Snow swept low to the ground, her wings brushing the treetops as she soared above them. Every once in a while, she would get too far ahead of the others on their griffins, and Lux would have to slow her down a little.
On the horizon, the city was starting to become visible, the turrets of the castle rising above the ocean of trees. Axel narrowed his eyes. He wouldn't fail either of them. Skala and Lux were both going to make it through, and so was he. There was no way he was allowing Vipera to triumph over him.
A shudder ran through Lux's body, and Axel set a hand on his shoulder, trying to reassure him. Any words would be stolen by the wind, but he refused to simply allow Lux to go into a battle trembling and terrified.
Not an option.
Axel flexed his muscles, his heart speeding up. Before, he had fought only small battles - no more than swift, one-sided massacres between he and the humans. Now, he was going into war - and he had people to protect. Lux. Skala.
Another deep breath. Slowly, he withdrew his hand, and Lux nodded to show his gratitude.
Snow started to rise above the vast sea of trees, her wings catching the golden light of the rising sun as she led the charge to the castle. So far, so good. Axel could see no signs of any scouts or movement up ahead. If they were going to attack, then now would be a good time to ready the everflames.
Lux put his left arm high above his head, signalling for the griffins carrying the everflames to dart forwards. Only the quickest had been chosen for this task - they would sweep towards the castle, dropping the everflames upon any guards, destroying all of the castle's aerial defences in one powerful strike. Then the others would advance, completing the charge.
Trying to calm himself, Axel watched as the griffins overtook Snow, and glanced behind them to see that all the others were slowing down. Ahead, the first wave of attackers swept towards the castle. Now, Axel was beginning to see the city in all its splendour. The rising sun cast a golden glow upon the bricks of the stone wall that encircled the settlement; rays of sun flashed out from behind the castle. It was human nature to look towards the rising sun - people had that habit of looking into the light rather than the dark. Not so many would cast their eyes to the approaching attackers as they rose from the forest, striking straight at the city.
And for any who noticed, it would already be too late.
The griffins finally reached the city, casting shadows beneath them as their riders steered them towards the castle.
That was when everything went wrong.
Flames flashed suddenly through his eyes, and his arm snapped up to shield his eyes from the light. When he looked again, the first wave of griffins was falling apart, the creatures plummeting from the sky.
He swore frantically as Snow sped up, her wings beating rapidly. Had some of the everflames exploded? Had one of the riders sparked one of them by accident?
The rest of the Golden Flame followed as quickly as they could, but Axel's mind was with the everflames. How? Why?
Snow shot over the city wall, heading straight towards their fallen comrades. The ground beneath them was scorched, incinerated completely into ashes. As they got closer, Axel could make out the details of the marred corpses - the completely blackened flesh, the odorous stench of burnt blood and burnt skin and burnt feathers.
It was only at the last second that Snow threw herself rapidly to the side, and Axel saw suddenly the shapes beneath them, launching upwards; the shapes around them, risen in the confusion.
One word went through his mind as the phoenix spun wildly aside, and the screams of the Golden Flame filled his ears.
Griffins descended upon them like a swarm of lightning bolts preying upon defenceless insects. The sheer numbers of the enemy overwhelmed them almost instantly, and Axel felt the claws of fear running through him, tearing relentlessly at his chest.
And there was only one thing to do when fear was attacking. To strike back.
Darkness raced through his arms, forming orbs of deadly energy in each hand. He flicked his wrists, sending the orbs all around him. Feathers. Blood. Screams. The air was filled with it all, and Snow spun again, narrowly evading death as she beat her wings, forming a storm of ice, snow and mist before her. The tempest of ice took down at least five before fading away.
And then - Skala's scream. Sudden movement.
Before he could react, she was pushing herself up in the saddle, throwing herself above him, blocking something.
"SKALA!" His scream pierced the air as darkness spilled from his hands, striking everything around them. For a moment, for one swift, agonising moment, he took her body in his arms, his fingers at her neck, desperately praying for a pulse.
