The man turned around, eyes gauged, terror seizing every contorted muscle in his face. The man’s hands shook as they gripped the shovel.
“Ruu, sir, please… I’m begging-”
“Start digging I said!”
Ruu stamped his foot on the moist soil. It made no sound, but the earth’s subtle vibrations were more than enough to convey the order’s weight. The man swallowed. He murmured something inaudible, likely a prayer. Ruu grit his teeth and parted his lips slightly to issue another order, but the man begun digging at last, and he found himself with nothing to add. Instead the boy opted for lighting a cigarette. The newly lit light illuminated the young softness of his features. Standing by his side, the faithful wolfdog spoke.
“You are doing the right thing.”
He found himself irritated by the wolfdog’s statement. The tone had been reassuring in a moment when he wanted no reassurance.
Ruu whispered under his nicotine breath. The man continued digging; a mound of dirt began to take shape next to him. Ruu blew out a string of smoke. The grey blurred into the night, dissipated into darkness. No stars shone through the thick curtain of clouds. Half a dozen creatures watched the pathetic man digging. Their gazes were pitiful. Yet they were also relieved: none of them was in the man’s position.
Ruu jumped slightly. He thought his yawn had been masked flawlessly, but lying to the wolfdog had always been futile. Orion knew him better than he knew himself. Ruu exhaled smoke again before answering.
“Yeah.” It’s late and I have school in the morning, he added mentally. Ruu had not slept much in the past two years (arguably his sleep schedule had never been healthy), but found that unlike in books or movies, one does not grow accustomed to sleep deprivation. It amazed him how awake Orion appeared, after all, they slept the exact same amount. The digging man whimpered and turned to face Ruu again. Their eyes met for a split second, and the man immediately resumed his work with renown fervour. He knew not to disrespect Ruu. They all knew.
Between the lullaby-esque sounds and motions, the warm smoke filling his lungs, and the night’s dimness, Ruu struggled to keep himself from drifting into drowsiness. The darkness embraced him with its cold apathy. Dark eyes had begun closing; his posture began slouching. Ruu returned in a matter of seconds. He shook his head slightly and stretched. Wish he’d hurry up. Orion looked up at him, sympathy glistened in his eyes. There was nothing left for him to say. Arguably, he had long ago exhausted all that could be said. The six jackals surrounding them remained still. Their shifty eyes swayed with the digging man’s movements.
“Did I tell you to stop?”
Ruu raised his voice. The digging man turned towards him. His eyes appeared to be watery, though, the light illuminating him was so faint it might have only been an illusion. One of the jackals stepped forward. Ruu told him off with a mere flick of the hand, and the jackal hesitantly returned to his previous position.
“No… I apologize s-sir.”
The digging man’s voice cracked. He returned to digging as Ruu dropped the consumed cigarette and began lighting a new one. Orion licked his lips. Ruu had passed another trial, though, by then he had stopped realizing. Those jackals studied him every second of their waking life; they sought a weakness. They were ready to tear into his skin and shred his flesh to ribbons. Those were opportunistic beasts, willing to slaughter their own for power.
Ruu masked another yawn. He had lost interest in the cigarette and dropped it. Must be almost 3, he thought with annoyance. The clouds obstructing the night sky persisted. His eyes never lifted off the digging man, whose movements became more jerky with each swing of the shovel. “I hope he just dies of fright,” murmured Orion. Ruu silently agreed.
Once more Ruu found himself dozing off. He pictured himself in school, sitting down at his desk, drowsily following a class. Study hard because your exams are soon, the teacher would say. A girl had asked him, shyly, what universities he would apply to. Central University of Greylake. She had seemed shocked at learning Ruu would only apply for one, and Varemo’s most prestigious one nonetheless. He did not plan to apply however. The boy knew he could easily buy himself a spot with his father’s money. His own money, rather. Jeremiah had a bullet planted between both eyes two years prior. Orion sensed the morbid direction his master’s daydreams had begun taking; he barked and Ruu returned to reality.
