Marduk woke up, covered in sweat as fragments of a nightmare still haunted his mind. In the past nights, he often saw those eyes again, in his dreams.
He tried to calm the unrest beating in his chest, to no avail.
He felt terrified, a sensation that he had not experienced since long time ago.
<<This must not be a coincidence>> he muttered to himself, trying to chase away the bad sensation that was slowly taking hold of his thoughts, creeping in, nightmare after nightmare.
He grabbed the pendant that hanged from his neck, caressing its lines with his old, shriveled fingers.
That gesture had some calming effect on his mind, and he often found himself fidgeting with the pendant, searching its smooth surface whenever he felt unrest, or, in this case, fear.
And the nightmares he had were always tied to the moment he got that object.
He closed his eyes in remembrance, thinking about the short time after his tribe was taken.
For some time, he remained with them. Not by his choice, but he could not refuse the will of the thing that he called from the stars.
When it awakened, taking possession of the young warrior’s body, opening blackened eyes to see this world for the first time, the thing cast a spell on Marduk.
A gift, that’s how it called what was done to Marduk. Although, it was more of a curse.
And Marduk could not resist it, bound by a will so different from his own, alien and powerful in ways that a mere human could not understand.
He was forced to stay, to see what had become of his fellow tribesmen. And it was wonderful, to see what the thing from the stars accomplished.
In a single year, the starving tribe that Marduk knew was no more. They moved away from the barren lands of their exile, migrating north towards their former sacred lands. And they reclaimed it,
less than two hundred men against a tribe of two thousands and three hundred fifty people. Those that exiled them in the first place.
Marduk saw, as the men of his tribe battled, and conquered. Trampling down their former brethren, showing a strength out of this world.
Even Marduk took place in the battle.
Even with his old, shriveled body, he could easily overpower the strongest enemy warriors.
He remembered how some of them dragged him away from the temple, before the exile, when they found out his crime, his conspiracy.
Marduk’s attempt to take power for himself, to dethrone the elders failed even before he could set it in motion.
And the same warriors that chased him out of the temple, the same that rounded up his men and banished from the sacred lands, were now falling like flies under his blows, unable to oppose the unnatural strength that flowed in his body.
He felt powerful, like he never had, his old, shriveled body was free of any pain, he could move like when he did when he himself was a warrior of the tribe.
In that night, he had his revenge against those that cast him down. And, much to his later sorrow, he felt good about it.
Led by the thing he called from the stars, the exiles conquered the sacred land.
And that was only the first of the miracles Marduk witnessed.
In a short amount of years, a splendid kingdom was born.
The Starfallen King, as the thing from the stars chose to be called, guided his people to a age of scientific wonders.
The former tribesmen, who wore crude leather and brandished weapons of wood and bone, were gifted the secrets of fire and stone.
They made tools and weapons from it, melting rare rocks in grand ovens, until the elements combined and formed something that had the hardness of stone, but could be molded like clay.
And it shone like stars, like the sun itself.
The Starfallen called it “metal”, and gifted his people with the knowledge and method to produce it.
Various form of this “metal” could be obtained, mixing different kind of rocks, to obtain various kinds of metal for different purposes.
The king taught how to grow crops and cultivate the land, and how to capture and tame animals instead of hunting.
And that was the turning point for Marduk, the point where marvel became suspect first, horror later.
For the King taught his people not only to enslave beasts, but men alike.
From time to time, the tribe’s warriors left their city, roaming the land not to hunt beasts, but to hunt men.
In chains, they brought them back to the city, forcing them to work in their place.
Slaves, they became.
Exploiting their work, the tribe grew even more.
Their tents and houses made of wood, became houses of stone.
Paved roads were set, and monuments were built with the lives and sweat of thousands slaves.
Marduk, who greatly valued freedom, abhorred the slavery. But he noticed something even darker than that.
Most of the people caught during the raids, were thrown into slavery. But some, mainly children and women, were reserved a different fate.
Dragged on top of the altars that slaves built, they were laid down on stones during the nights were the two moons overlapped, forming a dark ring in the darkest nights.
And thy were slain on the altars, their hearts offered to the Starfallen.
With each sacrifice, the king’s power grew, and Marduk felt that growth.
