Leaving Axel behind was even more terrifying than the thought of going on alone, but there was nothing else he could do. To let him come would have been stupid - in his condition, he'd only get hurt, but Axel was so reliable, and he knew exactly what do do, like with the fire trap, and-
Focus, Lux told himself. He couldn't promise Axel that he was strong enough to take care of himself, and then get caught out by some stupid trap.
He stopped at the end of the corridor. Left or right? He picked left, and turned down it, trying to accustom his eyes to the growing dark, hoping they'd adjust before he ran into a trap.
His footsteps were the only sound, however, as he continued down the corridor. He almost wanted a trap to suddenly flare into action. Had Vipera been cocky? Had she left this section of her fortress unguarded?
The corridor opened into a larger room. The sight of it made Lux collapse, trembling, to his knees.
Bodies. Bodies so cut apart and broken they were hardly even human, with their ribs wide open and their insides laid out carefully on tables. The flesh that hadn't already rotted away was marked with hideous scars - festering burns, infinite scratches. What had Vipera done to them?
Barely able to move, he staggered forwards, and retched. How? How could she do this to other people? And how long had she been doing this for, right beneath his nose as she'd manipulated him, using him like less than a puppet?
He tried breathing more deeply, but the stench blood and decay filled his mouth, choking him. They were human beings. How could she ever have dissected them like this? What were they? Failed experiments?
Another wave of nausea hit him as he realised that, if he'd buckled to the agony before, he could have been like this. Just another corpse. But really, was that any worse than being a mere experiment? His strength had come from her - from a monster.
He forced his legs to move, tried to make himself stagger from the room. The empty eyes of the bodies followed him as he left.
His hands gripped the walls for support as he escaped the room of bodies, fleeing into another dark corridor. Gradually, his pace hastened, his steps less shaky, but he still couldn't tear the image from his mind. She wasn't human. She couldn't be, if she could physically, mentally, emotionally bring herself to do that to people. Living. Human. Beings.
He breathed in deeply as he reached the next opening of the corridor. What if it was as bad as the last? What if..?
He swallowed, not allowing himself to finish the thought, and entered the second room.
It was not as bad.
It was worse.
Instantly, everything Lux had managed to escape was thrown right back in his face, an endless screaming of monstrous memories. His parents. His home.
His breath was stolen, resolve shattered, soul crushed.
At some point, he must've fallen to his knees, screaming, because his throat was hurting and he was freezing but he didn't even care. Shadows. They couldn't be shadows. Please, he prayed. Please don't let them be shadows.
When he finally looked again, the scream resurfaced. Black tendrils flowed from their bodies; darkness seemed to repel all hope within the hall. He didn't notice the chains of light that held them to the opposite walls, or the strange metallic devices laid out over the floor, because they were shadows, and nothing else could be noticed.
Everything - they had stolen everything. They had taken it away from him, and robbed him of family, of safety, of friends and warmth and everything else he had needed.
One of them screeched - a shrill, ear-splitting sound that pierced his ears and sent convulsions of terror through his body.
His arms shot up before him, and lightning ripped through his body, twisting his stomach in a painful grip. He didn't notice. He only noticed the shadows as their ugly, twisted forms were disintegrated to tiny wisps of black smoke.
And then he was running.
Running back through the corridor; back into the room of bodies where the only thing that stopped him was the odour, and suddenly he was falling, and crying.
Because there, on the flesh of the corpses, were the tiny black marks of a shadow's power.
Not again. He couldn't bear to see it, not a single shadow, not one, not even the mark of it. Before Lux could even think, he was incinerating the bodies, and everything else with them. They would have wanted that, he would reason with himself later. They would want the dignity of removal, rather than simply being splayed across tables or strung to walls.
He wasn't thinking that then. He wasn't thinking anything then, because the fear was all he knew, and suddenly he was running again.
He didn't care where. He needed to get away from the shadows, away from any remainder of their wretched existences. Anything.
Lux didn't notice the man until his voice, clear and cold and callous, cut through the chaos.
"I assume you're the so-called prince. Vipera told me to kill you, if you made it this far."
The royal soldiers had left ten minutes ago. Which meant that Axel was taking pathetically long just on one stupid fortress, if he wasn't already back here. Maybe he'd stopped to cuddle Lux or something equally hilarious.
Skala had better bring him back future teasing material, he decided irritably, turning to the soldiers.
"Quilia, you stay here with your griffin and Snow. The rest of you, it's time to go. They've probably left some of their soldiers here, so don't expect it to be completely easy, okay? If you win, Prince Lux becomes a king. If you fail, he becomes nothing more than a broken leader of some stupid, measly band of idiots, although you'd probably be too dead to care. Win or fail. Up to you lot."
Rubin had to admit, he was pretty amazing at speeches.
He threw himself onto his griffin, gesturing to the mercenaries to bring on their own inspirational speeches.
Half of the Royal Vaults.
Rubin tried not to grin as Tiego reminded his mercenaries of the pay. Gods, they were going to be so annoyed when they realised how little remained of Haven's royal riches. He was desperately hoping they both survived, just to see the looks on their stupid mercenary faces.
"Ready yet?" he called out to Tiego and Aleron, who'd just mounted their own steeds. Aleron nodded, his eyes burning with eager anticipation. Maybe they weren't so bad. Money seemed to be their incentive, after all, which made them incredibly intelligent (especially above Axel - loyalty got you nowhere), but idiots were much more interesting to observe.
"Ready," Tiego confirmed.
"Great!" Rubin replied, grinning beneath his mask. "In that case, let's go!"
The army of rebels started to rise from the trees. For the mercenaries, the prize was their biggest yet (or at least - it was in their gullible little minds); for the Golden Flame, this was revenge.
Money, revenge. Two of his favourite things.
His grin widened, and Rubin urged his griffin forwards. Hopefully, this would be slightly more challenging than the strike-and-run earlier. Maybe he'd even get to find Vipera, and run her through with a blade.
"Nobody kill Vipera," he called over his shoulder as an afterthought, though the wind probably (and very annoyingly) snatched away his words. "I've been putting up with her for years, now! She's mine to kill!"
Turning back to the city ahead, Rubin flicked the reins once more, and his griffin sped forwards.
For the first time in days, Rubin really, truly felt alive.