"He said it, assassin, whether you like it or not."
"Just because you're jealous of him," Rubin retorted. "But he wouldn't sell us out, amateur."
Axel snorted. "Jealous?"
"Obviously," Rubin replied. "He spends so much of his time with me, and I'm practically a god."
"A god?" Axel echoed. "You're just being stupid, assassin. He told her what we said. He recommended that she leave the castle. He's a spy. When are you going to get your stupid head around that?"
The assassin folded his arms over his chest. "If she leaves, that makes our job easier. It means she gets away, but with Lux so weakened, we really needed him to tell her that." Rubin smirked. "Looks like you're just being stupid, and Krig's not betraying us like you thought."
Axel narrowed his eyes. Krig was a spy; what didn't Rubin understand? Was it the feeling that he was a good ally? A powerful fighter? Whatever it was, the assassin was being more foolish than usual. He wasn't the stupid one. Rubin was.
"Stupid?" Axel spat. "He might get us all killed, and you think I'm stupid?"
"Krig won't betray us," Rubin declared confidently. "And I don't care what any of you say. He's loyal, got it?"
"Rubin, with all due respect, Ax- Silver has a point. As much as I'd love to believe you, I think we need to keep an eye on him, at least. Pretend we know nothing about his conversation with Vipera, and we'll just watch him carefully to make sure he won't turn against us. Does that sound fair?"
Axel scowled, and Rubin shook his head.
"Fine. I'll go along with it, but don't expect me to doubt him."
"Very well, Lux, but if it so much as looks as if he's going to turn against us, I'll kill him."
Rubin snorted incredulously. "He won't do that."
Axel glared at the assassin. Why was he acting so differently? "I thought you were loyal to money, and money only?"
"Of course, but Krig's a good ally," Rubin shrugged. "Besides, are you all ready? He'll be back soon, and then we'll be storming the castle."
Shooting him one last look of disdain, Axel turned away, scoffing. He was going to protect Lux and Skala, whether the rest of them trusted Krig or not.
"Let us in!" Lux ordered. Instantly, they surrounded him in a protective ring. If one of Vipera's loyalists had been stationed at the doors before she left, they'd probably have to burn down the doors. Which, as Rubin had put it, would be annoying, as they'd be the ones paying for the maintenance.
The doors were slowly pushed open, and Axel unsheathed his knife, willing the darkness to dance along the blade and extend forwards. Skala, he noticed, had fire in her palms.
The relieved cry rang through the air as three of the Golden Flame rushed out, bowing before Lux.
"We thought you'd been kidnapped," the first breathed. "What happened?"
Lux smiled gently at him. "I'll explain soon. First, we need to get a meeting organised. Could you get everybody in the main hall for twenty minutes? Oh, and could you ask a few stable hands to take care of our mounts?"
"Of course!" the first nodded, his face a beacon of joy. Thanking him, Lux headed inside, surrounded by the two dark mages, the assassin and the spy. Senses alert. Magic ready. If anybody so much as tried to hurt the prince, Axel would kill them.
"So far, so good," Rubin said cheerfully, pushing open the next set of doors. The three loyalists scurried ahead, eager to do as their master bid them. How could they simply follow the orders of somebody with such dedication, expressing no control for themselves? Could every mundane human really be content with that?
"We've only just got in," Axel snorted.
Instantly, Axel was springing upon their ambusher, twisting her arms behind her back and pinning her against the wall.
"What the hell are you doing?" he growled.
"You'll never win. Vipera will kill you all. Lux- Lux will fall!"
She tried violently to escape, but Axel fought against her efforts, struggling to keep her there. Krig appeared by his side quickly, taking over the job of forcing down the woman.
"Go back and tell your precious mistress that she's wrong. We're going to win, not you and your pathetic little Vipera. Understood?" Rubin laughed carelessly.
The woman struggled again, but Krig's grip was too strong.
"Never," she growled, but ran off anyway as the spy released her.
"Coward," Axel muttered, watching the woman flee back the way she'd come.
"Not everybody's amazing like me, amateur," Rubin told him helpfully, slinging an arm around his shoulder. Ignoring him as best he could, Axel shrugged him off, continuing to head through the castle, his cloak sweeping around him. The rest started moving, with Lux striding proudly in their midst.
