"Rise and shine, Sawyer!"
With a yelp of surprise, Tom Sawyer flailed for a grip on his lightweight mattress as it tipped up on its side, dumping him out of bed. In a heap on the deck, still dazed from sleep, he shook his head and glared around the pitch-dark confines of his cabin aboard the Nautilus.
The room suddenly brightened as the electric light was turned on by an invisible hand. "Nemo wants us," said the nonchalant voice of Rodney Skinner, as if the explanation fully justified bodily pitching a man out of his bed.
Rubbing his eyes and wincing at the light, Sawyer clambered to his feet. "Couldn’t you just knock?"
"I did. Three times. You never answered."
Sawyer’s frown this time was largely directed at himself. Their recent exploits in Mongolia had left him with complex and troubled feelings, shadows of guilt and doubt which made it difficult to fall asleep. This often meant that when he finally did, his sleep was deep and exhausted. Perhaps it wasn’t to be wondered at that he had failed to hear the invisible man’s summons.
"What’s the Captain want so early?" he murmured, to cover his chagrin. Having slept in his shirtsleeves, he reached for his waistcoat, which was thrown over the back of a chair.
Skinner’s reply was laced with dry amusement. "It’s two o’clock in the afternoon."
There was no dodging the embarrassment this time. Sawyer sighed and shook his head, running his hand through his tumble of golden hair. "I guess I’m a little mixed up, with the ship running underwater these last few days."
"Well, naturally." Skinner’s reply sounded patently unconvinced. "If you’re coming along, then, I’ll just go and make myself presentable."
"I’ll be there," Sawyer replied, and heard the door open and close behind him as he splashed his face with water from the washbasin. There were still shadows under his eyes, and he didn’t want Mina to see them; he feared her condescension, should she learn he was suffering from nightmares.
Five minutes later, Sawyer stepped into the wardroom to find Captain Nemo, Mina Harker, and Doctor Henry Jekyll already there. Skinner hurried in practically on Sawyer’s heels, wearing the leather coat and greasepaint that constituted his visible guise. In fact, he must have finished dressing along the way, for he was adjusting his dark glasses as he came through the doorway.
"So glad you could join us," Mina remarked silkily, as Skinner took his place at the conference table where the rest already sat.
"Now, Mina, you ought to know something about the time it takes putting on makeup," Skinner retorted blithely. However, he cast a glance in Sawyer’s direction, and the young man suddenly realized that he had been the cause of the delay, by being so difficult to rouse from bed. Once again, his friend was put to some cost in covering for him. He could only manage a weak smile of apology.
The group took up only one end of the long table: Sawyer and Skinner on one side, Mina and Jekyll on the other, with Nemo at the end. The Captain’s deep and authoritative voice was the first to speak.
"In less than six hours, we will reach London," he began. "So far, we have not discussed what will follow. I believe we are all of the same mind—but let us have it spoken." He glanced gravely round the table, and his gaze was met with solemn silence.
"I… have done much for which I would atone," he went on, his voice softening briefly, before it filled again with quiet strength. "That is why I am willing to commit my ship, my knowledge, my skills—my very life—to the task of preserving this world from evils too great for common men to overcome. And now I ask: who among you will join me?"
So saying, he stretched out his hand across the table; and Mina, without a word, was the first to rise and place her hand over his.
Jekyll rose slowly. Since the battle at M’s fortress, they all had noticed a subtle change in him: a new self-assurance and courage, increasingly expressed in the quiet grace of his manner. Now he placed his hand over Mina’s and Nemo’s, with a faint smile.
"Thanks to each of you, Edward has discovered what it is to have a purpose. Much to his surprise, he liked it—and so do I. Perhaps it will be the salvation of us both."
As Sawyer had watched these pledges, his heart was filled with feeling, and now it quickened its beat as he considered himself. It was at great cost to his friends that he had survived their first exploit. One companion was lost for his sake, and another lucky to be alive—a thought which stirred the ghosts of doubt that had haunted his nights. Was he ready for this? Was he even worthy at all?
