Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favourite episodes. A different member of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2016 each week in January.
We hope you enjoy editor and host Marguerite Kenner’s favorite story from 2016, Saurs by Craig Delancey. The story originally aired March 13, 2016 as part of our Dinovember special, Cast of Wonders 218.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
by Craig DeLancey
The fossil mages gathered in the shadow of the gully. Four of them: three old men and a young woman. Old Jim lifted and replaced his wreck of a straw hat and then spat at a scorpion. John Bloodeye and Harry watched the dark spot in the sand evaporate in the heat, until finally, as they’d all been hoping, the young one spoke.
“I found it near here,” Karyn Thomson said. She put her hand into her pocket, fingering the bone there, but not drawing it out yet.
The three old men waited. This was hard for them. They’d all been famous, in their day. They had their pride still.
Finally Karyn tugged the bone out. A hooked talon, as long as her own hand. The old men leaned forward, careful not to show excitement but unable to keep their eyes from popping.
“T rex,” Bloodeye said. “Manus claw. Left interior.”
Karyn nodded agreement.
“It looks big,” Old Jim said. “It looks as big as the claw on that old girl your Pa found out here.”
“Bigger,” Karyn said. “Two centimeters longer.” She pushed her hat back with the point of the claw. Blond hair spilled out over her eyes.
Harry reached toward the claw. Karyn flinched, but did not draw back. He touched the fossil with two dry fingers. “Lot of hum to it,” he whispered. The other men did not comment. They knew there’d be magic in the bone. No need to taunt yourself, like hungry men poking another man’s fat goose.
Karyn pointed at the ridge across the flats, a roughly eroded heap of gray Earth, deeply pitted by violent spring floods. “I found it at the base of that crest,” she said.
Old Jim frowned. “Could’ve fallen from either side of that edge,” he said.
Karyn knew that she shouldn’t give orders to these experienced men. They had too much dignity for that. But this was her find. She was doing them a favor by letting them come along. By tradition the rex would be hers — she found first sign of it. But anything else dug out of the site they would share evenly among their group.
“Why don’t we take Jim’s advice,” she said, making his observation into a suggestion. “Two of us will search the east side of the ridge, and the other two search the west side.”
“I’ll come with you,” Harry blurted out.
Karyn’s heart sank. She’d wanted to ask Bloodeye to come with her. If she’d had her father’s toughness, she would have insisted on it. But she felt responsible for Harry.
“Good,” she said, forcing a smile. “We’ll take the east ridge.” It had been on the east side that she’d found the claw.
Old Jim nodded. They set out, single file, from the shadow of the ravine, their boots crunching at the hard-packed dirt.
At the end of the flats they had to weave their way through a few scrappy green bushes. Old Jim and Bloodeye pulled ahead, already setting out on a different course for the west side of the ridge. When the two fossil mages were out of earshot, Harry said to Karyn, “It was nice of you to bring us along.”
“You all are the best,” she said.
Or they had been. Old Jim had found that outsize velociraptor back in the days of the big fossil rush. A full skeleton. He’d assembled it and put it on display, let school kids gawk at it, before he spent it in an invocation that cured his wife’s kidneys, reducing the bones to dust.
John Bloodeye had found more fossils than any fossil hunter alive. Never a big find, but hundreds of small ones, good ones. Fossil mages said he could smell teeth, the way he used to pull them from the dirt. The daggers of Albertosaur incisors, the fanning cheek teeth of stegosaurus, the huge flat molars of apatosaurus. Bloodeye’d made a steady living selling fragments, put a son and daughter through school with the money. No one had ever heard tell of him casting magic himself, though they said he could and always called him mage.
Well, Harry wasn’t like the others. He’d grown up on the East coast, where the surface rock was really old. He’d been good at scrounging the beds of Palezoic seas: trilobites, brachiopods, the occasional jawless fish or eurypterid. And heaps of crinoids. Those animals were small, but they’d had an extra 200 million years to age their magic. They’d been powerful finds. When Harry’s luck had run out, and when his drinking had caught up with him, he’d moved west to the Badlands, and found his way onto Flint Thomson’s digs.