Was it hurting him, to pretend he was so strong? The wounds were probably still stinging violently; to walk with such a powerful stride was probably tearing him with agony as they swept beneath the stone ceilings. Axel took note of the remaining specks of blood; the crimson edge to a few of the tapestries. Only a few days ago, this place had been a battlefield: he, Rubin and Skala against all of Vipera's puppets.
They entered the hall, and people instantly started to flock them, joy spilling from their features in waves of relief. They were curious, too. Vipera had told them that these people had kidnapped their prince; why were they now his escorts?
"I shall explain everything to you all in a few minutes," Lux reassured them. "But please, until everybody is gathered, take a seat and wait as calmly as possible."
They obeyed him without thought. There was, of course, something enchanting about the prince, but to follow him to such a degree? Humans really were the sheep he'd always known them to be - even criminals such as those before him.
Without so much as looking at them, Axel pushed a way through for Lux, heading towards the raised dais at the end of the hall. Lux's throne had evidently been polished in his absence. The gold plating still gleamed defiantly, perfectly matching the colour of his eyes. As he sat, the red velvet cushions beneath him parted gently. He didn't look quite so princely as he usually did; Rubin had simply had to steal red and white clothing from the most expensive tailoring shop he knew of. The cloak, although deep and eye-catching in colour, did not bear his family's coat of arms; the red, white and gold garb beneath had not been made particularly for him, and so did not seem quite as regal as usual.
Slowly, the room filled with other criminals, all of them grinning and laughing at the sight of their prince safely returned. Did any of them know about Vipera, yet? Did any of them know that the woman they'd all trusted had been working for the royal family?
Probably not, he decided. They were likely all oblivious to her betrayal, but Lux wasn't turning his back, and it was he they followed, not the serpentine woman with her spiteful eyes and beautiful deadliness.
The last of the criminals filed into the hall, cheering as they saw Lux, and took their seats.
Rubin stepped forwards, and started to speak.
"As you were all probably aware, our prince has not been here for the last three days. Vipera told you he was kidnapped." He paused dramatically, before continuing. "Vipera has also left you for the royal family. Not the rightful royal family. Not Lux Arsenio, but the Tarns. The so called leaders of this world. The tyrants we all have pledged to overthrow."
He was, Axel realised, surprisingly talented at speaking. Whispers erupted from the lips of criminals, filling the hall with the low hissing of the Golden Flame as they absorbed the news. Disbelief. Refusal to believe the assassin.
"It's true," Lux declared, pushing himself elegantly from the throne and walking to the front of the dais. "For three days, I've been hiding away from her and her loyalists, recovering with the help of a highly skilled healing mage." He held out his right arm, drawing back the sleeve and holding up his arm for the criminals to see. Scars traced his flesh, the smaller wounds now white lines jagging across his skin, others red and still healing.
"This is what she ordered one of her loyalists to do to me. But not just my arm, my whole body. I promise you all that Vipera is not a Knight of the Golden Flame as she claims to be."
For a moment, they were shocked into silence, before one of them stood, loudly declaring that he'd kill the woman. Others took up the call, throwing themselves to their feet in an angered rally.
Axel glanced to Skala briefly, before pushing past both the prince and the assassin.
He faced the criminals.
Started to speak.
"It doesn't matter who kills Vipera," he told them, his cold, emotionless voice ringing through the hall. They quietened to hear him. "It really doesn't matter, so long as we crush her and those she follows, and we take the throne for Lux." He paused. "But, if we're all deciding who gets to wrench the blade through her stupid little heart, then I'd like to see any of you do so better than me."
Rubin sniggered, but the rest of them silenced beneath his silver gaze.
"We will strike them soon," Lux declared. "We will hit them with all our force, and, when we do, they will crumble."
"How can we fight against them?" one of the criminals asked. It was a good question for such a foolish human.
"Do you not believe in our strength?" Axel scoffed. "If you're really so doubtful, then I suggest you listen carefully. My name is Axel, and I am a monster of the darkness. The shadows that invaded Disan twisted their power into me. Many would call it a curse. I, however, call it a gift. I have destroyed hundreds with the darkness, and will destroy hundreds more in the name of Lux."
Skala stood beside him. "I, too, am a child of darkness. I am Skala, and the dark and the flames bend to my will."
Nodding quickly, Lux looked upon the now-silent hall of people as he strode forwards to stand between the two.
"You have your answer," he told his followers. "Numbers do not matter. We can win, I promise you that! Vipera thinks she is superior to us all. And soon, we are going to prove her wrong!"