The hall had been decorated without restraint - even more than the usual amount of ribbons and flags had been strung to the ceilings. Chairs had been provided for the members of the gang - Axel was yet to discover their organisation's name - and the throne was currently vacant.
It seemed almost like some kind of royal feast, what with the long wooden tables awaiting the platters of food and the golden throne that seemed more than just the chair of a gang leader. Then there were the flags, proudly displaying the Arsenio family's golden and crimson crest: the golden dragon among red flames.
Naturally, there was a downside - the humans.
"Have you seen them? They look really strange."
"Silver eyes? That is weird."
"How come they get a welcoming ceremony? Just because they're better at magic..."
The humans in the hall whispered to each other, no doubt confident that he couldn't hear them. They amused him, with their pathetic little whispers and their confidence in their own security.
"Do me a favour," Rubin muttered in Axel's ear, "And don't kill them just because they don't like you. Vipera would kill me, and then she'd kill you, or, y'know, try to kill you or whatever you tell yourself. Trust me, amateur, things would get ugly."
"Who's the amateur? I'm stronger than you, remember," Axel gloated.
"I know you're too stupid to understand, amateur, since I've already told you this hundreds of times today," Rubin laughed, "But how else was I going to get you in so quickly?"
Axel didn't hesitate to retort. "You're a terrible liar, assassin."
Before Rubin could reply, there was the piercing voice of Vipera, penetrating into the ears of each and every criminal there.
"I welcome you all to this feast," she called out. A long coat of the deepest crimson brushed the floor as she strode confidently into the hall.
"You all may be aware that Prince Lux shall be appearing today to welcome our new recruits, Silver, and Shadow. Please be seated and silent in the presence of your lord. He shall be arriving within the next minute."
Axel shot a quick glance at Skala, wondering if she knew anything of a prince. Who was he? A prince of criminals?
"Oh, sorry, forgot to explain," Rubin said. He was laughing - teasing them. Again. "But our leader is an actual prince. Like, an Arsenio from Disan. Heard of him?"
And suddenly, it started to make sense - why their targets had all, somehow, been connected to the royal family; why there were Arsenio flags lining the walls.
He entered the room.
Axel had expected a leader with a dark hood, perhaps a cowl, tall and foreboding.
He had not, however, been expecting this.
The prince was small, lithe, almost as if he were only twelve, three years beneath Axel. Hair of the purest white stuck out messily from his head, seemingly wild and ungroomed. A crimson cloak hung from his shoulders, and golden armour glinted beneath the light of the torches and chandeliers. He walked proudly, though Axel could tell he was tense as he entered the room.
Not, put simply, the image of a stereotypical prince.
It was, however, his eyes that drew Axel to him. They were gold - pure, dancing, shifting pools of liquid gold. Like a gentler, warmer equivalent to his own or to Skala's.
"This ceremony may be a feast and a welcome to our newest members," Vipera said, taking her place beside Lux's throne, "But it is also an opportunity to remind you of our cause. Of our true strength."
Instantly, Axel understood. The ceremony was equally for the purpose of ensuring the members remained loyal, as it was to gain his faithful recruitment. Then, of course, there was the matter of the feast - well-fed, well-entertained underlings were far easier to control.
"Nine years ago," Vipera started. Her voice was powerful, though somewhat cold. "We were driven from our own world, Disan. It was a beautiful place, a place which the Arsenio family had been successfully ruling for hundreds of years. Some of you are from the capital of this glorious world, and remember the land the Arsenio family enabled Disan to be. It was a time of wealth, prosperity.
"And then the shadows attacked us. They drove the survivors from that world and into this one. No place was spared. The city from which our Prince Lux originated: destroyed. Even the desolate villages of the North were obliterated."
Axel remembered it all. How could he forget? They had thought they'd be safe, nestled within the mountains of the North. But the shadows had taken all.
"Only the resistance organised by the Arsenio family allowed the survivors escape. Only their swift tactics gave people like us a chance to flee to Haven; only their magic combined could open the portal to take us here."
The hall was completely silent. Nobody here, even Rubin, spoke out. They all had lost something in Disan's destruction. It had not, to say the least, been an easy time to survive.
