Sophia crested the top of the hill, wiping the dust from her face, and finally removing her kerchief. As her loyal steed reached the top, they finally came out of the unending sea of dust and sand. Knowing that she'd passed through the most dangerous part of her journey, -the sea of sands was known for containing bandits, Indians, deadly predators, scorpions, and rattlesnakes, as well as very little water,- she took a minute to catch her breath. It had been dangerous, but it had also been the only way to reach her destination in time.
Before her, in a valley that looked almost lush in comparison, lay the small frontier town where they were expecting her delivery.
Brockton Gulch was a town like any other. It had a grocer, a barber, a bank, a Sheriff and a saloon. There was a school, an undertaker, a weaponsmith, and most importantly right now, a doctor with a desperate lack of supplies.
Almost subconsciously, her hand checked the saddlebag in which the expensive and life-saving package had been stored. Satisfied, she pressed her legs into Jumper's flanks.
"C'mon boy, just a little further," she told him. Not that it had been necessary. Jumper had already seen the buildings, and he knew that buildings meant food, water, and rest. Her horse, a fast and agile steed, mostly white, with a mane the color of straw, started walking, swinging his head around happily.
In the valley before her, she could see the life-blood of Brockton Gulch. Fields of grass filled with cattle, a small mine in the side of the hill and a few burgeoning tradesmen's shops. If everything went well for the town, it would quickly start growing, attract more and more people, and hopefully become an oasis of civilization in an ocean of lawlessness. If things went bad for the town, it could be transformed into a den of debauchery and villainy, with people paid in lead rather than gold.
After a short while, she entered the outskirts of the town. The people were skittish, and none of them greeted her. There were no children asking for news, or business-savvy men smelling an opportunity. Instead, the people kept to themselves. Sophia kept her hand near her revolver. Things weren't bad, not yet, but given the general mood of the time, that could quickly change.
Entering the main road, a thing called Lord's Street going by the signs, and also the only real road in town, she followed the scent of her nose, leading to the local saloon, a place called Ugly Bob's Watering Hole.
Her journey here, which had promised to be dangerous, had been remarkably peaceful, and as the fastest gun this side of the Mississippi, Sophia was getting bored. Last she heard, the Undersiders had escaped prison once again. Thus, when she passed the local bank, she almost expected them to run out of the front door, still wearing their prison uniforms, with bags of loot carried by Rachel's dogs. The Quadrumvirate -a group of four notable people, she knew,- of villains was ridiculously tenacious, and through some strange twist of fate, she always seemed to run into them. Which wasn't all that big of a problem, if Brian,'The Grue', didn't have such a ridiculously bothersome ability. The cloak was basically a perfect counter to her own, and without vision, her marksmanship wasn't all that useful either.
Right next to the bank, she located the doctor's office. Spotting an opportunity to offload her cargo, she activated her ability, and her body turned into a living shadow, flowing straight through Jumper. In that state, she looked like she was made of gas, but she could move through walls just as easily as she could through chain-link fences. Then, standing on the ground, she approached the office while freaked out townsfolk behind her oo-ed and aa-ed.
She knocked on the thick wooden planks of the door of the doctor's office. An iron staff of Asclepius adorned the door, and the grain of the wood was clearly visible through flaking paint. Business wasn't going all that well. That was strange, she thought. Several of the people she'd passed on the streets had had small wounds. Did they lack the money to afford the doctor's prices? Was the doctor incompetent? Or was the medicine supply truly that low? She waited impatiently, tapping her heels on the raised wooden veranda before the door. When she thought she'd waited for long enough, she called out, hoping the physician would reply.
"Anybody there? I have a delivery!" she said, the sound of her voice going unanswered. Then, as she was thinking about simply floating through the door, or knocking even harder than before, Jumper walked up beside her. The horse pressed his nose against an old piece of paper hanging from a nail beside the door.
-Closed-, the impromptu sign said, telling her that she wouldn't find the doctor here. She turned around, giving Jumper a pat on the head before leading him by the reins, and walked on towards the saloon. Ugly Bob's Watering Hole was marked by a sign with a picture of a bun of bread, cut in half, with meat, tomato and greeneries stuffed between the halves. As she walked up to the door, she took her package from the saddlebags and allowed Jumper to take up a position at the water trough, where he got himself ready to fill his belly with some much-needed moisture.
The saloon, just like all other saloons, had a set of double doors on creaking hinges, allowing visitors to see inside before entering. Sophia entered, the doors swinging closed behind her, and took off her hat.
