Axel stepped out of the shadows into the blocked-off tunnel in which Rubin had been residing.
The assassin's arm still looked painfully twisted, and the cut was there despite the salve. His wounded leg didn't look any better, either. Apparently, the prince had escaped far more easily.
Rubin's eyes were barely open, and he glanced up at Axel as he emerged from the darkness.
"More food?" he asked. He was trying to sound strong, Axel realised. Trying - and failing.
"No," Axel replied calmly. "Just this."
With that, he lunged forwards, slamming his fist upon the assassin's head. For a moment, Rubin's eyes widened in shock, then rolled back into his head. Axel knelt, pushing the assassin's limp body over his shoulders. Lux had been terrified. He was not prepared to drag a grown man through the darkness, experiencing the same difficulty of holding up the writhing, terrified body that seemingly was being pulled downwards by the darkness. It would be easier for them both if Rubin was unconscious.
Gritting his teeth, Axel struggled to his feet, standing and readjusting the weight upon his shoulders before willing the shadows to swallow him once more, urging them to allow him back into their realm.
Once more, Axel entered the land of the dark.
Almost instantly, it felt like Rubin's body weighed suddenly so much more, like the shadows were trying to drag him into the pit of never-ending darkness, relentless in their battle for his body. Axel staggered onwards, stumbling every few steps. This, to say the least, had been harder than expected, but if he could prove something to that arrogant little prince...
He focused on walking, simply moving his legs and placing one foot before the other, stepping, stumbling, staggering. His shoulders felt as though they were burning, but it was at least better than carrying the screaming, thrashing prince through. Lux's screams and whimpers hadn't exactly helped him to pass through the darkness, and nor had his weight in this world, or his convulsing or writhing.
Forcing himself forwards, Axel narrowed his eyes, pushing onwards through the dark.
They were almost there.
With a final few steps, Axel burst from the dark, stumbling forwards and tumbling to the ground. Rubin's limp form went sprawling in the dirt before him, but Axel made no attempt to help the unconscious assassin. Skala was by his side in moments, helping him up and checking he was still okay.
"Fine," Axel replied with a shaky breath. "A little tired."
Skala nodded, allowing him to slump against the trunk of a tree in his fatigue.
Breathing deeply, Axel looked briefly over to Lux, who had dragged himself over to the assassin, rolling him over into a more comfortable position. The prince looked somewhat ridiculous in the black cloak - it was evidently too large for him, and seemed to be trying to slip from his shoulders in an attempt of escape. At least he looked like he was warmer, now.
Skala sat beside him, her silver eyes glinting with concern.
"Was it really that difficult?"
Axel nodded. "Yeah. It was like the dark was trying to drag them down and swallow them up or something."
He wondered what it must have been like for Lux. He'd never seen a person scream so much before. Of course, people screamed before they died, but it was a short scream, ended quickly as their life was snatched away. Never a long fit of screams.
Besides, had it really been cold? The prince was still shivering, though much less than a few minutes ago.
Axel almost wanted to know what it felt like, to be trapped within the realm of shadows, but he didn't particularly want to experience unnecessary pain. He'd never seen the point in the deliberate infliction of pain.
It wasn't like he could ever feel like that, anyway. He was the dark's, and the dark was his. It had been like that since Haven's beginning, and Axel doubted that way would end. The dark gave him freedom; he gave it a means to power. It was a beneficial compromise, he thought.
"Should we ride back now?" Lux's voice pulled him from his thoughts, as the prince looked inquiringly down at him. Scowling instantly, Axel pushed himself to his feet, changing the difference of height between them. He hated being looked down upon - especially by these stupid humans.
Though it didn't bother him quite as much when it was Lux. The prince seemed one of the only ones to respect him rather than fear him.
"Very well," Axel replied. "But you've been stuck in a cave for days. Are you sure you're fit enough?"
Lux nodded confidently. "Of course!"
"You also said that you'd be able to bear the darkness. You were reduced to a screaming, kicking wreck."
Lux flinched at his words, but shook his head despite them. "I can ride, Silver. But what about the people who trapped us?"
A vicious gleam entered Axel's eyes, and a smirk pushed its way to his lips. "Those, we shall hunt," Axel replied. "I believe discipline through death is the only lesson we can teach them."
Swallowing, the prince gave a slight nod. "Where are the griffins?"
