His name was Rubin, and he hated love. ---Prequel to Free---


11. Leaving

Getting in was easy. He simply had to slip in when the guards returned from patrolling the city - and, in the shadows of the early morning, nobody ever saw him.

Finding anything out, however, would be the hard part.

For a while he simply investigated the castle, slipping through the darkened corridors and marvelling at it all - the masonry, the tapestries, the red and the gold and everything beautiful.

When the heard the guards coming, he pressed himself against the nearest wall, and he listened.

"They've agreed to open it. Evacuation of the city will start at dawn. Understood?"

A "Yes, sir!" echoed through the corridor, and Rubin held his breath. Open it? Did they mean the portal?

His heart raced. He had to get there before everybody else - which meant he needed to find the royal family. They'd likely open the portal somewhere accessible, somewhere with vast space, and somewhere they could control the flow of people going in. That left only one place - the palace gardens.

He sprinted back the way he'd come. There were considerably little guards around; they'd all probably been sent to the city to start the evacuation soon, or to the city gates to ward off shadows. Either way, it was helpful to him. It let him run through the hallways with freedom, let him dart about, let him wonder at everything he saw.

Rubin found a window on the first floor, smashed it, and climbed through.

When he emerged on the other side, he was met by tear-filled golden eyes. For a moment, there was silence, and then the sobbing boy (who was annoyingly better-dressed than him) rubbed furiously at his tears and glared at him. Rubin was just wondering what to steal first when the boy opened his mouth.

"They sent you to bring me back, didn't they? I'm not going!" he yelled. He was only small, but he looked important.

"Nobody sent me here. I don't even know who you are," Rubin scoffed, glancing around. Before he could ask about the portal, the boy's expression brightened and he spoke again.

"Really? Well... I'm Lux Arsenio."

Rubin choked. "You're..." He could work with this! The royal family would welcome the return of their son, if he was unguarded like this...

"Okay, Lux," he said, trying to sound as comforting as he could. "Why are you out here all alone?"

Lux sniffed. "My parents and my sisters are going to die." His voice was wavering, but he continued. "They're going to open a portal to another world, but it uses lots of energy, so they all have to do it. And then when the people are through, they have to close it from this end, to make sure the shadows can't get through."

Rubin nodded. "Can't somebody else do it, then?"

Lux shook his head, and tried to wipe away tears. "No. It's a family power, but I'm too young, so they're making me go through without them. I don't want to leave them!"

"Well, you should," Rubin shrugged. "You have to make sure you remember them, don't you? Besides, if you stay here, who'll rule the new world? You don't want people to forget the Arsenio family, do you?"

Lux sniffed again. "I... I guess not."

"Besides," Rubin continued, "whatever you do, they're going to stay here, but you're either going to live or die, right? Don't you think you should always try to make it?"

The prince nodded slowly. "Yes. I suppose. So... Do you think I should go back to them?"

Rubin nodded. "I'll come, if you like. Will your parents mind?"

For a moment, Lux thought about it, and Rubin held his breath. and then, "No. They're too busy worrying about everything else."

Rubin followed Lux through the palace gardens, wondering how anybody could ever make something natural look so perfect. The flowers grew with a strange kind of formation; the grass was not wild, but cut shortly with what Rubin could only call discipline; the trees stood at attention with the stillness of guards.


His head snapped around to the woman running towards Lux. She scooped him up into her arms, and it was only when he buried his head into her shoulder that Rubin noticed the crown upon her head. He dropped instantly to one knee.

"Your majesty, I found your son and have delivered him to you safely."

The queen noticed him for the first time, and turned, her grateful eyes on him.

"I cannot thank you enough," she said. "Have you heard yet of the portal?"

Rubin nodded. "Yes, your majesty."

"Very well. If you wish it, you may pass through with Lux and his guards when we open it."

Somehow, he managed to keep the grin from his face, and bowed his head graciously. "I would be honoured."

The queen turned her attention back to her son, and Rubin let them speak their farewells. Soon, the king was there as well; the twin princesses were hugging him, too.

He didn't want to acknowledge it, but the moment touched him. Rubin turned away quickly. Emotion would be his downfall if he continued to succumb to it.

Instead, he watched the guards as they pushed about, trying helplessly to organise for the swarms of people as the time slipped closer to dawn.

He looked helplessly to the sky. They were going to have to rebuild everything; they were going to have to hunt and scavenge for food. Of course, they'd probably bring food supplies and tools with them, but the first few years would be seeping with death.

"We're ready!" the king's voice rung through gardens, and Rubin saw Lux's sisters push a white bundle into his arms before rushing off to position themselves to open the portal. He tried to ignore the tears streaming down the prince's cheeks, like every one that fell to the floor and shattered was another of the losses he was being forced to make.

Rubin set an awkward hand on his shoulder, and Lux shuffled closer to him as the Arsenios took their places, each forming the corner of a square. The white bundle in Lux's arms squeaked, and he realised suddenly what it was.

A phoenix.

It was only as the creature opened its beautiful blue eyes that he thought of Nymfe and Krig, and for a moment he prayed desperately for their survival before realising that that the king had given his crown to Lux, and then the emotion became too much for him to deal with. He shut it away.

Whatever it took, he had to survive.

"Start calling the people to us!" the king shouted, and the four Arsenios raised their palms. In the centre of their group, a tiny sphere flickered to life, read and gold at first. And then it started to grow, and with each second it got bigger and brighter until it stretched out to each of the royal-bloods. By now it seemed to be roaring, as though trying to scare them into backing away from the strange new world, as though reminding them of the possibility that the portal would fail, but its beauty was too vibrant to turn away from, because within the sphere was a glorious concoction of colour that captured his eyes.

Lux moved beside him to shoot one tearful look at his family - the glimpse look he would ever catch. He started walking towards the portal, and Rubin forced his legs to move to follow him. With every step, his ears suffered all the more. He glanced one last time at Disan.

And then he followed Lux into the portal.

Instantly, his body was filled with heat. - searing and burning and scorching, like his veins were filled with liquid flame and his lungs were filled with lava. He gasped desperately for breath but could find none; it felt like he was swallowing ash. His ears throbbed with the roaring of the portal, and he writhed and twisted and screamed and-

Fresh air.

He gasped it in before he could so much as register his surroundings, and when he did his breath was stolen again.

Mountains. They wee so much taller than the ones from Disan, and the air felt fresher and the sky was bluer and the lakes in the distance were clearer and stiller.

He breathed it all in. It was beautiful - more beautiful perhaps than the city - and Rubin decided instantly that this world was better.

The times ahead, however, would be worse.

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