Splinters flew everywhere, and he leapt back, shielding his already-wounded face with his arms. Almost instantly, something coiled around his ankle, tearing into the leather of his boot and digging into his flesh. With the pain, came darkness - a powerful blast from Skala as she freed him of the coiling vine of thorns.
His eyes flickered for any more. A trap? Or was Carsten here, attacking?
He darted into the mansion again, narrowly evading another coil of thorns. How many traps were there? To be sure, he blasted the floor with darkness, running across the hall, eyes darting everywhere, anywhere. Skala followed quickly, surging through the building with an elegant fluidity.
"We'll check upstairs. He'd probably want a view of the courtyard," Axel called out to her, heading towards the grand, velvet-carpeted staircase and starting to ascend. A flower snapped up from somewhere, its petals opening. Almost too late, he recognised it, throwing himself back and slamming into Skala. They tumbled down the first few steps, safely away from the cloud of hazy mist that drifted from its petals.
"Poisonous," he breathed, by way of explanation. Skala nodded, looking back up at it. The flower was a vibrant pink, its petals tipped with a snowy white. He hadn't seen one for at least a year, now - probably more. The last time, it had been summoned by a group of nature mages, and it had rendered them exhausted to set just the one trap. If a single mage could set such a trap alone...
"We should find him soon," Axel muttered. "He's dangerous."
They moved up the stairs with Skala ahead. Whenever one of the flowers sprouted from the vines wrapped around the banisters, she incinerated it with silvery black flames before the petals could so much as open. He kept his eyes firmly upon the ground around Skala, watching for any potential dangers.
"What," snapped an irritable voice, "do you think you're doing?"
Axel's head jerked up. A man stood at the summit of the stairs, his vibrant green eyes gleaming with loathing. He started to descend, and emerald robes flowed out behind him, trailing down the stairs as he stalked towards them. Already, there was darkness in Axel's palms.
"Do you know how long it took me to set all of those traps? A whole day. You've just ruined a whole day's worth of my work. Is my courtyard ruined? My courtyard had better not be ruined," he hissed. For a man facing two powerful mages, he didn't look overly concerned. Axel decided there and then that he would teach him to fear for his own life before the loss of his work.
"You work for Vipera," he said accusingly. The nature mage - Carsten, he recalled - shrugged loosely.
Axel launched himself towards the mage. Something scratched at his arm, but already there was heat behind him. A grin forced its way onto his face. Skala always had his back.
Alarm flickered in the mage's eyes as Axel collided with him, and the two went down, a collision of black and green as they fought for power. Surges of exhilaration fuelled him as he pummelled his fists into the mage, landing blows wherever he could. A vine suddenly gripped his arm, wrenching him away and tossing him back down the staircase. Years of training kicked in, and Axel disappeared - midair - into the darkness.
The moment he reappeared before Carsten, he was lunging for the man's stomach, kicking out hard.
Carsten staggered, tripping back on the stairs as he gasped for breath.
"Into the shadows?" Axel asked, turning back to Skala for a brief moment. She understood instantly, and nodded.
Lashing out one more time, Axel aimed for the mage's head. The moment his fist connected, Carsten gasped, slumping down beneath his feet.
"Almost too easy," he grinned, kneeling and hefting the man over his shoulders. "We're going to take him back for interrogation. You think you can help me up if I fall?"
"No need," she replied. I'll carry him. It's my turn; you carried Lux and Rubin through the darkness, ages ago. Besides, I'm stronger than you."
She was right, of course. If it had been somebody else boasting of greater strength, he might have snapped. Skala was not boasting; she was stating a fact.
Axel let her take Carsten, and followed her into the darkness.
She made it further than he ever could have. At least ten steps were made before she first stumbled, and even then, she caught herself before Axel had time to so much as react. He could still remember carrying Rubin through the dark - he'd been heavy, but Lux had been conscious, and that had certainly been worse. Still, he could remember the terror within each scream for help, the desperation as he clutched at Axel's wrist, trying not to drown in the dark...
He snapped himself from the thoughts as Skala stumbled again, lunging forwards to steady her. He could feel the determination rolling in waves from her body beside him, a powerful will to reach the palace with Carsten still over her shoulders.
And Axel needed to help her, to stop thinking of Lux.
Doing that wasn't going so well.
They made it after what seemed like a lifetime of Skala battling through, staggering, of Axel helping her. When they finally fell from the shadows into the entrance hall, Skala slumped forwards into Axel's arms; Carsten's unconscious body dropped with a resounding thud to the floor.
Skala managed a weak nod, despite the shudders of exhaustion that ran through her body.
"Will you be okay sitting here if I go find the chains we stole from Vipera?"
She nodded again, and Axel set her down gently on the floor. He glanced over to the two guards stationed beside the drawbridge entrance, both of whom were watching with mingled alarm and curiosity. "Watch them both," he instructed them. "If he wakes up, smash something heavy over his head."
With that, he melted, for the last time that night, into the dark.
Even when he was handing over the prisoner, he still couldn't look at Lux.
"We captured him, but Skala had to carry him back, so she's resting. He shouldn't be able to use magic, as we stole these chains a while ago from Vipera, and they block magic. Is there anything else?"
Carsten struggled feebly within the chains, and Axel kicked him again. He stopped writhing.
"No, that's all." Lux's voice was unfamiliarly formal. "Thank you."
Axel handed the chains to Rubin, who took them with a nod.
"Can I say something?" the assassin asked. Without waiting for a reply, he said it anyway. "You two are being stupid. You need to make friends or something. You're so stupidly oblivious-"
"Shut up!" Axel hissed, glaring at him. For once, Rubin seemed to listen, instead choosing to shrug as Axel whirled around, stalking from the room.
Sometimes, he wondered if Rubin existed solely to annoy him. It was, to be perfectly honest, a completely likely theory.