In a momentary confusion, Axel didn't move. And then there was the sound of a rock from above, falling from the roof of the tunnel and smashing into the ground beside him. Fragments of shattered rock hit him as the larger one exploded. Somehow, the stinging pain of the smaller rocks snapped him from his daze. His priority instantly became Skala. She was gracefully evading rocks, without enough time for the concentration she needed to use shadow-voyage as her escape route. Axel threw himself aside, barely managing to evade being crushed.
Lux's cry rang out through the tunnel, and Axel's eyes flicked towards him. The prince had been caught in the primary source of the rockfall: beneath the shaft that had lead them down here. All around him, devastation reigned down, an avalanche of inescapable debris falling towards him.
Axel didn't think. He only felt - the one emotion he could truly feel, the one that had enabled him to remain sane and strong. The pull of loyalty.
Because for some reason, he felt as though he needed to protect the prince, to save him from the death that seemed inescapable. His legs moved of their own accord, his feet striking the ground with fury. Skala screamed his name. Lux threw himself forwards, and Axel threw himself forwards, and the two collided somehow in the panic, and in the split-second before their deaths, somehow, Skala had thrown a shield of darkness above them as her magic formed, and the rocks crashed upon that, relentless, merciless, sadistic.
And then, silence.
Axel became aware of Lux's ragged breaths, and his own ragged breaths, and the warmth of Lux's blood as it trickled from a wound in his arm. For a few long seconds, they did not move but for the heaving of their chests; they simply remained, knocked to the floor and lying side by side.
He was alive. Lux was alive. Skala was alive.
Axel's heart was still smashing callously against his chest, but he hardly noticed. They'd made it, somehow, and they were all still there, all still alive. Alive.
"Get... out!" Skala's voice, strained and struggling. Axel dragged himself from under the shield of magic, somehow crawling out and back into the open. Lux followed, and Axel grabbed the prince's wrist, pulling them both out.
The second they were safe, the shield collapsed, and the onslaught of rocks finally hit the floor. Axel gasped for breath as Skala sunk to the floor, exhausted.
The room was filled with gasps for breath, and then, suddenly, laughter.
Axel couldn't help it. For the first time in months, he had truly, really, felt the grip of danger, the hold of death as it stretched out its greedy fingers, trying to seize him and failing one more time. He had felt the desperation; he had felt the pain.
It was almost terrifying, but it was glorious, too.
The laughter burst from his lips so violently that he almost choked, was gasping for breath and trying to laugh at the same time. Coughing. Laughing. Grinning.
His own strange, maniacal laughter was joined by Skala's. Hers was weak, but still silvery. It was a strange chorus, of both crazed and melodious laughter, with the occasional fit of coughing, joined by the heavy breathing of the prince.
"Silver," Lux gasped eventually, "Thank you."
"Thank Skala," he managed to reply.
"Skala?" Lux's voice came in wheezing breaths.
"Shadow," Axel corrected himself quickly, weakly. "I said Shadow."
They sat there, gulping in air until they were inhaling without such desperation. And then,
"Thank you," Lux breathed. "Both of you."
"Yeah," Axel muttered. "Sk-Shadow, you okay? You must've used a lot of magic to save us."
She nodded slightly, giving him a small smile to show she was okay.
"You can talk," Lux said. "I know you can talk, so you can speak. I won't tell anybody. Not even-" There was a gasp of alarm. "Rubin!" Lux yelled, struggling to sit. "We need to see if he's okay!"
Axel pushed himself to his feet. His heart had slowed considerably, but it was still hammering against his chest with an iron fist. "Fine," he agreed. "Shadow, you're exhausted. Stay here."
She nodded weakly as Lux fought to stand. There was a trail of scarlet blood dripping down his left arm, and his white hair had been stained with the blood of a cut on his forehead and the dirt of the falling rocks. His eyes, however, still burned with determination.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered why he was helping a human, to search for another human - an irritating one, at that. But Axel was dazed - too tired to consider such thoughts. Right now, it was simpler to agree with the prince and his burning eyes.
Axel made his way through the tunnel, regaining his strength as Lux followed shakily.
"Silver," Lux managed, "Why did you help me?"
Axel halted, and turned around to look at the prince. I don't know. "Does it matter?"
There was a swallow. A shaky, "Yes."
"Why?" Axel had, once again, returned to his heartless masquerade.
"Because you act like you don't care," Lux said. "And then you save me, and almost die doing so, and then you go back to acting like you don't care again!"
His voice had risen progressively, and, as Axel looked back, his eyes were burning furiously. The human was angry? Why?
"And I don't care," Axel replied.
"Then why?" Lux demanded, shouting. "Why did you do that? You could have died, and you hate humans, you look down on them because you think you're a monster and then you go and nearly die just to save one! You should have been happy I almost died, shouldn't you?" the prince screamed. I should have been happy, Axel thought, and yet I saved you all the same. Instead, he shook his head calmly, hiding his own confusion beneath a mask of no emotion.
"I did it because I love to live," Axel said. "And for me to live, I must be constantly within the reach of death."
The two, for a moment, simply glared: Axel's cool silver against Lux's furious gold.
It was Lux who gave in, jerking his head away and pushing past Axel. "Fine," he spat. "I was wrong about trusting you."
The words stung him. They shouldn't have done, but they did: stinging viciously, ferociously, savagely. They shouldn't hurt. The words of a human should not hurt him. But then again, he shouldn't be willing to die for a human, either.
He followed Lux.
