This story, a sequel to “When Jabberwocks Attack,” first appeared in New Wyrd; ISBN 1-59971-966-5
“I hate you, Merlin.””Tut-tut, James,” the ancient wizard’s voice said in my ear. “The cameras roll in thirty seconds. We don’t want to have to reshoot this scene.”
At least we could agree on that. I checked my protective mirror shades carefully before peering over the top of the rock. The damn lizard was still there, about thirty-five feet away. The thing was a bright, screaming, metallic green. It didn’t blend into its dusty, red desert surroundings at all. It was as if God had painted a sign on it saying: “Leave this creature the hell alone! It doesn’t need camouflage.” Given a choice, I’d have done just that. But here I was about to try to get within kissing distance for the delight and edification of our stinking audience. Ever since I’d signed on with Merlin’s old show, Mythical of Omaha’s Magic Kingdom,* the man had been getting me in trouble. Hell, it was his fault I had to be chained up for three days every month at the full moon, him and his bloody werewolves.
“I hate you, Merlin,” I repeated, though I was resigned.
“Three. Two. One. Rolling,” said the voice in my ear.
My brain was saying, I quit, but my lips were reading a different script.
“G’day,” I said, turning to the camera. My voice was breathy with enthusiasm, and it seemed that I had come down with a bad case of Australian accent. An ear to ear grin spread itself across my face. “I’m James Steward, The Basilisk Hunter. Today we’ll be getting an up close and personal look at the largest species of land basilisk, the Coleman’s Bloodeye!” I turned back to peer over the top of the rock.
“And there she is. Crickey! Just look at her! She’s a real beauty! But just because she’s pretty doesn’t mean she isn’t dangerous. This lizard can turn flesh to stone with a single glance! First you make eye contact!” I held up my right hand with the index and middle fingers split and pointing at my eyes. “Then, wham!” I struck the lenses of my shades with my fingertips. “Instant statue!”
“You’ve got to be very careful with them,” I continued. “Especially the older ones! That’s because their power increases with age, and the Coleman’s Bloodeye can live for almost four hundred years! Even with these enchanted sunglasses, I wouldn’t want to get real close to one much over two hundred. But this little sheila out here is a beautiful example of an adolescent female! She can’t be much over fifty, so I should be okay. Let’s go out and get a closer look! This should be a real treat!”
I didn’t know where all the exclamation points were coming from, but I suspected Merlin had performed a little motivational magic. He was nasty that way. What I wanted was to give him a piece of my mind. Instead, I placed one hand on the rock, vaulted over it, and started walking toward the basilisk. Toward the basilisk! Internally I muttered, These glasses had better work!
“You see how she hasn’t even changed position since I started my approach,” I said. My voice was hushed to keep from startling the basilisk, but still charged with barely muted excitement. “That’s because this beauty has no native enemies.” I’d covered perhaps half the distance. “If that were the whole story, she’d be perfectly safe here. But it isn’t. People aren’t native to the area, and they pose a growing threat to these magnificent reptiles due to growing urbanization and loss of habitat.”
I was about ten feet away by then. The basilisk brought her head up in an almost leisurely manner and glared at me. We both paused and waited for me to turn to stone, but Merlin’s magic shades did the trick. I’m not sure who was more startled, her or me.
“As you can see,” I whispered, “my glasses worked. If they hadn’t, I’d be a marble statue now! Then she’d pay attention to me! The basilisk is a lithovore! She eats rocks. As long as I’m moving around, I’m not edible. But if I freeze, she knows she’s got me! And she’s in for a good feed!”
I slid a bit closer and squatted down on my hams. “Let’s get a good look at this gorgeous little sheila!”
She was about five feet long from nose to tail tip, and she was ugly! Take a crocodile, put it on stilts, and hit it in the face with a bald pug dog a few dozen times. When you’re done with that, spray paint the whole thing with neon green, metal-flake automotive paint. Right before the paint is dry, dip it in corn flakes and apply another coat. Finally, pop a couple of scratched crimson mirrors into the eye sockets, and bingo, you’ve got yourself a basilisk.
