Authors note: This story is a sequel to The Black Cowl Rises. Readers are suggested to finish that story first.
The Kingdom of Dawnshire: 237 AG
“I hear that he’s a demon.” Rodrick said, leaning over the flickering fire. “A proper wicked one as well. A devil sent from the depths of the Starless Hell to snatch men with sin in their hearts and drag them down to the black pits to suffer for all eternity.”
“Oh yeah?” Georg said, a ferocious grin on his face. “Well I heard he was a ghost. The victim of a bloody bandit raid, risen from the grave to take his vengeance on those who murdered him and his family.”
“That’s nuttin’!” Teyd scoffed. “I hear he’s Scratch the Trickster come again, wearing a mask of human flesh to disguise his evil visage…” He paused. “Or Devil Black. Or both.”
“Both?” His two companions gave him a look of confusion and disdain.
“What?” Teyd shrugged. “It could be true. You ever seen ‘em both in the same room?”
“Devil Black has been dead for centuries, Teyd.” Rodrick pointed out.
“Exactly!” Teyd said a grin. “Mighty suspicious, don’t you think?”
There was a brief silence as the rest of the group attempted to figure out whether this point was profound or just plain stupid. Fortunately, they were interrupted not long after by a great booming voice.
“Blue Moons and Pissin’ Stars,” Borvis the Strong, Leader of the Strongman Bandits, snarled as he stormed into the small clearing. “Are you idjits still talking about that damned Black Cowl?”
“Well why shouldn’t we be talking about him?” Teyd asked. “He’s a dangerous fuckin’ guy. Or ghost or demon or whatever. I hear he took out Corlo’s group just a few weeks ago while they were attacking a passing merchant convoy.”
Borvis’s teeth gritted.
“He’s not a ghost or a demon or anything special.” He snarled, showing off his rotting teeth. “He’s just another Gifted fucker with a chip on his shoulder. If he gets in our business…”
He stepped up to the old log that several of his group were sitting on and hoisted it into the air, much to protestation of the people who had been formerly sitting on it. Then, before everyone’s eyes, he snapped it in half over his knee, sending splinters and shards scattering everywhere. Borvis grinned and raised the broken log pieces over his head.
“…I’ll snap him like a twig.”
The bandits sat in stunned silence at this display of strength before erupting into whoops and cheers. Only a few didn’t clap, Rodrick among them. It wasn’t that Rodrick was unimpressed with Borvis’s show of strength, it was definitely something impressive to behold, more that he was aware exactly how Borvis was doing it.
See, while Borvis liked to pretend he was Gifted- and indeed claimed as much to many of the newer members of their little gang of bandits- he really wasn’t. The truth of his strength came from a small leather Craftwork belt that he and Rodrick, as part of their previous gang, had managed to steal a few months period while intercepting a shipment of goods meant for North Artisia. Unbeknownst to them at the time, most of the soldiers guarding the shipment had each been equipped with one of these belts to increase their strength and durability.
Naturally, it had ended up mostly turning into a slaughter as a result, with the bulk of their previous gang wiped out by the abnormally strong guards. However, via a very luck axe strike to the neck, Borvis and Rodrik had managed to kill one of the guards and steal his belt. Of course, by this time enough of their men had been killed to realise that the raid was a lost cause so, rather than fight on, they instead scarpered with their ill-gotten goods.
It had taken a few weeks of testing to figure out exactly what the belt did or how it worked, but they’d soon figured out that several times a day, they could activate the belt to temporarily give the wearer a significant boost in strength and durability. With it, their job had become a lot easier and Borvis had decided to take things a step up by creating their own new gang and setting up shop deep in the Black Cowl’s hunting ground.
Something Rodrik was at least a little hesitant about.
“They have a bit of a point though.” Rodrik said, approaching Borvis on his own in a more secluded corner of their little camp. “Keeping an eye out for the Black Cowl might be fairly worthwhile for all of us. If the rumours are true, he has an uncanny ability to show up at the worst possible time for people like us.”
“Ah, don’t tell me you’re getting into all that ‘demon’ muck as well.” Borvis said, grabbing a half-roasted chicken leg from the fire and biting into it.
“I’m not saying that.” Rodrik said. “But he definitely has some way of tracking down people like us when we try and do something big.”
That was an understatement to say the least. Rodrik could count on one hand the number of major raids or attacks on villages or towns in the general area that the Black Cowl operated that he didn’t show up at. Bandits, reavers, he’d even heard whispers of the Cowl defeating an entire Cloudreaver crew backed by one of Gier’s Gifted. He didn’t always show up on time or catch every single attack, but he showed up far too often for it to be a coincidence.
“You worry too much, Rodrik.” Borvis said, tearing a chunk of roast chicken from the bone. “He probably just has some kind of Seer ability. We stick small enough for now, do light raids and build up our forces and soon he won’t be able to do anything even if he does show up.” He grinned, showing the flecks of meat stuck between his teeth. “I hear that a fat merchant convoy is going to be passing our way tomorrow. Like gold for the taking, if this belt is any indication.” He flexed his arms in demonstration.
Rodrik wanted to protest, but he held his tongue. If the Cowl did indeed have some kind of Seer ability, that was all the more reason to worry, in his eyes.
Still Borvis clearly wasn’t in the mood to be persuaded and Rodrik wasn’t really in the mood to try. Judging- or perhaps just deciding- that their conversation was over, their erstwhile leader wandered off towards the fireplace to chat with some of the more boisterous recruits, leaving Rodrik all by himself at the camp’s edge.
“I hear the Black Cowl cannot be defeated by any man with evil in his heart.” He muttered quietly to himself. “And will turn up whenever you least expect and most fear.”
“I hear he’s been standing behind you this entire time.” A new voice said behind his back. “And has been listening to every word you just said.”
Rodrik didn’t even have time to react, before something hard smashed into his jaw, knocking him to the floor. As he looked up, barely able to breath let alone scream, he saw a figure standing above him, black cloak billowing restlessly in the non-existent breeze. Even without seeing his face, Rodrik knew without a doubt who this was and why they were here.
The last thought that went through Rodrik’s mind, before the Cowl’s boot crashed into his face and knocked him unconscious was the same question that he and his compatriots had been puzzling over all night.
What kind of a monster was the Black Cowl?!
Several days earlier…
“Ow…” Caleb Farrow winced, as he rubbed his head with his hand. “Ow ow ow…”
This morning had not gotten off to a great start. Caleb had woken up bright and early at the crack of dawn, as usual, rolled out of his slightly creaky bed, washed his face, did his normal morning exercises and routines and then promptly brained himself on a door frame when he misjudged one of his leaps. It wasn’t a serious injury by a long shot and the pain would probably fade in an hour or so, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant either.
He was just in the middle of heading downstairs to get a damp cloth to soothe it, when he heard the sound of movement and crashing pots from his relatively meagre kitchen.
Frowning, Caleb held out his hand and a small wooden baton, concealed in a nook behind the stairs, flew into his grip. It was probably nothing, maybe a wild animal or something, but just in case…
Stepping carefully, relying on his years of experience as a sneaky vigilante, Caleb tiptoed down the rest of the stairs, through his carpentry workshop and to the small, admittedly underutilised, cookery room in the corner of his house. Slowly, with baton clenched in his hand, he crept his head around the corner of the doorframe…
…to see a young 10-yo boy desperately scrabbling around the floor, picking up pots and pans.
