It didn't take long for Axel and Lux to make themselves known. Firstly, there was the screeching - because hell, that phoenix could screech - and then there were the combined blasts of darkness and lightning. Which was cute, because it seemed like they'd finally decided not to join only at heart (there was no way they were still only 'friends'), but with their magic as well.
But that was beside the point, because they were finally here, and it had taken them long enough. He threw a knife at a nearby royal soldier who'd been attacking a mercenary.
"Follow Snow!" he ordered his griffin, drawing another knife. His steed darted after the phoenix, its wings a rusty flash in the sky. There was no way they were going to get to storm the castle without him.
Taking the path cleared by Snow through the battlefield, Rubin looked down at the city below. Enemy griffins were dead on the cobbled pavements below him, their wings covered in ice. Every one of them would be a knife of remorse for Lux, but Rubin felt barely touched. Attachment, as he knew all too well, could never get you anywhere but the realm of the dead.
Snow sent a volley of frozen shards towards the castle windows, shattering them with ease. For a moment, she hovered as Axel and Lux ran along her wing, jumping in through what used to be windows. Lux called something to her as Rubin arrived.
"Stay still, then keep fighting!" he instructed his griffin, pushing himself from the saddle and launching himself towards the castle. For a moment, there was only freedom, falling, and exhilaration, and then he was scrabbling for a handhold as his body slammed against the castle wall. Somehow, he gripped onto one of the ledges, and managed to pull himself inside.
"Wait for me!" he laughed, chasing after Axel and Lux. Only the prince acknowledged him as he caught up to them.
"Which way we going?" he asked, itching to find a guard to kill.
"Following Axel," Lux replied. "He's come in at night before for reconnaissance, remember?"
Rubin remembered. He was the entire reason they'd waited to attack the castle, fighting only to keep away the strain for the dark mage and the prince. Axel, unfortunately, was the only one who really knew the layout of the castle.
They charged into a larger room filled with guards, and Rubin grinned. Finally.
He threw himself forwards, cutting them down before anybody else could so much as register their presence. They posed very little challenge, and so he paid no afterthought to them as the three of them raced past.
"I would advise you to stop."
The voice, sharp and distinctly feminine, rang through Rubin's mind as the three of them stopped. Looked up.
A woman stood upon a balcony, looking down at them like they were less than insects.
"And who might you be?" Rubin replied smoothly, the first to react. He spotted the sapphires adorning her dress and headpiece before she answered, and realised instantly.
"Princess Zarya," she smiled gracefully in reply. "And I'm going to kill you."
Lux stepped forwards this time. "That's what your brother Damon said," he shot back. "Now he's dead."
Something in her eyes lit up with amusement. "Really? That's interesting. He always loved to boast, didn't he?"
"You're happy? He's your brother, and you're happy he's dead?"
The princess merely shrugged, an elegant raising of her shoulders. "Everybody has to die. Which of you wishes to do so first?"
Rubin grinned demoniacally. (And handsomely. Always handsomely.) He'd never been fond of the idea of family, but if she could laugh at her own brother's death, she deserved to die more than everybody else. Besides, if he beat her, he could probably steal the headpiece, and sell off the jewels...
"Lux, you go kill the others. I'll deal with this one."
"I want to fight her," Rubin added, cutting Lux off. His emotions would only get the better of him.
For a moment, the two shared a glare, before Axel set a hand on Lux's shoulder.
"He's strong enough to handle it, but we need to go after the king. Rubin's too weak for that," he smirked.
"You wish," Rubin scoffed. "Now go hurry up and fight, okay? See you guys later."
It was as simple as that. A mere farewell.
As Axel and Lux left the room, he turned to face the princess. A bemused expression played across her face.
"Just me, Zarya."
"I hope you'll be entertaining company," she said. "I've been somewhat bored lately."
Rubin laughed coldly. "Well, then, let us hope the land of the dead is more exciting than the land of the living."
