After several days and hundreds of miles of travelling by stagecoach, Thorogood had finally arrived at his long-dreaded destination of Fogs Dwelling. It was a drab, inauspicious little frontier town built upon the very edges of the Howling Woods, a fabled old-growth forest that had stood as the northern-most border of the realm for time immemorial.
Thorogood was awed by his first sight of that mythically primeval forest, as it was comprised of some of the tallest pine trees known to exist. They seemed as tall as the hills themselves, reaching up towards the clouds, and they had grown together so tightly that, from a distance at least, they appeared to have formed a nigh impenetrable border between the civilized realm of Widdickire and the primeval savagery beyond.
It was a border that the folk of Fogs Dwelling had dared to challenge though. Or rather, the Grand Priestess had dared to challenge it, and the poor folk she had sent to settle the region had not dared to challenge her. The Howling Woods were too rich with timber to be ignored any longer, especially when the Oracles had divined that the Revenants of the Forsaken Coast were growing in number. A great fleet of warships was required to deter and defend against any potential invasion from the East.
Funny how the prophecies of the Oracles always seemed to support the Grand Priestess’s agenda, Thorogood mused.
As a result of the dangers posed by the ancient forest, Fogs Dwelling was built more like a military fort than a town, with the entire perimeter encircled by a wall of thick logs with sharpened ends. A gallery ran the entire circumference of the interior so that guards could keep watch, though at night all they could hope to see was the eyeshine of lurking predators.
The only way in was a dual set of reinforced gates that faced away from the forest and towards the wide stretch of empty moorland that separated them from the rest of the realm. Those gates had only opened for Thorogood’s stagecoach after the guards had confirmed an all clear, and had slammed shut the instant they were through.
The town itself lacked any stone buildings at all, with everything being made entirely of wood from the forest. Thorogood supposed that made sense, since they would have had a surplus of the latter and a near-total deficit of the former. It did seem a fire hazard though, especially since they were clustered so tightly together, but presumably the cold and damp climate helped with that.
The stagecoach rolled to a stop in front of the Foggy Lantern tavern, where Thorogood would be lodging during his stay in Fogs Dwelling. He tipped the porter and bid his farewell to the coachman as he headed inside the tavern, hoping that his contact was waiting for him inside, as he had promised.
His entrance into the tavern didn’t go unnoticed. Dressed in a brocade frock coat and a silk cravat, his fair blond hair tied back in a ponytail with a satin ribbon, he stood out like an unhammered nail amidst the rustic, working-class patrons.
“Thorogood!” a deep voice called out to him for the back corner of the room. Sitting there was a tall, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man with a thick black beard.
“Ah, yes, hello. I am Royal Scholar Odideous Thorogood of Evynhill, here on behalf of the Her Eminence’s Hallowed Society for Thaumaturgy, Alchemy, and Natural Philosophy. You must be Mr. Faxton, delighted to make your acquaintance!” Thorogood said cordially, greeting him with a curt bow.
Rather than get up from his seat and return the bow, Faxton stuck out his hand. Thorogood hesitated for just a moment, but considering that his assignment required Faxton’s cooperation, not to mention his significant size advantage, Thorogood capitulated and shook the man’s hand.
“Have a seat, young man,” Faxton said, his gruff voice making it sound more like an order than an invitation. Thorogood complied once more, wiping his hand off with his handkerchief as discreetly as he could. The rickety table shook slightly as a barmaid plopped a wooden tankard of ale down in front of him.
Thorogood noticed that the woman’s bare arms were tattooed, and though he had only glanced them briefly, he had thought that they looked thaumaturgical in nature. Magical tattoos on a serving girl would certainly have been unusual, and he attempted to call her back so that he could get a better look.
“Oh. Ah, Miss? Miss? Could I actually get a –”
“Whatever fancy wine you’re hankering for, we ain’t got it. We only got what we can brew, and this isn’t exactly vineyard country. It’s beer or nothing,” Faxton informed him. Thorogood gave a resigned nod and took a reluctant sip of the ale, deciding to leave the mystery of the tattoos for later. “So, you’ve come all the way out here just to get a looksie at a real live Lycanthrope up close, have you? Did I say that right? Lycanthrope? That’s the fancy name you types like to call ’em, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s correct, Mr. Faxton; but I’m fine with calling them turnskins or whatever else you prefer,” Thorogood nodded. “As discussed in our letters, Her Eminence is increasingly concerned about the steady rise in Lycan attacks along the frontier.”
