need a few before the day is done.”
“I guess…” Rana kicked the dirt beneath her feet. “Just thought it’d be more impressive, s’all.”
“Well, not everything can be like the stories.” The Cowl chuckled. “Although that does remind me of one time when…” His voice trailed off as he spied something in the distance. His eyes narrowed.
“What?” Rana noticed his distraction and looked around. “What is it?”
The Cowl snapped out of his funk and gave the girl a fake smile. “Nothing for you to be worried about. Just wait here a few moments, I need to go take care of something.” With that, he placed his baton back into his belt and took off running towards the square, where a commotion seemed to be going on near the captured reavers…
“Kill them all! Hang the bastards!” The shout went up again.
Tristain held up his hands in an attempt to placate the slowly growing mob. “Please, Cynthia, everyone, calm down. There’s no need for violence here.”
“No need for violence?” Cynthia, the blacksmith’s wife, screeched. “My husband is dead! These bastards killed him and burned our house to the ground! And you want us to forgive and forget and hand them over to the poxy Dawnshire Knights? They’ll be back out on the streets in weeks.” She raised her fist in defiance. “I say we hang the lot of them and let the Gods sort them out!”
The cheer from behind her grew even louder as more and more people joined the impromptu mob. A bead of sweat ran down Tristain’s brow. Things couldn’t go on much longer like this.
The problem had started around 10 minutes ago, when Geoff, the village blacksmith, passed away in his bed. Geoff had been leading the fight against the Cloudreavers when they initially attacked and had taken a hefty beating for his troubles, including several strong blows to the head. This had been enough to render him unconscious as the rest of the villagers were rounded up and he stayed comatose for the rest of the day until convulsing suddenly while being looked over by the herbalist and dying.
Cynthia, Geoff’s wife of nearly 20 years, was naturally inconsolable at the sudden loss of her husband and demanded blood for his death. And, unfortunately for the Reavers, she wasn’t the only one. A lot of the villagers had lost things or, in some cases people during the raid and resented the fact that most of the reavers had been captured alive. Geoff’s death and Cynthia’s outburst merely ignited that resentment and soon the fury spread through the village like the wildfires that had once consumed their home.
There had been some who opposed this, obviously. Tristain and a few other men and women from around town weren’t keen on the idea of slaughtering helpless prisoners, but they were severely outnumbered and unable to hold back the tide of rage and resentment that had emerged in their countrymen.
“Kill them all! Kill the bastards!” The crowd shouted again as they started to bustle forward again. Tristain winced as he tried to hold them back. In the corner of his eyes, he could see a few of the reavers start to crawl backwards the best they could with their bound hands and feet. Just as the crowd was about to fall on the reavers…
The Black Cowl dropped down from the sky, having propelled himself from a tree to land directly in front of the mob.
“What’s going on here?” He asked sternly.
“Justice! Justice is what’s happening!” Cynthia shouted. A few townsfolk cheered in agreement. “We’re sending these devils to the hell that they deserve!”
The Black Cowl waited for the crowd to settle down before replying. “Slaughtering defenseless people isn’t justice. Or right.”
“Right?!” Cynthia let out a disbelieving laugh. “Did these whoresons care when we were the defenseless people being slaughtered? And now that the tables are being turned it’s not considered ‘right’? Do you know how many of us have suffered because of men like these? Because of Cloudreavers, bandits, mercenaries, men who think that just because they have a sword on their belt they can take what they want and do whatever they please to us?”
The crowd’s shouting grew more and more frenetic and loud at Cynthia’s proclamations. In the corner of his eye, the Cowl could see Tristain and the other men and women slowly backing away, leaving the Cowl as the only one standing between the captive reavers and the angry mob out for their blood.
“You think this is the only time we’ve suffered at the hands of pirates like these?” Cynthia exclaimed. “What about Prychfield, burned to the ground by a Cloudreaver attack? What about Corngrove, raided and looted by a bandit company that the Dawnshire Knights never bothered to root out? What about the thousands of us caught in the petty wars that the Copper Kings play with one another? What’s right about that, Black Cowl? What’s right about that?”
“Look, I understand you’re upset.” The Cowl said slowly. For the first time, there was a hint of worry in his voice. “And trust me, I don’t blame you for wanting to take it out on these men. But you’re better than this. You should be better than them.”
“We are better than them!” A man in the crowd shouted. “We didn’t come to burn their houses, steal their food, rape their womenfolk and murder their friends and family!” The rest of the crowd roared in agreement. “We’re only giving them the due punishment they all deserve!”
“No you’re not.” The Cowl said. “This isn’t justice, this is revenge.”
“Who cares?” Another shout went up. “As long as the bastards are in the ground, we’re happy!”
This sentiment clearly appealed to the crowd, who began chanting and cheering for the blood. The Cowl tried to calm them down again, but this time they were too loud, too frantic, too carried away in their own adrenaline to listen or even hear his shouts.
“Just fucking give up already and let them have us.” A low voice sounded from behind the Cowl.
