Newly revised for 2023, Tales of Wulfgard: Volume I is a collection of short stories. All have been edited, revised, and expanded, and one of my stories – “Hunted” – has been completely rewritten and greatly expanded to better accompany another of my Wulfgard story collections, The Hunt Never Ends.
For werewolf fans, this book includes two stories focusing on a werewolf/werewolves/lycanthropy and my own fictional takes thereon! Be sure to check it out!
Tales of Wulfgard, Volume 1 is a collection of stories by brother and sister Justin R. R. Stebbins and Maegan A. Stebbins, set in the dark fantasy world of Wulfgard! There are 5 tales, each exploring the background of a particular important character of Wulfgard.
“Speak No Evil” – Whisper’s Tale – by Justin — Whisper has never lived anywhere except the City – never even been beyond its walls. She knows it like the back of her hand, knows the long faces of its dark buildings like the faces of old friends – almost her only friends. But there is a new gang in town: a shadowy cult kidnapping young street urchins for an unknown purpose. And Whisper becomes one of their victims.
“A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” – Chris’s Tale – by Maegan — On a lonely farm on the far northern frontier of the Achaean Empire, a young boy is born with stark white hair – a sure sign of witchcraft and sorcery. His loving parents protect him and keep him hidden from the sight of other people, who would surely see him killed for his dangerous abilities. But the fearful locals are not the only thing the family has to worry about: something lurks in the shadows of the forest near their home. Something with a taste for blood…
“Potential Energy” – Lord Plutarch’s Tale – by Justin — The House of Plutarchus is one of the oldest and most powerful families in all of the Achaean Empire. But its youngest son, Septimus Plutarch, wishes to make his own way in the world. With great care, he begins planning a life of power and prestige, and more importantly, independence. But one day he makes a discovery about himself that brings all his plans crumbling down… and opens up a new, far more dangerous path to even greater power.
“Hunted” – Caiden’s Tale – by Maegan — Since before recorded history, the ancient organization known as the Venatori have protected the people of the Achaean Empire from the threat of creatures far more powerful than any man: monsters. Even Caiden and Gwen – both highly trained hunters – find themselves outmatched when confronted with one of the deadliest beasts in the mortal realms: a werewolf. It will take all their experience and cunning to survive.
“Wake Not the Sleeping Bull” – Jörgen’s Tale – by Justin — Jörgen the Lone Bull is a proud son of Northrim, despite being an orphan. He wants nothing more than to protect his home from conquest by the ever-expanding Achaean Empire. After fighting skirmishes against them for years as an outlaw, he finally joins a Northern army willing to take the fight to the Imperials directly. But Jörgen finds that real war is not quite as glorious as he had hoped, and he may never be able to go home the same man he was before.
It’s time for a public preview of my next upcoming book! A novella to be released this spring, The Curse of Ankhu, Book I is around 30k words of adventure and mystery, set in the deserts of the Far South in Wulfgard, inspired by the cultures and mythologies of ancient Egypt, Persia, and more. It is the first of 3 novellas that will tell the full tale of the ancient curse of Ankhu…
A rough draft synopsis of the upcoming novella:
Deep in the mysterious desert of the Red Land, Deshret, lies an ancient tomb, the resting place of one of the greatest evils the world has ever known: Pharaoh Ankhu the Endless. Long did he reign and oppress the people of the Black Land, Kemhet. So great and terrible was his power that the gods themselves descended, defeating and cursing him, burying him in foreign land deep in a labyrinth never to be found by mortals. Now Ankhu rises again with each darkening of the moon, a walking mummy, searching for that which he may never find… his own still-beating heart, denying him passage into the afterlife. Over the untold ages, Ankhu’s tomb remained undiscovered, a secret protected always by the loyal Medjay, an order serving the many pharaohs of Kemhet who came after. But now a new threat has arisen— Lord Tefnahkt the Red, cultist and warlock, drives his many slaves to uncover Ankhu’s resting place, unlock his evil power, and unleash him upon the world once more. While a small group of Medjay work to stop Tefnahkt’s plans, one slave may become the key to stopping Tefnahkt – and putting an end to his and Ankhu’s evil once and for all. In a race against time, five Medjay and the rebellious slave Djedar Rath must stop Tefnahkt from opening the tomb before the coming of the new moon, when Pharaoh Ankhu the Endless will awaken once more. For if he does… he will be unstoppable.
Expect to see the cover art reveal soon, and the book will also feature two illustrations, as well as a map of the regions in which the story takes place. This will occur with a much larger announcement, including a synopsis of the series.
Coming this spring!
Enjoy the preview!
Citizens gathered before the approach of a great temple where statues of the gods once overlooked every aspect of their lives. Those statues had been torn down and hacked to pieces, their stones scattered across the city. Many of the colorful hieroglyphs along the base of such statues had been slashed through and otherwise defiled, their images broken, while only desolate feet stood where mighty monuments were meant to sit or stand.
Now came a new ruler: one who did not tolerate effigies of this land’s ancient and still-reigning gods, nor of the many pharaohs who had come before him: he who defied the sacred order of all things, including the duties of Men to maintain balance and the natural cycle itself.
Down the middle of the streets marched a procession of men and horses. A chariot gilded in gold and jewels, pulled by the most beautiful of steeds wearing attires of precious metals and gems, rode in the center of the army. The wealth on the chariot alone may have amounted to more value than the accumulated possessions of every conquered soul in the crowd.
The chariot came to a halt at the far end of the cowed audience, and the man who drove it stepped out before his people. He was tall and elegant, with a face like chiseled stone, his every severe feature rivaling those of the nearby toppled statue of the god Osiris. He wore only some robes about his waist and gold ornaments around his arms and neck and ankles, freely showing much of his body. The form of a living god was something to be eternally admired… though Ankhu’s sinuous muscles and prominent veins hardly held the majesty of the perfect-bodied statues his soldiers had destroyed.
The people did not cheer for him. Silence spread across the crowd as Ankhu stepped up to a pedestal, one hastily erected by his warriors for such an occasion.
Speeches were for weak men, however. Ankhu gave no speech. He stood and looked out across his latest conquest, needing no words to prompt all those before him to kneel. Every man and woman under his stare lowered themselves to their knees, bowing until their noses touched the earth. They swore loyalty – and swore to fear him, as he commanded of all under his rule.
But still there were those who did notfear.
As he looked over his subjects, one of his own warriors lunged with sword in hand. Barely three feet separated them, giving the soldier an easy opportunity to stab his long-time ruler in the back and at last defeat Pharaoh Ankhu the Endless, God-King, Demon-Sired, High Priest of the Black Temple and oppressor of Kemhet.
Ankhu kept his gaze forward, looking out at the people. He would not even regard the man who dared stand against him. With but a wave of his hand, the soldier fell to his knees, dropping his sword and crying out in pain. Slowly, Ankhu turned to face the man as he suffered, clutching at his chest, his soul writhing within him.
Ankhu said to the denizens of the conquered city, “Gaze upon this man. He is one of your own neighbors who turned traitor to serve me in my conquest of your home. Now he raises his sword against me: a pitiful, mundane weapon.” Ankhu did not kneel to pick it up, as Ankhu knelt for nothing. Instead he gestured to another soldier, who ran over and scooped up the fallen blade, bringing it to his pharaoh.
Ankhu took it – and then, with but a glance, turned it to dust that blew away in the desert wind.
“No weapon can harm me,” said Ankhu. “No mortal can end the reign of Ankhu the Endless.” He looked out across his latest conquest – and scoffed. “When he joined my forces, this man begged me to show mercy. He pleaded with me that I might spare your homes, your families, your souls. And so I did, for I can be merciful… But now his actions have forfeited all your lives.”
Terror spread through the people before him. While some knelt frozen in confusion and fear, others began to scramble. They hoped to escape or at least hide, or even to reach the nearest horse and set off in a random direction into the mercy of the desert. Compared to Ankhu, even the bleakness of the dunes seemed welcoming.
Once again Ankhu lifted a hand, and from it flowed power unspeakable. Within moments, the skies began to blacken. Swarms of a black, swirling mass blotted out the sun – and then descended upon the city.
They were insects of hell, a plague never meant to be seen by Men. They would devour all in their path: flesh and bone, animal and crop, and their touch would spread a pestilence that couldn’t be identified nor cured.
Such was the will of Ankhu.
Alas, the will of Ankhu was all but forgotten. Eventually, the Endless found his end.
Over the course of untold years, perhaps even thousands or more, Ankhu’s reign fell into ambiguity. Statues of his might erected by the empire he had built were since torn down or otherwise defaced by his former subjects, and the passing of ages had its way of forgetting or distorting history. If anyone short of a truly learned scholar did know Ankhu’s name, they knew him only as an ancient evil pharaoh and little more than a legend… but one ancient order remembered everything.
Those whose oaths bound them to preserve such history and to remember the greatest of evils above all else were now the only force standing between past and present – standing in the face of history repeating itself. They were the order known as the Medjay.
Or so legends claimed. Not that the slaves working in the middle of the desert would know.
Day had long since passed into night, and like every night, the master kept slaves working. None would dare defy Tefnahkt the Red, owner of every slave present. But one slave’s time to rest had come at long last.
Djedar Rath finally dropped his well-worn pick. Even after being driven for so many years under the same orders and whips, this felt exceptional. So much as fetching a drink of water resulted in harsh glares and reminders to get back to work, especially for him.
Heavy arms aching and sore, Djedar finally left behind the secluded little chamber he had chosen as his personal project. The dig site where he and the other slaves worked seemed so vast they could never uncover it all, and new walls were discovered every day. They had been given orders to search every chamber for an entrance into some mysterious, larger complex. The order had been issued a week or more ago, and despite working every day and night since, they’d found nothing but more dust-coated walls and obelisks colored in hieroglyphs. Master Tefnahkt the Red was growing impatient.
False doors dotted every ruin they tried to enter. Empty rooms stood everywhere, leading to nothing. So far, they hadn’t found a way inside whatever greater structure rested deep beneath the sands. The room in which Djedar had worked all day was yet another pointless chamber, every wall lined in symbols and other sandy, almost worn-away images he hadn’t yet deciphered.
Cold night wind chilled the sweat covering Djedar’s almost naked form as he stepped into the open desert air, making him shiver. Other slaves continued to work in the light of the tall torch poles and braziers scattered over the massive dig site, but Djedar’s time was done – at least for tonight. He didn’t speak to any of them, stalking through the various projects toward one of the many camps where slaves were allowed a few hours of rest.
He passed by the current center of interest in the dig site: a treasure room, a chamber locked away behind bars golden in hue but sturdier than true gold – or any other metal they’d ever known. Warnings on the wall told of how the treasure was cursed and never to be disturbed; Tefnahkt, of course, did not care. The slaves worked there day and night, though Djedar was not allowed to do so, for fear he would sabotage the efforts due to being a ‘traitor.’
Apparently something in the room was structurally unsound. Djedar always kept his ears open, and he overheard a slave-driver shouting orders to the workers to be careful digging in the chamber, as an integral support pillar had weakened and could collapse at the smallest provocation. Interesting, but not of any importance. Not to him. All he wanted was sleep.
But as he prowled past groups of slave-drivers and armed guards, Djedar paused. Some of Tefnahkt’s men had gathered not far from his resting place. One nudged a sleeping old man with the butt of his spear.
“Get up,” the slave-driver ordered. The old man barely stirred, letting out a confused sound, half a cough and half a groggy grunt. “Get up!”
Djedar approached, though he stood just beyond the reach of the nearest torch’s light. “Enough,” Djedar said, drawing their collective glares. He didn’t balk. “He’s been sick for days.”
“Sick or no, he’s slept for six hours now,” the slave-driver retorted.
“Do you really expect a sick old man to work this time of night?” Djedar asked calmly.
His interruption drew attention away from the elderly slave, who huddled in his blankets, pulling them over his splotched, bald head. Djedar didn’t so much as glance his way, keeping his eyes trained on the slave-driver who turned toward him.
“If he’s too sick and old to work,” said the slave-driver as he took a step nearer, long whip dangling from one hand, “tell me why we shouldn’t throw him out in the desert and let him start walking. Tefnahkt the Red doesn’t waste food on the weak.”
Djedar didn’t miss a beat. “Tefnahkt the Red also doesn’t waste slaves. You don’t give the orders here.” He lifted his head higher, looking down his face at the guard. “I’ll take his place for the night.”
The man barked out a laugh. “Taking the place of a dying old man, are you? Fine. You’ll work his shift and we’ll let the useless sod take your sleep.” He nodded back to where Djedar had come from. “Go.”
With that, Djedar left. Every throbbing muscle in his body asked him why he would be so stupid. Why would he work himself to the bone even more than the masters demanded already? But he was beyond caring. Besides, he had a personal project to continue.
Making a beeline through the dig site once more, he returned to the same chamber, taking up a shovel and lantern from beside the entrance. He ducked low under the half-broken doorway before rising to his full height again in the secluded room which led nowhere.
If he didn’t have work to show the next slave-driver who checked on him, he would be punished for it. Whipped, most likely. For now, however, Djedar put aside his other tools, carrying the lantern to look along the walls again.
He couldn’t read all that incredibly well, being a mere slave essentially all his life, but he’d seen enough buildings and scrolls to teach himself a few things. Stealing the occasional text for himself also helped. Familiar symbols dotted the walls, but they only seemed like sections of the full story.
Depictions of the Old Kingdom gods lined all sides of the chamber: the many animal-headed deities of Kemhet, the Black Lands – Djedar’s homeland. Falcon-headed god Horus the Younger worked alongside the fearsome lion-headed goddess Sekhmet as they subdued a man who wore the royal headdress, the menes, like the gods themselves to indicate his divine status as pharaoh.
The first images had been scraped off the wall. The second showed the divinities putting the pharaoh in black chains to bring him before the god Anubis, judge of the dead, a deity depicted as a man with the head of a black wolf. Presiding also was Set, god of chaos – but why would Set be there?
What story did they tell?
“Rath!” another of the slaves, one who often wanted to gossip, called from the half-collapsed doorway to his left. In the corner of his eye, Djedar saw a dark shape with a familiar face look in at him. “Are you alright? Why’re you still working?”
“I like working,” Djedar answered lightly. That wasn’t true, of course.
“Weren’t you digging in here all day already? Why do you dig in there, anyway? Looks like it could collapse on you any second.”
Talking so much would draw attention to them. “I guess it could. It’s very exciting.” Djedar flashed the man a quick smile. “What’re you doing?”
The other slave scoffed, shaking his head and leaving. Flippancy usually had a way of sending off annoyances. Djedar returned to work, running his fingers along the walls, searching for any lever or button. He paused occasionally to knock the flat of his pick against the stone, listening for hollow openings behind the facade.
His curiosity went unrewarded. The chamber was a dead end. Every wall stood thick and sturdy, hiding nothing, and deterioration destroyed the colorful stories the stones once told. Still he had only the partial tale about the strange pharaoh the gods themselves put in black chains and, seemingly, judged before his mortal death.
A need to know the full story drove him to return to work – not for any slave-driver and certainly not for his master, Tefnahkt the Red, but for himself. A soft portion of the wall tempted him with potential secrets underneath, so he resumed his digging there. After the day’s work and several more hours into the night, Djedar had created a hole so deep he could nearly stand in it.
