Feb 11 2014 5:00pm
Half-Off Ragnarok (Excerpt)
Check out Half-Off Ragnarok, the third book in Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series, available March 4th from DAW!
When Alex Price agreed to go to Ohio to oversee a basilisk breeding program and assist in the recovery of his psychic cousin, he didn’t expect people to start dropping dead. But bodies are cropping up at the zoo where he works, and his girlfriend—Shelby Tanner, an Australian zoologist with a fondness for big cats—is starting to get suspicious.
Worse yet, the bodies have all been turned partially to stone...
Alex tries to balance life, work, and the strong desire not to become a piece of garden statuary. Old friends and new are on the scene, and danger lurks around every corner...
“I’m not saying that it’s a horrible monster here to mercilessly devour you whole. I’m sure it would chew you first.”
A small survivalist compound
about an hour’s drive east of Portland, Oregon
Fifteen years ago
Alex knelt in front of his new terrarium, peering through the glass as he searched for a sign of his latest pet.
The problem was the piece of hollow log he’d placed in the middle of the tank. It had seemed like a great idea when he was putting the terrarium together, and it looked pretty boss surrounded by native ferns and nestled down in the spongy moss he’d used as a ground-cover. It was a totally natural environment, or as close as he was going to get on his limited budget. He would never have been able to afford a fifty-gallon tank if it hadn’t shown up at the swap meet.
The tank would still have been outside his price range if the glass hadn’t been cracked on one corner. That would have been a problem if he’d been planning to keep fish in it, but that had never been an option. Who wanted stupid old fish, anyway? All they did was swimaround and flip their fins at you. Reptiles and amphibians were where the real fun was. They didn’t care about cracked glass, as long as the tank was big enough. And that took him back to the hollow log, which was completely obscuring his new coatl. The little winged snake had slithered into the artificial shelter as soon he released it into the tank, and it hadn’t come out since.
If he squinted really hard, he could almost make out the edge of one wing. The coatl had it half-spread, preventing most of the light from filtering into the log. Defeated, Alex sank down onto his heels and glared at the carpet. “Stupid snake,” he muttered.
“Trouble in paradise?” asked a voice behind him.
“Mom!” Alex scrambled to his feet and spun to face his mother, cheeks burning. “I didn’t mean to leave the door open.”
“I can tell,” said Evelyn Price, surveying the chaos of her ten-year-old son’s bedroom. He was a surprisingly organized and scholarly boy. Some people probably assumed that made him easy to clean up after. Those people had never dealt with a smart boy who liked nature enough to bring it home with him. “What’s wrong?”
“I put my new coatl in his tank, but he won’t come out.” Alex sat down on the floor again as he glared at the glass. “I barely even got to see him before he hid.”
“Oh, is that all?” Evelyn walked over to kneel beside her son. “What do you know about coatls?”
“They’re winged snakes native to the Americas, and were named in honor of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl,” recited Alex, without hesitation. “Most known species are nonvenomous and primarily found in forested areas.”
“Uh-huh. And they’re cold-blooded, right?”
“Did you turn on the heat lamp?”
Alex’s eyes widened for a moment before he doveunder the table that held his terrarium and started fumbling for the cord. Once he found it, he shoved the pluginto the wall outlet. Then he crawled back out from under the table and got to his feet, reaching over to flip the switch on the side of the heat lamp. Red light bathed half the tank.
Evelyn stayed on her knees, gesturing for her son to join her. He settled against her side, and she put her arm around his waist. Together, they watched as the bright green little snake with the feathery, olive-colored lumps on its back slithered hesitantly from beneath the log, tongue flicking out to taste the air. It slithered onto the rock directly beneath the light, where it curled in a loose half-circle. Then, almost as an afterthought, it opened its wings, revealing the brilliant gold-and-blue flight feathers it had been concealing while it was in motion.
“It’s beautiful,” breathed Alex.
“Yes,” agreed Evelyn. “It is.”
“If you find something you truly love, stick with it. There’s nothing else in this world that will make you half as happy. There’s nothing else that will make you half as miserable, either, but you can’t have one without the other.”
An unnamed stretch of marshland
near Columbus, Ohio
The thick black mud sucked at my boots as I walked, constantly threatening to send me face-first to the murky ground. If I fell, my choices would be “land in brackish water harboring God-only-knows what” or “land in mud harboring God-only-knows what, with the bonus of mud being harder to wash out of your hair.” If I was really lucky, I might get a third option and find some quicksand to land in. At least that would be a new disgusting swamp experience, instead of a disgusting swamp experience I’d already had several times that day.
