"You should've seen how much she complained at me," Rubin laughed. Why? Why, of all people, had they paired him with that idiot? For another month!
"I don't care how much she complained at you," Axel growled. "And I don't care about anything else you have to say, so just tell me what the job is and let's go! I didn't come here merely to listen to you!"
Rubin snorted. "Amateur, everybody comes here to listen to me. Oh, and Vipera gave us a really weird job. She said to meet somebody by the waterfall."
Axel raised a brow. "And who are we meeting?"
"She didn't say, but she was pretty annoyed. I think she still hates you."
Axel was hardly surprised. He'd both disobeyed and insulted her leader: the boy she had sworn her life to. The boy who had then ignored her to agree with a complete stranger. It wasn't exactly a shock that the foolish woman despised him.
"That was pretty crazy, though, disobeying Prince Lux like that. If he were a normal prince, he would've ordered somebody to decapitate you."
"And I would have killed him."
They finally reached the entrance hall, striding through the centre. "Doors!" Rubin ordered loudly. Instantly, the two people who stood at the doors to the castle opened them, standing aside for the assassin and the two new recruits.
"See?" Rubin laughed. "Told you everybody listens to me."
"And I've told you, assassin," Axel snapped back. "Everybody who listens to you is a fool."
"A little harsh, amateur," Rubin laughed. "Now, let's go to the waterfall, shall we?"
They swept through the doors. Outside, three griffins were waiting, fully saddled, each with one of the Knights holding the reins for them. On the bright side, at least he wouldn't have to fly with Rubin again. That had been nothing but torture. He had not, however, actually ever flown a griffin.
Rubin swung himself onto the saddle of his mount, and Axel and Skala did the same.
"Good luck, amateur! Try not to fall off!" Rubin grinned, flicking the reins to urge the animal into the air. Taking the reins between his fingers, Axel shot Skala an apprehensive look. How the hell did he control it? Too late: Skala had already pushed her own griffin into the air, and the three Knights were left looking at him, expectant expressions plastering their hideous faces. He wasn't going to act a fool before them.
Flicking the reins of his own mount, Axel tried not to swear as the animal lurched into the sky. Luckily, it seemed content to follow the others, and besides, if it started going badly, he could simply create a shadow beneath himself and use shadow-voyage to escape.
Clinging to the saddle, Axel looked forwards, narrowing his eyes against the desperately biting wind. Flying had always been freedom, but then again, flying had always been with Skala. This was simply following; it did not liberate him as flights with Skala always did.
Ahead, Rubin's griffin swept down towards the forest below, and his own followed. Underneath them, Axel could see the sapphire glint of the lake, the slight reflection of the sun on the water. Slowly, the griffins descended, dropping to the ground beside the lake.
Axel looked up. The waterfall was tall; he'd give it that much. A wall of spray erupted from its base.
Standing beside the waterfall, in a scarlet cloak splattered with the spray of the water hitting water, was a hooded figure.
"So," Rubin asked, dismounting. "We meant to be picking you up or something? Vipera told us to meet somebody here. Don't see why you didn't want picking up from the castle, but hey, it's not like being weird's a crime or something."
The figure nimbly picked their way down the rocks to stand before Rubin. There was a slight gasp from the assassin, before he practically threw his mask from his face and dropped to his knee.
"My Prince, I am sorry, I didn't realise-"
"You have nothing to apologise for," Lux's voice emerged from the hood, and Axel found himself glancing to Skala. What the hell was Lux doing here? Wasn't he meant to be some spoilt, royal prince who ordered others to do his bidding?
"Why are you here?" Axel demanded. Lux glanced over to him, pulling back his hood and revealing a messy explosion of snowy hair.
"Because I wanted to see how you fought as a team," he said, the shy smile finding its way onto his lips again. "Also, um, could I show you how to ride a griffin?"
Axel raised an eyebrow. "I ride the griffin however I so chose to," he growled irritably. Did the human really believe he was better than Axel? Was he so blind that he thought his regality gave him superiority over a monster? Lux smiled slightly.
"As you wish, Silver." And then, "I was wondering if you might be able to take me on your next mission with you? I've always wanted to work with you, Rubin, and you both seem interesting, Silver and Shadow."