“Shit shit shit!” The boy whispered to himself. “Please don’t be broken, please don’t be broken.”
Caleb felt the tension leave his body in a wave. Quietly, he placed his baton back onto a hook by the door.
“Owyn,” he said, dropping his cover and stepping into the kitchen. “I thought I told you about knocking before you came into my house.”
Owyn winced, before turning around with some dread to the figure looming in the doorway. “Sorry Caleb. I didn’t realise you were actually in.” He shuffled awkwardly on his feet. “And I really needed to use your kitchen, so…”
Caleb held his stern expression for a few moments. Then he sighed and bent down to help Owyn pick up the rest of the pans. “What do you need?”
Owyn didn’t hide the relief in his expression. “Oh. Well, I was going to do some soup for lunch for Father Farrow and the younger kids at the shelter, but the rain from last night leaked into the fireplace so I couldn’t get it started. And since Maggie’s is usually busy at this time, I thought I’d come here and cook the soup, before taking back to the shelter-”
“Okay, okay.” Caleb said, raising a hand to quiet him down. “That’s fine, you can use my kitchen for that. Do you need any help?”
“No, I’m pretty sure I’ve got everything I need.” Owyn said, glancing at the pile of ingredients currently stacked on the table. “It’ll take a while to do though.” A thought visibly occurred to him and his face lit up. “I could do you some breakfast while I’m here. I’m pretty sure I have a spare pan somewhere here.”
Caleb considered this a moment. It would be nice to get an early start on some of the carpentry work in his workshop. He’d been planning on spending most of the morning working in there anyway, but getting a few extra minutes to finish up some of the smaller projects might be extremely useful. He wasn’t going to have much time to spare in the afternoon, after all.
“You know, I think I’ll take you up on that.” Caleb said. “I think I have some spare eggs in that cupboard there. Make sure to do enough for yourself as well.”
“Thanks Caleb!” Owyn said, clambering up onto a table with practiced ease to reach the cupboard.
Caleb sighed, shook his head and turned away to find his itinerary for the day. It wasn’t all that complicated, just a series of notes on the various carpentry tasks and side jobs he needed to do, but he usually tended to have so much on the go that he needed at least some reminder on the specifics.
Maggie called it a poor habit of his, taking on more than he could manage, but Caleb thought it was fine. Littlemane wasn’t exactly a huge village after all and he never got that many in the way of jobs, especially compared to carpenters in bigger towns and the like. Sure, it wasn’t exactly a light workload either, especially when he had his nighttime job to think of, but he could manage.
Point in question, today he needed to finish up some timber for the beam of a roof, a few pieces of furniture to replace some destroyed at the Sleeping Boar (hah, Maggie was such a hypocrite) and in the afternoon, the Garners needed the roof of their barn fixing again. Plus he also had to visit Mac and Lotty, both to arrange for some fresh lumber and to find some targets for his nighttime job and he should probably grab some money from the Longtree to help Father Farrow’s shelter afford food for the week.
Caleb took a deep breath and leaned backwards, letting his back pop with a satisfying crack.
A carpenter’s job was never done.
The first indication Borvis’s Strongmen got that something was wrong was when the unconscious body of Rodrick flew out of the darkness and landed directly on top their small campfire.
The campfire itself had been deliberately kept small to keep them from being spotted, so the bulk of Rodrick’s fairly large body was enough to destroy it entirely, sending embers scattering across the ground, much to the audible surprise of the bandits, before being extinguished entirely and plunging the whole camp into darkness.
Darkness that was quickly followed by the sounds of violence and screaming.
Georg was somewhat new to this particular group of bandits but, as a former sellsword, he was not new to the sounds of battle. As such, even in the pitch black darkness he could recognise intimately the pained scream of someone under assault, followed quickly by the sound of hard wood smacking flesh and then silence. Moments later, there was a surprised yell, followed by a shriek, followed by a deafening crash and another surprised shout.
“Light the torches!” Borvis bellowed. “Grab your weapons! We’re under attack!”
This didn’t do much to calm the panicked bandits down and, in the total darkness, more than a few began attacking each other blindly. Even Georg was very nearly skewed by a new lad with a long spear. He grabbed hold of the weapon before the kid could try again and pulled him close enough to recognise his face in the dim moonlight.
“Idjit!” He snarled. “It’s me! Now give me that before you hurt someone with it!”
It was difficult to see his younger comrade’s exact expression in the low light, but the boy’s eyes seemed to widen. He swallowed and nodded, before removing his hands from the spear and letting Georg take it for himself. Georg was about to berate the boy further when a sudden flash of light caught his attention.
It seemed that in the chaos of the attack, one man had actually been smart enough to go for the torches like Borvis had ordered. The freshly lit torch began to illuminate the previously darkened clearing. As his eyes began to adjust to the sudden light, Georg had just enough time to make out the relieved expression of the man with the torch, before a wooden baton flew out of the darkness and smashed the torchbearer across the head.
The man fell to the ground with barely a grunt, torch flying out of his hands and into a nearby tent. Fortunately, in spite of the recent rain, the fabric was dry enough that it didn’t immediately extinguish the flame.
Unfortunately, that also meant that the tent began to catch fire.
The flame spread quickly and in mere minutes the entire left side of the tent was ablaze. The raging heat of the fire only sent the men into more of a panic and, to make matters worse, it didn’t even let Georg see who was attacking them or where they were. The flickering flames sent shadows and silhouettes everywhere and it was difficult to tell whether any given fight was due to their mysterious attacker or just the result of two bandits bumping into each other in their panic and lashing out.
Then, suddenly, a dark shadow dropped out of the treetops before his very eyes.
Before Georg could even react, the shadow kicked the legs out from beneath one bandit, before swinging him directly into the path of a fellow, causing them both to collapse in a pained heap. Before they’d even touched the ground, the shadow was back on the move, extending out an arm to fling one of his batons directly into the face of a charging bandit. There was the familiar sound of a nose breaking, followed by a high-pitched grunt, and the bandit felt to the ground, clutching his face in pain.
Then the shadow turned towards Georg. And the bandit could recognise the figure’s stern expression for what it was. A challenge.
“Come on, then.” The Black Cowl said, raising his weapon. “Who’s next?”
Caleb Farrow held the knife above his target with shaking hands.
He had to do it. He had to do it now. He’d put it off far too long already, paralyzed by his own hesitation. If he didn’t make his strike now, he knew that he’d never be able do it again and his goal would forever remain unreachable. And that was unacceptable. He had to do it. He had to finish this now.
But, on the other hand, he only had one shot at this. If he screwed up then the entire project would fall apart in his hands. All that time and effort lost to a single second’s mistake. So could he really be blamed for feeling nervous? Knowing everything that rested in his hands and that the slightest misstep meant failure?
His hand quavered slightly. Then he struck.
“Finished!” He said, triumphantly, carving the last feather onto the surface of the small wooden bird.
“You’re done are you?” Maggie said, peeking over his shoulder curiously. “Let’s take a look.”
Proudly, Caleb passed the small wooden model over to Maggie, making certain he handled the outstretched wings gently so they wouldn’t snap off. Personally, he was still riding the high of finally making it past those last awkward touches. He’d always had trouble with doing the feathers under the curve of the neck area, since the carving knife he preferred to used didn’t quite have the right bend to smoothly mark said area. More than once, Caleb had ended up accidentally snapping the neck off his carving models and had been forced to start from scratch.