Harry started coughing. He bent over, hands on his knees. Karyn waited till the fit passed.
“You’re not well,” she said.
He waved a hand and then picked up his conversation where he’d left it. “You’re the best. Not us. I always told everyone. I always did. You’d have been the greatest fossil hunter of all time, if you’d been born fifty years earlier. Ain’t hardly anything left nowadays to find, or you’d’a found it.”
“Well, that’s kind of you.”
Harry wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Karyn saw that his eyes had watered from the violence of the coughs.
“I told anyone who’d listen that it had been you that got us onto that big T rex.”
Karyn furrowed her brow at that. Finally, she said, “I just liked finding them. And piecing their lives together. I like the saurs.”
Harry seemed upset by her sudden frown. It made him talk in a rush. “You know, when I came out here, broke and needing work, your Pa saved me. I made a lot of mistakes. He forgave me every time I fell off the wagon. I guess, well, I guess like you he just loved the saurs so much he… he didn’t pay much attention to other things.”
Karyn nodded politely. But that was bullshit. Her father hadn’t cared about the dinosaurs. He’d cared about the power in their bones. He’d cared about the magic, because of the money the magic could bring.
“The damn amateurs ruined it,” her father had told her, one night when she was ten. “Gentlemen and their clubs, their sherry-drinking little associations.” He rubbed the stubble on his cleft chin with the edge of his calloused thumb. His blue eyes stared into the fire, intent, almost angry.
He’d been a man who didn’t need much sleep. He was up before anyone else on the digs, and went last to his sleeping roll. Karyn had learned early on that if she wanted a minute with her father, she had to stay up later than anyone else. So now the two of them sat beside the dying fire while the rest of the team slept.
“The amateurs found out about the magic first?” she asked.
“What? No. That happened long before. Some Renaissance osteomancer crushed a trilobite into some potion or other, and the result blew his pointed hat off. And that was alright. For a few centuries, the power of fossils was a secret. Occult guilds wrote in ciphered books that life created magic, and that the body held that magic tightly while alive.” He held up two fists. “After life ended, the magic remained, but it could be taken.” He popped open his fingers, like a life exploding. “Necromancers had long known that.”
“Necromancers. Folks that made dead people walk and talk.”
“Ew,” Karyn said, poking the fire with a stick.
“Sure must’ve stunk,” Flint agreed. “Making a hanged man do some chore is one thing, but a fossil is another. A fossil has stewed in its power for millions and millions of years. It’s about ready to bust with magic.”
“So everyone dug them up?”
“When the amateur hunters and mages started publishing papers, and giving talks and conferences, then the fossil rush started.” He looked around at the hills, invisible in the dark but silhouetted against the stars. “First in England. Then here. Whole mountains were moved, mines were dug till their tunnels collapsed, stream beds and hillsides were dynamited into dust. Wasn’t long till fossils were ‘bout impossible to find.”
“Not for you, daddy.”
“Hard for me too,” he said. But he’d smiled.
They sat a while in silence, before he nodded and told her, “Head for your tent, Karyn. Early day tomorrow. No slacking off. We gotta work fast. The rains will start soon.”
She had imagined, during those years, that he knew she was his best apprentice. It didn’t matter that he hardly talked to her. It didn’t matter that he took credit for the finds she made. All the reward had come from that moment when alone she had found a jaw, or a splintered rib, or a vertebra sticking from the dirt — and then handed the bone to her father.
After his death, his memoirs had been published. Flint Thomson: The World’s Greatest Fossil Mage. She read it cover to cover. And in it, her name appeared exactly zero times.
When they came to the ridge Harry had another coughing fit. Karyn waited while he hacked. Then, as if nothing had happened, he walked to the scree pile at the base of the cliffside, and bent over, and stared at the dirt heaped there. He stared a long time, not even lifting his hammer from his belt. Karyn liked to see this: a hint of his professional side reemerging.
“Damn my eyes,” he whispered, yanking the bill of his filthy old baseball cap. “I can hardly tell a femur from a flint.”
