It is well known, whispered in the darkest of taverns and in secret by firelight, that despite the intense hatred and loathing all decent folk have of magic, some vile and cruel miscreants embrace magic as their path to power and control. Caring not for the souls and life of decent folk, these sorts traffic with demons, have created pacts with dark and otherworldly beings, and use their ill-begotten powers to enslave others and to control the fate of the world from behind their dark shrouds of mystery. The most notorious of these villainous sorts is said to be a secretive organization whose name is unknown; they are referred to only as the Dark Cloaks.
Some claim that they are evil assassins that have embraced the very dark powers that destroyed the Golden Empire in their lust for power. Others claim they are rogue mercenaries and spies that control the thrones and alter the tides of war from behind the scenes. Some claim that they are a mysterious brotherhood of once-human people, disfigured by the very powers they pretend to control—which is why they hide themselves in their dark cloaks—seeking to overthrow the age of honor and valor and usher in a new darkest-age of magic. Some others claim that they do not exist at all and that the folklore and legends surrounding the so-called Dark Cloaks are merely individuals that just happened to be wearing cloaks. Others claim that they have encountered them, always seeming to magically appear, do their dirty work, and then disappear without a trace; but always leaving terrible destruction in their wake.
In truth, the Dark Cloaks are a loosely organized brotherhood of magic-using people that operate in mostly-autonomous localized cells. They call themselves the Shadows of Light and were originally founded in the free city-state of GreyCliff as a secret order dedicated to preserving, sharing, and advancing magical skill and knowledge. Their long and storied history saw the evolution of the order from a disciplined and peaceful organization to spell casting spies, assassins, and infiltrators that utilize magic and espionage, under a veil of secrecy, to achieve their goals.
Heralded by a mysterious figure, known only by his (or her) title of the High Torch, they operate in mostly-autonomous local cells or conclaves with members swearing oaths of fealty and dedication to the order above all others, including gods, king and country, and even family. Knowledge, information, and the occasional directive are handed down from the high torch to his ‘Torches’ that disseminate these to their regional Sergeants, who in turn relay the knowledge or commands to the local cell’s membership. Very few, if any, members know the true identities or whereabouts of other groups. Not only does this further their image of secrecy, but it also has served the order quite well as a protective measure. In Valencia magic is seen as destructive, evil, and against all natural order; if a member is captured, or an entire cell discovered, they cannot divulge information about the others.
While known only to the Shadows of Light, they have no moral code, very few universal laws they must follow, and number slightly less than three thousand members in their current form. Overall they are a brotherhood of like-minded people, bound not in purpose, but by their study of magic. Because of that, and their almost-autonomous operational structure, one individual or group might operate in opposition to another. They are a loose organization bound by magic and secrecy; but very few have ever disobeyed their most sacred of laws: A Shadow of Light shall never directly or physically oppose another member, unless that member betrays the order.
However, over the past few hundreds of years, the order has evolved from pursuing magic in secret to meddling in politics, warfare, and espionage; very often for hire. Some of the Dark Cloaks see themselves as a power behind the throne, others as saviors, through magic, of the common folk, and yet others as waging a secret revolution against those that oppress the elite, magic using, gifted people. In truth, it was discovered that the magical gifts the members possess give them a huge advantage in politics, controlling the populace, and especially in espionage and warfare. The High Torch himself (or herself) is not unknown to assign ‘shadows’ (their name for members) certain tasks that serve the ends of the order, the High Torch, or their secret allies. It is far more common for ‘Lights’ or ‘Torches’, their names for cell leaders and regional leaders, to dictate tasks to the lesser members, the shadows, to further their own ends.
The folklore, legends, and mythology surrounding the Dark Cloaks are not too far from the truth. They do operate in secret; nobody really knows what their true goals may be, especially as directives come from different sources for differing reasons; they do operate underground, only showing themselves when they are ready to strike; and they are all of them practitioners and students of the arcane arts. Unknown to all but a scant few outside of the order, the Shadows of Light are always seeking to expand their numbers, but do so in secret. They are not necessarily good nor evil with almost all morals and ethics represented amongst their ranks; they are bound together as brethren through the practice and sharing of magic. It is their only common tie.
They also communicate at a very basic level to each other using a secret symbolic method of communication they call the Cant of Cups. Each new member, a recruited shadow, is given—in a ritual after he has proven both his dedication to the order and his magical talent—a reversible cloak to wear. These cloaks are a regular, colored or patterned, cloak on one side but always an almost-black charcoal gray on the other. The reason why nobody ever recognizes them until they are in action is because they only turn the dark side outward right before they begin their assigned activities. As soon as they are done, they disappear by again reversing the cloak.
The Cant of Cups:
While the Shadows of Light can, and sometimes do, communicate through magical means, their typical methods of signaling each other is a much more mundane method of implementing mundane items, such as cups, into specific configurations to relay a message to other members. As spell casting is very flashy and quite obvious this allows them to signal one another openly in public but without any detection from common folk. The name for their communication system derives from a member of the order sitting in a tavern and arranging three empty cups in a pyramid pattern on the table before him to signal that he is a member of the Shadows of Light and wishes to contact any other members in the area.
Local members would reveal themselves as taking the top cup and filling it to signal that they are part of the order and that it is safe to meet. Taking a different cup, or doing other actions with them signal that it is unsafe, that a meeting cannot take place, or other meanings known only to the Dark Cloaks.
Other similar arrangements of their own persons, their clothing, and common mundane items signal various things such as a member having knowledge to share, needing help, having a ‘job’ to be done, etc. While the method of communication is rudimentary and does not allow for much more than signaling basic intents and very fundamental information, it has served them quite well as they can seek each other out and set up private interactions in public but without any scrutiny. They have also developed a series of coded phrases, centered around drink and food terminology as most meeting initially take place in public houses and taverns, to divulge deeper detail to the point of holding conversations about the business of the order in plain sight without detection.
While they are a myth, folklore, or legend to many; the Dark Cloaks are often sought after by nobles, powerful people, and others due to their magically enhanced skills in Sabotage, espionage, and surprise attacks. It is said that while there is no official to contact them, they somehow know when they are needed and the organization contacts their would-be employer. In reality, this is because many of the nobility and ruling classes are secretly members of the Shadows of Light and they get the word to their Lights who then decide if they will consider the contract. While their methods of secrecy are rooted in the anti-magic mentality of Valencia, they have become a potent force for gathering intelligence, spying, discerning the truth, and of retribution.
While they hold no allegiance to any but themselves, they have been instrumental in fighting brigands, villains, beast men, Urok, and many other ills of the land as well as toppling and building kingdoms. Outside of the tales of their exploits, nothing is truly known about them. They remain a mysterious organization shrouded in mystery.