Snow swept through the valley again, picking off griffins that seemed to be causing trouble, plucking riders from saddles, freezing wings and tearing at anything that so much as came near her.
Lux surveyed everything, striking griffins with lightning when the Golden Flame or the mercenaries seemed to need help, otherwise steering Snow through the valley.
"Prince Lux!" The cry was faint above the screams, but Lux still heard. He turned in his saddle, meeting the eyes of a bloody-faced mercenary with Aleron's crest on his helm. "Help us!"
He followed the mercenary instantly, striking down anything before them as Aleron's mercenary wove his griffin through the clashing foes, leading Lux onwards. Ahead, he could see a swarm of Vipera's soldiers, their griffins tearing at something in the centre of their horde.
"It's Aleron and Tiego!" the mercenary yelled, and Lux saw instantly what the man meant.
"Snow!" he called, flicking the reins and driving her straight towards the mass. His heart was still relentlessly pounding upon his chest, but Lux had learned to control that, now. To subdue it. To use it.
As Snow surged forwards, she swept her wings together, and a layer of frost settled upon the feathers of the nearest enemy steeds. The frost grew outwards as they advanced upon the swarm, spreading to coat its victim's entire body. By the time Snow arrived, they were either falling or fighting against it. All of them made easy targets for Snow and Lux; a mixture of claws and lightning cleared a path through the swarm to Tiego and Aleron.
They both were battling hard, dodging and weaving between their enemies, somehow, strangely, fighting together better than Lux could ever have imagined. One griffin swept down to attack Tiego, and Aleron launched a spear at the steed, taking it down. They hated each other, didn't they? So what were they doing fighting perfectly, side by side?
"Go!" Lux urged the phoenix, sending her in to join them. As she arrived, the phoenix screeched, her cry cutting into Lux's ears like jagged shards of glass.
Painful, but effective.
The mass threatening to tear Aleron from the sky looked over, startled by the cry. Lux focused.
Those around him fell, feathers burning, flesh burning, riders burning. He took deep breaths, trying to regain his energy and concentration, and did it again. This time, the griffins to the left of Aleron fell. It sickened Lux just as much as destroying a human. The griffins hadn't asked to fight, but it was war, and no matter whether they'd wanted it or not, Lux had to take them out.
"Stop staring and fight!" he barked to his allies, and they nodded hurriedly, snapping from their daze of amazement. Tiego was the first to move, covering Aleron from an attack. Marvelling over their teamwork, Lux took Snow into the fray, feeling her muscles flex beneath him, the beating of her wings fresh in his ears. She was beautiful. Deadly, yes, but beautifully so, with celestial feathers and piercing eyes that both caught the moonlight, with elegant wings and fluid motion that made her perfect for war.
A horn sounded, blasting through the air and reverberating through Lux's ears. Instantly, Vipera's soldiers started to flee, turning and retreating.
"Cowards!" Aleron called after them, flying at one to take the soldier down.
"Don't!" Lux snapped. "Let them go. They'll serve as a message to Vipera."
He surveyed the scene below him. There were bodies down there, each one twisting his stomach as he saw it, hanging from the branches of the trees underneath. Comrades, enemies. What did it matter? Their corpses did nothing but nauseate him.
Trying to force down his repulsion, he unslung the horn from Snow's saddle, and put it to his lips.
"Collect the injured and return to the base!" he ordered, the horn projecting his voice. "Carry anybody without a griffin, and do your best to move the injured into one place. Take injured enemy soldiers with them, but keep an eye on them."
"Why enemies?" Aleron demanded.
"Because there's a chance they'll join us."
"Or kill us," Tiego pointed out.
"And if they try that" Lux assured him, "then we'll just have to kill them. If they attack you, then you're the priority. Understood?"
Tiego raised a questioning eyebrow, but nodded. Aleron, apparently, wasn't going to be so easily convinced.
"Why the hell would I want to help them? They took my men out. What makes you think they're worthy of being saved after trying to kill us?"
Lux turned burning eyes on him. Couldn't he just accept it? "Isn't one of the things about victory that we get to reap the spoils of battle? If we can get more people, or information, from them, then it's worth it. Got that?"
Snorting irritably, Aleron shrugged. "Whatever. I won't kill them if I see them, but I'm only saving our own."
"Very well," Lux sighed, tapping Snow's neck. "Find the nearest griffin that's wounded," he told her. "This is going to be a long night."
He found Rubin kicking the ground and punching trees.
"Rubin," Lux started, "what are you doing?"
"What the hell does it look like I'm doing?" he snarled. "Krig was there. I let him get away, even though it was stupid, and now my griffin's injured and I should have killed the gutless scum."
He swung his fist at the tree again, and another trickle of blood ran down his knuckle. Lux moved forwards to stop him, but Rubin was already sinking to the floor, his knees buckling beneath him. With ragged breaths, he let his head fall against the tree, and what sounded like a strangled sob emanated from his throat.
"Rubin, it isn't your fault."
"The hell it isn't!" he snarled. Lux flinched. Rubin never, never sounded this broken. "I swore on my life, didn't I?"
"Nobody could have known." Hesitantly, he moved to comfort the assassin.
"I should have! I've fought beside him so many times! I should have known that he was going against us!"
Lux put a hand on his shoulder, kneeling beside him. "That's why you wouldn't know. Because you did fight beside him. He was always guarded, Rubin. You couldn't have known. I promise this isn't your fault."
"It is, and I should have captured him! Besides, ask Axel! You ask him to tell you honestly if he blames me, then!"
"He'd blame me."
Rubin's voice had fallen so suddenly, had plummeted from anger and frustration to pure anguish. Like the quiet after the storm. A hateful, piercing, painful quiet. "You don't know that," Lux said finally.
"We'll ask him when he gets better, then. Do me a favour and carry my griffin back for me. It got hurt, and it can't fly so well."
Rubin gestured to the mount resting by the other side of the clearing. Its wing was bloodied, but other than that, it seemed fine. Lux turned his attention back to Rubin.
"Get on Snow. We're flying back, soon."
"I'm walking," Rubin said.
"No, you're not."
"Leave me alone."
"Why do you have to be so stubborn?" Lux demanded.
"Because if I wasn't, I would have surrendered long ago, and I'd be dead along with everybody else who was too stupidly kind to escape."
"What are you talking about?" he returned. What was going on?
"I'm talking about Disan. The shadows. Everybody dying."
Rubin pushed himself to his feet, and started walking. "Now, do me a favour, and leave me alone. I don't want to speak to anybody, okay?"
Lux let him go. Maybe it was the knowledge that Rubin wouldn't obey him. Maybe it was the knowledge that he really did want to walk back alone.
But that wasn't it. No, it was more the sorrow. The sorrow that had replaced the arrogance, the sarcasm.
The sorrow that had replaced Rubin.