Karyn waited till he asked her, “Here? It was here?”
“A little farther up, to the right. But I think this is a good place to start.”
They both unslung their hammers. Karyn crouched down beside Harry. She lightly scraped at the slope with the edge of the hammer’s head, peering intently as she brushed aside a few of the loose gray shards of stone fallen from the cliff above. If they could find some more of the rex, they could start a vertical search. The whole profile of the slope here was late Cretaceous, so if more of the rex were there, its bones could be anywhere from the top of the ridge right down to her feet.
They worked in silence. It’d been a few years since she’d spent time with Harry, but in her youth she’d crouched countless hours digging beside him. She’d never known him to be silent more than a minute. Something was wrong.
Finally, he spoke up, without lifting his head from the dirt. He asked her the thing she least wanted to hear. He asked it in a whisper.
“What you gonna do with it, when you find it?”
Karyn was young. Twenty-four. Just out of university, where the professors of geology would probably have driven her off for lack of credentials — she’d never attended a proper school before the university — if she hadn’t been the daughter of the great Flint Thomson. What you did with your Big Find was the kind of thing that young fossil mages and fossil hunters talked about at night, over drinks. She’d always hated that kind of talk. Who cares about the magic, she wanted to say, let’s talk about these terrible lizards.
But some of the young students had made finds. Most sold their discoveries for good money. But a few of them were mages, and they kept their bones. They became notorious for the spells they cast. They’d dug through ancient tomes written when fossils were plentiful. In the rotting pages they’d unearthed lunatic spells to talk with the dead, to give you wings, to reveal secrets that would drive weak men mad.
Karyn didn’t answer Harry. After a while he whispered, “You gonna use it to talk to your Dad?”
Karyn shook her head. “When I was a girl, I would have. But not now. What would I ask him? Now that I’m older, I know the truth: it wasn’t him that raised me. It was the saurs.”
Harry turned back to the scree.
Karyn didn’t ask Harry what he would do, if he found a big one. Old timers never talked of that. Some old timers were superstitious, and didn’t want to jinx a search. But Karyn new the truth: most of the old timers never talked of it because they all knew the answer without having to ask. There were rumors that every one of the old time fossil mages carried the spell in his pocket at all times, in case he got lucky: the spell to make himself young again.
She wondered if her father had carried a copy, and had waited too long for that next big find.
They worked slowly toward the spot where she’d found the claw. Any other evidence would probably be buried at that spot. They could have started there, most likely. But she wanted to be thorough, to move methodically through one stretch, working straight toward her find. So they scraped away, crouching and sweating in the hot sun, and only slipping a step to the right every few minutes when they both felt they’d combed the dirt enough.
“One bone, two bone, three bone, four,” Harry chanted. “Pick at the dirt till you find five more.” He coughed then, but managed still to smile at her, flashing the dark gap of his missing eyetooth.
When she’d been a girl, Harry had seemed so much fun. He was the only comic relief at the deadly monotony of the digs. When he found some tiny fragment, often, instead of recording and reporting it, he’d make the shard dance through the dirt like a Mexican jumping bean, before it collapsed into dust. Her father would have howled at the waste, but she’d laughed and clapped when Harry did it.
When had Harry become a sad clown instead of a jovial one? Or had he always been so, and she’d just been too young to see the hardship on his face, to hear the sad desperation in his jokes?
She forced a smile, and finished the rhyme. “Glue them together, it’s quite a chore, then call your heap a dinosaur.”
Her hammer scaped against something hard. She’d been dragging it through the dirt while she talked, and hit a tiny curve of pale stone. Or bone.
They both froze and held their breath.
Karyn turned the hammer, and with the pick end scraped gently around the hard protrusion.
“Oh,” Harry said. He smiled widely again, showing his gap. He pulled his baseball cap down hard on his head, as if trying to squeeze the energy in. “Oh, it’s a….”
“Toe,” Karyn said. A clear shape, once you picked out how it stuck out of the soft stone of the cliff face.
