He stepped out of the shadows. A cool breeze pricked at his arms, though it wasn't as cold as the darkness.
He glanced to his left, and quickly spotted Skala and Lux. Skala seemed impatient; Lux was undoubtedly nervous. Axel could already feel the adrenaline pumping through his own blood. This wasn't just a fight against normal humans. This was a fight against people like him - people who could kill him with ease. There would be no play tonight - only a dead serious fight. Finally - a fight for his life.
"Are you both ready?"
"Naturally," Skala replied. Lux gulped, but nodded, and Axel took a steady stride towards him.
"You'll be fine. I have your back." And then, to Skala, "Could you transform, now?"
Skala grinned. Clearly, she was just as ready as he was.
He watched as she raised her head, her eyelids closing softly. A deep breath, and then, light. It encased her body within a cocoon of glowing silver; obsidian scales extended outwards to cover her skin. Grabbing Lux's wrist, Axel dragged him backwards, grinning as Skala revealed her glory.
Finally, the light subsided, and she tossed her scaled head, extending her wing. Lightly, Axel ran across the leathery skin, gesturing for Lux to follow. The prince's steps were slower, more cautious. Axel drew a leather cloth from his bag, throwing it between two of Skala's spinal spikes to protect their legs from her scales.
"You okay?" Axel grinned, helping Lux climb up Skala's shoulder.
"I'm fine," Lux replied, sliding into the space behind Axel. "And she's amazing."
"Yeah," Axel agreed, tapping her side with his leg. "Go, Skala!"
She spread her wings, muscles rippling beneath the scales. Power practically vibrated through her body as she beat her wings, launching them into the sky. Axel gripped the spine before him, and realised only a second later that Lux had coiled one arm around his waist to keep himself in place. The closeness of him was strangely comforting.
He glanced down, easily spotting Vipera's headquarters. It had been constructed in a dome-like shape, built with dark stone and careful precision, and strange turrets protruded from its roof.
"Down!" Axel ordered Skala, and she plummeted towards the ground, folding her wings inwards as the dark energy built up within her jaws and across the length of her wings. The freezing wind rushed against his face as she fell downwards, and Lux's arms tightened around his waist. At the last second, Skala beat her wings downwards, forcing the darkness energy straight into the building. A resounding boom shook the ground as the magic hit, destroying an entire section of the roof.
"Down again, Skala!" Axel grinned, and she turned mid-air, her body twisting around as she swept downwards again, straight into the hole she'd made in the building. He could feel his heart hammering violently against his chest as she landed heavily on a remaining floor, her talons gripping chunks of debris.
"Drop us here, and we'll go destroy anything underground," Axel told her. "You take care of everything up here!"
She snorted in agreement, spitting silver flames at a group of oncoming mages, while simultaneously lowering her wing. Axel took Lux's hand, easily helping him down, and then he was nodding farewell to Skala.
With the last connection of their eyes, the two parted ways: the silver dragon, to the air above; the boy, deeper into the fortress.
"Come on!" Axel encouraged Lux, and the prince sped up his pace, following Axel deeper into the halls. Fire filled his blood as he charged down the first set of stairs after Lux. The first mage had no time to so much as react before Lux had scorched a searing wound of lightning into her chest. They didn't stop to look at her face as they continued down the stairs. Lux would be feeling remorse, Axel knew, but the prince was aware that this was a war, and that people died.
Even so, he pushed past Lux. Rather the weight of deaths upon his shoulders. He'd been bearing that burden for longer, after all.
Narrowly dodging a vine, Axel grimaced. Another nature mage? Their traps were difficult to evade.
"Anything that moves, blast it and dodge it!" Axel called over his shoulder, as they hit the next floor down, and he disposed of two more mages. Without surprise on their side, without the claws of panic gripping their enemies thanks to Skala's sheer power, each effortless kill would have been a battle. Tactics were everything in a place like this.
Something snaked towards him, but there was already the burning smell of lightning. Lux's magic shot past him, eliminating the next thorned vine before it could so much as touch him. Axel wasted no energy on a thanks. He could display gratitude later, and besides, they had each other's backs. They were comrades, after all.
