"The only thing more fun than an October Daye book is an InCryptid book." —Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Sookie Stackhouse series
Endangered, adjective: Threatended with extinction or immidiate harm.
Australia, noun: A good place to become endangered.
Alexander Price has survived gorgons, basilisks, and his own family—no small feat, considering that his family includes two telepaths, a reanimated corpse, and a colony of talking, pantheistic mice.
Still, he’s starting to feel like he’s got the hang of things…at least until his girlfriend, Shelby Tanner, shows up, asking pointed questions about werewolves and the state of his passport. From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Australia, a continent filled with new challenges, new dangers, and yes, rival cryptozoologists who don’t like their “visiting expert” very much.
Australia is a cryptozoologist’s dream, filled with unique species and unique challenges. Unfortunately, it’s also filled with Shelby’s family, who aren’t delighted by the length of her stay in America. And then there are the werewolves to consider: infected killing machines who would like nothing more than to claim the continent as their own. The continent which currently includes Alex.
Survival is hard enough when you’re on familiar ground. Alex Price is very far from home, but there’s one thing he knows for sure: he’s not going down without a fight.
About the Author
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1. Threatened with extinction or immediate harm.
1. The world’s smallest continent.
2. Home of some of the most unique and varied animal life known to mainstream science.
3. A good place to become endangered.
“Adversity doesn’t exist to make us stronger. Adversity exists because this world is a damn hard place to live. Prove that you’re better than the things it throws at you. Live.”
A privately owned family farm near Vancouver, Canada
Seven years ago
ALEX EASED HIMSELF AROUND the open stable door, his heart beating so hard that it felt like it was going to break in two. The sweat dripping from his palms was making it hard to keep his hand positioned correctly on the grip of his pistol. Everything was silent. His parents and Aunt Jane were inside the house, looking for signs that could possibly lead them to the werewolf’s hiding place. Elsie was outside, watching the road to see if anyone else was inclined to come looking. The farm was isolated enough that the screams wouldn’t have carried very far—but they had carried far enough for one of the local Sasquatches to notice.
This was the area’s second werewolf outbreak in a little under a month. The first had been handled by amateur monster hunters who didn’t finish the job. When the werewolves came back, the locals got frightened for their own safety, and called in the closest thing they could find to professionals: the Prices.
Alex and Elsie wouldn’t even have been there if Uncle Mike had been available. Alex had turned nineteen two months before, making him officially old enough for dangerous field assignments. Elsie was still eighteen. The fact that she had been allowed to come along had been the cause of much shouting at home when Alex’s sixteen-year-old little sister, Verity, had learned that the rules weren’t going to bend far enough to let her join the party. As loud as she could yell, she should have been a singer, not a dancer.
As he inched farther into the dark barn, Alex found himself wishing their ages had been reversed. Verity wouldn’t have enjoyed the current situation any more than he did, he was sure, but at least she’d wanted to be there. He’d wanted to stay home with his books and his terrariums and keep studying for next week’s midterms. Even if most of his research was going to be done under false identities, he needed to have a real degree to have any credibility within the cryptozoological community.
And none of that was going to matter if he wound up as werewolf chow. He took a deep, shaky breath, forcing his hands to stop shaking, and swung around the corner into the main part of the stable.
There were still bloodstains on the walls from the first outbreak. Alex looked at them and swallowed hard. Lycanthropy-w was a relative of rabies. It was primarily blood borne, but it couldn’t spread through dry contact. He’d need to lick the walls to be in danger, and even then, the odds of infection were so low as to be nonexistent. He knew that, just like he knew that he’d been sent to search the stables because there was less of a chance he’d run into danger out here. He still gave the first of the stains a wide berth, and made a mental note to tell his father that they needed to put a call out for Aunt Mary. She could come and scan the ghost side of things to make sure the dead horses weren’t haunting the place.
Everyone had their own set of skills and talents to bring to the table. Alex just wasn’t sure that his included this particular kind of fieldwork.
Something rustled at the back of an open stall. Alex held his breath, counting to five as he listened. The sound didn’t repeat, and he inched forward, scanning all the while for movement. It was probably a raccoon, or a barn cat, or something else native to the farm. Why would a werewolf have come out to the stables when there was so much untouched meat strewn around the house? The family that had owned this farm was dead, all of them, their throats ripped out and their blood left to pool on the floor. Werewolves were territorial, and they didn’t like to be exposed. The creature had most likely made its den somewhere inside the house—an attic, a basement, an overlooked room.
Unless it considered the stable its territory. As Alex moved toward the open stall the creature, which had been huddled down in the straw, rose on strong, twisted legs that were somewhere between equine and lupine, yet still somehow managed to grant it a bipedal stance. Alex froze, feeling like his feet were suddenly locked to the floor. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t move.
The werewolf had no such restrictions. It stalked toward him, snapping and snarling at the air. Its mouth was a crowded jumble of herbivore and carnivore teeth, and its half-hoven claws were splayed as wide as its warping bone structure would allow.
The claws were what finally did it. Alex’s paralysis broke, and he turned and ran, heading for the rear of the stable as fast as his legs could carry him. He could hear the werewolf crashing along behind him, but as he had hoped, the creature’s twisted skeletal structure was slowing it down, preventing it from matching his speed. No human could outrun a horse over a short distance, or a wolf for that matter. This thing was a combination of the two, along with the unique bone structure granted to its interstitial form by the lycanthropy-w virus. It had to be a newish werewolf. If it had been more accustomed to its new reality, it would have changed forms and gone for him as either a wolf or a horse by now, not this horrifying combination of the two.
He was almost to cover. He dared a glance over his shoulder and saw the werewolf less than eight feet behind, froth dripping from its jaws, eyes red with burst capillaries. Adrenaline lanced through his veins, propelling him the rest of the way to the back wall, where he spun around, whipping himself behind a pile of hay bales, and opened fire.
His pistol was small: it held only six bullets, but all of them were silver-coated and treated with aconite. The werewolf screamed when the first one hit it. It wasn’t a sound Alex had ever heard before, and it wasn’t a sound he ever wanted to hear again. Like everything else about the creature, that scream was a hybridized horror, neither wolf nor horse, and somehow wrong in a way he couldn’t put into words. It made his blood run cold and his teeth ache, and so he kept firing, again and again, until the hammer clicked on an empty chamber and the werewolf was sprawled on the stable floor, no longer moving.