“Notice the delicate shading of yellow that’s starting to appear around the base of her frills.” You’ll pay for this, Merlin. If it’s the last thing I do, you’ll pay.
On either side of our reptilian Helen of Troy’s neck, there were a dozen or so tentaclelike growths. Each was about the size of pencil, and they were gently waving, though there was no breeze to relieve the oven-like temperatures in this little corner of hell that Merlin had dragged me to.
“That yellowing is a sign she’s coming into her first heat! Crickey! What luck! Let’s get a closer look!”
As I reached out to gently move the frills aside so the camera could get a better shot of the glands they covered, the basilisk jumped like a greased kangaroo. Using her heavy tail as a counterbalance, she flipped herself halfway around and snapped at my right hand. There was a numbing impact, and at first I thought she’d missed, because there was no pain. Then I noticed the end of a finger sticking out of her mouth and adrenaline flooded my system.
“Naughty girl!” I chided her, as pain followed realization. “Did you see that!? She took my index finger clean off. These lizards can really move when they want to! Crickey! That smarts!” The basilisk hissed at me, turned end for end, and started running away.
“I guess I’ll have to catch her if I want that back.” I paused and turned to the camera, while I bound up my hand. “That really hurt. But I don’t blame her at all. She was just doing what comes naturally. This is her territory! I’m the invader, and she’s going to defend herself any way she can! I should have been more careful.” I turned back. With those stiltlike legs she was stunningly fast. She was a hundred feet away already and still accelerating. “Come on! Let’s go!” I started running after her.
It was a long chase. In my ear I could hear Merlin telling the film crew to take a break for an hour or two while I tired the basilisk out. As I ran I cursed Merlin under my breath and tried to figure out how I’d gotten here.
It started at a personal meeting. With Merlin, it always does. People who’ve never met him always assume that it’s the magic that has made him such an important figure down through the ages. They’re dead wrong. It’s the charisma. The man could sell government bonds to the Free Texas militia.
I was just coming out of the door of Saint Alban’s hospital in London when a big black limo pulled up. As soon as I saw the license plates, “Rnd Tabl,” I knew I was in trouble. The first time I’d laid eyes on Merlin was when he hired me to be his assistant. That was for the Mythical of Omaha gig. On my very first day on the job, he’d thrown me to the wolves, literally. He was filming a show on London’s werewolves, and I’d ended up as the world’s largest chew toy. I’d seen him most recently when they were putting me into the ambulance after the filming of When Jabberwocks Attack, his idea of reality TV.
I turned to go back into the hospital, but it was too late. Somehow he’d managed to open the door of the limo and put himself between me and escape without crossing the intervening space. I was sure he’d cheated and used magic, but there’s no way I could prove it.
“Jim, my boy, how good to see you!” he said.
His perfect white teeth were all showing in an ear to ear smile. Merlin was a tall slender man in the peak of physical condition. As was his habit, he was wearing a khaki shirt and shorts with about a million pockets. Everything about him was trim and dapper, from his perfect salt and pepper goatee and mustache to the ruler straight creases in his clothes. An immaculate Aussie hat was perched at just the right rakish angle on his head, but somehow you knew that when he removed it, the hair underneath would be neatly styled without a single strand out of place. I took all this in as I tried to avoid meeting his eyes. It was no good. Like a mouse with a cobra, I couldn’t resist the pull.
Merlin’s eyes are his deadliest weapon. They’re a light-grabbing black, with no demarcation between pupil and iris. When he looks at you, the world seems to recede, and you know, absolutely know, that you are the most important thing in his universe. It’s hard to express how flattering that is. Having a normal person’s undivided attention is a heady experience. To be the sole focus of the greatest wizard in history is utterly seductive.
He gestured, and I found myself climbing into the back of the limo. He sat across from me. With a smoked glass window between us and the driver, I was effectively alone with my nemesis and mentor.
“I’ve got an idea for a great new series,” he said, and there was a twinkle in the depths of those black eyes.
“I told you over the phone, Merlin: I quit. The Jabberwock was too much. That big bastard tore my arm out of the socket and beat me unconscious with it. I don’t want to go near a wild monster ever again.”