As she entered, the saloon almost immediately went silent. Head turned, and several heavy-set, muscled and armed men looked at her with suspicion. She ignored it, instead opting to take a look around the main room. There was a set of stairs to the first floor, which had a balcony that overlooked the main room with several chairs and tables. On the right stood the bar, with several tall chairs in front of it, and an impressive array of different drinks behind it. Whenever situations were bad, barkeeps managed to make a profit. On the left, a small stage stood next to an automated player piano, plinking an old tune ever so slightly out of rhythm. Scattered through the room was a board of darts, a table where several rough-looking armed men were playing cards, a ragged-looking but well-dressed man drinking from what must have been the largest glass in the city, and a wall with wanted posters. The newest one, posted on top, was an updated one for Jack the Slasher, his bounty had apparently been raised to five thousand dollars. On the second floor, the saloon continued, giving the seated men a good view of the stage. It was all lit by several windows and a large metal chandelier that had been modified to accept gas instead of lamp oil.
She walked to the bar and found an empty chair where she could sit, plonking herself down and then turning in place to face the bar. Within moments, a large man with a well-groomed moustache and a massive pot-belly appeared before her, his hands busy cleaning a glass with a piece of cloth.
"Howdy young lady," the man said, giving her a quick, friendly smile, "how can I help you?"
Sophia grabbed a coin from her pocket, flipping it into the air, where the barkeep gracefully caught it. "Just get me a beer," she replied.
"Coming up," the man replied, shuffling over to the tap, where he filled a glass with the refreshing yellow liquid, a large layer of foam on top that he then largely removed with a quick swipe of a specialized device the name of which she didn't know.
Sophia's observations were interrupted by the arrival of a large man, one of the people she'd seen sitting at the cards table before. She looked him in the eyes, one hand straddling her gun. He looked like he'd be trouble.
"We don't take kindly to strangers around here," the man said. He was wearing a sleeveless wifebeater made out of coarse leather, and a rather impressive mustache, the sides of which drooped down below his chin. He was wearing a brown hat with a large rim, and had a large oversized fowling piece he carried at his waist-belt. He was large in both ways men could be large, both strong and fat at the same time.
"That's funny, I cause I don't take kindly to smelly lardasses interrupting my drinking," she told him.
"Then it seems we're in agreement," the man said, crunching his fists together. His arms were impressively muscled, and his biceps featured a tattoo of some sort of strange symbol, a cross with extra lines at the end of each of them. It wasn't something she'd seen before.
"Shhhhhhh" another man suddenly interrupted them, moments after the player piano went still, "the show is about to start."
"We'll finish this later," the large man said, walking back towards the cards table, and as the automated piano started playing a soft, slow song, a young woman walked towards the stage. She was wearing an elegant dress in the current fashion, with flowing skirts that swayed as she walked and accentuated her curves. Her scarlet hair was done up in an elaborate coiffure, and she was wearing golden earrings and a necklace glimmering with precious stones. She looked to be just about Sophia's age. Old enough to be an adult, but young enough that most people still thought of you as a child, and her presence turned the head of every man in the room, as well as that of quite a few of the women. Then, as the barkeep placed Sophia's drink before her, the redhead took her place on the stage, grabbing hold of a wooden pole standing there for some reason, and singing into it.
"I'm a poor lonesome cowgirl,
And I'm a long long way from home."
The notes flowed from her, perfectly in tune with the old piano.
"And this poor lonesome cowgirl,
Has got a long long way to roam.
Over mountains over prairies,
From dawn till day is done,
My horse and me keep riding,
Into the setting sun."
Taking hold of her drink, Sophia turned around, sipping slowly as her attention -and that of the rest of the room as well- was focused on the redheaded angel on the stage. She wondered, was this woman a Cloak, Blessed with unnatural singing abilities? She remembered someone like that, somewhere back east in the cities.
Eventually, the song and show wound down, and Sophia turned back to the barkeep, her glass now empty.
"You know where I can find the physician?" she asked the man. She liked the words, It was more sophisticated than simply saying doctor.
"Over there, but I don't think he'll be much use to you," the barkeep said, swift and to the point, extending his arm towards the well-dressed man. "But are you sure I can't interest you in a bite to eat first? We've got a special deal on our Challenger!"
"Maybe later," Sophia said, idly wondering what, exactly, the challenger was. Presumably, it was some sort of a challenge to eat it. Maybe it was disgusting?
She rose from her seat and walked up to the table, sitting down opposite the doctor.
"Go away, I'm a failure, and I don't have any medicine to sell you," the man said, hiding his head between his arms, the smell of alcohol flowing from him.
"That's why I'm here," Sophia said. "I have a delivery for you."
She took the package out of her pockets, and placed it on the table, in front of the man.
