They were attacked the moment they left the entrance hall.
Enemies descended upon them relentlessly, attacking without heart or mercy. Axel's first impression was that they were being fooled by Rubin, and he turned to stick a blade through his chest, but the assassin was fighting alongside them.
"One of you hold them off!" he ordered, ducking a strike and slamming a blade through one's throat. "The other, come with me to find Lux!"
"I'll stay," Skala volunteered instantly, burning two of their opponents as she whirled around to face Axel. "You have to go."
Axel swallowed hard, and nodded. Skala could handle herself, he knew that much. Vipera had underestimated them before, and she'd certainly done it again.
"I'll follow you!" Axel told Rubin, and the assassin nodded, sprinting off. Skala covered their escape, holding off as many as she could. Axel flung a throwing knife at one of the only ones who'd managed to escape; Rubin had already dealt with the other.
"Any others, and I'll hold them off," Rubin said. "You need to fight Vipera off, if she's guarding him. You're strong enough."
They sprinted along the empty corridors of the castle, leaving the shouts and screams behind them as they dashed through, feet pounding on the cold stone beneath. Axel could only think of Lux: Lux, who had saved him; Lux, who had fought for him; Lux, who had carried him from the cavern. Axel would not, could not, fail him. That was not an option.
Rubin pushed open a door, running straight to the back and ripping aside a dusty tapestry. Behind was another door. Fumbling with the handle, Rubin cursed, and Axel pushed past him, destroying the door with a wave of dark magic. Splinters of wood went flying everywhere, and Axel brought his arm up to shield his face.
Then they were plunging down into darkness, running down the stairs without any light, judging each step with instinct and trying not to fall. Axel stumbled, managing to catch himself before he tumbled down the stairs.
"You okay?" Rubin asked.
"Fine," Axel shot back, quickly resuming his flight down the stairs.
"There should be light at the bottom," Rubin told him, voice urgent. Axel didn't reply, instead choosing to focus on making his way down without tripping again. The dark had always been his preferred field of battle, but charging blindly down stairs in the midst of the darkness was not, to say the least, his idea of fun.
Axel saw the beginnings of light as it touched the walls: a cold, blue light, the light of glowstones. He finished the last of the stairs, and entered a long, dark hall, lit by the occasional glowstone and decorated with none of the fineries the upper floors possessed.
"Prison and interrogation chambers," Rubin explained, then paused, glancing back up at the stairwell. Axel started to hear it, too: footsteps above them. The assassin cursed.
"Lux'll be in one of the end cells. I'll fight this lot." He started to run, but Axel caught his wrist in a steely grip.
"Don't die, assassin."
"You too, amateur. Save him, okay?"
Axel grinned. "I'm not quite as weak as you, assassin."
"Of course not," Rubin agreed. "You're weaker."
And with that, the two unclasped wrists, shooting a last wild grin at the other before charging - Rubin back up the stairs, Axel towards the end of the prison corridor.
He was going to save Lux. Failure had never been an option, and it certainly wasn't about to become one now.
Lux had long since stopped screaming. The pain still hurt him - gods, it hurt - but his voice was too hoarse, too shattered, to produce any sound more than a whimper.
The torturer put down the whip, instead sliding thick, fireproof gloves over his hands and selecting a long rod. With a cruel, sadistic smirk, he held the metal above a burning flame. No. Fear spread through his body, a wave of gripping terror as he tried, weakly, to push against the chains. Desperately, he tried to summon lightning, but again, the rubber cuffs Vipera had bound him in sucked the energy from his body. If he'd been stronger, if Vipera hadn't already wounded him so much, if he hadn't hesitated before attacking her, then Lux might have been strong enough to escape.
But that, apparently, wasn't going to happen.
His torturer swept forwards, rod glowing with a bright and furious red.
"No..." Lux whispered, pathetically, weakly, desperately.
The burning metal connected with the bared, shredded skin of his shoulder, and this time, Lux managed a scream.
"Please!" he begged. "Please, please, please..."
His cries did nothing to save him; the torturer jerked the rod down, leaving a blistering, ugly scar in its wake. Tears streaked down his cheeks, cutting through the layer of blood and grime that had accumulated upon his face. By now, the rod had cleaved a burning scar across his chest, and Lux was screaming, it was too much, it hurt so much...
The iron rod seared his left shoulder now, and Lux was screaming, begging, crying, and suddenly the door had been destroyed and a shadow was darting across the room.
"Axel," Lux breathed.
His pale hand grasped the metal, tearing it away from Lux. It was almost like Axel could not feel its burning pain; he seemed not to notice the metal in his hands was glowing with heat, and it must have hurt him, because Lux's chest - gods, it hurt - so much, too much. How could Axel hold it? He'd saved Lux from its scorching wrath, but to hold it without any signs of pain...
Lux caught a glimpse of Axel's eyes as he turned towards the torturer. They burned with an uncontrollable fury, a relentless squall raging within each blazing pool of silver.
"I'm going to kill you," Axel snarled, and hatred was seeping from his voice in waves of loathing. Dark energy surged from his arms, engulfing the metal rod, so that there was just a faint glow of heat in the midst of the darkness.
Lux could see the fear etched onto the torturer's face as Axel took a step forwards.
"How?!" he screamed. "How could you do this to him?"
The guard couldn't answer; all speech seemed stolen by horror. There was a gasp, as Axel surged forwards, plunging the burning metal through the torturer's throat. Falling, the guard choked up a mouthful of blood, splattering both Axel and the floor with the final scarlet drops of his life. And then, was silent.
For a moment, Axel watched the body, and then he was spinning around, and the fury still hadn't left his eyes as he ran back to Lux.
"Help me," the prince managed.
Discarding the burning metal, Axel swept a blade of darkness above him, cutting through the chains that had held him up. Lux fell forwards, instantly crumpling. His eyes fluttered back weakly as he fell to the ground, and suddenly there was a warmth around him - Axel had caught him, Axel was holding him, Axel was protecting him. Feebly, Lux raised his head, and the dark mage was looking down at him with silver eyes that were so kind and deep and beautiful.
"Lux, I'm sorry, gods, I'm so, so sorry," Axel was mumbling, clasping Lux to his chest protectively. "I should have found you, I shouldn't have listened, gods, Lux..."
"Thank you," Lux breathed, but it was so quiet - too quiet for Axel to hear as he sunk to the ground, cradling Lux's limp body within his arms. Here, it was warm. Safe.
"I'm going to get you somewhere safe." Axel lifted his head gently, looking deeply into his eyes. "I promise, I won't let them hurt you like this again. We're going to have to move now, okay?"
Lux managed to nod, the movement painful. Carefully, he was scooped into Axel's arms, a helpless bundle of blood and pain. Since when had he been this warm? Axel's skin had always been cold, but now, his arms were warm, though perhaps it was just that they were coated in Lux's blood.
Running lightly, Axel carried him from the room, and the prince breathed out. Finally over. A tiny smile crept onto his lips as he detected the beating of Axel's heart, a strong, rapid pulsing that was almost melodic. He was faintly aware of Rubin's voice, and then Axel's. The next moment, they were ascending the stairs, and Rubin was darting ahead. A faint scream echoed through the staircase, bouncing off the walls to resound within Lux's ears.
They were running again, after that, and Lux was trying to block out all of the sounds around him, burying his head within the folds of Axel's bloodied cloak.
"Thank you," he whispered into Axel's chest, repeating it like some sort of chant. "Thank you, thank you, thank you..."
"We'll be there soon," Axel promised.
Lux could only nod.