“She’s concerned about her timber supply, and that’s about it,” Faxton scoffed. “We’re pushing harder into their territory, and they’re pushing back harder. It doesn’t take a Royal Scholar to understand that, does it?”
“Yes, clearly the increase in the population along the frontier, as well as the expansion of the frontier deeper into the Howling Woods, is a factor in the increase in Lycan attacks,” Thorogood conceded. “But the frequency and number of these attacks are still excessive based on our prior surveys of the Lycanthrope population. Her Eminence’s main concern, one which I share and the one I’ve come to investigate, is that the Lycans are breeding.”
Faxton let out a hardy belly laugh, slapping his palm onto the table so hard it nearly toppled over, sending ale sloshing everywhere.
“Breeding? And how would that work? The turnskins are all outlaws who ran off into the Howling Woods,” he said.
“Well Mr. Faxton, there are women outlaws, and seeing as how most of their male compatriots would hardly have been gentlemen even before being turned to literal wolves, mating seems an inevitability,” Thorogood answered.
“Mating, sure, I’ll grant you that, but not breeding,” Faxton said. “I may not be as learned as yourself, Mr. Thorogood, but I do know that you can’t breed a mule. If a cross between a horse and a donkey is sterile, then surely a wolfman won’t have to worry about feeding a litter of pups.”
“That’s a valid observation, and it may well turn out to be the case. But, if the Lycanthropes are breeding, it’s of the utmost importance that we uncover the truth,” Thorogood insisted. He leaned in now, so that he might speak a little quieter. “A plague of Lycanthropy has always been a terrifying possibility, if a remote one. Contagions that spread solely through the sharing of bodily fluids do so slowly, especially when the infected are unable to pass for uninfected. No one’s ever caught Lycanthropy from a courtesan, I can assure you. The shunning of Lycans to the wilderness, or culling their numbers, has always been sufficient to control outbreaks.
"But, if they are breeding, and passing on their Lycanthropy to their offspring, then that presents the possibility for exponential population growth, and with it the capacity to utterly overwhelm our defences. All of Widdickire could either be slaughter or turned in an unspeakably short period of time. If they are breeding, then we must know and began preparations for a full-on extermination immediately, before it’s too late.
“According to your letters, you’ve located a den. Is that correct?”
“It is,” Faxton nodded. “It’s around nine miles into the forest. They’re nocturnal, so the woods are safe enough to travel by day, but sticking your head inside a Lycan’s den just to see if they’ve got a fresh litter still sounds like suicide to me.”
“That it might be, but it’s a risk I have to take to find the truth,” Thorogood agreed, taking another slow though clearly not savoury sip from his tankard. “Tell me, Mr. Faxton; if you know where their den is, why have you never tried to wipe them out?”
Faxton chuckled dismissively at the suggestion.
“Have you ever actually seen a turnskin, Mr. Thorogood?” he asked.
“Well, there are taxidermized specimens in the Hall of -”
“So, no then,” he cut him off. “Well, me and everyone else in this town has seen them, usually far closer than we’d like to. We see them skulking in the trees, eyes glowing in the dark, waiting for us to let our guard down and pick one of us off. We hear them howling, sometimes from miles away, sometimes from right outside the town wall, and on more than one occasion, from inside them. They’re bigger, faster, and stronger than any man, even me, and their hides are thick. Silver bullets work, but as a poison. It’s a slow death, and they can still do quite a bit of damage before they keel over. If the entire town were to march to the den and take on the whole pack on their turf, it would be a massacre.
“Even if we succeeded, it would be with half of us dead and half of the survivors turned, which the other half would then have to deal with, so what would be the bleeding point? When you fight a turnskin, you don’t just risk death. You risk becoming a turnskin and perpetuating the cycle yourself, which is why we only ever fight them when we have to. The Grand Priestess is mad if she thinks that an extermination effort would have a chance in hell at working. We need to withdraw from the frontier altogether, treat the moors as a no man’s land, and the turnskins will be contained to the Howling Woods just like they always have been.”
“Which would be a perfectly viable option, were it not for our pressing need for timber,” Thorogood reminded him. Faxton sighed in what would have seemed like resignation, were it not for the sudden look of pity in his eyes.
“We’ll see if you still feel that way after tomorrow,” he said forebodingly. “I suggest you turn in early, Mr. Thorogood. We set out for the den at first light.”
The next morning, it was clear why Faxton had said ‘first light’ and not sunrise, as the perpetually foggy and overcast weather rendered the sun little more than a myth. The grey, damp fog was so thick Thorogood couldn’t even see the tops of the trees, let alone the sky.