With each life offered, new strength flowed inside the old man’s body, the same strength that came from the Starfallen.
Marduk grew restless, his mind torn by what he witnessed. He always held the old customs of his tribe, and their God would never demand the sacrifice of human lives. And yet, the same God that spoke to him, the same that he called into this world and became king of men, was reveling in sacrifice, demanding more and more as time went by.
The steps of the altars became painted in deep crimson, and the number of sacrifices increased even more.
Until the city itself took the smell of rotting, burning flesh.
Until Marduk could not recognize his fellow tribesmen as human anymore.
Not only those that were brought back by the Starfallen, but the others, normal people, woman and children, old and young alike.
They revered their Starfallen king, they cheered when the sacrifice’s heart was held high towards the night sky by the priests, only to be burned in offering to the God king.
At that point, Marduk decided to end the horror he brought. He plotted to take the king’s life, if something like that was even possible.
He still had the knife, made with the same matter as the Idol back then.
He waited for the perfect moment, for when the king would send word for him, inviting him to his palace made of that strange metal they called “gold”.
Often, the God king would summon him, taking pleasure in talking to the old man. Marduk always felt repulsed by that thing with the form of a man.
In all the year that passed, the body of the Starfallen remained the same, a young boy in his prime age.
And whenever Marduk saw him, those eyes, black like night itself, made his body shiver in terror.
He often saw that appearance, the light brown skin slightly covered by rich vests, the golden crown and mask that the king wore in public set aside on his throne.
And the pendant, always dangling from the God king’s neck, shining black piece of the Sky itself.
Marduk believed the pendant to be some kind of amulet, a source of power for the king.
It was something the king obtained recently, but since then, he never parted from it.
As Marduk recalled, one night, the same kind of night when stars fell down from the sky, as they did when Marduk held the rite to call the God into this world.
The Starfallen king left the palace, taking few men with him.
One of them was Marduk himself.
They rode towards a distant land, until the king ordered his men to stop.
He proceeded alone, into a barren wasteland, following a star that fell.
The following days, tremor shook the land, and the sky went black until day and night were no more, both painted in the same absence of light.
When the king came back, his body was injured, his precious clothes tattered.
And he had that pendant on his neck, the symbol of victory over his mortal foe.
Because, Marduk knew, what took place in the barren wasteland was a battle between being not of this world.
That moment, he learned two things.
There were more beings like the Starfallen god, perhaps even more powerful than the king himself.
Marduk shuddered after seeing the aftermath of the battle, the wasteland turned into a desert, land and rock became sand, as black as night.
The battle shaped the land, turning mountains into black dust. Some was scattered by the wind, coming from the outskirts of the place, those not touched by the brunt of the battle.
The center of the land was twisted into something out of any logic. Black stone, that shone like glass, twisted into forms that defied geometry.
And the air itself became poison. That place became forbidden, a lifeless desert that became known as the Black Sands, avoided and feared even by the Starfallen king’s own people.
That time, Marduk learned of the king’s power, and that were other things akin to him. But, at the same time, he learned that the king could be wounded, perhaps even killed.
When he was summoned for the last time, Marduk attempted at the king’s life.
He came close to him, to it, and plunged the knife into his neck.
Marduk used his old knife, made out of the same strange matter that composed the Idol he revered.
He figured out, that if something could take the life of the king, it must have been something not from this world. And he was right, at least he thought.
It was unexpectedly easy. He looked at the king’s corpse, his blackened eyes gazing towards the ceiling, still as lifeless as before.
In a moment of spite, Marduk snatched the pendant from the king’s body, and ran as fast as he could.
He was still inside the palace, when he heard the laughter, the voice resounding in his head. He looked back, from a moment.
And he saw it, creeping out of the young corpse, the Starfallen in its true form. If it even had a proper form.
A black mass, so dark that it seemed like it was negating light itself, shambling, twisting tentacles.
Marduk had the impression of seeing a gaping mouth, lines of sharp teeth twisted into what could only be a malicious smile.
And the eyes of that thing, gazing Marduk with a hatred older than the world, fierce, ancient and powerful. He saw those black eyes, the stars swirling in them.
Feeling his mind shattering, Marduk cried his lungs out, running as fast as he could from the thing.
