The boy was trembling with excitement, following his brother’s footsteps as they threaded through tall grass.
He was staring at his brother’s back, his skin shimmering with sweat, muscles tensing under his skin as he drew the bowstring.
The boy was elated to be there, in the open field.
For weeks he had pestered Wahsu, his elder brother, to bring him on the hunting fields.
And he was overjoyed that morning, when Wahsu gave him a big smile and told him he could come along.
<<Yes, Hadan. Just, promise me. You will be careful, and you will be quiet.>>
Elated, Hadan smiled until his face went numb. His brother patted his head, ruffling his short black hair with his hand.
Usually, Hadan hated that, but right now he was overjoyed. He admired his brother, one of the best hunters of the tribe.
Hadan always wanted to become one, following in his father and brother’s footsteps. Still, he was too young for that, since the tribe only made hunters who had at least fifteen years on their back, and he only had twelve.
He was also too scrawny, and short, unlike his brother that had a body sculpted from years of training and hunt.
Beside height and muscles, his brother was not too different from Hadan.
The same light brown skin, short curly hair with a dense black tone.
Same nose, too big for them to be called handsome, ruining faces blessed with light green eyes and thick lips.
Wahsu’s face was also decorated with a sparse beard, still growing in patches, more befitting of a young boy than a man with twenty years on his back.
Still, unlike his ability to grow a proper beard, Wahsu’s prowess as a hunter was well respected by the tribe.
He had finished his training in the proving grounds sooner than expected, and he gained his right to hunt when he had fourteen years, one year sooner than what the tribe would usually allow.
But he killed a Fjalte during his Rite, albeit a small one. Still, the feat was enough for the Elders to make an exception,and so they did.
Soon, Hadan too would be allowed to train himself in the proving grounds, and after two more years, he too would become a hunter.
He had never been on the hunt, the only one among his friend that never did. At least, that’s what his friends told him.
Mehru said that he went there, and even hunted a rabbit on his own.
But Mehru was a liar, so he probably just told a tall story to impress the others.
Hadan was there, however. And when they would return to the village, he and his brother, he would tell the others of his courage, he would tell them of his adventure.
Right now, however, it was time for him to be silent.
Wahsu was about to let his arrow loose on the prey.
They stalked it for half the morning, until the Father was up in the sky, his light burning on the boy’s skin.
All around, the wind made tall grass rustle, blowing in the opposite direction from their position. Taking away their scent, sweeping it away from the prey’s nose.
He spied the creature, its tall head peeking out of the grass from time to time.
It had an elongated neck, thin and covered by a light brown fur with two large white stripes going all the length up to the head.
The beast’s large ears darted in all directions, tuning to the faint noises all around, searching for possible threats.
Its big, milky eyes were looking in their direction, and for a moment, Hadan thought that they had been spotted.
It was not the case, however, as the beast delved its head inside the grass again.
The only thing poking out were its four spiral horns, pointing high in the sky as the beast resumed its meal.
Hadan looked at his brother again. T
he Varn did not notice him, nor the arrow pointed towards its neck.
But Wahsu waited, keeping the bow tense and the arrow notched.
The arrowhead glistened in sunlight, reflecting its rays, shimmering like a pretty stone.
And it was a pretty stone.
A splinter of jade, its light green color almost masking the deadliness of the shard.
Wahsu waited again, immobile, his breath almost imperceptible.
The Varn raised its head again, and Wahsu released the arrow.
It flied, whistling in the air before notching itself in the beast’s neck.
The creature cried, a painful lament that almost made Hadan cry himself.
But the Varn did not fell to the arrow, and instead, it bolted away.
Wahsu’ clicked his tongue, following with curse words whispered under his lips.
He looked at the bow, surprised about his arrow missing the mark.
he muttered, looking at the slight curve that bent the bow in an unusual way.
It was a new design, Sahl had told him.
And he accepted, trusting his friend’s craftsmanship.
The bow worked well when he tested it the day before, and Wahsu was baffled by the sudden change in the weapon’s performance.
The arrow was off, missing the spot where Wahsu aimed. It still hit the target, but missed the vital points, wounding the beast without killing it immediately.
And now their prey was running away. It would still die, bleeding out of the wound. But it would do it slowly, far away as the beast ran with all the strength left in its body. And it had plenty, still.