Unfortunately, that left him vulnerable. He couldn’t see the entrance anymore. Experience told him never to have his back to the door, even in the best of circumstances… but he had no choice. Exchanging his pick for a shovel and putting his lantern at the edge of the pit, he descended into the hole under the wall once more to shovel into the deep, hard earth.
Eventually, he dug deep enough that he could fit his entire tall frame into the hole and work almost upright under the stone walls of the chamber. Maybe he could even dig a tunnel out of the dig site itself and escape again. Every moment he worked, however, fear of an ambush bit at the back of his neck…
Movement. Someone entered the room behind and above him. Djedar froze, listening, hearing only one set of feet – which meant it probably wasn’t a slave-driver. They were smart enough never to walk alone near him after what he’d done. But it also meant whoever crept up on him probably wanted to kill him.
“Djedar Rath,” said a voice which dripped hatred. “The one who tried to run like a coward and a weakling and got so many of us killed. Traitors shouldn’t dig alone.”
“You can’t betray that to which you swore no loyalty,” Djedar replied, looking up to regard a slave he did not recognize.
The other slave – skinny, as slaves were – crouched over the hole with a sneer on his young, scarred face. “Most of us disagree. By being here, we’ve sworn loyalty. It’s commanded of us, by something higher than us. All is Lord Tefnahkt the Red’s will – we should be grateful that we serve him.”
Djedar nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I’ve heard. Most of you enjoy being made into a working dog for a man who pretends to be a god.”
Outrage widened the other slave’s eyes, huge and white. He snatched up the pick from beside the hole and swung it downward. Djedar had barely enough space to jump back and avoid catching the pointed head of the pick in the top of his skull.
Before the other slave could lift the tool again, Djedar grabbed it, pulling on it so hard it jerked the man off-balance, disarming him in the process as the pick slid from the other slave’s sweat-slicked hands. Djedar dropped the extra makeshift weapon in the pit, keeping his shovel instead. He then climbed out of the hole and rose to his feet while the other slave scrambled back, gnashing his teeth in anger. Even looking up at the much taller Djedar, the slave remained defiant.
“You’ll pay for your insolence!” he spat. “They’ll reward me when I haul your body out, traitor – surely Lord Tefnahkt will know you’re more trouble than you’re worth!”
Djedar didn’t say a word. He kept the shovel in his hand but held it down to his side, watching the other slave’s every movement. He looked like a man possessed, a true believer in his cause, his stare wild and violent.
Too many slaves here didn’t care what they were digging up – they had lost their humanity along with any good hope. Any who’d managed to retain their soul had been forcibly purged from Tefnahkt’s flock long ago. Save for the occasional old slaves well past their prime, those who remained deeply believed in some greater reward from Lord Tefnahkt the Red when they found whatever he had them searching for. They worshiped their master as a greater being, a god among men, who would uplift even the lowest of slaves with his benevolence.
This man certainly believed it. Djedar didn’t.
The other slave charged forward. Djedar swung his shovel, but the other slave caught it, wrestling Djedar back a step – toward the pit he’d dug. Trying to make him lose his footing. Djedar didn’t budge, standing his ground—
His opponent tried to drive a knee up into his stomach, but Djedar twisted to one side to escape the blow, relinquishing his grip on the shovel in the process. Before the shorter man brought the shovel back around in a wide swing at Djedar’s neck, Djedar lunged forward and backhanded him across the jaw, his hand hard as a brick.
But the slave recovered faster than Djedar expected. The point of the shovel met with his side, not quite hard enough to draw blood with its dull head – but hard enough to send pain into his ribs and force him back a step again. Djedar’s lost ground spurred the other slave into a frenzy.
He charged. Djedar saw it coming and, at the last moment, side-stepped. He drove forward once the other slave missed his mark, chopping the side of his hand into the other slave’s throat. Choking and coughing, the man dropped the shovel, clutching his windpipe. Djedar took hold of the shovel, pried it free from the other slave’s weakened grip, and then used his greater height to bodily throw him right into the hole.
He went down in a heap, sputtering and kicking up sand. As the other slave struggled back to his feet and began to claw at the edge of the pit, Djedar lifted the shovel, his gaze cold. The other slave stared up at him in bewilderment, as if he hadn’t expected recompense – just before Djedar brought the tool down on the crown of his head.
A man dying was a hideous sight. The other slave went still in an instant, going limp like a ragdoll and falling back into the hole in an ugly heap of underfed limbs. Prying the shovel free of bone, Djedar silently worked to fill in the man’s newfound grave.
Burying his crime in his night’s work didn’t bode well for the review of his progress. This would have the slave-drivers believe he’d been sitting around in a dead-end room doing nothing, but his punishment would be far greater still if they discovered a corpse. His masters knew he’d been working this chamber for a while…
“Slave!” a slave-driver called from the doorway. Djedar faced him with as impassive an expression as he could muster. The slave-driver didn’t seem to care either way. He barked without really paying him much attention, “Mistress Meresamun summons you!”
Perhaps this would allow him some distance from the corpse. Djedar followed the slave-driver through the low doorway and back out into the desert night. There, all the slaves assembled on their knees, heads down, forming great rows lining the walkways around the dig site. The slave-driver behind Djedar gave him a shove toward the line, but Djedar hesitated, watching the woman who could halt all their work with the utterance of a few words.
Behind her trailed a long, red train from the form-fitting kalasirisor sheath dress she wore. It left bare her arms, pale shoulders, and glimpses of her legs to show pristinely smooth, light olive skin. Intricate makeup surrounded her dark eyes that flicked over the faces of the kneeling slaves. Gold jewelry wound its way along her upper arms and bangles hung from her wrists while a large, shimmering pectoral covered her upper chest. Beautiful of features, with long, perfectly straight hair of raven black fixed with a golden crown, one could have mistaken Mistress Meresamun for royalty rather than nobility.
Djedar blinked, then furrowed his brow. He had never seen her before. She wore red, like Tefnahkt…
“Kneel,” ordered the slave-driver at Djedar’s back. Faces of his fellow slaves, some frightened but most simply angry with his noncompliance, glared up at him.
Djedar didn’t immediately comply, earning himself a sudden crack on the back of his skull. A whip bit him, hot blood trickling through his short hair. He cringed, vision briefly blurring from the pain, but he knew better than to react. With his brief moment of defiance over, he finally knelt like all the other slaves. Unlike them, however, he didn’t bow his head.
The woman reached him then, having apparently picked up the pace when she heard the whip. She looked at him briefly before frowning over to the man who’d struck him.
“And what,” said Meresamun, “was the purpose of that?”
“He wouldn’t kneel,” the slave-driver answered.
Meresamun stared at him. “You barely gave him time. These people are not to be harmed for no reason. Am I making myself clear?”
Though Djedar didn’t look, he heard the slave-driver’s feet shuffle in the sand. “Yes, Mistress. I apologize.”
“Your feeble apology won’t fix his head, nor the illnesses you’ve been letting sicken so many. Tefnahkt paid a hefty sum for these slaves, and we’ve had more than enough die over the years, much less those… disappearances. I won’t have you abusing his property on some petty power trip.”
Meresamun turned her attention to Djedar next, looking into his eyes. Djedar knew better than to meet the gazes of his owners, but sometimes he couldn’t help himself. She seemed amused by his defiance, taking a step forward – and then grabbing him by the chin.
It took all of Djedar’s well-practiced willpower not to react. He remained still while she hummed thoughtfully, gripping him hard and pushing his head to one side, admiring his every feature. Djedar still didn’t look away from her.
“He’s strong,” she said. “Handsome, too. Is this the one that escaped?”
“Yes, Mistress,” replied another slave-driver from nearby.
Meresamun smiled. “Tell me what happened.”
“By my understanding, he was born a slave and was later purchased by Tefnahkt…”
“The short version.”
“Oh. Uh – he’s been a part of some strange events. Many slaves disappeared in a sandstorm, including women and children, leaving only him and a few others behind… plenty of slave-drivers died, too. Don’t know what exactly happened, though. I wasn’t there. He himself also escaped into the desert once, alone. Killed a slave-driver who’d been watching over him, killed two slaves who tried to stop him. How he survived with no supplies is beyond anyone, but we found him eventually and brought him back. I don’t know how long he was out there. He’s hard-working, he’s just too smart. And vicious.” The man sniffed. “He’s dangerous. If it’d been up to me, I would’ve killed him for what he did. But Lord Tefnahkt ordered us not to.”
“He was brought before Tefnahkt?”
“Many times. He’s one of the only slaves willing to speak to him, give reports. Most of them lose their nerve and start praying to him instead. Tefnahkt used to have this slave take care of his animals after the palace was built, but we’ve been short on manpower, so we brought him out to the dig a good while ago.”
Meresamun turned Djedar’s face the other way – then farther still, looking at the whip mark on the back of his head. Djedar didn’t move, though his thinning patience did prompt him to inhale a slow, deep breath. Surely she would get bored at some point.
At length, her grip on his chin turned to gentle cradling instead just before her fingers slid away along with her attention. Djedar swallowed, trying not to show his relief too obviously.
“Interesting,” said Meresamun. “He will join those going to the fortress in the morning, then, and tell Tefnahkt of the work done here. If he’s already escaped once, keep him in chains, but don’t beat him again unless he actually deserves it. Pointless cruelty costs Lord Tefnahkt time and money.”
“Yes, Mistress,” the slave-driver replied – but then he asked hesitantly, “Who is to lead this caravan?”
Meresamun gave a dismissive wave. “Tefnahkt wanted to see that man who calls himself… what was it? Something like Blacksword.”
Djedar couldn’t stop himself. “Blacksword has never led a caravan to the fortress.”
The other slave-driver moved behind him; he heard his whip slither in the sand, preparing for another strike. But Meresamun lifted a hand and stopped him, looking at Djedar where he knelt and fearlessly met her gaze.
“Why’s that a concern?” she asked.
“We lost a caravan not two weeks ago,” the chatty slave-driver behind her put in. “And we lost another one a few months before that.”
Meresamun ignored him. Her only focus was Djedar, waiting for him to respond.
“The fortress,” Djedar answered calmly, “is beyond the border of the Blasted Wastes.”
She nodded. “I know; I’ve been there. Magnificent, isn’t it? Tefnahkt took me there himself more than once.” She smiled, as if this was a friendly conversation – she didn’t even seem patronizing. She actually seemed genuine. “If Blacksword doesn’t get practice now, he won’t ever be able to lead caravans to the fortress. You seem to have a lot of experience surviving in the desert. I’m sure you can offer advice.”
Djedar scoffed but didn’t answer. As if any slave-driver would listen to advice from a slave, particularly a slave who had killed some of their own. He enjoyed the journey to the fortress well enough, being strange in his own ways and having made it a few times, but every man knew each trek could be their last. The Blasted Wastes were no place for any mortal, not even one who knew how to survive the harshest of ordinary deserts.
A dry smile tugged at Djedar’s lips. He lifted his head and asked, “And who are you, Mistress Mereasmun? I’ve been a slave of Tefnahkt for years… but I’ve never seen you. I’d certainly remember if I did.”
Meresamun laughed. “Well, you’re not likely to see me again, I’m afraid. I came to visit in case Tefnahkt himself was here, but he spends most of his time at the fortress now. That’s far too perilous a journey for me without him by my side to protect me. Crossing the Blasted Wastes, even only a few leagues, with naught but these slave-drivers to protect me is unacceptable.”
Djedar intoned a thoughtful hum low in his chest, nodding. “I see… a consort, then. His favorite, I imagine.”
She only smiled and moved away. “An impressive mouth on that one,” she commented to the slave-driver who had answered her questions earlier. “In more ways than one, too. I like him. Try not to let him die in the cursed desert.” As she walked away, still looking over the other slaves as she went, Djedar heard her continue: “I’ll return to Waset in the morning— wait. What about this one? Why was he beaten? Stop groveling for just one moment, slave…”
She stepped off the path again to examine another slave. Djedar stopped paying any attention, letting his eyes wander up to the stars instead.
They said the stars were signs from the gods, a promise they would always be there watching over. Stars showed the eternity of the deities of the Black Land. Right now, though, not even the stars nor the sliver of a moon Djedar so enjoyed brought him any comfort. Death frightened him, even if he would never admit it. Staring death in the face by wandering the desert or challenging his owners was one thing, but setting foot in the cursed desert was something else entirely.
Another caravan dared to enter the reaches of the Blasted Wastes… the arrogance of Tefnahkt the Red knew no bounds. Building a fortress out there was more than arrogant enough, outright insane in fact, but to keep sending caravans through these deserts and losing over half of them felt incredibly wasteful. It was no small wonder Tefnahkt currently possessed so little manpower, relatively speaking. How long would it be before he ended up in one of those lost caravans, instead of one of the few that actually made it?
And yet, the more he thought about it, Djedar found himself looking forward to the journey. Any chance to leave the dig site and return to the open desert once more might be worth it… even if dying one day in the Wastes wouldn’t surprise him, with Tefnahkt carelessly pushing everyone’s luck.
Starlight cast a strange glow upon the desert, lighting the bleak sands in so deep a blue that the flowing dunes looked like a painted ocean. Not so with the sprawling activity far below, however, where slaves worked themselves to the bone in the middle of those seemingly endless sands, the torchlit site of their work nestled deep within the middle of unlivable desolation.
The slaves toiled night and day uncovering ruins so ancient most never would have believed them to be real. Great blocks of sandstone erupted from nowhere in the dig site, and they had already uncovered several statues of various Kemheti gods, particularly the wolf-headed Anubis, standing watch over the long-buried structure hidden deep beneath the desert.
Others would have thought time alone had hidden the structures away. But the one who watched them from afar knew differently: these ruins had been buried on purpose, hidden from the world, sealed away and inaccessible.
From where he rested flat on his chest, the dwarf Buharum stared down at the faraway dig site, watching the slaves go about to and fro like ants.
He perched his bearded chin atop his folded hands. These Men he watched were not like him. Buharum was what they called a Bes–ak – those derived from the bearded god Bes, shortest of all gods but an important figure in the pantheon of the fertile Black Land, Kemhet. The Besak–ha, his people, had lived here for many ages.
Most people called his kind a simpler, perhaps less savory name… a dwarf.
Northerners would have jumped to the conclusion that a desert was no place for a dwarf, but not so for him and his unusual people: he had grown up here all his long life, spanning the lives of many mortal Men, and so had his ancestors. Buharum wasn’t ancient, by any means, but even he and his people considered this tomb ancient. He never imagined Men would suddenly want to dig it up. How did they even know about its existence at all?
Having lived so long, few things ever came to truly concern him. This, however, did.
“Brother,” said a voice at his back, and Buharum craned his neck to regard the speaker, “Solon wants you.”
Kukrum, Buharum’s brother by clan but not blood relation, stood just beyond the crest of the dune. Like Buharum, Kukrum was also a dwarf, not a mortal Man. Also like Buharum he had ruddy skin and a massive black beard of thick, intricate braids and bronze ornamentation covering his entire front. His suit of lamellar armor perfectly matched Buharum’s own, bronze in hue and light in make. At least, such armor was light for a dwarf. The clan-brothers also wore matching headdresses, so they almost looked like twins.
“Very well,” said Buharum as he rose up from his place in the sand, only halfheartedly dusting himself off before trudging back toward the encampment. His companions sat in a rough circle, though they had no fire around which to gather. Light would draw unwanted attention.
