It took Axel only a moment to analyse the situation. Above the baron stood a figure clad in black, grasping a long, elegant knife that caught the golden light of the candle flickering beside the baron's bed. The assassin - for the shadow could be little else - had faltered, and this could be the only chance to stop him from ending the baron's miserable little life.
Charging forwards, Axel threw himself at the assassin, lunging out with his blade. The killer somehow evaded the strike, but the target was alive for interrogation, and that had been his only intent upon entering.
"Where is the soulstone, baron?" Axel hissed, his eyes never leaving the assassin. "Tell me, else I'll kill you myself."
The assassin stood, poised to either fight or flee, as though the murderer behind the mask was trying to decide whether or not Axel could be helpful or aggravating. Axel intended to be whichever suited the baron's reply.
"It's in here!" the baron managed to whimper.
"Where?" Axel demanded in reply. "If you're lying, I'll cut out your tongue."
"Beneath the tapestry," the noble sobbed. Evidently, this whole dilemma was proving far more traumatic for the baron than the two who fought over him.
"Skala, search for it. Knock out the guard."
There was the thud from behind - evidently the unconscious body of the guard hitting the floor - and Skala crossed the room and whisking aside the tapestry. Behind it, in a small but suitable crevice within the stone wall, was the soulstone.
For a brief moment, Axel allowed his eyes to flicker from the assassin to the stone. It was perfectly rounded, emitting a faint silver light in the dark. From here, it looked beautiful, and would likely look more glorious in the daylight, where its features would not be obscured by the dark.
Skala took the stone, returning to Axel's side. A victorious smirk crossed his lips.
"You are free to kill your target," Axel said. "We came only for his treasure."
The assassin raised his arm, removing the mask to reveal a face that Axel would never have put to an assassin. It was simply a face that he would have overlooked in a crowd - far too similar to every other human face he'd seen - other than the wild grin, which contributed a maniacal look to the killer's appearance.
"You used black magic, didn't you?" The young man's voice was not soft and quiet, as Axel had expected, but loud and awed.
"Of course," Axel replied. What was he getting at? Why hadn't he slaughtered the target already?
"How much would you work for?"
He raised a sceptical eyebrow. "You humans are strange, aren't you? I've merely appeared to steal a treasure, and already you're trying to hire me."
"You say that like you aren't human. Besides, I won't get another chance at recruiting you, will I? If I get you in on a job, the boss might give me a pay rise. See? Simple."
This one was a strange human, Axel decided, but more than that an almost entertainingly strange assassin. "Of course I'm not human. Your kind are strange, stupid creatures. I do not belong."
The killer laughed almost heartily. "That doesn't mean you're not human. That means only that you belong in the glorious world of death and slaughter. What do you say?"
Axel glanced at Skala. I'll follow you, her eyes seemed to tell him.
"Very well. I'll see what your job is like," Axel said finally, and the murderer's psychotic grin widened.
"Great! D'you know where the Disan Memorial is?"
"Everybody knows where the Disan Memorial is," Axel replied.
"Yeah, but you're apparently not human, so you might not have known," the assassin shrugged. "Anyway, meet me there tomorrow at midnight. Got it?"
Axel nodded. "I'm not making any promises. I'll probably leave within a few days."
The assassin simply grinned. "Worth a shot though, right? It means we get a few days of having some black magic guy working with us."
"And my friend. Do not underestimate her," Axel growled.
"What can she do, then?"
For a moment, Axel simply glared at the murderer, fury blazing within his eyes. And then Skala stepped forwards calmly and raised her hand. Black flames burst from her fingertips, and she cast the dark fire towards the baron's cowering form in the corner. For a few long seconds, there was simply screaming as the flames engulfed the baron's body.
Skala tilted her head, directing the flames to his heart.
The screams ceased, and the scorched body crumpled lifelessly to the floor. Skala snapped her fingers - for show, Axel realised - and the flames disappeared.
"What can she do?" Axel repeated triumphantly. "She can do that."
The murderer grinned. "Saves me a job," he laughed. "Also, she's hired."
Axel nodded. "Good. Then we shall see you tomorrow, at the Disan Memorial."