"Follow me. Shadow, can you carry the assassin?"
Skala nodded, tossing Rubin over her shoulder.
Axel set off, with the other two tailing behind. "I'm amazed you can carry him, Shadow," he heard Lux murmur to his friend.
"We're monsters," Axel called over his shoulder. "Of course she can carry him!"
They fell silent, and the primary sound was made by Skala's footsteps as she carried Rubin through the forest.
It was Lux who spoke again.
"How is Snow?"
"The phoenix?" Axel asked.
"Yes," Lux confirmed, slowly. "You promised you'd check she was okay."
"She's fine," Axel replied. "You seem to care a great deal for her." He remembered, vaguely, the intense blue of the animal's eyes when he'd visited her a few days ago, as though she was demanding the safe return of her master.
"Of course I do!"
Axel shrugged, but did not look back. "It seems unusual for a human to care so much for a mere phoenix."
"She's not just a mere phoenix! She's my friend!"
He snorted incredulously. "A phoenix? Your friend?"
"Yes! She used to belong to my sisters, but they gave her to me before..." Lux faltered as he realised what he was saying, and narrowed his eyes. "It doesn't matter," he said quickly. "She's my friend, whatever you think."
Axel ignored him. Further arguing would be pointless - Lux was foolishly stubborn, after all.
They paused by the side of the river, where Axel had tethered the three griffins, supplying them each day with fresh food. It would have been easier simply to allow them freedom, but Rubin had challenged him: the prince's safe return, in order to gain gloating rights over the foolish woman who had ordered that he bow.
It would be reinvigorating to see the look on her despicable face, Axel decided.
Lux announced that he would fly with Rubin to ensure the assassin's safety, and that Axel and Skala could each ride their own griffin - a concept that Axel found somewhat concerning.
"I'm going to use shadow-voyage," he informed the prince. "It's much quicker."
Lux turned on him with pleading eyes. "Silver, the griffins might fly off if they don't have riders," he said.
Axel sighed. "Fine," he growled. "But don't expect me to do this again."
By the time they arrived back at the Golden Flame castle, dawn had already passed, and the sky was a dull, gloomy grey. To make matters worse, it appeared that the griffin despised flying in strong winds - it seemed as though his mount had been tossed about more easily than the others.
When Axel dismounted, his knuckles were white with the effort of gripping the saddle so tightly; his jaw was stiff from being permanently clenched during the flight. If something like that ever happened again, the griffin could fly off for all he cared. He wouldn't be enduring that even once more.
And now, he, Skala and Lux were stood before Vipera. Rubin had escaped to the medical bay - the three of them had not been so lucky.
"My Prince, I understand you were trapped in an underground tunnel. We must make it priority to find those who trapped you, and destroy them immediately."
"Yes," Lux nodded.
"And Silver, Shadow, you both freed Rubin and our Prince from the tunnel?"
"Indeed we did," Axel replied smugly.
"You should have saved him sooner," she growled. "Five days. Five days, you kept your Prince within the walls of a tunnel. Your duty is to him. You should have freed him sooner!"
Axel glared at her. She should be thanking them, not simply addressing them as though they were no more than dirt. A lowly human - speaking to them as though she knew better.
"Vipera, they saved me! Without them, I would be dead!" Lux protested.
"Their duty is to you, my Prince. They should have done everything in their power to free you, and they should have done so more quickly."
"Vipera!" the prince snapped. Axel glanced lazily to him. It was unusual for the smaller to become so irritated at such a small phrase, though it had, apparently, had the desired effect upon the human fool. She stuttered for a moment, before swallowing, bowing her head resentfully.
"Tomorrow, I shall be joining Silver and Shadow in hunting down those who trapped us," Lux told her. His voice had reverted back to being soft again, and the gold of his eyes had calmed considerably.
"Aren't you meant to obey your precious little prince, human?" Axel sneered. "If he says he's going to join us in slaughtering the fools who assumed us weak, then you must abide by that decision, must you not?"
Vipera glared at him, and Axel met her gaze with cool, relaxed eyes. Finally, she grit her teeth, giving a slight nod.
"Very well," she muttered irritably.
"Much better," Axel smirked, turning to leave the room. The cloak - returned to him after the flight - swirled about his body as he strode from the woman's office. Skala followed, leaving the prince alone with the woman.