Below them, nestled within the valley and concealed within the forest, was a castle. It had four stone turrets, and appeared to be based on one of the early castles from Disan. Moss climbed up the walls, giving it a coating of emerald that gave it the appearance of an abandoned stronghold. There were no evident signs that humans had even entered; the castle's exterior had been left to the elements.
No doubt the interior would be a great deal more extravagant.
"That's it?" Axel muttered. "You operate from a castle?"
"Yup!" Rubin said proudly. "It was abandoned a few years ago. One of the barons used to use it, but they died tragically, as did the others living there."
"And how many people know of its existence?" Axel asked, not even bothering to ask of the 'tragic deaths'.
"Not many. Most recruits have to spend ages proving their loyalty before they're allowed to know where it is."
He raised a dubious eyebrow.
"Then how come we're allowed in?"
Rubin turned his head, flashing Axel a grin. "I persuaded my boss to let you join. By the way, don't annoy her, or she'll kill you or kick you out or something like that."
"I'll do whatever I want," Axel argued. "And your boss won't stop me."
"Yeah, well, try not to be too rebellious, amateur, or she'll kill me." How that was an incentive to not be rebellious, Axel didn't know, but he ignored Rubin all the same. And then, just to prove his superiority,
"If you don't want to show people your face, then why are you about to walk into a building full of humans without your mask?"
"Good call, amateur! Thanks!" Rubin laughed over his shoulder, equipping his mask once more as the griffin swooped in to land.
The creature reached the overgrown path to the castle, wings beating in powerful sweeps as its claws dug into the ground. Finally, it folded its wings, and Axel swung himself out of the saddle, glad to finally be free of Rubin. Spending the duration of a three hour flight sitting right behind the assassin had not been pleasant, to say the least. The only time he would ever optionally go that near a human would be to kill them.
Skala's griffin landed beside Rubin's, and she dismounted, quickly taking her place at Axel's side.
"Ready?" Rubin asked.
"After spending such a long flight with you, I'm ready for anything," Axel muttered irritably.
"Did I blow your mind that much, then?" Rubin laughed, stepping up the the doors and knocking three times, pausing, before knocking rapidly twice. "Let me in, or we'll explode the door or something!" he demanded almost merrily.
Slowly, the heavy oak doors creaked open, the hinges groaning with the effort.
Axel's first impression: gold and red.
A red carpet lined the stone floor of the entrance hall; tapestries of gold and red hung proudly from the walls, depicting battles and feasts. Arsenio flags were strung up everywhere, and Axel realised suddenly: the tapestries boasted of the victories claimed by the previous generations of the Arsenio family.
The royal family that had controlled Disan - the world lost to shadows.
What connection did this gang have with the Arsenios?
"Impressed?" Rubin asked smugly.
"It has nice upkeep, I suppose," Axel replied smoothly, refusing to act awed by anything Rubin showed him.
"Agreed. Now, let's go find my boss, and she can give you the welcoming speech and lecture you and stuff. Oh, and by the way, my boss isn't our actual leader, she's just one of his most trusted workers."
Axel nodded, deeming Rubin's comment unnecessary to reply to.
The two men stationed at the doors started to close them, but Rubin turned around, ordering,
"Go get somebody to take the griffins to the stables. They've been flying a long time."
One of the guards opened his mouth to protest, but Rubin simply unsheathed a knife, rolling it between his fingers.
"Well?" he asked casually.
"Yes, sir," the guard said finally, irritation setting his jaw into a firm line. Apparently, Rubin was feared in this particular criminal gang.
They followed the assassin through the hall, and he took the door on the left of the gold plated throne that sat at the end of the massive room. Together, they made their way along a few of the castle's corridors, and Axel couldn't help but admire the detail on the tapestries that hung from the walls.
"Here we are! My boss is right at the top of this turret," Rubin announced, gesturing to a spiral staircase. "She's got magic, but it's one of a kind. She can manipulate things, like giving rope the ability to stop somebody using their magic."
"I've never heard of something such as that before," Axel said, pushing past and heading upwards. "But I'm sure it's a great deal more interesting than you."
"You kidding? I'm the most interesting - and attractive - person here." If Rubin's superior was as irritating as him, he would be physically incapable of remaining here. If she was even more so, then there would be bloodshed.