Another two vines burst from the cracks in the walls, and Axel destroyed them in one blast of darkness. Every trap sent another ripple of exhilaration lancing through his body; each near-death forced a wider grin onto his lips.
They met another mage on the way up. This man, it seemed, was aware of their attacking, considering the wave of water that slammed them both against the walls. Another mage appeared behind the first, and the thorned vines that had been trying to ensnare them on the way up lashed out towards them. Dazed, Axel could do nothing but gasp for breath as they coiled around Lux's wrist, jerking him downwards. With a sharp intake of breath, he threw himself downwards, darkness spilling from his palms and striking the water mage.
A glowing jolt of electricity leapt from Lux's arms as he fell, and the nature mage screamed in agony, crumpling. Axel lunged to steady Lux, and the prince rested against him for a moment. His chest was heaving.
"I'm good," Lux coughed, then moved away to stand without help. "Let's carry on."
This time, it was Lux who went down first, lightning forking out before him to deal with any of the other nature traps. There would be more than one nature mage, and besides, traps were still effective after a mage's death.
The stairs subdued to solid floor, and the two of them darted out across it, their footsteps resounding as they tackled the nearest enemy mages.
The two of them moved with perfect unison. Every risk that Axel took, he took because he knew that Lux was covering him; each blind spot he created for himself through rashness in attack was covered instantly by the prince.
Shards of ice hurtled towards him, but Axel managed to duck, evading the second volley as he charged forwards. Only the ice mage left, now. He'd make this one count.
Lux's lightning shattered the next onslaught of ice, and Axel slammed into the mage, pinning him to the floor and directing his knee straight into the man's gut. A gasp of pain exploded from his thin lips.
"Where are the next set of stairs? Where's Vipera?"
The man took another breath, trying to form ice within his hands. Without hesitation, Axel drew a blade and slammed it down beside the mage's fingers.
"Move again, and this will pierce your flesh," he growled. "The questions."
"She's not here," the mage coughed hatefully. "And go ahead. The stairs are to the left, through the second corridor. You'll get killed, freak. You and your stupid friend."
He tried to push Axel off, but in his weakened state, he could do nothing against the dagger.
Blood pooled around him as Axel stood calmly, wiping the blade across the cleanest patch of the corpse's shirt.
"I wouldn't bet on it," he said coldly, standing and leading the way towards the door to the left.
"Do you ever feel anything, when you do that?" Lux asked quietly.
"No," Axel replied. "I used to. Now, I feel nothing. Whether I feel remorse or not, it doesn't affect anything, other than perhaps my own survival. Remorse is for the humane. I've separated myself from those I kill."
Before Lux could reply, he pushed into the room. No mages. Perhaps they'd fled, or were waiting in ambush. Either way, they weren't in this room.
"Let's go," Axel said, taking the second corridor and breaking into another run. Scuffling from the arched doorways either side of them alerted him to the remainder of this floor's mages.
"Ambush!" he called back to Lux. For a moment, the heavy breathing within the doorways either sides halted, before the first of the mages lunged out, flames bursting from her fingertips. Throwing himself aside, Axel tried to evade the flames, but they licked out at his left hand, scorching his flesh before the bolt of darkness struck the woman down.
Lux charged out before him, the golden electricity already pulsing outwards, colliding with the other mages before they could so much as emerge from their hiding places against the stone. With the gleam of the lightning before him, Lux looked almost celestial, his phosphorescent magic filling the dark of the corridor. Screams echoed across the stone walls, and the torches flickered, their flames vanquished by the sheer might of the golden lightning.
For one long moment, the two of them simply stood in the dark, before Lux's voice cut through it.
"Are you okay?"
He turned, and staggered blindly towards him. He'd almost forgotten - Lux's night vision was nothing in comparison to his own.
"I've been better," Axel shrugged, taking his hand and leading him through the dark. Lux allowed Axel to guide him, finally releasing his hand when they reached the next set of torches that still burned in the dark.
"There." Axel nodded to the next staircase. With Lux behind him, he plunged back down into the dark.