Its anatomy was so twisted that it was impossible to tell whether or not the thing was dead, and Alex had seen too many horror movies to risk walking over to check. That was the sort of decision that got people gutted or, worse, infected. He sank slowly to the floor, his useless weapon dangling from his fingers, and stared at the unmoving bulk of the creature. He knew that he should run, but he couldn’t get his legs to work. So he just sat there.
He was still sitting there, crying silently, when his family came running to investigate the gunshots. He didn’t know what else to do.
“Adventure is a tricky beast that will sneak up on you when you least expect it, laying ambushes and forcing you down avenues that you would never have chosen to walk on your own. After a certain point, it’s better just to go along with it. You do see the most interesting things that way.”
An unnamed stretch of marshland near Columbus, Ohio
EARLY FALL HAD TURNED the leaves on the trees around us into a flaming corona of red, gold, and pale brown. The few remaining patches of green looked almost out of place: their season was over, and they no longer belonged here. Crow seemed to share my feelings. The black-feathered Church Griffin was flying from tree to tree, crashing through the green patches like a self-aiming arrow and sending explosions of foliage to the ground. He cawed with delight every time he slammed into a branch. I had long since given up on worrying about him injuring himself; his head was incredibly hard, and he rarely collided with anything he wasn’t aiming to hit. Of the two of us, he was much less likely to be injured than I was.
“You know, I can stay home if I want to see scrubland and dead leaves,” said Dee. She was struggling to match my trail through the patchy marsh, hampered by her sensible pumps, which weren’t so sensible in her current environment. I was aiming my steps expertly for the patches of solid ground between the puddles and the mud flats. Despite having grown up in the forest not far from here, Dee wasn’t very practiced at walking in swamps. That either showed a great failing or a great advantage in her upbringing.
“Yes, but can you see the screaming yams as they prepare to migrate to land that’s less likely to freeze solid enough to damage their roots?” I kept walking. Dee, on the other hand, stopped dead.
I turned around after a few feet, beaming a sunny smile in her direction. Dee, her eyes narrowed with suspicion behind the smoked yellow lenses of her glasses, did not match the expression.
“What,” she said.
“I told you we were coming out here to witness a migration,” I said.
“Yes, Alex. You said ‘a migration.’ You know what migrates? Things with the capacity for independent movement. You know what doesn’t migrate? Yams.” Dee shook her head hard enough that her wig—a sleek blonde beehive—slipped a little. “Yams are plants. I realize there’s some hazing involved in doing this job. I’ve managed to resign myself to the fact that you’re a mammal and hence by definition, insane. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to convince me that we’re out here looking for yams that scream.”
“And see, that right there is how your colony has been able to exist for decades without discovering the screaming yam for yourselves.” I turned back around and resumed my forward trek. Dee was annoyed enough that she would follow, if only so she didn’t have to stop sniping at me about the yams she was so sure didn’t actually exist. “Anyone who saw them would have kept it to themselves for fear of getting exactly this reaction.”
“Yes, because screaming yams don’t exist,” said Dee, catching up to me. “I don’t know what human parents teach their children, but gorgon parents like to stick to things that are real.”
“Medusa was real,” said Dee. There was a dangerous note in her voice, accompanied by a low hiss from inside her wig.
“Okay, bad example.” It’s never a good idea to drag people’s gods into casual conversation. Medusa was the ur-Gorgon, the one without whom her two equally divine sisters would never—in gorgon cosmology—have been uplifted and allowed to shape their own children from snakes and clay. So maybe she wasn’t a good thing to call fictional. “Look, will you just stick with me and try to keep an open mind?”
Dee rolled her eyes. “You’re paying me double-time for this. Don’t forget to file the paperwork with zoo HR.”
“I wouldn’t,” I said, doing my best to look faintly hurt. “I keep my promises.”
Technically, Dee was my administrative assistant at the West Columbus Zoo, where I was stationed as a visiting researcher from California. I’m not from California, and the zoo had no idea what I was really researching, but I provided enough value that I didn’t feel bad about deceiving them. The denizens of their reptile house had never been healthier, and we hadn’t fed anyone to the alligator snapping turtle in almost a year. I was happy about that. The alligator snapping turtle, maybe not so much.
Crow flashed by overhead with a squirrel clutched in his talons, cawing triumphantly as he passed. I sighed. Church Griffins are basically what you get when Nature decides to Frankenstein a Maine Coon and a raven into one endless source of mischief. Crow was about the size of a corgi, with the predatory appetites of a cat that had somehow been equipped with functional wings. I kept him inside most of the time, both to prevent him from being discovered by people who wouldn’t know what to do with a Church Griffin, and to protect the neighborhood birds, squirrels, frickens, and smaller dogs.
“He’s going to spread that thing’s guts through a mile of treetops,” observed Dee mildly.
“At least it means I won’t have to feed him tonight. Come on: this way looks promising.” Our hike had brought us to one of the more solid patches of marsh. The ground grew firmer under our feet as we continued, finally becoming rich, deep, subriparian loam. A small ring of frilly green plants poked up out of the dirt, each about three inches high. They stood out vividly against the autumnal background. I grinned. “So Dee, you were telling me screaming yams don’t exist.”
“Because they don’t.”
“Says the woman with snakes for hair. Watch and remember how much you have left to learn.” I stooped, picked up a rock, and lobbed it gently underhand into the middle of the circle. It hit with a soft thump.
For several seconds, nothing happened. Then the earth exploded as a dozen screaming yams uprooted themselves and began hopping wildly around, their fibrous mouths gaping open, their characteristic screams echoing through the marsh. They had no legs, and propelled themselves like tiny pogo sticks, their threadlike root systems whipping in the breeze generated by their forward motion.
After hopping several times around the clearing, they gathered on another patch of clear ground and burrowed back down into the earth with surprising speed, becoming a circle of standing leaves once again.
“Screaming yams,” I said. “If it were spring or summer, they’d have run away from us, but they’re getting ready to hibernate, so they’re counting on confusion to drive us away.”
“Works for me,” said Dee faintly.
