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


3. Oben

In the morning, Oben had been glad to dump his younger brother Odmar on Grandmother for a day so he could finally learn how to hunt with his parents. Odmar, after all, was a burden - he hadn't yet mastered the silent movement of a hunter like Oben had done, and he'd only scare the game away.



That had been the first mistake.

The three of them had started their ascent of the mountain, and Oben was conscious to move as soundlessly as he could, immitating his parents when they paused. Around him, the forest whispered seductive promises of food through the leaves, through every scuttle and scrabble and squabble of animals.

In front of him, Mother paused, her hand slowly going to an arrow. Oben held his breath as she notched it, drawing back the string and holding it for a seemingly infinite second.

Then she released, and a short, sharp squawk signalled her success. Admiration flooded through Oben's body as the other birds erupted through the canopy of leaves. Father knelt to pick up the fallen bird.

"See?" He held the bird up for Oben to look at. The arrow was protruding from the animal's chest, and Oben grinned to Mother.

"That was amazing!" he beamed, and she smiled, ruffling his hair.

"You'll be able to do that, soon. You've made excellent progress leaning how to move quietly, after all."

A flush of pride lit his cheeks. "Really?"

Father nodded, smiling at him. "Of course."

For a moment, Oben simply bathed in their praise, welcoming the warmth it sent undulating through him. It was a beautiful feeling, to be appreciated, and he wanted to cherish it.

But beautiful things are doomed to perish, and, like a delicate rose of glass, the moment was shattered by screams.

"From the village!" Mother gasped. "Oben, climb a tree, quickly! See what it is!"

Oben was already climbing. The branches swayed only very slightly beneath his small, narrow build as he scaled the tree. It took him mere seconds to reach its summit, and he glanced down from the mountainside, and into his village below.

Instantly, his knuckles turned white with the strength he needed to stay in the tree. The valley was swarming with creatures - terrifying creatures with twisted limbs and spectral figures. Horrified, he could do nothing but watch as they advanced, reaching the village.

A farmer, armed with a feeble pitch-fork, did nothing against them. His weapon passed through the creature's body, like a blade through mist. He fell only a moment later, and from here, Oben could make out the growing patch of crimson, unmistakable against the white of his shirt. A tsunami of nausea slammed into him.

"Oben!" Father's voice dragged him back, and he scrambled down the tree, suppressing the rising bile in his throat.

"Monsters," he managed to choke out. "The monsters, they're killing people, and-"

"Odmar?" Mother demanded. "Is Grandmother's house still safe?"

"We need to run," Oben stuttered. "They'll kill us-"

"Odmar?" Father repeated.

"He'll be killed! They haven't reached him yet, but-"

"We'll go back. Wait here, Oben," Mother commanded. What were they doing? They'd be killed! They shouldn't be waiting; they should be running!

"No!" he begged. "They'll kill you!"

"We're getting Odmar," Father said firmly. "Wait here."

"You'll die!" Oben screamed. "I won't wait here! You need to run!"

"We'll be back soon," Mother promised, and he grabbed her sleeve. Why didn't they understand? They hadn't seen the monsters. They had to listen!

"Please!" he sobbed, but Mother and Father were already leaving, Mother pulling away from his grip, promising they'd be back soon with Grandmother and Odmar. That everything would be fine.

The second mistake - and their last.

"I'm not waiting! I'm leaving!" Oben screamed after them. Why were they forcing him to do this? He didn't want to leave Odmar, or Mother, or Father, or Grandmother, but he didn't want to die, because they could never fight the monsters and he had to make it, so that they wouldn't all just be forgotten. He didn't want to leave them, but what else could he do? Why did they have to be so stupid?

He tore through the forest, stumbling, tripping, standing, running. Don't look back, he told himself. Don't look back, don't look back...

The tears were burning his flesh, but they were nothing compared to the terror and guilt and anguish incinerating his heart and conscience, and for a moment, he paused on a rocky outcrop that jutted out from the mountain.

Two figures darted from the forest below, and towards the village, bows in hands. They didn't make it more than ten steps before the monsters attacked, and Oben gasped for breath.



He saw them fall. He saw their bodies hit the ground. He saw the red, gleaming like rubies in the surviving rays of the harsh sunlight - the only rays to escape the gathering clouds.

Oben would survive. He had to survive, like the sunlight, not like his parents, not like Mother or Father or Odmar or Grandmother.

Oben took a shaky breath, and was running again. Away from the village, from everything he'd ever known.

And this time, he did not look back.

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