Snow - Lux's phoenix - came charging towards them the moment they arrived in the glade.
"Follow me," Rubin ordered, as Skala swung herself onto Snow's back and helped Axel lift the prince up. Quickly, he took Lux back from Skala as she grasped the phoenix's reins and flicked them, whistling sharply. The giant bird opened up her wings, but Axel hardly noticed. He managed to fix the flying harness around the prince's waist, quickly slipping his cloak off and throwing it around Lux's bare, bloodied shoulders.
With a powerful beat of her wings, Snow boosted herself into the sky. Axel gripped the saddle with one hand, and held Lux with the other. How could he have let himself fall to the trickery of humans? He'd left Lux, had simply abandoned the prince who had saved his life, and now - now he was like this. To even begin to imagine the pain would be impossible; each time Axel so much as thought of the torturer, he had to clench his jaw to contain his anger. How could Vipera have ordered that? It was sadistic, callous, unthinkable. The taste of bile rose in his throat.
Humans. They were disgusting - treating their own like... like this!
He pulled Lux closer to him in attempts to keep him warm, noticing the violent shudders running through his body. So high up, it was cold. Axel, at least, was used to it, but Lux wouldn't be. Besides, the freezing wind rushing against him likely wasn't doing anything to help his wounds.
Shakily, Lux tried to draw himself closer to Axel, his fingers trying to close around the other's wrist. Effortlessly, Axel pulled the prince against him again, and Lux settled there, shivering against him, mumbling something undecipherable.
Ahead, Rubin's griffin swept downwards, and Skala steered Snow to follow. The phoenix dived after Rubin's mount, with a grace that was easily more elegant than that of any griffin.
"I'm sorry," Axel whispered again, but the sound was lost on the wind. Lux's hair was no longer white, but dirtied and bloodied, stained with the impurity of the humans' cruelty.
They followed Rubin downwards, and Snow slowed as Rubin's griffin landed on a ledge in the side of the vertical drop from the mountain. Behind, was a small cave, almost but not quite concealed by rocks. Snow beat her wings, outstretching her talons, and Lux stirred again in Axel's arms as she descended.
"It's okay," Axel soothed him, even though it wasn't. "You're safe."
Snow landed, and Skala smoothed the feathers of her neck in thanks before swinging herself from the saddle, reaching up to take Lux. Passing the prince to her as gently as he could, Axel slid down quickly.
"I'm going to find a healer and bring them back here," Rubin said urgently. "Don't try getting one yourself, or the darkness will terrify them and they might use the magic badly and make him worse. Don't give him food or water, but one of you find some for after he's been healed. Wrap him up and keep him warm. I'll be back soon," Rubin promised, clicking his tongue and spurring the griffin into the air. The beast took off again, leaving the two dark mages standing with the prince and his phoenix.
"I'll get some blankets and the food and water," Skala told him, and Axel took Lux back from her. His body was limp and frail in his arms.
"Be quick," he told her. Skala nodded, fading swiftly into the shadows. Turning around, Axel entered the cave, welcoming the dark. Somehow, it felt more safe in here.
Snow entered behind them as Axel gently laid Lux on the floor, sitting beside him and cradling his head in his arms. Weakly, Lux spluttered, and Axel soothed him instantly. He'd never heard Rubin sound so urgent, so desperate.
"I'm sorry, Lux," he whispered again. Snow settled beside them, laying her wing over her master's body. Her feathers were warm and soft as they brushed against Axel's hand, but he hardly noticed: there was just Lux, too cold, and his blood, too much. His screams from earlier echoed around Axel's mind, faintly resounding but still there. How could he have been so stupid? He'd just let Lux fall to this, and he hadn't even stopped to believe them! How?
"Axel..." Lux whispered it faintly, weakly opening his eyes.
"Lux! You're safe, Lux! Don't worry, okay? A healer's coming, hang on, promise me you'll hold on!"
"Don't worry..." the prince coughed, shivering. "I-I'll make it."