They passed another man on the stairs. He looked at them almost strangely, then swallowed and pressed himself against the wall as he saw Rubin. What was so terrifying about the man with the crimson mask? He was merely a jester. A fast, but foolish, assassin.
"Why are they all so afraid of you?" Axel snorted. "It's not like you're much to fear."
"They're not afraid, amateur," Rubin replied knowingly. "They're positively terrified."
"Then they're pathetic cowards," Axel retorted calmly, increasing his speed. At least he should be trusted to complete assignments without Rubin, now. Anything else would be loathsome.
Axel stopped on the final floor. Any higher, and they'd be on the very top of the turret, exposed to the outside world. Rubin swept past him, quickly removing his mask as he knocked on the gold-plated door to the room inside. For them to possess so much gold, the gang would need many assassins like Rubin - skilled, adept, capable. He wondered how many missions and thefts it had taken them before they had finally managed to glorify the interior of the castle to such a high extent.
"Come in," a sharp voice ordered from within. Rubin swung open the door, gesturing for Axel and Skala to go inside. They walked through, and Rubin shut the door behind them.
Inside, it seemed to be relatively small - the circular room, after all, was only the size of the turret. Several weapons of all varieties had been displayed on the wall behind the woman, and her large, mahogany desk was neatly organised with slips of parchment and orderly stacks of gold coins.
And then - the woman herself.
She sat in an almost regal manner on a red-brown chair with velvet cushions of a deep scarlet. She had the same bronzed skin as Rubin, though her emerald eyes were far more serpentine, far more intense. A scar ran down across her left eye. It was a wonder she still had a left eye to see with - the wound must have been shallow if she could still see from both eyes.
"You're the new recruits?" she asked.
"Indeed," Axel replied. "And you are?"
"Vipera," she replied smoothly. Her face seemed set in a permanent scowl, though at least she was more bearable than Rubin. "I assume Rubin has informed you that, should you try to betray us or do something foolish such as leaving with our secrets, we will kill you."
Axel turned to glare at Rubin.
"You didn't inform me that I would be killed if I leave."
Vipera's harsh gaze turned to Rubin. "I told you to warn him, fool," she hissed. "I will have words with you tonight." And then, to Axel and Skala, "Consider yourself warned. Try to leave now, and you will be destroyed."
"If we wish to leave," Axel growled, "Then we will, and you won't be able to stop us."
"Oh? I wouldn't try, boy."
"I am no child. And we will try if we find that the work is dull and bores us. We will do as we please."
Vipera's eyes narrowed. "Continue thinking that way, and you'll likely end up dead. Moving on, you shall be given a welcoming ceremony at midnight tonight."
Rubin stepped forwards. "I didn't get a welcoming ceremony!" he protested. "How come he gets one?"
Vipera didn't even look at him. Finally - somebody here who didn't fear the idiot.
"He's stronger than you; you told me so yourself."
Rubin glanced somewhat apprehensively at Axel, who returned the look with a smirk. "Is that so?" he asked Vipera.
"Yes. Your point?"
"Oh, it's nothing much," Axel said smugly. Rubin, for once, seemed to have nothing to say.
"Moving on, the ceremony was not my idea, but it seems as though it must go ahead anyway. I believe our leader sees you both as valuable assets, and you shall be treated as such. What are your names?"
Axel merely shrugged. "I don't see the point in telling you."
Vipera glared at him. "You will tell me," she hissed.
"No," Axel replied. "I don't believe I will."
For a long few seconds, the two glared at each other, eyes piercing shards of willpower into the other's soul. Eventually, it was Rubin who cut in.
"Just call him amateur," he said, finally finding the opportunity to return Axel's smirk.
"Very well," Vipera nodded. "From now on, boy, you shall be known as Amateur. Unless, of course, you would like to submit a name."
Axel glared at Rubin, before turning his head back to Vipera and glowering at her.
"Then call me Silver, if you must."
Axel glanced to Skala. "Call her Shadow, then," he said. "Now, are we done here?"
Vipera nodded. "Yes. Rubin, do not forget, I shall speak to you after the ceremony. Understood?"
"Understood!" he replied, apparently oblivious to the fact that Vipera was going to scold him.
Axel turned around, no longer needed, and left the room.
He's stronger than you. You told me so yourself. The upcoming tour, Axel thought victoriously, could certainly prove interesting.