All around, the forest whispered in hushed sounds. The trees, their branches swaying, dancing when caressed by a cold breeze, let out crackling, rustling sounds, as if speaking to each other in their mysterious language.
But there were other notes, hidden beneath the usual symphony of sounds that the forest sang. Sounds that should not have been there, that did not belong to that place. Or any place, given the nature of those sounds.
A low humming, which occasionally turned into chilling, ear piercing shrieks coming from the shadows beneath the trees.
Ignoring those sounds as best as they could, Marduk and Hadan ran, pushing through the low undergrowth of the forest.
A thick mist had risen, dampening their clothes with cold moisture. Clouding Hadan’s view, perhaps, he thought, for the best.
Because, things were hiding in that mist. And he was sure, that feeling their presence was one hundred time better than having to see one of those things again.
The sight of it, it had instilled a feeling of fear and repulsion in the young boy’s mind, almost making it crack.
For that thing, that shambling, white shapeless body, was not from this world.
Marduk took the boy’s hand, forcing him on his feet.
<<Now, we will run. As fast as we can, without turning back. Look at me, Hadan. Do not turn back>>
And they ran. As fast as they could, stumbling, scraping their clothes and skin on the vegetation, that seemed to reach out its branches to grab them, hold them still for the things to come and get them.
<<Be my eyes>>
Marduk told Hadan, not because he needed him to see the path, but to give something for the boy to do, to give him a purpose, hoping that it might distract him, keep his thoughts occupied might stop them from wandering to what Hadan had just whitnessed.
The boy was still shaken, and he had not spoken a single word since Marduk rescued him.
In the distance, loud noises could still be hears. And the very earth beneath their feet, it shook from time to time.
This time, the Starfall was going on strong, the biggest event of that type that Marduk ever experienced.
Still, he wondered, how could something of this scale happen without him even catching a hint of it? Before, his sight always showed this kind of event, with days, sometimes month, of advance.
And yet, this time, it happened unexpectedly. Like the attack on the village, like the presence of those things in the forest.
Perhaps, there was something wrong with his gift, Marduk thought. That, or old age had finally caught up to him, and his head was beginning to give up, to rot as it should have long time ago.
Marduk shook his head, trying to push back those thoughts. Right now, he only needed to think about moving his legs, one step after the other, as quick as he could.
The only positive thing about their situation, it was that those things hunting them were terribly slow, and lazy.
Rather than hunt, they would ambush. Luring their prey, mimicking words that they might find familiar.
But, that did not mean that the things would not follow them. They were slow, lazy, but relentless. They would follow them, keeping a slow pace, out of sight, but they would still be there, in the distance, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Nowhere inside the forest was safe, only outside, where daylight would burn their white and shriveled flesh, and the things soaring in the night sky would scare them away.
But, the forest was wide, and harsh to traverse.
At some point, Marduk found himself forced to carry Hadan in his arms, since the boy was beginning to fall behind.
He felt his heart beating, fast, too fast, and the boy was trembling, reeking of piss, tears and sweat. By no means, a boy his age should ever set sight on something so horrible. And the boy went through so much already, thought Marduk, holding his body tighter, feeling pity for Hadan.
He put more strenght into his legs, pushing forward through the mist that covered the path.
Exhausted, after running for who knows how much time, Marduk let himself collapse on the grassy ground.
They made it, they went through that accursed forest. The night sky on their head, was beginning to turn the color of dawn, as the Sun began to rise on the horizon.
Panting heavily, the old man closed his eyes, feeling his heartbeat slowly decelerate. Even for him, it was a heavy effort to run that distance, carrying Hadan’s weight.
The boy was sitting beside Marduk, cradling himself as he sighed.
Still shocked by what happened in there.
In the distance, inside of the mist, shapes were shambling, twisting their form and humming their songs, perhaps in anger for their prey’s successful escape.
<<Not today, you horrid things>>
Marduk muttered to himself, glad to have managed to escape that deadly trap. He could drive one of the creatures off, if cornered, and he did, when he found Hadan. But dealing with a number of them, it was something beyond his power.
That forest, it could easily have become their grave. Just a mistep, tripping over an exposed root. Or losing the way among the trees. Something like that, could have spelled their doom.
Instead, luck was on their side while running away.
After letting his body rest, and his rough breathing subside, become calm again, Marduk took Hadan’s hand, forcing him on his two feet.
They needed to go. Even the outskirts of the forest might become dangerous, with those things around. Who knows if a bold one was among their ranks, willing to face sunlight to quench their anger.
Surely, Marduk did not want to risk it.
And so, much to Hadan’s grunts of protest, they set on march again.
The view from their position, it might have been beautiful. But for the two, shaken as they were, it passed unnoticed, as they only paid attention to the path before them.
Finally, the village came into sight. It was a modest settlement, no more than a bunch of tents surrounding a wooden, shabby house.
Silence was heavy in that place, broken by Marduk’s voice.