Three Men waited for the pair of dwarves. Kukrum chose to make himself look unimportant by standing off to the side, letting the three humans present turn their full attention to Buharum, who folded his arms over his mighty beard.
Mortal Men and immortal dwarf alike had come together in this little group, all part of something greater: the Medjay, an ancient order meant to protect the land of Kemhet, guarding its pharaoh and its people… and keeping safe its ancient secrets.
The Medjay, of course, were a much larger organization than this trio of humans and two Besak-ha. But they were the only ones who had been available to undertake this particular mission – and the Medjay as a whole remained unaware just how desperate a situation this had become. Someone actually uncovering the Tomb of Ankhu seemed impossible.
Back to the matter at hand, however, Buharum looked over his other companions. Rarely did Buharum ever see any of the Men of their group lighten up, but right now they looked so grim that he almost wanted to kick sand in their faces. Worrying themselves to death would hardly help the situation, and their lifespans were short enough already.
Their leader rose to his feet. Solon Sun-Eyes was an Imperial born in Kemhet and wholly integrated into their ways, as good as a Kemheti himself. He wore only simple white clothing, a composite bow and quiver on his back, and knife at his side. His revealing attire showed off his skin bronzed yet still fairer than many Kemhetis, as well as his heavy muscles and his sizable gut from too much Kemheti beer. Every hair on his body he kept shaved so body was perfectly slick, save for his dark eyebrows. This only served to highlight his bright hazel eyes, as well as his still more unusual tattoos.
Black, jagged tattoos covered his body in strange, disturbing, winding patterns. They touched all his limbs, his neck, and even his head and face. Runes written in the same black ink nestled between the assorted curves and prongs of the sundry designs.
Even Buharum had no idea what any of it meant, including the runic letters. Supposedly, the Dwarves had long ago mastered the art of ancient runic magic, said to be the language of the creator gods themselves. However, Buharum had never actually bothered studying it, in spite of his dwarven heritage. Far too complicated – and probably a drag.
“Buharum,” said the incredibly tattooed Solon in his voice like thunder and grinding stone, “what did you see?”
“Plenty of movement, even now,” Buharum replied. “They’re always active. I can’t see their faces from here, but I’d bet they’re as exhausted as you lot look.”
“This is no joking matter.”
Buharum shrugged. “Oh, I know it’s not. Of everything we protect, this is the most important. But…”
“But nothing,” cut in the only woman present, a knife-wielder by the name of Farrah, clad in robes of deep crimson. She hailed from Deshret, the Red Land. She flipped her long, black hair away from her swarthy face, eyes gleaming with hatred. “I watched the camp earlier. There are guards, but we’ve faced forces their size before. We could split them up and pick them off – then we go into the camp and take out the slaves.”
Solon glared at her then, his face like stone. “No. We do notharm slaves under any circumstances.”
Farrah scoffed. “Even if those slaves are helping to end the world?”
“Here now, they haven’t even found the blasted door yet, and the world’s not gonna end. You’re just catastrophizing early,” Buharum remarked. Everyone ignored him – lost in their own arguments, as usual. Leave it to them to not listen to a dwarf.
“Yes,” Solon snapped back at her.
Farrah threw her hands in the air. “Fine.”
“It wasn’t by their doing that they serve those with evil in their hearts,” Solon went on like some kind of poet, straightening the quiver on his back.
Next, the tallest and darkest figure among them spoke: the third human in the group, one who called himself Dunewalker. “Inspiring words,” he said, “but allmen carry evil in their hearts.”
Everyone fell silent then, at least for a moment. Dunewalker was the eldest of the mortals present, a few years older than Solon, leaving Farrah the youngest of all. Buharum wasn’t sure of his exact age, but if Dunewalker didn’t keep his head and his face perfectly shaven like Solon, Buharum guessed he would’ve had a decent touch of grey in his hair.
Dunewalker was an impressive man, particularly given his lean musculature left largely visible in his simple outfit of a leather harness, a vest, and a metal plate strapped over his heart, along with trousers and boots. Dunewalker’s skin was darker than anyone else present, a rich ebony in hue – a rare sight in Kemhet, Deshret, or indeed anywhere outside his faraway homeland of Axa, in the deepest south. His people had no desire to travel so far as to mingle with the folk of other lands, and Dunewalker seemed to feel the same way, especially since he never shared his real name.
Everyone looked grimmer than ever, their thoughts turning inward.
Buharum rolled his eyes. “Is it a quality of not living very long that makes you all so damn serious?”
Dunewalker flashed him a quick, bright grin, though Buharum didn’t read mirth in it. “I’ve never met a Besak who loves to flaunt his immortality as you do, Buharum. What made you thatway?”
“We are all immortal, Dune,” Solon put in. “The Besak-ha aren’t taken by age, but our souls will continue their journeys when we leave these bodies behind.”
“Great,” Farrah muttered, “another sermon…”
But Dunewalker straightened up and said, “He’s right. And that’s what concerns me most – the creature and its immortal soul still trapped in that… labyrinthian tomb.”
For the first time since the conversation started, Buharum’s fellow dwarf Kukrum spoke up from the edge of their sad little camp. “Do you think those poor slaves even know what they’re digging up?”
“Would it matter if they did?” Farrah remarked. “They’re slaves. They have to do what they’re told.”
Solon went to his horse and removed a bedroll from the saddle. He returned to their sitting circle to toss the blanket to the ground, spreading it pointedly over the sand.
“Get comfortable,” he ordered. “We’ll take turns watching the dig site. You’re right, Farrah: slaves must do as they are told. That’s why we’re going to wait until a convoy leaves, bound for their master. Then, we follow that back to whoever is behind uncovering the tomb, and we put an end to this.”
An‘end’towhat,exactly? Buharum wanted to ask as he sat down to clean his mighty crescent axe, just for something to do. But he didn’t bother voicing his question.Why anyone would want to dig up the tomb of Ankhu seemed unfathomable. The only thing in that place was death.
Death – and one of the greatest evils the world had ever known.
Sleep was all but impossible to find in a slave camp. Somehow, though, Djedar managed enough rest to awaken alert and ready to face his fate. He went with silent reservation, herded with a handful of other slaves across the eternally bustling dig site.
Day had not yet broken as they prepared to leave. Torches and lanterns still chased away the shadows throughout the dig, and exhausted slaves toiled with glazed-over eyes everywhere Djedar turned, the whips of their drivers and blind loyalty to their master keeping them working. A thin veil of early morning light, pale against the dismal deep blue sky, had only just begun to chase away the stars. It crept into the far edges of the horizon and offered hope of respite to the night-working slaves.
The walk was long, given the size of the dig. When they at last reached the convoy, Djedar didn’t find it impressive. Five horses were assembled, each intended for a slave-driver. One enclosed wooden wagon stood at the ready, two horses pulling it; the wagon was shaped almost like a small ship, not unlike some Kemheti funerary barge, which immediately put Djedar ill at ease. But it seemed at home in the sands, given its broad wheels and design suitable for desert travel.
Behind the wagon trailed a camel loaded down with supplies, tied to the hind of the wagon by a single rope. Camels were a rare sight in Djedar’s homeland of Kemhet, as the people of Kemhet considered them unclean and unfit for use even as a pack animal, preferring donkeys or oxen. Here in Deshret, however, camels were used for all sorts of purposes, even as mounts.
The slave-driver who called himself Blacksword hadn’t yet mounted his horse, marching around barking orders while spittle flew from his thick, black beard. Long curly hair of the same color hung past his shoulders, and dark, beady eyes set under a heavy brow made him look meaner than a serpent. His deeply ruddy skin told of his Deshreti birth and heritage of desert wanderers, as did his attire of robes to protect from the sun and several belts holding blades.
“Kemheti,” Blacksword barked, wheeling to glare at Djedar, “I was told you’ve traveled this way before.”
“Yes,” Djedar answered.
“I was also told you’ve survived in the desert alone for days.”
“And no one knows how you did it.”
This time, Djedar didn’t bother responding.
Blacksword continued anyway, undeterred. “I come from a tribe not far from here. My family has walked the Red Lands since long before you and whatever slave spawned you were even lifting bricks. I do notwant your advice unless I explicitly ask for it, is that understood?”
Djedar replied with a smile, “I’ll remember that.”
Blacksword spat a thick wad of saliva in the sand at Djedar’s feet. Had he asked, Djedar would’ve advised him promptly that wasting his water in such a way wouldn’t get him far, no matter how long his ancestors had lived here. As it was, he didn’t say a word.
“Good,” Blacksword snapped, turning away. “Put him in chains, as Meresamun ordered!”
Two more slave-drivers came forward, heavy chains rattling in their hands. One knelt to shackle Djedar’s ankles while the other tightened irons around his wrists, connecting those to a metal ring enclosed about his neck. Djedar, like all the other slaves, wore nothing more than a shendyt, or essentially a civilized Kemheti loincloth, and the many chains bit into his bare skin.
Such elaborate restraints drew the eyes of his peers, the slaves watching from the wagon. From the looks on the faces of one or two, they knew why he wore such shackles.
But Djedar merely flashed a quick smile to the men who had put him in chains and said, “Thanks, it’s impressive. Quite the fashion statement for seeing Tefnahkt.”
“LordTefnahkt,” one slave corrected harshly. Djedar ignored him.
“You’ll walk alongsidethe wagon for now,” Blacksword said, motioning Djedar forward with a swing of his arm. To another slave-driver, he said, “Tie a rope so he can’t wander off.”
When a rope had been fastened around his chains, the other end tied to the side of the wagon, Blacksword was finally satisfied. Djedar didn’t comment all the while, already at work figuring out how he could escape his bonds if the need arose.
They set off in silence, save for the creaking wagon and shifting sand around the horses’ hooves. No road stretched before them for their travel as they set off in a seemingly random direction away from the dig site, into the vastness of the desert. The sand beneath them had been packed only lightly, subtle but noticeable, telling of other caravans that had come this way before – others belonging to Tefnahkt, over half of which had been lost in the desolation of the Wastes.
Hopefully they wouldn’t meet the same fate.
Resigned, Djedar walked alongside the wagon, chains rattling with every step. At least they hadn’t put a muzzle on him, he supposed, though it almost surprised him given Blacksword’s attitude. The shackles on his wrists cut into him almost as badly as the ones on his ankles, so he turned his attention outward.
Emptiness surrounded them, a sea of seemingly endless sand in all directions. Soon the dig site disappeared over the rolling dunes that still carried a faintly blue hue, so early was the morning light. The convoy moved between the dunes at a slow but steady pace. As they traveled, the sun came all too soon and lent its golden light to the desert, turning the sky a brilliant blue.
Civilization was a foreign concept to these timeless red deserts of deep Deshret, so far from anything that even the wandering tribes of the Deshreti people dared not set foot here. These lands rested on the doorstep of the Blasted Wastes, a place no mortal man should tread after its accursed fate.
Djedar didn’t know many details of its fate. He knew little of history and culture, though he learned whatever he could when he got the chance. Still, most everyone in the Southron lands knew at least some of the tales… though apparently there were those who still hadn’t heard them.
Several hours into their trek, around the time Djedar’s legs began to ache from shuffling in chains beside a horse-driven wagon traveling treacherous sands, one of the slaves riding on a seat jutting from the wagon’s side gave him a long look and said, “Are you the man who almost escaped?”
Djedar feigned ignorance, regarding the other slave with a look of wonder. “Someone almost escaped?”
The slave stared at him briefly. “They say he killed several men.”
“Well, I hope we don’t meet him. He sounds dangerous.”
“They say he wandered the desert and no one knows how he survived. No one goes out in those dunes and lives.”
Djedar shrugged, manacles clinking loudly. “We’re in those dunes right now. Are you expecting to die?”
“What? No. We have supplies and— ” He paused and stared again, then blurted, “Are you simple?”
“Relatively. I’m only a slave, after all.” Djedar side-eyed his would-be interrogator, the faintest hint of a smile playing on his lips. “What about you?”
He scoffed. “Tell me about the Wastes, if you’re so smart.”
“You’ve never made this journey before, then?”
Suddenly the other slave balked, shrinking like someone had raised a whip. “No. Is it true there are monsters that don’t feel the bite of steel?”
Djedar almost considered actually telling him what he knew: great wars long ago had corrupted the region with so much magic that it seeped into the very spirits of the land, changing them forever – everything from the sands themselves to the wildlife had become abominations, immune to most mortal weaponry. The Wastes were a place where directions made no sense and living nightmares hunted in the night, longing for the sweet taste of human flesh over all else.
But he said instead, testing the waters, “Don’t you trust the power of Tefnahkt to protect you?”
The slave perked up in an instant, puffing his chest out and answering immediately, “That’s true – you’re right. Lord Tefnahkt commands these lands. He’ll watch over us, won’t he? He watches over all who serve him, even the lowest slaves.”
Djedar snorted. “Inever said he’dwatch over us.”
The slave stared at him for speaking blasphemy. “Then you don’t believe?”
Well, that concluded the conversation. Djedar let his gaze wander over the horizon, watching the waves of heat shimmering in the air and focusing on putting one foot before the other.
The slave added after a moment, sounding angry, “You shouldbelieve. He’ll see us safely to the fortress – it is his bidding.”
Djedar said nothing. The dig site and beyond were in Set’s lands, the red deserts away from Kemhet’s borders, but not even Set’s merciless reach extended into the Wastes. Whatever dark god exerted his bidding over the place they were going, Djedar didn’t know, but he knew for certain it wasn’t Lord Tefnahkt the Red.
Shame the slave who spoke to him was yet another zealot. In a way, he wouldn’t have minded a conversation. Something to take his mind off his suffering, the way his feet ached and his legs burned, his throat pleading for a drink.
Then he almost collapsed.
But he didn’t. Djedar only stumbled, his assortment of chains trying to deafen him once again with their incessant clinking. He righted himself quickly, straightening up and dismissing his pained grimace to replace it with a grim stare instead.
Blacksword slowed his steed, throwing Djedar a look. He was the only slave who’d been forced to walk, so he stood out with or without restraints.
Another slave-driver looked also, then shot Blacksword a confused glare. “You let him waste away and our heads will roll for it. Lord Tefnahkt won’t hesitate to punish all of us if we let his animal-keeper die. I’mnot feeding that damn elephant or anything else in his menagerie.”
“Then maybe he should be keeping the animals instead of digging,” Blacksword answered, taking a long pull from an animal skin doubtlessly full of heqet: essentially, nutritious beer.
“You know Lord Tefnahkt wantsthe slaves helping with the dig.”
Another moment of silence passed. Hooves beat gently in the sands, the wheels creaked on rhythmically. Djedar thought about letting himself fall just to see what they would do, but pride kept his legs moving and his head high.
“Blacksword,” the other slave-driver hissed again, insistently.
“I won’t die just because you don’t like this stupid slave,” a third slave-driver snapped. “You know Lord Tefnahkt favors that one. Whether you see his reasons or not, it is his will that the slave lives.”
Rolling his eyes, Blacksword finally gave another wave of his hand and ordered, “Put him on the wagon – and give him something to drink. We don’t need him slowing us down.”