"Thank you," Axel smiled, barely managing the gesture but somehow forcing it onto his lips. Lux leant back, apparently soothed at least a little, relaxing back into Axel's arms.
Axel only wished he could relax, but that wouldn't happen - couldn't happen. He had to protect Lux.
He'd already failed him too much to bear.
When Rubin arrived back with the healer, Axel almost sobbed tears of relief. Snow quickly withdrew her wing, revealing the prince's broken form to the terrified woman before Rubin.
"Heal him," Rubin snarled. "Or I will kill you."
She nodded quickly, stumbling through the dark as Skala illuminated the cave with a flame, showing the healer Lux's bloodied face. Gently, Axel pulled back the blankets, and the healing mage's face twisted into an expression of shock and horror.
"What- What happened?" she stuttered.
"That doesn't matter," Axel growled. "Just heal him."
Nodding shakily, she stepped forwards, kneeling beside him and holding her hands over his chest. Axel watched carefully as the pale yellow energy sept from her palms and into Lux's skin.
The woman narrowed her eyes in concentration as the energy engulfed Lux's body. It seemed as though his wounds were closing, if only slightly, with each passing minute. A bead of sweat rolled down the woman's head, and she grit her teeth in concentration. Healing magic was a rare gift, but one that was greatly sought after. Axel could only wish that it worked faster - it was painful to simply sit and watch Lux, shivering and coughing and crying out in pain as she worked.
She started to breathe heavily, and the yellow energy was fading. Lux's cries of pain had subsided a little; they were now quieter and much less frequent, but it was still painful to look upon his lacerated skin.
"Keep working," Rubin ordered her, and the healing mage swallowed. For a few moments, the brightness of the yellow energy increased, but seemed to fall again quickly. Axel saw her eyes flicker, and, biting his lip, spoke up.
"Stop for a minute. But that's all you have." Then, to Rubin, "She's going to collapse if we don't let her rest," he explained, but it was hurting him to wait, because all of this was his fault, and he could do nothing. He paced the cave twice, before biting his tongue again and standing above Lux. His fault.
Lux whimpered again, twisting and tensing up.
"Again. Now," Axel demanded. The woman looked up at him, as if about to say that it hadn't been a minute, but caught a glimpse of Axel's eyes and quickly decided against it.
"Very well," she said, clenching her jaw and moving towards Lux again, holding her hands out above him. The sunlight-yellow energy returned again, spreading gradually over his body. Axel clenched his jaw, trying not to shout at her just to hurry up and help Lux. Why did the magic have to be so slow? Could she not just try to work faster?
Skala placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and their eyes met for a moment.
"It's not your fault," she muttered.
"It is!" Axel hissed. "How is it not my fault?"
"Because it's Vipera's. Besides, he'll heal. He'll be fine."
"He won't be fine, somebody tortured him and you think he'll be fine? Did you feel fine, after the shadows tortured you? Did you?"
Skala flinched, and Axel slumped against the wall, holding back tears.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled, standing back. Axel could feel Rubin's eyes flitting between them and Lux, as though wondering exactly what they were talking about. He no longer cared what Rubin thought. That was Rubin's problem, not his.
He glanced back to the healer and Lux. The wounds had shrunk since she'd started, though the blood covering his skin still looked ugly. Somehow, the healer had helped the burn wounds slightly; the skin was no longer as blistered and reddened.
The magic, however, was fading fast.
"I'm sorry, but I might not be able to continue for much longer," the woman said, though her tone seemed more beseeching than apologetic. Disgusting. Did she care only for her own safety? Wasn't she meant to pledge herself to the safety of her patients?
"Keep working until you collapse, then," Rubin ordered.
"Shut up and heal him!" Axel cut in, his voice swelling with rage. From the corner of his eye, he saw Skala look to him again, before her eyes flickered away, back to the prince. He wanted to apologise to her, and yet she'd been so stupid to say that. Lux couldn't be fine! Pain like that left you scarred for the rest of your life - she, of all people, should understand that!
There was a thud as the woman hit the floor beside Lux, apparently drained of all energy.