Both men were dressed in long leather coats, tall boots, and wide-brimmed hats as they ventured beyond the relative safety of the town walls. Each carried a silver-tipped cutlass at their hips and a torch-topped walking stick in their hands. Multiple flintlocks loaded with silver bullets were slung upon their bandoliers, and Faxton had a large blunderbuss hoisted over his shoulder.
Thorogood would have preferred a more sizeable retinue for his escort, but even if he could have spared the gold, Fog’s Dwelling couldn’t spare the men. On such a dangerous frontier, a community needed every able body it had to ensure its survival, and they were already none too happy about Faxton having to risk his life just to satisfy the Grand Priestess’s curiosity.
“Remember, stay alert. If any turnskins are prowling the Howling at this time of day, between the trees and the fog we’ll hear them long before we see them,” Faxton cautioned as they took their first steps across the tree-line, officially leaving civilization behind them. “The good news is that they don’t hunt men for food unless they’re starving, and if they see we’re armed they won’t risk a confrontation without the advantage of numbers on their side. We shouldn’t have to worry about that until we reach the den. Stay as quiet as you can, and whatever you do, don’t leave my sight. If we get separated, it's a hundred-to-one shot you'll find your way out before dark.”
Thorogood didn’t doubt it. All the giant trees looked more or less the same to him, and the canopy would have made navigating by the sun or stars impossible, if the unyielding clouds hadn’t done so already. The terrain at least was manageable enough, since the Howling Woods had very little undergrowth. The great pines had greedily kept all the sun, water, and soil for themselves, leaving precious little for anything else. A thick carpet of dead, brown needles was mostly all that covered the forest floor.
It was also eerily quiet. They hadn’t been walking more than a quarter of an hour before the sheer silence of it had Thorogood thoroughly unsettled.
“I must say, this forest is rather more desolate than I was expecting,” he remarked. “You say the Lycans only eat men when they’re starving? From what I’ve seen so far, that can’t be that uncommon of an occurrence.”
“There’s Elk and the like that feed on tree bark and anything that does manage to sprout up, and grazing beasts out on the moors. Turnskins can easily travel over a hundred miles a night in search of prey,” Faxton informed him, not bothering to turn around. “And they’re skilled hunters with keen senses, capable of picking up the slightest of trails or smelling prey from miles away. They know how to survive in their own woods, don’t you fret.”
“You almost sound like you admire them,” Thorogood remarked.
“I respect them as apex predators. We’re the invaders here, looking to chop down their trees to make warships so that we can invade somewhere else. They’re just trying to survive, and you can’t deny they’re very good at that,” Faxton replied.
“You sounded far less respectful when we were discussing the prospect of taking on an entire pack of them,” Thorogood reminded him. “Last night you made it sound like they were monsters.”
“I was trying to scare you, hoping you’d realize what a fool’s errand this was and head back to where you came from,” Faxton told him. “Everything’s a monster from something’s point of view. These trees are monsters to the plants struggling to survive while they hoard most of the available resources. That doesn’t make the trees evil, or mean they have no right to exist.
“Enough talk. Footsteps might go ignored or unrecognized by the turnskins, but our voices won’t. Don’t say anything unless it’s of vital importance.”
Thorogood nodded, even though Faxton was facing away from him, and they made the rest of their trek in silence.
It wasn't until they had been hiking for nearly another three hours that the eerie and near-absolute quiet was finally broken. A long, baleful howl pierced through the air, seeming to shake the floating droplets of fog as it did so. Thorogood had heard wolf howls before, but this was obviously no wolf howl. It was deeper, more guttural and more resonant, like the creature that made it was significantly larger than a wolf.
The howling was also coming from above them, and Thorogood had yet to meet a wolf that could climb a tree.
He froze in his tracks as his heart nearly froze in his chest. He looked to Faxton for instruction, who held up a finger to urge him to remain silent.
To Thorogood’s utter dismay, Faxton then cupped his hands to his mouth and produced a howl of his own, a perfect mimic of the one that had come from the treetops.
The fog-cloaked Lycan let out a much shorter howl in response, and Thorogood heard it leaping through the canopy boughs away from them.
“We can talk now. They know we’re here, talking won’t make any difference,” Faxton said.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” Thorogood demanded in a whispered tone that was too loud to actually be considered a whisper, fumbling to draw one of his pistols.
“I told you, they only eat men when they’re starving. They won’t attack unless they think we’re a threat, so put that damn thing away!” Faxton ordered. “The den’s dead ahead. Keep your voice calm and low and don’t make any sudden, threatening movements.”