The convoy’s pace slackened long enough for the other slaves to help Djedar. No one had lifted a finger to help him all the while, but now the slaves hurried to grab Djedar’s arms and haul him up onto an exterior seat, apparently still not warranting a resting place inside the wagon itself. One man then passed Djedar a skin of heqet, which he took and uncorked without a word, forgetting his long-fought-for dignity and drinking deeply.
Djedar lost track of time as they went ever deeper into the desert, as was wont to happen when one neared the dark magic of the Wastes. Time didn’t matter, anyway: all that mattered was staying alive. The struggle for survival took his remaining focus, as Blacksword occasionally ordered him down from his seat, forcing him to walk himself numb before his fellow slave-drivers reminded him that Lord Tefnahkt wanted Djedar alive and capable of speech.
Eventually Blacksword lost interest in him, which told Djedar they neared the Wastes. The looks of resolve and general annoyance on the slave-drivers’ faces steadily melted into fear and concern – all except Blacksword, who remained confident. Djedar couldn’t decide if that worried him more or less.
Then, things changed. The land around them became something different. Slow at first, Djedar picked up on even the subtlest hint that they neared the Blasted Wastes. It started with a strange sensation in the air, almost like humidity: not something a desert often felt. A sticky, cloying sensation settled onto his skin thicker than the sweat already coating him.
“Djedar Rath,” Blacksword called, catching his attention. “Is that your name, slave?”
“Yeah,” Djedar answered wearily. “What?”
“Consider this me asking for your whatever wisdom you’re supposed to have. Are we going the right way?”
Djedar allowed a pause before answering, “You don’t know which way you’re going?”
“I’mnavigating,” snapped another slave-driver. “I’ll take care of it, Blacksword. We’re going the right way.”
Blacksword didn’t say another word, looking away from Djedar; that meant he wasn’t supposed to speak. Djedar fell silent once again, slipping back into thought.
Next, the sands began to change. The red sand steadily deepened and grew pale, becoming very faintly grey. Then, every grain around them suddenly looked ashen, until all the various blues, greens, reds, and whites worn by the convoy stood out in an almost frightening way, like they entered a world where color did not belong.
As if the utter desolation of the unforgiving red deserts in Deshret hadn’t been terrible enough, the Blasted Wastes made any man long for the comfort of at least the familiar, no matter how arid and dangerous. Because, for every peril in an ordinary wasteland, the realm that had once been the Empire of Sinkarya so long ago held ten perils more… none of them familiar.
Worse still, perhaps, was the fog. The longer they traveled, the heavier it became. As day fell into night, clouds settled around them, just as colorless as the sand under their feet. The other slaves wore masks of terror, while every slave-drivers’ hands rested on his weapons. Djedar steepled his fingers together before him and stared off into the distance, his brow knit, silent as the grave.
“Is night falling?” asked one slave, keeping his voice low like disturbing the stillness might kill him. “I can’t tell.”
“Shouldn’t we be resting by now?” said another. “I feel like I could fall off the cart.”
“Blacksword,” a slave-driver called from horseback, “let’s make camp before we go even deeper into this accursed place.”
Blacksword roughly pulled his steed to a halt, wheeling to face the convoy he led. “Make camp!” he shouted. “Tomorrow we ride day and night! See that the animals are fed first and keep the slaves together!”
The wagon halted on a flat patch of sand away from any dunes, the slave-drivers dismounting and motioning the slaves off their seats to help set up camp. Djedar leapt down and watched everyone hurry around him, bringing out supplies for the horses first while others set up a perimeter.
No one paid him any heed; he couldn’t help, shackled as he was. Djedar wandered to the back of the wagon and looked at the camel standing there chewing gods-knew-what, as they hadn’t passed even a thorny shrub for days. Djedar lifted a hand, and the camel lowered its nose into Djedar’s touch.
“You wouldn’t get far on that beast,” remarked a nearby slave, “if that’s what you were hoping, traitor.”
Djedar gave a low chuckle, but he didn’t answer.
Everything seemed reasonably alright until Blacksword gave another shout— “Asan, get over here!” The slave beside Djedar immediately went to answer the call, but Blacksword kept issuing orders. “All of you, set up torches around the camp! Keep them lit all night, I don’t want a single one going out!”
Those words sent Djedar’s stomach dropping so low that his gnawing hunger, which bordered on starvation, was instantly forgotten. Blacksword patrolled around the camp on foot, one hand gripping the hilt of his namesake black khopeshsword sheathed at his hip: a wicked crescent-shaped and axe-like blade, curved but still bearing a vicious point at the end despite its relatively squared-off tip. Djedar gave Blacksword such a deep stare that it drew his attention.
“What?” prompted the head slave-driver.
“Torches aren’t a good idea,” Djedar answered.
Blacksword laughed, his yellowed teeth colorful against the grey world. “Fire drives away animals, Rath.”
“These aren’t animals. The creatures that live here understand fire; they don’t fear it. If you set up torches, you’re as good as inviting them to a banquet.”
Yet again Blacksword waved his hand. “Go to sleep, slave.”
With that, he turned away and resumed barking orders. Djedar scoffed, setting his jaw, but he said no more. He retrieved his bedroll and threw it underneath the body of the wagon, spreading it out with difficulty thanks to the chains still squeezing his wrists.
“What are you doing?” asked the same slave who’d spoken to him during the journey, the one who really thought Tefnahkt would keep them safe. “You really are simple, aren’t you?”
“Simplytrying to stay alive,” Djedar replied, flashing the slave a brief smile.
“You’re like a child hiding under his bed.”
“Under the bed is where the monsters live. Your mother didn’t tell you that?”
The slave laughed. “That makes even less sense. Why would you hide under there, then?”
“Because in the Wastes, the monsters don’t hide, so under the bed is vacant – and I’ll be taking it.” Djedar lifted one shackled hand, kissed where his thumb rested against the middle of his forefinger, and used that to motion a smooth gesture like a salute off his forehead. “Good night.”
The bewildered slave watched Djedar crunch his tall self to squeeze between the wagon wheels and then underneath the length of the cart’s body, stretching out so he wouldn’t get run over if it moved. Bending down, the slave insisted upon staring at him some more. Djedar quirked a long, dark eyebrow and stared right back.
“No, I’m not sharing, if that’s what you’re going to ask.”
“You’re insane,” declared the slave.
Djedar frowned. “I thought I was simple.”
The man shook his head and moved off, finally. Thanking the gods for his relative solace, Djedar at last attempted to get some rest.
Not long after he drifted into a faint and unrestful slumber, still plagued by thoughts, a sound pulled him from his poor attempt at sleep.
He opened his eyes to an even darker desert night, fog masking the moon and stars from view. Only a faint spill of pallid glow, distilled by the strange mist, lit the grey sands. The light of the torches around the halted convoy still burned, casting an orange haze by which one could see hints of the nothingness around them.
A whisper drifted over the camp. Djedar knit his brow and sat up as far as he could without hitting his head on the underbelly of the wagon, looking around. Everyone else still slept, various slaves and slave-drivers snoozing on their bedrolls, scattered around in the ring of torches. A few seemed uneasy, shifting now and then, perhaps partially awake – but clearly not awake enough to hear…
“Djedar,” a voice called, sounding almost otherworldly. It sounded almost like Blacksword, and yet the more he thought about it, the more he knew it wasn’t the lead slave-driver. This voice breathed his name half through his nose and half in his throat, ending it in a hiss that sent a chill up Djedar’s spine. Cautiously, Djedar dragged himself out from under the wagon, sand partially masking the sound of his assorted chains.
Nothing moved. There were still no signs of life around them. A quick gust of wind stirred the ashen sands, sending air too cold even for a desert night billowing over the camp and disturbing the many blankets and bedrolls. The horses woke, shifting on their feet, and the torchlight danced ominously.
Then two torches went out.
It made Djedar start, whirling to face the sudden darkness. But nothing moved there, either – at least, not anything he saw.
“Djedar,cometome,”the voice whispered again like someone stood right over his shoulder. His skin prickled along his neck, and he turned again to face the sound – only to see that two more torches had gone out.
They were being hunted.
“Horus have mercy,” Djedar muttered under his breath.
Finally, a few others in the caravan started to stir. Another slave nearby sat up, blinking in alarm.
Then came the voice again. “Asan,” it called. The slave beside Djedar reacted instantly, looking in the direction of the voice that sounded so like and yet unlike their leader, Blacksword.
Without a word, the slave Asan got to his feet and began marching right toward it – away from the remaining ring of torches. Djedar didn’t move, but he snapped, “What’re you doing?”
“Blacksword calls,” replied Asan. “You may not care about your duties to Lord Tefnahkt, but I do. Blacksword serves his will.”
And he resumed walking. Against his better judgment, Djedar blurted, “Go out there and you’ll walk right down a monster’s throat.”
“Monsters can’t speak,” Asan scoffed, but regardless, Djedar’s words made him hesitate…
At least until the voice called again, sounding so much like Blacksword that even Djedar almost wondered. “Asan– come.Now!”it beckoned.
And so the slave went. No longer hesitating, he strode right out into the fog. Djedar almost had to admire how the depths of Asan’s stupidity lent him such bravery—
He heard a distant crunch. No scream broke the stillness at any point, but Djedar knew the muffled meaty crack of a human neck. Such a sound was unmistakable.
Then something laughed.
It wasn’t a human laugh. It wasn’t the cold chuckle of an assassin, nor the triumphant laugh of a warrior. It was a distorted noise, throaty and undulating, first high almost like a hyena and then so low it resembled the deep baying of a hound, and yet not familiar like either. Djedar didn’t have to see its source to know such a voice was not of this world.
His blood ran cold, and for a moment, he couldn’t make his own muscles move.
More slaves awoke, and something thudded within the wagon. Blacksword came staggering out, still wearing all his gear. He looked around with wild eyes before his gaze settled hard on Djedar, but only briefly. Another slave-driver woke up nearby, and Blacksword turned to him instead.
“Who said that?” he asked.
“I didn’t hear anything,” replied the other slave-driver.
Djedar ignored all of them. He took the general confusion as a chance to search the camp. One slave-driver had a long, straight-bladed knife in a dark sheath near his pillow. Djedar scooped it up, tucking it less than comfortably behind the front of his belt. If Blacksword saw a knife on him, he wouldn’t have it long.
“Blacksword?” called one of the slaves, catching Djedar’s attention again. He started off into the desert like the first man, disappearing into the mist.
“No, you idiot – I’m here!” Blacksword bellowed after him. “Get back here!”
Too late. Up went a scream this time, piercing the night – the wrenching cry of a man’s final shout before his death. Then came the meaty crunch, this one louder than the first.
“Fools! Stay in the camp!” Blacksword ordered, drawing his blade. “Stay close to the wagon – no one is ordering you out into the desert!”
But Djedar hesitated. He watched the slave-drivers usher the remaining slaves back around the wagon. The horses snorted and stamped at the sand, ears flat against their heads. If he ever wereto escape, this would be a perfect chance. But to escape out into the Wastes…
“Djedar,” the voice whispered practically in his ear. He cringed and hurried back to the convoy, though the shackles around his ankles slowed him down. No – he couldn’t escape. Not right now, not while they were being hunted—
Big announcement – all regularly scheduled Werewolf Facts, Vampire Facts, and general Folklore Facts are now on hold!
I do have one vampire fact currently in the works to post at some point (“How to Identify a Vampire”), but I’m not sure when exactly it will be completed. It might not be for a few months, even.
I will continue to post some facts now and then off-schedule, maybe, and I will of course always have the ones available that are already on my blog, but I’m not going to have these on a schedule anymore, monthly or otherwise. I have a lot of work to do right now – and my life is currently very hectic, insanely so – and I need to focus on finishing projects. I cannot easily do this while also trying to maintain my blog schedule.
Instead, I will focus on working toward writing, compiling, and publishing fully-sourced and coherent Facts books, starting with one entitled Werewolf Facts: A Guidebook to Folklore vs Pop Culture! There will be more folklore books in the future, as well, but for now this one will be my focus.
More on this Werewolf Facts book very soon!
For the time being, I am also turning toward my fiction, writing a trilogy of novellas, finishing my enormous Knightfall revision, and I will be discussing next year’s books sometime in December. I want to get much more of my fiction out there and promote it in some very serious ways. One of these ways will be through LEGO creations, so expect more of those coming very soon (I already have a few completed and others in the works).
Patrons, expect a writing journal very very soon going into detail about my upcoming Werewolf Facts book and what putting my blog on hold means for the future of my writing and especially my book publications. Stay tuned for that.
If you want to continue hearing from me and following my folklore work, please give me a follow across my various social medias, linked at the bottom of this post. I’ll have a lot more folklore content to come, as well as plenty of my fiction (most of it also heavily folklore-based)!
Over the Halloween season, I watched the new special presentation on Disney+, Marvel’s Werewolf by Night directed by Michael Giacchino, because I felt obligated to do so. It’s a werewolf movie and I watch all werewolf movies despite how much 99.9% of them are terrible and make me profoundly sad and/or angry, and it’s also Werewolf by Night, whose material I have enjoyed at times in the past (despite the name of his character; more on that soon).
This one wasn’t any different. I was really hoping it would be. I came into this one with high hopes, and they were dashed to tiny bits.
If you liked Werewolf by Night, then good for you! More power to you. I’m happy for your sake. But I didn’t like it at all, and if you’re going to be offended by the fact that I personally thought it was outright terrible and has no right to call itself a werewolf movie, please do not continue beyond this point. Because I’m not pulling any punches. Well, I might be pulling a few, but anyway, I am going to get a bit brutal here. This isn’t some kind of professional review. I am roasting this, and I am going to great lengths to do so, because this was cathartic for me.
Disclaimer: THIS REVIEW DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS and in fact contains A FULL SUMMARY AND DISCUSSION OF THE ENTIRE FILM.
The album cover for the music of Werewolf by Night, which falsely implies it is about a werewolf
Continue at your own risk of spoilers and ruthless savagery for this movie that should have been named Man Thing!
I will open first with the statement that I am a huge cinephile. A film nerd. A crazed movie fan. I’m the person who will talk to you about every behind the scenes thing and what lenses everyone was using and how they did every tiny thing. Going to the movies is my favorite thing on the face of planet earth, and I think film is the ultimate storytelling medium that mankind as a whole has always striven for since we were telling tales around the campfire as hunter-gatherers; it is the pinnacle of all storytelling that brings together almost every other possible medium; it is a true beauty to behold, especially with an audience of fellow strangers who, for one unifying instant, know each other and relate to each other through the story unfolding before them–
Anyway, my point is, I really freaking love movies.
With that out there, as this is my first time really posting a film review, I have of course in this modern era ended up reviewing something that is direct to streaming. I personally do not like streaming. Call me old-fashioned. I won’t get into all that right now, even though I could – for hours on end.
With ALL that said, let’s get back to the matter at hand: Werewolf by Night.
I have but one question to ask of this movie: why is it billed as a werewolf movie?
Why on earth is this showcased as a werewolf movie? Why did Michael Giacchino emphasize so much, and get my hopes up, saying that he, and I quote from this interview…
I was having a conversation with Kevin Feige one day, and he said, “Well, if you’re going to direct, what do you want to direct?” And I was like, “Werewolf by Night. Absolutely” because they were comics that I used to buy when I was a kid. I still have the ones I did buy when I was a kid. I always loved that character and I just love werewolves.
That he “just love[s] werewolves”? The movie implies he just loves moss monsters.
