This story originally appeared in Tales of the Unanticipated #22.
I am posting it here as part of the first annual Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.
When Jabberwocks Attack
by Kelly Mccullough
Desperately seeking Classics Majors. Ever considered a career in television? Mythical of Omaha’s Magic Kingdom seeks new production assistant. Job offers many exciting challenges, and provides opportunity to work closely with our star, Merlin Perkins.
Qualifications: extensive familiarity with mythic tradition, willingness to travel and work with animals. Strong grounding in Latin and classical Greek a necessity. Should be telegenic and open to new experiences. No allergies. Prefer a candidate with knowledge of: Heraldry, Old English, Arabic, Zoology, and Botany. Bonuses: history of alchemy, fencing, playing a musical instrument.
Contact Doctor Perkins in the Classical Languages Department for further details. Leighton Hall, room 13.
The classified in the college newspaper blared out at me. I wasn’t happy. All I could think was that it was yet another joke on the classics majors, one that was even dumber than most. To start with, there was no room thirteen in Leighton. And Merlin? Mythical of Omaha? Who were they trying to kid? It pissed me off, and I headed for Leighton to complain to the classics chair.
“I’m sorry, James,” said Marge, the departmental secretary. “Doctor Adams isn’t in right now.”
“Well, maybe you can help. Has she seen this?” I said, holding up the paper.
“Oh, the ad. Sure, she approved it. But if you’re interested, why don’t you just go talk to Merlin himself?”
I was stunned. “You mean we really do have a Merlin Perkins on the faculty here?”
“Oh, yes. He retired about seventeen years ago, and he travels a lot, but he’s still listed as an emeritus. Why don’t you go down to his office and talk with him?”
In a mild state of shock I made my way to the basement. At the end of the hallway was a door that I’d always thought led to the steam tunnels. On it was a shiny new, brass 13 and a name tag reading ‘Perkins.’ I paused for a moment, thinking about turning around and walking away, but I really couldn’t help myself. I knocked. The door swung smoothly open.
The office was small, but well kept. Barrister’s bookshelves lined three of the walls. The only thing out of the ordinary was a rather moth-eaten stuffed owl perched atop one of the shelves. Sitting with his back to the fourth wall was a man typing furiously on a laptop. As I stepped into the room, he rose and came around his desk.
I had a mental picture of what a Merlin should look like. It involved a long grey beard and robes. I can’t help myself, I’m a classics major, and we have certain expectations. Of course, they were wrong. He was tall and slim, but muscular. He did have a beard, but it was an impeccably kept goatee, and it was salt and pepper rather than grey. His hair, what I could see of it under the khaki Australian bush hat, was also a mixture of grey and black. He was wearing expensive hiking boots, and a khaki short-sleeved shirt with enough pockets for a herd of kangaroos. His bush pants were the kind that could be converted to shorts by simply unzipping the legs. His skin was darkly tanned, and there were fine smile lines around his mouth and eyes. Those eyes were his most arresting feature. They were so dark that there was no distinguishing between pupil and iris, and when he looked at me it seemed as though nothing else existed. They gave me the feeling that if Merlin really wanted me to do something, even something insanely dangerous, I would. Without thought or question.
“G’day,” he said grabbing my hand and vigorously shaking it. “I hope you’re a better candidate than the last three,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re here about the job, right?” he said, pointing at the newspaper I still carried.
“Well yes, but-”
He cut me off. “Glad to hear it. Major?”
“Classics, that’s why-”
“Good, what year?”
I wanted to stop him and explain that I was just there to ask whether or not it was a joke. But those eyes held me, and I found myself answering his questions instead.
“Both, and Aramaic.”
“Excellent,” he replied. “Chief area of study?”
“Greek epic poetry.”
“Hmm, we’ve already done the Hercules cycle. Do you have any interest in the more modern stuff? Beowulf? The early Celts?”
“Well, I did take Professor Thayer’s class on the Celtic bards.”
“That’s good. Know your classical myths?”
“Sure,” I said “but-”
“What about pets? Ever own a dog?”
“Hmm, universal donor, that could come in handy. Do you have major medical coverage?”
“Through the college, of course. Why do you ask?”
