The corpses hit the ground, and the black energy dissipated into the cold of the night.
"Well, I did tell them to open it," Axel reasoned, glancing at the crimson blood splattered over the floor. Would he be able to kill like this without the infusion of darkness? Would he find it so easy if the shadows hadn't woven black magic into his veins? Sometimes, he wondered if he'd be a monster anyway. He had boundaries, of course. He would only destroy the likes of those who would bully the helpless lambs that formed the majority of the human race. Not that he liked the humans - he just thought that most of them didn't particularly deserve death.
But those who were willing to protect a man like the baron - a hideously greedy swine of a man - were people Axel deemed perfectly worthy of death.
"Skala? Care to dispose of the portcullis?"
"Of course," she nodded, and Axel stepped away from her. The moment he moved back, Skala took a deep breath, closing her eyes and raising her head. Axel doubted that she really needed to perform this procedure to transform, but it probably made it easier.
Her body started to glow a blinding silver - possibly the only light she would ever possess. Each limb twisted and snapped, extending outwards. Jet black scales extended from her clothing to cover her cadaverous skin, forming the armoured hide of a dragon. Her face contorted into a strange, longer shape, until it moulded itself into an elegant snout. Spikes and wings erupted from her back and shoulders; a tail snaked from her lower spine.
Axel smiled. Skala's dragon form never ceased to amaze him - the majestic aura of the creature emitted both power and glory. She was everything the people feared, everything they saw in their strange, twisted nightmares - nightmares that Axel found entertaining.
But Skala should never be seen as a nightmare. She had destroyed men such as the baron: men who fell upon the weak like vultures descending upon dying animals. A vigilante, she could be called.
He knew her simply as a friend.
Snorting, the dragon opened her jaws. Lines of dagger-like fangs gleamed in the faint light of the moon, and he was reminded again of the deadliness of his ally. None could boast of the same power that Skala possessed, though she had endured hours of torture to gain her strength. She certainly deserved it.
Black fire, tinged with silver, burst from the jaws of the dragon, instantly melting a hole through the metal bars of the portcullis. Liquid metal dripped to the ground, each droplet coalescing with the blood of the guards. Skala stepped back, glancing at Axel questioningly.
"You can turn back now," he assured her. With a nod, she started to transform back into her human form. This time, she shrunk, her limbs all retracting and her wings melting back into her shoulders. Her scales withdrew, returning to their previous form: the black, skin tight clothing that Skala always wore. The 'clothing' was as much her skin as the rest of her, though it allowed her to fit in - if only slightly - with the humans.
As though nothing had happened, they passed beneath the melted remains of the portcullis, heading into the gatehouse and stopping.
"Where's the jewel?" Skala asked. Axel gave a slight shrug.
"We'll just have to ask the guards where the baron might be. We'll find him, beat the answer out of him, and leave him to serve as a message that Haven's monsters are stronger than its lords," Axel explained, his mind formulating the plan with ease.
Skala simply nodded, stepping over the corpses in the gatehouse and following Axel into the castle. He led the way, selecting an oaken door and pushing it open. Inside was a spiralling staircase, ascending into further darkness. For anybody else, it might have looked foreboding, but to Axel, it was intriguing and inviting. His feet brushed each step as he climbed, heading upwards into the unknown.
Dim light appeared, and Axel realised that they were about to encounter another of the baron's human pawns. Pressing himself against the wall, he poised, ready to attack, heart beating quickly. A guard? Or just a servant?
The figure appeared, and Axel relaxed.
The serving girl, apparently, did not. She opened her mouth to scream, terror undulating through her eyes. Axel sprung forwards to clasp his hand over her mouth, but Skala grabbed his wrist and held him back. The girl's shriek pierced the air, reverberating through his ears. Why did humans scare so easily?
"Go on, run," Axel shrugged, sighing. Why had Skala stopped him? "I'm not here to kill you. Just don't scream again."
She fled, turning back running up the stairs. Axel couldn't help but notice how foolishly clumsy her movements were. Had he been like this before being turned into a monster? Would he have been just another clumsy, foolish human?
"Sorry," Skala said. "I just thought it would be an easier way to get guards to attack us."
Axel grinned at her. "Good point. We'll wait here until one of them comes along."
There was a muffled cry for help further up, followed by shouts and footsteps on the stairs above them. If the footsteps were anything to judge by, there were two guards. Axel grinned: Skala was getting better at this.
