Free {Kingdoms of War}

An outlaw, tuned to kill. A shifter, transformed from myth to monster. A prince, denied rightful claim to the throne. An assassin, adapted to survive and to kill. Four monsters, and a common enemy to unite them.

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61. Chapter Sixty

By the time Rubin returned to bring Snow to the window, Lux was awake - just about - and Axel seemed to be drowning in worry. He hardly had the right to worry, when Lux was alive. Breathing. Talking.

"Krig was a hero," he blurted out. Axel whirled around with sharp, questioning eyes; Lux looked up weakly.

"But he-" Rubin held up his hand, glaring at Axel to just shut up. Why couldn't they understand?

"He died to save my worthless life, and told me about the barrier. Which, by the way, is how we won the war. So he gets hero status. Not traitor. Krig was not a traitor."

Axel looked like he wanted to argue. Why? Why couldn't he just drop it?

"Stop looking at me like I'm being stupid," Rubin snapped. "He helped me kill Vipera, and he gave you the information to defeat the royals. So just stop looking at me like... like that."

His words were shaky. He had cried - had actually cried - for Krig. The last time he'd cried was almost too long ago, so far back in the chasm of his past that it would be too painful to remember.

"If you're going to go tell them all that you won," Rubin added sharply, "I suggest you do so now. Snow's waiting on the balcony out the back."

He strode past them, ignoring their questioning eyes. They wanted to know what had happened. He'd tell them later, if he felt well enough to tell them.

Rubin swung himself onto his griffin's back, breathing in a sharp intake of air. Behind him, Axel helped Lux mount Snow, and pulled himself up behind him.

"You got the crown, right?" he asked. Axel nodded, handing it to Lux. "Try not to drop it," Rubin muttered, and spurred his griffin into flight.

Pain. It was all he could feel, as Snow swept over the city. As Lux held the crown above his head, calling out to the Golden Flame that victory was theirs. It didn't feel like victory. Victory was meant to feel sweet and beautiful and glorious. Not like this. Not empty, or hollow, or painful.

He flew beside Lux, trying to watch out for any dangers. His vision was blurry. Besides, the enemy all seemed to have surrendered.

Snow landed in the city square, her talons scratching against the cobbled stone beneath. Rubin guided his own steed down to follow her, and slid from the saddle. Nobody seemed to notice him - a mere broken soldier, yet another one of the victims of this war. He didn't look like anybody special, not with his head down and his mask gone.

He'd never been like this - not in front of so many people. But they weren't looking at him. They were looking at Lux. Ordinary people had started to gather here, crowding around with curiosity, their faces showing a gleam of hope. Hope was stupid. It crushed you completely as it left, and rendered you wounded and shattered.

"You are free from the tyrants of Haven, now!" Lux shouted. "They will never rule over Haven again!"

He raised the crown again, before throwing it to the floor. It clattered.

"Enough of their reign of cruelty!"

A cheer rose up among the city people, as more and more of them flooded into the town square. "Axel?" Lux prompted, and Axel stepped forwards, his darkness engulfing the crown, eating away at it until there was nothing left.

Why did the people all look so happy? It disgusted him, to see the relief and joy on their faces. They didn't know what any of them had been through; they didn't know what he'd been forced to endure.

Tiego moved forwards with the litheness of a tiger. He seemed practically unscathed as he held up the new crown - the crown of gold - for the city people to see.

And then he turned towards Lux, holding the crown carefully in long fingers.

Rubin knew he shouldn't be feeling bitter. Bitter - that Lux would always be the hero, that everybody else would forever simply be forgotten. Maybe Axel and Skala would be remembered. Maybe even him, but not Krig.

Lux bowed his head, and Tiego set the crown upon his white hair, before moving back and kneeling. Rubin watched as the crowds followed his example, each of them dropping to one knee before Lux. He didn't kneel, simply watched as they lowered their heads in respect.

"Rise!" Lux called out to them. "I am not the only one here. So many soldiers have died to ensure this fight is won. Tomorrow, we will prepare their graves. Every one of them deserves recognition equal to my own, for without them I would have failed to attain the throne." Lux paused. "But there is one other hero who has fallen today, one who died to protect a comrade, and one who gave us invaluable information that enabled us to defeat the Tarn family." He met Rubin's eyes, and for a moment, Rubin could not speak, could not form words to thank him enough. "His name was Krig."