He fell, scraping his hands and knees, he ran and fell again.
He ran for how much he could not even remember, he ran until half the world was between him and that thing, until minutes or centuries went by and he felt safe again.
He ran, his mind clouded in madness, his eyes seeing the unseen, the things between worlds that must never be revealed to human eyes.
Because, from the moment he set his eyes on the true form of the Starfallen God, the veil of reality was shattered for him.
Within every shadow, strange shapes were shifting, stalking him relentlessly.
Nights were even worse, and he could not even bear to gaze up to the stars anymore, knowing the horrors that fluttered between them.
Until he could not take it anymore, until he robbed himself of his eyes, to stop seeing those things.
But he was changed forever, first by the God’s gift, then by his reveal.
Even blind, Marduk could see.
It was different than before.
He could not choose what to see, at the beginning.
He often found himself assaulted by some vision of distant lands, or he could see what happened below his feet, between the minuscule grain of sands, see the creatures that dwelt and lived in that world of diminutive size.
Sometimes, visions of a strange past took hold of his mind, and he spied strange creatures running away from monstrous predators, their scaly hides and fanged mouth feeling as real as the ground beneath his feet.
He saw other races, so different from humans and yet capable of the same intellect, the same cruelty. He saw wars, both past and future.
He saw strange birds letting something fall on what looked like a city, and a fire so intense that it burned everything to ashes, rising up in the sky and taking the bizarre form of a blazing mushroom.
He saw the void of space, and what lies beneath.
With time, he learned to control the visions, to direct them towards what he wanted to see.
Sometimes, he even pondered to take a look at him, but he always desisted that thought. After all, Marduk felt safe, having fled half the world in order to not see that thing again, and he knew that seeking it would only break his safety.
He thought himself to be safe, but the recent events proved him wrong.
The attack on the village, was without any doubt perpetrated by the Starfallen King’s warriors.
“Men dressed in light”, that’s how Hadan called the attackers. What the boy saw, were people wearing metal armor.
And that meant, the Starfallen was getting close to him.
Could his forces have already enslaved half the world?
Marduk tortured himself with that question, often spending sleepless nights over it, sometimes, his worries seeped into his dreams, painting in them the color of nightmares.
More and more, as they left the ravine, the nightmares took hold of Marduk’s mind.
First, they were confused, a jumbled mess of memories and scenes.
Then, they became more clear. They were not memories, they were messages.
Threats. More and more, he saw the Starfallen, both in his human shell and in his true appearance.
The Starfallen taunted Marduk, threatened him, like he did when Marduk fled the city. For a long time, the harassing ceased, but now, it started again.
That could not be a coincidence, thought Marduk.
For the dreams to start again, right after the Starfallen’s men showed up near him.
It could not be a coincidence, and that terrified Marduk.
He grasped the pendant tighter, and he let out a deep sigh.
<<A bad dream?>>
Hadan’s tired voice shook Marduk out of his thoughts.
The night was about to end, sunlight began to spread towards the horizon.
Probably, thought Marduk, he woke up the boy by making some noise, perhaps he even started to mutter to himself, absorbed in thoughts like he was.
<<Yeah. It happens at my age>>
Marduk stood up, giving a faint and tired smile to Hadan.
Since they were both awake, there was no point in lying there.
He started to fix some breakfast, as the boy went out to relieve himself.
Soon, they would resume their march toward the forest, and the sea beyond it.
After taking care of their meal, the two extinguished the remains of their campfire and set out on the road again.
The forest was now visible, tall trees that seemed so little from distance now showed all their gigantic size, their tops shrouded in a thin veil of mist.
Hadan looked at them in marvel, until his neck hurt from looking up too much.
He never saw trees like those, tall, with trunks so large that it would take ten or twenty people to join their hands together and embrace a single one of them.
The old bark from some of them was falling off, and Hadan could see the new bark growing in those scars.
Marduk walked closer to one of the trees, and he made an incision in one of the scars, storing the thick, white sap that flowed from it inside a small bottle.
<<This sap has healing properties, especially good when treating burns and infection. The bark itself, can become a remedy for pain and fever, if you dry it and grind it into a fine powder. Care to tell me what tree is this one?>>
Marduk asked the boy. Sharing his lessons to Hadan made him relax a bit, taking his mind away from his woes and worries, focused as he was in teaching something.