Mosquitoes hummed around my head, only somewhat deterred by the rosemary oil covering my clothes and skin. I smelled like one of Mom’s casseroles. Commercial mosquito repellent might have been more effective—and it definitely wouldn’t have made me ashungry—but it could have frightened away my actual quarry. Once again, I was sacrificing comfort for science. Science is my passion, but sometimes…
Sometimes science sucks.
I was dwelling on that pleasantly irritated thought when my left foot snagged on a tree root and I pitched forward into the swamp. I managed to catch myself on one knee, but both hands landed in a deep puddle, sending a wave of brackish water up to soak my shirt. My pack shifted on my back, the collection jars inside rattling. I bit back several expletives, each worse than the last.
There are times when I envy my sisters. Verity specializes in urban cryptids, who tend to wear shoes and have running water. Antimony doesn’t specialize in anything yet, unless you count pit traps, explosives, and getting on my last nerve as professional callings. Neither of them finds themselves in swamps on a regular basis.
A loud flapping noise, followed by a thump, announced the arrival of a creature the size of a large corgi. It croaked, somehow managing to make it sound like laughter.
“Thanks, Crow. You’re always such a ray of sunshine.” I turned. My Church Griffin, Crow, was sitting on one of the few nearby patches of solid ground, looking self-satisfied. His long, extravagantly fluffy tail was wrapped around his feet, keeping it well away from the mud. He croaked again when he saw me looking, now sounding incredibly self-satisfied. “Yes, yes, hello to you, too. Did you find the frickens?”
Crow flicked his tail up, displaying the feathered frog clutched in one of his taloned forefeet. One of his claws was pressed through the tiny amphibian’s skull. He had probably pierced the poor thing’s brain, killing it instantly.
I pushed myself upright. “Give,” I commanded, holding out a muddy hand.
Crow churred sulkily.
“I don’t care if you’re the one who caught it. I knowyou ate at least two before you deigned to bring one to me. Now give.”
Still looking sulky, Crow shook the fricken off his claw. It landed in the mud with a splat. Then he launched himself into the air, splashing swamp water in my face in the process. I swear he was laughing as he flew off into the swamp.
“Real mature,” I muttered.
Crow was only acting according to his nature, but that didn’t make him any less annoying. As the Church Griffin is a breed of miniature griffin that basically combines the raven with the Maine Coon cat, “acting according to his nature” included playing in the water, mercilessly hunting and killing anything smaller than he was, and generally being a brat. There are people who say that Church Griffins like Crow combine the best parts of the creatures they resemble. And then there are the people who’ve actually lived with a Church Griffin.
(Crow got his name from my youngest sister, Antimony. I originally called him “Poe,” as in “Edgar Allen.” Antimony took one look at him and demanded to know how I could be so uncreative as to name a black-feathered griffin “Crow.” It annoyed me enough that I defended my name choice without pausing to consider the fact that it wasn’t my name choice, and it stuck. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure that was her intention all along. My baby sister is devious enough to make your average bogeyman seem like an open book.)
The fricken hadn’t been dead for long; its eyes were barely clouded over, and rigor hadn’t started setting in yet. I scooped it gently into my hand, studying its plumage. It was a common swamp fricken, one of the three varieties normally found in the marshes and wetlands of Ohio. Shrugging off my pack, I dug out a collection jar. Once I got the fricken back to my lab, I could test its skin and feathers for signs of fungal infection.
Exciting? Not necessarily. Essential? Absolutely. Again, science is a cruel mistress.
Something in the unexplored swath of swamp in front of me shrieked. It was a high, shrill sound, like razor blades running across steel. My head snapped up as my hands automatically finished the process of sealing the collection jar and stuffing it into my pack. The shriek was not repeated. I clambered to my feet, watching the trees for signs of movement. When several seconds passed without anything charging out and trying to eat me, I tightened the straps on my pack and started to walk toward the scraggly tree line.
I was about halfway there when someone screamed. I swore under my breath and sped up. That would teach me to complain about a lack of excitement.