Impulsively he jerked to his feet, placing his hand over theirs.
"I can’t say I’m much compared to all of you," he confessed humbly. Then a boyish smile broke through his grim expression. "But I can do what I do."
Last of all, with only a mutter of "I must be out of my bloody mind," Skinner rose and put forth his own gloved hand—and the circle was complete.
The pact sealed, Sawyer felt a giddy rush of pride and power mixed with fear. Seeing the grim smiles and bright eyes of his comrades, he thought they must have felt it as well. This strange kinship held the promise of an uncommon faithfulness to one another, as any link forged of secrets may. Perhaps some of them were not yet friends, but the members of the League each knew the dark places in the souls of the others—and each accepted them, knowing the strengths those shadows hid.
They were seated again. Mina then took up the proceedings, in a businesslike manner that only added to Sawyer’s shock at the line of inquiry she proposed.
"Now that’s settled," she said calmly, "I suggest we discuss a replacement for Mister Quatermain."
Sawyer’s heart skipped a beat, an ugly feeling stirring within him. "A replacement?"
"A new member, then," Mina corrected, a little more appeasingly than Sawyer liked. "We were six in number when we entered M’s stronghold. I propose we become six again."
This time it was Skinner who spoke up. "There were six of us only by chance. No reason not to have less members in the League—or more, for that matter. Anyway, the five of us can get on just fine."
"Still, there is safety in numbers," Jekyll put in earnestly.
"I could argue with that. I haven’t exactly been ‘safer’ since I fell in with you lot."
"Would you like to leave?" Mina asked placidly.
Skinner’s painted face bent in a scowl. "I didn’t say that."
"Please," Nemo interjected, raising his hands in a conciliatory manner. "We have dedicated ourselves to a great work—far greater than ourselves. I agree that our minds should be open to those who might share our cause, and add to our strength. Madam Mina, have you someone particular in mind?"
"I do, in fact," Mina replied. "An old… acquaintance."
"And we all know what your ‘old acquaintances’ are like," Skinner muttered, half under his breath.
There was a moment of awkward silence. Sawyer kicked Skinner’s shin beneath the table, earning a glare in return. Mina pointedly ignored the invisible man altogether.
"So who is it?" Sawyer finally asked.
Mina glanced round the table. "Have any of you heard of a man named Sir John Talbot?"
"I have," Jekyll replied promptly, sounding somewhat surprised. "He was a very accomplished researcher. But… as I understood it, he died, quite some time ago."
"He wanted the world to believe that," Mina replied. "The last time I saw him, he was living very quietly in London, under an assumed name. I met him several years ago, in Europe, where we were both in search of treatments for our particular… afflictions."
"Are you saying this chap Talbot is another neck-biter?" Skinner asked bluntly.
A muscle in Mina’s cheek twitched. "No. I won’t tell you his secret without his consent. All you need to know is that he’s more than worthy of the League… and he was a good friend." Her voice softened upon this conclusion, her gaze becoming distant with memory.
Skinner smirked. "Oh, I see. Another very special friend, eh?"
After so much baiting, Sawyer would not have been surprised if Mina had leaped across the table and ripped Skinner’s throat out. However, she simply turned a steady gaze upon the thief.
"A good friend, Mister Skinner… both to me, and to my husband."
Chastened, Skinner stared down at his gloved hands on the tabletop. There was a moment of respectful silence before Mina continued.
"I knew Sir John as a decent and caring man. I believe he might welcome the chance to do some good in the world. We could visit him tonight." She paused, and then a dark smile played over her lips as she added cryptically, "It will be a new moon."
"Very well," Nemo replied, rising from the table. "If that concludes our business, I must see to the ship. Excuse me."
Following Nemo’s departure, the meeting broke up, and they each exited the wardroom. Jekyll hurried after Mina, apparently to inquire further about the man Talbot whom they were to visit. Skinner started down the corridor in the opposite direction. Sawyer bounded after him.
"Are you crazy?"
Still walking, Skinner turned to give the young American a wry look. "I’ve been asking myself that quite a bit lately. What’s making you think I am?"