I want to state up front and in bold this movie isn’t even about the werewolf. You can argue with me about that, but it won’t really change the fact that the word “werewolf” is never said in this movie. I mean, I’m not even kidding – even the word “wolf” is never said in this movie. The hero’s moniker is Werewolf by Night, the title of the movie is Werewolf by Night, all the promo material is covered in him in werewolf form and pictures of full moons and spooky trees and all those great things you want from werewolf pictures, but we get no sense of that.
There is minimal, vague discussion of what exactly Jack is or turns into, what his curse is, and how it works. It’s the barest bones. We get a mention of the moon, at least, but of course, that isn’t even what makes him turn in this instance, so that’s out the window. It’s just a spoken line.
He could have turned into a polkadotted porcupine and it’d still be the same film.
So since this is billed as a monster movie, do we at least get monsters? Yes, we get two. We briefly get a snorting pig-squealing werewolf at the end of the movie, very briefly, more on that later – and we get Man Thing, the highlight of the entire film and everyone knows it.
Man Thing is the one with the interesting arc; he is the one who gets to do monster things, he is the one who gets to have the interesting and tense – if only very briefly, before it devolves into typical MCU silliness – monster scene where the audience might minimally entertain the notion that he will harm the main girl. Man Thing is even the one to save the girl’s life in the end of the movie. He also saves Jack.
I have to very seriously submit that this show should’ve been called Man Thing.
This movie fell hard into the same pitfall as basically every MCU thing since Civil War: they try to do too much. Even in the span of 50 minutes or however long this thing was, they decided to split the bill among no less than three main characters: Jack Russell, Elsa Bloodstone, and Man Thing.
The end result is that the most we ever see of Jack Russell is him being a bumbling wimp who is so silly and dorky and “likable” that he can’t even stick a bomb to a wall because he’s just too “endearing.”
Let me start at the beginning.
I reviewed this film in full in an impassioned rant on my Discord server. I’ll be taking a few notes from that rant as I go on. So, let me give you some context, dear reader, in case you haven’t seen this film. What follows is all but a summary of the movie with my reactions and review.
For starters, I am afraid I have to open with the blanket statement of that I don’t understand why direct to streaming things today look like trash. The production value on this movie was supposedly very high, as it should’ve been, given it’s Disney, and they take in over 80% of all revenue from Hollywood at this point. Unfortunately, that didn’t save this movie.
Not only was the movie obviously filmed on digital cameras with painfully after-camera black and white and film grain and an extremely silly film burn to try to make you think it’s authentic (it isn’t, at all), but the sets look like minigolf courses that should’ve been condemned in the 80s and the after-camera effects are beyond bad.
There is this one point where Elsa breaks this old tomb open and these spiders are meant to crawl out. The spiders were so out of place and unaffected by the surroundings or the lighting. It was one of the most terrible blatant effects shots I have ever seen, and I watch a lot of movies.
I won’t harp on about the cameras and the effects and how the frame-rate makes it look like a soap opera. I’ll really try not to. I just don’t understand why all streaming products are so cheap looking, to the point of making some of the old direct to video obscure forgotten little two-man passion films you can find on Amazon Prime look almost amazing. Anyway, let’s move on.
The premise of the film immediately starts out weird and lame. There’s a big ritual monster hunt where the winner gets this nebulous MacGuffin called the Blood Stone that is an artifact for hunting monsters. It controls them or something with some sort of special effects red and white wooshes of light. A bunch of monster hunter weirdos show up at this big manor because Daddy Monster Hunter died and is going to give his Blood Stone to the winner of this ceremonial hunt.
The hunters present include Jack Russell, our titular hero, the supposed Werewolf by Night.
Sidebar: You may not know this about Werewolf by Night, but the character’s full name is Jack Russell. Yes, he is named after the freaking dog breed. Haha, so funny. He’s a werewolf, so let’s name him after a dog. This is so much worse to me than the typical trope of naming the werewolf after a wolf or wolf-related things (like Remus Lupin, Fenrir Greyback, Miss Lupescu, etc etc), because wolves are not dogs. Instead of shirking this and using the name of the new Werewolf by Night character from Marvel comics, Jake Gomez, which better suits the character as portrayed here anyway, they reused Jack Russell (although I do not recall ever hearing anyone call him “Russell” in the show, just Jack; I may not have been paying enough attention after a point to notice, if they did). That makes me sad because Jack Russell is a terrible, stupid name and no one should ever use it again, especially if they are trying to get anyone to take werewolves seriously, as Giacchino was supposedly claiming to be doing here.
Due to my vitriol about his name, I shall refer to him as Jack Russell Terrier from this point forward.
Back on track: Jack Russell Terrier shows up in his makeup and a fancy tie. We receive almost no information about his character. We’d love to hear more about him, as we assume he is the protagonist – or we would like to see him, maybe, being mysterious and intriguing.
We don’t see either of these things.
Instead, Elsa Bloodstone arrives, who steals the show from Jack and receives character establishment and development immediately. We are introduced to her and her background and her relation to Daddy Monster Hunter. It is quickly established we are supposed to like her, as she sasses the creepy old crone at the head of this entire ordeal, orchestrating the monster hunt, who is one of the cheesiest and most overwrought villains I’ve seen in black and white or in color.
We proceed to follow Elsa around more than we follow Jack Russell Terrier, overall.
Everyone proceeds into the weird maze hunting grounds, full of various traps, under the threat of being hunted by some great monster that has the blood stone stuck in him and thus must be defeated before the prize can be claimed. No, that monster isn’t a werewolf or the werewolf. That monster is Man Thing.
Long story short, shenanigans happen, during which we discover Man Thing is a sympathetic character despite being a big scary monster and that Jack Russell Terrier is here to help him. Throughout these events, we see Elsa and various characters being badasses to assorted degrees – except Jack Russell Terrier, who is established as basically a bumbling and incompetent fool, making us wonder why on earth he is here and how on earth he expects to even help his monster friend.
Why is Jack Russell Terrier such an idiot who is capable of doing absolutely nothing, even following direct and simple instructions? Is this supposed to make him likable, I must wonder again? It really, really doesn’t work, and it’s terrible writing.
I want to emphasize yet again that Man Thing is clearly the highlight of this film. His interactions with Elsa were the driving force of the movie, which is what you might expect from a movie about a werewolf and a girl – if the werewolf was that driving force, not the Creature from the Black Lagoon turned into a moss monster Shambler from World of Warcraft.
The real protagonist of the film (screenshot from World of Warcraft)
Man Thing goes by the name Ted because lol humanizing should also be funny because this is Marvel. Elsa encounters him just as he effortlessly slays one of the other hunters; she says his name, he soften up at her. This would’ve been a great scene to have with the werewolf to establish that he is both terrifying but human and sympathetic. That might have even happened if this had been a werewolf film, but it is not.
I want to emphasize something else again: the werewolf gets NO buildup in this entire movie.
Not even a passing mention. Not even a vague indication, a hint, something creepy to make the audience tense and excited for when the werewolf finally shows up. I’m 100% all for building up to the werewolf instead of immediately throwing him out to the audience with no establishment or foreshadowing of his power, but this film did not do that at all. It threw him out very briefly at the end of the movie without any buildup, so the audience just sits around waiting and wondering why this movie is named after a werewolf.
Next, they help Man Thing escape by blowing up a wall. Jack Russell Terrier takes about four solid minutes to do this because he is, again, a butterfingers idiot who can’t follow simple instructions. They should’ve sent George of the Jungle or else Elsa should’ve done it herself. I guess it’s supposed to be funny, but it isn’t.
After Man Thing escapes and Elsa gets the stone off his back, kind of in that order, Jack Russell Terrier decides that he should walk up to the stone for no blessed reason at all.
Why would he do this? He knows the stone affects monsters. This was established. He knows he is a monster. Why on earth is he so stupid? I had such a hard time even liking a character of his absolutely unbelievable levels of stupidity, and some of my favorite characters are the endearing ones who are really trying their best but aren’t that great at things. If that’s what they were going for with this, it didn’t work, especially not here, where he screws himself and Elsa over as efficiently as possible just because he was so stupid he had to go touch the stone he knows is going to hurt him in some not fully established way, when he is supposedly experienced and good at this whole gig.
But no, he pokes it and is sent flying across the set by some unknown force and curls up in pain while all the monster hunters descend on them at once, magically not only discovering their location but reaching them barely seconds after the explosion, all through the power of diminishing runtime.
The old lady then drops a terrible line, cackling as she says, “I wonder what breed of evil you are!”
This angers me for several reasons. First of all, I have always found people wondering what kind of monster someone turns into to diminish the impact and power of all shapeshifting monsters as a whole. If your story has a character standing around waiting to see what kind of “werecreature” the guy writhing in pain and screaming – and probably begging for them to save themselves – is going to turn into, that lessens the overall impact to the point of losing all interest. No one here seems concerned at all that Jack Russell Terrier turned out to be a monster, they’re just amused by it and tittering wondering what kind of fancy creature he might turn into. There’s no buildup and certainly no specific werewolf foreshadowing or establishment of fear and power.
Then, suddenly, Elsa and Jack Russell Terrier are in a cage.
Now we hit what was, frankly, possibly the worst scene in the entire movie: the one that is actually supposed to establish the werewolf. Jack Russell Terrier talks nonspecifically about what ails him and Elsa briefly makes a weak effort to be disturbed by it. Jack Russell Terrier scratches his ear in a way that looks sped up by effects, and I guess that this is our hint that he’s the headlining werewolf that supposedly features in this movie during the last 18 minutes because lol dogs scritch.
There were a few times my soul almost flew from my wretched mortal form while watching this film. This was one of them.
Then Jack Russell Terrier suddenly descends upon Elsa and starts snoofling all over her, snuffling in a very cheesy, weird, stupid, and frankly very awkward and uncomfortable way, because lolo he’s a werewolf so gotta get sniffs! And he is saying, “I need to remember you” and saying to look at him.
They could have made that not terrible. Really, they could have. I can appreciate the sentiment. But they chose not to do that and to make it just a little bit painful to behold. They could have made it tense and emotional, made it a slow buildup of trust between the two characters. He approaches her reluctantly, tries to explain himself, and slowly begins to take in her scent; she asks him wtf is wrong with him, etc etc. It intimidates her but he isn’t trying to intimidate her. She can see how nervous and serious he is about this dire situation, about this dangerous thing he turns into…
But no, instead, he just launches himself over there at her and starts rubbing himself all over her and snuffling and it’s just so bad and poorly written, I can’t even emphasize it enough.
In comes the weird cult of monster hunters who are so over the top cultish that, at this point, it makes you want to turn the movie off and pretend you and everyone else in the world didn’t watch it, because you’ve lost all hope. But since the werewolf is finally about to appear, you continue giving it a chance.
Old Evil Lady waves her red lantern Blood Stone around and it shoots after-camera effects at Jack Russell Terrier, who writhes on the floor.
I will give props to what follows, so here is some brief positivity! We cut to Elsa watching in horror as Jack Russell Terrier snorts and squeals like a truffle-sniffing pig. His shadow on the wall depicts the transformation scene. This was the only good idea in and good thing about the entire movie (other than the idea to make the werewolf using practical effects/makeup, which I do appreciate).
And then we finally have the movie’s namesake werewolf, right here at the end of the film. Again, this could have been perfectly fine, because I love buildup, but there was no buildup to the werewolf, so it didn’t actually work out at all.
Why, though, does the werewolf sound like a squealing, snorting pig? It really bothered me.
At any rate, someone left their fog machine on suddenly in the cage because classic horror has the very good idea of not showing you too much of the monster too immediately and they wanted to emulate that somehow.
Again, I want to express appreciation for having werewolf makeup and using practical effects for the werewolf, instead of CGI. Big props for that. That was a bold move in today’s day and age and one that Giacchino didn’t have to make.
The Evil Old Lady steps closer to the cage and gets grabbed. Why did she do this? Who knows. Does this raise concerns that she was bitten? No, but if this was a werewolf movie, maybe that would’ve happened.
The previously established weird cadre of monster hunter characters who weren’t killed by Man Thing then come up and shock Jack Russell Terrier Monster (he wasn’t called a werewolf, so I won’t call him that either) until he releases Evil Woman. Then the very impressive named and unnamed monster hunters manage to lose Jack Russell Terrier Monster in a very evenly-lit room as Jack Russell Terrier Monster tears free of the cage, which is probably the only impressive thing he ever does, and climbs around the walls (and somehow they continue to never see him).
Why is the lighting in all modern movies so even and bright, by the way? It’s weird.
Anyway, Jack Russell Terrier Monster proceeds to cut down some cannon fodder. Elsa easily escapes the cage and starts battling and dispatching the actual named, established villain characters, while the werewolf is left with faceless nobodies to kill in an attempt to be impressive, which isn’t impressive at all.
Long story short, a not terribly exciting fight scene ultimately ends with Old Lady cornering Jack Russell Terrier Monster with the Blood Stone and overpowering him because he sucks. Elsa comes and seemingly kills the old lady, saving the helpless werewolf monster, who – I must say again – clearly sucks.
She then cautiously approaches Jack Russell Terrier, who jumps up and charges her, pinning her. We get a good look at his decent but not fantastic monster makeup (again, at least he wasn’t CGI) in what is supposed to be a brief emotional connection, which isn’t really well done, and then he runs away.
Yeah, he just leaves.
But then the Evil Old Lady stands up yet again and gets ready to kill Elsa. Man Thing appears and saves her.
Yes, Man Thing is the one who shows up and saves the girl and then follows his lost puppy Jack Russell Terrier after a gag exchange between him and Elsa, because lol Jack Russell Terrier is just such a handful! He’s so silly!
This also firmly establishes Man Thing as the cooler, more powerful character, the more mysterious character, and the character who has a better emotional connection to Elsa despite spending less time with her. It’s all very weird.
Switch to color, so we can see that Man Thing’s practical effects aren’t actually that good or impressive and that the classic films still did it better. Jack Russell Terrier, now back in human form, talks to him and they have a cuppa with lil smiley faces on them because lol this is the MCU so it must be funny.
Conclusion: I say again, why wasn’t this movie just named Man Thing?
The werewolf who was never called a werewolf or treated as a werewolf had absolutely no buildup as a monster, no interesting scenes, no establishment, no development, wasn’t even named – I could go on. How in any way was this even a werewolf movie? Why did they let the werewolf get sidelined so horribly in what was supposedly his own film?
I’ve heard people present the lame excuse that they didn’t have enough runtime. No, they did. This movie is barely not the same length as The Wolf Man (1941) that basically established all of modern pop culture werewolf media thereafter, including the comics that supposedly formed the basis for this movie. And the movie did Man Thing decent justice. It just focused on pretty much everything but the werewolf.
Watch at your own risk, I guess. You might even enjoy at least a moment or two of it.
But I didn’t.
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It is virtually impossible to overstate the sheer importance of one single piece of media on the general perception of werewolves today.
This piece of media came from a time when going to the theater was a riveting experience, when movies chilled you, when you watched in awe and wonder, captivated by the practical effects that, to you, as you were fully engrossed in this storytelling experience, were reality. With no famous literature about werewolves having created a foothold of concepts, as Dracula by Bram Stoker did with vampires, and with only forgotten films and stories too strange to resonate with the common people about werewolves before it, this movie alone was allowed set the bar and establish all expectations for all werewolf media to come…
I’m talking about one of the classic Universal Monsters pictures – I’m talking about The Wolf Man (1941).