Mapient, rodentlike cryptids which present as near-idenams weren’t a normal part of my work environment, they were a great bonus. After three years in Ohio, I was still discovering things about the state and its ecology that could surprise and delight me. That was good, since I’d never expected or planned to stay this long. When I had first come to the West Columbus Zoo to oversee the basilisk breeding program established by my predecessor in the back room of the reptile house—without the knowledge of the zoo administration, of course, since basilisks supposedly didn’t exist—I had thought I’d be there for maybe six months. A year, tops.
That hadn’t exactly worked out as planned. Since my arrival, I had opened diplomatic relations with the local gorgon enclave, nearly been turned to stone, cataloged the native fricken species, nearly been eaten by a lindworm, fed two people to the zoo’s alligator snapping turtle, nearly been killed by a Pliny’s gorgon/Greater gorgon hybrid, and helped my grandparents nurse my cousin Sarah back to something resembling health after she managed to telepathically injure herself saving my sister Verity’s life.
What was sad was that all of this was basically within my job description. I’m a cryptozoologist. As long as I’m working with things that science says don’t exist (including my cousin Sarah), I’m fulfilling my mandate, and serving the cryptid community.
Fortunately for me, there are a lot of ways to serve the cryptid community. Verity is basically a cryptid social worker, with a side order of kicking people’s teeth in when they refuse to acknowledge that “being a good neighbor” doesn’t mean eating the neighbors. My mother is a cryptid health professional, and my father is a chronicler and general historian. (My youngest sister, Antimony, is still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. For the moment, it mostly seems to be roller derby, the occasional monster hunting job, and getting pissed at our parents.) I’m a life scientist. My contributions are sometimes medical—when you’re working with a community that doesn’t exist in the eyes of the government, you don’t need to have gone to medical school as much as you need a solid understanding of nonhuman anatomy—but more often strictly scientific. If you need a basilisk bred or a stone spider relocated, I’m your man. And for the moment, I was the man in Ohio.
Dee was uncharacteristically quiet during the drive back to the zoo, sitting in my front passenger seat with her arms crossed and her eyes fixed on the road. If not for the low, constant hissing of the snakes concealed inside her wig, I would have wondered whether she’d figured out a way to turn herself to stone. (Dee is a Pliny’s gorgon, capable of petrifaction under the right circumstances. They’re immune to their own stony gaze, of course, but the idea of a gorgon looking in their rearview mirror and turning themselves into a statue was amusing enough to be worth considering.)
“Something up?” I asked as I turned off the freeway. Crow churred contentedly from the backseat, his belly full of squirrel and his feathers full of shredded leaves. Since both cats and birds love to self-groom, he was going to have a very satisfying afternoon ahead of him.
“I didn’t think they were real.” Dee’s voice was flat, dull, like she was answering a question during a bad performance review. “You told me they were real, and I thought you were messing with me.”
“Hey, it’s okay. No one knows everything until they learn about it. That’s the whole point of learning things, isn’t it? We go out, we learn, we know more. It’s cool.” I flashed what I hoped would come across as an encouraging smile. “Screaming yams are one of the more outré offerings nature has for us around here. Mobile vegetation is a lot less common than it used to be. It’s not even a Covenant thing, for once—they didn’t hunt the screaming yams into near-extinction, people just paved most of the migration routes. So you have to really know what you’re looking for.”
“I’ve lived here my whole life, Alex,” Dee said. The dullness dropped away, replaced by frustration. “My brother and I grew up on a farm. We should know about every kind of edible plant that grows in this state. We should be cultivating beds of those things if they’re as tasty as you say they are. We could be helping them to reestablish a viable population and filling our tables at the same time, and instead we’ve been rotating our crops and planting things that aren’t even native. We should have known. I should have known.”
“Huh.” I hadn’t considered the possible applications the gorgon community would have for screaming yams. “They’re endangered, but I know of five colonies currently growing in the local forests and marshes. We could transplant one of those to a dedicated bed once the ground freezes. They’ll seed at a rate of about six roots a year, and most of those don’t reach maturity, due to predation from the local animals. If you were willing to commit to only eating half the seedlings, and keeping the rest as, heh, ‘root stock,’ or releasing them back into the wild . . .”
“I’ll consult with our garden planners, but we should be able to do that,” said Dee. “You’ll help me find good, strong roots for the farm?”
“Yeah. I think everyone benefits from that.” Not the yams that would be eaten, not on a micro level, but on a macro level? The arrangement would allow more screaming yams to grow to maturity, and might even give them a chance at surviving for another hundred years. It was a gamble worth taking.
I pulled into my reserved parking space near the zoo gates and stopped the car. “You want to go on ahead?” I asked. “I need to get Crow out of the backseat, and that might take a while.”
Dee laughed. “See you at the reptile house,” she said. After a quick glance in the mirror to confirm that her wig was firmly seated, she was out of the car and heading for the zoo gates with the quick, efficient steps of a woman who had no time for whatever bullshit the guard at the gate might decide to throw her way. She didn’t look back. That was for the best. Our midday “field trips” were tolerated by the administration as long as they were connected to my research, but that tolerance would probably drop off dramatically if either one of us started giving off signs that we were secretly having an affair.
Not that we were secretly having an affair. Dee was happily married to the doctor of the local gorgon community, an imposing fellow named Frank, and I was equally happy in my relationship with the other visiting researcher attached to the West Columbus Zoo: Dr. Shelby Tanner, big cat specialist and potentially the most dangerous thing ever produced by the great continent of Australia.
I twisted in my seat, looking at Crow. “We’re here,” I said. “Office, Crow. Office. Can you do that?”
Crow continued preening his left wing, ignoring me.
I sighed. Chasing my griffin around the zoo grounds while I tried to keep him from being seen by anyone wasn’t my idea of a good time. At the same time, I couldn’t leave him in the car. Cryptid or not, he’d be killed if the car got too hot, just like a normal dog or cat—and even if that didn’t happen, I didn’t feel like spending the evening cleaning griffin crap out of the upholstery.
“Office,” I said. “Treats.”
Crow lifted his head.
“Yeah, I thought that would get your attention. Go straight there, and you can have two liver cubes.” I got out of the car and opened the rear driver’s-side door. Crow took off like a shot, his vast black wings straining at first to gain altitude, and then leveling off into a glide. Anyone who happened to see him pass overhead would probably take him for a raven, their minds automatically editing out the long plume of his tail and mammalian shape of his lower body in the interests of not seeing something that they knew couldn’t possibly exist.