"The way you go on with Mina. You shouldn’t be treating her like that, Skinner. She’s a lady."
Unaccountably, a smile of amusement twisted Skinner’s lips. "Oh, you know, I really feel for you, Sawyer." He draped a not entirely welcome arm over Sawyer’s shoulders—and while the gesture was companionable, there was an underlying steel in his grip. "Listen. I like to look at her. I may even like a little sport needling her now and again. But quite frankly, I’d rather share my bed with a ravenous tiger than with her."
Sawyer stopped walking abruptly, a scowl spreading over his face. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"You’re a bright boy." Skinner thumped him hard on the back, giving him a grin that was somehow less than friendly, before letting go. Then he continued on down the corridor, adding simply over his shoulder, "You’ll figure it out."
The home belonging to one Mister John Sebastian—formerly known as Sir John Talbot—was a modest but respectable townhouse on the outskirts of London. It was after ten o’clock when the five members of the League arrived on his doorstep, but Mina assured the others that the man would be awake until midnight at the least.
As she had noted earlier that day, the sky was dark with the new moon.
Mina knocked on the door, making use of an ornate doorknocker in the shape of what Sawyer took to be a dog’s head. For several long moments they stood waiting. Sawyer at last began to think they would receive no answer—and then they heard footsteps within. Finally the door was opened by an erudite, middle-aged gentleman.
He was a short, slim figure of fifty or so, with silver-flecked brown hair, and brown eyes which bore a look of keen alertness. Dressed in a neat grey suit that bespoke comfortable but not lavish finances, he gave the appearance of a man well-educated, well-mannered, and fastidious, yet possessing a quiet underlying sense of his own power.
Upon seeing Mina, his expression was one of surprise… and of mild amusement, with a tinge of something dark about it.
"Mrs. Harker," he said, a somewhat reserved greeting. His voice was soft, elegant, and distinctly English in its accent. There was the faintest suggestion of a smile upon his lips—but as his gaze ranged over Mina’s companions, his expression hardened a little. "You bring company with you."
"They’re friends," Mina assured him. "May we come in and talk?"
The gentleman hesitated briefly, and then stepped aside, ushering the League into his house.
On the inside, the house was at once both opulent and simple. It was finely but sparely furnished, with an almost impersonal air about it, as though it were unlived in. Their host led them down the front hallway of polished tiles, onto which the rooms of the house opened, and brought them to a door near the end. They followed him into the darkened room, and as he proceeded to light the lamps, a spacious private study was illuminated. There were bookshelves, a handsome large globe in the corner, and a deep leather seat behind the desk—but this was the only chair present.
Talbot himself took that seat, declining even to offer it to Mina. With cool civility and nothing more, he said to them, "You must excuse me. I’m not accustomed to having guests."
Thus denied chairs, the League gathered to stand in a semicircle before the desk. As Skinner took off his hat, behind the cover of his dark glasses, he was appraising the items in the room with a thief’s calculating eye. Sawyer noticed, and gave him a discreet kick in the ankle.
Skinner shot him a glare, then addressed their host. "You wouldn’t at least have a drop of sherry about?"
With a faint, wry smile, Talbot shook his head. "I’m sorry, but I lost my taste for alcohol long ago."
"Really?" Skinner frowned, and Sawyer just barely heard him murmur under his breath, "I never did trust anyone who didn’t drink."
To the surprise of them both, Talbot heard the remark. His smile hardened a little as he replied, "And I have never trusted strange men who come into my house at odd hours—even if they are spoken for by an old friend." He glanced at Mina. "You know I value my privacy. Why are you here?"
"We have a proposition for you," Mina replied, in a clear and businesslike tone.
"Ah?" Talbot leaned back in his chair, his head canted to one side and his cheek resting on his hand, in a pose of curiosity and interest that seemed to Sawyer to be somewhat contrived.