The Black Cowl turned to see Captain Marrlo, his hands and feet tightly bound, sitting behind him. Even in his disheveled state, there was a strange air of dignity and pride to his stance, as he sat with back straight and head high.
The Black Cowl scowled. “I’m trying to save your lives here.”
Marrlo snorted. “For what? Decades of hard labour in a iron mine somewhere? No thanks. And that’s assuming the Dawnshire Knights don’t just hang us outright when they arrive. I’d rather go out fighting, even against a mob of dumbass villagers, than live like that.”
“Then you’re a fool.” The Cowl said.
“And you’re an overly compassionate idiot who’s going to get people killed.” Marrlo shrugged. “These people want blood and they’re going to get it, be it mine, yours or their own. Don’t let whatever shitty hero complex you’ve got going for you override your good sense. I don’t want to live a hellish life just so that you can feel better about yourself.”
“That’s not why I’m doing this.” The Cowl snarled.
Marrlo snorted. “Well, whatever you’re doing, you better act fast.” He nodded towards the mob. “Looks like they’re getting ready to rush us.”
The Cowl swirled around. Indeed, a strange energy had no overtaken the crowd. He could see the people glancing carefully at each other, gripping makeshift weapons, slowly building themselves up for the charge.
The Cowl’s grip tightened on his baton. If he was going to save the reavers, he was going to have to act fast. A quick swing to the jaw of the bulky man on his left should drop him. That would pause the crowd long enough for him to act. Then. if he followed up his attack with a sharp strike on the burly man with his arm in a sling-
His mind froze like a thunderbolt. Gods above, what was he doing? These people weren’t reavers, they were victims. People who had suffered and lost at the cruel hands of fate. And here he was making plans to attack them? To cripple, punch and incapacitate them for little more than the crime of wanting some feeling of payback against the men who had hurt them?
The Cowl stopped where he was. He took a deep, careful breath and released his batons from his grip.
“Alright.” His voice, though calm, swept over the crowd. “Alright, I’ve made my decision.”
The crowd fell silent, sensing that something had changed. A few tapped their weapons on the ground impatiently, but the Cowl wouldn’t be rushed.
“I’ve decided…” The Cowl said slowly, “I don’t think killing these people is right, but I also can’t blame you considering what they’ve done. So I’ll leave the decision up to you. But-!” He held up his hands before the crowd could rush forward. “I want you to know that I will have no part of this. I will not watch, I will not help, I will not stay while you slaughter these people. And most of all, I want you to know.” He shot a firm gaze towards the mob. “This was not why I chose to help you.”
The Cowl closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he turned around and began walking towards the village exit. “Do with them what you will.”
He didn’t look back as the villagers charged towards the Cloudreavers. He didn’t look back once as he saddled his horse and rode away into the dusk. He didn’t look back no matter how hard his heart cried out.
It was a bitter aftertaste to that cloudy day. One he’d much rather forget.
This wasn’t right, Rana thought, as she watched the Cowl slowly ride away into the distance. This wasn’t right at all.
The Cowl had saved them. He’d risked his life, fought powerful foes and even took injuries to save them all. He didn’t have to. He wasn’t being paid. He didn’t take any rewards or payment for doing so. He did it because he was kind and gentle and didn’t want to see them suffer.
And now he was riding away with a such a sad look on his face. With such disappointment in his eyes. And the rest of the village weren’t even looking at him.
Rana looked from the slowly shrinking figure of the Cowl in the distance. Then she looked the mob of people, carrying the screaming reavers to where they’d set up an impromptu gallows. Her tiny fists clenched and shook.
“Sometimes a little bit of kindness can make all the difference in the world.”
She charged forward.
Three days later
Caleb Farrow’s mood was as dark as the tavern corner in which he was sat in.
In spite of its name, the Sleeping Boar was as lively as ever. Drunken revelers cheering and swapping stories, gallons of golden liquid flowing from glasses (and the occasionally gentleman unable to control his bladder). It was loud and boisterous, but somehow peaceful as well, aside from a few dank, dark corners where those unwilling to join in the festivities lurked.
Including, on this particular day, Caleb.
“Oh dear.” A voice snapped Caleb from his depressed thoughts. “I know that look.”
Maggie Innson, the tavern’s head waitress, cook and general tavern owner when her Grandfather wasn’t around, approached Caleb’s table with a tray of drinks and a worried frown. She placed the tray on the table and took a seat next to him.
“It’s fine, Maggie.” Caleb insisted. “Nothing to worry about.”
“Yeah, you always say that.” Maggie grabbed one of the cups from her tray, filled with steaming liquid and placed it in Caleb’s hands, ignoring his silent protests. Against his better nature, Caleb took a sip. It was nice. A hot fruity tea of some sort, with a pleasant aftertaste that spread through the chest.
“Feel better?” Maggie asked. “It’s a new homemade brew.”
“It’s nice.” Caleb said genuinely.