Other than it’s very fun filmmaking and great use of many different oldshool film tricks and, of course, practical effects, as well as its original Universal Monsters film charm, The Wolf Man is a timeless classic for another reason: without it, modern day werewolf media wouldn’t even be half the same.
Sure, there were other films that came before (though very few) that may have or certainly did influenced it, like Werewolf of London from 1935, but that doesn’t change that Curt Siodmak’s work with his original screenplay for The Wolf Man solidified almost all of our baseline modern werewolf concepts in popular culture. So just how influenced by folklore was he, anyway?
He was certainly influenced somewhat, in many obvious ways, but you may be surprised to learn just how much of our modern werewolves we see during Halloween and all around Hollywood and even, today, in many popular books, games, and other media, have The Wolf Man to thank for more than one major element – or at least derivatives of those major elements.
As a DISCLAIMER I first want to say that I absolutely adore The Wolf Man and almost (but not quite) everything it did for werewolves in media. My favorite werewolves will always be the ones that run close to what Curt Siodmak came up with, because I just love it. It’s a great story full of drama and sympathy and horror and tragedy. I personally prefer my werewolf hero to be different, and to end up different, but that’s an aside.
I just want to make a point here that I am NOT saying “not folkloric = bad,” and I don’t ever mean to infer that in every single situation. I love a lot of Hollywood werewolf concepts and I use many of them, myself, because they’re my favorites. I am merely pointing out what is and isn’t folkloric or original about the film (while probably lavishing praise upon its concepts because, again, gosh, I just love these concepts if they’re actually handled well, they make for such a great story!).
Let’s get into the film (you can find a link to watch this film legally and for free on the Internet Archive at the end of this post, by the way!)…
Even as early as the first shot in the film, after the opening credits, we are treated to some of Curt Siodmak’s original werewolf concepts. This is found not only in the description of the lycanthropy around one Talbot Castle, but also in the addition at the bottom of the fictional encyclopedia entry on lycanthropy that says “the sign of the Werewolf is a five-pointed star, a pentagram.” This is patently untrue in folklore, of course, and that’s just another thing Siodmak made up for the movie.
Sidenote: I appreciate the lines “Oh, another dog.” “No, that’s a wolf.” Wolves aren’t dogs, kids. Although Gwen isn’t exactly right about Red Riding Hood being a werewolf story… Anyway, details.
We come next to the poem. The one that Gwen first recites to Larry in the shop, and we hear it throughout the film, as it becomes extremely important…
Even a man who is pure at heart And says his prayers by night May become a wolf with the wolfsbane blooms And the autumn moon is bright
This poem was entirely made up by Siodmak. As was, as you might imagine, this business relating to pentagrams being the werewolf’s symbol and one he sees in the palm of his next victim’s hand.
By the way, whatever you do, please don’t go picking wolfsbane like they claim to do in the movie. Just saying.
Next up we have the fact that Larry’s bite heals overnight. This is certainly folkloric in nature, to a degree (more on that later in my overview/rundown), but it’s just as feasible that Siodmak hadn’t heard those legends and just wanted to make his werewolf scary and powerful – and because the healing wounds relates to the silver concept that he himself made up. By the way, I absolutely adore the rapidly healing wounds.
Another aside: this movie is such a joy to watch. I hadn’t seen it in years until I started writing this post. Many, many years, despite knowing it like the back of my hand and studying it all my life. It’s so incredible to watch all the classic werewolf elements we know and love unfold on the screen in their original form. It helps that I’m a massive cinephile movie nerd weirdo anyway and movies are my favorite form of entertainment by an extremely wide margin, despite enjoying many kinds of entertainment.
Anyway, next up for werewolf lore, we have Frank’s dog barking at Larry – because the dog knows he’s a monster. It’s not uncommon in many stories for animals to sense things people can’t, but this is also something else we often see highlighted in werewolf media to follow.
Something to note about silver in this film is that Larry is obviously still carrying his silver cane around even after he’s been bitten by the werewolf. It obviously isn’t burning or harming him even after he’s been bitten and his wound healed, unlike a lot of werewolf media today (admittedly, including my own works), in which silver can cause a werewolf pain just to the touch, even in human form.
Next up we hear about whoever is bitten by the werewolf becomes a werewolf. This, I want you to know, is speculated to have been started sometime in French werewolf legends – some scholars hold to that. But even if it wasn’t originated by this movie (I honestly kind of think that it was originated by this movie), it was certainly popularized by this movie and sticks in the modern psyche thanks to this film alone. Yes, there was a time when lycanthropy may have been associated with rabies, and that may even be where Siodmak got the idea, but no matter what, that concept is timelessly popular solely because of this film.
Next up we have the buildup to the single most important moment in any werewolf movie… the transformation scene.
This film, as you might expect, also established the importance of the transformation scene. Really, such a scene has been important in werewolf media and highlighted even since Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but this movie really emphasizes the horror behind a man becoming a monster. And it’s so right to do so.
After all, what is most unique about werewolves and why do they stick with us so strongly? It’s the transformation. The idea that a man can become a monster and then return to a human form – and be cursed to live out a life turning back and forth. That’s really the heart of any werewolf story. That’s how it all begins. That’s the backbone.
So anyway, the transformation scene in The Wolf Man is of course excellent. We see Larry undergoing all the stages of the werewolf transformation as all werewolf media will follow after it – he freaks out, he runs home, tries to find seclusion, he looks at himself, looks in a mirror, tries to notice any changes… because he at once doesn’t think it’s real but also is certainly starting to believe it, with everyone freaking out so badly around him, especially the gypsies.
Larry’s first transformation begins and ends in his feet, as they don’t want to show us the werewolf himself yet – they build up to it, and we first see him in the dark forest. The werewolf feet are of course famous as a result of being our first glimpse of the famous wolf man.
Larry goes to a graveyard – a favorite haunt of werewolves and many other folkloric monsters – and kills a guy, biting his throat out. It’s noteworthy, of course, that Larry doesn’t leave humanoid wolf prints. He leaves wolf prints, to the point that everyone assumes it is a wolf, not some kind of monster.
Larry then finds a pentagram on his chest, about where the werewolf bit him or so. He realizes he left a trail and starts covering it up, only to discover the detective is tracking him. Again, the pentagram thing is not in werewolf folklore at all.
The rundown of lycanthropy that Larry’s father gives to him is actually a pretty good one. He isn’t wrong about finding werewolf legends almost everywhere, and it did become recognized as a clinical disease in much later years, around or after the Renaissance. He’s also right about it being Greek, in a way, given the assorted Greek werewolf legends, though we can never really know where it “originated,” per se, as werewolves are a universal legend. And, fittingly, he of course thinks it’s all in the mind – when it very much isn’t, not in this film. Silly practical fellow.
Even at this point, Larry still doesn’t seem wholly convinced that he is a werewolf. This seems to be highlighted in the following scene, when the werewolf gets caught in a trap, and Maleva arrives in time to rescue him. She returns him to his human form – and he has no idea where he is or what is going on. He doesn’t remember: another werewolf element established by this movie.
Larry outright tells his father everything, but of course, his father doesn’t believe him. Not all werewolf media followed the trend of being modern enough to be about people who outright don’t believe in the werewolf legend, of course, but this is still a popular trope.
Next we have yet another popular trope – restraining the werewolf so that he can’t escape. Larry’s father does this to protect him and in an effort to prove to him that the werewolf isn’t real. Obviously, it doesn’t work. Restraining a werewolf isn’t exactly ever easy, now is it?
Again we receive emphasis – a werewolf doesn’t even care about ordinary weapons, like normal bullets. The weapon in question absolutely must be silver to even affect it. And that is, of course, how Larry’s father ends up killing him using his own silver cane – the one Larry begged him to take with him – and the hunters’ bullets didn’t hurt him at all. Really, he doesn’t even seem to notice them.
And so the werewolf is killed – tragically, of course – beaten to death by his own father. This establishes yet another trope that werewolf media has scarcely left behind: the werewolf always dies. That’s certainly one of my least favorite elements this movie established about so many werewolf stories and especially films forever afterward.
So here’s the basic rundown, the tl;dr if you will. The Wolf Man popularized the following elements in media…
Silver – The fact that the werewolf can only be killed by silver – as Maleva says, a bullet, a knife, or silver like the silver-headed cane – comes from this film. Yes, that huge of an element of werewolves and of culture in general, including the sayings about something’s “silver bullet,” all originate with this movie. The silver, as mentioned, doesn’t burn the werewolf’s skin on contact, but the silver is required as a weapon to actually kill him. It’s also so very important to emphasize this concept came solely from this movie. Curt Siodmak said so himself, not to mention the fact that it’s never been in folklore. Some people hold that the Beast of Gevaudan included a silver bullet vs a werewolf (not that I consider that a werewolf legend, anyway, per se), but the idea that the Beast was slain with a silver bullet comes from a novel published in 1946: Henri Pourrat’s Historie fidèle de la bête en Gévaudan. The idea of silver slaying werewolves comes from this movie. For more info, see my werewolf fact specifically on Silver.
Pentagram association – The idea that the pentagram is the sign of the werewolf, and that the werewolf has a pentagram on him somewhere, as well as that the werewolf sees a pentagram on the palm of his next victim, was entirely made up by Siodmak – though some may argue that pentagrams can be related to werewolves solely by association with witches and witchcraft in the later years of the Renaissance/Early Modern period. I think it’s very important that we differentiate between werewolves and witches (as the people back then did, themselves), however, so I don’t buy into that theory.
Bipedal werewolves – Obviously the movie included a wolf werewolf as well (except it was very clearly played by a dog), but this movie popularized too the idea of bipedal werewolves. It’s not exclusive to the movie – there were werewolves that weren’t 100% just wolves in folklore, too, despite what you may hear. For more info on that, see my werewolf fact on Physical Appearance. This is also associated with the werewolf fact Hands and Claws.
Turning at a certain time of year – This one didn’t really catch on. However, as will be noted after the end of this list, that doesn’t mean that The Wolf Man didn’t still decide when it is werewolves do transform…
The werewolf hunting humans specifically – It’s noteworthy that the werewolf is never shown actually eating anyone, only killing them, but this movie certainly helped establish the idea of a werewolf specifically hunting people, which they didn’t generally do in folklore. For more info about how folkloric this is or isn’t, see my werewolf fact on Did Werewolves Eat People?.
The werewolf as evil – Directly related to the previous point, the werewolf inthis film is absolutely evil, as it seeks out specific people to hunt and kill each night. This is not really folkloric, and sadly, this movie absolutely helped establish werewolves firmly as villains – even if the human cursed to become the werewolf is sympathetic. I have a lot of werewolf facts on this kind of thing, perhaps key among them being my very big fact on When Werewolves Went Mad. My fact on werewolves vs evil is also a little relevant.
The transformation sequence – As mentioned in the main body of the post, the transformation sequence has some folkloric roots, but this film certainly helped established its incredible importance in werewolf media. This movie doesn’t have quite the dramatic sequence as does some of its sequels (where we actually see the wolf man’s face as he turns), but it still emphasizes it, for sure. For more info, see my werewolf fact on Transformation Sequence.
Memory issues – A very important concept to the future of werewolf media was the issue of Larry losing his memory about what the werewolf did. This is seen in so much werewolf media after, because, frankly, it’s a fantastic plot element. For more info, see my werewolf fact on Memory.
Werewolves associated with London and England – This obviously didn’t start with The Wolf Man specifically, given one of its predecessor werewolf films is – as mentioned – called Werewolf of London (1935). However, that doesn’t change the fact that the film taking place in England specifically had a massive influence on films after it, and, later, other media, that decided for some terrible reason that now werewolves are intrinsically associated with later time periods of Britain and London, which they shouldn’t be, really. Here are some more reasons why, if you’re wondering.
Hiding being a werewolf – This was certainly not entirely originated/popularized by the film, as it was occasionally a thing in folklore, for sure. But this film definitely highlights that being a werewolf isn’t a desirable thing or something you want to advertise, even though Larry admits it to Gwen when he still isn’t fully convinced it may be real. For more info on this, see my Hiding Being a Werewolf fact.
The werewolf always dies in the end – My least favorite by far of the tropes popularized by this film is very simple… the werewolf always dies in the end (or sometimes even before the end). You see this in almost every werewolf film to follow The Wolf Man and, indeed, many other pieces of werewolf media. This movie firmly established the classic Hollywood concept of the tragic werewolf hero who dies because of his curse.
Later, The Wolf Man – the character – would establish the concept of turning during the full moon, but this didn’t happen in The Wolf Man (1941) – this started in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. For more info about that, see my werewolf fact on the Full Moon here. The famous rhyme from The Wolf Man was changed for it, too, to alter the line “when the autumn moon is bright” to “when the full moon is bright.”
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Big news – it’s spooky time! Even bigger news – I am running a werewolf-themed promo with real, physical rewards you can touch, handmade with love and care! And they’ll be all yours!
From October 8 through November 12, if you sign up for my Patreon at the $50 Nightlord tier or higher, you will get a package of goodies that includes lots of great stuff!
Here is what the package includes:
Physical paperback copy of the short story collection Tales of Wulfgard, Volume I, updated and revised for 2022! Includes 2 werewolf stories!
Custom LEGO minifig of wolf-man Chrisanthos, as seen in “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”
A handwritten thank you card
Wulfgard art stickers (including some werewolves!)
A Wulfgard bookmark
Possibly some extra goodies!
This is the biggest promo I’ve run yet, so don’t miss out – once the offer is gone, I won’t be sending this minifig to patrons again!
This year the October minifig is Wolf-Man Chrisanthos, a farmboy born a mage with power over frost who had an unfortunate run-in with a werewolf, as seen in “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” a short story featured in Tales of Wulfgard, Vol I.
I hope you’ll check it out and consider supporting me – I deeply appreciate all the support I can get, and I’d love to send you some goodies!
REMINDER: This offer ENDS November 12! If you do not sign up at any point now until then, you will not be eligible for these rewards!
Expect more wolf-man minifigs to collect in the future, in a variety of colors, including the black-furred wolf-man Tom minifig coming soon for patrons! If you sign up now, you’ll already be a patron when the next minifig is sent out (not all minifigs have promo alerts like this one)!
All current patrons at $50 or higher (Nightlord and Apex Predator tiers, Lunatic and otherwise) will receive this package.
All new patrons at $50 or higher will receive this package regardless of how long they stay a patron. If you pay the $50 once, you will receive this package, even if you immediately lower or even cancel your pledge.
Tales of Wulfgard: Volume I has been revised and updated, including an all new and fully rewritten and improved edition of “Hunted,” Caiden’s Tale, now in line with The Hunt Never Ends and over twice its original length!
My Patreon renews subscriptions at the start of each month. This means you will be charged for your subscription every start of a new month regardless of when you paid for your first sub fee. If you were to subscribe on the last week in October, for instance, you WILL be charged again November 1. Keep this in mind if it is of concern to you!
Reward packages will be sent out late November or early December. I will keep everyone posted as to when they will be sent. Please note the cover art for Tales as seen in the promo image may not look exactly the same, as the new and improved edition of the book is not yet finalized; the image is of the book’s previous edition.