"Like myself, each of my companions is uniquely… talented." Mina cast a quick glance around her at the others, then turned back to meet Talbot’s patient, amused gaze. "The five of us have joined our forces, and dedicated ourselves to meeting whatever evils may threaten England and the world—"
"My dear woman, that sounds very like you," Talbot interrupted, his calmly cynical demeanor unchanged. "You always were for chasing demons… and I always admired you for it. However, I’m afraid the answer to your question is no."
Sawyer frowned. "What?"
"The question of whether I might join this… interesting little association of yours," Talbot replied. "Don’t mistake me; I commend whatever it is you think you’re doing. But I have no time or inclination for crusades. I have enough problems of my own—as Mrs. Harker may or may not have mentioned to you." He cast a glance at Mina, one eyebrow lowering suspiciously.
"I told them your name," Mina said stiffly. "Your real name. Nothing more."
Talbot’s eyes softened. "Well… I thank you for that." He returned to his brusque tone again, but this time, it sounded a bit more forced. "But as I say, I’m not interested in this venture of yours. My own concerns are enough to occupy me. The rest of the world can look after itself."
"It seems you have no great affection for your fellow man," Nemo observed tonelessly.
Talbot smiled grimly. "I avoid people, sir, for my own good—and for theirs."
Doctor Jekyll spoke, stepping closer to the desk. "All of us once felt that way, sir. Yet I do know something of your past. You were a highly accomplished man of research. Surely you remember what it felt like, to work and to achieve great things for the benefit of mankind."
The older man’s gaze had grown distant and reflective as Jekyll spoke.
"I do remember," he admitted at last. "But that was another life—a life fully my own. Believe me, sir, that as I am now, I would be more a hindrance than a help to you."
"And just how are you now?" Skinner inquired. Shifting his weight and folding his arms, he glanced round at the others. "Not to be doubting your word, Mina, but I’m starting to think there’s nothing ‘extraordinary’ about this gentleman, after all."
"‘Extraordinary’?" Talbot repeated, glancing at Mina.
Nemo inclined his head. "Madam Mina did suggest to us that you are… gifted."
"Gifted." A faint, hard laugh quivered in Talbot’s voice. "No. Not gifted, but cursed… and if you knew the secret, your blood would run cold in your veins."
"Some would say it is cold already," Nemo replied, with a trace of a smile.
Skinner shrugged broadly. "I say we call it a night, mates. This fellow’s not the equal of us. He’d prove it if he were."
"Not knowing you, it isn’t my place to say which of us is equal," Talbot said, with an undertone of steel in his voice, as he rose slowly from his chair to lean across the desk. "Judge that for yourself, if you must."
With a sudden, impossibly powerful lunge, he leaped over the desk—and in the heartbeat’s instant of that swift movement, the figure before them somehow ceased to be that of Sir John Talbot.
In his place stood a wolf the size of a horse, with claws outstretched and powerful, fanged jaws snapping.
The League members sprang back from the beast as it landed in a crouch upon the carpeted floor. Sawyer instinctively reached for his pistols, but he suddenly felt a hard squeeze on his arm; he turned to see Mina beside him, and she gave a shake of her head. No shooting.
What happened after that was a blur of action which the mind could only later decipher.
From the corner of his eye, Sawyer saw the great wolf lunge forward in attack—only to be met by the iron strength and lightning movements of Captain Nemo. A large hunting knife flashed in his hand, and then it was gone… its blade sunk to the hilt in the shoulder of the wolf.
With a howl of pain that was neither animal nor human, the wolf reared up, pitching Nemo aside with the sheer blunt impact of its body. Then, incredibly, it twisted its neck and seized the knife handle between its teeth. With a wrench, the weapon was dislodged and flung to the floor. The motion was swift and savage, yet somehow far too deliberate an act for a dumb beast.
The bloody knife had barely touched the carpet before the wolf suddenly whirled, turning its head to snap at something on its back—something unseen, which was clinging close to its neck and tearing out clumps of rough grey-brown fur.
Skinner! Sawyer thought in amazement, and at almost the same moment, he heard the voice of the invisible man shout something that sounded very much like "Bad dog".