“Great.” A small smile briefly flittered across Maggie’s face, before being replaced with what she described as ‘her business face’. “So, you want to tell me what’s up? Is it a problem with your carpentry business or…” She glanced around and leaned in a little closer. “Is it related to your ‘nighttime job’?”
Caleb jumped a little and looked to make certain no-one was listening. Maggie was one of the very few people aware of his double life as the Black Cowl and he wanted to make sure that that stayed the case. Once he was certain they weren’t be eavesdropped on, he leaned in closer himself. “Kind of. It’s complicated.”
Maggie shrugged. “I’m on my break. You want to talk to me about it?”
Honestly, Caleb didn’t really want to. He didn’t even want think about it. But if there was one thing that Father Farrow had taught him, it was that festering on these things was never healthy. And Maggie was smart, smarter than most people gave her credit for. Maybe she’d have some useful advice.
“It was a couple of days ago.” He began to explain. “A village was under attack by Cloudreavers and I arrived just in time to help.”
“Oh, is this the Peargrove thing?” Maggie brightened slightly. “We’ve actually started to get a few stories about that.” She took on a sly smile as she nudged Caleb’s side. “You more than anyone should know how our patrons love to hear tales about the dashing Black Cowl and his courageous adventures.”
Caleb made a face. Maggie’s smile widened. She was always far more amused by that sort of thing than he was.
“Yeah, well, it didn’t go great.” Caleb sighed. He paused. “Well, okay, it did to begin with. I beat the Cloudreavers, saved the village, and all with barely any casualties on either side. It was almost as good an outing as I’ve ever had.”
Maggie raised an eyebrow. “…But?”
“There was a problem.” Caleb let out another sigh. His eyes sank to the table “I’d managed to capture most of the Cloudreavers alive, but the townsfolk clearly objected to that. They formed a lynch mob and ganged up to kill them. I tried to stop them, but nothing I could say got through.” He shuddered as he remembered the looks of hate and anguish in their eyes. “In the end, the only thing I could do was walk away and leave those prisoners to their fate.” He let out another deep breath and looked back up to Maggie. “Now do you get why I’m- Maggie?”
There was a reason for the surprise in his voice. After all, Maggie wasn’t looking at him with the sympathy or understanding he’d been expecting. Instead, she looked more confused than anything, staring off at a point directly in front of her as if in deep thought about something.
“You…” She said slowly. “…You didn’t stick around to watch the reavers die, did you?”
“No.” Caleb shook his head. “I didn’t want to see it.”
That was when Maggie began to laugh. She tipped her head forward and giggled into her hands. It wasn’t loud or rambunctious laughter or anything overly mocking, it was more the sort of deep amusement of someone who clearly knew something the other person didn’t and was devolving quite a lot of humour from that..
“What’s so funny?” Caleb asked, a little hurt. “People died.”
“What’s funny is that you clearly didn’t stick around until the end of the story.” Maggie said. Her laughter only increased at Caleb’s look of confusion. “Like I told you, people have been telling the story around here recently. And you apparently missed the most important bit.”
Caleb’s distress vanished, replaced with curiosity. “What bit? What are you talking about? What did I miss?”
“Well, you know how these stories are.” Maggie said. “Bunch of different people exaggerating shit or dramatising it to make it more interesting. Some said you bested every single reaver at once with a broken sword, others said you picked them off one by one without anyone even noticing you were there, some said you tricked an enemy Gifted into blowing the entire horde up-” Caleb coughed awkwardly at that one. “-some even said you duelled Gier himself on a mountain of lava, you know, the usual.” She held up a finger. “But there was one point that everyone who told the story agreed on.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow. “Which was?”
“It was that after the fight was done, a unruly mob tried to murder the prisoners you caught.” Maggie explained, acting the scenario out in a overdramatic tone. “The heroic Black Cowl tried to dissuade them, but the people’s anger could not be soothed. So, rather than draw his blade on the people he so loved, the Black Cowl chose to leave instead, forsake his honor and let the townsfolk do as they wished.”
Caleb felt his fist clench as the memories returned. He was about to speak when Maggie raised her finger once more.
“But!” She exclaimed. “After the Black Cowl was gone, one young girl stepped forward, an ordinary lass who the Cowl had saved earlier in the fight. Before the entire village, with eyes wet with tears, she spoke up and shamed the mob, shamed them for their cruel treatment of their saviour and the barbaric acts they stepped out to do. And the mob felt ashamed at her words and backed away, leaving the reavers for the Dawnshire Knights to collect.”
Caleb felt like he’d been hit by a runaway cart. If he was standing up, he might very well have staggered back from shock.
“They spared them?” He said with barely concealed hope. “The villagers spared the reavers?”
“Every single one.” Maggie smiled. She paused. “Well, I suppose they probably kicked them about a bit, who could really blame them?”
“Yeah…” Caleb was barely listening at this point. He slumped back with relief and joy as the tension fled from his shoulders. “They actually spared them…”
Maggie watched him with an amused look. “I guess normal people can really surprise you sometimes.”
“Yeah.” Caleb said, unable to contain his own smile. “I guess they really can.”