“It’s really quite good.” Maggie complimented him, turning the small carving around to admire every angle of it. The outstretched wings, the proud beak, the splayed delicate feet. It was a magnificent work of art. “Is it a duck?”
Caleb’s proud smile vanished.
“It’s not a duck.” He said. “It’s meant to be a falcon.”
“Ah.” Maggie said, a bland mask dropping over her face. She turned the model around in her hands “Well, it’s certainly an… interesting interpretation of a falcon.”
Caleb felt his heart sink. “That bad, huh?”
“It’s not bad.” Maggie said honestly. “Like I said, it is actually a really good duck. As a falcon, however…”
“It needs improvement.” Caleb pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a long sigh. “Well, at least, I’m starting to get better..”
Maggie gently placed the model back down onto the table and gave Caleb a gentle pat on the back. “Don’t worry. You’ll get there.” She glanced to the steaming plate sat to his side. “Now are you going to actually finish your food before it gets cold? That rabbit pie isn’t easy to make, you know.”
“Right right,” Caleb nodded, grabbing the clay plate and taking a bite out of the now-lukewarm rabbit pie on its surface.
The Sleeping Boar was an old bar, older than many could recall. It had been run by several generations of Maggie’s family and had weathered more disasters than many could remember, both before and after the Gifted emerged. It had lived through battles, raids and Gifted with foul tempers and little restraint.
Of course, as a result, the bar was pretty run down a lot of the time and prone to falling apart. But, honestly, that was part of why Caleb liked it so much. There was so much history to the place, both subtle and obvious. A scratch here and there from a bar fight that the Black Cowl had broken up. A burnt patch where the acid-spitting knight known as Spittoon had visited. Even one cracked floorboard that Maggie’s grandfather swore came from Mightiest, before he made his fame for single-handedly defeating an entire kingdom.
The point was that the place had an atmosphere that Caleb found himself constantly drawn to. A feeling of both times come by and times yet to come. It took a lot of work to maintain, but you could feel the heart in it. Hence why he so often made time to visit in his busy schedule. Well, that and the fact that they occasionally gave him free food and drink.
(’Free’ was somewhat of an exaggeration. Maggie and her grandfather gave Caleb meals without charge because he did so much repair work for them pro bono and then refused to take proper payment because he was entirely that sort of person. Plus it was the sole way Maggie had to make certain Caleb wasn’t skipping meals and accidentally working himself into a heroism-fuelled coma.)
“Sooo.” Maggie said, slipping into the chair beside him, “you got any plans for the rest of the day?”
Caleb chewed thoughtfully on his meal. “Well, first I’ve got to finish fixing up the Garner’s stable roof before the sun goes. Then after that, I’m dropping off some supplies to Father Farrow and the kids. And after that I was planning on checking in with Lotty to see if she has anything for my… night-time job.”
“Sounds like a busy afternoon.” Maggie let out a whistle. “Don’t suppose you’d have time after all that to accompany a delicate little lady to Kelvan Garner’s evening get-together next Starsday? I hear he’s hired a few Bards from the Ballard Tower to play.”
Caleb made a face. “I don’t get along with bards. You know that.”
Maggie couldn’t help the laughter that slipped past her lips. “Just because they all like playing songs about the dashing Black Cowl gallivanting into the night, saving princesses and slaying vagabonds.”
Caleb’s face turned into a scowl. “One of these days, I’m going to find and throttle Wylliam for writing that one.”
“Ah, you know you love it.” Maggie cackled and rubbed his hair affectionately. “Seriously though, you in?”
Caleb hesitated slightly. How best to put this? “I’ll make it if I can. But Lotty picks something up…”
“Yes yes, you’ll go off gallivanting into the night,” Maggie waved her hands dismissively. “You wouldn’t be you if you did anything different. And trust me, I get it.” Her smile turned a little melancholy. “At least try and get word to me if something comes up. I’ll put together a supply pack for you.”
Caleb’s smile turned more genuine. “Thanks. I really don’t know what I’d do without you, Maggie.” Suddenly, his eyes were caught by the window outside. “Crud, is it that close to midday? I need to get going.”
He began to rise from his table, only to be stopped by Maggie, who gently picked the plate of half-eaten rabbit pie off the table and placed it into his hands. A silent understanding passed through them and Caleb gave a nod of thanks, before rushing out the door, still stuffing parts of the pie into his mouth.
“Remember to bring the plate back!” Maggie shouted, startling a few of the dozier customers.
Caleb couldn’t really answer back, face stuffed as it was with rabbit pie. However, he still managed to raise a thumbs up in acknowledgement before disappearing out the door. Maggie smiled fondly as she watched him go.
“What would you do without me?” She said in a quiet voice. “Probably starve, you idiot.”
Georg would’ve been lying if he had said he wasn’t a little intimidated when the Black Cowl dropped from the treetops and took down several of his fellows in an instant. But Georg was also a trained fighter, one of the best among their group, and not the sort to lie down and let this prick just roll over him. With a roar, he charged, thrusting the spear out in front of him in the hopes that he might get lucky and skewer the little rat.
For a second he thought he’d managed to get him. His attack had struck true and hit the shadowy form of their attacker. However, the strike felt wrong. There was no sense of weight or resistance as was usually the case when he stabbed someone with a spear. No feeling of metal tearing through flesh and blood.
He was only proven right when he tried to pull the spear back and the shadow’s hand whipped out and grabbed the shaft before he could.
Shit! Georg realised where he’d gone wrong. He had hit the Cowl, yes, but not the actual person inside it. He’d merely hit the hero’s cloak, now visibly flapping in the low light and gentle wind. Georg heaved and pulled at the spear, but the Cowl’s strength was too great. It was trying to pull his weapon free from stone. The Cowl even went so far as to taunt him by slapping him lightly on the shoulder with one hand, while clutching the spear with the other.
Snarling, Georg tried to return the favour and punch the shadow with his free hand, but that was clearly what the Cowl had been waiting for, as he suddenly began to pull on the spear himself. Georg was barely able to release his grip in time before the shadow pulled back and ripped the object from the bandit’s hands.
Great, now he’d lost his weapon to boot.
The Black Cowl stepped back and twirled the spear with contemptuous ease, before delivering a sharp strike, with the blunt end, across the face of an attacker attempting to sneak up behind him. Then the Cowl turned back towards Georg, raised his arm and, before the former sellsword could even react, flung the spear directly towards him with punishing force.
Georg screamed and put his hands up in a futile attempt to defend himself. However, the feared blow never came. Peeking his eyes open, with more than a little hesitance, Georg turned to see that the spear in question had flown straight past him and instead struck Teyd, who was sneaking up behind him with a bow and arrow. The spear had pierced cleanly through both the bow and Teyd’s hand and impaled him to a tree, screaming and cursing and trying to tug his skewered arm free.
Georg turned back towards the Black Cowl, who seemed mildly amused at his fright. A rush of anger shot through Georg body at the taunt. Who did this cocky shit think he was? Did that asshole really think Georg didn’t know how to fight barehanded?
Rolling up his sleeves and stepping forward, Georg approached the Black Cowl with fists raised. If anything, this seemed to amused the Black Cowl more and he raised his fists in turn. Then he stopped, raised one hand palm-first towards Georg and pulled back his other fist, as if winding up for a powerfulpunch.