Rubin nodded quickly. "Of course, Prince!"
Lux's face lit up. "Really?"
Axel snorted. "Did I consent, assassin? Who are you to simply decide?" His silver eyes burned into Rubin, who gave him a subtle glare. He wouldn't listen to a mere boy.
"Let me ask of you, princeling," he asked. "Do you believe you are strong? Or do you expect us to protect you from everything?"
His eyes were cold and challenging. Why should he waste his time protecting a single human?
"I expect no protection," Lux confirmed. "All I ask is that you will allow me to accompany you."
Axel considered it. The prince had - so far - proved to be an interesting human, albeit irritatingly difficult to agitate. He supposed that a single day would do little harm. Briefly, his eyes flicked to Skala's for confirmation. With a slight nod, she gave her consent, and Axel studied the prince once more.
"Very well," he said eventually. "I trust you have your own mount?"
Lux beamed. "Of course!" he nodded. "Thank you, Rubin, Shadow, Silver."
"I'm not doing this for you," Axel replied coldly, digging his knees into the griffin's hide as it shifted restlessly.
"No, but you've allowed me to come, which is good enough," Lux replied in a smile. "Are you both ready to leave?"
Axel snorted. They'd come here, hadn't they? "Obviously," he said. "Now, where's your ride? You can share with the assassin, but I'm not riding on a griffin with you or the assassin. And neither is Shadow."
From the corner of his eye, he noticed Skala's grateful hint of a smile.
"She's currently hiding within the trees," Lux said. "I moved her there so she wouldn't attract any attention from others flying ahead. Should I call her now?"
"Why would a griffin draw attention?" Axel asked suspiciously.
"Well, she's not really a griffin," Lux smiled. "Snow!"
A pale, spectral shape appeared from the shadows between the trees, with flowing white feathers trailing behind. As the creature stopped, Axel felt his eyes drawn to the beautiful form of the prince's mount.
Alabaster feathers lined a powerful body; cold, blue eyes pierced into his very being. A silvery sheen seemed to surround the phoenix itself, as though the blinding feathers were not enough to attract the eyes of any who might be near. Tilting its head, the phoenix opened its slender beak to give a small, questioning squawk.
"You ride a phoenix?" Axel asked, then instantly wished he could take back his words. The snob would no doubt believe that Axel was impressed. Of course, he was impressed, but that was beside the point. It was the phoenix that had awed him, not the prince's possession of the animal.
"Yes. She was only a chick when we left Disan. We both were too young to help our own," Lux replied. A hint of mourning had entered his voice. Was he playing the pity card already? No amount of tragedy could convince him to follow the prince. His loyalty was owned by Skala, and Skala only.
"Unfortunate," Axel commented. "But she won't be able to come. We can't sneak anywhere unknown with an animal like her. She's too showy. Besides, I've never seen anything like her before. Any who know you possess such a creature will know it was you."
He studied Lux's face as he told him. The prince looked somewhat crestfallen, though Axel didn't care. Why should he?
"Very well," Lux said eventually. He reached up to ruffle a few of the phoenix's feathers, and she bowed her head to nudge him gently.
"My Prince, if I may ask, do you wish for your own griffin? I'm sure Silver and Shadow would be willing to share a mount," Rubin questioned. How could such a man's personality disappear merely in the presence of a weak child? Lux may have been only a year younger, but in experience, he was almost certainly lacking. His frame was weak; his attitude far too polite to belong to a warrior, or any usual prince.
So why did the assassin bow to him so effortlessly?
"I do not wish to burden you," Lux shook his head.
"I can share," Axel offered. "Shadow makes a better companion than any of you."
With that, he slid from the griffin's back, heading towards Skala and her own mount. She offered him a hand, pulling him up to the saddle behind her.
"Thanks," Axel nodded, ignoring Lux's expression of gratitude as he swung himself easily into the saddle of Axel's griffin. What did the words of a prince mean, anyway? He wasn't doing this for Lux - he was doing this for himself.
When the prince was ready, he looked to Rubin for confirmation. "I can fly now, can't I?"
Rubin nodded quickly, and Lux spurred the griffin into the sky, laughing and grinning as he did. Skala and Rubin did the same, and Axel found himself in the sky - again.