Please send me a message on Patreon, email me, contact me via Twitter DMs or other social media (NOTE: I do not check Facebook regularly!), or contact me through my personal blog here on Tumblr if you have any concerns or questions!
Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries that has entered our world exists in the Creep. A gelatinous, living substance like slime, the Creep is an unnatural thing that devours all life it touches. The Creep can only exist in shadow and generally makes its home in dark places, spreading outward. Anything caught in its grasp will be engulfed at a rapid rate.
It has been described as a sickly grey-purple in hue, or grey if it has entered a dormant state, during which it becomes like stone. In this shape it conceals itself until something alive touches it. Then it will immediately awaken to devour life again. In its bid to absorb all living things, the Creep can extend tendrils from its mass to snatch its prey.
Smaller, mobile beings exist separate from the Creep, called Creeplings. These creatures are the result of living things that have been touched by the Creep. As the Creep digests the form of the living creature, it may possess it, using that creature’s body to move about. However, as the prey is digested over time, it will become misshapen until it returns to the same formless slime as the rest of the Creep.
Masses of Creep have been discovered only in the most secluded of regions. It is thought to have originated from the Blasted Wastes far beyond the southern lands, where it was created, or perhaps summoned, due to the Mage Wars of Sinkarya. The Wastes remain its greatest home in this realm.
Some mages say the Creep is the sweetest substance known to man, and if one were to eat it, one would experience bliss almost alike to eating ambrosia, the food of the gods, just before one’s mind becomes consumed by the creature.
Due to its inability to be understood, it is likely an entity demonic in some fashion, perhaps related to the sins of Gluttony, or conversely Famine, or even Madness.
– excerpt from the Caudex Daemonum, by Grigore Summers
This entry on the Creep comprises one of Summers’ best descriptions of an unnatural or monstrous creature. So little is known of the Creep that his writings can scarcely be offered addition.
Dear reader, should you have the great misfortune of encountering any Creep or especially Creeplings, do your best to avoid it entirely. Anything it touches will become tightly lodged and drawn into its mass to be devoured and possessed. Physical attacks are all but useless against this abomination, though some Venatori report severing the limbs of Creeplings still with form enough to have limbs. Even this still could not stop their advance, but it at least slowed them enough to provide escape. As with most any monster, only the Venatori have even a chance of battling, much less truly destroying, any form of Creep.
We are incredibly lucky that the Creep has spread so little in the mortal realm and that the holy light of the sun, and even the moon, can usually keep it at bay and prevent it from engulfing all life.
Time for another vampire fact! This month, physical appearance won the poll on my Patreon, so let’s get right into it.
What did vampires actually look like – in folklore? Everyone knows their variety of appearances in pop culture, but what about what people actually believed?
As always, a quick disclaimer in that this fact will not cover every single possibility in terms of vampire folklore. Vampire folklore, like most folklore but perhaps especially with vampires, is vast and complicated. In this post, I’ll just be covering the most common appearances for vampires to have in legend.
One of the most common uniting aspects of vampire legends is very simple: red eyes. Sometimes these were demonic and otherworldly red eyes – very red, sometimes even glowing. Sometimes they were red because they were bloodshot, because the vampire was so bloated with blood. Either way, red eyes are very much a symbol of the vampire. Now, there are also some tales that say blue eyes are also a sign of a vampire, as well as red hair being a sign of vampirism – most of these concepts come from ancient Egypt and a few from ancient Greece. And, frankly, it doesn’t seem that common at all and I personally have a few doubts about the idea (Egypt clearly didn’t burn all red-haired people at the stake or anything given other accounts we have), but Montague Summers insists it was a thing, so I figured it might as well bear a mention.
As for red eyes, however: red glowing eyes often appeared in the form of a dark “shape” or dark “mist.” Vampires in legend turned into mist fairly frequently (and this is why we have the “vampiric mist” enemy in Dungeons & Dragons). Sometimes this mist was white, or grey, or even black, or just described as “mist” or “shadow,” sometimes in the shape of a man. Similarly, vampires in some legends could send their spirits – in the form of mist or light or even a projection of what they looked like in life – out from their bodies that may have been buried or else were simply dead somewhere.
Many vampires, however, take the form of a corpse that appears red and bloated with blood when it returns to its grave after feasting at night. When they are awake, vampires may look like normal people or may very often be offputtingly pale or strange, with “large” eyes that are “glittering” and disturbing, wrong somehow. Conversely, though, some stories have vampires with dead, dark pits for eyes.
Some, however, seem to have no real difference from their ordinary appearances. Legends do not note anything particularly unique about the way they look when they are walking free from their graves – it’s only when the vampire’s corpse is exhumed that we see the body red and bloated with blood, the face often looking fresh and life-like after the vampire has fed.
Others are a bit more specific, calling vampires very gaunt, with pale or even no skin, and very “thin.”
Not all vampires appear that way, either, though. Sometimes they are exhumed and they look entirely dead – except they haven’t decomposed at all. Sometimes their eyes will be open: a telltale sign of vampirism in a buried body.
Many legends scholars now group as “vampire legends” are not of course about “vampires” (this is a category retroactively put upon them by scholars; again, this happens a lot in folklore, same with werewolves) but are about various evil spirits, demons, and undead, that now fall in line with and/or were inspirations for our modern day takes on vampires.
This is not to say, of course, that all vampires looked like these. But, certainly, these are some of the most common vampire appearances to find in folklore.
My main sources for this post were From Demons to Dracula by Matthew Beresford and Vampires and Vampirism by Montague Summers, but I have read many, many books on vampire folklore over the years, so my knowledge isn’t always precisely cited in my blog posts. You’ll have to wait for me to publish a book on vampire folklore to see all that! (And I probably will someday.)
Until next time! Be sure to check out the rest of my blog – werewolves, vampires, folklore, and even fiction and worldbuilding!
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The time has come to discuss in depth my very favorite werewolf story! Yes, my favorite werewolf story doesn’t come from modern pop culture. Instead, it comes from medieval literature.
So let’s dive right into “Bisclavret,” one of the best werewolf stories ever told.
Please note that this post will contain the entirety of “Bisclavret,” in direct quotes, with my discussions interspersed throughout. So if you’ve never read the story, you can find the whole thing here!
For this in-depth look at “Bisclavret,” I will be using A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture by Charlotte F. Otten, one of my very favorite werewolf sourcebooks. It’s a wonderful collection of primary historical sources – and some stories that aren’t folklore but were always considered fictional – and some very good introductions to and discussions of said works by Otten herself.
In fact, in her introduction to the section that includes “Bisclavret,” Otten imparts some very wise words on werewolf legends as a whole…
On the moral level, the werewolf myth is a realistic assessment of the range of choices available to human beings. Humans who become werewolves in the myths and legends, or who cause others to become werewolves, are involved in moral metamorphosis: a process that recognizes the exhilaration that comes with engaging in degrading lycanthropic acts but also reveals the degradation that comes to those who deliberately choose to exhibit bestiality [bestial nature]. The werewolf myth, then, is a profound insight into human life. … Regarded as a moral myth, the presence in the human spirit of werewolves can direct the culture, the society, the individual human being to sources of healing. If it does so, it is a myth not of despair but of hope. (Otten 223)
I would personally add, also in relation to “Bisclavret,” thatit isn’t only those who become werewolves and behave as beasts or those who turn others into werewolves – it’s also extremely important in many werewolf myths how the werewolves themselves are treatedby the human characters. How one treats a werewolf, with that person still being human but in the guise of a beast, is an important moral plot point in multiple werewolf legends, such as the werewolves of Ossory and – of course – Bisclavret. One is amoral if they assume a werewolf is evil solely because of their appearance, without judging their character first and appearance second. It’s not necessarily always a test of the werewolf character, it’s also a test of everyone around them. If the werewolf is virtuous and behaving like a human, isn’t it just as important to treat the werewolf like you would anyone else – even if it is a werewolf?
Now let’s get to Bisclavret…
Written in the 12th century, “Bisclavret” is a bit of an enigma. Scholars kind of agree that it was likely written by Marie de France, or else a story she adapted from a much older tale, given there are different versions of this story – all very similar – floating around from similar time periods and cultures.
Marie de France herself says she translated this lai out of the Breton language, after having heard it elsewhere. I’m glad she did, as she preserved a fantastic werewolf story.
“Bisclavret” opens with some words from Marie de France…
Amongst the tales I will tell you once again, I would not forget the Lay of the Were-Wolf. Such beasts as he are known in every land. Bisclavaret he is named in Brittany, whilst the Norman calls him Garwal. (256)
I find her discussion of werewolf terminology interesting. She goes on to introduce the concept of werewolves themselves, which is, as she discusses it, a very commonly-known concept and found “in every land,” which she is absolutely right about (even if, of course, these legends weren’t always the same in nature, but werewolves certainly were everywhere).
It is a certain thing, and within the knowledge of all, that many a christened man has suffered this change, and ran wild in woods, as a Were-Wolf. The Were-Wolf is a fearsome beast. He lurks within the thick forest, mad and horrible to see. All the evil that he may, he does. He goeth to and fro, about the solitary place, seeking man, in order to devour him. Hearken, now, to the adventure of the Were-Wolf, that I have to tell. (256)
This doesn’t sound at all like Bisclavret, as you will discover. Marie de France seems to be describing a certain interpretation of the werewolf myth that didn’t even all that often apply but was steadily becoming a more accepted concept, especially in certain regions of Europe: that werewolves are “evil.” Or, at least – and most importantly – she states that werewolves are perceived as evil.
But are they really? Let’s read Bisclavret and find out. Because this opening displays the way the werewolf myth exists in the minds of many, but not necessarily the way werewolves really are, and I think that’s an important element of the story: Marie de France doesn’t open with “werewolves are all nice and cuddly,” because you need to read the story and determine the truth for yourself. But now you see the general perception, at least as this story presents it.
I love werewolves so much, you guys. I love this story, too. That’s something I have trouble conveying sometimes to my good readers: I love the concept of werewolves and I could talk about them until the sun dies. I love even the simplest presentations of “a werewolf is a man who suffers a change and runs wild in the darkest wood, horrible to behold, and devours men.” I just love it beyond words or reason. This is what I want. This is all I ask for. This but with more behind it than the simplicity of “evil,” just like Bisclavret presents.
So now we are introduced to our protagonist…
In Brittany there dwelt a baron who was marvellously esteemed of all his fellows. He was a stout knight, and a comely, and a man of office and repute. Right private was he to the mind of his lord, and dear to the counsel of his neighbours. This baron was wedded to a very worthy dame, right fair to see, and sweet of semblance. All his love was set on her, and all her love was given again to him. One only grief had this lady. For three whole days in every week her lord was absent from her side. She knew not where he went, nor on what errand. Neither did any of his house know the business which called him forth.
On a day when this lord was come again to his house, altogether joyous and content, the lady took him to task, right sweetly, in this fashion,
“Husband,” said she, “and fair, sweet friend, I have a certain thing to pray of you. Right willingly would I receive this gift, but I fear to anger you in the asking. It is better for me to have an empty hand, than to gain hard words.”
When the lord heard this matter, he took the lady in his arms, very tenderly, and kissed her.
“Wife,” he answered, “ask what you will. What would you have, for it is yours already?”
“By my faith,” said the lady, “soon shall I be whole. Husband, right long and wearisome are the days that you spend away from your home. I rise from my bed in the morning, sick at heart, I know not why. So fearful am I, lest you do aught to your loss, that I may not find any comfort. Very quickly shall I die for reason of my dread. Tell me now, where you go, and on what business! How may the knowledge of one who loves so closely, bring you to harm?”
This old tale is… very good at conveying someone manipulative and self-serving and even goes so far as to show her turn to other victims to use: this isn’t just a werewolf story, it’s a tale about manipulation*. Poor Bisclavret gets burned just for trusting the person who claims to love him so. It’s sad and relatable to see. A tale as old as time, and now the nice one that is “Beauty and the Beast.”
But being a werewolf is still a very bad thing, as established by the story’s opening! Naturally, he doesn’t want to tell.
“Wife,” made answer the lord, “nothing but evil can come if I tell you this secret. For the mercy of God do not require it of me. If you but knew, you would withdraw yourself from my love, and I should be lost indeed.”
When the lady heard this, she was persuaded that her baron sought to put her by with jesting words. Therefore she prayed and required him the more urgently, with tender looks and speech, till he was overborne, and told her all the story, hiding naught.
Now we’re back to that manipulation… anyway.
“Wife, I become Bisclaravet. I enter the forest, and live on prey and roots, within the thickest of the wood.”
This marks a difference with the opening already. The baron here claims he doesn’t eat human flesh! The opening clearly stated werewolves do evil and seek to devour men. Hmm, interesting.
After she had learned his secret, she prayed and entreated the more as to whether he ran in his raiment, or went spoiled of vesture.
“Wife,” said he, “I go naked as a beast.”
“Tell me, for hope of grace, what do you do with your clothing?”
“Fair wife, that I will never. If I should lose my raiment, or even be marked as I quit my vesture, then a Were-Wolf I must go for all the days of my life. Never again should I become man, save in that hour my clothing were given back to me. For this reason never will I show my lair.”
“Husband,” replied the lady to him, “I love you better than all the world. The less cause have you for doubting my faith, or hiding any tittle from me. What savour is here of friendship? How have I made forfeit of your love, for what sin do you mistrust my honor? Open now your heart, and tell what is good to be known.”
So at the end, outwearied and overborne by her importunity, he could no longer refrain, but told her all.
“Wife,” said he, “within this wood, a little from the path, there is a hidden way, and at the end thereof an ancient chapel, where often-times I have bewailed my lot. Near by is a great hollow stone, concealed by a bush, and there is the secret place where I hide my raiment, till I would return to my own home.”
The baron says he “often-times … bewail[s] his lot,” so he clearly doesn’t like being a werewolf. Just a small detail to point out. Truly the original classic werewolf hero.
On hearing this marvel the lady became sanguine of visage, because of her exceeding fear. She dared no longer to lie at his side, and turned over in her mind, this way and that, how best she could get her from him. Now there was a certain knight of those parts, who, for a great while, had sought and required this lady of her love. This knight had spend long years in her service, but little enough had he got thereby, not even fair words, or a promise. To him the dame wrote a letter, and meeting, made her purpose plain.
So not only did learning that the baron, her own husband, is a werewolf make this manipulative selfish woman turn on him instantly, but she also turned to a knight who is utterly failing his chivalric code and wanting love from this woman instead of courtly, chaste love from afar. And he’s probably too love-struck to realize she’s just going to use him until he is no longer beneficial to her in her own eyes, like she just did with the baron. We have a very bad combination.
“Fair friend,” said she, “be happy. That which you have coveted so long a time, I will grant without delay. Never again will I deny your suit. My heart, and all I have to give, are yours, so take me now as love and dame.”
Right sweetly the knight thanked her for her grace, and pledged her faith and fealty. When she had confirmed him by an oath, then she told him of his business of her lord–why he went, and what he became, and of his ravening within the wood. So she showed him of the chapel, and of the hollow stone, and of how to spoil the Were-Wolf of his vesture. Thus, by the kiss of his wife, was Bisclavaret betrayed. Often enough had he ravished his prey in desolate places, but from this journey he never returned. His kinsfolk and acquaintance came together to ask of his tidings, when this absence was noised abroad. Many a man, on many a day, searched the woodland, but none might find him, nor learn where Bisclavaret was gone.