Georg could’ve laughed at the man’s arrogance. He was way too far away for the Cowl to hit him from there. And if he thought that Georg was going to come close enough get hit like that, then-
Suddenly, something yanked his shoulder forward.
There was no real way to describe it. Nothing visible had struck Georg, nor was there any reason his shoulder should’ve moved. It was as if someone had shoved his shoulder- and only his shoulder mind- strongly from behind, strong enough that he couldn’t help but stumble forward directly towards the Black Cowl.
As he fell forward, Georg suddenly recalled barely a minute previous, when he and the Cowl had been stuck in their impromptu game of tug of war. The Cowl had reached forward and tapped him on the shoulder then, hadn’t he? Tapped him on the exact point where he was being pulled, right?
Georg had just enough time to digest the revelation before the Cowl’s fist struck across the face and knocked him unconscious. He had one last thought before everything faded into dark.
“…That cheating bastard…”
Pain. A sudden burst of agony shot through Caleb’s hand, the shockwaves flowing through him like water.
Yelping, he dropped the hammer and clutched the freshly injured area, checking over it to see how bad the damage was. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to be any worse than a light bruising, but it was always better to be safe than sorry.
“You alright up there?” The deep voice of Kelvan Garner echoed from down below.
“I’m fine!” Caleb shouted. “Just banged my finger with the hammer is all!”
There was a brief pause, before laughter began to sound from below.
“Guess e’en carpenters aren’t immune to that sort of thing then.” Kelvan said. “Just make sure ye don’t fall off, or a bruised finger will be the least of your worries!”
“Father!” A shocked voice sounded from below. “Don’t be so morbid.” The voice shouted louder. “Do ye need me to bring you a damp cloth or a bandage or something, Caleb?”
Caleb smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind, thanks Kelvan. And don’t worry, Lyn, I’ll be fine. It was only a light tap.”
The Garners were one of Caleb’s more common repeat customers. Largely because they owned the only horse stables in Littlemane, ones that had been passed down through several generations and, as a result of the age of said buildings, often needed minor repairs here and there around the place.
Caleb didn’t mind. The Garners were nice people and did a lot to help keep the village running, small as it was. Lyn, their eldest daughter, had even taught him how to ride when he was younger and let him rent out one of their better horses when he needed it for a carpentry job in another town.
(Of course, more commonly, he ended up renting said horse out when he needed to travel the long distances for his ‘night time occupation’, but obviously, he kept that one secret from them as best he could.)
“Do ye reckon you’ll be needing much more time, Caleb?” Kelvan Garner asked. “I’m only asking ‘cause I’m gonna want to be getting the horses in soon. It looks like it’s going to rain in the next couple o’ hours.”
“Shouldn’t be too much longer, Mr Garner.” Caleb said. Which was more or less the truth actually. He was only fixing up a small hole in the roof with a couple of fresh planks of wood. The only problem came in the fact that one of the nails wasn’t going in properly.
He wasn’t certainly whether it was an issue with the nail itself or just that he’d hammered it into a particularly awkward spot, but he could tell that if he left it as it was, it wouldn’t stay in properly. He was going to need a much stronger blow to nail it down properly.
There was only one thing for it. He was going to have to use his Gift.
Taking a quick glance around to make certain no-one was watching (rather unnecessarily because his Gift wasn’t really something all that visually impressive), Caleb placed his thumb over the recalcitrant nail and placed a Tag onto it.
Caleb’s Gift had a lot of different factors to it- mainly revolving around increased strength, stamina, balance, nightvision and the like- but, as far as he was concerned, Tags were the most interesting and the most useful part of his powers. Effectively, he could place a Tag on any object he chose with a simple touch. Once a Tag was placed, it would last for about an hour and he could then Push and Pull on it with an invisible force, either drawing it straight to his hands or pushing it away as far as he could.
Exactly how much a Tagged object moved when Pushed/Pulled was somewhat dependent on its own weight compared to Caleb’s strength. If it was too heavy for Caleb to normally lift on his own, then attempting to Push or Pull on it would lead him to get dragged towards it or pushed away, depending on what he tried.
It was a fairly simple Gift in concept, but Caleb had spent years figuring out how to make the most of it. For example, as he was about to demonstrate on this nail right now, if one placed a Tag on an object they were about to hit or throw and then Pushed at the exact moment of action, they could sent the target flying significantly harder and faster than a normal hit/throw could manage. It was how he managed to throw his batons so sharply in his duel with Kristalknight.
However, in this case, he was about to use it to hammer down a nail with an extra bit of force.
The hammer came down with a slam. As usual, Caleb had timed it perfectly, Pushing at just the right moment the get the full effect. Too much effect, in fact. His blow cracked the fresh wooden plank he’d spent the last few minutes hammering down. And, even worse, it snapped the nail clean in two.
“Hmm.” Caleb Pulled the broken nail to his hand and inspected it. “Guess the nail was bad after all.”
Fortunately, it didn’t take too much time to find a replacement nail and the damage he’d caused to the plank wasn’t much worse than surface deep, so Caleb was able to finish his work for the Garners within good time. For his deed, in spite of protesting that he really didn’t need payment and that they’d helped him enough, he still got given a few silver pieces by Kelvan and a sack of apples from Mrs Garner that they had recently had delivered. While he did somewhat need the former to afford new supplies for his carpentry work, he only relented on the latter when she recommended he bring them to Father Farrow and the kids at the church.
Still, he needed to visit both Lotty and the Longtree first before he could do anything else, so that meant dragging a somewhat hefty bag of apples around town. Certainly, it wasn’t heavy enough to be too much of a bother, but it was still somewhat inconvenient.
Lotty’s house was on the very outskirts of town, a decent distance from where most of the other residents lived. To some degree Caleb definitely understood this. After all, it was easier to keep a Gift concealed when you didn’t have to spend too much time around other people. But it did mean that Caleb had to go somewhat out of his way to get there in good time, jogging past the rocky terrain, into the very edge of the forest.
The best way to describe Lotty’s house was ‘cosy’. It was a cabin-like wooden house, built from smoothed logs, with a neat little deck outside. It was slightly bigger than most of the houses in the town, but hardly enormous. Outside, Caleb could see piles of logs and felled trees stacked one on top of another, ready for moving.
Walking casually up to the front door (it wouldn’t do to run, lest he spook the inhabitants), Caleb stepped onto the wooden deck and knocked three times. Seconds later the door opened to reveal a six year old girl in a worn smock, who looked up at Caleb sternly.
“Caleb Fawwow.” She said in a serious voice, one somewhat undermined by her lisp. “The heawens fortold me that you were coming.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow. “Did they now? That’s very impressive. What else did the heavens fortell you?”
The young girl scrunched up her face in concentration. Then she looked up with hopefulness. “Do you have any snacks with you?”
“Well, I did pick up some apples earlier.” Caleb rummaged into his sack and picked out one. “Would that do?”
The girl’s face lit up and she bounced up and down on the heels on her feet. “Yes! Yes! Gimmee!”
However, before Caleb could pass the apple to the excited girl, the door opened further and the girl was suddenly picked up a pair of motherly arms.
“Oi, are you bothering our guests, Nealie?” The young woman said, setting the girl on her hip. “What have I told you about asking them for presents?”
“Noooo.” The girl, Nealie, wailed, squirming slightly in her mother’s grasp. “I want d’apple! The heawens fortold it!”