My name is Alexander Price—Alex to my friends, family, and people who want to distinguish me from my great-grandfather, Alexander Healy, who was one of the premiere cryptozoologists of his time. (That’s not as impressive as it sounds. There weren’t many cryptozoologists in his time. He was still a pretty cool guy.) I voluntarily chose a profession where running toward screaming is considered a good idea. It is entirely possible that there is something wrong with me. Then again, it’s equally possible that the same thing is wrong with my entire family. We breed for it.
Crow flew up from behind and sailed past me, vanishing into the trees. His black feathers and banded brown-on-brown tabby fur granted him perfect camouflage in this sort of environment. That was good; it reduced the odds of his being eaten by whatever was in the wood.
Being the son of human parents, I don’t have any such natural defenses, so I have to make do with artificial ones. I drew the tranquilizer gun from my belt and slowed down slightly, choosing caution over certain death as I ran down a mental list of things that were likely to be wandering around the swamps of Ohio and shrieking.
Then I rounded the edge of the stand of trees, and saw the eighteen-foot-long reptilian creature looming overmy assistant, who was scrambling backward as fast as traction and the mucky ground allowed. The creature’s head was flat and spade-shaped. It looked like an over-sized, armor-plated skink with attenuated limbs sprouting from a body that had somehow been stretched beyond all reason. Spikes stood up in a vicious-looking line along its back, their razor edges gleaming in the light that filtered through the trees.
“Well, shit,” I said. “Lindworm.” Lindworms are predatory, and they’ll eat anything they can catch. That didn’t mean anything good for my assistant. Or for me, if we didn’t handle this correctly.
I put two fingers in my mouth—regretting it pretty much immediately, when I got a taste of the muck all over me—and whistled. The lindworm whipped its head around, mouth opening as it shrieked again. Dee took advantage of its distraction to keep scrambling backward, working to get herself out of strike range. She’s not a herpetologist, and she’s not certified to handle any of the venomous snakes at the Columbus Zoo, but if there’s one thing Dee knows, it’s reptile strike zones.
“Took you long enough!” she shouted. She didn’t look surprised to see me. Then again, she knew me well enough to know that the sound of screams would attract me like the sound of a can opener attracts Crow.
I pulled my fingers out of my mouth, calling, “Crow! Harass!” before answering her: “I was busy!” And I was going to need something bigger than my tranquilizer gun. This was a mature lindworm, and it wasn’t going down for anything less than enough diazepam to kill an elephant. Maybe not even then.
Crow flashed out of the trees like a feathered arrow, aiming for the lindworm’s head. His talons glanced off the scales of its cheek. The lindworm turned its attention on Crow, shrieking again, and snapped at him. Crow evaded easily, going into the distinctive series of twists, feints, and sneak attacks that made up his harrying pattern. Usually, it’s crows and ravens harrying raptors. AChurch Griffin harrying a lindworm was only slightly stranger.
“I didn’t think lindworms were native to this part of Ohio,” I said, picking my way through the mud toward Dee. “I’m not sure I’ve got anything on me that can put it under.”
“You know how I always say you need to be more about preserving us, and less about preserving the local wildlife?” demanded Dee, scowling at me through the lenses of her specially polarized glasses. The glass was almost clear, with just the faintest touch of yellow hinting that there might be something strange about it.
“This is one of those times!”
Crow squawked as the lindworm managed to catchone of his tail feathers. He pulled himself free and resumed harrying, but Dee was right; this wasn’t going to work forever. I shrugged off my backpack and put it down on the mud, crouching to begin rummaging through its contents.
“All right, this is what we’re going to do,” I said. “Dee, when I give the word, you’re going to take off your protective gear.”
“Trust me, get in front of me, and do as I say.”
She gave me a flat look. “You’re going to get yourselfkilled.”
“Not if you know how to listen.” I straightened up, thevial of ketamine in my hand. “Get in front of me.”
Dee sighed and moved into position, crouching in front of me like we were about to play a game of touchfootball with the giant reptile. In a way, we were. Crow was still harrying the lindworm, but he was slowing down; Church Griffins are more like cats than ravens in many ways, including stamina. He was doinghis best. He couldn’t have kept that up much longer. It was a good thing he didn’t have to. I whistled againbefore shouting, “Crow! Home!”
Crow doesn’t know many commands, and he doesn’t reliably listen to any of them (except for maybe “dinner”), but this was one he both recognized and was glad to obey. He whipped around and flew back toward me, landing heavily on my shoulder. I clamped my free hand down over his eyes, an action that he only protested weakly. There wasn’t time to be gentler. The lindworm was already turning, mouth open, shrieking furiously.
