The last time I’d seen my parents in person was the day I left the country for graduate school. They’d stood side by side, and I knew they were holding hands behind their backs even though I couldn’t see it. They hadn’t wanted me to know. They’d wanted me to see their support and not their worry.
Most of the time, I looked back on that memory with rueful exasperation. Sure, their only daughter was leaving to study the creatures that tore the world asunder, and they couldn’t help but worry. Still, the first time I’d ventured on my own beyond the perimeter back home, I’d almost been eaten by an amphibious lizard. That was the place I was moving away from, to live in one of the more stable regions left in the world. In light of that, my parents’ concern felt like a massive overreaction–most days, anyway.
But today wasn’t most days. Today, I even felt a bit of guilt. I wasn’t in any excessive danger or anything, but…well. They wouldn’t approve of what I was doing. And they definitely wouldn’t approve of my enjoying it.
And I was more than enjoying it.
Our pick-up hurtled down the deserted cobblestone road, old stones walls enclosing us on both sides, and my heart raced with anticipation. A force of lukewarm air blew across my skin from the open window. I leaned into it from my place in the passenger seat, practically tasting freedom on the wind. Knowing there was a whole world of wonder out there for me to experience.
I couldn’t regret this. I couldn’t wait for this. Because if the report was real, there would be a chimera at the end of this road trip. One of only a handful ever encountered in modern times, and the only one seen in Europe. No matter how much my parents might wish I’d leave the tracking of infamous animals to someone else, I couldn’t see myself doing anything but. Not when I lived for this, for that moment of discovery.
A short, squat tower came into view ahead of us–the tomb of Cecilia Metella, an ancient Roman noblewoman. We were a ten-minute drive out from the safety zone in Rome, traveling down the ancient Appian Way, and this was where the chimera sighting had been reported. The air in the vehicle practically crackled with energy. I knew the guys–Tony driving, and the other two in the back of the pick-up–were every bit as alert as I was. Any second, we might find a sign of the animal, a trace of its passage.
A whiff of smoke in the air caught my attention. I scanned the landscape, searching for the source. Our view of the tower shifted as we drew closer, revealing a mass of plant life behind it, leaves blackened and steaming. Just the sort of thing I’d expect from a fire-breathing animal.
The doubts I’d harbored in the back of my mind, wondering if maybe this was some sort of mistake, dissipated into nothing. This was it. It was confirmation that we really had a new legendary animal–a new legimal–in the vicinity. Because there was only one other animal in the area that could set trees on fire, and those fires burned from inside the base of a single tree. They didn’t look like this, the leaves and branches singed while the trunks remained mostly untouched.
I heard Carter’s voice, through the glassless window separating the enclosed space in the front of the pick-up from the open cargo in the back. He was calling the Fire Corps, which was a good idea. The flames were already out, but the corps still needed to be aware of a new fire hazard. The Boom–the event that brought legimals back into the world–had made all of us more conscientious about animals that ignited trees on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Tony didn’t even bother to slow down. I may have been the only scientist here, but that didn’t mean the guys on my field team needed my help to follow a trail of scorched greenery. Between Tony at the wheel, Carter on watch, and the third guy…well, the third guy wasn’t important. In any case, I left them to handle it, instead familiarizing myself with the look of the chimera’s trail. How often did the animal set fire to the surrounding area? How much distance did each burst of flames cover?
I lost myself in the details, jotting down notes as each new thought occurred to me. But every now and again, the reality of what we were doing hit me, and I marveled. This was really happening, wasn’t it? We were really tracking a chimera.
Suddenly, Carter yelled, “Stop the car!”
Tony hit the brakes hard enough that I felt like I’d fly out of the pick-up. I turned to look through the back window and check on the other two guys. Both of them had landed in less than dignified heaps against the tailgate, but at least they were still in the car.
“What?” Tony asked, frenzied. “What is it?” His normally tan skin was turning a little pale, the eyes beneath his mop of curly hair panicked. I looked around, trying to spot whatever Carter had, my mind running through the scenarios we might be dealing with.
