A Banner of Midnight
Most would think a temple the holy ground, a place reserved for god’s and heroes alike, but a hero was the last thing Amber could ever be.
The mists chilled the vast stone temple whilst she knelt, casting a frigid cold through her bones. It was rare for the mists to travel this far in the depths of the temple, exceedingly so. They came at night, descending like death’s dark shadow, calling with them the vengeful frost of a thousand winters. Amber placed her hand to the foot of the statue in front of herself, the statue of Cassile, the lady of duty and justice to her. To many others, she was no lady, she was a word, a face. A face that so many would forget, yet all would find. To those people, when they heard her knocking, the word and the face were the same; death.
Amber was nothing more than a wraith, death’s apprentice. The cold stone of the statue caused her hand to recoil, but she didn’t dare move it. Amber was a firm believer in principle and will, if she could not withstand the cold, then she was not fit to live under the Midnight Banner. She had been raised a killer, her cold ran deeper than the one she felt now. She closed her eyes for a moment, saying a silent prayer to the mother.
She felt power surging through herself, the same power she had felt all those years ago, and all those years since. A power that belonged to her, almost as much as she belonged to it. She inhaled deeply, feeling it swirl and flutter inside of herself. Many spoke of this power as a raging tempest, a maelstrom of malice, hatred, and fury. To Amber, this power, the Shade, it wasn’t any of those things, her power was calm. In the times that Amber would be needed, she was a daughter of the banner, a sword of the darkness, and a hero to no-one.
She raised from her knee, clutching her dagger tight within her left hand, It’s bone handle was as white as the day it was carved. A trophy of a killer. She remembered the man well, Lorenz Askael, the Lightbringer’s high executioner from Vestrain. Amber smiled in fond malice. She remembered the night well, vividly even. Even now she could still summon the same feeling she felt in the moment, it wasn’t fear, nor was it adrenaline, it was stillness. That was the only thing she felt, the only thing she could feel.
It had been the day after the execution, two Shadeborn were killed in cold blood, it was treated as if it were some kind of a show, a spectacle to appease the masses. It wasn’t. It was none of those things. All it ended up as was Lorenz’s death warrant. So she became to him what a shadow was to the daylight, a looming threat. Every corner he turned, every ally he entered, she had been watching, with a silent step and a sharper blade.
She’d slit the man’s throat that night, all it took was one cut, one easy slice and he was gone. The life fluttered out of him like paper in the wind. Not to mention the rest that fluttered out of him, staining his britches in what was left of that life. It was seldom that they spoke of when men would breathe their last. The tales spoke of heroic speeches and acts of great bravery and sacrifice, but never the moments later, the moment where the great heroes of the world would shit themselves as they passed from it. Amber had always found that fact morbidly poetic.
It was from Lorenz’s arm that she had carved her dagger, each knife of the banner was allowed a trophy from their first service. So she made a knife from his bone, as pale as a ghost, but the sharpness of the finest steel. Amber had found the man always working with edges, but he always seemed to lack a point. She made sure to rectify this mistake in his honour, by carving an executioners tool from the tool executioner. This point was one that she was sure would always strike true.
Amber twirled the dagger through her fingers, it was such a lightweight little instrument. Oh, the songs she could play with it… A footstep sounded behind Amber, she could hear it even from the long distance down the corridor. Her prediction was about one hundred and twenty feet away, accounting for reverberation. The step was light but clumsy, it sounded loud in Amber’s ear, like a war drum in a bedroom, distinctive.
Amber turned, flipping her dagger into an ice-pick grip.
Another footstep sounded in the silhouetted mist, paired with a clap.
“I see your time away from us hasn’t yet dulled your senses girl,” the voice sounded. A tone so flat only belonged to one woman. Corovia, the shadow of the banner. “Yet, your step is louder. You appear to have been growing careless.”
