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Half off ragnarok, p.1
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       Half-Off Ragnarok, p.1

           Seanan McGuire
 
Half-Off Ragnarok


  “The only thing more fun than an October Daye book is an InCryptid book. Swift narrative, charm, great world-building . . . all the McGuire trademarks.”

  —Charlaine Harris, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

  “Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon is an urban fantasy triple threat—smart and sexy and funny. The Aeslin mice alone are worth the price of the book, so consider a cast of truly original characters, a plot where weird never overwhelms logic, and some serious kickass world-building as a bonus.”

  —Tanya Huff, bestselling author of The Wild Ways

  “McGuire kicks off a new series with a smart-mouthed, engaging heroine and a city full of fantastical creatures. This may seem like familiar ground to McGuire fans, but she makes New York her own, twisting the city and its residents into curious shapes that will leave you wanting more. Verity’s voice is strong and sure as McGuire hints at a deeper history, one that future volumes will hopefully explore.”

  —RT Book Reviews

  “Verity is a winning protagonist, and her snarky but loving observations on her world of bogeyman strip club owners, Japanese demon badger bartenders, and dragon princess waitresses make for a delightful read.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Discount Armageddon is an exceptionally well-written tale with a unique premise, fantastic character work, and a plot that just pulls you along until you finish. This is one for the urban fantasy enthusiasts out there—as well as for anyone who wants something different from most anything else on shelves today. Easily one of my favorite books of 2012.”

  —Ranting Dragon

  “Smart, whimsical and bitingly funny, Verity Price is a kick-ass heroine that readers will love. Just when I thought she couldn’t surprise me again, she would pull some new trick out of her hat—or, in the case of her throwing knives, out of her corset. I would send Verity and my Jane Jameson on a girl’s night out, but I’m afraid of the damage bill they would rack up!”

  —Molly Harper, author of Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs

  “Discount Armageddon is a quick-witted, sharp-edged look at what makes a monster monstrous, and at how closely our urban fantasy protagonists walk—or dance—that line. The pacing never lets up, and when the end comes, you’re left wanting more. I can’t wait for the next book!”

  —C. E. Murphy, author of Raven Calls

  DAW Books presents the finest in urban fantasy from Seanan McGuire:

  InCryptid Novels

  DISCOUNT ARMAGEDDON

  MIDNIGHT BLUE-LIGHT SPECIAL

  HALF-OFF RAGNAROK

  SPARROW HILL ROAD *

  October Daye Novels

  ROSEMARY AND RUE

  A LOCAL HABITATION

  AN ARTIFICIAL NIGHT

  LATE ECLIPSES

  ONE SALT SEA

  ASHES OF HONOR

  CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

  THE WINTER LONG *

  * Coming soon from DAW Books

  Copyright © 2014 by Seanan McGuire.

  All Rights Reserved.

  Cover art by Aly Fell.

  Cover design by G-Force Design.

  Interior dingbats created by Tara O’Shea.

  DAW Book Collectors No. 1647.

  DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA).

  All characters and events in this book are fictitious.

  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

  The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal, and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  Nearly all the designs and trade names in this book are registered trademarks. All that are still in commercial use are protected by United States and international trademark law.

  ISBN 978-1-101-60238-6 (eBook)

  DAW TRADEMARK REGISTERED U.S. PAT. AND TM. OFF. AND FOREIGN COUNTRIES —MARCA REGISTRADA HECHO EN U.S.A.

  Version_1

  Contents

  Books by Seanan McGuire

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Family Tree

  Definitions

  Prologue

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-one

  Twenty-two

  Twenty-three

  Twenty-four

  Epilogue

  Price Family Field Guide to the Cryptids of North America

  Playlist

  Acknowledgments

  For Mandy.

  Love and ice worms.

  Herpetology, noun:

  The scientific study of reptiles.

  Cryptoherpetology, noun:

  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.

  Prologue

  “I’m not saying that it’s a horrible monster here to mercilessly devour you whole. I’m sure it would chew you first.”

  —Thomas Price

  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?”

  Alex nodded.

  “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.”

  One

  “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.”

  —Alexander Healy

  An unnamed stretch of marshland near Columbus, Ohio

  Now

  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.

  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 rou
nded the edge of the stand of trees, and saw the eighteen-foot-long reptilian creature looming over my 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 oversized, 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. A Church Griffin harrying a lindworm was only slightly stranger.

 
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