Thorogood didn’t need Faxton’s woodcraft to tell them they were close to the den. Bones of various creatures were strewn about the forest floor, all of them picked clean of flesh, with the larger ones broken and sucked dry of marrow. The bark of the trees had been furiously scratched in some sort of territorial display, and the smell of death hung heavily in the air.
As they marched forward, shapes began appearing in the fog; far too small to be pine trees, but at the same time far too large to be Lycans. Peering harder into the mist, he saw that they were monoliths. Ancient monoliths, weatherworn and moss-covered, with deep curvilinear runes etched into them. They were twelve-feet tall, semi-ellipsoid in shape, and had hexagonal holes chiselled into their top ends. They formed a ring a hundred feet across, and the ground within was a shallow depression, twelve-feet deep. In the center of the ring was a large, hexagonal stone slab, one that looked suspiciously like a sacrificial altar.
“What the bloody hell is this?” Thorogood demanded as he grabbed Faxton by the arm.
“It’s the den. See,” he pointed to the opposite end of the pit, where a wide tunnel had been dug into the ground, framed with branches and large stones.
“The den is inside of an ancient Ophionic megalith that’s inexplicably in the middle of the Howling Woods, and you didn’t think that was worth mentioning!” Thorogood cried.
"I didn't, honestly. It's an old country, there are ruins all over the place. Some are bound to have some squatters," Faxton shrugged. “So now that you see it for yourself, what’s the plan?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely forthright with you, Mr. Faxton,” Thorogood sighed as he unslung his rucksack. “Obviously no one in their right mind would expect to be able to walk into a den full of live Lycans and survive. That’s why I brought this.”
He carefully unwrapped a small ceramic grenade with a silvery wick sticking out of the top.
“This is filled with a solution of silver nitrate. When it explodes, the solution will instantly vapourize into a gas that will be highly toxic to Lycans, especially when they’re all confined to their den like that. The gas will immediately get into their eyes, nose, and throat, causing incapacitating pain, occluded vision and smell, impaired breathing, and eventually suffocation. Once they’re dead, we survey the bodies, and ideally drag one back with us if we can manage it.”
Faxton stoically glowered down at the small explosive, his expression cold and stern but otherwise unreadable.
“So, that’s the Priestess’s plan for exterminating the turnskins then, is it?” he asked. “Find their dens, and then gas them to death in their sleep?”
“You said it yourself Faxton; any sort of honourable warfare favours the Lycans. Those they don’t kill, they turn. What choice do we have?”
“To leave them be,” Faxton replied quietly. "If that's what you came here to do, then get on with it. I'll watch your arse from up here, but that’s it. I’m not doing the Priestess’s dirty work.”
Thorogood nodded understandingly, and made his descent into the stone ring. Once he was down, he first lit the torch on top of his walking stick, and then very cautiously approached the den.
Unlike the surrounding area, the circle itself had been kept meticulously clean, almost as if the Lycans had some conception of its sanctity. Thorogood quickly dismissed the notion, deciding that they simply had some instinctual drive to keep the den entrance clean of anything that might attract scavengers.
He came to a complete stop when he reached the den’s entrance, peering into it in a vain attempt to try to get a sense of its internal dimensions. The entrance was a black abyss though, and Thorogood had no way of knowing how deep in the Lycans were, or even if there were multiple tunnels. It was possible that just tossing the grenade into the den wouldn’t be enough to kill all of them. If he tried going in himself though, he would almost certainly be ambushed and killed before he ever had a chance to light it.
Accepting it as the least risky option, Thorogood lit the grenade and threw it as hard as he could into the den. To his surprise, he heard it shatter against something solid before igniting. The plumes of smoke rising out of the entrance proved that the den couldn’t have been very deep, and yet he didn’t hear a single Lycan howling in pain, nor did any come running out of the den.
Perplexed, he cautiously moved through the thinning smoke and dared to enter the den, holding his torch as far out from him as he could. He hadn’t gone more than a few steps when he saw what the grenade has smashed into. It was a door; a wide, wooden door clearly made from the pine trees the surrounded them, but undeniably much younger than the stone circle above them. He tried to open it, but found it was barred from the other side.
“Faxton!” Thorogood shouted as he ran back into the stone circle. “Mr. Faxton! There appears to be some sort of a, of, a…”
He trailed off, his attention suddenly stolen by the sight of over a dozen Lycan standing around the perimeter of the circle staring down at him. They were nearly seven-feet tall when they stood to their full height, though many of them were hunched, stooped, or crouched on all fours. They were lean and muscular with unretractable claws on digitigrade feet and long, splayed hands. Their dark, coarse fur was black, brown, grey, and even auburn, and their hungry eyes shone either red, gold, or green. Their snouts were short and their teeth were long, longer and sharper than that of any natural creature that dwelt in those woods.
