"Let me out, Rubin."
There was a click, and Axel looked over as Lux pushed open the door, storming past Rubin.
"Skala, go with him," he heard Rubin say. Footsteps. Rubin was standing in the doorway of the room.
"Thanks," Axel hissed. "Now he hates me."
"Hardly," Rubin snorted. "He's just embarrassed, but since neither of you were going to do anything, I figured I might as well."
"He's not embarrassed," Axel snarled. "He hates me, what the hell don't you get?" He tried breathing slowly. It wasn't working. "I told you that because I thought you could keep secrets, because I thought you could tell him and not just use it against your own allies. You really are pathetic, aren't you?"
"I wasn't doing it against you," the assassin shrugged. Just a knife. That would have been all it would've taken, to keep both he and Skala out of this, to simply dispose of Rubin at the start. He still wouldn't have done it, still would never have gone back, but that wasn't the point.
"You're not going to listen to me, are you?" he asked, sighing. Axel heard the door click shut, and shouted another death-threat after him before he slammed his head into his pillow and screamed.
"It's been a week, Axel. You need to talk to him, at least."
He ignored her. "We should get back to raiding the vault again. I've rested enough."
"You keep ignoring him," she continued.
"And that," Axel growled, "is because Rubin decided to screw everything up for me. Besides, why are you being so talkative? You're normally quieter." Why did she have to keep pushing him? He couldn't even face Lux again. Any attempt at communication would be pointless. Every wayward glance, every split-second meeting of their eyes, was awkward.
"I'm being more talkative because I need to be. Usually, you're not this stupid." She stood, her case closed. "As you said, back to work." Her silver eyes gleamed with an unusual determination, as she waited for him to drag himself to his feet. "Talk to him," she said, before stepping into the shadows.
He did, worryingly, have to talk to him. The only marginally positive thing was Skala's presence beside him: a familiar, comforting person to rely on. He'd made her promise to try and speak for him where possible: an action the younger version of himself would have viewed as pathetic and cowardly, but one that was necessary.
"I need your help." Lux seemed to look solely at Skala as he spoke. Axel concentrated on the table, tried to focus on its intricate designs and patterns. He wouldn't look at Lux, with his gentle voice, or his gloriously burning eyes, or-
"An assassination of one of Vipera's mages. One of our prisoners has revealed the identity of one of them - a man called Carsten."
Axel couldn't help but notice the way Lux looked determinedly at Skala. Like he was too disgusting to look at. It wouldn't surprise him if that was the reason, considering what Rubin had said.
Skala nudged him, dragging him back to reality.
"Let's go," she said, and he made a conscious effort to evade Lux's eyes as they departed from the room. Some things were simply too painful.
"You need to snap out of this, Axel. You're being stupid, and you can just talk when we get back. Right now, I need your help on this mission. Are you in, or not?"
A faint smile touched upon his miserable expression. "Always." Skala nodded, perhaps with acknowledgement, perhaps with relief. Currently, she seemed to be the only one he could rely on - just like it always had been.
"Town called Sinduke, we've been there before," she told him. "Let's go."
Fog curled around his ankles; trailing fingers of thorns clawed at the bare skin of his face. The temptation to simply destroy the path to their target was uncomfortably close, but that would alert Carsten to their presence. Assassination, he'd decided, would be a waste when capture and interrogation was so much more rewarding.
Fighting past another horde of thorns, he glanced back. Skala slipped through behind him, her face only slightly less bloodied than his own.
"I think we're almost there," he told her. "Ready?"
She nodded, and he pushed through the last wall of roses, emerging into a courtyard worthy of royalty.
Statues of marble depicted towering sentinels, dragons, griffins and strange objects Axel couldn't decipher. Roses coiled around each one with elegant fluidity, as though each plant had been grown to utter perfection: without flaw, without so much as a thorn poised incorrectly. If he liked flowers and sculptures, he would have found it breathtaking.
Behind was mansion, equally decorated. Climbing flowers covered the walls with colour that, in the day might have seemed beautiful, and in the night, seemed strange, silvery, almost.
"He's probably a nature mage," Skala speculated. Axel nodded.
"It would explain the thorns and the flowers," he muttered darkly, starting towards the courtyard.
Skala held him back.
"If he's a nature mage, he could have set traps with the power Vipera's given him. We should shadow-voyage to the end of the courtyard, just to be sure."
They both stepped backwards, sinking into the realm of darkness. The cold stung the cuts on his face with a needle-like pain. He ignored it, following Skala's presence through the dark.
Together, they emerged from the shadows, landing lightly before the mansion doors. Sharing a nod, they moved forwards, and Axel summoned black magic to his palms.
He blasted down the door.