Carter picked himself up and crouched by us, calm where Tony was frantic. “There,” he said, pointing past me and Tony through the missing window, to a large reptile near the road. A lizard, scales colored in deep blues and reds, probably about the size of the steering wheel. From this distance, I might have noticed the coloring but assumed it came from the flowers growing along the side of the road.
Good on Carter for spotting it, but then, we counted on him for that. A Korean-American guy who’d lived in Europe for only a bit longer than I had, Carter was a freelance nature photographer. We were lucky to be one of his regular gigs.
His eyes stayed locked on the new animal, while I spent the next few minutes assessing it, running through the possibilities of what it could be. I was already surprised by what it wasn’t–specifically, it wasn’t one of the five local terrestrial legimals we already knew about. What were we dealing with here?
A medium-sized lizard, the standard four legs. The coloration was its most distinct feature, red-orange on its back, blue covering the tail and peeking out on its underside. A few protrusions of bone trailed to the back of its head, vaguely resembling a small rooster’s comb. Something about that description tugged at my memory, something familiar–and then it came to me, like a punch in the gut.
There was one animal, spotted a few times in the Mediterranean area since the Boom, that matched this description. Mentions of its physical appearance varied in ancient and medieval sources, from a snake to a snake/rooster hybrid. But they all agreed it was deadly, and modern sources concurred.
We were dealing with a basilisk.
The cold touch of fear spread through me, because I was absolutely not prepared for this. Chimeras had a ferocious reputation, sure, but not like this. We were prepared to deal with a chimera. But a basilisk? A basilisk was a living, breathing death ray.
“We’re tracking down a fearsome legimal,” Tony said, a question in his voice instead of his usual irritation, “and you’re bothering me about a lizard?”
Luca–the extraneous third guy–leaned forward, catching my attention with his movement. “Is that…?” He was an athletic looking young guy, dark hair, brown skin. He and Tony made up the Italian half of our current field team, while Carter and I made up the American half.
“Yeah,” Carter answered him.
Maybe I could give Luca the benefit of the doubt and assume he knew what he was looking at, despite his lack of experience in anything remotely biological. But that would be ridiculous. “A basilisk,” I said.
Tony turned to me. “Basilisk?” he asked, the pitch of his voice rising. “As in, kill you with one glance?”
“That bit is a little exaggerated,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. Tony didn’t look convinced. I wasn’t lying, but then a basilisk didn’t need to kill with a glance. Considering how deadly the creature was already, it’d be superfluous.
I did a mental gauging of the distance between us and the animal. We were closer than I would have chosen to be, if we were intentionally going to watch it. Still, we were far enough away that we weren’t in immediate danger. That was good, at least. I didn’t like suddenly finding myself in close proximity to a basilisk, but it wasn’t a fast animal, and we were out of range of its fumes. Carter would know immediately if the animal made a move towards us, and we’d be able to back away. As long as we weren’t acting aggressively, it shouldn’t attack.
I relaxed, a little. We were okay for now, and we could get out if the situation looked like it would worsen. I’d been in worse positions, when I was way less prepared for them.
But now that I could think about other issues besides our safety, this whole thing started feeling wrong. There were five local legimals of the terrestrial variety in this area. The chimera made six. And now with the basilisk? It’d been about three decades since the Boom. Five species over the course of three decades, and now two more appeared within the span of a few days?
I checked my notes, hoping I hadn’t missed some mention of a freaking basilisk in the area. No sightings reported, which was fair enough, I had to admit. Reports tended to come in for larger, more noticeable creatures.
But I’d have to wonder how this had happened later. This legimal might not have been an immediate danger, but that didn’t mean we should stick around. We weren’t prepared to study a basilisk. We hadn’t done our homework. And there was still another animal out there for which we were prepared. The smart thing to do was to leave it for another day.
I turned my attention to the guys. Tony sat frozen in place, his eyes glued onto the dangerous animal. But Carter had climbed out of the vehicle to take photos, moving slowly so as not to startle the animal. No surprise there, not with his adventurous nature. And honestly, I tended to appreciate that about him. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Because Carter got it, in a way that neither Tony, nor whatever clown was filling our fourth slot at any given time, ever could.