He looked up, eyeing the package with glee. Then, he saw the person who had delivered his package, and his mood took a turn for the worse.
"I don't need this," he said.
"Yes you do," Sophia replied. "You ordered this, so you need this, and I need to get paid."
"Well, bad luck for you," the man said. "I haven't exactly been able to run my clinic without medicine, so it's not like I have any money."
Sophia sighed. Of course, this fucker wouldn't pay her, and he had just enough of an excuse she couldn't yell at him without people looking strangely at her.
"I'll be staying in town for a few days," she said, leaving the package behind on the table. "You better pay me later." Then, she walked back to the bar, waiting for the barkeep to return so that she could get a room.
Standing there, she heard footsteps behind her, and cold metal being pressed into the back of her cloak.
"I said, we don't take kindly to strangers round here," the large man told her, sounding grim.
"I heard you the first time," Sophia replied, her mind on the gun at her waist. She could move her hand and draw it before the man behind her would even notice. Problem was, she wouldn't be able to easily shoot at a target standing right behind her, not without him noticing that something was up.
She went through her options. Behind her, a self-assured asshole with a gun in her back. In front of her, the bar, and behind that, a large pressurized tank of beer.
"Well, you should've listened the first time," the man said. "It's a shame I'm gonna have to kill a girl as young as you."
It wasn't hard to figure out what to do. In less than half a second, before the man could react to her moves, she drew her gun, aimed right in front of her, fired, and shifted states.
The bullet flew forward, and just as the lead projectile penetrated the iron tank, the angry man fired his own gun.
The thug's projectile joined Sophia's creating two holes within the tank, quickly rupturing it, spraying them with the alcoholic liquid it contained. Or rather, spraying the man behind her, since liquids like that weren't really a problem in her shadow state.
Then, before the man could recover from the shock of bathing in beer, she turned around, and fired a second shot, straight into the man's rifle, breaking it apart in such a way that the only thing another shot could achieve was mangling his hands in the resulting explosion.
Sophia turned around, spotting the man's friends, standing at a distance, but drawing their guns. As she turned back to normal, she fired four more shots, each hitting one of the guns, and as the last bullet left her weapon, the first of her targets finally noticed that his revolver had been shot out of his hand.
In the rest of the saloon, people started screaming and yelling, running around like townsfolk usually did, but Sophia didn't let it distract her, instead looking the brute she was now facing straight in the eyes.
"So you're a Cloak then, huh?" he rhetorically asked, a grim smile appearing on his face. "I bet ya feel real proud of yourself, destroying my pretty like that," he continued, showing off the large piece in his hands. "Thing is, you're not the only Cloak round here, and I'm pretty sure you're out of bullets as well."
As he said that, claws of pressurized air started to form around his hands, and it looked like the man felt proud of himself for being lucky enough that Sophia hadn't decided to aim for his head instead.
The thug punched at her, and Sophia turned to smoke. The advantage of her power was that she was completely immune to most mundane attacks. Fists, swords, bullets, cavalry charges and the like. Problem was, while the fist did nothing to her, the air of the claw itself launched her upwards, through the roof, landing her on the second floor of the saloon. As she shifted back, she heard the man's fist enter the beer tank below her, which exploded further, covering him in more of the sticky liquid.
Sophia found herself on a balcony, containing more tables, overlooking the main room of the saloon, and with a good view of the stage, where the red-headed girl was trying to hide. Almost automatically, she started reloading her gun, not needing to pay any attention to the movement, while the thug launched several fistfuls of air into the ceiling above him, breaking apart the wooden planks.
"This town's not big enough for the both of us girl! Get on your horse right now, and I'll let you live!" the man said.
"Don't make me laugh!" Sophia replied as she ran towards the railing of the balcony, jumping over it in a backflip with a spin. In mid-air, she fired at one of the man's cronies, who had taken a second gun from his back, after which she landed on a table in front of the stage, facing the five men, gun pointed towards their leader.
"Come on, try me," the man said, claws in front of his face, and Sophia fired.
The bullet was caught in the twisted air, deflected to the ground. Annoying, Sophia thought, but it was nothing she hadn't dealt with before.
"My turn," the man said with a twisted grin on his face, launching a claw of air at Sophia.
She was about to dodge, when she remembered the young redhead, hiding behind her behind her singing stick.
Instead of dodging out of the way, Sophia took a short jump back, landing on the edge of the table, bringing it out of balance and flipping it over, launching the wood into the air where the claw smashed into it, breaking up both the wood and the compressed air.
Then, Sophia took a few steps to the side, and fired again, the bullet once again smashing into the shield of air.