“I didn’t think you really meant it.” He flicked his hand at me deprecatingly. “You’re a natural in this business. Did you hear about the ratings we got for that show? They were stratospheric! Unheard of! You’re fully recovered now, aren’t you?”
“Well yes, but-”
“No residual pain? No loss of mobility?”
“Of course not,” I said. “But-”
“But me no buts, my boy. You were born for this next show.”
“No way. I absolutely, categorically refuse to have anything more to do with you. And that’s final.”
“Just let me describe the program,” he said, leaning forward in his seat.
“I’m not listening,” I replied, sticking my fingers in my ears and turning to look out the window.
“It’s a sure thing…”
“La, la, la, la,” I screeched, trying to block him out.
“I’ll make you a promise,” he said, and I could hear his voice as clearly as ever. He was using magic to speak directly into my mind. “Just hear me out. If you don’t love this idea, I’ll drive you straight to the airport and put you on a plane for home.”
“You promise?” I said, moving my hands away from my ears. “Swear to God?”
“All right,” I said, grudgingly. But I didn’t turn to face him. I wasn’t going to let him use the power of his eyes on me.
“You won’t regret this, James.”
“I already do,” I said.
“The latest rage on mundane TV is gung ho Australian naturalists. So I thought: If they can get good ratings with piddling little beasts like crocodiles, just imagine what kind of splash we could make with a dragon or a griffin.”
“A big red one, as it rips my head off,” I snapped. “Besides, I’m not an Australian naturalist.”
“No,” he agreed. “But you’re a werewolf, and that’s practically the same thing.”
I was stunned speechless. What werewolves had to do with Australians was beyond me. I opened my mouth and closed it several times, but simply couldn’t find a place to begin. That was when I turned to face him. Mistake. Huge mistake. Merlin’s eyes caught mine and held them. I felt like a wolf with its leg in a trap. Only there’s no way to gnaw your own eyeballs off.
“The parallels are obvious,” he said. “There’s enthusiasm for your work. A sense of personal invulnerability. A few rough edges. You both get a little wild around the full moon. All you’re missing is the accent, and I can supply that.” He grinned and winked at me, and I found my will to resist slipping away.
“And what are we calling this disaster?” I asked.
“The Basilisk Hunter,” he replied, spreading his hands in the manner of a man holding up a marquee, and the twinkle in his eye went nova. “So, what do you say?”
Merlin had insisted on basilisks for the first episode. Partially because of the name, and partially because of the risk factor. He’d pointed out that everyone knew I was a werewolf, so they wouldn’t worry about my being ripped limb from limb. But being turned to stone was a whole different story. That was real danger. Right then, I’d known it was time to walk away. Yet here I was, chasing a basilisk across a desert inferno. It was his damned eyes.
At least my lycanthropic curse gave me added stamina and healing capabilities. If it hadn’t, I’d have dropped dead of exhaustion along about fifteen minutes into the chase. That, or bled out through my mangled hand, despite the bandage. As it was, when the damned lizard finally decided it’d had enough, after an hour and fifty minutes of broken field running, I just wanted to die. I could feel the sweat pouring down my back in a sort of miniature Niagara falls as I staggered up to her.
“Isn’t she beautiful!” I enthused, between gasps for breath, as I dropped down beside her. “She sure gave me a workout! What good shape she’s in. But I’d better check and make sure she’s all right.”
I gestured for the camera to come in closer, then reached to check her pulse. She was too tired now to resist.
“Her pulse is fast, but healthy! She’s going to be just fine. Now, take a look at these tendrils I mentioned earlier. See how the yellowing has increased since we first looked at them. All this exercise seems to have gotten her hormones really pumping! It’s triggered the final stage before full heat and sexual maturity. If there’s a handsome bloke around here somewhere, we might be lucky enough to witness the mating dance! Crickey! What a treat!”
“Next I’ll show you her teeth!” I really didn’t want to have anything to do with them, but I needed to get my finger back anyway, so what the hell. “Here,” I said, reaching up and pulling her lip away from her teeth. They were a dull metal.