That’s something he always liked to do, and, sometimes, he wondered how his life would have gone, if he stuck to being a teacher instead of following his twisted aspirations of power.
<<Salabat. Although I pictured them to a bit…different. Smaller>>
Hadan’s answer made Marduk smile.
The boy identified a tree he never saw before, just by remembering the properties of sap and bark.
He had a good memory, for sure.
And for someone who deals with plants and potions, that’s one of the most important qualities.
The ability to memorize different plants, recall their effects and recognize them from their parts.
Of course, the boy’s ability was still lacking, but he had time to grow, and Marduk had the will and patience to teach.
More than that, teaching helped against boredom.
As the two of them walked into the forest, Marduk showed Hadan several types of herbs and mushrooms, useful for concoctions and potions.
He questioned the boy, to probe his understanding.
The forest was wide, shadowed by the tall trees.
Although the sun shone brightly that day, the air inside the forest was damp and cold, and Hadan shivered in the shadow of the trees.
His hands were dirty with soil and sap, as he was made to collect roots from the undergrowth of the forest.
He hummed a song while he did so, but it choked in his mouth as the violent memory of his father, who thought him that song, blazed in his memory.
Since he survived what happened to his village, he often found himself prey to those moments, memories of the ones he lost.
It made him physically hurt, cutting his breath and making his heart pound as if it attempted to burst out of his chest, to leave behind those painful memories.
As before, he tried to push back the tears, feeling like his throat had been tied into a tight knot.
He diverted his thoughts on Marduk’s lessons, repeating the ingredients and properties of plants he had found in this forest.
It wasn’t much, but it helped Hadan to distract a bit from his pain.
He immersed himself into the task that the old man had given him. Soon, they would reach a village , beyond the forest.
There, if they wanted to enter the village, they would need some goods to trade.
Since Marduk’s craft was something rare, he only needed to gather and prepare some ingredients, and the village would gladly admit entrance to a healer and his potions.
And so, the boy was sent to gather the roots and herbs around, taking them back to the old man.
When he collected enough, Hadan sat beside Marduk, looking as the old man processed the ingredients with his hands.
He ground roots and bark together, mixing water and sap to the poultice.
The two of them were in a small clearing, where Marduk had set a small, controlled campfire.
There, he was heating water on the fireplace, in a small clay pot suspended on the flames with wooden sticks.
A bit ineffective and crude, as the old man lamented, but it would suffice for their purpose.
Hadan looked intensely as the old man mixed precise quantities of sap and poultice into the boiling water, and waited as Marduk stirred the liquid.
The steam coming from the pot had a bitter, grassy smell.
After a while, most of the water had evaporated, leaving a thick, red colored soup inside the pot.
<<Now, we need something to make it sweet to the taste. Come with me, boy>>
Hadan followed the old blind man into the forest. He was no more bothered by the fact that a blind man was behaving like he could see, even better than how Hadan did.
Now, without a doubt in his heart, Hadan knew that the old man had something supernatural in him, some kind of power outside of his understanding, that allowed his blind eyes to see the world in mysterious ways.
And Hadan did not care about it, not the slightest.
Well, he thought, to be fair he was curious about it, but he never directly asked Marduk about it, out of respect for the old man.
Hadan himself was slightly amused by how his consideration for Marduk changed so quickly and so many times since he first met the man.
At first, he was grateful to him, then he was scared bloodless when he heard his name. Now, after he knew him better, Hadan felt a profound respect towards the old man.
The things he knew, and those that he shared to Hadan, were precious to the boy.
They sated his curiosity, not like those old stories that the elders of tribes told, or the vague answers they gave him when he raised his hand during lessons, and he asked his questions.
Hadan remembered those times, with a smirk on his face.
First, he never liked the elders.
The tent where they held lessons to the children of the tribe smelled of old sweat and mold.
Their stares were always sour and angry at the children, every time they surprised them sharing a laughter.
Even worse when a child told something that went against their teaching, or made some question that they did not like.
Hadan recalled the time when he asked about the nature of stars.
<<They are the souls of our ancestors, taken by the embrace of our Mother, to forever be held under the loving gaze of her Eyes>>
That answer disappointed Hadan, deeply.