"Heh," the man laughed, launching another blast of air at Sophia.
The problem, she decided, was that her power, the very thing that made her a cloak, was useless here. Sure, she couldn't be hurt by the man's blasts, but they'd throw her around, displacing her around the battlefield, and taking away any strategic advantage she had.
She dodged it, wheeling on her feet like a dancer in the Russian Ballet, making it look effortless, and fired again. As before, it was deflected by the man's shield, but the onslaught of bullets meant that his friends stayed behind, far too afraid for their own hides to help out their boss. Presumably, that meant that the man would have difficulty extending the protection of his shield beyond himself.
"You're not very smart, are you?" the man laughed, slowly walking towards Sophia, confident in the strength of his shield.
She launched two more bullets, cursing in frustration. How the fuck was she supposed to get through his shield?
"And that's six," the man said. "You're out, again."
"Well fuck," Sophia said, and when the man took the last few steps in her direction, she dropped her gun to the ground, bringing up her fists in a fighting stance.
"Really girl? I'd like to see you try," the man said, a smile on his face.
Sophia dashed forward, her fists held forward for a fight, but dashing through the man using her shadow-state, holding steady through the momentary winds of his ability. Then, turning back on the other side of him, she pulled her crossbow from beneath the cloak of her duster, hidden at her back, and send a bolt flying straight through the ruffian's calf.
"Rhaagh!" the man cried out in pain, turning around, foam flying from his mouth. "I'll fucking murder ya!"
"I know," Sophia replied, using her free hand to hold her nose closed.
Still foaming, the man punched at her in rage. A move she'd seen before, and not one that she'd fall for again. Staying light on her feet, she dodged it, dancing in between the explosive claws.
"That's it? Really?" she taunted, stepping back further out of his range.
The man tried to follow, still angry, stopped when he had to lean on his wounded leg.
"Not so easy huh?"
"SHUT UP!" the man screamed at her.
Looking at the man, she could physically see his tiny little brain try to think, a drop of sweat forming on his muscle-headed brow.
Then, the man turned his back to her, jumping towards the redheaded singer, still hunkered down near her stage, too afraid to move.
"Shit," she muttered under her breath, quickly loading a new bolt on her crossbow, but it was too late. The cloak had been able to get hold of the girl, holding a claw of compressed air to her throat. The girl started screaming, as the man smiled.
"Drop your weapons, leave town, and I'll let the girl live. You white hats like that stuff don't you?" he asked.
Sophia lowered her crossbow, taking a few steps away from the man, who proudly stepped towards the middle of the largely empty saloon.
Sophia smiled, raising her crossbow again once she saw where he was standing.
"What, you want the girl to get it? Know that it's on your head girly!"
"Try me," Sophia said, aiming at the man's head without looking at it.
Then, just as the man tried to cut, the girl, held with one arm between Sophia and the villain, swung her head backwards and up, into the man's nose.
For just a second, he released her in shock, and Sophia fired.
She didn't fire at the man. He would have been able to easily swat away the bolt with his powers. Instead, she aimed above him, the bolt flying through the chain that held up the chandelier, almost entirely severing it.
"Hah, missed me," the man with the air-claws said, -one hand on his now bloody nose, the other ready to grab the singer again-, just as the weakened link in the chain snapped. The chandelier fell down, on top of the cloak. It had been designed with a hole in the middle, fitting perfectly around him, locking up his arms, and stopping him from using both his arms and his ability.
He roared out in pain, trying to attack her, but falling over in the process, unable to catch his fall with his hands due to the metal chandelier.
"Anyone else?" Sophia asked nonchalantly as she turned to the few remaining men in the rooms that had remained to watch the fight, her hands reloading her crossbow without looking at it. She enjoyed this, relished in it even. A bar-brawl like this was exactly what she needed after the long, grueling and tiresome journey.
The thugs, seeing that their fearsome leader had lost, ran for it, leaving the saloon doors swinging behind them, with only one of them loyal enough to pull the large man along with him.
"I thought so," Sophia said, bending down to grab her revolver from where she'd dropped it on the ground.
"My hero!" a sing-song voice called out, and before she could do anything to react, the redheaded girl embraced Sophia from behind with a jump. "You saved me!"
Sophia tolerated it, deciding not to escape using her ability, as the girl's embrace nearly squished her.
"I must say young lady, that was quite a gunfight, taking down El Tigre like that," the barkeep said, tactically reappearing from his hiding position behind the bar, where he had been busy cleaning up the spilled beer. "May I know your name?"
"They call me Hess," Sophia said, showing off by swinging her revolver around with her finger through the trigger guard. "And I shoot faster than my own shadow."