Sometimes it’s convenient to have a pet that no one believes in. I’d never be allowed to bring a cat to work every day, but since Crow “isn’t real,” no one’s ever reported him to the zoo management. Other times, I think it would be nice to stop hiding him from the world. Miniature griffins could be the next big trend in exotic pets.
Or maybe not. They did require a lot of special care.
The guard at the gate was new, and I didn’t remember his name. He checked my credentials, said, “Welcome back, Dr. Preston,” and waved me through. I smiled amiably and stepped inside, closing my eyes for a moment in regret. The old guard, Lloyd, had been a friendly man who’d always seemed happy to see me. Unfortunately, he’d also been a homicidal gorgon hybrid who’d resented humanity for shutting him out; he’d stabbed Shelby and tried to kill us both before I shot him dead in the forest near the gorgon community.
Still, he’d been a nice old man for a long time before that happened, and I missed him. Logic and loss aren’t always great friends. Sometimes we mourn for the things that hurt us. Sometimes, that’s okay.
School groups and small clusters of excited zoo goers clogged the paths between the entrance and the reptile house, all of them trying to get in one last sighting of our shy snow leopard or our playful young male orangutan before the weather turned bad and the zoo became a much less appealing destination. Ohio winters weren’t exactly conducive to open-air pathways and natural enclosures. Some of the animals enjoyed the snow. Others would spend the whole winter inside, glaring at anyone who dared to open a door and let the wind in. I wove my way around the people, smiling politely when they cast curious glances at my muddy boots and zoo ID, until my destination came into view: the low round shape of the reptile house. I sped up. Almost home.
Stepping into the reptile house was like stepping back in time, into a world where the rich, dark smell of snakes and lizards dominated the atmosphere. The overhead lights were low, allowing the individual enclosures to shine just a little brighter. Crunchy, our big alligator snapping turtle, floated in his tank directly in front of the door, like a promise of better things to come or a warning about not pissing off the residents.
There were a few people inside as well as outside, but most of the zoo’s visitors were eschewing the warm confines of the reptile house until later in the day, when the chill would drive them into any enclosed exhibits they could find, and getting a good position in front of our cobra enclosure would prove virtually impossible. I waved to Dee, who was wiping smears off the front of the rattlesnake enclosure, as I passed.
“You have company,” she said.
I paused. “Good company?”
“You could say that.” She grinned. I walked a little faster.
My office would normally have been used for the director of the reptile house. The zoo didn’t have one of those right now: instead, it had me, and since I was serving the same basic function, I got to use the space. The door was unlocked. I opened it cautiously, hoping that Dee’s definition of “good company” matched up with mine.
A blonde woman in zoo-issue khakis was sitting on the edge of my desk, her slouch hat pushed back on her head and her long, tanned legs crossed at the knee, so that one hiking boot-clad foot thumped against the desk’s edge. She was leaning back on one hand and scritching Crow on the back of the neck with the other. My temperamental pet’s eyes were half closed, and he was making small chirping noises in his contentment. As for the woman, she was smiling indulgently, like she’d known all along that all she had to do was show up and I would appear.
I stepped into the office and shut the door.
“Hello, Price boy,” said Shelby Tanner, her Australian accent pronounced in the way that meant she was about to ask me for something. I didn’t mind. Most of the things Shelby asked me for were okay by me. “You know much about werewolves?”
Well. That wasn’t what I’d been expecting.
“We try to avoid words like ‘monster’ when we can. They tend to prejudice people. And yet, sometimes, ‘monster’ is the only word that fits.”
The reptile house of Ohio’s West Columbus Zoo, visiting researcher’s office
“HELLO, SHELBY.” I walked past her, using the need to close the window as a distraction while I swallowed my atavistic desire to turn and run away. It only took a few seconds, but that was long enough for me to mostly recover from the shock of her question. I flipped the latch and turned back to her. “So what do you want to know about werewolves?” I asked. I was proud of myself: my voice didn’t even break.
“Everything.” Shelby sobered, all traces of levity slipping away. “Sit down, will you? I need to talk to you.”
Those words just made the fear that already gripped my heart grow even stronger. “All right,” I said, still fighting to retain my composure. I snagged my desk chair, rolling it to where it would give me a clear view of her face before I sat down. She didn’t say anything. She just watched me. “What’s wrong?”
“That’s sort of encapsulated in the question, isn’t it?” She frowned. “Are you all right? You look shaken.”
“When my girlfriend comes to my office asking about werewolves, I get a little anxious.” I folded my hands on my knees to keep myself from fidgeting. “What’s going on?”
“I need you to tell me everything you know about werewolves,” said Shelby gravely.
I wanted to ask if there had been a local sighting, but I put the question out of my mind: there was no way she would be this calm if the danger were that close. Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “All right. First off, werewolves don’t exist as a species. They’re individuals infected with the lycanthropy-w virus, which we believe started as a therianthrope-specific form of rabies before jumping back into a nonshapeshifting population. Anything mammalian can be infected with lycanthropy-w, although it’s extremely rare for anything or anyone weighing less than ninety pounds to survive the first transformation, which tends to limit its living victims to humans, humanoids, and large mammals like horses or bears. Nonmammalian cryptids, like wadjet or cuckoos, can’t be infected; their biology isn’t compatible with the virus.”
Thank God for that. The idea of telepathic werewolves was terrifying enough to make me never want to sleep again.
Shelby’s frown deepened. “What do you mean, ‘anything mammalian’?”
“I mean it doesn’t just infect humans. Any mammal can catch it.”
“That’s—seriously? Oh, that’s just great. How deadly is it?”
“Lycanthropy-w is pretty hard to catch. It’s spread through direct fluid transfer only, so bites, blood, or saliva. And that’s a damn good thing, because every confirmed infection has eventually led to death—either through natural causes, when the strain of the transformations cause organ failure in the victim, or within a month of first change, when someone follows the trail back to the werewolf’s den and puts them out of their misery.”
“That’s what I was afraid you were going to say.” Shelby slouched, rubbing her forehead with one hand. “You got a valid passport?”
I frowned as the sense of dread grew. “I’ve got a few. Why?” Having multiple ways out of the country at all times was just common sense. It was unlikely that the Covenant of St. George would show up and chase me to Canada, but I needed to keep the option to run as open as I could.
