Axel woke to light.
For a moment, it pierced his vision, and he blinked, turning his head away. The light was of the sun, he realised, as he took in his surroundings: gently rolling meadows of long grass and flowers. He was lying in the grass.
And then, like the first few moments of consciousness had been simply to soften the blow, the pain came rushing in. It swallowed his body in agony, encasing his limbs in a sharp, aching pain that burned all over. Axel groaned, gritting his teeth and realising that doing so sent daggers of agony spiking along his jaw.
Lux's voice. With that, it all came rushing back. The prince, standing before him; the lightning, striking the woman, the leader, beating him down callously and without mercy. And Lux had saved him: frail, tentative, demon-like Lux.
"You..." Axel started, wincing instantly. Even talking sent pain shooting through him.
"I'm sorry," the prince's voice came, softly, mournfully.
"Why?" Axel demanded, ignoring the pain as best he could. He turned his head, catching the golden eyes of the other, who was sitting beside him. For once, it didn't seem to matter that the prince was looking down at him.
"Because I didn't tell you that I was like you." His voice was riddled with guilt, and Axel might have laughed, would it not have hurt so much.
"Is that really it? You didn't tell me something?" The effort of speech was painful, but worth it.
"Yes," Lux replied. His voice trembled slightly. "I have a power just like yours. I should have told you."
"Have we given you our real names?" Axel asked. His voice was strangely soft, a tone that he was not used to but realised suddenly that he was willing to use.
"Exactly." Axel tried not to wince. "Everybody has their secrets."
Lux settled beside him, laying back on the grass and looking emptily up at the ocean of blue sky.
"Where's Shadow?" Axel asked him, nearly but not quite using her real name.
"She's hunting for us," Lux said. "But how do you feel?"
Terrible, Axel wanted to say. "Worse than if you'd just accept that you shouldn't have told us anyway," he said instead.
Lux sighed. "But-"
"You're being petty."
"I should have-"
"Could you please shut up and accept that I'm right?" Axel sighed, closing his eyes. Lux didn't reply, and he allowed the hints of a smirk to enter his face. It shielded the thoughts of his mind well, however.
How was it possible? How could there be another two like he and Skala? The woman had controlled the water; Lux had mastered the lightning. That hadn't been the power of anything dark or foreboding. So how had they acquired their magic? Axel made a mental note to ask Lux of his magic's origins later.
Besides, he should probably thank the prince. He and Skala seemed to never thank one another. It had become habit, that they would help each other without thanks, without request for help. Lux, however, was certainly not Skala, and Axel decided that, at some point, he needed to thank him. But how? How did he simply thank the prince? Lux had risked his life to step in front of him, could have died, almost had died. Axel had heard him choking afterwards, so close to death it was almost terrifying.
It was strange, being helped by another but Skala. And to be defeated by a human... Axel supposed she was technically a monster like him, but that still didn't give him an excuse for simply becoming a dead-weight.
A dead-weight for the prince to save.
"It's Axel," he said, almost on impulse.
"Axel?" Lux asked.
"My name," he said quickly, before it was too late to withdraw the words.
Lux laughed, suddenly, happily. "Was that an offer of friendship?" he asked hopefully.
Axel smiled slightly, then winced from the pain it forced through him. "Yes. I suppose."
"You mean it?" Lux checked, though his voice seemed bursting with joy.
"Yes. Though why does it mean so much to you?"
"Because you're a good person who calls himself a monster," Lux said confidently. "And I think you'd make a better friend than Vipera." It was strange, how convinced he seemed that Axel was a 'good person'. Such a term meant nothing to him. He was not, whatever the prince said, a good person.
"I am a monster," he insisted.
"You're not. No monster would ever be so loyal," Lux said. Axel snorted incredulously.
"Humans aren't loyal. They're faithful to money only. The way I see it, monstrosity is better than humanity."
"Most humans are loyal to something."
"And if you believe that, you're a fool," Axel shrugged. "People are out only for themselves."
"Then I'm a monster? Because I'm not only thinking of myself?" Lux asked. Axel detected the slight hint of anger within his voice.
"No," he said back, calmly. "But you're better than humans."