When he asked Marduk the same thing, the answer he got was different, entirely so.
The old man spoke of incredible distances, of the dark void between worlds.
He spoke about worlds, not just one, different, infinite in number.
And the stars in his words were not the burning souls of long dead warriors, they were burning, yes, but gigantic masses of something he called “gas”.
Even the Father, or as Marduk called it, the “Sun” was but one of them, another star, another ever-burning eternal mass of energy.
Another boy would have laughed at that answer, thinking those words the product of a senile mind.
An adult of his tribe would have thought them blasphemy, towards the Father and the ancestors that gazed from the sky.
But to Hadan, those words were wonders, vastly more interesting than the old tales of ancestors and Gods that lived in the immutable sky.
<<Here will do. Now, do as I say, and be very, very careful>>
Marduk’s voice called Hadan back from his thoughts. He led the boy towards a fallen tree, and from the rotting trunk, covered by moss and large, reddish mushrooms, there was a buzzing sound coming.
As Hadan came closer, he saw the origin of that sound.
Big as his index finger, insects were swarming around a ball-shaped brown “thing”.
The insects, buzzing around, gave him a bad feeling.
<<Now, those are Ohla. Watch out, do not step closer to their nest. You will enrage them, and they will swarm on you, stinging everything they can see. And they see a lot. Their poison does not kill, but it hurts like hell>>
Marduk made a wry smile to Hadan, seeing as the boy recoiled a bit in fear.
<<Why did we come here?>>
Hadan asked, his voice slightly trembling.
<<To collect something from their nest, of course>>
Marduk’s answer sent a shiver down Hadan’s spine.
The old man took out a rag and some dry branches, and he dropped some kind of liquid on the rag, from a small clay bottle he took out of his pouch.
A strange smell diffused in the air, making Hadan’s nose itch.
<<Now, this liquid here is flammable. It means, that it takes fire very quickly. When it burns, the liquid lets out a thick smoke. Harmless to us, toxic to them>>
Said Marduk, pointing towards the Ohla nest.
He wrapped the cloth on the wooden stick, handing it to Hadan along with two fire-stones.
<<Well, time to start>>
The boy sighed, and he crouched down, laying the stick on the ground as he smashed the fire-stones one onto the other, letting out sparks as the two stones collided.
The sparks flew over the cloth, and it burst into flame.
Hadan fell backwards, surprised by the intense heat coming from the cloth.
Marduk let out a hearty laughter, and shook his head.
<<You need to be cautious with that, or you’ll burn yourself along with the cloth>>
Hadan dropped his shoulder, feeling a bit offended by the old man’s mocking tone.
Still, he took the torch in his hands, taking care of keeping the burning part away from his face.
He asked, holding the flaming torch.
From its end, a thick black smoke was released, making the young boy cough and squint his eyes.
<<Now you push that under the nest, and wait>>
Feeling a bit insecure, Hadan followed Marduk’s instructions.
He went near the nest, taking slow steps in order to not upset the swarming insects.
He placed the torch beneath the nest, almost tossing it when one of the creatures landed on his arm.
He swatted it away, letting out a small squirm of disgust.
Having completed his task, he went back towards Marduk. And they waited for the smoke to take effect.
After some minutes, the two of them went back towards the nest.
The buzzing noise was gone, and as they came closer, they saw the insects laying down on the ground and inside the hollow trunk.
Overturned, with their ten legs squirming and jerking in the air.
Their bodies had a strange, shining black-reddish color.
Wings, twice as long as their bodies, sprouted from the back of those creatures, and they had long, elongated eyes that looked like stripes, yellow in color.
Their hind part looked like a big, soft sack, that ended in a curve stinger almost as long as the body itself.
Hadan imagined how it would feel to be stung by one of those things, and he was sure that it would have been unpleasant.
As Hadan fearfully looked the insects, Marduk collected their nest, shaking off the few insects still clinging to it.
With a smile, he showed the nest to Hadan.
It was round, made with a strange, wax-like substance that had a deep brown color.
As Hadan took it in his own hands, he was surprised to feel how light it was. From it, a sweet, fruity scent enveloped Hadan’s nose, making his mouth water.