The woman sighed. “The way I see it, the heavens aren’t fortelling anything tonight except bad weather.” She glanced upwards, before looking back down to Caleb. “Sorry, but I’m in the middle of putting Conlann to bed right now. But if you want to come in and wait, Caleb, that’d be fine.”
“Thanks Lotty.” Caleb said with a nod.
Lotty wasn’t much of an impressive woman at first glance. She was young for a mother of two, yes, but otherwise she was relatively normal looking, with a plain face and a slightly thin build. Caleb watched as she sat Nealie down in a chair, picked up Baby Conlann from where he’d been napping and took him into another room to rest him in his cot, like he’d seen dozens of other mothers do around town. Lotty was the sort of simple peasant woman you could pass a dozen times in the street and not think twice about.
Which was fairly impressive considering she was also probably one of the most powerful Seers in the country.
Seers were an interesting form of Gifted. Specifically, they were Gifted that had some form of ability to see the future. According to how Lotty explained it, there were three different types of Gifted Seer. Malleable Seers, who could see a potential future that could quite easily be changed via deliberate action. Lax Seers (named after the infamous folktale involving Lax the Thinker and the Crowfoot Witch), whose futures always came true but were presented in a vague enough manner that they could be representative of multiple possible outcomes. And finally, True Seers, whose futures were always clear and always true and were also rarer than hen’s teeth.
Fortunately, Lotty was only a Malleable Seer, whose futures could be changed via deliberate action. Which was why Caleb was here. Because the futures she saw were rarely good ones and ones that needed a certain masked vigilante to be dealt with properly.
“Hey! Hey Caleb!” Nealie had escaped from her chair and was tugging on Caleb’s sleeve. “Canna have’n apple?!”
“I don’t see why not.” Caleb said. He paused. “…Actually, tell you what,” He took out a silver coin from his pocket and held it up to Nealie’s eyes. Then he placed both hands behind his back and raised them towards her as closed fists. “You tell me which hand this coin is in and I’ll give you a coin and an apple.”
Nealie’s eyes lit up. Then her face scrunched in concentrated thought. “The wight.”
“You think it’s in the right hand?” Caleb said with mock seriousness. “Well, let’s if you’re- Wait, is that your father?”
Nealie immediately whirled around towards where Caleb was looking. While she was distracted, Caleb deftly swapped the silver coin from his left fist into his right. He managed to finish just in time before Nealie looked back towards him with a somewhat confused expression.
“Ah, it must’ve just been a passing grizzly bear. My mistake.” Caleb said sagely. “Now let’s see if you’re right.” He opened his right fist to reveal the silver coin within. “Well look at that. I guess you’re a Seer just like your mother.”
“Yes!” Nealie swiped the silver coin from Caleb’s hands and held it up triumphantly. “Imma Seer!”
“Who’s a Seer now?” Lotty said, stepping back into the room, closing the door quietly behind her.
“We were just playing around.” Caleb said, casually passing the apple to Nealie.
“I gotta coin!” Nealie said triumphantly. “An an’apple!”
Lotty raised an eyebrow. “I see you did.” She looked to Caleb. “So nice of Uncle Caleb to fill you full of sweet things before your bed time.”
Caleb made a slightly sheepish face in return.
“Still, guess we’d better get down to business.” Lotty said. “Nealie, can you go up to your room please, while me and Caleb talk.”
“’Kay!” Nealie said, scampering off to admire her newly purloined goods.
Once she was gone, Lotty turned to Caleb with an eyebrow raised. “Really?”
“I had too many apples to begin with.” Caleb said with a shrug. “I was planning on dropping the rest at the shelter, but if you need some…?”
Lotty hummed thoughtfully. “I might just take you up on that. Mack is awful fond of his apple pie.”
“Then I’ll leave some for you when I set off.” Caleb said. “In the meantime, should we perhaps get down to business?”
Lotty paused a moment. Then she nodded. “Business it is.”
She reached under a cabinet and pulled out a large rolled-up scroll concealed underneath. Brushing cookpots and children’s toys from the table, she gently unfurled it, revealing a huge map of the entire Dawnshire Kingdom, as well as some of its nearest surrounding lands. Each town and city had been marked in precise detail, from the capital of Tallflower to the cities of Cliffclaw and Chasm’s Rest to even their own bare-bones village Littlemane, tucked away in a small area.
However towns and cities weren’t the only notable features of this map. All over the surface of it, in messy scratchy handwriting were a series of symbols and numbers, each paired in threes. Some were crossed out, some had hasty adjustments made, others had been pasted over to clear room for more symbols. There weren’t any letters, Lotty had never found it worth her time to bother learning how to read, but she’d created her own makeshift alphabet and language to better suit her purposes. Caleb still wasn’t entirely certain how it worked, but he’d seen enough to pick up the basics and work out what each of the three numbers/symbols meant.
Time until Danger. Level of Danger. Number of People in Danger.
See, Lotty’s ability was based around being able to detect future dangers, both big and small, deliberate and accidental. She could tell when Nealie was about to accidentally knock a pot of boiling water onto her own head, when Mack was liable to run into a grizzly bear while out logging or when an entire village was liable to come under attack from Cloudreavers. Well, okay, to be precise she couldn’t see those exact events, but she could tell when the people in question would be in danger and take steps to prevent it.
And while for Nealie or Mack, that was an easy task, there wasn’t really much a middle-aged housewife could physically do about things leagues from where she lived involving bandits, raiders and the life.
Hence where Caleb came in.
“I’m worried about this event here in Angleton.” Caleb said, pointing to a small town some leagues from here, where several symbols had been written. “According to your numbers, there’s a lot of people going to be in danger here.”
“I don’t think you need to worry too much about that.” Lotty said, peering closer to the section he was talking about. “There are a lot of people in danger, yes, but the danger level is only a 2. Chances are it’s more likely just a small fever going around or some bad meat being sold at the butcher’s. Not really something the Black Cowl can do much about.” She shook her head. “No, I think the place you really ought to keep a watch on is here, near Squirewall.” She pointed to a small forest grove, where a significant number of symbols had been scribed, some scratched out, others adjusted.
Caleb leaned over to take a better look. He frowned. “Are you sure? Neither the danger level nor the number of people in danger seems all that impressive.”
“I understand your doubt,” Lotty said, “but this is the fourth time I’ve predicted significant danger there this month. I’d bet my left cheek that some bandits or raiders have set up shop there.”
Caleb frowned. One of the difficulties of using Lotty to predict future events was that it was impossible to tell what precisely each danger was caused by and whether or not the Black Cowl could actually physically do anything about it. For every Peargrove he managed to successfully stop, there was a town caught in plague or some natural disaster that he was helpless to prevent. And, while he was away chasing those disasters, there were smaller problems that he could’ve helped with had he not been wasting his time elsewhere.
Even worse was that Lotty didn’t catch everything. More than once, she’d been completely blind to some big event happening a few towns over or a very small problem closer to home. The small borough of Fosston, for example, a few miles away had ended up being wiped out entirely a few months back, seemingly by a Cloudreaver raid, and Lotty hadn’t noticed a thing. And there was the occasional rare moment where her involvement let to one disaster being resolved, only for an even greater one to take its place.
There was a reason that there were so many folktales about the untrustworthiness of prophecy.
Still, Caleb didn’t really have much of a choice other than to rely on Lotty. The slow moving nature of news and rumours around Dawnshire meant that it could be weeks before he heard of some crisis that the Black Cowl could help with and even then it could often take him a day or two to get to where he was needed. By utilising Lotty’s Seer abilities, he could arrive at a crisis in time to actually be useful and that was worth the hours of puzzling over a crisis or the occasional dead end.
