Half-Off Ragnarok (InCryptid)By: Seanan McGuire
Love and ice worms.
The scientific study of reptiles.
1. The scientific study of reptiles and reptile-like cryptids.
2. A specialized branch of cryptozoology.
3. Not a good way to live a long and healthy life.
“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 groundcover. 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 swim around 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 dove under the table that held his terrarium and started fumbling for the cord. Once he found it, he shoved the plug into 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 as hungry—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 know you 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.