His eyes flickered open. Adjusted to the dark. Teared up.
At first, it was only sorrow: a wave of agony, smashing upon his shoulders in a swarm of inescapable terror. Pain lanced through his limbs with ruthless ferocity; sobs shook his body. But he didn't care. The warmth of Axel's arms, the warmth of his voice, it was all gone now, so heartbreakingly distant and faraway.
Lux threw himself from the blankets, filled with a sudden desire to find him, to bring back his reassuring presence, to hear his voice again. Everything - hurting. His heart, his mind, his head, his stomach, but none of it mattered any more, because the only thing that mattered was Axel, and he had to save him, and-
Wearily, he turned. Rubin stood behind him, fingers clasped around Lux's wrist.
"Let go of me," Lux begged. "We have to find him, Rubin, please, we have to-"
"Axel is dead."
For a moment, Lux could not breathe, was drowning too far in the anguish as the words punctured into his chest.
"No," he whispered. "No. He's not."
Slowly, Rubin released his grip, but Lux couldn't move. "You're lying," he managed to choke out.
"He- He told me to tell you that you were-"
"Shut up!" Lux screamed. "He can tell me, when we find him!"
Rubin shook his head, and Lux gasped for breath. Staggering. Falling. Rubin steadied him.
"Lux, please, you have to listen. I saw it."
"Saw what?" Rubin spun around to face Skala, and the intensity of her silver eyes, for one moment, reminded him of Axel, and then the dizziness was returning again, and he was trying to breathe.
"Axel," Rubin managed, faltering. Lux struggled for air. "He... He went down saving us."
"He's not dead."
"I would know!" she snarled back. "He's alive. We can save him." Her words dragged him from the endless ocean of pain, saving him from drowning. Still there were the remnants of misery in his lungs, but there was a chance. And a chance was good enough. It had to be.
"I saw him-"
"Did you see him die? Or just go down? He's stronger than you think," Skala spat. Rubin swallowed.
"So you want us to attack the strongest force in Haven on the chance he's alive?"
"No. I'm going alone. He needs help now, and I'm not waiting for either of you to get there," Skala informed him, already stepping back towards the nearest shadows. Lux grasped her arm.
"I'll go. I'll go through the darkness."
Skala nodded, and Rubin stepped forwards.
"I'll come, too. I'm the one who left him. If you can't drag me through the darkness, leave me behind," Rubin said.
"If you were to come and get left," Skala warned, "You would die alone, in darkness."
Rubin produced a jewel from his pocket. "Not completely alone," he told her. "Now, let's go."
Skala shook her head. "I can't pull both of you through. You would die if you came as well. I'm sorry, Rubin, but I'm taking Lux."
The assassin bit his lip, but succumbed. Sighing, he nodded weakly. "Very well. Make sure he comes back, Skala."
"All three of us," she promised. Skala clasped his wrist, and together, they descended into darkness.
The cold. The terror. The weight. All of it hit him at once, and the sensation of drowning struck him. Lux gasped for air, but the cold sucked it from his body with fingers of heartless fear. Skala pulled him through it, somehow keeping him upright as he flailed helplessly, already sinking downwards. Fear sparked through his body, and he screamed out.
"Do it for Axel!" He was sure he could hear Skala's voice, a distant echo, reminding him of the reason he had to get through this, had to fight it away as best as he could. Pushing through, Lux narrowed his eyes. Axel. He had to get through this - for Axel!
Tightening his grip on Skala's wrist, Lux fought through, each step like dragging his feet through iron. He couldn't - wouldn't - give in! Lux stumbled. Forced himself up again. Kept walking. Don't succumb, he told himself, battling with the terror that clawed at his mind. Don't succumb, don't succumb...
"We're nearly there!" Skala encouraged, her voice echoing through the empty void of blackness. Lux clung to that hope as they pushed through the final steps of the journey, repeating the words in his mind as he forced himself through the dark.
And suddenly, warmth. Lux collapsed to the floor, sucking in breaths of warm, comforting air, welcoming the sensation of weightlessness. Skala stood above him.
Lux pushed himself weakly to his feet, nodding. "Ready."
"Wonderful," Skala replied. "Stand back."
Axel woke up wrapped in chains.
At first, he could do nothing but wince as the heat of the chains seared into his flesh. Around him, the room seemed to be spinning; the ground vibrating. He took a deep breath and summoned the darkness energy. Instantly, needles of pain exploded into his skin from the chains, and Axel gasped in shock. What the hell was going on? Thrashing violently against the metal that bound him, Axel tried again, to summon the black magic, and once again, the chains sent bursts of agony into him. Magic resistant chains? He'd never even heard of anything like that before, let alone felt the pain they injected into him.
Where was he? The tiny room was painted completely in white: a small box in which he was the only impurity. Opposite him, a door. No windows. No anything. No escape.
He took another shaky breath. Skala? Lux? If Rubin had failed to protect them, Axel didn't care how many chains he had to force his way through. If somebody had hurt either of them, Axel was going to kill them, and he was going to do it slowly. Painfully. Without mercy.
Something moved from behind the door, and his head snapped up. Eyes glaring.
She looked just as ridiculous as Axel remembered.
A flowing, creaseless cloak of royal green seemed to flow from her shoulders; a uniform of tightly fitting green and white garbed her body. The heels of her black boots clicked against the floor as she entered the room, a smirk on her usually expressionless face.
"How are you finding the accommodation?"
And suddenly he remembered. 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. On the day Rubin had introduced him to Vipera, he'd told him that. Axel's lips curled into a snarl. "Where the hell am I?"
"Beneath the palace. Nobody is going to find you. In fact, we're going to be sending out squads to destroy the rest of the Golden Flame at some point this week, so I'm sure you'd rather be here. Of course," she added, a gleam of malice entering her piercing green eyes, "You're going to watch the execution of the prince. Your other precious friends will already be dead by then, though perhaps we can decorate this cell with their corpses..."
A wave of cold washed over him. "No. They'll fight you."
"And just look how well they did last time."
"We were betrayed," Axel hissed. "Why are you doing this?"
"The Arsenio family failed to keep the portal open for my parents. It's thanks to Lux's family they're dead. You don't know how disgusting it was for me to call Lux my prince," Vipera hissed, and Axel remembered suddenly when Lux had told him about the portal closing right behind her. "Besides, I've always liked to change things. Like that phoenix your precious little prince has always adored. Tomorrow, I'm going to change it into a monster of war."
"She's still alive?"
"That's beside the point. The point is," Vipera said, "I have chosen a side, and I have chosen the side of the winners. The side of the Tarns. The Golden Flame stand no chance."
"They're strong," he hissed. "They'll destroy you."
"I have my own experiments," Vipera replied dismissively. "Such as the fire mage. That little trick with the everflames was his doing. I must say, the explosion looked glorious."
Axel thrashed against the chains, ignoring the pain. She had done this? She had killed them?
"I'll be leaving you, now. Tomorrow, we're going to execute your prince. The day after, I'm going to take you apart to improve my magic."
A roar ripped suddenly through the air, the resounding explosion of noise a welcome song to Axel's ears.
"Hey, Vipera?" he grinned, bathing in the expression of horror that had twisted its way onto her face. "I think you've pissed off my dragon."