“Her teeth are made of a biological tungsten-iridium alloy. That allows her to chew up the stones that she thinks of as food. As a rule, basilisks prefer softer metamorphic rocks, like marble or limestone, but in a pinch she can digest igneous rocks as well! In order to deal with her tough diet, these teeth are constantly falling out and being replaced, just like a shark’s.”
I retrieved my finger from where it was lodged between two molars, peeled off the bandage, and pressed it against the ragged stump. After a minute or two, my werewolf magic took hold and the finger started to reattach itself. I grinned at the camera, but I didn’t release my grip on the finger.
“There. Like new! It’s a good thing for me that she’s not interested in meat! If she were, that would have been halfway digested by now. But, even if you didn’t know basilisks were lithovores, you could tell they weren’t adapted for meat by the shape of their teeth. See these flat grinding surfaces. They’re built for crushing, not tearing.”
Just then the basilisk lifted her head to the sky and let out a long hooting bellow. It sounded a bit like someone dropping a bagpiper into a chipper shredder, only less melodic.
“Would you just listen to her! That’s her distress call. She’s tired of me and wants me to go away. Now, if there were any adults in the area, they’d respond by-”
I was cut off by a noise like the whole Royal Edinburgh Pipes and Drums being run through the world’s largest salad shooter.
“Crickey! We’d better move back a little. That sounds like an adult male! And a big old bull at that.”
That was not good. Especially since the sound was coming from downwind. If he was close enough to scent her, he’d know she was coming into heat. Combine that with her distress call, and he was likely to be one angry lizard. The camera crew must have come to the same conclusion because they were backing off fast, though they were still filming.
I moved to join them, but I was too late. I couldn’t have gone ten feet before the biggest damn basilisk in the whole world came over a low rise just downwind. He was twelve feet long if he was an inch and even uglier than she was. The male Bloodeye isn’t green. Instead, it’s a shade of pink that you might expect to see on a flamingo that was getting ready to spontaneously combust.
“Isn’t he magnificent!” I found myself enthusing. “Just look at the size of the bloke! He’s got to be at least three hundred years old! Crickey! What luck!”
That was when his eyes met mine and I remembered that my sunglasses weren’t guaranteed against full adults. Instantly, I could feel myself stiffening. It was as if I had quick-drying concrete running in my veins. An inspiration hit me then and I wrenched my partly healed finger around, tearing it from the socket and dropping it to the ground. The last thing that went through my mind before the world went away was: Merlin, how did I let you talk me into this? I suspect that Arthur had much the same experience.
The first thing I was aware of was smell. The acrid bite of antiseptics and the undertones of plastics and bleach instantly informed me I was in a hospital. Over the course of my association with Merlin, I had become all too familiar with those smells. My eyelids were so dry and gritty they felt as if they were carved from sandstone. I was almost afraid to open them, for fear they were as brittle they felt. But I knew I was going to have to do it eventually, and now was as good a time as any.
“Ah good,” said the wizard’s voice. “You’re awake. You had me worried for a while there.”
“What happened?” I asked. “The last thing I remember is staring into the wrong end of a loaded basilisk. I was sure I was going to end up stoned. But that can’t be right.”
“Actually it is. You were a statue for nineteen days.”
“Nineteen days!? How did you turn me back?”
“I didn’t,” said Merlin. “Oh, I wish that I could take the credit. That’d be a nice feather in my wizarding cap. No. I was sure you were done for. In fact, I was feeling pretty bad about what happened to you, so I had a nice pedestal made up, and put you out in my garden. I figured there could be no better memorial to you than… well, you.”
“Just get to the point, Merlin.” But I had an idea.
“It happened the night before last, at the full moon. I was just on the edge of sleep when there was this terrible thud from the garden. When I went to look, I found you, in wolf shape, lying next to the pedestal. It wasn’t designed for a four-footed statue you see, and—”
“Sorry. You were stiff as a board, but no longer stone, so I had you hauled in here and admitted. I hadn’t expected you to be able shake off the Basilisk curse, but I figured if you were still alive enough to change back then you just might return to normal.” His expression changed to one of genuine surprise. “Do you know why that happened?”
I smirked. Merlin being puzzled is a sight that few get to see, and I did know the answer.
