The forest night was cold and unforgiving. There was no wind, but a bitter chill hung in the air like a net. The red moon hovered over Grull like a bloodshot eye on the sky’s face. Its light burned through the trees and fixed on him, creating shadows on his arms and back where his muscles flexed as he dug into the earth, thrusting the shovel’s dull and rusty blade into the dirt. He knew he was being watched through the keyhole between his world and the next, and he knew whose eye was on the other side. That eye was what drove him to tear into the ground as if it were flesh and disembowel the soil. A hidden clock was ticking. The corner of Grull’s lip curled up into a smirk as he thought of it. The current age teetered on the verge of its end. That contemptuous collection of old bigots known as the Hood of Truth would soon drown in the flames of the new order. They were so fat with pride and faith that they would never see it coming. He hoped to see their faces shatter in disbelief when the time came. He hoped to be there when they realized their god was a charlatan.
A taloned bird’s scream ripped through the forest, wiping Grull’s mind clean. A moment later, he realized he was standing in a trench that was at least eight feet deep. Six feet should have been deep enough, he inferred. Sometimes, a voice behind his brain reminded him, those damned by the Hood are buried deeper. He paused for a moment, allowing the chilly darkness to cool the fire under his skin. He raked his free hand through his long, sweaty hair, collecting leaves and insects. After crushing them into pulp by closing his fist around them, he licked his palm clean. It was hardly nourishment, but it would fuel him for a bit longer.
The sky opened with an explosive thunder clap and unleashed heavy rain that fell on Grull like shattered glass. He turned his face up to the sky and let the water run down his bare chest, absolving his fur of dirt. With the pleasant feeling of his carnal cleansing came the frustrating realization that his work would be harder now. The dirt was already turning into mud. A curse against those that dwelled above slipped out of his mouth before he even though it, and he groaned at the knowledge that they probably heard it. Even if they didn’t hear it, the forest would tell them. It was full of conniving beasts, both winged and legged, that traded secrets with the earth gods for knowledge and power. Grull had once been among them.
The sound of the shovel slicing into the thick mud reminded Grull of darker days. It reminded him of days when that sound was as common to his ears as the sound of his own respiration. It reminded him of days when his hands bore blisters as big as acorns. It reminded him of days when his black eyes reflected the emptiness of his heart. He was a gravedigger for the Hood in those days, a slave like so many others of his kind. The members of the Hood didn’t look favorably on beast-men or their dealings with the earth gods. The earth gods, in the Hood’s eyes, perverted the pure power of truth by giving beasts the abilities of men.
Grull’s heart was no longer empty, he thought as he pumped his arms like pistons. His eyes were now milky white, rich with purpose. The fire in him spread, igniting the hate buried under his fatigue. He used images and memories of the Hood to drive his effort, shoveling them into the furnace of his rage. Mortare, his master, taught him to fill his heart with hate, the fuel of the ancient Warkings. “An empty heart is a weak heart,” he recited aloud, repeating it each time the shovel hit the mud. It became a loud chant as he dug, reaching out like a challenge to the storm.
“An empty heart is a weak heart!”
Chunks of mud showered over him as he threw the shovel’s blade over his shoulder, but he ignored it. No, he thought, he relished it! He hurled the shovel into the forest and dropped to his knees. He thrust his powerful hands into the mud and dug like the animal he once was. The mud crawled further up his arms the deeper he dug until it covered his face like the war paint of the ancient Warking marauders. He tore at the earth with the fury of tearing at a human, recalling those he killed so long ago and their shrieks of horror as he disemboweled them. The memories of another lifetime surfaced all at once, taking him back to a time when his prey’s fear was his milk. It empowered, motivated, and sustained him. And it was a fountain that never ran dry. Mortare taught him to walk upright and speak, but Grull let his earthly abilities escape him somehow.
Mortare will help you reclaim them, he reassured himself. And when he did, he knew, he would be more powerful than ever before.