“Good. We need to leave for Australia as soon as we can. My folks have said that cost isn’t an issue, which means they’re fronting the tickets for the both of us. They need me, and I need someone who’s got some idea of what we’re dealing with.” Shelby paused. “I didn’t ask if you’d come. Will you come?”
The words “what we’re dealing with” seemed to freeze the air around them, making the situation perfectly clear. I still raised a hand, gesturing for her to slow down, and said, “Hang on. Why, exactly, are we going to Australia?”
I knew what she was going to say. I still needed to hear the words. If there was any chance that I was wrong . . .
Shelby grimaced before she said weakly, “I suppose I didn’t say that either. We’re going to Australia because there’s an outbreak near Brisbane. Werewolves, Alex. Werewolves in Australia, which is not a place werewolves are meant to be. We’re an island ecosystem, we can’t handle that sort of thing as easily as a place that has more resiliency to its biosphere.”
I wasn’t wrong. “The biosphere of Australia can kick most other biospheres right out of the party,” I said. “Still, you’re right. The lycanthropy virus isn’t supposed to be there.” The thought was enough to make my stomach sour and my head spin. Rabies and lycanthropy had been kept out of Australia for centuries, thanks to careful border maintenance. If those borders were starting to fail, the whole continent could be at risk.
But that didn’t mean I had to be the one who took care of it. Werewolves terrified me, had terrified me since the one time I’d been forced to deal with a pack of them. They were worse than anything else I could think of in the cryptid world—worse even than petrifactors, like my basilisks, or telepathic predators, like my cousin and grandmother. All a cuckoo could do was twist you to their will and then kill you. All a basilisk or gorgon could do was turn you into lawn statuary.
Werewolves would unmake you, and make you over again in their own image. It was the ultimate loss of self, and the thought made my blood go cold.
Shelby looked at me anxiously. “So you’ll come? You’ll come to Australia?”
“Shelby, I don’t think—”
“Because it’s my family, you see, and they’re in danger. It’s not like we can evacuate the continent, and I’m not going to say ‘sorry, you’re on your own’ when they’re calling me for help. But I don’t want to go alone, Alex. Please don’t make me go alone.”
She looked at me pleadingly. I looked back, every inch of me screaming that this was a terrible idea. Then I took a deep breath, and I forced myself to nod.
“We’ll need to set it up with zoo management. After that, I’ll have to make some calls. We’re going to want people in customs who can look the other way about our bags, and we’re going to want them on both ends.” Neither of us liked to travel unarmed. More importantly, there’s no vaccine for lycanthropy-w, and I wasn’t going into a known outbreak without the herbal and chemical remedies that we knew could make a difference in preventing infection. Australia had good reasons for their strict bans on carrying fruit and dairy products into the country. We were going to have to find a way around them, at least where powdered aconite and dried mistletoe berries were concerned. Better safe than sorry, especially in a situation like this.
“I can handle the Australian end if you can manage the US end,” Shelby said.
“As long as we fly out of New York, I can manage things here,” I said. “Verity made a lot of contacts in the area who will help us out.”
“You still haven’t said. Does this mean you’ll come?”
Maybe she was like me: maybe she needed to hear the words. I nodded again, this time slowly, as if my head had become too heavy to hold upright. “It means I think I have to.”
Werewolves both do and don’t exist. They’re one of the great conundrums of the cryptid world, and one of the greatest failures of the Covenant of St. George, which may have—accidentally—created them.
There was a time when the world’s therianthrope populations had their own ways of handling sickness. Infected individuals would retreat to caves or deep forests, where the majority of them would die without passing their infection along. The viruses that make up the lycanthropy family may be closely related to rabies, but they had to sacrifice some flexibility in exchange for the traits that enabled them to infect shapeshifters: they’re even harder to catch than rabies itself. Most often, the outbreak would claim one or two victims and then burn out, a victim of its own deadly nature.
The Covenant changed all that when they showed up and started hunting cryptids, like the therianthropes, into extinction. A sick therianthrope looked like an easy target; more and more, they found themselves followed into the places where they tried to hide. Maybe that would have been all right, if we’d been talking about a pox or a flu—the sick therianthrope could have used the Covenant teams as a means of suicide, convincing them that there were no other therianthropes in the area. And maybe the ones who weren’t already sick enough to have become irrational chose that method of death. Sadly, more had reached the stage where they bit and scratched at everything that moved. Some members of the Covenant were exposed to the virus. Most of the time that came to nothing. Jumping between species isn’t easy.
But it only had to happen once.
No one knows the name of the first werewolf, or how they reacted when they felt themselves getting sick. Maybe they prayed. Maybe they raged. Maybe they hid their infection out of fear that the Covenant that had sheltered them would now turn against them and put them to death for having become one of the monsters they were intended to fight. Whatever they did, they did it long enough for lycanthropy-w to finish rewiring their bodies and rewriting their minds, until the day came that they changed forms for the first time, and all hell broke loose.
There’s no such thing as a “good” werewolf. A werewolf in their original form is completely hidden, undetectable among a normal population; they can go anywhere, move freely without being detected. A werewolf in the grip of the change is a killing machine, designed for nothing more than feeding itself and spreading the virus that controls it. They feel very little pain, and absolutely no remorse. Stories of people successfully begging werewolves not to kill their own spouses or children are generally regarded as just that—stories, with no facts behind them. Werewolves kill. That’s all.
Even Australia, with its own share of dangerous beasts and dangerous people, wasn’t equipped to handle an outbreak of lycanthropy. No one ever was.
Shelby had been living with me since her apartment burned down, which made it easy to coordinate trip planning. We’d driven separate cars to the zoo—we didn’t keep identical hours, thanks to the largely public-facing nature of her work, and the largely private nature of mine—but we could meet back up at the house after work to plan further for the trip. She gave me a distracted kiss before she left to do the afternoon big cat show, leaving me alone with my thoughts—and with Crow, who cawed after her in a way that was practically guaranteed to attract attention.
“What am I going to do with you, huh?” I asked, leaning back in my chair and looking at him. “I can’t take you to Australia. There’s lying to customs to save my own skin and then there’s importing non-native wildlife because I want to. One of them is practical. The other is sort of a dick move.” Crow probably wouldn’t enjoy riding in the hold of the plane, either. We’d reach Brisbane and find that every suitcase on the plane had been mysteriously broken into and ransacked for treats.