The lady was wedded to the knight who had cherished her for so long a space. More than a year had passed since Bisclavaret disappeared. Then it chanced that the King would hunt in the self-same wood where the Were-Wolf lurked. When the hounds were unleashed they ran this way and that, and swiftly came upon his scent. At the view the huntsman winded on his horn, and the whole pack were at his heels. They followed him from morn to eve, till he was torn and bleeding, and was all adread lest they should pull him down. Now the King was very close to the quarry, and when Bisclavaret looked upon his master, he ran to him for pity and for grace. He took the stirrup within his paws, and fawned upon the prince’s foot. The King was very fearful at this sight, but presently he called his courtiers to his aid.
“Lords,” cried he, “hasten hither, and see this marvellous thing. Here is a beast who has the sense of a man. He abases himself before his foe, and cries for mercy, although he cannot speak. Beat off the hounds, and let no man do him harm. We will hunt no more to-day, but return to our own place, with the wonderful quarry we have taken.”
The King turned him about, and rode to his hall, Bisclavaret following at his side. Very near to his master the Were-Wolf went, like any dog, and had no care to seek again the wood. When the King had brought him safely to his own castle, he rejoiced greatly, for the beast was fair and strong, no mightier had any man seen.
Another pause here to point out that, once again, a werewolf that turns into a wolf is never conveyed as being an ordinary wolf – they are always bigger, stronger, “mightier.” Indeed, they are always the most impressive thing people have witnessed.
Much pride had the King in his marvellous beast. He held him so dear, that he bade all those who wished for his live, to cross the Wolf in naught, neither to strike him with a rod, but ever to see that he was richly fed and kennelled warm. This commandment the Court observed willingly. So all day the wolf sported with the lords, and at night he lay within the chamber of the King. There was not a man who did not make much of the beast, so frank was he and debonair. None had reason to do him wrong, for ever was he about his master, and for his part did evil to none. Every day were these two companions together, and all perceived that the King loved him as his friend.
What a great section. Already friends before, now the baron and his King are friends again, even if he has taken the form of a beast and cannot speak. Even in werewolf form, he acts as a loyal knight and bodyguard, with the king giving him full trust of his life despite him being a beast. I love the emphasis on Bisclavret’s courtly mannerisms and his culture, and even the emphasis that he does not do “evil,” also in direct contradiction to the assumptions the story’s opening would lead you to believe. But things are about to change…
Hearken now to that which chanced.
The King held a high Court, and bade his great vassals and barons, and all the lords of his venery to the feast. Never was there a goodlier feast, nor one set for with sweeter show and pomp. Amongst those who were bidden, came that same knight who had the wife of Bisclavaret for dame. He came to the castle, richly gowned, with a fair company, but little he deemed whom he would find so near. Bisclavaret marked his foe the moment he stood within the hall. He ran towards him, and seized him with his fangs, in the King’s very presence, and to the view of all. Doubtless he would have done him much mischief, had not the King called and chidden him, and threatened him with a rod. Once, and twice, again, the Wolf set upon the knight in the very light of day. All men marvelled at his malice, for sweet and serviceable was the beast, and to that hour had shown hatred of none. With one consent the household deemed that this deed was done with full reason, and that the Wolf had suffered at the knight’s hand some bitter wrong. Right wary of his foe was the knight until the feast had ended, and all the barons had taken farewell of their lord, and departed, each to his own house. Wit hthese, amongst the very first, wen that lord whom Bisclavaret so fiercely had assailed. Small was the wonder he was glad to go.
Bisclavret at last shows a werewolf’s rage – but only in a righteous way. He only attacks the one who wronged him. So what does the King make of his new beast of a friend behaving in such a way? Does he have him killed? Does he decide he’s a monster?
Not long while after this adventure it came to pass that the courteous King would hunt in that forest where Bisclavaret was found. With the prince came his wolf, and a fair company. Now at nightfall the King abode within a certain lodge of that country, and this was known of that dame who before was the wife of Bisclavaret. In the morning the lady clothed her in her most dainty apparel, and hastened to the lodge, since she desired to speak with the King, and to offer him a rich present.
Also typical manipulative behavior. You may think of medieval tales as simple, but they had a lot to say and to teach.
When the lady entered in the chamber, neither man no leash might restrain the fury of the Wolf. He became as a mad dog in his hatred and malice. Breaking from his bonds he sprang at the lady’s face, and bit the nose from her visage.
Please note that this is a medieval trope, as it were: the removal of the nose. It’s quite a lot to break down. But let’s maintain focus on the werewolf…
From every side men ran to the succour of the dame. They beat off the wolf from his prey, and for a little would have cut him to pieces with their swords. But a certain wise consellor said to the King,
“Sire, hearken now to me. This beast is always with you, and there is not one of us all who has not known him for long. He goes in and out amongst us, nor has molested any man, neither done wrong or felony to any, save only to this dame, one only time as we have seen. He has done evil to this lady, and to that knight, who is now the husband of the dame. Sire, she was once the wife of that lord who was so close and private to your heart, but who went, and none might find where he had gone. Now, therefore, put the dame in a sure place, and question her straitly, so that she may tell–if perchance she knows thereof– for what reason this Beast holds her in such mortal hate. For many a strange deed has chanced, as well we know, in this marvellous land of Brittany.”
Smart man! This paragraph also serves to highlight that the King and the knight/baron Bisclavret were already friends before and – I’m sure – trusted companions, as kings and their knights generally tend to be, especially in stories. After all, there are tales very similar to Bisclavret as told in King Arthur stories about one of his knights of the Round Table, his most trusted brothers-in-arms. It is no different here, as Bisclavret was once a brother to this king, if also subservient to his lord in rank – which, in this time period and in such tales, generally served to make the bond of brotherhood and honorable oaths still stronger.
The counsellor also points out about “many a strange deed” and is apparently talking about werewolves. This is the first time someone suggests that the Wolf may actually be a man.
The King listened to these words, and deemed the counsel good. He laid hands upon the knight, and put the dame in surety in another place. He caused them to be questioned right straitly, so that their torment was very grevious. At the end, partly because of her distress, and partly by reason of her exceeding fear, the lady’s lips were loosed, and she told her tale. She showed them of the betrayal of her lord, and how his raiment was stolen from the hollow stone. Since then she knew not where he went, nor what had befallen him, for he had never come again to his own land. Only, in her heart, well she deemed and was persuaded, that Bisclavaret was he.
Straightaway the King demanded the vesture of his baron, whether this were to the wish of the lady, or whether it were against her wish. When the raiment was brought to him, he caused it to be spread before Bisclavaret, but the Wolf made as though he had not seen. Then that cunning and crafty counsellor took the King apart, that he might give him a fresh rede.
Well, obviously, Bisclavret isn’t too keen on turning back into a human right in front of everyone. I appreciate this aspect. Returning to the shape of a man is no small and simple feat, and it’s a shameful and degrading process both to do it and to have the truth of his nature known – not to mention it might be difficult, especially after being in the form of a beast for so long. This is then highlighted by the counsellor…
“Sire,” said he [the counsellor], “you do not wisely, nor well, to set this raiment before Bisclavaret, in the sight of all. In shame and much tribulation must he lay aside the beast, and again become man. Carry our wolf within your most secret chamber, and put his vestment therein. Then close the door upon him, and leave him alone for a space. So we shall see presently whether the ravening beast may indeed return to human shape.”
The King carried the Wolf to his chamber, and shut the doors upon him fast. He delayed for a brief while, and taking two lords of his fellowship with him, came again to the room.
I guess the king was a little worried about what he might find! Can’t really blame him.
Entering therein, all three, softly together, they found the knight sleeping in the King’s bed, like a little child. The King ran swiftly to the bed and taking his friend in his arms, embraced and kissed him fondly, above a hundred times.
The king is clearly a big fan of la bise, and since he hasn’t seen the knight for so long, he has to make up for all those lost greetings. It’d be a great scene for a cartoon, honestly. Kissing meant a wider variety of things in this time period than it often does today: a kiss could be greeting, respect, forgiveness, or even a sign of peace, rather than some simple blanket gesture of romantic love, as it is thought of today. The king does a lot of talking when he greets the knight in such a way, telling him that he is welcomed back and that he’s happy to see him and all is forgiven. So… no punishment for being a werewolf!
When man’s speech returned once more [to the knight/Bisclavret], he told him [the King] of his adventure. Then the King restored his friend the fief that was stolen from him, and gave such rich gifts, moreover, as I cannot tell. As for the wife who had betrayed Bisclavaret, he bade her avoid his country, and chased her from the realm. So she went forth, she and her second lord together, to seek a more abiding city, and were no more seen.
The adventure that you have heard is no vain fable. Verily and indeed it chanced as I have said. The Lay of the Were-Wolf, truly, was written that it should ever be borne in mind.
No “the evil werewolf must die,” no mention of his curse or passing it on to others – the werewolf is a hero and is accepted as one in spite of his bestial transformation. Truly an interesting specimen among werewolf tales.
*: Yes, this aspect of the story is indeed often interpreted as negative against women, but that isn’t something I will get into with this post. I will instead be viewing it as a werewolf legend and not criticizing other aspects. It’s true that women were often viewed and treated unfairly in this time period and generally made out to be evil manipulative creatures in many medieval tales (though not all, and not all the female characters always were), as that was often the mindset of this time period, but that’s an issue for another time and another blog, as this blog is about werewolves. I did, however, want to acknowledge that issue, because I’m quite aware of it (especially as a woman in medieval studies), instead of ignoring it altogether. I personally do not think it lessens the story or makes the moral any less powerful, especially if we recognize the biases of the time period – and that a woman chose, herself, to retell this story in the first place, as I too am a woman choosing to retell it now.
I do so deeply enjoy “Bisclavret” and the truly classical tale of deepest fealty and trust to one’s King, the humanity displayed by the “wolf” (werewolf), and even how the King is thankful to have the faithful baron returned to human form – with no question or horror to learn that he was a werewolf to begin with.
The relationship between lord and knight is something not often conveyed in modern culture, as it’s not really something we have anymore, so it’s always fun to read about in such a fantastical sense. And many medieval stories are about courtly love, but not so with this one. Don’t get me wrong, I love courtly love, but it’s fun to see a platonic story as well.
So there we have it, the tale of “Bisclavret”! It’s one of my favorite werewolf stories. It’s classic, it’s simple, and it’s about a good and chivalrous, courtly knight werewolf. As we all know… I do love the idea of a werewolf knight.
Until next time!
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So, really, vampire hunting wasn’t really much of a thing… except in Greece.
In fact, at one point, hunting vampires was considered a career so important and high in society in Greece that it was about equal to healers and scribes. Supposedly, people born on a Saturday could see things like spirits and have “influence” over vampires and thus often hunted them. In his book From Demons to Dracula, Matthew Beresford cites a bunch of ways the Greeks especially on the island of Mykonos would ward off vampires.
And there are still more examples scattered around. According to Montague Summers, in his book The Vampire in Lore and Legend, on page 217…
In no country has the Vampire tradition more strongly prevailed and more persistently maintained its hold upon the people than in modern Greece. To the confirmation and perpetuation of this and cognate beliefs, a large number of factors have lent their varying influences, and not the least remarkable of these has been the quote furnished by the popular superstition of antiquity, legends and practices which were even in Pagan days more or less covertly accepted and employed …
Bear in mind that Summers’ “modern” Greece is in the 1950s, as this book was originally published in 1961. Also bear in mind that Summers is not the nicest or least biased man in the world. At all. Still, he collected great scholarship and went on many travels to different regions to study, even if he wasn’t the best at organizing and sifting through everything.
At any rate, this leads us to the Greek term for “vampire,” which has always been a subject of very hot debate. But that’s not the topic of this post, so instead of going into detail about all that, I will say this instead…
Something to bear in mind: a lot of this is retrospective scholarship. In other words, were they really what we think of as “vampires” today? Probably not, even if they may have had a few similarities (though never things like fangs). I know I always mention this in my posts, but it’s always important to note for all readers that folklore is very hard to pin down – it isn’t possible, really – by modern standards and that when scholars refer to something as a “vampire” or a “werewolf” or even a “dragon” or almost any other creature, chances are it’s a myth that’s been translated to fit into one of those categories. There were certainly situations in which creatures may have been referred to as their name we think of them as today (though they basically never fit all of our new pop culture standards), but that’s especially complicated with the term “vampire” in particular.
Because the creatures in Greece were not referred to as “vampires,” which isn’t surprising at all, and their origins, history, and etymology are very complicated. Again, though, this post is about vampire hunters, so that isn’t something I’ll be going into right now. I did, however, go into it a fair amount in this post, if you’re interested! It’s all very regional and seems to mean a werewolf or a vampire in different regions, or sometimes a werewolf who has become a vampire, or sometimes just a vampire, or… Yeah, it’s all very complicated.
Either way, scholars of today now group some of these Greek concepts with vampire legends thanks to various influences and similarities, so now we have the Greek concept of a vampire hunter. In particular, we have some writings from the seventeenth century that detail some vampires and how to slay them.
Summers then mentions a Professor N. P. Polites of Athens University, who wrote about how Santorini was where people “sent” vampires, and “that the inhabitants of this island enjoy so vast a reputation as experts in effectively dealing with vampires and putting an end to them” (Summers 228).
Summers then goes on to give such a lengthy and detailed set of examples of vampire hunts and slayings (almost all of them cremations, at least at some point after other actions are taken) that to replicate them here would lead to me writing a chapter of my own. And since I try to keep folklore facts at least relatively concise unless I’m doing a particularly large one, maybe I’ll retell those stories in a vampire folklore book of my own someday instead.
It wasn’t, however, always within the law to be a vampire hunter or to cremate people for being a vampire, unlike another case…
Here’s another fun one: until only as recently as 1823 when the law was finally repealed, it was totally legal in England to drive a wooden steak through the heart of someone you suspected of being undead. Yes, any undead, not necessarily “vampires,” which is actually an important note. The law came into being during the Anglo-Saxon period, and people must have been doing that a fair amount for there to be an entire law about it – and one that went overlooked for so long. So, during the Victorian era, we still could’ve had people staking someone under the claim that they were undead, and they could legally get away with it if they could back up their claims somehow.
Did that make anyone an actual “vampire hunter” instead of just people staking their neighbors under claims of them being undead? Not really. So, so far all we really have still is Greece and its vampire hunting profession.
There may have been more “vampire hunters” in the modern sense than we really think about, with events in Eastern Europe related to vampire slaying (not necessarily “hunting” or in a professional sense) even as recently as 2007.
So there you have it! Vampire hunting was, at a few points anyway, actually considered a real profession. This is a very unusual case in folklore and makes vampires quite the unique creature for being so prolific in certain regions – namely Greece – as to have their own dedicated hunters.
Monsters aren’t really what we think of them as being in something like D&D, where there are these categorized creatures arguably overpopulating the entire countryside and you can make an entire profession doing nothing but hunting “monsters,” how ever one may define that. Still, there is surprisingly a little bit of precedent for that with vampires, which one can’t really say with most creatures in folklore, like werewolves. Vampires are one of the only creatures in folklore, even if it was pretty much only in Greece, to have their own dedicated, professional hunters.
Until next time!
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