To this, apparently, Lux had no reply, because he simply sighed and said no more. The prince's faith in the human race was ill placed. People did not form a pure, loyal race. They were selfish, loathsome creatures, no better than insects. It was almost a comfort to know that the only human he'd ever found to be tolerable was not, in fact, completely human.
"Thanks, by the way," Axel said quickly. The quiet words felt awkward and unfamiliar on his tongue.
"We're friends now, aren't we?" Lux laughed. "You don't need to thank me."
"Very well." A pause. And then, "What happened?"
"Shadow destroyed them all," Lux said, almost tentatively. "She said she found us both in the room, blacked out and wounded. She got us out and managed to destroy the entire cluster of buildings. There was nothing left when we carried you back. I don't think anybody survived to spread the message."
"Very well," Axel replied. "No matter, I'm sure at least one of them would have been on an assignment. When they arrive back, they can spread the rumour of destruction. Did we leave anything behind to signal we were the ones who destroyed their hideout?" By now, the pain had subsided slightly. It was just about bearable.
"We didn't," Lux told him.
"Hopefully, they'll figure it out," Axel said dismissively. It was strange, talking to the prince in such a friendly manner. Usually, he would have been mocking humans for their stupidity. And even though Lux wasn't strictly human, it was strange to talk to him without insulting him.
"Can I ask you something?" he said. Lux nodded. "Where did you get your magic from?"
"It's funny," Lux said. "I was just about to ask you the same thing." His lips played on a light smile, but his eyes said it all: the story was painful. "I was taken a few months after we got to Haven. They - the masked people - hurt me, but they gave me the power. I've always hated it. It makes me feel like... Well, like a monster." The prince gave a sidelong glance to Axel, who simply nodded. "That's why I like to think it's not your power that makes you the monster. It's how you use it."
Axel nodded again. "I use mine like a monster, but you don't. I'll promise you that, Lux."
"Really?" The prince smiled. "Thank you. What about you?"
"Torture. Pain. The shadows that took Disan captured me and some others during the conquest. They turned me into this. Shadow, too. We were the only ones who accepted the power, and we managed to fight away the blood-lust it forced on us."
"Oh." Lux seemed unable to say anything else. There simply was nothing to say. How did you reply to something like that? They both knew what it was like; words were not needed.
But masked people, turning others into the very beings Axel had thought a completely secluded race? It was strange - terrifying, almost. That people would want to give other heartless, selfish humans magic like that seemed absurd. Why would you give that sort of power to somebody who could just as easily stab you in the back?
Besides, where had humans got the knowledge to do something like that? To experiment just as the shadows had experimented upon he and Skala, trying to turn them into weapons - it seemed nothing short of cruel. But that was humans all over, wasn't it? Cruel. Inquisitive to a point of oblivion. Lusting for power.
They were a repulsive species, Axel thought. He loathed them.
"Silver!" Skala's voice, jubilant and relieved, burst from the air above them. Axel moved to look to her, too quickly, and javelins of pain pierced through his body. He winced, but quickly concealed his pain as Skala dropped the game to the grass, abandoning it favour of finding out how he was.
"You can call me Axel, now. Lux knows," Axel told her. Skala looked between them.
"Very well. Have you told him my name?"
"No," Axel replied.
"Skala," she informed the prince, and Axel smiled. Her trust in his judgement was warming, to say the least.
"It's a beautiful name," Lux smiled up at her, pushing himself into a sitting position. Axel remained lying on the bed of grass and flowers, unable to sit for the agony it would cause him.
"Thank you," Skala said softly in reply. Then, to Axel, "How are you?"
"Hurting, but I'm fine."
She smiled. "I was worried. Nobody ever beats you."
"She wouldn't have, if she hadn't been so cowardly and pretended to be a bystander," Lux said instantly, almost defensively. Axel's eyes widened as the prince immediately supported his strength. Skala smiled, nodding.
"Axel is the strongest," she nodded. Her silver eyes caught the light of the sun as she sat beside them, illuminating them and turning them into pools of molten silver.
"Debatable," he muttered, and Lux laughed.
"Definite," Skala corrected him, smiling slightly.
"Well, if I'm the strongest," Axel sighed, "then I have a question. When we get back, is anybody going to tell Vipera I lost to some human?"