Crow churred and began preening one wing.
“I guess I can ask Sarah to keep an eye on you. You like Sarah, don’t you?”
Crow ignored me.
“I’m glad we had this talk. Keep an eye on the office while I’m away, all right?” I rose, finally taking my zoo-issue lab coat off the back of the chair, and walked toward the door. It was time to tell Dee that I was going to be taking a little time off.
I found her wiping fingerprints off the glass front of Crunchy’s tank. She glanced over when she heard me approach, and asked, “Did you two have another fight? Shelby slouched out of here like she’d just been read the riot act.”
“No, actually, I agreed to everything she asked me, which is either a sign of true love or proof that I’ve lost my mind,” I said. “I’m going to be heading for the main office first thing tomorrow morning to file the papers for a leave of absence. Shelby and I need to go back to her place and check on her family. Can you keep an eye on my projects while I’m away?” I meant the basilisks, naturally; Dee was immune to their petrifying gaze, and would make a better caretaker for the chicks than anyone else I could have asked.
She straightened, lowering her washrag. “By her place you mean . . . ?”
Dee dropped the washrag. “Is everything all right?”
“Not really,” I said. “I’ll fill you in before I go, but I wanted to give you as much warning as I could.”
“Well, when are you leaving?”
“If Shelby has her way, tomorrow night.” That was for the best, given the circumstances. The longer the outbreak had to burn, the more people it was going to hurt or kill. “We should only be gone for a couple of weeks.”
Dee frowned. “Are you sure the zoo is going to approve that on such short notice?”
“I’m not technically an employee: I’m a researcher on loan,” I said. “If they get too picky about the amount of notice, I can always point out that my residency is strictly voluntary on all sides.” It was a bluff that I didn’t want them to call, since I enjoyed my place in the reptile house, but we’d always known that this wasn’t a permanent position. If they asked me not to come back, I could get Dee to relocate the basilisks out to the farming fringe of her home community, and walk away without worrying about my responsibilities.
“I’m not sure I like this, Alex,” said Dee.
“I know I don’t like it,” I said. “I also know it’s necessary, or I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Dee looked around, making note of the few stragglers still peering at lizards or gazing in awe at snakes as big around as their arms. Her eyes swung back to me. “You’ll tell me what all this is about later, right?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “We’ll talk before I leave.”
The rest of the day seemed to fly by. The lull I’d found Dee in when I exited my office only lasted for the amount of time it took us to finish wiping the smudges off Crunchy’s tank. That was when the late afternoon rush of chilled school groups began, packing the reptile house to capacity with shivering bodies and endless questions. All four staffers on duty were kept busy running between enclosures, explaining facts about the reptiles they contained or helping to break up small arguments before they turned into sugar-fueled pushing matches. By the time the loudspeakers announced that the zoo would be closing in twenty minutes, all of us were ready to hand-carry the patrons to the parking lot, put them down, and bid them a firm “go the hell away.”
“I’m going to sleep for a year,” announced Kim, one of the reptile house’s junior zookeepers. She bent double, resting her palms on the floor and her nose against her knees. “A year. That will miraculously end right before my alarm tomorrow morning.”
“Sounds good to me,” I agreed. “Nelson, you got everything under control with the caimans?” Nelson was our other junior zookeeper, and it was his turn to feed the long-jawed crocodilians their supper.
“I’ve got it,” Nelson said.
“Great. On that note, you are all amazing, and I am going home. Dee, we’ll talk in the morning?”
“Count on it,” said Dee.
“Great,” I said again, and turned to walk to my office, where I swapped my lab coat for my wool jacket, grabbed my briefcase, and let Crow out the window with a firm admonition to, “Go to the car, Crow, car.”
He flapped away into the evening air, wings beating hard, and I just had to hope he was doing as he’d been told. He was pretty good about following orders most of the time—largely because I controlled the food—but he was still half-cat. One day he was going to do whatever he wanted, with no concern for the consequences, and then there would be hell to pay. Maybe it was irresponsible to keep a pet that was basically a ticking time bomb of complications, but I’d had Crow for years, and I was fond of him. Maybe next time I wanted to get a pet, I’d go with something simpler, like a bulldog, or a very small gargoyle.
Oh, who was I kidding? I’d be first in line at the griffin aviary, waiting for a chick in need of a home.
I waved to my coworkers as I passed back through the reptile house, and then I was out into the sweet autumnal air of the zoo, which tasted of fallen leaves and bonfires—all the good parts of the fall, with none of the pesky leaf mold and early frost downsides. I love autumn evenings. They’re the one thing about the season that my sisters and I were always able to agree on. (Verity’s passion was Halloween: trick-or-treating and as much candy as she could stuff into her face during the two-day cheat period she allowed herself before she went back on her strict dancer’s diet. Antimony was all about the pumpkin spice. Pumpkin cookies, pumpkin loaf, pumpkin everything. Attempts to make her admit that most of these products contained no pumpkin, and were just a trumped-up delivery mechanism for cinnamon and ginger, were met with violence. Antimony never found a cause she wasn’t willing to die—or better yet, kill—for.)
The guards had already escorted most of the zoo patrons out. Groundskeepers and zoo employees passed me as I walked toward the gate, on their way to begin what many of them considered their real work. Keeping the public interested in wildlife was all well and good, but these keepers dedicated their lives to the plants and animals in their care. Some of them only left the zoo because their showers at home had better water pressure. I was honored to be part of their society, even if only temporarily and under false pretenses.
My time at the zoo was winding down. It had been for a while. The basilisks were finally reproducing, and my survey of the cryptid wildlife of the area was nearly complete. Before much longer, it was going to be time for me to pack my things and head off to the next challenge, whatever that might be. Maybe I’d take Verity’s place in Manhattan and spend some time getting to know William, the last of the great dragons.
(We’d thought dragons were extinct until my sister was nearly sacrificed to him. The species needed help getting reestablished, and I could spend a year or two learning everything there was to know about them. It was tempting.)
And, of course, there was Shelby to be considered. Our relationship had started as a bit of fun—it was something neither of us expected to last—and turned serious when she learned that I was a Price and I learned that she was a member of the Thirty-Six Society, an organization of Australian cryptozoologists dedicated to protecting their surprisingly delicate, disturbingly dangerous island ecosystem.