 

 

Lux watched as the last stream of people left the hall. Officially, it had been a celebration for the soldiers, but it had been little but mourning. Everybody had lost someone, and they'd only just finished digging the graves.

Only four of them still remained in the hall: he and Axel, sitting at the head table, and then, sitting in the corner, seemingly trapped in silence, Rubin and Skala. He still didn't know how she'd managed to defeat the entire swarm of enemies who'd gone to Vipera's base. The phoenix that had taken down Snow before had been with them, and yet Skala had returned with a single burn - which was nothing against Axel's - and a few scratches.

"Rubin?" Lux called out. Rubin did not raise his head, merely continued to sit at the table, taking another swig of the ale. He'd be listening, even if he didn't acknowledge him.

"I wanted to thank you all, for everything. You've been the ones constantly by my side, dragging me through. And Krig," Lux added. "I know he can't hear me, but I'm going to thank him anyway. He might have made a wrong choice, but... he was a hero, in the end. One of the bravest."

"Thank you," Rubin said quietly. It had been the first thing he'd said all night.

Lux gave up trying to comfort him. He would only end up making things worse - he would have to leave Rubin to Skala. "I'm going to bed, now. I'll see you all tomorrow."

Axel followed him without question as he left the room, a shadow of reassuring presence. Skala and Rubin would probably stay in the hall for a while, still in silence.

"Lux," Axel asked tentatively, "did you see anything... disturbing in Vipera's base?"

He swallowed. Sucked in a breath. "Yes."

They kept walking through the familiar hallways of the old castle. This would be one of the last times he would sleep here. Soon, he'd have to move to Haven's capital, no longer protected by the comfort of this place. It had always been home, to him. Maybe he could come back here, sometimes.

"What did you see?"

For a moment, he didn't answer, simply started to ascend the staircase to his room.

"You don't have to-"

"I'll tell you," Lux promised shakily. "Just let me sit down first."

They climbed the stairs in silence, pausing finally before his door to unlock it.

Lux pushed open the door, locking it behind them both, and moving to sit down on the bed.

"I..." He took a deep breath. "There were bodies. Cut apart. She... She'd been experimenting on them. On real people."

Axel sat beside him, wrapping an arm around him. Leaning against him, Lux continued. "I... I destroyed them," he whispered. "They should have been buried, or cremated, but... But I destroyed them."

"And you were right to do so," Axel told him. "They wouldn't have wanted their bodies to stay there, would they? It was the kindest thing you could have done."

"But-"

"You think they would've wanted to stay there, until they rotted away? You're one of the strongest mages in Haven. I think they'd be happy to end like that, Lux."

If they had been the words of anybody else, anybody but Axel, Lux might not have believed it. But they were so beautiful, so deeply meaningful, that he had no choice but to be pulled into the reassurance of his voice.

"There were shadows, too," he said.

Axel's eyes widened in shock. "Shadows?"

Lux swallowed, nodding. "They were locked up, behind bars of light. They were terrifying."

"And you- They didn't hurt you, did they?" Axel asked urgently. His eyes gleamed in the faint light, concern seeping from them in waves of emotion that touched Lux, calming him slightly.

"No. I had to destroy them with lightning, but what if there are more?" His voice shook as he said the words. "What if they're trying to get to us?"

"Then I'll make sure they don't. I can try shadow-voyaging to Disan to see if there are any there. If there are, then me and Skala will make sure they can never come back here, okay?"

"Could you really do that?" Lux asked. "Shadow-voyage to Disan?"

"I can try," Axel promised him. "They won't touch you, I promise."

Lux smiled, his hand finding Axel's. "You're always there to save me, aren't you?"

"Yes," Axel replied. "But I could say the same to you."

"Always," Lux agreed. For a moment, there was comfortable silence. "Do you still think you're a monster?" Lux asked gently.

"I don't know," Axel said. "There's a part of me that will always be a monster, but I feel more human than I did before. Skala stopped me becoming completely monstrous. I never realised it before, but I suppose you helped me with that. I think you've made me more human than I've ever been since the shadows changed me."

Something in Lux's heart leapt as he said that, and his hand tightened around Axel's. "I'm glad," he said softly. All this time, spent trying to persuade Axel that he was human... It hadn't gone to waste.

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