With that, Axel stepped back, fading into the darkness with the lingering image of the assassin's surprise remaining with him. It was at times like these that Axel really had to love shadow-voyage.
"Do you really think it will work out?"
They sat together on the roof of the cabin, looking up at the clouds as they talked. The sky was still dark, but splashes of dawn were starting to appear, tinting the very edges of the clouds with a faint hue of pink.
Axel thought about his answer for a few moments before replying.
"Probably not, but we might as well see what it's like to work with humans. Besides, it will be more interesting trying to avoid the ones who are hunting us if we team up with others who might sell us out for a high bounty."
Skala considered it for a moment.
"Fair point. Could they ever track us back here?"
Axel shook his head. "You can't track shadow-voyage. Besides, even if they were to try and guess where we were, this is the cabin of a dead man. It's not exactly the first place you'd expect two dark magic users to stay in."
Skala nodded, smiling slightly. "You're right."
They shared a look of almost playful joy, and Skala laughed a little. The sound was strangely captivating - almost like the soft, entrancing birdsong that echoed through the forest in colourful bursts each morning. He remembered the time before Skala had laughed - the time during which she was healing, both physically and mentally, from the wounds the shadows had implanted her with.
It was a wonder the two of them had recovered. The other experiments had failed, rejecting the darkness that had been forced into their bodies. Most had died instantly, others a little later. Perhaps it was Axel's willingness to accept it that had saved him.
"You're thinking again." Skala had stopped laughing. Her laughter was always short, but her eyes still danced.
"Yes," Axel nodded. He leant back, laying on the roof and looking into the sky. "Aren't I always?"
Skala copied his example, lying back against the cold wood of the cabin roof.
"But you're thinking more than usual," she said, and Axel smiled slightly.
"Yeah, fair enough."
"About what?" The faint curiosity in her voice was clear to him, and Axel replied without restraint.
"The others. The ones who couldn't become monsters." He still remembered their corpses - twisted and broken and pained. Some things, he could never tear from his mind, no matter how many sleepless nights they had invaded.
He wondered why exactly he was suddenly thinking of them - it wasn't as though anything in particular had been said. Was it the sky? The sky had been alluring lately, much like the sky the night before Disan's downfall. Perhaps it was simply the colours he could see in the eternal ocean above him, or perhaps there was something else.
Either way, the memories still stung, still made him retract in pain whenever they managed to resurface. He drew a shaky breath.
Skala touched his hand gently, her fingers cold but reassuring. Somehow, her presence could take a little of the pain. Solitude had never helped him to recover, but Skala was almost like a remedy. With her, the memories were subdued; the pain reduced to a level that was a little better than bearable.
For a while, they sat in silence. Words were not needed for Skala to pass her support: Axel knew that she was behind him wherever he went.
Friendship, and danger. Both formed the world in which they lived, the balance that allowed them to exist - to truly exist, rather than to simply survive through the sorrow and the pain.
They lived in a strange world. Strange, yes, but he loved it.
Axel closed his eyes, forcing his mind to the distractions around him. Aside from the birdsong, there was the faint trickle of water from the stream, and the steady breathing of Skala. A faint breeze caressed his face with gentle fingers, tousling his hair in a way that Axel could describe only as affectionate. The race of men might outcast him, but the rest of the world accepted him.
Why should he spend his time worrying about what people thought of him, after all? He thought little of them; he could hardly complain that their opinions of him were mutual. And besides, if people didn't accept him, that was their problem. No point in worrying about the opinions of people who would never affect him in any way.
It was Skala who eventually spoke.
"Do you think they've realised we killed the baron yet? The guard will probably report the black magic, won't he?"
Axel turned his head sideways to look at her. "Probably," he grinned. "But that just means we'll have more fun evading them."
Skala laughed again. "Yeah. Especially now we're joining that assassin."
"You don't mind joining them, do you?" She probably didn't mind, Axel decided, but he might as well make sure. Just in case.
"No," Skala said. "It's like you said: it should be fun."
Axel nodded, smiling.
Smiling, content, and completely unknowing.