"For your sake, I agree completely," she said. As she raised her hands, water droplets formed from the air, surrounding her in what was at first a gentle wave, but transformed quickly into a violent vortex, raging around her. Blonde hair whipped around her face as the water focused itself beneath her feet, lifting her into the air, then bringing her down from the balcony. She landed softly, tilting her head as she stood facing him.
"Before we start," Rubin asked curiously, "How much did that headpiece cost?"
"More than your mask," the princess replied smoothly. "Now, let us begin, shall we?"
She was the first to move. Her movements were swift and fluid, almost like the whip of water that came lashing towards him. Just in time, he rolled aside, but the princess was quick to react. The whip followed him - a snake of merciless intent. Gods, she was quick.
He leapt backwards, throwing a knife at the woman. Instantly, another whip of water lashed up from the vortex around her feet, cushioning the blow and redirecting the blade. The only way to beat her would be to get up close and end it quickly - her reflexes were too fast for anything to hit her from afar.
Dodging another lash of water, he grit his teeth. How could he even get close to her? Any attempt was blocked with ease; to risk taking an attack would most likely end in his death, which would really suck because he was way too beautiful and amazing to die yet.
For a moment, the woman's water whip was still, and Rubin paused, eyeing it carefully.
"You're proving very hard to catch."
"Giving up already, princess? Too tired?"
She laughed melodiously, her eyes gleaming with life. "No, I merely wish to thank you for entertaining me."
She lunged forwards again, and another whip joined the first as she lashed at him, nearly striking him. The water swirling at her feet seemed lesser, now, both in volume and rage. Her water supply was limited, then.
That information could prove valuable.
He feigned an attack on her, watching for both the defensive tendril of water, and the vortex at her feet. As she defended, the original supply thinned.
So, he was right.
Hoping she was as provocative as Axel, Rubin rolled beneath another swipe of the whips.
"Only two whips, princess?" he grinned, evading one more blow and flicking a knife in hopes of distracting her. "I saw mages who could control at least seven!"
For a moment, a brief flicker of ugly irritation flashed across her porcelain features, before she hit it beneath the mask of cold exterior.
"You lie," she hissed.
"Oh? But you only have two. Have you seen other mages? They can do so much better than that," he laughed, while sidestepping another attack. The attacks were slightly less fluent than before, he realised. Wonderful - she was just like Axel! Easily irritated, though, to be fair, Axel was so much better, because he made a wonderful couple with Lux.
"Only two? I can do better," she boasted.
"Yeah, right. You're pathetic," Rubin laughed. Another three of the whips lunged from the water supply around her, reducing it to little but a puddle.
Grinning, he dashed forwards, managing to slip beneath her attacks. She really shouldn't have tried to attack him with five of the water whips at the same time.
Completely undefended, she could do nothing as Rubin sliced his knife outwards.
There was a scream, and then the sound of water falling to the floor, a resounding splash against the stone floor beneath as the princess' body hit the ground.
"See?" Rubin grinned. "Pathetic."
Krig wondered why he cared. He shouldn't care, because it had been drilled into him by Vipera that he should never care, and she'd been the one who'd saved him from the slavers.
But he did care. Rubin's words had hurt, but they weren't meant to hurt, and there was something inside him that made him feel like he shouldn't have betrayed the Golden Flame. There had been something about the way Axel had given his comrades a chance to escape; the way they'd all fought so bravely until their deaths. He'd betrayed hundreds of people before. It was his job - so why did this betrayal force second thoughts into his head?
And then there was the other lingering thought. Why had Rubin not killed him? Had he clung to the very thing he said he'd hated? Friendship? To Krig, it had seemed like a childish concept, but after seeing Rubin like that, it seemed more like a reality than a dream. The feeling continued to eat away at him: the thing that he couldn't help but think was guilt.
Which all lead up to one final question: Vipera or Rubin?
"Stay quiet. You need to be ready to fight," she told him. "I assume you've practised with your new power as instructed?"
Krig nodded. "I have."
"Good. Be silent."