“I bet she’s right here,” Harry said. “Lyin’ on her side.”
Karyn backed up two steps and scanned the slope. It did seem like there was a long bulge under the scree, a shape to the stone here.
She couldn’t help herself: though it wasn’t good method, she hurried about four paces to her right. There was a little protrusion there above the scree. She brushed aside the loose dust with her left hand, cleaning off the rock. She tapped at it. A chip of stone fell away. A round indentation stood in the exposed divot.
An eye socket.
“What you got?” Harry asked.
“Oh Mary Jesus and Joseph,” he said. “She’s lying on her side. From toe to top, she’s all there.”
Karyn knew she should tell Harry to wait. It could be that there was nothing there in the stone but part of the skull and a single toe. But she didn’t believe that. She turned and smiled at him. “It’s a big one,” she said.
“Oh it’s a big one. Maybe the biggest one ever.”
“Go get Bloodeye and Jim,” Karyn said.
Harry took a few steps and stopped. Karyn turned when she heard his footfalls go silent. Harry stood there, his hand on his pocket, fingering a piece of paper folded there. They stared at each other a moment before he spoke.
“I… I’m dying, Karyn.”
Karyn stared, mouth open.
The first thought that came into her head was: I should have come alone. She hadn’t dared to hope that the rex might be right there, on the ground and parallel to the cliff face, just inches below the surface. She’d expected it to be high up, and deep in the stone, where a whole team would be needed to dig it out.
Tears welled in Harry’s eyes. He blinked them out. “I’m sorry and I know it ain’t fair. It’s terrible unfair. But this is a big one and I’m dying. I got the cancer. In my lungs.”
“There are other saurs here,” Karyn said. “I feel it.”
“You don’t know that for sure. You don’t know. If you give me this one, I’ll take a cure. I got one right here.” He tapped his pocket. “Don’t really need the paper, I’ve memorized the damn invocation a hundred times over, but just for safety I got it right here. And I swear to you I’ll, I’ll spend the rest of my days finding you another dinosaur like this one. I’ll find you two like her. Anything you ask. Only….”
“Go get Bloodeye and Old Jim,” Karyn said. “We can talk about it then.”
His shoulders dropped in defeat. He knew if the others were there, he wouldn’t have the courage to beg, and she wouldn’t feel the lone burden to hear him do it. But he turned, and took a few steps. He looked back and said quickly, “I bet, I bet it’s going to be bigger even than the old girl your pa found.”
He hurried off around the ridge.
The Old Girl, as she came to be known, had been the biggest T Rex ever found so nearly whole.
And Karyn had found it. It didn’t say that in any record anywhere, it didn’t say that in her father’s memoirs, but she’d been the one.
It had been early in the season. The sun had just risen and Karyn had already started digging when Harry had stumbled, still drunk, into camp. Flint had told him to leave immediately, to get the hell out. Harry ignored that. He found Karyn picking at some soft sandstone and he’d started sloppy hacks at the stone right next to her. He had nowhere to go, no chance of another job, and so was going to work this job till someone carried him away from it.
Karyn had just found the tooth. Front incisor, as long as a man’s finger. She recognized it immediately. Not from magic, not from some superstition in the gut. From years of lonely, difficult study. She rolled it in her palm, imagining what the monster that chewed with this tooth must have looked like, how it must have sounded and smelled and what it would have been like for one to stare right at you.
She’d meant to show her father, but she felt so sorry for Harry that she held it up before him. She just wanted to share the wonder of it with him, a moment, before she gave the bone up. “T Rex.”
Harry had dropped his hammer and grabbed it from her tiny hand.
“My god girl.” He raised his voice and shouted. “Flint! Flint!”
Her father had appeared with Old Jim. Old Jim had been young then, of course, but still called Old Jim. He didn’t often work with her father, but he had been that day. He looked wary: he’d been called to boot Harry off the dig. It wasn’t the kind of work he wanted. Now Harry held up the tooth.
“Tyrannosaurus Rex!” he shouted.
“Where?” Flint had asked, squinting, his whole being suddenly focused on the dirt at their feet. He looked right through Karyn. He didn’t even see her.
