Axel deposited the next bag of money on the floor of the vault, waiting for Skala to put down her own chest of gems and gold. As she emerged from the shadows, he picked up another of the empty bags from the floor, ready to fill it with yet more gold and jewels.
"How long do you think it will take them to notice?" she asked. Axel shrugged.
"Hopefully, quite a while." He stepped back into the realm of shadow-voyage, trying to ignore his own exhaustion. After so many trips from the vaults beneath Haven's royal palace, he was drowning with fatigue. But Lux had lasted until he'd collapsed, and Axel owed it to him to at least do this.
Skala seemed fine to any who might just be glancing at her, but he could hear her heavier breathing and he knew her well enough to tell that she, too, was becoming tired. Neither of them had told the other. They didn't have to; they could simply tell, after so many years of comradeship and friendship. She wasn't quite as tired as him, but she'd always been able to harness the dark with more skill than he had. It was something he'd come to accept.
They stepped out of the shadows, emerging once more into the largest vault. Struggling against the urge to simply collapse and sleep, Axel knelt, silently filling his bag with golden pieces and rich jewellery. Haven was rich in precious gems and gold. Unfortunately, the Tarns had taken most of the riches.
"Axel, we should probably take a rest after this."
It was true, but that didn't mean he had to like her suggestion.
"Lux has been working hard. We should-"
"You've never passed out in the shadow-voyage realm before. We don't know what it will do to you, but it probably won't be good," she told him softly. Axel sighed, looking down.
"Very well," he said, after a reluctant pause. Picking up the bag and hefting it over his shoulder, Axel forced his way back into the land of shadow-voyage. The act of doing so almost made his knees buckle, but he struggled through.
He'd never had a side before. Never. But now, he and Skala were on Lux's side, and it felt strangely refreshing. To have a side. To belong, both with Skala and with others.
It might be more work, but it was certainly worth it.
Axel struggled to emerge from the shadows, falling to the floor and gasping for breath as he did. Instantly, Skala was beside him, her arm around his shoulder and her voice soothing him.
Deep breaths. Heaving chest. Skala's voice.
"You okay?" Skala asked him, helping him to stand. He gulped another mouthful of air before nodding.
"I'm fine. Thanks," he said to her.
"Sure? Either way, we need to rest."
"Yeah, but not for long, okay?"
Skala shrugged. "For as long as you need to. We've already stolen half a room of gold. We've probably doubled the amount of gold they have, Axel. I think we both deserve a break. And not just a few minutes, or you'll just end up exhausting yourself again."
"Fine," he sighed. She did, after all, have a point.
"I'm going to get you a drink."
"And soup?" Axel grinned weakly. Skala smiled.
"Yes. And soup."
Axel watched as the remaining Knights of the Golden Flame lined up eagerly to collect their pouches of money.
"Buy whatever you wish with them," Lux had told them. "But ensure it will pull you through the battle."
The prince handed the next pouch of coins over, and the criminal grinned, thanking him and bowing graciously. There were only a few of them left, and Lux greeted each of them politely, wishing them luck. Some, he knew by name, others, he would simply address without title.
Lux handed over the last pouch, and the criminal smiled, thanking him. Then she leapt from the dais, heading from the hall as she'd been told to do.
Just he, Skala, Lux and Rubin.
"Thanks for getting all that money for us," Lux smiled. "I know the Knights are certainly thanking you for it."
Axel shrugged. "We didn't get as much as I would have liked to, but it tired me out too quickly."
Rubin's hearty laugh filled the room as they descended from the dais. "Admitting defeat, amateur?" The rubies in his mask caught the firelight of the torches and braziers, making them gleam almost blood red.
"Defeat? Of course, you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?"
"Obviously," Rubin replied. "It's what happens to my enemies, naturally."
Lux laughed, smiling slightly as they left the room. "Axel, there's no need to be disappointed. You've almost tripled the amount of money we had in just a few hours. You do all that, and you would have liked to do more?" he asked, laughing.
He shrugged again. "I suppose."
"You suppose?" Lux echoed. His voice was brimming with awe.
Rubin sniggered as they left the hall. "He's just trying to impress you, Lux."
"What?" Rubin laughed, the sound reverberating from the stone walls. "It's true, right?"
Axel glared at the assassin, trying as hard as he could to sear through the mask and incinerate the loathsome face beneath. Did Rubin really have to say something like that?
"Shut up, assassin," Axel hissed eventually, sweeping past him. Rubin simply snickered.
"Why? Because I'm telling the truth?"
Axel spun around as Rubin stepped between him and Lux. The prince's face was tinted scarlet as Rubin mocked them, but he held his arms out, and his eyes held a little of their fiery anger.
"Rubin, don't," Lux ordered.
"Of course," Rubin replied, bowing graciously. Gritting his teeth, Axel fought desperately against the urge to simply punch the idiot in the face. How could he say something like that? In front of Lux?
"Go ahead, Rubin. I'll catch up," Lux told him. The assassin seemed to hesitate, before bowing his head in reluctant acknowledgement and heading further along the corridor.
"Axel," Lux started, turning to him. "And Skala. You've both worked so hard today. Rubin's offered to guard my chambers, and you two need rest."
His words were like needles.
"You're picking Rubin over us?" Axel demanded, raising an eyebrow. "And what if Vipera's offered him money to hurt you?"
The prince shook his head. "I don't think-"
"But what if?"
Gently, Skala placed a hand on his shoulder. "Axel, calm down," she told him softly. "You're worrying too much." Axel could feel Lux's eyes skipping to him from Skala. Nervous. Apprehensive.
"Fine," Axel growled. "But let me talk to Rubin first."
He shut Lux up with a glare, and the prince fell obediently into step behind him as they started towards his chambers.
"Calm down, Axel," Skala told him. Her voice soothed him, if only slightly, and he took a deep breath in, breathing out slowly.
"Yeah," he murmured, but didn't slow down. "Yeah, I'll try."
Her presence forced him to relax slightly as she matched his pace to walk beside him. But then it always had been, hadn't it?
"Assassin," Axel called out, catching a glimpse of red and black ahead. "Come back."
Rubin appeared again, and he headed towards them. "Yes, amateur?"
Scowling, Axel put out a hand for the others top stop, and kept walking.
"If he gets so much as a scratch, I'll kill you. Understood?"
Rubin grinned. "You forget," he taunted. "I'm so very much better at this than you... Or did you conveniently forget that?"
Trying to fight the deepening of his scowl, Axel continued to glare at the assassin. "Keep telling yourself that, assassin. Protect him."
The assassin sniggered. "Of course. I'll return him safely so you can get straight back to trying to win his little royal heart again."
"Shut up!" Axel hissed.
"Sure," Rubin shrugged. "But I'm right, aren't I?" Laughing, the assassin waved his hand in dismissal. "Whatever. You know I'm right, but yeah, I'll protect him."
Axel clenched his fists. Glared the assassin in the eye.
"Good," he said eventually, turning around and storming back to Lux and Skala. Don't snap, he told himself. Doing so would only prove that he couldn't control his anger, and he didn't want to give Rubin that advantage.
"Are you okay?" Lux asked hesitantly. Axel nodded.
"Fine. See you tomorrow."
The other nodded, almost nervously. "Yes," he agreed. Axel faded into the shadows, with Skala right behind him.