He obeyed, though couldn't help but realise how cold her words were. She had saved him, hadn't she? She had to view him as a valuable asset, didn't she?
Vipera or Rubin?
But then, Rubin had been the one to tell him: she only saved him because she thought he could be controlled. Was he stupid to believe her? There was never any emotion in Vipera's voice; she had drilled her soldiers to be the same. Rubin had never been the same, and there had been emotion in his voice as he'd told him not to let Vipera keep using him.
Rubin or Vipera?
They passed silently through the corridor, and he prepared to use the magic. He shouldn't be thinking about this now - hesitation could cost him his life.
As the two of them crept into the room, Krig saw only the mix of blue and scarlet. Zarya, he realised, as her killer knelt to take the jewelled headpiece.
Vipera or Rubin?
He realised suddenly who the killer was as he straightened, examining the headpiece. The gloves. The posture. The snort of amusement as he tucked the expensive item into a bag. It was Rubin. Slowly, Vipera crept forwards, her footsteps silent as she raised the knife in her palm.
Rubin or Vipera?
Preoccupied and exhausted from the fight, Rubin seemed oblivious to Vipera's approach. This was no longer a choice of alliance: it was a choice of lives. What would Vipera do to him if he turned?
Vipera or Rubin?
And that was when he realised: Vipera would hurt him, had certainly hurt him to give him the power. Rubin had never hurt him.
Rubin or Vipera?
Vipera lunged to attack, and Krig made his choice.
He ran forwards, tackling Vipera and slamming an orb of fire magic into her shoulder as he did.
She screamed, staggering back.
And suddenly, it came. The blood. The pain. The realisation.
Vipera's knife was embedded in his chest. He gasped in agony, stumbling backwards. His knees gave way beneath him, and he fell to the floor. His eyes managed to focus, for a moment, on Rubin, as he leapt past him, blades already meeting Vipera's as she hastily reached for another weapon. There was a screech of metal against metal, a scream, and silence.
Krig gasped for another breath. Stupid. He was stupid, and yet the choice remained the same.
Something warm hit his forehead, and there was a clatter. The mask - Rubin's - cast aside. And tears. Also Rubin's, strangely warm and melodic as they fell.
"Dammit, Krig!" he screamed. His voice was far away. Distant, but... nice. Soothing, somehow.
Some choices were foolish. Friendship was foolish, though.
"Are you..." He choked on the words, eyes slowly closing. "My friend?"
"What else would I be, you idiot?" Rubin demanded, his eyes gleaming. Krig smiled faintly. It was comforting, to know he mattered to somebody.
He mattered to the assassin. Was not simply disposable. It was strange, that the one time he didn't feel like that, was the time he was dying.
"There's a barrier around the king and queen," Krig coughed. Dying wasn't so bad, not really. The pain was fading away now, anyway. "Mages can't enter, except the royals, and-" He was cut off by another burst of coughs, but he needed to finish. Needed to matter more to Rubin. "They're only disabled from inside the barrier, if you destroy one of the wards creating them."
"We can find a healer, right?" Was he really panicking that much?
"I'm going to die," Krig told him. "I can't be saved."
His own words were unfamiliarly gentle, he realised.
"The King can fight shadows... Light magic..." Krig spluttered. Rubin was holding his head in gentle arms. Friendship was a welcomed feeling.
"Don't speak!" Rubin demanded, his voice hoarse. It would be a nice voice to leave on, Krig decided. A gentle farewell...
"Go... Help them, or... Or this'll be for nothing," Krig reminded him. Did his own voice really contain such emotion? Such will for Rubin to win?
His eyes closed fully, and there were only five things left.
An imprint of his eyes, emerald and gleaming and bright with hope.
The sensation of his tears against his cold flesh, warming his skin.
The taste of blood, and the smell of it.
The sound of his voice, filled with the beautiful emotion.
The warmth of the knowledge that finally, there was somebody in the midst of this chaotic world, who had cared.
A smile touched Krig's lips, and all faded to black.