Hadan squinted his eyes, shielding them from the excessive light by holding his hand slightly above his brow. Outside of the forest’s shadow, daylight shone brightly.
Too brightly, for Hadan, now that his eyes had been accustomed to the dim light of the forest.
They were still in the forest, him and Marduk, still far away from the little village that should be the destination of their travel, at least for now.
Hadan was just scurrying around, while Marduk was resting his old bones, sitting on a moss covered rock.
The boy could still see the old man if he wanted to, and he could even hear his mutterings, a bad habit that the old man showed from time to time.
But Hadan was far more interested in what lied beyond the forest. The line of tall trees abruptly ended on the edge of a cliff, creating a strange contrast between the shadowy ambient under the treetops and the clearing beyond it, illuminated by a light so strong that it hurt Hadan’s eyes.
And beyond the small clearing, beyond the cliff where the clearing ended, lied the biggest body of water that Hadan had ever seen in his life.
He had been to the river, sometimes, when he and his friends felt brave enough to go there in their games, playing hunters and prey while using wooden sticks and pretending them to be lances and spears.
One time, his father brought him in one of his hunting trips, along with Wahsu, and they followed the river upstream until they found themselves in front of the lake, as his father had described the big “puddle”, chuckling as Hadan described with that term the huge amount of water he saw.
But now, what lied before Hadan’s eyes was even bigger than the “lake”, and far prettier than the lake had been. Reflecting the golden rays of sunlight on its almost flat surface, extending as far as the eyes could see, with a color that changed from a light cerulean to a deep shade of blue, far away from the place Hadan was.
Surprised as he was, Hadan didn’t realize that he had dropped the small wooden stick he held in his hand. He used the stick to fight away his boredom a bit, before he decided to explore the surroundings, before he was rewarded for his choice by finding a treasure of a view.
Excited, he scurried back to Marduk’s side. He tripped on an exposed root on his way back, bruising his knee. For an instant, the memory of the sound his leg made when it broke resurfaced in his mind. But, it was only an instant, and Hadan brushed it away as he did with the dirt and leaves that were clinging to his clothes.
<<Marduk! I saw water! Lots of it!>>
Shouting, the boy reached Marduk, pulling his sleeve to guide him towards the pretty sight. He stopped, almost immediately.
Turning towards the old man, Hadan blushed as he realized that he had overlooked something.
Marduk was blind, after all. It was still confusing to Hadan, since the old man proved many times that he could somehow “see” stuff, but Hadan was not sure if Marduk could see, or if there was something else going on. He had never mustered the courage to ask him, and he found it kind of rude to bluntly ask something like this to a man far older than him.
He explained what he saw to the old man, and, using this occasion, Hadan asked to Marduk about that.
The old man paused a bit before answering to Hadan, and the boy thought that Marduk’s silence was somehow due to the old man being offended by what he said.
Marduk caressed Hadan’s head, ruffling his hair a bit. The boy disliked when Marduk did so, and he did it on purpose, to mess him up a bit.
<<No, Hadan. I cannot see see. It’s…complicated, and I myself do not properly know how it works. Sometimes, I can see what happens faraway from where I am. Most of the times, I can see what I want to see. But, it does not happen with my eyes. It’s all in here>>
He said, tapping his left temple with a finger.
<<Now, for the second thing you asked…that is called a “Sea”. It’s water, lots of it. So much that you cannot even imagine how much it is. When we will reach the village, you’ll see it up close. Now, let’s go. We’ve spent already too much time inside this forest>>
The boy nodded with vigor, strolling off while Marduk followed him in his usual slow pace.
His mind was agitated enough, and he did not want Hadan to be concerned as well.
Since they entered the forest, a strange sensation took hold of Marduk’s mind. He felt uneasy under those trees, agitated. It was a long time ago, the last time he felt a similar sensation.
His suspicions only grew worse with every step they took inside the forest. It was quiet, too quiet for a place like this.
Usually, birds would chirp, hidden in the highest branches above, and small animals would occasionally cross their path. This one was not a dangerous forest, by all means. At least, that’s how Marduk remembered it.
He still thought it safe, when they entered the outskirts of the forest. There, birds would sing their songs, and they found animals, albeit few of them. The boy even managed to catch some as prey, and they ate them for lunch. Small things, they were, and the lack of larger animals did not make Marduk suspect that something was amiss in the forest.
But, as they reached deeper into the trees, they encountered less and less, until the silence grew strong, the absence of noise looming on them.
And Marduk, albeit a bit suspicious, still thought it safe, for a while.
Now, he was not so sure. The usual sounds of bird singing their songs was not there, and he did not catch a single noise, nor the slightest scent of any of the animals that should be there.
Instead, there was an unnatural silence in the air, only broken by Hadan’s voice and the sound of their own steps, crackling over the dead foliage that littered the ground.