The two had been in the midst of discussing whether an incident near a known sheep herd’s field might be foul play or just an accident with a frisky sheep when the door swung open and Lotty’s husband, Mack, walked in, an axe slung over his shoulder.
“Hullo Caleb!” He said in a cheerful voice. “Didn’t realise you were coming in today.”
“Hi Mack.” Caleb gave the burly lumberjack a slight wave. To his side, Lotty stepped around the table and stepped forward to give her husband a light embrace. “Good haul today?”
“You know it.” Mack pressed his lips against his wife’s cheek in a sloppy kiss that made her giggle. “Got a few good logs down. I’ll send them over to your place tomorrow morning so you can get some use out of them.”
“Thanks.” Caleb nodded. “I’ll leave some coin out for you in the usual place.”
It was an interesting coincidence that Caleb often tended to work with Mack just as much for his daytime carpentry job as he did his nighttime job with Lotty. The man was one of the more reliable loggers in the village and had a good eye for the best trees for Caleb to get quality wood out of. It also helped that he was genuinely very affable and friendly, always willing to lend a helping hand if Caleb needed some extra muscle on a job.
Lotty put her foot down when it was suggested that he come on one of the Black Cowl’s missions though. Caleb had it on good authority that Mack sometimes ended up helping out with some of the smaller ‘events’ that Lotty had predicted that the Black Cowl didn’t have time to deal with, but she was not willing to risk her husband and main breadwinner on the sorts of stunts Caleb so commonly got into.
Mack glanced at the map on the table. “Nighttime work, huh?”
“You know how our friendly neighbourhood vigilante gets about these things.” Lotty said with a winking smile. “Got to give him something or he’ll just skulk around our yard like a stray dog.”
Caleb gave her a bemused look. That wasn’t entirely true. He did have some other things he could be doing outside of vigilanting. And even he didn’t, goodness knew that Maggie or Father Farrow would find him something to do, rather than leave him to brood.
“Ah, my wife has as fierce a tongue as ever.” Mack chuckled. “Sorry Caleb, but better you be the target of it than me.”
“Oh, you.” Lotty couldn’t keep the grin off her face as she slapped him on the arm.
“Oh, me.” Mack grinned in equal measure as he took Lotty by the chin and leaned down to deliver a full-fronted kiss.
What followed was about 3 or 4 minutes of extended, passionate smooching between the married couple, during which Caleb suddenly became intimately fascinated with the noble art of looking almost anywhere else except there.
Eventually (thankfully) the two broke it off and Mack looked up. “Where are the kids?”
“They’re both fine.” Lotty said. “Conlann’s asleep in his cot and Nealie is upstairs attempting to eavesdrop on us.” She pointed upwards to the kitchen roof.
There was a loud ‘meep’ from the floor above them, followed by the familiar pitter-patter of footsteps. Lotty and Mack shared a look, before bursting out into laughter. Caleb merely gave an exasperated sigh.
“She can keep a secret, right?” He said to double-check. “I’d rather my double-life not become too widely known across the land.”
“She can keep important secrets.” Lotty said. “Otherwise I doubt I’d ever let her out of the house, considering.”
That was a good point. Even with how unreliable they could be, Seers were highly prized by almost anyone who could get their hands on them. Hence why it was even more important that Lotty stayed hidden than Caleb. As it was, the only people who even knew she had a Gift were Mack, Caleb himself, Father Farrow and Maggie, who sometimes helped decipher her predictions.
“So, do you reckon you’ve got enough potential dangers to be getting on with?” Lotty asked, brushing her hair back. “Only I’ve got… a different kind of business I’d like to settle with my husband.”
Mack let out an amorous growl, setting off another set of giggles from Lotty. Once again, Caleb suddenly regained a deep fascination with a certain section of the wall.
“Yeah, I think this should be plenty.” He said. The two had made a sizable list of what they thought were liable to be the biggest dangers from the next month or so. “I guess I’ll see you again next month.”
“Bah, you did all the puzzle solving without me?” Mack let out a wounded noise. “You know how I love doing that.”
“I’m sure there’s something else I can do for you that you’ll love instead.” Lotty stared into his eyes and licked her lips.
“I knew there was a reason I married you.” Mack chuckled, taking her into his arms. He was about to carry her into the bedroom when he suddenly turned to Caleb.
“Oh! That reminds me!” He said. “Lotty probably told you about that theory she had about those bandits in that grove near Squirewall? Well, I kept my ears open and a friend of mine heard from a merchant who heard from another friend that there are indeed rumours of bandits in that area.” He gave Caleb a firm nod. “Just thought you might like to know.”
Caleb nodded back. “Thanks Mack.”
“Yup, well, good hunting.” Mack said, kicking his bedroom door open, to Lotty’s giggles. “Because believe me, I’ve got hunting of my own to go on.”
…Boy, that wall pattern sure looked interesting, didn’t it?
“Stand still, you little shit!” Borvis the Strong roared as he heaved an enormous log like it was little more than a twig and smashed it into a nearby tent, nearly clipping the shadowy form of the Black Cowl.
The Cowl darted to the side, narrowly avoiding another overhead swing, before shooting out an arm and flinging a baton directly into Borvis’s face. Borvis staggered backwards, more surprised than hurt, and his momentary distraction gave the Cowl enough time to dive forward and deliver a two-footed rabbit kick directly into Borvis’s gut.
Borvis was sent sailing across the clearing by the blow, flying further and harder than he by all rights should’ve. Fortunately, once again his Craftwork belt came through. His enhanced strength and durability meant that he barely felt most of the blow and he was easily able to jump back to his feet with a spit and a snarl.
Across the clearing, he could still make out the shade-like form of the Black Cowl, standing, waiting and watching. Mayhaps it was a trick of the flickering light, but the Cowl’s face, what little was visible beneath his mask, seemed to twist in a frown at his quick recovery.
Borvis grinned. He liked to think that it was true. That the Cowl was frightened of his newfound strength.
“Come on then, ya bastard!” He shouted, picking up another log and hefting it over his shoulder. “I’m going to crush you like a bug!”
The Cowl tilted his head slightly. Then he made a slow deliberate show of turning his head left and right, looking upon the dozens of unconscious bandits that he’d already dispatched. Then he looked back to Borvis in an almost mocking tone. “You and what army?”
Borvis saw red. With a roar, he flung the log directly towards the Black Cowl, not even caring if he hit any of his men in the process. To his surprise, the Black Cowl leaped cleanly over it, like he was a fence-jumping horse or something. Then, the second he touched the ground, he darted forward, moving faster and smoother than any man should’ve been able to. From the angle Borvis was at, accompanied by the eerie movement of the large black cloak, it almost looked like the Cowl was practically flying across the ground than simply running.
Borvis would never admit it outloud, but the sudden movement spooked him. Letting out a shout, he raised both his hands over his head in a hammer-like blow, intending to flatten the Cowl once he got close. However, moments before he would’ve been hit, the Cowl darted to the side, once more unnaturally quickly, leaving Borvis to strike empty air.
The bandit leader barely had time to process this impossible dodge before he felt the dull impact of one of the Cowl’s baton’s hitting him in the side of the torso. Once again, the pain-dulling aspects of the belt meant that he wasn’t badly hurt, but it was a nuisance nonetheless. Even more so when, seconds later, the Black Cowl’s fist hit his gut, nearly causing him to double over.