“Standard question,” he replied. “Nothing to worry about. Ever seen an aura?”
“Too bad, but we can work around it. What were you planning on doing January-term?”
“I was going to take an independent study, so I’d be ready for Senior Seminar in February.”
“Outstanding, I can try you out on the winter holiday special. I’ll see Doctor Adams about the details. Let’s see, you’ll be getting class credit, and you won’t be able to come on full time until you finish your degree in spring. Hm, starting salary is an even hundred a year. Five weeks is ten. How about if we pay you seven thousand plus tuition for J-term?”
“Uh,” I mumbled, stunned, “you want to pay me seven thousand dollars to take independent study with you?” This was not what I had come for, but I sure could use the money.
Merlin just smiled in response. “I’ll get the paperwork out to you by the end of the month. Now, I’ll want to see you here on the last day of fall term to nail down the details and get you your tickets. I was thinking of filming in Tahiti this year.” He stuck out his hand. “Deal?”
I didn’t hesitate for an instant. If someone wanted to ship me to the tropics for the month of January, give me school credit, and pay me for the deal, who was I to refuse? Carleton College was in the middle of Minnesota, and there wasn’t a worse month to be there than January. I took Merlin’s hand.
“Great, now get out of here, and I’ll get this going.” I started for the door, but suddenly the professor gestured for me to stop. “I almost forgot to get your name.”
“James, sir. James Steward.”
“James it is. Well, off with you. I’ve work to do.”
The door slid smoothly closed behind me. It was only then that I realized I’d left the paper on Merlin’s desk.
Over the course of the next several weeks the whole thing began to seem a bit too surreal to have actually happened. By the end of the month I had just about decided that the whole thing was a hallucination. Then I found a large manila envelope in my campus mailbox.
It was an application for independent study under Doctor Merlin Perkins. It was stamped approved, and signed by Doctor Adams. It was time to see Merlin. When I arrived at his office he wasn’t in. Instead, there was a note on the door addressed to me.
Sorry, my boy, been called out of town on an emergency. Left your plane tickets and a check with the departmental secretary. There’s been a change of plans, I couldn’t get the permits to film in Tahiti, so I decided to do a project in London instead. It’s time critical though, so your tickets are for tomorrow. Wardrobe will be provided when you arrive. Cheers.
I dutifully tromped up to the departmental offices. I’d been looking forward to Tahiti, but five weeks in London was nothing to complain about. It was still warmer than Minnesota.
“Ah,” said Marge, when I entered the office, “there you are. Right on time. Here’s the packet Professor Perkins left for you.” She handed me another manila envelope. The envelope contained a retainer in the form of a cashier’s check for thirty-five hundred dollars and a first class roundtrip ticket on British Air.
“Thanks, Marge.” I took the envelope and headed for the door.
“James,” she called as I crossed the threshold.
“Be careful. Merlin’s a brilliant scholar, but he uses people up. Just look at what he did to Arthur.”
There didn’t seem to be anything to say to that, so I nodded my head and let the door close behind me.
It was late afternoon when I landed, and there was a limo waiting at the airport. It whisked me straight off to the East End. There, on a seedy vacant lot next to a butcher’s shop, a couple of trailers had been set up.
The chauffeur led me to one of these saying, “Merlin wanted to see you as soon as you got in. Right through here.”
He opened a trailer door with a single star on the front of it, and gave me a gentle shove. As soon as I was inside, the door closed behind me. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. Merlin was waiting for me inside. He was dressed in bush garb again. He had also wrapped a kerchief around his neck, the ends of which were fastened together by a heavy silver medallion with a paw print etched deeply into it.
“Good to see you, James. I’m looking forward to having you as an apprentice.”
“Apprentice?” I said.
“Oh, sorry. I forgot you’re an American. Very different schooling. No tradition of apprenticeship. But student, production assistant, junior partner, it’s really all just cognitive apprenticeship. Not important now though. We need to start filming twenty minutes ago at the latest, so let’s get you over to wardrobe. You can sign the releases while they dress you.”
“Releases? What-” He cut me off.
“No time for chit chat, boy.” He gave me a gentle shove toward the door.