Speaking of, our newest addition, Luca, was mostly watching Carter with bemused curiosity, pretty much ignoring the creature that could kill him by breathing on him. On the one hand, at least he wasn’t a frantic wreck like Tony. But on the other, he might want to invest in a functioning survival instinct. Having Carter was bad enough, but at least I could be sure Carter knew the risks. He just tended to ignore them half the time.
“Carter, get back in the car,” I called, softly. It was time to corral this unruly bunch.
Carter turned back and looked at me in astonishment, eyes wide, almost hurt that I was asking him to walk away from an exciting new animal. The fastest way to get him moving was to distract him with the prospect of another one.
I pointed to the scorch marks. “Remember that?”
His mouth moved to form an “oh”, and he quietly dashed back into the pick-up’s rear. Then stood up, leaning against the enclosed driver’s end of the vehicle, and raised his camera to keep taking pictures. Blatantly ignoring all automotive safety regulations, despite the fact that Tony of all people was driving.
Okay, fine, Carter was that bad.
At least he was in the car, which meant the hardest part of getting out of here was over. Now if only I could explain that to Tony. Our driver wasn’t frozen in horror anymore, but his hands gripped the steering wheel hard enough that I wondered if they’d eventually go numb. He turned to meet my gaze, his eyes slightly panicked.
“How are we getting around this thing?” he asked, somehow getting the words out past his gritted teeth.
I grabbed my tablet from the bag at my feet and pulled up a map. We spent a few minutes finding a route to bypass the basilisk–which, in the meantime, had crawled out right in the middle of the road and planted itself there, probably catching sun or whatever. To our left lay the trail left by the chimera–mostly burned or burning foliage. If we didn’t see any sign of the chimera when we got back out on the Appian, we’d backtrack.
Tony started driving, turning off onto another road–a little too quickly, and I turned around in my seat to see what the basilisk was doing. Poking at something on the ground. Alright then, it was unlikely to kill us all right this moment. It looked like we were clear. I let out a small sigh of relief, covered up by the sound of the car’s engine. Which was good, because no one needed to know that I’d been worried, even a little.
Luca watched the road ahead through the window behind Tony’s seat and mine–reasonable, given who was driving. Our eyes met for an instant, and we both looked away fast. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Luca. I just didn’t know him, and I didn’t want to.
He’d been with us for a month. His predecessor had lasted six weeks, until an especially tenacious pack of crocotta had left him too afraid to stomach another field mission. The woman before that was with us for three months–all it’d taken to drive her away was a fly-by from a strix. A gunshot aimed at the ground had scared the bird off handily enough, but she couldn’t get over how vulnerable she’d felt, being that close to it.
It was like that with everyone who’d held Luca’s position. They’d come in thinking they could handle it, because they’d boarded the armed buses that traveled outside the safety zone. They didn’t consider that it would be different, seeking out legimals instead of avoiding them. They didn’t realize they’d feel so isolated in a group of four instead of a crowd of dozens.
I’d tried to reach out to the first few people who’d had Luca’s job. I wasn’t necessarily good at it, but I tried. It didn’t take long for the high turnover to discourage me. Putting in all that effort to get along with someone, only to have to do it over and over again with another person…I just couldn’t handle it. Maybe that made Luca feel unwelcome, and I was sorry about that. But I wasn’t sorry about spending my energy on the people who’d stay in my life. I didn’t have enough of it to waste on everybody else.
Determined to do something useful to cover the awkwardness, I grabbed my notebook out of my bag–yes, I still used primitive dead tree materials, which had the advantage of being un-hackable. I wrote Basilisk down, then fished for a GPS to get an idea of the latitude and longitude of the sighting. With a few swipes, those coordinates went out to the Lazio Wildlife Watch, which would inform people that there was a basilisk around.
The real-time satellite data on my phone let me check what the area around the basilisk sighting looked like. These animals were capable of destroying all life in a radius around them just by breathing the wrong way, and that kind of thing was detectable. I noted an irregular brown patch surrounded by lush green a few kilometers away, but couldn’t find anything else in a quick search.