Roaring, Borvis began to lash out, thrusting his arms and legs this way and that. It didn’t matter if it was undignified, as long as he hit the bastard! With his increased strength, even a glancing blow should be enough to break bones.
But even with all his wild unpredictable blows, he could seem to land a single strike on the Black Cowl. The Gifted hero just kept dodging and ducking and weaving, sometimes in movements that seemed impossible for a normal human being to pull off. Hell, Borvis couldn’t even successfully grab onto his cloak, what with the way it seemed to swish and weave and flow around his desperate grabs.
Borvis felt his desperation begin to grow. Why couldn’t he hit this guy?
Caleb left Lotty’s house not long after that, totally not in a hurry, nope not at all. As he went, he saw Nealie sitting outside on a windowsill, kicking her legs back and forth. When she saw Caleb, she glanced back inside towards where her parents were presumably making a significant amount of noise and made a face.
Caleb made a face back.
What? He understood her feelings.
Unfortunately, however, it turned out that Mr Garner was completely correct in his belief that rain was on the way. The clouds had grown grey and dark overhead and Caleb knew it was only a matter of time before the heavens opened and Littlemane Village received a fresh drenching from the Great Giftgiver in the skies.
Hence why he was somewhat in a rush to reach the Longtree before the rain started.
The Longtree wasn’t really officially named as such by most people. Hell, it wasn’t officially ‘named’ period. It was just a tree, after all. A surprisingly large tree, with a long trunk reaching up into the sky mind, hence where it got its unofficial name from, but a tree nonetheless. It was only really notable because Caleb and Maggie used to play around there when they were young, climbing up trees, getting into mock fights and so on.
Of course, they never climbed the Longtree when playing. Not because they didn’t want to (although Maggie’s Grandfather would probably have had a fit if he saw her doing so) but because it was a really damn hard tree to climb. The first few feet or so was almost entirely bereft of branches or solid footholds and the foliage above was positioned to be almost as awkward as possible to climb up unless you were some sort of professional acrobat.
Fortunately, while he may not have been a professional acrobat, Caleb could match their feats with relative ease.
Placing the sack of apples to the side, along with anything loose that might fall off, Caleb took a moment to stretch and ready himself. He leaned against the tree, carefully stretching his calf muscles and jogged back and forth between two trees to get his blood pumping. Then he charged forward towards the tree and leaped into the air, one foot extended towards its trunk.
Getting the timing right was somewhat tricky even to this day. The second his boot foot touched the bark of the tree, he placed down a Tag. Then, without even waiting a second, he Pushed and Pulled at the tree in a remarkably short interval, using the Push to give his boot more surface on the bark and using the Pull to propel himself upwards towards the branches. The first step wasn’t quite enough to get him to the foliage, so he placed his second foot on the trunk and repeated the feat to propel himself even higher.
It had taken him years to master this trick. Even with the enhanced sense of balance and timing that his Gift had given him, it was incredibly tricky to pull it off perfectly even once, let alone as many times as he often needed to scale any kind of serious distance. He mainly used it to climb trees and buildings that were otherwise considered insurmountable. Although it also made a great trick to bounce off a solid object and take an opponent by surprise by charging them from an unexpected direction.
Needless to say, the second step was enough for Caleb to reach the foliage. Grabbing onto a thick branch above his head and placing a Tag onto it, Caleb swung upwards and began to scale the enormous tree, ducking and diving and jumping up and between the branches like a monkey. He managed to scale most of the Longtree with an almost unnatural speed, using his Tags intelligently to propel himself upwards as needed. The only real snag came when he Pushed on a branch less able to hold his weight than he’d originally assumed, causing it to, rather than push him upwards, snap and send him falling downwards. Fortunately, he reacted immediately, slowing his fall with a Tag placed on the firmer tree trunk and landing gracefully on another nearby branch, before continuing upwards.
Eventually, after a few more minutes of swinging and climbing, Caleb reached the spot he was searching for. Near the very tip of the tree, a small bolthole had been carved into the wood of the tree trunk. Reaching into it, Caleb fished around, ignoring all the smaller treasures in favour of pulling out a small pouch, filled with jangling coins. Reaching into the pouch, he fished out a few of the coins, inspected them, and placed them into his pocket to go with the rest. He also fished out two batons and a familiar looking cowl to go with it.
The money in the pouch was somewhat of an ‘emergency’ fund. In a small village like Littlemane, even a minor accident could be devastating. A damaged house, a bandit attack, a bad harvest, an accident with a horse, a dead cow, each could cause serious trouble for one of the families living there. Hence why Caleb took whatever money people kept forcing into his hands and kept it hidden away in case of something disastrous happening. Maggie naturally rolled her eyes when he told her about it and scolded him for caring too much about looking after other people than looking after himself, but it made perfect sense to him. After all, there really wasn’t much he was going to use it for.
As for the cowl and the batons, these weren’t actually the tools he more commonly used during his ‘nighttime job’ as the Black Cowl. On the contrary, that particular cowl was concealed carefully in a hidden spot in his house, so he could more easily access it in case of emergency. And as for the batons, he tended to go through enough of those regularly that he always had a dozen or so pre-prepared and lying around the place. They were cheap and easy enough to make from leftover carpentry scraps, after all.
No, the Cowl he was taking today was in fact a new one that Maggie had had made for him. It was significantly lighter and thinner than his current main cloak and for good reason. His current cloak was specifically designed for Winter and the freezing cold nights he so often found himself in. It was thick, heavy and easy to dry, features born more out of necessity than comfort. A cold winter night could easily be fatal if one was not careful and did not take care of oneself. He still remembered the time, during his first year as the Cowl, that Maggie had found him in nearly frozen half-to-death outside her window after he’d misjudged just how cold and long one particular journey would be.
Dawnshire had milder winters than most, but they could still be more than fatal to the unprepared.
Fortunately, one of the secondary aspects of Caleb’s Gift allowed him to quickly recover from injuries and sickness, even ones self-induced by idiocy. But it was still an important reminder about the oft unseen risks of heroing. And not to underestimate the dangers that nature could bring. Including the dangers of summer as well as winter.
The facts were that a thick heavy warm cloak, while vital when operating in Winter, were equally a serious liability when fighting in Summer. It was very easy to overheat and collapse from exhaustion in the hot weather. Hence why Caleb made sure to have a thinner, lighter cloak ready to go for the different season. However, a lighter cloak took some getting used to, especially considering the specific ways in which Caleb used it.
After carefully putting on the cloak and making certain he’d picked up the right amount of coins, Caleb began to scale down the Longtree. Funnily enough, this was probably actually harder than getting up the tree in the first place, in large part because he couldn’t see where his feet were landing and there were a significant number of branches and brambles in his way. If the tree was lower, he would’ve pulled his usual trick for falling from significant heights without injury. Place a Tag on a sturdy point above him and then Pull on it moments before he was about to hit the ground, slowing him down significantly. It was how he’d managed to land among the Cloudreavers all the way back in Peachgrove.
However, the peak of the Longtree was just a little too high for this to work, since he ended up falling further and faster than his Gift could really protect him from. And needless to say, he’d learned that from experience.