<<Quick! Follow me!>>
Wahsu immediately rushed out of the hiding spot, and Hadan followed.
The Varn was quick, running away until it became a small spot in the distance.
There was no way for them to catch it, not even now that it was wounded.
Hadan muttered, looking at Wahsu with teary eyes.
His brother smiled however, reassuring him.
Wahsu’s voice was calm, his expression unwavering.
But he knew the dangers that pursuing a bleeding prey would pose.
First, the scent of blood could attract predators and scroungers. He could easily fend off the small Hapas, even a group of them.
But if something like a Fjalte caught the scent, it would have been an entirely different matter. Hopefully these hunting grounds were void of them. Hopefully.
Still, Wahsu could not let his brother see him worry. Not now. He strode onward, with Hadan following behind.
They marched, following the trail of blood into the wild grass, running, but not too fast. After all, they only needed to not lose sight of the wounded prey.
They went on and on, more than hour spent as the Father changed his position in the sky. The light was still scorching, but less than it had during the peak hours.
Wounded, and dying, the Varn was lying in an empty patch of dried soil, few dozens of meters from the hunter and his brother.
Still, even if their prey was near, something else caught the two’s attention.
In their village’s direction, far away, a thick, black column of smoke rose.
It was too soon in the day for it to be the High Fire, Wahsu thought. And even if it was, there was no way that the smoke would be so dark.
A bad feeling wrenched the hunter’s guts, as he turned to his brother.
Hadan too was staring at the menacing black column, his face paler than Wahsu had ever seen it.
<<Let’s go back>>
The hunter whispered, almost audible to his brother.
Hadan simply nodded, too shocked to even reply.
That smoke was bad news.
They ran, this time at full speed towards the village.
If fire had broke in there, consuming the wooden structures and tents made with tanned hide, the village would need every able hand to quench the fire.
And so, they ran.
When they arrived at the village, rising smoke clouded the sky, hiding the soil from Father’s light.
The air was dense with a thick smoke, carrying the repulsive scent of charred skin. Screams echoed, and Wahsu knew immediately that it was no accident that caused this mayhem before their eyes.
Figures were moving, barely visible inside the smoke. But his eyes were well trained, and he saw them.
Their shining skin, shimmering among the smoke.
He had heard of them, from the rambling of some caravan merchant, too drunk to even properly speak.
He remembered the tale that the drunken, shambling merchant slobbered in front of the fire, when Wahsu and his hunting party shared fire and food with the nomad caravan.
He thought it the rambling of a fool, shuddering man, talking about demons whose skin shone like the brightest star, like the Father himself.
And they were hungry, the merchant said, hunting man and beast alike. Their skin could not be pierced, harder than bone, sturdier than rock itself. And their claws tore warriors apart, like leaves in a storm.
The others laughed at the merchant’s story, deeming it the delirium of a drunken fool. But Wahsu saw, he saw the terror painted in the merchant’s eyes as he spoke.
And now, he knew. That tale was real, and demons were here.
He took his brother, diving into a tall bush while keeping his hand to Hadan’s mouth, keeping it shut.
He dragged him away from the village, moving as silent as he could. When he thought he had enough distance between the burning village and their position, he released his brother, holding him with his two hands on his tiny shoulders. He knelt, looking straight into Hadan’s eyes.
The boy was trembling, and his eyes were moist with tears.
He turned his back away from Hadan, but he changed his mind. Wahsu fiddled with the small pouch hanging from the side of his waist.
He extracted a small dagger, handing it to his brother.
The weapon had a wooden handle, the blade portion made with sharpened bone and fastened to the handle by a tightly knit fiber string.
Terrified, Hadan nodded. Wahsu patted his head once more before sneaking out of their hiding spot.
Hadan saw his brother go away, and tried to force back his tears. He wanted to call him back, but he did not. Instead he crouched on the spot, staring at his brother’s waning silhouette as he disappeared inside the smoke.
Time went by, hours maybe. All Hadan could hear was some distant yell, some of them of pain, others of rage.
A few times he thought he heard his brother’s voice, but he hoped to be wrong. He was wrong, there was no way in hell that Wahsu could be the one crying in pain. For he was a hunter, one of the tribe’s best.
But as time went by, his fear grew.
And suddenly, something came into view. Hidden inside the bush, he could not properly see what was going on.