Thorogood turned, and standing over the den’s entrance where he had emerged there was a woman with a wild mane of swept-back raven hair and the same amber eyes that some of the Lycans had. Her sun-browned skin was covered in dark green tattoos that mimicked the curvilinear runes of the megalith, and Thorogood realized those were the same tattoos he had seen on the barmaid the previous night.
She was naked save for a golden talisman around her neck, bearing the Triple Crescent Moon icon of The Covenhood. She was also filthy, with hips that were so wide and breasts that were so large and pendulous they looked more like they belonged on some ancient fertility idol than a living woman.
Her lips twisted upwards in a snarl, bearing an inhuman set of carnivorous teeth. She had a Lycan knelt to either side of her, and she rested her hands upon their heads as if they were common dogs.
The scene was so horrifying and so surreal, he didn’t notice Faxton standing beside them until he spoke.
“I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely forthright with you either, Mr. Thorogood,” he said, his blunderbuss at the ready to put Thorogood down in an instant, should he have the need.
“What the bloody hell is this!” Thorogood demanded. “And who is she?”
“My name is Lymestra, and I’m the Den Mother to this pack of Lycans,” she said in a voice that had an unnatural yet feral timber to it. “Before that, I was a Witch, so I guess that makes me a Were-Witch then, doesn’t it?”
“Nope. ‘Were’ means man. A Were-Witch would be a warlock,” Thorogood said sardonically. If he was going to die, he might as well die correcting people’s etymological errors. “What the devil do you mean, ‘Den Mother’?”
“I was banished from the Sisterhood for my numerous unorthodoxies, and like many outcasts, I fled to the Howling Woods to escape the law,” she replied, listlessly scratching her Rubenesque belly with her wolf-like claws. “I knew I couldn’t survive for long on my own, so I used my talents at theriomancy to persuade a pack of Lycans to take me in. When my Sisters rejected me, these creatures took me in as one of their own. I knew that it would only be a matter of time before I became infected myself, and not wanting to completely lose my human facilities, I set to work designing these.”
She gestured to the thaumaturgical tattoos that covered much of her body.
“These let me shift between forms at will, and while I admit I’m certainly a little more primal than I used to be, I’m still by far the smartest Lycanthrope in these woods. With the mind of a woman, the magic of a Witch, and now the strength of a Lycan, this forest is my domain.
“When the Grand Priestess sent your people to invade my woods, my first impulse was to destroy them. However, as I spied upon them from the woods and plotted my next move, I realized that they too were outcasts and hated the Grand Priestess as much as I did. They weren’t invaders, they were refugees.
“So, I decided to be a magnanimous Queen and extend an offer of amnesty instead.”
“Amnesty?” Thorogood asked.
“Her tattoos. She taught us how to make them, let us keep our human minds and human forms, but able to change skins when need be,” Faxton explained. “Fogs Dwelling and all its people now recognize Lymestra as our sovereign, and we won’t hesitate to use the gifts she’s given us to defend her woods. Any invaders who surrender can either retreat or receive the ink themselves, but those who don’t will either be slaughtered or join our ranks as traditional, wolf-minded Lycans.”
“And if the Grand Priestess still won’t relent, then I’ll send my people to covertly spread Lycanthropy throughout her realm and bring it down from the inside, returning all of Widdickire to a state of primeval nature!” Lymestra added. “And you, Mr. Thorogood, who came here to cowardly murder us in our sleep, you will now join our pack without the benefit of my tattoos, to make up for your treachery! If you survive the transformation, of course.”
Some of the Lycans began growling, and slowly crawled down into the ring. Thorogood pulled out a pistol and tried to shoot, only to find that Faxton hadn’t loaded his guns.
“It didn’t have to be this way, Thorogood,” Faxton lamented. “You could have walked away.”
Thorogood didn’t seem to be feeling especially repentant, however, refusing to forsake the cause he had sworn his life to. The guns may have been useless, but the cutlass was real. Throwing his walking stick to the ground and drawing his sword, he charged for the Lycans standing ahead of him, ready to strike them down with his silver blade.
He never got the chance though, as he was pounced on from behind and knocked to the ground, the Lycanthrope wasting no time in digging its teeth into his shoulder.
And as he screamed in pain, the entire pack howled in celebration of his infection.
Written by The Vesper's Bell