<<Hey! Is anyone there! We bear no ill will>>
He sat on the dirt road that crossed the village, taking objects from his pouch. He set the vials and jars of potions and poultices in front of him, and drew the sign for “trade” in several languages, writing with his finger in the dirt.
<<We are here to trade! Medicine! Food and water in exchange for medicine!>>
His voice echoed, without an answer.
For a moment.
After some minutes, faces began to peek from the tents. Mostly, women, some shriveled by old face, their wrinkled, brown skin holding a dubious expression.
Some, were younger, old enough to be brides and bear children.
After a while, the first customers began to reach out, curious about the old man’s medicine.
They had a strange look in their eyes, and they moved in a sluggish way.
Their words, they sounded strange to Marduk. Hushed, mumbled, akin to words spoken by someone intoxicated by too much fermented fruit juice.
Perhaps, thought Marduk, he caught the village after some kind of celebration. It happened often in some tribes, that the whole village, comprising women and even children, would celebrate a successful hunt, or a marriage, by sharing intoxicating beverages, or even plants and mushrooms that held some inebriating properties. He too, sometimes, did partake in such activities. More than often, he would enjoy the compounds and substances of certain plants, able to dull the pain in his joints and his perception of reality.
Still, for them to be all in the same state, it was something that tingled his curiosity. He tried to ask, but the women answered vaguely, almost mechanically.
More than that, no one did look at him in the eyes, while their curiosity was directed toward Hadan.
Perhaps, the sight of a boy with an old man might be bizarre for them, or they might be seeing the sorry state that Hadan was in. After all, both Hadan and Marduk reeked of sweat and the scent of the forest. Poor Hadan had still his stained breeches on, so that was probably the reason for the villager’s curiosity.
Marduk asked some women for their kindness, if they had spare clothes to trade and a place where the boy could tidy himself up.
He offered even more of his potions in exchange for clothing. An old woman took the offer, scurrying off to her tent. She brought back some old clothing, perhaps some that did belong to her children.
The old lady guided Marduk and Hadan to a secluded part of the village, where they held some jars of water.
Much to Marduk’s surprise, they had a well, there, and some pieces of hard soap, the kind produced by boiling cinder and mixing it with animal fat.
It was a luxury item, even in the cities that Marduk did visit.
In short, it was something unexpected in a poor, remote village like this one. And it raised Marduk’s suspicion a bit.
Nonetheless, he took the soap and the water, and after undressing, he rinsed his body and washed himself.
Hadan did the same, tossing aside his soiled breeches and donning the new ones, when he was finally clean.
The whole visit to the village costed Marduk ten vials of healing potion, and five jars of herbal poultice.
Perhaps, he thought, he might be able to sell a bit more when the men of this village come back.
After all, he still had plenty of potions and other things of his craft.
The boy and Marduk consumed a light meal, mostly dried meat and hard bread, keeping themselves on the edge of the village.
Although the women accepted their trade, they did not welcome them in the village. As soon as the exchange was done, and after tolerating the two strangers using their water, they made it pretty clear.
With a harsh tone, the oldest among them pointed at the village’s outskirts.
<<We do not break our bread with strangers>>
The woman’s rudeness surprised Hadan a bit, but Marduk was used to it.
Even with the two of them being outside of the village, some of the women were still gazing on them.
<<Why did they chase us off?>>
<<Oh, so you talk again. Guess a full stomach does miracles, huh?>>
Marduk teased Hadan a bit, hoping that the boy would talk some more. Talking was good, especially after the shock that Hadan did suffer.
After the boy went silent again, Marduk sighed.
<<They do that, because they don’t trust strangers. And we are strangers to them, even if we do not bear ill will towards them. Think it this way. Their men are not here, and two suspicious persons show up. They do not know us. And, even if we’re only a boy and an old man, we could still be a danger to them. We could be scouts, sent by a larger group to see if their village is defended. If they let us in, we could give out a signal to someone, marking the village as undefended>>
Hadan looked in the distance, towards the group of ladies still keeping tabs on them.
<<I think they should be more concerned about the things in the forest, rather than worry about us>>
<<Did they scare you?>>
<<Of course they did. What…what were those things?>>
Hadan was still trembling, as the memory of the creatures brushed his thoughts.
<<Things that should not be here. They fell from afar, and now, they haunt, and hunt. This village it’s safe from them, since they’re mostly cowards who fear light and open spaces. The forest however, that’s another story. This place is fine, as long as they do not thread into the forest>>
But, Marduk thought, was it really fine? Was this place safe? A sensation of danger was tingling in his mind, his guts twisting as the feeling of impending danger could not leave his thoughts.
More than the forest, it was the villager’s behaviour that fueled his unrest.
Their behaviour was strange. Too strange. All the women, they spoke with the same cadence, the same slurred words.
Be it young or old, their eyes all had the same vague, almost drowsy stare.