And the smells of the forest, they were not right.
There was the usual scent of vegetation and musk, the scent of wilderness and humid shadows where leaves rotted over growing mushrooms.
But there was another scent mixed in there, faint, wrong. Like a misplaced note in a well written song, that smell was breaking the harmony of the place, leaving a bad sensation with its sole presence.
The smell of death, faint but heavy in its implications.
As they threaded further into the forest, Marduk’s uneasiness only grew stronger.
Hadan was walking in front of the old man, sending glances back to him from time to time. He did not want to leave Marduk behind, mainly because Hadan did not knew where to go, and he feared getting lost into the forest on his own.
He feared being left alone, since, after all that happened with his village, Marduk was the only person that cared about Hadan.
That though made him waver a bit, and he bit his lips to not let tear rise once again to wet his eyes.
He kept his tears to himself, only letting them go at night, when he was sure that the old man was sound asleep.
The wound in his heart ached still, less than it did before, but it was there, not quite healed yet.
There were moments that made the boy forget, for a time, and he was without concern again. Seeing the “sea” for the first time was one of those moments, and he would treasure it for the time being.
But, other moments were difficult for him, as memories of his now deceased family would assail him without prior notice. Sometimes, a simple gesture, or even some smells or noises, reminded him of the days spent at the village, of his friends and tribesmen.
And the most difficult moments were those when the realization that all of them were now gone, when the thought of him being alone, struck him.
Hadan knew he was letting his mind go there, in one of those moments. He could still stop it, and he did, thinking back about the sea, and what wonders it would hide inside.
He escaped from memories, diving into his fantasy. After all, he was still a child, and he had plenty of that.
The boy imagined himself, bathing in that cerulean water, and then swimming across the colors until he would reach the deepest shade of blue. What things could inhabit that place, how deep would those waters be under his feet?
Following those thoughts, he distracted himself, steering his mind away from dangerous and sorrowful remembrance.
Lost as he was in his thoughts, he almost hit his nose on a fallen tree, stopping his feet right before his face could have an encounter with the coarse bark.
He turned around, a bit flustered by his own clumsiness. He searched for the old man behind him, but, much to his surprise, Marduk was nowhere to be found.
Hadan’s heart skipped a beat. Only now that he was alone, he noticed how the forest around him was silent.
Not a trace of the usual noises that would liven the air. Not a single bird, not the clattering sounds of insects doing who knows what in the undergrowth of the forest.
Feeling his uneasiness rise, as fast as his own heart was beating, Hadan went back on his feet, not quite walking, not quite running.
He hoped to catch a glimpse of the old man’s silhouette among the trees, but with every turn he took, every bush or fallen branch he passed, his agitation only grew as he saw no trace of the old man.
The day was now growing even darker than before, and a thick mist was beginning to creep into the forest’s undergrowth.
The stench of rotten leaves and humid ground grew stronger with every step, and there was something else mixed in it, an unpleasant smell that Hadan could not identify. But he felt that it was wrong, and dangerous. A smell that should not be there.
He began to run, lifting pieces of dried leaves with every stride he took. He began calling the old man, shouting his name, as panic was gripping his throat in his cold fingers.
Lost inside a place he did not know, the boy ran.
He neglected to check the proper direction, as he was too scared to think straight. He passed the trees and the moss growing upon them, without even spending a speck of his time to glimpse at them.
Hadan was more concerned by the sudden darkening of the place, and the rising mist that was now thick in front of his eyes.
The trees became specters, their branches devilish hands ready to claw his skin with gaunt and skeletal fingers.
And the eerie silence only made things worse.
Conceited as he was, fleeing from the confused shapes inside the mist, Hadan misplaced his feet, and tripped onto something, landing on the dead foliage that littered the ground.
He muttered an imprecation, rising to his feet once again. He did not even bother to shake off the leaves and dirt on his clothes, more concerned with looking at whatever made him trip.
He recoiled in fear, seeing the white thing protrude from the ground, half buried in it.
It was a bone, half gnawed by something.
The sight only worsened Hadan’s fears. In his mind, that bone was human, probably from another careless child that wandered in this forest, getting lost and then found by something hungry. And it was coming for him too, no doubt about that.
As he ran these thoughts, Hadan did not even realize he began to tremble, shaking as his face paled.
Suddenly, a voice called his name.
The boy looked around, unsure if his mind was playing him some kind of nasty trick. Then the voice called again, this time stronger, nearer.
He sighed, deeply, as he recognized the old man’s voice calling him.
Hadan rose up on his feet, his knees still weak from the sudden scare he had.
Moving towards the direction from when the voice seemed to come, he did not run this time.
Advancing in the mist, he heard the voice again. One, two , three times the voice called his name, each time stronger than the previous one.
The boy rejoiced in his heart, as he knew he was getting closer to it.