Enraged, the wolf twisted and plunged, trying to shake its attacker from its back. Skinner’s sudden cry of surprise was proof that it had succeeded. Then the wolf turned and sniffed, and Sawyer realized the animal was honing in on Skinner’s scent—invisibility or no.
"Er—nice doggy," Skinner’s voice quavered, as the wolf took a menacing step forward.
Sawyer shot a swift glance to his side, searching for Mina’s guidance—but she was no longer beside him. At a loss for what to do and in fear for Skinner’s life, he threw her forbiddance of shooting to the wind, and reached for his pistols.
He never even saw the wolf turn; he only felt the sudden impact of its body, and found himself sprawled on his back, staring up into a maw full of razor-sharp teeth as the beast’s hot breath tickled his face. His guns were gone, flung far out of his reach.
The wolf made an oddly triumphant whuff sound. Yellow eyes glittering, jaws parted in a silent, grimacing grin, it placed a wickedly taloned paw over Sawyer’s throat…
…And then a massive fist smashed into the beast, physically hurling it across the room, where it struck the wall and disappeared behind the desk with a sickening thud.
Wincing, Sawyer looked up into the half-amused, half-disgusted smirk of Edward Hyde, and was not sure he was in any better of a position.
There was movement elsewhere in the room. Nemo was on his feet again. Skinner had replaced his coat, and was now settling his hat on his head. Mina had reappeared, wearing an expression that somehow managed to look both entertained and disappointed; she had clearly known from the outset what Talbot was capable of. Pity she didn’t see fit to share that information, Sawyer thought sourly.
"So he can turn into a bloody great dog," rumbled Hyde, almost absently—if roughly—picking Sawyer up and setting him on his unsteady feet. "Is that all?"
The head of the wolf abruptly appeared over the edge of the desk, and it rose up on its hind legs, resting its forepaws on the desktop. Even as it moved, it was changing—its massive body shrinking into itself, its fur receding, its features shifting. Within two heartbeats, the animal had given place once more to the short, spare figure of Talbot. He was unclothed, although half-hidden behind the desk, which he appeared to be leaning on for support.
Of the knife wound Nemo had delivered to the wolf’s shoulder, there was no trace upon the man save for the darkness of a bruise—and even this was fading as they watched.
In a slightly unsteady voice, Talbot responded to Hyde’s question. "I am a man of science… as is your own counterpart, Mister Hyde." He turned his head, casting Mina a grimly admiring look. "You did well not to introduce your ‘friends’. I might have been wiser to their tricks."
"You might have warned us about his," Skinner chimed in plaintively, taking his canister of greasepaint from his coat pocket.
Mina smiled primly at the invisible man. "I wasn’t about to betray Sir John’s confidence. Besides, I felt you needed an object lesson in taking my word—and in not taking things as they appear to be." She turned to Talbot. "I do apologize, John."
Talbot sank into his chair, picking at the shreds of his clothing which lay scattered upon the desk; he had burst right out of them when he changed shape. "Well, the lot of you owe me a new suit, that’s all." He glanced at Sawyer, who had retrieved and holstered his pistols, and was now edging closer. "I wouldn’t have hurt you, boy."
It rankled Tom to be called a "boy", and he gave Talbot a dark look, which in truth came off somewhat poutingly.
"You say it was science that made you this?" Hyde asked Talbot, with an interest that was understandable. Perhaps he thought he had found something not unlike himself and Doctor Jekyll.
Talbot shook his head slowly. "No. Even in this day and age, there is no science that can explain the curse of lycanthropy."
"Lyca-what?" Skinner queried.
"Werewolves," Nemo answered quietly, and bent to pick up his fallen knife, studying the streaks of blood upon it before he lifted his gaze to Talbot’s. "I understand now. The blade is steel—not silver."
Heaving a sigh, Talbot rested his head in his hands. "You explain it, Mina. I have the devil of a headache. I always do… after."