Initially, Marduk thought it the aftermath of some celebration, or perhaps a religious ritual involving drugs, but now, he was not so sure about it.
If that was the case, each person would show different degrees of the same symptoms, with the youngest showing the least, and the oldest being more severely affected.
Instead, they all showed the same behavior, the same shambling way of walking. Even their hands shook with unrest, in a manner unbefitting for the younger women.
No, thought Marduk, something is really amiss in this place.
And the soap that was given to them, it was an item so out of place. During the brief time he spent inside the village, Marduk looked around, failing to find the necessary tools that might have produced that soap.
No sign of the brass recipients that would be needed to heat the mixture of cinder and water to boiling temperature. Of course, it could have been done in jars, but the only ones that Marduk found, they did have no signs of the process.
Being able to see those kind of traces, that was another of the perks of his gift.
And right now, it was properly working, unlike the time when it failed to see the Starfall.
Another thing that bugged Marduk was the absence of animals of any kind in the village. Some of the goods, that were offered to him during the trade, they were fresh. Like a pot of milk, still warm. But no trace of the animal where it came from. And the meat that he accepted, that was old, and salted, definitely coming from an animal that was hunted, not bred. It had that distinctive smell, that taste of lingering fear that all wild animals have in their meat when slain by a hunter’s weapon.
If he was alone, he might have gone to the women, and ask them some questions about it. Perhaps, there was some kind of illness breaking out in the village, although the women’s behavior was different from the symptoms of any kind of illness that Marduk knew about.
There could be some kind of poison in their water reserve, maybe some substance creeping in the water from underground. It happened sometimes when people used well water, that the water vein ran into some kind of nefarious underground deposits and poisoned the entire village.
But the water seemed fine to him, good even.
Or perhaps, and that thought was scaring Marduk, there was something else going on. The soap was surely from outside of the village. Maybe traded by some merchants. But, in this area, there were few places that had the knowledge to produce the substance.
And it was way too similar to that produced in that city.
What Marduk feared, was that the village had been visited by followers of the Starfallen King.
That thought, it terrified the old man. For several reasons, all of them good.
First, it would mean that the Starfallen King’s influence was spreading through the whole continent.
Although there is a whole sea between that kingdom and this place, they’re already here, as shown by what happened to Hadan’s people.
And perhaps, their march was even faster than what Marduk thoughts, and they already reached, if not conquered, large parts of this lands.
Or, it could just be a small group, sent to search something in this place. After all, there was a recent Starfall happening, and it might have been the reason for the Starfallen King’s men being here. The attack on Hadan’s village, it might have been a raid to secure resources, and sacrifices.
But then, why would this place be left standing, and not be just ground to ashes?
Too many things to think about. The Starfall, those things in the forest. This village, and what happened to Hadan’s own.
Marduk thought, hoped them to be all disjointed facts, only coincidences happening due to the random nature that governs this world.
But, that was only whisful thinking, and the old man knew it. More than that, he knew that his gift, his second sight, had failed him.
Twice. Once, for Hadan’s village. The next, for the Starfall, and the things in the forest. Perhaps, this place would mark the third time.
<<Let’s get out of here, as soon as we finish our meal. I do not feel safe in this place. If we continue to follow the cliff, we will reach another village, a sea-side one. Perhaps from there, we might even be able to take a boat, and cross the waters to reach the Isle>>
Marduk spoke while munching a round, reddish fruit. It left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth, light enough to be pleasurable instead of unpleasant.
Hadan simply nodded. He did not have anything, anyone anymore. The old man was the only person he knew, and of course, he would follow him wherever he went.
Noise came from the village, as a group of people was coming from the opposite direction from the place where Hadan and Marduk were.
The men from the village were coming back home.
No more than twelve strong, most of them being middle aged, only few youths in their hunting party.
<<That is no hunting party>>
Hadan whispered, catching a glimpse of what the men brought back.
Instead of prey, the men were struggling to carry a large, black objects.
To haul the thing’s immense weight, they bound it with sturdy ropes, and laid rounded wood pieces in front of the object. That way, it would roll on the wood, making it a bit easier for the twelve men to drag it around.
<<Marduk, look, it shines like your pendant>>
Hadan only thought later about what he told to Marduk, inviting a blind man to look at something.
But Marduk already knew what Hadan was talking about. Although, he basically did not hear the boy’s voice. What he heard, what he felt, was a high pitched sound, and the thing on his neck, vibrating as if having a life of his own.
He grasped the necklace with his hand, raising quickly to his feet.
The point of a spear pierced his back, severing skin, blood vessels, digging its way up to his kidney and piercing it.
Marduk fell to his knees, as Hadan screamed his lungs off. From the vegetation around them, some children emerged.
They had roughly Hadan’s age, their expression vague, almost drowsy. Both boys and girls, all naked, their bodies painted with red stripes.
Mardul cursed, convulsing in pain.
He was right, before.
His sight did fail him for a third time.