Following the voice inside the mist, he found himself into a clearing inside the forest. The trees around formed a ring, and a patch of the sky could be easily seen above his head.
Night had fallen, and the sky, black in his color, was traced by the silver lights of falling stars. Many of them fell, as much as Hadan never saw, as much as he never thought possible.
Like they all together decided to leave the blackness of the night sky, and fall to the earth below.
Far in the distance, a loud noise boomed, and the ground shook with vigor. It happened some more times, every time after one of the stars traced its way down to the earth, in the distance.
A flash of light, the sound and then the earth itself trembled.
It should have been a beautiful sight, but Hadan could only feel a strange, mixed feeling of fear and uneasiness from the spectacle before his eyes.
Something like this should never happen, the boy thought. The stars should stay in the sky, not fall down here.
Immersed as he was in his thoughts, his eyes pointed to the night sky, Hadan failed to notice the shape that was standing in the clearing.
It was only when the voice called his name again, that Hadan noticed.
The clearing itself was enveloped in mist, bathed into moonlight and a heavy silence. Illuminated by the Two Moons above, someone was standing right in the middle of the clearing. His clothes in tatters, and he did not move. There was no wind rustling the leaves, but the tattered clothes of the one standing in the clearing were fluttering, like if they were being swayed by a wind that was not there.
Hadan took a step closer, but he wanted to take one hundred in the opposite direction.
He thought that the one calling him was the old man.
Now, he was not so sure. No, he thought, that man is definitely not Marduk.
Another thought brushed his mind, that whatever was standing there, was not even a man.
Again, the voice called Hadan.
This time, he was close enough to hear it.
It was a wet sound, gargling, muddy and wrong. It gave chills to Hadan, repulsing him and terrifying him at the same time.
Definitely, that thing was not human.
It moved, turning towards Hadan. Slowly, its head began to bend until it reached an unnatural angle.
Before the boy’s eyes, the thing revealed itself.
How could he not see it clearly from the start, Hadan thought. How could he even mistake something like that for a human being?
The color of it, a repulsing shade of white, the same of the liquid that sometimes oozes from rotten wounds.
And the shape of that thing, it was so wrong to look at. Hadan already had encountered some dangerous and feral animals, he already felt the terror that comes from being so near to a predator, an animal so far stronger and fiercer than you, that the only reaction to it is cower in fear.
However, it was not the same kind of fear that was taking hold of him now. This fear, was stronger.
Because no matter how scary, or dangerous, the animal was, it was still an animal, something from this world, something that is defined, real.
This thing, it was not defined, no more than a shambling, shifting mass of body parts bent to unnatural angles, shapes that Hadan could only recognize as absurd.
It had the vague outline of an insect, but its body looked soft, like that of a slug, having even the same glint of it.
It swelled, pulsed, as if the thing was breathing. Six, or eight legs were sustaining its body, joint-less, smooth, like worms sprouting out of the thing’s body.
An upright torso sprouted from the thing’s body, lined with a number of smaller, wriggling appendages similar to those sustaining the thing, but different in a way that Hadan could not understand.
It had no eyes, only strange, bulbous growths that pulsed with a dancing, rhythmic light.
The sound gurgled again, coming from the thing itself. Its body trembled, rippled, and the upright torso split at the center, revealing a gaping mouth dripping with saliva, its inside red and lined with squirming, needle-like teeth.
Hadan screamed his lungs off.
In response, the thing began to move towards him, gurgling the boy’s name with every slow step it took.
Terrified, Hadan was trembling, unable to move, paralyzed as the strongest fear he ever felt held its grip on him.
It was coming closer, step by step, taking its time, almost if it was enjoying the boy’s fearful screams, reveling in his terror.
Hadan screamed, again and again, until his voice broke, until his lung hurt.
Until the thing reached him, and gaped its mouth.
A foul smell of rot engulfed Hadan, and he felt a warm sensation spread on his groin and legs.
It was the end, found inside the jaws of whatever that thing was.
A familiar voice echoed in the clearing, shouting words that Hadan could not understand.
A flash of light followed, and an horrible sound, a piercing shriek full of pain and hatred.
And then, the world fell silent again.
The voice was now there, and Hadan opened his eyes again. This time, it was really Marduk that was calling his name, and Hadan jumped to his neck, holding tight as he cried all his tears.
The old man embraced him back, before prying the boy away to check if he was hurt somehow.
Hadan was shocked, without any doubt, and he was trembling from fear.
Well, Marduk thought, of course the boy was trembling. Something like that, could make even the toughest hunters piss their pants and cry like little babies.
The old man was glad that Hadan was not injured, but that thing’s presence here could only mean more trouble on their road.
Because, if there was one, there would be more.
The old man lifted his face, staring at the night sky with his blind eyes.
<<What is going on?>>
He asked to the sky, without expecting an answer.