"We'll attack them," he decided, darting upwards with perfected silence. Another light had been brought with the guards: the faint orange glow flickered across the walls, illuminating each crack and crevice in the stone.
Axel sprung up the remaining few steps, unsheathing his blade and instantly slicing open the stomach of the first. Pushing him aside, he dived at the second of the baron's men, pinning him against the wall before he could so much as move.
The man swallowed hard.
"If you don't want to end up like your friend there, I strongly recommend you take us to the baron's quarters. I assume you know where they are?" Axel's voice was devoid of all emotion, tuned perfectly to terrify those who needed terrifying.
"In that case, we won't be needing you. You'll end up like your friend. Are you sure you don't remember?" Axel allowed a hint of casual carelessness into his voice, this time.
"I know where they are!" the man responded swiftly.
"Good," Axel smiled heartlessly. "Take us there, then."
Again, the man swallowed, tears brimming within his eyes, but gave a small, frail nod. Axel released him.
"Lead the way. If you so much as talk, or try to escape, I will kill you."
Trembling, the guard led them up the staircase. Axel despised people like this - people who would sell out the person they'd sworn to protect at the mere sight of a death. The baron was a cruel, sadistic man who preyed upon the weak, but so was the one who had pledged loyalty to him.
With humans, loyalty meant nothing. With them, it seemed simply a delicate object of glass, beautiful at first, but dropped in an instant in return for their own pointless lives. Axel might be a monster, but he was faithful to his own. He had promised Skala protection and friendship, and he intended not to break that vow.
The guard's footsteps slowed, perhaps in dread, perhaps in terror.
"I should remind you," Axel growled, "that I'm in a hurry."
Instantaneously, their guide moved more swiftly, almost stumbling twice within his next few steps. Each time he came close to falling, Axel emitted a low, dangerous snarl, and the man started to climb again quickly enough.
Eventually, they seemed to be approaching the summit of the turret.
"Skala, watch him," Axel murmured softly, passing the guard and creeping upwards. So long as their guide was telling the truth, there would be more of the baron's guards to protect the entrance to his chambers. The orange reflection of light on the walls proved him right.
Slinking up, Axel pressed himself against the wall, preparing to slaughter his adversaries. They would likely be stronger than those he had faced earlier, though they were still merely humans.
He darted around the corner, leaping at his final obstacles wielding only a knife. He plunged the dagger into the heart of the closest without difficulty, pushing away the corpse and lunging towards the next. Shock became the human's downfall, and he too fell at Axel's feet. By now, the remaining four sentinels had armed themselves, forming a barrier before the heavy door behind them.
Finally, he thought. Humans with at least a little sense of honour.
Of course, it wouldn't save them - they were still merciless thugs and nothing more, but it meant a better fight. Honourless humans, such as the one who had led them here, surrendered far too quickly.
Blood pumped furiously through his body as he leapt forwards, twisting his body beneath the sword strike of his opponent and thrusting upwards with the dagger, piercing the man's chest to kill him with a single strike. A double-headed axe swung downwards, on course to cleave apart his chest, and Axel ducked to the side. His eyes were wide with exhilaration, his senses sharpened from the thrill. Evade, move in, kill. Disarm, stab, kill. Dodge, puncture, kill.
Within a matter of seconds, the four were mere bodies, their weapons fallen at their feet.
"Come up," he hissed. Moments later, Skala arrived with the guard hurrying in front of her.
His eyes widened in terror as he saw Axel leaning calmly against the wall, seemingly unaffected by the dead men around him. To appear to calm after a fight, even when his blood was racing and he felt completely, wholly alive, was to strike fear in the hearts of cowardly worms like this one. It never failed to horrify.
"I take it the baron is right through here?" Axel asked. "No doubt the door is locked, though that won't be a problem." He raised his palm, and dark energy flared into life. The guard must have been suppressing a scream, though his face said it all: the black magic had increased the level of fear manifesting within the gutless coward's mind.
Axel turned, and allowed the level of magic to grow within his hand. Soon, it had engulfed his entire arm, flaring outwards in an almost defiant manner, dancing and swirling, a vortex of power within the sphere of energy. He thrust his arm towards the door, and the darkness surged forwards, immediately tearing apart the door and reducing it to jagged splinters of scorched wood.
There came a shrill scream from within the room, and Axel glanced inside.
There were two figures: a shadow, and the man above which he loomed. Lying under silken covers of emerald green, his face twisted into an expression of horror, was the baron himself.