The discovery of how much Shelby and I had in common had deepened our casual little relationship into something that was frighteningly serious, and was going to be incredibly hard to end. I loved her. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her . . . but she was only in America to learn about our big carnivores. Once she knew as much as she needed, she’d be taking her education with her back to Australia, where it, and she, could better serve the goals of the Society. And that was the whole problem, because I couldn’t go with her. Not for keeps, anyway. My family needed me here.
Crow was sitting on the hood of my car when I got there. He was preening his left wing in the purposefully sullen manner that meant he thought I’d taken too long, and had probably been on the verge of coming to look for me. “Thanks for waiting, buddy,” I said, pausing to scratch him behind his feathered “ears” before I unlocked the driver’s-side door.
He creeled once and was in the air like a shot, flying through the open door and curling up on the passenger seat before I could swing myself into my own spot in the car. “Better?” I asked. He clucked before tucking his head under his wing.
I chuckled and started the car. Sometimes it’s nice to spend some time with the predictable things.
Columbus was always beautiful in the fall: I had to give it that, even as my coastal heart wished for the slower, subtler changes of season that we’d had when I was growing up. I drove through the city, admiring the Halloween decorations festooning virtually every storefront and telephone pole I passed, enjoying the brightly colored leaves that were clinging gamely to their trees, not yet clogging the sidewalks and gutters and becoming a public nuisance.
“It’s spring in Australia, you know,” I informed Crow, who ignored me. “I’ll get to skip all the really unpleasant parts of autumn and go straight to the unpleasant parts of spring.”
It was a lovely thought. It wasn’t enough to balance out the thought of werewolves.
I drove on.
A surprising number of suburban homes are owned by cryptids, who enjoy the proximity to nature—even if it’s in a tightly controlled and regimented form—and the relative privacy compared to the more densely packed urban environments. A lot of homeowner’s associations have cryptids on their boards, helping to set standardized rules that will make individual homes more difficult to target from a distance. “The monsters live in the beige house” isn’t a very helpful description when half the houses in the neighborhood are beige.
My grandparents are cryptids, and they own their house, and that’s about as far as they’ve managed to get in the “blending in with the neighbors” division. Their house is the only three-story building on the block, towering over its surroundings with the amiable menace of a haunted house from an old Hammer Horror film. The widow’s walk doesn’t help (and no one’s ever been able to explain why they had it installed); neither does the lightning rod on the highest point of the roof, although at least that has an obvious purpose: they use it to periodically resurrect my grandfather. Add in the eight-foot fence with the spikes on top, and it’s no real wonder that the neighborhood kids never come trick-or-treating. They’re probably afraid we’re going to cook and eat them.
Both my grandparents’ cars were parked in the driveway. Good: I didn’t want to go over this more than once if I didn’t have to. I pulled in behind Grandma’s sedan and killed my engine, leaning over to retrieve both Crow and my briefcase from the passenger seat before getting out and heading for the front door.
It was swept open from within before I made it halfway up the walk, revealing the backlit outline of a woman in a knee-length wool skirt, her face obscured by the contrast of light and shadow. Any confusion didn’t last for long, as my cousin Sarah jubilantly declared, “I did calculus today!”
“That’s fantastic,” I said, stepping onto the porch. Sarah moved aside to let me into the house. She was beaming. I couldn’t blame her. “Did Grandma score your workbook?”
“I got an eighty percent!” Sarah’s enthusiasm didn’t dim one bit, even though the score was lower than she was getting when she was nine. For her, even an eighty percent on a calculus worksheet was an incredible improvement.
Sarah was technically my aunt, having been adopted by my grandparents when she was just a kid, but she’d always be “cousin Sarah” to me, and to my siblings. We were just too close in age to think of her as anything else.
I offered her a smile. “I’m really proud of you.”
“I’m proud of me, too,” said Sarah.
She had every right to be. Sarah was a cuckoo—a member of a species of math-obsessed telepathic predators. And cuckoos loved numbers. Arithmetic and higher mathematics were all the same to them: as long as numbers were involved, they were happy, and since a happy cuckoo was a cuckoo who might not be trying to kill you, we encouraged their mathematical pursuits whenever possible.
And then there was Sarah.
It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d been with my sister in Manhattan. Some bad things happened, and Sarah had to choose between using her telepathy in a way she’d never tried to use it before, or letting Verity die—and confirming the ongoing existence of our family to the Covenant of St. George at the same time. She made the choice that would save my sister, and by extension, save us all.
Sarah had always been taught not to use her powers to intentionally change people’s minds. That day, she broke every rule she’d worked so hard to learn, and she rewrote the memories of the Covenant team that was holding Verity. It worked, but it hurt her, in ways that we still didn’t fully understand, and might never be able to make sense of, since “telepath physiology” isn’t a course offering at most medical schools.
For a while, we’d been afraid Sarah would never be herself again. That fear had been gradually put to rest as she recovered. She was putting herself back together a little bit at a time, struggling to extract sanity from the jaws of severe neurological dysfunction. At her worst, she hadn’t even been able to remember her primes. To have her doing calculus again was a blessing.
“Mom’s in the kitchen making dinner, and Dad’s upstairs making himself scarce,” said Sarah, as Crow launched himself from my shoulder and flapped up the stairs to my room. She paused, squinting, and her eyes took on the white-filmed look that meant she was stretching just the barest tendril of telepathy in my direction. “You . . . want to talk to us about koalas?”
“Close,” I said. “I want to talk to everyone about Australia.” When Sarah had first come home from New York, we’d all worn anti-telepathy charms all the time, to lessen the risk that she would slip and hurt somebody, or herself. Now only Shelby still routinely wore a charm, which made sense. She wasn’t family.
The kitchen smelled of tuna fish and cream of mushroom soup, a classic piece of Americana that was rendered only a little incongruous by the fact that it was being baked by my Grandma Angela, the second cuckoo in the family. She looked up when she heard the kitchen door swing open, flashing me a bright smile.
“Welcome home, Alex,” she said. “Dinner should be ready in about twenty minutes. Tuna casserole, sweet rolls, and spaghetti sauce with ginger.”
Cuckoos have a weird obsession with tomatoes and tomato byproducts. The human members of the family have learned to live with it. “Sounds good. Um, I need to talk to you and Grandpa about something. Do you want to do it before or after we eat? Shelby has to feed the tigers tonight, so she’s going to be home late.”