"And how do the people repay the Arsenio family?" Vipera shouted, anger rippling through her voice. "They cast aside their solely surviving son! Do they allow him to rule when he is of age? No! Do they allow him any of the rule his family have successfully held for years? No! Instead, they push him aside and tell him the Tarn family will hold the throne of Haven! They fear him, merely for the colour of his eyes!
"But they will not be victorious over our great Prince Lux. They can try to fight us, but they will lose. We shall reclaim what is rightfully the rule of our saviour and prince, and we shall not show mercy!"
The prince rose from his throne, stepping forwards to join Vipera. Against her, he seemed small, though the other members of the gang cheered as he did so.
"I ask of you, loyal followers, will you help me take Haven?"
His voice was strangely compelling. Quieter than Vipera's, but more enchanting. Softer. Gentler. Axel could see why people followed him.
The crowd rose in a flurry of cheers and shouts.
"They think they can surpass us, but they are wrong! We will crush them, and their treasure; their rule; their land, it all shall belong to us!" Vipera rallied them.
Axel watched with interest, as the criminals laughed and shouted louder, their cries filling the room with noise, and their prince lifted his head in pride.
"I thank you, Knights of Golden Flame!" Lux called to them. Knights of Golden Flame. Axel still remembered the elite band of warriors, sworn to protect the Arsenios. The criminals may be loyal, yes, but knights? Knights were supposed to be just - nothing like Rubin, or he, or Skala.
"Which brings me onto the very purpose of tonight," Lux added, his voice lowering slightly. "We are gathered in welcome of our two newest recruits, Silver and Shadow! They control powerful magic, and will both prove valuable assets. I sincerely hope you all will welcome them as fellow members of the Golden Flame."
Welcome? Humans did not simply welcome them - either of them. Whether it was the spectral skin or the silver eyes, people did not accept him. Lux appeared to be lucky. He had somehow found a place within humanity, despite his freakish eyes, despite his alabaster hair.
But Axel did not want a place within their kind. Humans were foolish creatures; to become one of them would be to defy everything he was.
"Silver, Shadow, please join me," Lux requested. Axel stood silently, walking in confident strides, slowly ascending the steps to the throne. He paused before the prince, sensing Skala at his shoulder.
"I hereby declare you, Silver and Shadow, Knights of the Golden Flame!" With a somewhat shy smile, he took Axel's hand in his delicate fingers, shaking it with a certain firmness, before moving to take Skala's.
It was strange, being a supposed underling to a boy whose eyes were level to his own shoulders. The prince was even more frail-looking from here, but there must have been something besides his voice that urged the entire hall to follow him with such confidence. Why follow a boy? Why not a strong and powerful leader?
He didn't understand humans.
"Kneel," Vipera ordered, "So that he may knight you one of his own."
Axel threw her a lazy sidelong glance.
"I do not kneel to anybody," he said calmly. "And nor does she."
Silence befell the hall, as the other Knights watched on in mingled horror and amazement. Evidently, it was surprising to see such a new recruit already defying orders.
Vipera glared at him, a snakelike hiss emitting from her throat. "You will kneel before your lord," she demanded, once more. "Most are not initiated with such honour; you should be treating the situation with pride!" Axel shrugged.
"Kneeling isn't my thing."
"And tolerance is not mine."
Axel shrugged. He would not submit to these humans, 'honour' or not. Such a weak motion was unthinkable. "And you, prince? What is your opinion? Will you force me to bow? You - a mere child?"
Silence. And then, outraged shouts and screams from the so-called knights behind him.
"Not a child!" Vipera screeched. "He's fourteen!"
"Then you're smaller than I thought," Axel said simply, a slight grin tugging at his lips. He'd never taunted royalty before: it was more entertaining than expected.
"Can the small not be great?" the prince asked, a shy smile appearing on his lips. Axel tilted his head. He wasn't demanding that his followers all attack?
"Please, Knights, calm yourselves!" Lux called. "The newcomers have pride; is that not admirable of them? They are strong of will, and we need such people to help us. If it your wish, I shall not knight you as intended," Lux declared.
Axel nodded once. A prince like Rubin? One immune to irritation? Or was he seething within, simply maintaining an image of control and calm?
"And with that," called out the prince, "let the feast begin!"