“Hmph,” said Merlin. “You clearly have some thoughts on the idea.” He glared down his nose at me. “Well? Out with it.”
I held up my bandaged hand, the one with a stump where a finger should be. “I tore this back off just as I was turning to stone. I figured that would get my werewolf curse revved up to full as it tried to heal me again. Then maybe with the two magics in high level opposition, I’d be able to slip out the back door. Figuratively of course.”
“Silly idea,” said Merlin.
“It worked, didn’t it?” I smirked some more.
“I suppose,” he said after a bit. “And that would probably explain…” He trailed off. Never a good sign.
“Explain what?” I asked.
“I had been planning on saving this until you were feeling better, but I suppose I’ll tell you now. You aren’t going to be growing that finger back.”
“Why not?” I asked. “I grew back the one that Troll ate, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but… Well here, look for yourself.” He snapped his fingers and muttered a word of power under his breath.
My bandage vanished, exposing the gap where my finger had once been. In its place was a neat little round plug of marble seemingly welded to my hand.
“Oh, and there is the possibility that the next time you change back into a wolf you’ll be a statue again. Of course it would probably reverse itself at the end of the three days, and we wouldn’t have to chain you up then.”
“Now hold on!” I yelled, but I could feel myself losing control of the conversation.
“Don’t worry about it lad. There are probably lots of people who spend part of the month as sculpture. But it will affect our shooting schedule for the next episode. I’d like to get it in the can before the next full moon. That way if anything um, permanent, should happen to you we’ll still be able to go to air. So, let’s talk about your next episode. I’m thinking, ‘Salamander, the fire-lizard.'”
“Go away,” I replied. “I don’t ever want to see you again.”
“James, James, don’t say that. It hurts me.”
“Good. Think of it as part of a pain-sharing arrangement. Now, leave me alone.”
“You know I can’t do that,” he said. “We’ve got twelve more episodes to film.”
“Believe me, if it were that simple, I’d let you go. But we’re under contract with my sponsors at Mythical. Barring death or loss of soul, you’re stuck until the end of the series. Besides, I know you. Once you’re back on your feet, you’ll be raring to go. You were born to be an Australian naturalist.”
“No, I wasn’t. I’m not an Australian. I only play one on TV, remember. I’m an American, and I’m not even one of the exciting kinds. I’m from Minnesota, that cold place way up north. My heritage is National Public Radio and Prairie Home Companion, not Wild Kingdom, or The Basilisk Hunter. Hell, I’m a Lutheran. Where I come from, being outgoing means that I look at your feet when I’m talking to you. Not wrangling Hydras. Merlin, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Don’t give me that, James. I’ve had hundreds of assistants over the years, and only one of them lasted longer you have.”
“Arthur,” I said.
“He was magnificent,” replied Merlin. “Not a lick of common sense, and tougher than fossilized dragon hide. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.”
“Look, Merlin, I really appreciate the comparison, but I’m not the Once And Future King. I’m a Midwesterner. I like my scenery flat, my endings happy, and my world orderly. When I met you, I was almost finished with a degree in Classics. By nature and training, I’m the academic type. If I survive the rest of this season of The Basilisk Hunter, I’m hanging up my khakis. No more nature programs.”
Those deep black eyes looked terribly sad. I’d disappointed him, and that was almost more than I could bear.
“Look,” I said. “How’s this? If you ever want to film a show about a research librarian, call me. I promise I won’t turn you down.”
“Really?” he asked, and the sparkle had returned to his eyes. “You promise?”
“Swear to God,” I said.
“Outstanding. I’ll start lining it up tomorrow.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “What do you mean? You don’t think something like that would actually attract an audience?”
“Of course it would. I practically get chills thinking about it. Have you ever been to one of the big magical libraries? There’s a reason they chain the books down, and it isn’t for fear of theft.”
“Oh,” I gulped. Then I smiled a wry smile. Somehow, he’d done it to me again. Maybe, if I was lucky, I’d live longer than Arthur had, and they’d tell stories about me some day. It was something to hope for anyway, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to make it to a ripe old age.
Copyright © Kelly McCullough 2006. May not be reproduced without the author’s permission.