Half an hour later, I was wearing an outfit virtually identical to Merlin’s, right down to the kerchief. The wardrobe chief had insisted on this last touch, though it seemed overdramatic to me. He’d also fastened it far too tightly, and the first time he turned away I loosened the clasp. Then it was time to show Merlin.
“Excellent,” he said, looking me over. “Better than I expected. Now come along, and I’ll show you where we’ll be shooting.”
“What exactly are we going to be filming? Is there a script?”
“You can worry about that later. The sun’s almost down. Just follow my lead, do what I tell you and everything will be fine.”
I wanted to protest that I wasn’t ready, but he fixed me with those dark eyes, and all thought of argument fled. So, at the head of a little parade, including two cameramen, a sound guy, and several other people who did things that weren’t readily apparent, we marched down the street. We’d gone about a block and a half when Merlin held up a hand.
“Here we are,” he said.
I looked around in bafflement. There was nothing to distinguish this stretch of street from any other in the area. I thought Merlin must have read my confusion from my features, because he spoke again.
“Right over there.” He pointed to a narrow unmarked door on an otherwise blank brick wall. “That’s where our subjects like to den up of an evening. It’s a very exclusive pub.”
“I don’t see a sign.”
“And you won’t, James.” His voice dropped into a harsh whisper, and I realized that the cameras were rolling. He was speaking for their benefit, not mine. “The sign isn’t visible while the sun is above the horizon. This hidden pub on this quiet residential street is the infamous Werewolves of London, hangout for some of England’s wildest of wildlife.”
Okay, so he was nuts. He was also spell-binding in his charisma. And besides all that, he was paying me really well to spend a month in London. I held my tongue as he continued.
“Tonight is a full moon. At sunset, these savage beasts will pour forth to work their wicked will on the people of the city.” He touched his hand to the paw print brooch at his throat, and I realized that every one of the crew was wearing one. “Only our silver amulets will protect us from this ancient evil. Come with me in this special episode of Mythical of Omaha’s Magic Kingdom, as I follow one werewolf on its darkling journey.” He pointed toward the red light filling the western sky. “It begins already.”
As if the words were a cue, the last sliver of sun slid out of view. One of the fellows whose job I didn’t yet know let out a long, spine-curdling howl. There was a creak, and light spilled out of the tavern below as its door opened. For a brief moment, a distorted semihuman shape could be seen silhouetted in the doorway. Its head was unnaturally long and domed, with a weird muzzlelike projection, and one shoulder was hideously humped. Then the door slammed, and it was among us. I staggered back. It turned in my direction.
“Pardon me chap, ‘ave you got a light?” It touched its mouth and then reached for me with one misshapen paw.
I almost screamed as it stepped toward me. Just then, the street lamps came on. The paw resolved itself into a hand holding a pipe. My perceptions shifted abruptly, and I shook off the spell Merlin had woven with his words. This was just a man. The distortions of the head came from a scarf and cap. The hunched shoulder was nothing more than a backpack. Sighing in relief, I reached into the pocket of my bush jacket.
“I might,” I said. “Let me see if I remembered to transfer them when I changed coats.”
In the background, I could hear Merlin speaking for the camera, but he seemed terribly far away. “I’ve cast a spell of concealment on myself and the crew. We don’t want to alarm the beast. My assistant, James will now approach the werewolf and attempt to make contact.” The voice grew suddenly louder as though Merlin were speaking directly in my ear. “In a moment, the moon will rise fully, and the werewolf will begin its transformation. James will attempt to put a tracking collar on the beast while it’s helpless during the change.”
“Whatever, Merlin,” I whispered to myself as I continued to dig around in my pockets.
I didn’t find any matches, but I did find a thin strip of leather with a hard plastic case attached to it. I was startled, because I was sure it hadn’t been there earlier, but the coat had an awful lot of pockets and I’d probably just missed it.
“Here it comes,” said Merlin’s voice. “The moon is coming up, and…”
The man in front of me doubled over with a grunt. I reached a hand out to steady him. Where my fingers touched his arm, I could feel incredible movement as though there were mice or other small animals crawling around under the fabric. I recoiled.