Mina’s gaze lingered briefly upon Talbot’s bowed head, and then she turned to her companions. "Many years ago, Sir John’s son Lawrence was attacked by a werewolf that came into their village among a band of gypsies. He became a werewolf himself." She paused, then continued in a softer voice. "Sir John destroyed Lawrence unwittingly… but not before the curse had been passed on once more."
Raising his head, Talbot stretched out his right arm and exposed a scar above his inner wrist, which bore the unnatural shape of a five-pointed star. Not all of those looking on understood its significance, but each was made solemn by the sight.
With a rare sympathy shining in her eyes, Mina regarded her friend for a moment more, then turned sharply to Skinner. "Go and find Sir John’s bedroom, and see if you can’t bring him a dressing-gown or something." It was not quite an order, but more than a request, spoken in a tone that brooked no argument. In any case, Skinner moved to obey readily enough.
Sawyer caught the thief’s sleeve as he passed, and murmured, "Don’t make me have to check your pockets, either."
With an indignant snort, Skinner went on his way. He was back a minute later with a red quilted dressing-gown, which Talbot accepted with muted gratitude and wrapped around himself.
"And now you know," he said, in a slightly bitter tone, as he looked up from tying the sash. "So tell me, for curiosity’s sake. Am I your equal? Do you think me worthy of your merry band of misfits?"
Nemo spoke for the League. "So worthy, sir, that I wish you would reconsider our invitation."
Talbot’s harsh façade broke slightly, and he slumped into his chair, a sad and weary smile crossing his lips. "Before you welcome me so eagerly, you might want to know something of my weaknesses as well as my… strengths."
The League was silent. Talbot sat up straighter, folding his hands upon the desk, and spoke in a somewhat dispirited tone of voice.
"By daylight, for the most part, I’m an ordinary man, although I have the keen senses of an animal. Between sunset and sunrise, as you’ve already witnessed, I have the power to take the shape of a wolf. When I do so voluntarily, I retain my human will—but for a few nights each month, when the moon is full, I have no control over the change. I become a wild beast, and I must be caged… or I would kill."
With the final words, Talbot had closed his eyes in silent pain. At last he opened them, looking keenly from one to another of the League members.
"I take it all back," Skinner mumbled, to no one in particular.
"After what we’ve just seen and heard," Sawyer put in, "I don’t understand why M didn’t try to ‘recruit’ Sir John here, along with the rest of you."
"As a matter of fact, I’m starting to believe someone may have tried," Talbot said, with a trace of his former self-possession. "Last month, I returned from a visit to Roumania, where I was researching. I came home to find that the house smelt of strangers—and with word of those scientific abductions filling the newspapers, I thought it wise to extend my little sojourn abroad. I only returned two days ago." Talbot looked sharply at Mina. "You can explain this?"
Mina inclined her head. "The man who brought us together must have come in search of you as well. He was the very villain responsible for those abductions, and for the recent attacks across Europe—all in order to lure us into his power." Her gaze shifted to Sawyer as she added quietly, "He’s received his justice, and we have made true the alliance he proposed in deception."
Talbot smiled ruefully. "In that case, I owe you an apology, Mina. I took this commitment of yours far more lightly than I should have, but it seems you truly have achieved something for the sake of the world… and I envy you that, very much."
"You could come along for the ride," Sawyer said coolly, hooking his thumbs into his belt.
"None of us have any illusions that the road we’ve chosen is an easy one." Captain Nemo stepped forward, extending his hand across the desk. "We each know what it is to have pain, Sir John—but together, we also have strength. We will gladly share your burden, if you will share your gifts."
Stepping to Nemo’s side, Mina placed her hand once more upon that of the Captain. First Skinner, and then Hyde, and finally Sawyer matched the gesture.
Talbot gazed down at the joined hands before him… and then, at last, he added his own.
Additional Notes:Sir John Talbot is taken from the 1941 horror film The Wolf Man. Played by Claude Rains, he was the father of the title character. His becoming a werewolf himself was my own twist, in a story titled "Sir John". This is actually a crossover with that tale (subject to "creative stretching" of the timeframe, since that film was set well into the twentieth century).
© 2004Jordanna Morgan