He was distant from the village’s entrance, and the branches of his hideout were partially covering his view. Still, he saw something emerge from the smoke.
And his heart skipped a beat.
They had the form of men, but their bodies shone, glimmering in a cold light. Some of them were atop of beasts, creatures that Hadan never saw before.
He initially thought them to be monsters, part men part beast, but he forced himself to look more, to look properly at them, like a hunter would do.
And he saw that those were no monsters, but men mounted on large animals.
Their bodies were not shining, they were wearing something.
Some kind of armor, without a doubt. But it was neither hide nor bone, like the armor his tribe used. It was something different, unknown to him.
Some of the shining men held weapons in their hands, made with the same materials as the armor they wore.
On their faces, they held masks, twisted in terrifying expression, but undoubtedly human.
Hadan almost shouted when one of them turned towards him. For a moment, he thought that he had been spotted.
But the man returned his attention to his comrades, and they strode along, ignoring Hadan’s hiding spot.
The boy almost drew a sigh of relief, but it froze in his throat as he saw more of the shining men. And what they were carrying.
Wounded, beaten, some of them so badly that he hardly recognized their features. But their clothes, and the tattoos that decorated their skin, were unmistakably those of his tribe.
They were bound by a rope that shined in light, each of them being dragged, tied to the large beasts and forced to walk.
Some of them, unable to walk on their feet, fell to the ground, only to be dragged by force, their skin scraping on the bare ground.
Hadan was so focused on the grizzly scene that he did not hear the rustling of leaves behind him.
He almost pissed himself when he felt a hand grab his left arm.
Turning around, he expected to see his brother.
Instead, something shined in the corner of his vision.
He had been found. Without even thinking, he spun around, slashing with his dagger.
The sudden movement was enough to surprise his captor, and he bolted away from his hiding spot.
He ran, and ran, as fast as he could.
Among the youths of his tribe, he was the fastest. He even beat some of the adults, when they raced around the central plaza, playing with his friends.
But now, it was not child’s play. He was running for his life.
He heard a commotion behind him.
First, shouted words in a language he could not understand. Then, it came another sound, deeper, not human.
Something was following him, hunting him down. And they were catching up with him.
He dared not to turn around, fearing that his heart would give away if he saw what was chasing him.
Far from the village, he ran towards the grasslands, heading to the steep cliffs and ravines that lied on the village’s outskirts.
In there, he could find a spot to hide.
They would lose him inside the small tunnels, too narrow for a grown man to follow him.
Too narrow for those beasts. At least, he hoped so.
He was almost there, his goal right in front of him.
The first part of the ravine was deep, and he had to be careful around the edges.
He needed to head right from his position, following the ravine’s mouth until he found a proper spot to climb it down.
But he could not do so. As soon as he neared the ravine, something jumped on him, making Hadan lose his balance.
Shouting, he felt down the ravine’s mouth.
He hit his body against the rock, tumbling down as he desperately tried to take a hold, to break his fall with his hands.
The thing that assailed him was heavier, and it felt faster, landing on the ground below with a loud thud. It let out a wailing sound that echoed in the ravine.
Hadan fell, until he crashed his body on the rock bottom of the ravine. He heard his legs break, and he let out a muffled cry, unable to even shout from intense pain.
In that instant, he remembered the time when Jaltha broke his leg, and Hadan spent almost two entire days harassing the boy, mocking him for his tears.
Now, he knew the pain that Jaltha felt, and, in his mind, he thought about apologizing to him as soon as he could.
It was a silly thought, he realized. But it distracted him from the pain, if only for a moment.
He was alive however. Hurting, wounded, unable to move. But alive.
Again, he almost drew a sigh of relief, but he froze in shock as he saw something move beside him.
The thing that attacked him was rising. It was some kind of animal, almost as big as him. A thick, black fur covered his body, sprinkled with fresh blood.
But the thing that caught Hadan’s attention was the beast’s mouth. A row of sharp teeth was bared at him, glistening with saliva and blood as the beast snarled, coming closer to the boy.
Weak as he was, Hadan’s consciousness faded away.
He had the impression of hearing a strong voice behind him, but then a dark veil fell on his vision, and the world was no more.
The air was filled with a sweet scent, and the boy was woken up by it. He opened his eyes, still clouded.