“Now’s the time,” said Merlin. “The werewolf is unaware of its surrounding for a good two minutes while it changes. James is in perfect position to place the collar.”
“Place the collar. Place The Collar. PLACE THE COLLAR.” The words echoed in my mind, and I found myself taking the collar from my pocket and wrapping it around the man’s neck. I could feel thick, bristling hair sprouting all along his skin as I fastened the clasp. It was horrible.
The werewolf, for that was what I now believed him to be, dropped to the ground. He curled into a ball and, with a crackle like an electrical discharge, his clothes and bag vanished. Now a huge snarling wolf-thing, the creature lurched to its feet.
Merlin’s voice droned on in the background. “Where the clothes go is one of the mysteries that we hope to explore in this exciting special program.”
The werewolf snarled at me and bared its teeth. I clutched at my amulet convulsively, and the beast backed off. Maybe I was going to survive this experience, after all. I relaxed a little bit, and my kerchief fell away as the amulet’s clasp came loose in my hand. I yelped, but managed to hold on to the amulet. The werewolf circled me as if it sensed an opening. I was beginning to feel faint.
“James seems to be having a little problem with his amulet, but I think everything’s going to be okay.”
“Thank you, Merlin.”
“No problem, James. You’re doing fine.”
Just then I heard a noise from behind me. Turning, I saw an attractive young blond woman round the corner from the next street. I saw her eyes flash from me to the slavering beast at my feet and back. She screamed and half turned to run, but it was too late. The werewolf raced toward her, howling. She’d never make it. She was going to be torn to pieces. Without stopping to think about it, I threw my amulet toward her.
“Catch!” I yelled.
Her hand rose into the air, clutched at the spinning silver disk, closed on it, and burst into flame. A howl burst from her lips. Others answered up and down the street.
“My assistant James seems to have forgotten that werewolves always hunt in packs. It certainly is a magnificent gesture though, isn’t it?”
Something like a furry sledgehammer hit me in the back.
“Don’t worry folks, it’s only television. Now a word from our sponsors. Cut.”
The lights went out.
I was very surprised to wake up. I hadn’t expected to. I was in a hospital room, and Merlin was sitting on the chair beside me.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“The werewolves nearly tore you to pieces, but I was able to recover your amulet and drive them off before they finished the job. Whyever did you throw your amulet to that other werewolf?” He looked very puzzled.
“I didn’t know she was a werewolf. Why wasn’t she in wolf shape, too?”
“You didn’t know? What kind of an education are they giving you at Carleton these days? Everybody knows that the female of the species has a different cycle than the male. They don’t change for a good hour after sunset, it helps them decoy victims.” He shook his head. “You mean you really thought that you were saving that woman’s life?”
“Certainly. Why else would I have done it?”
Merlin’s face broke into a broad grin. “I guess Chivalry really isn’t dead. Arthur himself couldn’t have done it better. Magnificent, boy. Simply magnificent. Insanely stupid, of course, but still magnificent.” The grin got broader. “And the ratings, you should see the ratings. We had to finish filming without you, but we were able to use footage of the attack in the closer. Word got out about that stunt, and when the show aired on Christmas Day it was the highest rated Magic Kingdom ever. You’re going to be a real asset to the show.”
Merlin was still chuckling to himself when a thought struck me. One that made cold sweat break out all over my body.
“Ah, Merlin, sir?”
“I was savaged by werewolves and lived. Doesn’t that mean that at the next full moon…?”
“Yes, it does. There’s no getting around lycanthropy. We’re going to have to chain you up three nights a month from here on out.”
“Chain me up?”
“Naturally, but there are benefits, too. You regenerate like nobody’s business for one. How do you feel?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever felt better.”
“There you go. When they brought you in, you looked like a man who’d lost an argument with the world’s largest blender. But that’s not all. You’re practically indestructible now. Nothing can harm you but silver. That could come in handy on the show. Why, it should all balance out in the next episode alone.”
“Yes, I’ve been watching a bit of American TV lately, and there’s something I’ve been meaning to try. And now, with you a werewolf, it’s actually a possibility.”
“I’m calling it, ‘When Jabberwocks Attack.'”