As they descended, it was becoming progressively more difficult to fight them off. Height advantage and swift reactions gave them the upper hand as they went downwards, but the mages were getting stronger, were ready for them as they charged downwards.
That was when the traps started.
Lux rammed into him, knocking them both down. Jolts of pain ran through him as he hit the stairs, and he finally managed to stop their fall. A storm of ice daggers exploded from the air above them, each one shattering against the stone of the opposite wall. Lux shuddered, and Axel untangled himself from the prince, helping him to his feet.
"How could you tell?" he asked.
"There was a weird sound. I wasn't sure if I heard it or not, but..." He trailed off, chewing his lip.
"Thanks," Axel breathed, throwing one last glance at the shards of shattered ice. "They've probably got loads of traps down here, so listen out for more."
Lux gave a small nod of reply. That was it. No more words, simply the understanding that they needed to hurry and escape the traps.
Axel started heading down again, clearing two steps at a time - a difficult feat, considering the sharp spiralling Vipera seemed so obsessed with.
A hissing sounded above him, and he leapt down again, screaming for Lux to hurry. He caught the prince as he half-fell, half-stumbled, down the steps, and an eruption of fire burst into life above them, flooding the staircase with unbearable heat.
"Keep running!" he urged, ensuring Lux escaped ahead of him. "It's spreading!"
A second later, Lux stopped so suddenly that Axel almost sent them into another painful tumble.
Flames burst out of the air beneath them.
"What do we do?" Lux asked, turning around and facing Axel with pleading eyes. He cursed, eyes flickering between the two advancing walls of flame. The heat was becoming unbearable - it felt as though his skin was peeling away from the heat, his eyes burning slowly and his bones melting away. Only one thing left to do.
"Hold on to me," Axel barked, pulling Lux into his arms and letting the darkness swallow him.
Lux's scream pierced his ears as they fled into the realm of shadows, his fingers digging into Axel's arms. He pulled him closer into his grip, trying to calm Lux through each violent convulsion that shook his body.
"Try to walk," he urged him. Lux's reaction was impossibly slow, as he dragged his head up to look at Axel. The pain twisted into his expression was almost unbearable.
"We can do it," Axel encouraged, Lux's weight dragging him downwards. He wouldn't - couldn't - let go. "Just try to walk."
Gritting his teeth against both the exhaustion and the cold, Lux stepped forwards, his grip on Axel's arms tightening. Half-dragging him through, Axel murmured more words of reassurance, trying desperately to judge whether they'd emerge safely on the lower stairs or not. He took a deep breath. He needed to make a choice, and he needed to make it quickly.
Axel left the shadows, and caught Lux as he fell, his body limp in Axel's arms. Again, he swore, cradling Lux's limp form to his chest. Trying to warm him. Trying to comfort him, as they sunk to the stairs, leaning against the wall.
"You're okay, now," he mumbled. "You're safe." The temperature change must have done it. From so much heat, to somewhere so cold...
"I'm sorry," Lux managed between coughs. "I could make it before. I thought I-" He broke out into another coughing fit.
When he stopped, Axel spoke with a gentleness that was unfamiliar even to him.
"It's not your fault, Lux. It went from being so hot to so cold. But you'll be okay now, and you don't have to go later."
Lux shook his head furiously. "I'm going!"
A smile fought its way onto Axel's lips. "Okay, then." How could he be so brave? He'd just been through that, and already he was trying to stand, insisting he could go through it again later - and for longer.
Weakly, Lux pushed himself to his feet. "I can keep going," he insisted.
"No, we'll stay here. We need to rest a little more, and I'm not going to move, even if you're about to be stubborn."
Lux shot him a scowl, but didn't keep going. "Fine," he growled eventually, sinking back to the step beside Axel. "But not for long, okay?"
"Sure," Axel nodded. "Tell me when you're fine to start moving again. And I mean actually fine to start moving, not just you thinking we're wasting time."
Lux shot him a glare. "We are wasting time!" he protested.
"No, we're not. If you carry on like this, you'll get hurt. I won't let that happen, Lux, whether you think I'm being stupid or not. Besides, if you get hurt, then I'll have to drag you around, and we'll both get killed."
The prince sighed. "Fine," he muttered again, and another shiver ran through him.
"You're still cold."
"So?" Lux replied, an obstinate undertone to his voice. Axel shuffled nearer to Lux, awkwardly put an arm out and pulling him closer to him. And held his breath.
Slowly, Lux breathed out, relaxing and leaning against Axel. "Thanks," he murmured. "I really... I guess I was trying to be brave, when I said I'd be fine in the shadow-voyage."
Axel shrugged. Why did his words have to twist his stomach? "You've improved since last time."
"I'm still a dead-weight."
"Rubin was heavier." This much was true. Axel remembered the struggle of dragging the assassin through, and all to prove himself. To Lux.
"Yes, but you only had to carry him once."
"Which is what makes you both different. I wouldn't want to carry Rubin through. I don't care if I have to help you through the shadow-voyage for hours, Lux."
He glanced down at the prince, and realised he was smiling. "Besides," he continued, as Lux nestled against him, "you've saved me enough today, haven't you?"
"We save each other, Axel," Lux said quietly, contentedly. For a few minutes, they simply remained like that - seemingly oblivious to the fact they were in an enemy base, Lux with his eyes closed; Axel a silent sentinel.
"I'm feeling better, now," Lux said. "We should start moving again."
Reluctantly, the two moved away, standing, and Axel flexed his shoulder. "Ready?"
"Ready," Lux nodded.
Only a few steps down, vines snaked from the walls, caging them in - a milder version of the fire trap. With perfect synchronisation, the two of them lunged forwards, a wave of darkness and lightning searing a hold through the writhing vines. Axel shot Lux a grin as they darted through, and they kept descending. A sparking sound snapped through his ears, and almost instantly Lux was pushing him aside, taking the full force of the magic's power.
Axel turned around, eyes wide with terror, but Lux was fine.
Lux grinned. "Lightning magic. I'm immune, remember?"
He breathed out in relief. "Let's go," Lux said. "Skala will probably be waiting for us, soon."
They carried on running, and reached the bottom of the stairs without any further traps.
A crowd of mages were there, waiting to fight them, and Axel's grin extended. His heart raced furiously, his blood pumping relentlessly through his veins.
He shared a look of comradeship - and something more than that - with Lux, and together, they plunged into the battle.