The world swayed in front of him, and a strong sense of nausea rose up in his stomach. Resisting the urge to throw up, Hadan closed his eyes again. He tried to lift his body up, but a sudden fit of pain made him desist.
<<So, are you awake boy?>>
A gritty, coarse voice called to him. Once again, Hadan tried to open his eyes.
He managed to see the shape of the place he was in, a small cave, dug in the soft, orange colored rock of the ravine.
His body was lying on a straw bed, covered by a thick pelt that prickled his skin.
Once again, he closed his eyes as he felt his stomach rebel again.
<<Easy, easy. You hit your head pretty hard. What were you thinking? Jumping down in the ravine like this? You’re lucky you only broke a few bones>>
Again ,the coarse voice.
It sounded old, and this time, it was nearer than before.
Hadan tried to answer, but his voice came out weak an broken.
He cleared his throat, feeling the taste of blood in his mouth for a moment. Then, he tried again to speak.
Hadan muttered, his voice stuttering from the recent shock.
<<Don’t be silly. I only scared it away, and I dragged you here. Relax, it will not find us. Now, care to tell me your name, boy?>>
The gritty voice beckoned him again. Hadan remained silent for a moment, pondering if the man told the truth to him.
He answered, giving his name to this stranger that saved his life.
What followed was pain. Hadan endured, forcing his mouth shut, holding his screams inside his throat as the man tended to his wound.
He felt his old, wizened hands gently caress his body when the man examined the wounds.
He felt his old, wizened hands when they harshly gripped his leg, making pressure to make the broken bone straight again, forcing it against a stick and then holding it in position by binding it to a straight wooden stick.
He felt his skin burn as the old man washed his wounds with a foul smelling liquid, and he cried when the old hands pierced his skin with a bone needle, sewing the skin back together as if it was an old cloth to mend.
Still, Hadan endured all this. He did not dare to look, however. Blood did never scare him.
At least, not when it belonged to something else, that is. When it was his own blood flowing, that was a different matter.
The torture only lasted for half an hour, but it felt an eternity to Hadan.
He fainted when the old man finished, going back to the black, dreamless sleep that held him when he crashed down the ravine.
The next day, Father’s warm light was shining on his face, waking him up. Hadan opened his eyes, this time without his stomach rebelling and rising up.
The old man came again, holding a small plate in his hands. He offered the plate to Hadan, that happily drank the soup it contained.
It had a bitter aftertaste, but it was not bad to eat. Not good either, but beggars can’t be chooser, Hadan thought.
The old man smiled, his wrinkled skin becoming even more.
He wore a ragged tunic, that must have been splendid once, as the embroidery still visible in some part of it revealed.
It was tattered in some spot, and it must have been old, perhaps even more than the man himself.
On his neck, a necklace dangled, a curious round stone, so dark that it almost seemed made of night itself.
He still had all hair on his head, white and long, tangled and dirty.
Furry eyebrows that overlooked a hunched, narrow nose, and thin lips that revealed a set of teeth too perfect for a man his age.
But the feature of his face that shocked Hadan the most, were his eyes. There was no iris in them, nor a visible pupil. They were white. Completely so.
Hadan gaped his mouth in realization. The old man in front of him was blind.
Hadan asked, his tone stronger than the day before.
<<Oh, not even saying “thank you”? Oh well, I suppose I could give you my name first. I am Marduk>>
Hadan let go of the plate in his hands, letting it fall down on the floor and shatter in thousand pieces.
He had heard that name, in stories told by the adults at night, when children were not supposed to hear.
There was a tribe once, and they cast out some of their men for a terrible crime. Their leader, a vile and renegade shaman, stole the precious God from the tribe when they were forced to leave the sacred land.
And the God grew angry, and cast a curse upon the renegade tribe and their shaman. He killed all exiles, and made their leader a monster, cursing him to walk the land forever.
The God robbed him of his sight, for he could not longer gaze on the sacred land. He took his sense of smell, and taste, for he could not enjoy the fruit of the sacred land, nor the meat of its creatures.
And he took his touch, for he was prohibited warmth, and the comfort of another’s embrace.
And the God left him his ears, for he would be able to hear the sacred curse his name, for ages to come.
And he made him undying, unable to return to his ancestor’s side. For he was cursed for his crimes.
The Undying One. The Traitor, the one who stole God.
Marduk, the Accursed one.