When his eyes flickered open for the second time, he was aware of screaming, of roaring, of the familiarly comforting scent of Lux. For a moment, he breathed it in, before Lux gasped out his name in what sounded like joy and relief.
"We're leaving, now," Lux promised him.
"No," Axel rasped out. "Snow's here, somewhere."
He was faintly aware of being carried away from the palace on Skala's back, of her leaving and of Lux standing beside him, a sentinel garbed in celestial white. He fell back into the ocean of oblivion soon after that.
He woke up to pain. A burning sensation; an ache that had engulfed his entire body; a throbbing head.
Axel tried to sit, but the very action forced pain to snake through him, sinking its fangs into him and refusing to let go. Somewhere to his left, somebody was calling out a name, and then there was the sudden scraping of a chair against floor, and then there was warmth in his hand.
"Attack... Vipera's going to attack our base," he managed to gasp out, and there were more voices, more noises that cut into his head like a blade. "The noise," he coughed. "Make it go away."
Minutes later, he was lying in a room, alone, where everything seemed quiet.
It didn't take long for sleep to take him.
"We have to fight back," Rubin barked to the surviving band of criminals. "They're expecting us to flee, because we've been alerted to their attack. We'll ambush them somewhere, and then we'll strike."
"And what if it goes wrong again?" The woman who'd asked the question had lost her two sons in the last attack. Rubin couldn't blame her for being sceptical.
"If it does, then we go down fighting. If it doesn't, then we're going to keep our headquarters. If anybody wishes to leave, they may do so now."
Lux spoke up. "Skala's suggested hiring mercenaries. We have enough money, don't we?"
Rubin inclined his head. "Of course. I'll go to the Shade in a minute and get whatever I can. Is there anybody here who wishes to leave? Lux has decided that any who do so will not be punished in any way."
A few people stood.
"Say goodbye to the prince you are leaving, though. Say farewell to the lives you have left behind, because if you walk from these doors, there will be nobody left to stand against the tyrants that rule. And the sacrifices will have been made in vain."
They did not leave, and Rubin nodded his thanks. "Do what you can to prepare."
He left the room, and glanced behind him. Lux was following.
"I'm coming, Rubin. I can't bear standing around any more."
"They'll recognise you, in the Shade. Anyway, weren't you watching Axel and Snow?"
"Skala's doing that, now. Besides, it's better if they recognise me. It shows we mean business."
Rubin sighed, but shrugged. "Whatever. If you can bear to leave your boyfriend behind."
Lux shot him a look of pure irritation, but, since he didn't seem strong enough to defend himself, Rubin left the matter alone. It was always better if he could actually annoy them, after all.
"Can I ask you something?" Lux said tentatively.
"Have you ever seen anybody, besides me, Axel or Skala, using more magic than most mages can?" he asked.
Rubin shook his head, but curiosity was already tugging at his gut. "No."
"There was a woman who could control water, before. And Vipera had some with her when we went to get Axel back. Do you think her magic can do that, too? Increase people's power?"
Rubin mused over it. It sounded ridiculous - and yet he'd never once met anybody with a magic like hers, had never once come across somebody with a magic that didn't abide by the elements. "I suppose it's possible," he said.
"Then do you think she was the one who gave me my own magic when I was younger?"
"That doesn't make sense," Rubin said. "She set out to betray us; why make you stronger if she intended to go against you?" He paused. "Unless she did it to make the Golden Flame easier to control." At Lux's quizzical look, he explained. "The stronger a leader, the more dedicated his troops. She was using you to control them all. She needed you to be strong."
Lux chewed his lip. Could she really have done that? He was almost certain that she could do it to other people - the other mages had looked at her with too much fear to be mere subordinates. No - she must have inflicted pain on them, just like the masked people had done to him when he was younger, when his magic was still weak and new. But the leader of the masked people - the person whose identity he had never known - had given him powers, powers like those of the other mages at the castle...
It made sense. There was only one problem: he just didn't want it to, and so he struggled to push the thought from his mind. He would think over it later. Right now, distractions could be fatal.
The Shade was strange. Lux could think of no other way to put it, with the braziers and glowstones illuminating it through the dark, where everybody seemed to be against everybody. That was one of the beautiful things about the Golden Flame - the members might be criminal, but they had, mostly, been the falsely accused, the ones who had rebelled against the tyrants in rule of Haven.
Here, it seemed as though every one of the people would have been criminal whether or not the rulers of Haven had been monsters or peaceful, kind people with hearts of forgiveness.
Lux decided instantly that he preferred being in the Golden Flame.
He pushed through the crowds of people, following Rubin's directions. He had to be the one to lead, Rubin had told him. He was the prince, after all.
Finally, they made it through the stalls, and he glanced back to Rubin for confirmation. The assassin nodded towards one of the buildings, and Lux swept towards it. Tried to ignore the eyes that followed him. Tried to block out the whispers.
"That's the Disan prince!"
"He's actually alive!"
Rubin stepped out before him to open the door in a servantly manner, and Lux stepped inside, without so much as a nod of acknowledgement. He was a prince - he had to at least act like one.
"Rubin, negotiate details," he ordered, standing by the desk. For a moment, the elderly figure behind it seemed not tot comprehend the image before him, but swiftly nodded, welcoming them both with a bow.
"Mercenaries. How long will it take for the nearest group to reach us?"
The man quickly rifled through papers, selecting one with practised ease. "A day, sir. A day and a half, if you're willing to wait the extra time for double the men and double the skill."
"My Prince?" Rubin looked to Lux in confirmation. "Do you agree that our best option would be to send both?"
Lux nodded, trying to act disdainful. "Of course."
"Sir, I'm afraid that mercenaries such as these don't like collaborating-"
"Double the pay to both parties, then," Lux told him. "And tell them that if they're late, their pay will go down considerably. The first group will be here this time tomorrow. And ensure the second group are here on the second hour of noon tomorrow," he added. The man nodded.
"I'll send a messenger bird right away," he promised.
"Good," Lux replied sharply. "Rubin, deal with the money."
Rubin talked to the retired criminal behind the desk for a moment, before nodding to Lux, opening the door for him. Lux left in a whirl of red cloak, not paying the man another glance. He still remembered Rubin's words: Show them weakness, and they will never bow. That is the nature of men like that.
He pushed past people buying items at stalls as he left, just for good measure, glaring whenever they responded without realising first who he was.
"You make a worryingly good prince," Rubin told him quietly, as they left.
Lux decided to take it as a compliment.