The boy could not be dragged into fantasy again, because one of the jackals spoke up and all flashlights turned towards her.
“I think it’s deep enough.”
Ruu looked in her direction, as did the rest of the pack. The digging man feigned deafness and continued his task. When Ruu nodded curtly the jackal advanced towards the hole.
“It’s deep enough.”
The digging man froze. Droplets of sweat begun taking shape on his forehead. He shook his head, pleaded, begged with a cracked voice. The jackal glanced at Ruu. When the boy did not react, she allowed herself to slap the back of the man’s head violently.
Another jackal advanced towards the hole. Ruu swallowed the knot forming in his throat and followed him. It had grown colder, he pulled his sleeves over his hands. Orion walked by his side and encouraged him. You’re strong. You can do this. Those words were familiar by then, and Orion had repeated them for well over a decade. The wolfdog had always been there for him. Ruu appreciated it even if he knew how empty that appreciation was.
The man dropped the shovel carelessly and attempted to grab Ruu. Before he could so much as touch him, one of the jackals had grabbed the man by the collar and restrained his movements. He met Ruu’s eyes pleadingly.
“I have a wife! Two daughters!” He cried and in the weak light the tears sparkled on his face. “Sir! Spare me! Please! S-”
One of the jackals tied a filthy beige cloth around the man’s mouth.
Ruu attempted to look away. He knew he could not refuse to watch. The jackals that surrounded the newly dug hole would take that as a sign of weakness, and Ruu could not afford such a luxury. He never had a choice. They wanted – expected – him to become the new Jeremiah and, were Ruu to fall short of the task, they would have disposed of him without hesitation. His mother had disappeared before Ruu could commit her face to permanent memory. She had been weak, and the jackals took her.
The man’s arms were tied behind his back. Only his eyes could speak, and they spoke so much more than Ruu thought possible. Sorry. Ruu mouthed the word mutely. He gazed down to avoid crossing those pleading eyes once more. The man’s movements became more panicked, crazed. He attempted to wriggle out of the restraints and push back against the three jackals restraining him. Eventually one grew frustrated and struck him forcefully in the crook of the neck. Defeated, the man fell to his knees.
“We’re ready, sir.”
Ruu nodded curtly. The coldness became unbearable. Orion stood boldly by his side and Ruu, as he had done many times, passed a hand over the wolfdog’s fur. The physical sensation had grown fainter as the years progressed. The comfort that illusion brought, however, had not. One of the jackals seemed to raise an eyebrow at the boy’s odd hand movement but did not dare speak.
The cemetery’s air started thinning and he shuddered slightly. Ruu struggled to breathe. Orion encouraged him. One of the jackals grabbed the crying man by the neck. Another held the man’s tied hands. In unison, they both pushed him in the shallow grave. Ruu held onto Orion’s fur as he advanced towards the hole. He looked down and his eyes crossed those of the man. Those teary, pathetic, begging eyes. Please close your eyes, he thought. It became so much harder when they looked at him.
It had happened a decade prior. Ruu had been but a child, at a tender, impressionable age. He watched dizzily as his father soaked individual body parts in a tank. The acid irritated his nose just enough to ignore the rot and blood. For a while, at least. Sodium hydroxide, had muttered Jeremiah. This is the fastest way. He spoke casually, his back to Ruu. The child’s eyes began to fill with tears. Are you seriously crying? What are you, five? Ruu had wanted to ask him to stop, to please not make him watch. He started chocking out the man’s name because he was not allowed to call him dad. And Jeremiah was not even his real name, he was not allowed to know that either. Jeremiah paused. He turned around, just subtly enough for Ruu to see the man’s profile. If you misbehave, Ruu, he felt the edge of the tank with a gloved hand and the corners of his mouth twisted cruelly, you’ll be next.
Ruu let go of Orion’s fur. With a last shudder, he grabbed the shovel and began filling the grave. The man never stopped looking at him.