What was it about the human that Axel found so worthy of saving? They were all fools, each one of these stupid, conceited creatures. Lux might be different to the others he had seen, but that didn't mean he was worth saving.
It had to be his eyes, Axel decided finally. A human's eyes were their only area of beauty. Lux's were more compelling than the eyes of any other humans he had met.
Lux rounded a corner, and Axel heard him gasp. Following, Axel realised why Lux had seemed so terrified: the tunnel had collapsed here, too. Meaning that Rubin was either trapped alone on the other side, or he had been crushed.
"Rubin!" Lux screamed. "Rubin, answer me!"
"No use," Axel told him. "If they fell on him, he'll be dead, and if they trapped him, it's highly unlikely he'll hear you."
Lux spun around. "He's not dead!"
"In which case, he won't hear you," Axel told the prince.
"We have to get him out," Lux said, his eyes imploring. Axel raised an eyebrow.
"You want to move that many rocks? On the chance the assassin's still alive? Shouldn't you focus on getting yourself out first?" Axel questioned.
"He is still alive!" Lux corrected him furiously. There was desperation in his voice, like he was trying to convince himself as much as Axel. "Besides, you're stuck down here, too! Rubin will be able to help us get out, I know he will!"
"Stuck down here? I'm not, and nor is Shadow. We're both able to move through the shadows, to anywhere we like. We can simply escape like that."
Lux's eyes widened. "So you're going to leave us?"
Axel shrugged. "Perhaps we will. If we can't all get out, then yes, we'll definitely leave."
"If you really can move through the shadows like that, then go to the other side of these rocks and see how Rubin is," Lux challenged him. "Or are you just lying to make yourself seem better than us?"
"Oh?" Axel growled. "You're calling me a liar, prince?"
"Yes," Lux agreed. "So prove me wrong."
The two stood, glaring again, their eyes burning through the dark of the tunnel, illuminated by two final weakly flickering glowstones - apparently the only ones to survive the tremors. And then Axel snorted disdainfully, somehow resisting the urge to punch the brat in the face, and melted into the shadows.
This could, potentially, be dangerous if the end of the tunnel had been completely blocked by stones, but the prince had called him a liar; insisted that he couldn't use the shadows. He had to prove him wrong.
Axel stopped after only a few small steps, looking through the shadows, willing them to show him just a little of the place he would step out into. There was a small amount of light, and, thankfully, the tunnel.
Axel stepped from the shadows.
"Amateur!" Rubin's voice, though weakened, caught him immediately. "Couldn't bear to stay away from me, could you?"
Axel looked down at the assassin - who was slumped against the wall of the tunnel with his right leg and arm both bloodied, and the arm twisted awkwardly, but other than that, Rubin seemed fine. "The prince," Rubin coughed. "He okay?"
"Yes," Axel replied coldly. "But you look pathetic, assassin."
"I look heroic," Rubin insisted. "And Shadow?"
"Good," Rubin nodded slightly. "I'm glad. Tell Lux to leave me for now. Ask if he can send a few good mages down here to get me, though."
"Lux is trapped as well. I'm tempted to leave you both down here, and tell Vipera you were killed," Axel mused.
"Don't you dare," Rubin growled. The silvery blue light of the flickering glowstones made the rubies in his mask seem like gems of cold fire as he turned his head to face Axel.
"Oh? Then you're suggesting I remain here with you both? Why should I waste my time on humans, assassin?"
"Because we're both worth saving," Rubin stated. "But this was a trap. They collapsed the tunnel on us deliberately. There wasn't a target here. The guards in the entrance must have been decoys, stupid mercenaries who didn't realise they were being used."
Axel snorted. "You're a hypocrite, assassin. You yourself are more foolish than the mercenaries. You've just dragged your leader down into a trap."
"I'm aware, amateur. But why'd you even come to see if I was alive?"
"Because the prince told me that I couldn't."
Rubin laughed at this, and did so until his laughter turned into a coughing fit. "You're so easy to use, amateur," he mocked him. "The only reason the prince said that is because he wanted to check if I was alive or not."
Axel growled. "You're lying, assassin."
"You're stupid, amateur, but that's not the point. Somebody wants to kill us."
"I gathered that," Axel snarled irritably. "Get to the point. I do not believe you're worth saving. Why is it that you think you are?"
Rubin laughed. "I'm handsome, Lux is a prince, it'd be fun, we both have money."
"I care not for status, or money, and you're ugly. I think I'll be leaving, now."
"Wait!" Rubin called out. "You'd also be proving a point to Vipera. I bet she couldn't do any of this. So figure it out by yourself, without getting her involved, and see if you can do it. Or are you too weak, amateur?"
Axel emitted a deep growl. "I'm not an amateur."
"Then get us out. But I'm sure you won't, because you're too weak, too scared that you'll fail. You might have powers, but beneath them, beneath your tough, cold exterior, you're just a coward. You're not even an amateur. You're worse."
Unable to restrain himself, Axel stalked towards the assassin, eyes narrowed. These stupid, stupid humans, always believing themselves better than monsters.
He would prove Rubin wrong. As much as he wanted to leave him here to rot, he would prove him wrong, show him that the only amateur here was him.
"Shadow and I will free you. Without the help of Vipera, or any other," he agreed. Fury danced within his eyes; the light of the glowstones made the shadows dance around him and giving him the appearance of a demon.
With that, Axel stepped back into the shadows.
Rubin was left to laugh alone in the tunnel. He truly was an amateur. With even the slightest provocation, he could be used, like a puppet on strings.
Yes, a puppet on strings - strings of pride, fury, arrogance. That, Rubin decided, was a nice way to put it.