“Before sounds good,” rumbled a deep, almost rocky voice. I turned to see the hulking, scarred form of my grandfather filling the doorway, a friendly smile on his terrible face. “What’s on your mind, Alex?”
I took a deep breath. “Shelby wants me to go to Australia with her. There’s a lycanthropy-w outbreak, and no one there knows how to deal with it.”
“They don’t have lycanthropy in Australia, do they?” asked Grandpa, his smile melting into a frown.
“No,” I said. “None of the common forms, and none of the exotic ones either. It’s one of the only horrible things in the world that Australia didn’t get as part of the starter package. That means they’ve never handled an outbreak before, and from what Shelby said, I think they’re pretty scared.”
“They should be,” said Grandma grimly. “But Alex . . . you’re human, honey. Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Sarah and Grandma Angela had more in common with parasitic wasps than they did with humans, at least on a cellular level. Grandpa Martin had been human once—had been several humans once—but he’d become basically immune to all known diseases following his death and resurrections, since nothing could figure out how to infect him. Of the four people in the kitchen, I was the only one with the potential to be infected or killed by lycanthropy-w.
Which naturally meant I was the one planning to head for the site of the outbreak. “No,” I said. I didn’t bother to keep the quaver out of my voice. “But it’s the only idea we have. The Thirty-Sixers need help.”
“Maybe they can find someone in their own organization who can figure this out,” said Grandma. “Let them do what they’ve always done, and handle this themselves.”
“Shelby helped me when Lloyd was using that cockatrice to turn people to stone,” I said quietly. Grandma didn’t flinch or look ashamed. I hadn’t been expecting her to. No matter how human she seemed and how normally she often behaved, she was never going to prioritize the lives of humans she didn’t know above the people she considered her family.
Maybe she wasn’t so strange in that regard.
“Yes, and we were very grateful,” said Grandpa, before either Grandma or Sarah could say something they’d regret. “And yes, I know she was at just as much risk of being turned to stone as you were. Don’t think we don’t all appreciate what she did for you. But, Alex . . .”
“I love her.” It was a small, simple admission, and it still burned, because it shouldn’t have been necessary: the fact that the Thirty-Six Society needed help should have been enough. I’d never lived in a world without the specter of the Covenant of St. George hanging over us, but I couldn’t help thinking that if it hadn’t been for them, the various cryptological societies wouldn’t have been so reluctant to help each other. Philanthropy was so much easier when there wasn’t a multinational organization of fanatics waiting to slaughter you if you dared to show your face. “She’s the only woman I’ve ever been able to say that about—the only one who isn’t family. She’s one of my best friends. She needs me. Her family needs me. How can I look her in the eye and tell her I won’t help her family after she helped mine?”
“Besides, if Alex goes to help Shelby with the werewolves in Australia, he can meet her family, and maybe they’ll approve of him.” Sarah’s suggestion was calmly made, and so lucid that the rest of us turned and stared at her. She shrugged. “You were thinking it pretty loudly, Alex. I couldn’t not see.”
“It’s not that I mind you reading my mind,” I said. “It’s that you sounded so together. You’re really getting better, aren’t you?”
Sarah’s smile widened. “No thanks to you, Mr. Thinks-too-loud. I should have made you ship me home to Artie. At least he thinks about soothing things.”
“Yeah,” I said, smothering the urge to smirk. My cousin Artie’s crush on Sarah was public knowledge: everyone knew about it except for Sarah herself, who seemed to think that the rest of us were delusional when we thought about how cute they were together. Verity and I had indulged in more than a little private betting over how long it would be before she caught on to the fact that the cousin she was hopelessly enamored with was equally enamored of her. So far, neither of us was winning. “So I should take my loud thoughts to Australia, huh?”
“Yes.” She turned to her parents. “Alex is going to go. I can hear it. He didn’t come to ask for permission—he’s a grownup. He came to ask for support. We owe him that. Don’t we? He always supports us.”
Grandma sighed. “You’re right, honey. Alex, I’m sorry. You know we’re only worried about you, right? Lycanthropy is nothing to play around with.”
“I know, Grandma, and I’m scared out of my mind,” I said. Like rabies, lycanthropy—all the known varieties, from the common –w (for “wolf”) all the way to the rarer –b (for “bear”) and –r (for “rhino”)—was incurable after the infection reached a certain point. It was just that for lycanthropy, “a certain point” meant “transforming into a giant wolf-beast.” There was no vaccine, and the treatments intended to prevent a bite from progressing to an infection were potentially fatal. Smart cryptozoologists avoided outbreaks whenever possible, sending in nonmammalian allies to clean it out.
It was sort of funny. Here I was, standing in my kitchen with two nonmammalian allies and one mammalian ally who couldn’t be infected, and I couldn’t take any of them with me to Australia. Sarah wasn’t fit to fly, Grandpa couldn’t risk a TSA scanner, and Grandma . . . well, Grandma would be fine, but the Thirty-Sixers might shoot her on sight. They’d had a cuckoo infestation a few years previous. Now they habitually wore anti-telepathy charms that would interfere with her natural camouflage field, and were inclined to shoot on sight. If I went, I was going alone.
Except for Shelby, of course. Dangerous as the proposed expedition was, I had to admit that I didn’t mind the idea of an international flight pressed up next to her.
“You get to tell your parents,” said Grandpa, apparently reading my decision in my face. “I’m not going to be the one who informs your mother that you’re finally running into absolutely certain danger for the fun of it all.”
“Fair enough,” I agreed. “If I give you a list of the supplies I’m going to need, can you let me know what we have in the house?”
“Of course,” he said. “I’m assuming you’re planning to fly out of JFK?”
“Yeah.” Getting from Ohio to New York would mean hours in the car, but it would also mean going through customs at an airport where we knew people in both the TSA and the international processing side of things. It would have to be timed just right—smuggling the kind of firepower I habitually carry into a large airport hasn’t been easy in more than a decade, and it hadn’t been a cakewalk before that—but we’d done tight connections before, and it would mean I was heading out well-armed and prepared for whatever was coming next.
Excerpted from "Pocket Apocalypse"
Copyright © 2015 Seanan McGuire.
Excerpted by permission of DAW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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