My phone wasn’t capable of a more thorough analysis, like comparing past and present images of the whole Italian peninsula for the appearance of similar brown patches. I sent off a text to my lab so someone else could run it. There had to be some sign of the basilisk migrating here.
Then I turned back to my notebook. No prior basilisk sightings recorded in the area, I wrote. Only one potential basilisk hunting waste detectable via satellite. If a more thorough search revealed other hunting wastes, I’d amend that comment. But we’d run similar analyses for the chimera, checking databases for records of unexplained fires, and couldn’t find anything along the path the animal should have taken to get here. It made me wonder. Where did these two new legimals come from? I wrote.
It was just one more question in a list of abnormalities I couldn’t explain. I underlined it. Where were these predators coming from? How did they suddenly get to this population level in the first place? Why were there always more of them with time?
Sometimes I wondered if I’d spend my life trying to answer these questions.
We looped around the basilisk, catching sight of a light bit of smoke drifting from some nearby trees. As we drove nearer, I realized the smoke emanated from the ground cover, a few licks of fire still sputtering out. Trailing the cinders led us into the nearby Villa dei Quintili, a large open field with scattered ruins from an ancient Roman villa.
A dirt road led us onto the site, past the broken fence that used to enclose the area back when it was a tourist attraction. Surrounded by grassy plains, a set of partially intact ruins loomed in the distance ahead. I made out two stories of large arches set into the walls. Then the pick-up hit a slight downward slope in the road, giving us our first sight of a beige form moving through the open grassy space.
The chimera. I stared at it with a tingling restlessness, squinting to try to make out its shape. Almost in disbelief that I was actually experiencing this. The car stopped with a sharp jerk. For a moment, I didn’t move, holding onto the wonder that came from seeing an animal for the first time. Then I took a deep breath, and got down to business.
Tony refused to get out of the driver’s seat, as usual. That was just as well, since a chimera might decide to stalk us if it felt like it.
I grabbed my notepad and pens. Then I got out of the car just long enough to climb up into the back, with Carter and Luca. It was a better vantage point for observations, and Carter had the binoculars. He wouldn’t need them now that he wasn’t scouting for wildlife anymore. Instead, he fiddled with his equipment, getting the right lens for the job. Meanwhile, Luca had set up a camera on a tripod. His job didn’t require a lot of brainpower, just the ability to shift the camera when the legimal moved out of view.
My eyes kept drifting to the chimera, and I forced myself to assess the area. I decided quickly that my team wasn’t getting closer, not with the lack of cover. Then again, even if we had cover, the chimera could possibly burn it down. This was one of the fiercest animals in the world. We needed to gather information without endangering ourselves or upsetting the animal.
But the seriousness of the situation aside, neither Carter nor I could suppress the grins on our faces.
And my mind was going a thousand thoughts a minute. This wasn’t a subtle, easy-to-miss animal we were dealing with. If a chimera had somehow migrated here, there should have been signs. Its progress would have been tracked. It wouldn’t just be here, with no explanation.
And that was exactly what had happened thirty years ago. The Boom. Legendary animals–legimals–were suddenly there. Everywhere. Creatures no one had ever seen before were all over the world, and no one understood why.
It probably wasn’t a sudden population boom of rare animals, despite the name. We didn’t know of any factors that had changed enough to increase their numbers, especially this drastically. Most of these legimals were predators, and there wasn’t necessarily a large enough prey population to serve as their food supply–unless we counted humans, that was.
If this mysterious chimera’s appearance in any way paralleled what happened thirty years ago, any hints about how it got here would be more than we’d known before. I could answer the biggest question humanity had: how had this happened to us?
This was an amazing opportunity, on so many levels, and I needed it. I needed to see a chimera with my own eyes, here of all places. My parents–who had only ever wanted me to live a nice, fulfilling, safe life–would not have been proud of my attitude.
But that nice, fulfilling, safe life wouldn’t have me sitting here, laying eyes on a chimera in the wild. It wouldn’t let me tackle the questions I could never get out of my head. It wouldn’t have been for me.
Instead, here I was, with a world of possibilities at my fingertips.