Cool as a cucumber, my assistant reached up, removing her wig with one hand and her glasses with the other. The snakes growing from her scalp in place of hair rose, hissing, as her eyes locked onto the lindworm’s. It stopped mid-charge, looking dazed. Then, with an unceremonious “thud,” it toppled over to the side.
“Glasses, please, Dee,” I said. The snakes at the back of her head were looking at me, their tongues scenting the air. I offered them a pleasant smile. The snakes that top the heads of Pliny’s gorgons are venomous, and it never hurts to stay on their good side.
If the snakes cared that they were being smiled at, they didn’t show it. “You know, I could have stunned it without you here,” Dee said, putting her glasses back on. She turned to frown at me, her wig still held loosely in one hand. “You’re the one who asked me not to go and paralyze anything we found in the swamp.”
I relaxed as soon as Dee’s eyes were safely covered. Only the human-seeming eyes of a Pliny’s gorgon carry a paralytic. The snakes atop their heads can’t petrify so much as a mouse, although the gorgon’s gaze seems to work better when their snakes are exposed. It’s just one more quirk in the incomprehensible biology of the gorgon.
“No, I asked you not to paralyze anything I hadn’t asked you to paralyze. There’s a difference.” I took my hand off Crow’s head. He launched himself from my shoulder and flew to the nearest tree. Perching on a low branch, he began to preen his feathers, churring sulkilythe whole time. I ignored him as I walked over and knelt beside the unconscious lindworm. “Reptiles are delicate. I’d rather not kill anything today that we don’t have to.”
“So why was it okay for me to paralyze the—what did you call this thing?”
“It’s a lindworm, and it was okay for you to paralyze it because very little kills a lindworm. Seriously. The only reliable method of killing them that we have on record is decapitation. Even then, there are some pretty plausible reports of lindworm heads surviving without their bodies for up to a week before they expired, presumably of thirst.” I pried the lindworm’s mouth open. Filling a syringe with ketamine, I injected the sedative into the lining of its mouth. “If a Pliny’s gorgon could kill a lindworm, I’d know.”
“Oh.” Dee walked over to join me, squinting at the lindworm. “It’s big.”
“It’s male. The female would be over twenty feet, and have slightly more developed hind limbs. She uses them to dig the den she and her mate will hibernate in over the winter. Get my bag, will you? I want to take some measurements on this fellow before he wakes up.”
Dee lifted one artfully drawn-on eyebrow. “You mean we’re not leaving right now?”
“Of course not.” I beamed up at her. “This is the fun part of science.”
Between Dee’s paralytic stare and my tranquilizer, the lindworm stayed sedated long enough for me to get length, estimated weight, some scales, and a blood sample. I slipped a radio tag onto one of its hind legs. If it started eating people, we’d be able to find it and make it stop. If it stayed in the swamps, doing what nature intended it to do, we weren’t going to interfere. Lindworms may be unpleasant creatures to share a swamp with, but their presence keeps some even nastier things away. It’s a fair trade.
Dee seemed to have decided that the presence of a giant snakelike cryptid made her hair less outré, because she didn’t put her wig back on while she wrote down the lindworm’s measurements. Crow stayed in the trees, wings drooping as he watched suspiciously. He clearly expected the lindworm to get back up at any moment, and I couldn’t blame him. Heck, I half expected the lindworm to get back up, and I was the one who’d sedated it.
“So if these things aren’t native to Ohio, where did this guy come from?” asked Dee.
“That’s the thing. They might be native to Ohio. I’m not sure this is a species of lindworm that we’ve seen before. The first recorded species were in Europe— Sweden and the United Kingdom, mostly—but we’ve found them all over.” I capped my pen and tucked it, and my notebook, back into my bag. “Maybe we just made cryptozoological history.”
“Be still my heart,” said Dee dryly. Her hair hissed agreement.
“Lindworms are a sign of a healthy ecosystem,” I said, straightening. “Now let’s get out of here before the healthy ecosystem eats us. I think I have enough specimens for today.”
Dee rolled her eyes. “Sure thing, boss.”
Side by side, with Crow flying behind us, we squelched our way through the swamp toward the distant road, leaving the lindworm to peacefully sleep off the rest of the ketamine.
Just another day at the office.
Half-Off Ragnarok © Seanan McGuire, 2014