<<If you crack this open, you will find a thick yellow syrup. It’s called “honey”, something these little things here produce. Here, you break the nest like this and take out these yellow bits. Have a taste>>
Marduk took back the hive from Hadan’s hands.
Carefully, he broke the nest, taking something from inside of it. Some kind of stick, or spike, oozing a thick, yellow liquid.
As Marduk gave Hadan the yellow “thing”, the sweet scent grew stronger.
Hadan took a small bite from it, and a sweet sensations spread in his mouth.
It was the most delicious thing he ever tasted, even more than the sweet fruits his father sometimes brought back from his hunts.
He gulped down the entire thing, chewing it down and letting the savoriness spread on his tongue.
He wanted more, but Marduk denied it.
After all, the old man said, they needed the honey to finish the medicine he was preparing.
The two of them headed back to the fireplace.
There, Marduk broke the rest of the hive, and threw the yellow bits inside the pot.
Again, he added a bit of water and some more herbs, stirring the mixture over the fire.
After a while, the medicine was ready. It became a brown syrup, giving off an intense sweet smell.
<<This here, it cures common cold, fever and sore throat. It’s easy to make, and it sells well. The only difficult thing about this recipe is procuring honey, but you saw where it is possible to find some. Now, do you remember the other ingredients and how to prepare them?>>
Hadan nodded, but Marduk made him repeat the whole process again, stopping the boy as he repeated the step, making him random questions about each ingredient’s properties, where to find them and how to prepare them.
When Hadan finished, Marduk was pleased by his words. He patted the boy’s head, and he gave him the last bit of honey from the hive.
Then, he collected the medicine from the pot, storing it inside some of the small, sleek bottles made of clay that he always brought with him.
Having collected all the medicine he could, he gave the big pot to Hadan, sending him off to clean the pot and collect more water from the nearby stream.
They had chosen that place for their camp, since it was clear from vegetation, perfect for lighting a fire without risking to burn down the entire forest, and because a small stream of crystal clear water was flowing nearby.
Hadan reached the stream, and he immersed the pot in it. He shivered when his hands touched the cold waters, but he endured the cold.
The boy cleaned the pot as best as he could, then he filled the waterskins that Marduk gave him. He headed back, after he drank his share of the cold water and collected a pretty stone from the stream.
As Hadan returned, Marduk took the pot and used it again. Inside of it, he put the waxy hive. Hadan looked at him with a raised brow, baffled by what the old man did.
<<I’m not cooking it, Hadan. Here, look>>
He flicked his finger, signaling Hadan to come closer. As the boy looked inside the pot, he let out a sound of surprise.
The hive was melting down from the heat, becoming a clear, semi-transparent liquid.
<<You can use this to seal things. It’s waterproof, that means water cannot get past it. So, you can seal bottles and pots containing liquid, and even wounds if you boil the wax enough and mix it with some disinfecting herbs>>
Hadan knew what wax was, he had seen it in his village. What he did not know, was that wax could be melted, and that it came from those hives.
Marduk explained him that the wax his tribe used was different from this one, coming from mixed oils and plants instead of insects like this one.
<<Sometimes I will teach you how to make it, perhaps. Not today, lessons are over for now. We need to set on march again, boy>>
Nodding to Marduk’s words, the boy collected his belongings. Marduk did the same. They quenched the fire, taking care of dousing it with enough water, in order to not leave some embers still lit.
They left the place behind, heading in the direction that, according to Marduk, would lead to a village beyond the forest.
As Marduk taught him, Hadan looked at the giant trees, looking for the brown and gray moss that grew on their trunks, near the roots.
The brown and gray moss where the same kind of moss, only the gray one grew in the part of the trees that faced north, the brown one on the south part.
It confused Hadan first, as he still had no grasp of cardinal points and general directions. He always oriented himself as the tribe hunters taught him to do, judging from the sun’s position during the day and using the stars at night.
But Marduk taught him different methods, to use in different situations.
Here, in the forest, the sun could not be seen, since the trees covered blocked the view.
And so, he needed to rely on this trick, seeing where the moss grew on the trees and judging his position and direction from them.
It was difficult, at first, but Hadan got the hang of it after a while.
Together with the old man, they headed in the direction that Marduk called “east”, the same where the Sun would rise.