“I found it right here,” Harry said. He pointed at Karyn’s feet.
The men pushed her aside and started digging.
Karyn put one finger on the edge of the eye socket, feeling the power in it. It was all here, the whole skeleton — she could tell by how strong the magic felt. You could cure cancer with this. You could talk with a dead man. You could do anything.
She had to give Harry what he asked, didn’t she? For all his faults, she’d grown up by his side. She’d made a habit, till she went off to university, of taking care of him. Of helping him, and asking for nothing in return. The way she’d helped her father.
“No,” she said aloud. “No.”
All her life, all those nights laying on her bedroll as she stared at the dingy canvas of the tent, all those days spent pushing her fingers through the dirt, she’d dreamed of only one thing. And now she could have it.
Maybe, she thought, I really am my father’s daughter. Because whatever the cost, I’m going to have my way.
Karyn pulled the paper from her shirt pocket. Her father had put her onto to the idea, when he told her of necromancers. She’d spent the remainder of her inheritance — the last of the money from the sale of the Old Girl to some Saudi sheik — searching for the right spell. She went to England and lived a summer in a little flat behind Russell Square. She scoured the British Museum, blowing dust off old books and turning their pages under the critical eye of hawkish librarians. In her last week, nearing despair, broke, and tired of the city and the rain, she found the spell she sought.
She unfolded the page. It was a danger to do it like this, with the rex still buried. But the bones looked to be sitting shallow, and she was not going to wait. She was not going to let herself be talked out of it.
She put her right palm flat on the eye socket of the fossil skull. She held the page open with her left hand. And she read the invocation.
The old timers just came round the bend when the rock exploded.
“What?” Old Jim howled, waving at the air, trying to clear the hot cloud of dust. “What’d you do? You dynamite the rock?”
When the dust settled, they could see the bones piled in a heap in the flat clearing before them, free of the stone.
“Not dynamite,” Bloodeye whispered. “The bones are whole.”
“What’d’you do?” Old Jim repeated.
The bones moved. They shifted and twisted together. And then they began to rise.
Something tugged at Karyn’s pants. She pulled the claw from her pocket, and it leapt from her hand into the heap of bones, finding its place.
A hot dry wind tore Karyn’s hat from her head. Old Jim caught his own straw hat as it shot out before him.
“It’s pulling the carbon and the water from the air!” Karyn shouted over the sudden roar of wind. “We have to back away!” Her skin turned hot and dry: the sweat stripped off her in an instant.
They ran for the scrub a hundred paces away. When they turned and looked back, the bones were standing like a museum mounting, all arranged as they had been in life. And as the four of them watched, half-formed viscera clotted into the rib cage, precipitating out of the air. The rex reared its head, a silent scream.
“Woah,” Harry said.
Muscle started to knot over the bones. Veins and pale nerves branched and fought their way through the tissue. A layer of green and red skin began to crawl over the new flesh, slowly hardening. The rex turned its head and aimed its empty eye sockets at them. As the four of them stared back, fluid coagulated in the twin gaping holes, turned green, and then blinked.
The chest of it heaved: it took its first breath. And then it let out a scream that echoed off the hills. A scream not heard in seventy million years.
Bloodeye whooped, and then laughed, surprising all of them. They’d hardly ever seen the old Navajo smile, in the decades they’d known each other. No one had ever heard him holler or laugh.
She’d invited the old timers, she now realized, not because she thought she’d need their help, or not only for that reason, but because they alone could appreciate this. She wanted them to see it too. She wanted to share this with people who understood.
“You brought it back,” Harry said.
“I didn’t know such a thing could be done,” Old Jim said.
Karyn didn’t take her eyes off the retreating green and red dinosaur. Its tail feathers shimmered in the punishing badlands sun as it ran for the gully, huge strides hammering the hard ground.
“For me, it was never about the magic,” she said. “Never about the money. It was always about the saurs. And just once, just once, I had to see one. I had to see one run.”
The rex stopped, and looked back toward them, and roared.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.