Still, this was actually an excellent chance to start practicing with the new cowl. Taking a moment to double check it was on properly and that there were no potentially fatal tears or loose straps, Caleb took a deep breath and started placing Tags on the cloak. Dozens of them, on each fold and edge and corner, until the entire thing was practically coated in them. If Caleb’s Tags were visible, the cowl would probably be outright glowing with the sheer volume of them he had placed.
With his work fully done to his satisfaction, Caleb triplechecked that everything was indeed on properly, before closing his eyes and letting himself fall backwards off the tree.
It was a unique exercise in Tag control for him, one that really allowed him to test his limits and his reflexes. His cloak lashed and grabbed out at passing branches, guided not by Caleb’s hands, but by both subtle and forceful use of his Tags. A combination of careful Pushes and Pulls allowed him to tangle the Cowl in the branches, slowing his fall and twisting his body out of the way of potential perils. Other segments of the cloaks, hiding concealed hardened wooden marbles lashed out back and forth, smashing away meddlesome branches and the like.
It wasn’t a perfect method of falling, mind. The folds of the cloak didn’t really have that much strength behind their grip and Caleb’s control wasn’t good enough to stop him from getting smacked once or twice by a troublesome branch he’d missed, but it was a good exercise in control and one that he needed to get used to this new summer cloak again.
Funnily enough, using his actual Cowl as a weapon was not something that had occurred to Caleb for almost an embarrassingly long time after he’d first taken up the mantle. Originally, he’d picked the Black Cowl costume more because it was the only thing at hand when he first needed it and decided to stick with it as his main costume for the same reason. It had also been fairly problematic, to be honest, occasionally getting tangled or caught on things and putting Caleb at risk more than once. He’d almost been on the brink of switching it out entirely until a travelling circus performance, involving a very talented ribbon dancer, gave him the idea to start using it in combination with his Gift.
The fact was, it was plenty useful in helping him pull off many of his incredible feats of acrobatics and agility. Being able to suddenly shift direction in a fingersnap, sometimes even in midair, was an incredibly useful advantages, worth even the occasional tangle. He could make himself move faster by pushing in the direction he wanted to run. He could pull away from an enemy by pushing again in that same direction. He could even launch strikes and attacks by lashing out with some of the hardened sections. They weren’t powerful attacks, little more than stunning slaps, but stunning an opponent for a moment could make all the difference in combat.
(Plus- and he would never admit this out loud to anyone, especially Maggie- he could use the tags in the cloak to simulate it billowing dramatically in the wind, even on a calm cloudless day. It wasn’t much use in combat admittedly, but damned if it didn’t look cool.)
Still, Caleb was a skilled enough climber that getting down from the Longtree wasn’t too much of a struggle and soon he reached the base once more. Checking to make certain the coins hadn’t slipped from his pocket, Caleb picked up his bag of apples and continued on his way. By now the clouds had really gotten turbulent and Caleb could feel the first drips of rain begin to fall.
He picked up the pace. He wanted to get to Father Farrow’s without getting completely soaked, thank you very much.
It was after what felt like an hour of combat that Borvis the Strong finally got lucky.
The Black Cowl had been all but impossible to hit, flowing through his attacks more like water than a solid human being. He’d levelled blow after blow at Borvis, striking arms, legs, knees, torso, even one or two blows to private areas that had actually managed to cut through the pain-dulling haze of the belt. However, it was clear that the fight was beginning to tire the shadowy opponent as well, as the number of attacks he’d launched had tapered off and now he was solely focused on dodging.
But the Cowl couldn’t dodge forever. And finally- finally- Borvis managed to grab hold of his cloak.
Letting out a triumphant roar, Borvis pulled as hard as he could on the offending material, yanking the black-cloaked vigilante off his feet and into Borvis’s grip. Judging by the slight widening of his eyes, the Cowl clearly hadn’t been expecting that and thus was completely off guard when Borvis grabbed onto a leg and raised the vigilante into the air, over his head.
“Die Cowl!” Borvis roared, intending to bring the offending vigilante down onto his knee and snap him in two, like he had done with the log earlier.
However, what Borvis hadn’t been expecting was for his own legs to give away beneath him.
Yelping, the bandit toppled forward, face-first, into the dirt and mud. The cold ground was an unpleasant shock to his system and, in his panic, he’d accidentally loosened his grip on the Black Cowl. The hero hadn’t even wasted a beat, slipping through his fingers with contemptible ease and landing gracefully on his feet.
Borvis let out an irritated growl and tried to clamber back onto his feet to charge the Cowl but, to his surprise, he found that his body wouldn’t move. No matter how hard he pushed and pulled, his arms and legs remained stiff and unresponsive.
“You bastard!” He snarled, desperately trying to wriggle closer. “What did you do to me?!”
The Black Cowl looked down at him with cool disdain. Then he resheathed his batons into his belt and stepped closer to Borvis’s prone form.
“I didn’t do anything to you.” He said calmly, reaching down the Craftwork belt around Borvis’s waist. “You did this to yourself.”
He unclipped the garment and Borvis’s body was wrecked with a tidal wave of pain.
Every inch of him ached in agony. His arms were weak and trembling, while his legs felt numb and sensitive, like he’d run a thousand marathons on them. He suddenly became aware of the sharp pain he felt every time he took a breath in and out, indicated at least one broken rib, probably more. Even his mouth tasted raw with the feel of blood from a cut somewhere inside.
“Wha…gah…grah…” He tried to get the words out, but his body wouldn’t let him.
“I’ve seen these belts before.” The Black Cowl said, gently folding it up and tucking it beneath his cloak. “They don’t make you stronger or your body more capable of withstanding pain. They just make it so you can’t feel what injuries you do suffer. So you can’t feel your muscles tearing themselves apart as they lift weights they were never supposed to.” He sighed. “But sooner or later, the human body will give up, pain or no pain. And you’re left like that.”
Borvis tried to splutter out a denial, but the words kept getting stuck in his throat.
“Don’t worry.” The Cowl said, turning away from him. “You should live. It’ll be painful, but you should live. I tipped off a Dawnshire Knight patrol, who should pick you all up in the morning.”
His eyes swept over the burning wreckage of the bandit camp and his face tightened.
“Considering it payback for making me miss my dance.”
“Got caught in the rain, huh?” Father Farrow said, looking over the drenched carpenter with no little amount of amusement.
Caleb gave him a look and adjusted the sack of apples that he was carrying over his head in an unsuccessful attempt at cover. The pouring rain continued to drizzle down his head, giving him a look not unlike a drowned sheepdog.
Needless to say, he hadn’t made it before the rain started. To be precise, he was barely out of the forest before the heavens opened and, like some great biblical torrent, he was promptly drenched by the heavy rains that followed. He’d tried running for it, but all that did was get his boots even muddier once the deluge really started. In this weather, St Sabine’s Shelter, the small reworked church that served as Father Farrow’s home, was practically a beacon in the murk, a warm yellow glow emanating from the windows and the sounds of chatter and laughter from inside.
Father Farrow looked him over once more before giving a fond snort. “Better get ye in, lad. Pretty sure I’ve got some of yer old clothes still lying around the place.” He nodded to himself and moved out of the doorway. “In the meantime, get yerself heated up by the fire. Wouldn’t do anyone any good if ye caught yerself a cold.”
Caleb gave a relieved smile in spite of himself. “Thanks, Father.”
It was safe to say that Caleb’s homelife wasn’t nearly as exciting as his adventures as the Black Cowl. But damned if he didn’t love it anyway.