Nothing. Nothing. And suddenly, a pulse. Faint, weak, struggling, but it was there, and oh gods, Skala was breathing!
"We have to retreat!" Axel screamed to Lux. "They're overpowering us!"
Suddenly, they were falling as something slammed into Snow, forcing her downwards. Lux was screaming her name, lightning sparking from his fingers, but the shadow above them was already sweeping out of range. It was only then that Axel caught the sheer monstrosity of its wings, the size of its powerful body as it circled, taking down another two of their griffins.
It circled again, descending upon Snow once more, taking advantage of her struggle to keep airborne, talons sinking into her hide and pushing her to the ground.
"Keep it alive!"
Someone's voice rung through the sky as Snow hit the ground, Axel holding Skala's limp body to his own. Lux gasped as they collided with the buildings below. Everything was blurry, spinning, sickeningly dizzying.
"Lux!" he gasped, as the prince screamed Snow's name, again and again. Axel clasped Skala to his chest with one arm, grabbing Lux and dragging him from the saddle with the other. Everything - burning.
The Golden Flame - dying, fleeing, dead.
Gasping for breath, Axel pulled Lux and Skala into one of the barely surviving buildings, hiding within the ruins. All around them, screams and roars and screeches. Beside him, Lux's sobbing.
"We have to get out!" Axel hissed. Lux looked up at him mournfully, his golden eyes brimming with tears.
"Snow," he managed to whisper, before breaking down into another strangled sob.
Something landed beside them, and it was only the assassin's familiar voice that stopped him from destroying the griffin on the spot.
"Lux, get on!" he commanded, swinging himself from the griffin's saddle to grab Lux's wrist. "Axel, take her through the shadows."
"You're never going to make it out alive!" Axel shouted back. A crazed, insane thought ran through his mind. Suicidal, yes, but if it meant Skala and Lux escaping, he would do it.
The fear closed its fingers around his heart, but he needed to save them.
"I'll distract them. Keep low, get out."
"You're going to die." Rubin was deadly serious.
"I'm aware. Tell Skala I'm sorry. Tell her-" Axel was interrupted by his own choked voice. "Tell her I said goodbye."
Lux grabbed at his arm, tears streaking down his cheeks.
"You promised me Axel, you promised me! You can't die!" he screamed. Axel took a deep, ragged breath.
"I'm going to do it, Lux."
"No! I'll distract them!"
He shook his head, trying to block out the surrounding screams. "You need to find the survivors. Gather them, and win this. I know you can do it."
"No!" Lux shouted, pummelling his fists against Axel's chest. "Not without you!"
Axel pulled Lux against him, and for just a second, he could block out the screams and feel Lux's beating heart against his own; he could breathe in the familiar scent; he could feel Lux's warmth in his arms.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, and struck out before Lux could react, his fist slamming into the prince's stomach.
A single tear rolled down Axel's cheek, falling onto Lux's bloodied face as he collapsed into the dark mage's arms, eyes rolling into his head.
"Don't let them die, assassin," Axel growled. "Promise me that."
"I promise you," Rubin replied. "I promise that I will not allow either of them to die, Axel."
He gathered Lux in his arms, passing him to Rubin, then lifted Skala from the ground. Rubin swung himself onto the griffin's back, setting both of them in front of him, securing them to the saddle.
"When you see the darkness, get them out," Axel ordered. Rubin nodded, and Axel turned around.
"Tell Lux," Axel murmured, barely audible. "Tell him that he was the only person I ever loved. And tell Skala that she was the greatest friend I've ever had."
With that, he turned, and he charged, out into the open, darkness spinning around him and blackening the sky as it flurried upwards, a pinnacle of taunting madness, daring them to find him.
Behind him, Axel caught a glimpse of Rubin's griffin slip away, and a shudder of relief reverberated through his body.
The phoenix circled, then dived towards him. Axel directed his darkness straight towards the monster. If he was going down, then the phoenix was going down with him.