"This is your only chance to redeem yourself, Krig," Vipera snarled. He nodded.
"This time, I will not fail," he promised her.
"You said that last time," she hissed. "And now we have two of Haven's most powerful mages out for revenge. Remember, you must completely disguise your face from them, else they'll realise who you are. A mask and a hood, am I clear? If you do not take precautions, you shall fail this time, as well."
"I have prepared a disguise for my identity," Krig confirmed. The woman's eyes burned into him, searing him with anger.
"Remember what I will do to failures," she reminded him. Krig nodded. He remembered. He remembered the two deserters, strung up by metal chains and seared, burnt flesh. He remembered the next, also - the woman who had tried to tell the prince that Vipera had hung two men after burning them completely. She had been drowned.
"I remember," Krig assured her. "They shall not escape."
"They had better not," Vipera snapped. "If they do, you will die slowly, and painfully. Do not think I am lying, Krig, else you will pay with your life."
"I understand. I will ensure they are dead by the end of today."
Vipera studied him for another moment, before waving her hand in dismissal. Krig bowed to her, leaving the room and heading towards the doors.
Soon they would be here, and his life hung in the balance.
"Thank you, for agreeing to him."
"You're not angry?" She raised a brow.
"Angry?" Axel asked. "I was being a fool. If there's a chance, we have to take it. Thank you for reminding me of that."
Skala shook her head. "Not at all. You're probably right to mistrust them, but if the assassin was telling the truth..."
Smiling slightly, Axel nodded. "I know," he said. "Get some rest, Skala. It won't take Rubin long to get here, and you might as well relax for a bit. Your arm's probably hurting."
"No," she insisted. "It's fine."
Axel sighed. Did she really have to pretend it wasn't hurting, just for him? "Skala, please don't lie. You need a rest, okay?"
She tilted her head very slightly, before exhaling and shrugging slightly.
"I suppose you're right." Thanking him, she headed over to one of the rocks beside the lake, leaning against it and closing her eyes. Axel watched her for a moment, before sinking to the ground, sitting there almost aimlessly.
Don't be lying, assassin. Please, please, don't be lying.
Axel watched Rubin's griffin descend from the sky, wings beating and talons outstretched as it landed. He called out softly to Skala, who stood quickly, her eyes flashing.
"You took your time," Axel growled.
"I'm sorry," Rubin said, biting his lip - most probably to stop himself from spitting out an insult.
"Being polite must be killing you," Axel sneered. "Now, what are we going to do?"
Rubin tethered his griffin to one of the trees, slipping his mask (the intact one) from his bag and putting it back on.
"Follow me," Rubin instructed, beckoning for them to hurry.
Axel obeyed, narrowing his eyes and unsheathing a dagger.
"Be careful," he called over his shoulder to Skala. "It might be a trick."
Rubin said nothing. Evidently, the only thing he could say would be something insulting. It was almost funny, how desperation changed people. By now, however, it had become dull. Rubin had never been so polite to him; it was almost unnerving.
"Do me a favour, and stop pretending you're nice," Axel spat. "If you carry on, I'll slit your throat and leave you here."
"Well, at least you're still rude, amateur. I was getting worried then."
Axel smirked. "And you're being nothing but a puppet, obeying me."
Rubin laughed from in front of him, though Axel could see that his shoulders were tense; his steps careful and light.
"Not a puppet," Rubin replied. "Just a survivor, amateur."
"And, unfortunately for insects such as yourself, some must beg and plead for their survival."
"And some still cling to the false idea of pride," Rubin replied cheerfully.
Axel snorted, pushing through another dense patch of shrubs. "Not pride, assassin. Dignity. Which, in case you hadn't noticed, you do not possess."
Rubin leapt gracefully over a stream, and Axel followed him.
"Who needs dignity when you have money?" Rubin scoffed, clearing a tree trunk. He was starting to speed up, and Axel kept pace with ease.
"Evidently, the pathetic and soulless."
"Were you just describing yourself, amateur?"
Axel scowled, already regretting his decision to tell Rubin to stop being polite. He was already making Axel long to slit his throat.
"No," Axel replied irritably. "But of course, you're too stupid to realise that, aren't you?"
"Only people who believe in friends are truly stupid," Rubin laughed at him. Still, his body was tense, ready in case Axel decided that it wasn't worth the risk of betrayal. Ready, in case Axel decided to stab him in the back.
"If I'm going to kill you, I'd tell you first. It's more fun, that way," Axel snorted. "Besides, I don't think the beggar has the right to call his superior stupid."
"You're completely right, you don't have the right to call me stupid," Rubin replied cheerfully. He still hadn't relaxed, though Axel supposed he couldn't blame him entirely. The fool had become accustomed to being around humans - and they would stab you in the back for a few coins. Rubin, Axel reminded himself, was one such insect.
"If you're so delusional to think that, assassin, then perhaps I shouldn't help you."
Rubin snorted. "You told me to stop being polite. Evidently, you're attracted to my handsomely impolite nature. Sorry to tell you this, but I'm only interested in rich people with a large sum of money I can steal."
Axel snorted. "Are you saying I don't have money? Do you think I've been doing nothing for the last few years, assassin?"
Rubin laughed, and Axel instantly wished he could retake the words. "Are you trying to convince me you're worth my time courting, amateur? Get a little richer, and I might consider you."
Resisting the urge to stab the idiot, Axel grit his teeth together, clenching his fists and snarling.
"I'm going to kill you if you don't shut up, assassin."
"You told me to be rude!" Rubin protested. "Clearly, you want to hear my glorious voice in its truest form. I don't blame you, amateur." Rubin stopped. "We're nearly here, so we should stop talking just in case. Hood up, okay?"
Nodding, Axel pulled his hood up over his head, looking back to check that Skala had done the same.
"We're ready," he confirmed, and Rubin flashed them both a brief, nervous smile.
"Let's just hope Krig's at the gate, then," he murmured, as the three of them emerged from the trees, heading towards the castle of the Golden Flame. Axel tensed, his hand drifting to his knife, preparing to fight. Was this just another trick? Or was Rubin telling the truth? Axel could only hope, desperately, praying endlessly that Lux had never meant to hurt them. Hope, however, was a misleading thing. It could drive men to do foolish things, force them to their deaths.
Axel was no fool, but he had allowed himself to hope, at the very least.
But there was, of course, another problem. When destroyed, hope left you scarred and broken. Axel didn't want to be left shattered for his lack of control, but it was a chance he'd have to take.
They reached the doors to the castle, and Rubin stepped up, knocking against them. Axel held his breath, readying himself for battle. This would be unlike any other simply act of boredom and rebellion.
Lux's life might depend upon this.
The doors slowly opened, and Axel exhaled heavily. He took a few steps forwards, his eyes scanning for the guards at the door. There was only one - a man in deep crimson robes and wearing a black mask, not unlike Rubin's.
"What's with the mask, Krig? Anyway, thanks. We'll get Lux out soon," Rubin promised. The figure nodded, and they headed through the entrance hall, gliding along the carpet like shadows.
None of them could have seen Krig's relieved smirk beneath the mask, as he closed the doors behind them.
Shutting them in.