“Careless?” Amber asked. She would have liked to believe her voice was slick and calculating, but it wasn’t nearly to the calibre of Corovia. No, she rarely spoke. Her daggers happened to be louder more often than not. “I doubt carelessness is a substitute for efficiency.” This prompted a brief smirk from the woman. “I did what was asked of me, the man’s assassin is no more.”
“An assassin for an assassin, the only way to hunt a monster is with another monster. Yet, I see that while careless, your wits have remained intact. This may be the one redeeming aspect of your previous task. I’ve never known a girl I trained to require so much refining after the fact.”
“Then you must have trained me poorly,” Amber replied. “A shadow is only as large as the man that casts it. I assure you, my step was silent, my victim subdued.”
Amber always made sure of those two facts. All she gave herself contact wise with the target was three seconds, that was all she would grant herself. If her victim wasn’t bleeding by the time those precious seconds had allotted, then it would be her blood staining the ground instead. She had made sure not to have bled once. Her cuts were clean, her method was cleaner.
Corovia walked closer. Her stride now more careful than previous. She’d been testing Amber’s senses. If her step could be heard, it would be because she willed it such, not because of any enhanced hearing. In the time that Amber had known the woman, her step was like a ghost, always hovering slightly above the floor. Sometimes she questioned if the woman did walk at all.
She held one hand to her side, clutching something. That was the first thing she had taught Amber, to always be suspicious. She found herself growing attentive from a young age, judging people’s mood and skill by the way they held themselves alone. It was a wonder how much the way someone held themselves could tell you about them. No one had yet received the privilege of seeing Amber. She attacked from the shadows, never letting them see her coming.
The top half of Corovia’s face was obscured by a mask, oddly avian in shaping, and as white as Amber’s dagger. It was customary for the banner to wear these masks, they were the marks of blades once used, a mark of bone once cut. Corovia held herself high, standing as straight as she could. She was a remarkably tall woman. About a head taller than Amber if she had to make a guess. She ran her boney finger along Amber’s chin, angling her face up to meet her concealed gaze.
“You are nervous child,” she said. The words that left her mouth were soft, too soft. “You worry about this next assignment.”
“I’m not nervous,” Amber said, resolute.
“Oh? And now we lie to the banner. This is unbecoming of you darkling.”
“It’s not a lie,” Amber’s tone remained calm. The woman would not draw a reaction from her lips. No matter how much she craved it.
“A half-truth is still a part lie,” Corovia said. “Neither cancels out the other. Much like the sun can never cancel out the moons, no matter how much they may chase each other. They both remain as right and as wrong as they once were.”
“Truth and lies are only two halves of a coin,” Amber uttered. Corovia removed her finger from Amber’s chin. Yet, she could still feel it’s touch, it was warm amongst the mist. Corovia extended her once concealed hand, holding it out to Amber.
“There is no coin, only a mask. A mask that you must become.”
It was pure bone, as white as the day it was carved. Almost fitting enough for a nobles ball, yet the image, the image was one told in ghost stories and slums. An image many knew well and none hoped to be acquainted with. Amber remembered the girl she once was, the girl that feared masks and shadows. How little did she know that she would one day come to crave them both.
She accepted the gift, placing it firmly upon her face. It stuck to her perfectly. The mask was hers, and she was it’s.
“Tell me,” Amber asked. “Do you think I’m prepared?”
“Preparedness is not a word or thought,” Corovia said. “Only an action. But I’ve trained you well, as good as any other’s could have. Out of all of my disciples, you are the most skilled I’ve ever sent beyond those walls. The girl they call king killer, grave maker, or simply the blade.”
“They form legends of us all.”
“Oh no, darkling. A legend stands amongst heroes, those are things we will never be. If we walk the correct shadows, speak the right lies, and silence the wrong truths, we will never be legends. But what you will be is a myth. A word spoken, yet never heard. Now,” Corovia said, bending a knee in front of the statues. “The night is summoning you. Answer it’s call.”
The call didn’t go unheard.