Cast of Wonders 302: Restoring the Magic

Restoring the Magic

by Ian Creasey

When I had climbed high enough that my breath came in great panting gasps, and the sheep in the valleys looked like tiny flecks of fallen cloud, I heaved off my backpack and looked for the best spot to plant the final sapling. Birch and goat-willow dotted the exposed slopes, hardy species that withstood the storms and chills of the High Tatras. My oak required a more sheltered home. I saw a south-facing escarpment, and scrambled across to investigate. The grey rock felt warm under my hand, retaining the heat of the autumn sun. Behind an outcrop, in a small gully, the wind dropped to a light breeze. I pulled up tussocks of grass to inspect the soil, and found it damp but not sodden, thin but not barren. An earthworm crawled away into the moss and leaf-litter. Instinctively, I felt that a dryad would thrive here.

I fetched my pack, took out the trowel, and began to dig. Soon I had a hole big enough to receive the sapling’s earth-encrusted root-ball. I threw a handful of compost into the bottom, then lowered the tree into the ground and trod down the soil.

I peered at the sapling to make sure that the tiny young dryad still clung to the stem. I was tempted to get out my magnifying glass for a good look, but I didn’t want to risk scorching her in the sunlight like a small boy torching ants. There were hazards enough for a dryad, for a tree, without me being careless. I staked a large plastic tube around the sapling to protect it from sheep, rabbits, and other nibblers. The plastic looked nasty and artificial in the rugged Slovak countryside, but it would biodegrade in a few years.

Finally, I recorded the location in my log-book and tied a small metal tag to the tree. The reintroduction zone was secluded, but not secret. The tag contained a project code, a dryad number, and my initials: “BK”. My parents christened me Jeremy Benedict Kemp, but at university I dropped the first name and began signing “Ben” to the emails and Christmas cards I sent home.

This was my fourth project since graduation, and my second outside England. I looked forward to tagging my initials across the world, as we strove to restore the magic it had lost. I just needed a permanent job with the Phoenix Foundation: I couldn’t afford to keep doing voluntary placements.

My stint in Slovakia had gone well, although I was annoyed at spending so much time on the dryads. Above me, the peaks held dragons’ lairs. Alzbeta, the local warden, was fiercely protective of the dragons. She hadn’t let me anywhere near them; the closest I’d got was collecting a few scat samples. And I couldn’t argue with Alzbeta, because I needed her to give me a good reference.

After eating my tuna sandwiches, I started back downhill, enjoying the stroll with my backpack now considerably lighter. I scratched my itchy new beard, irritated that it still hadn’t grown in properly. All the conservationists on TV had luxuriant beards, as though providing vast hairy habitats for rare mammals. My straggly blond wisps wouldn’t even harbour a small beetle.

I descended via the foothills of the nearest lair, looking for any scat to collect. Over the summer, I’d learned to spot the unobtrusive droppings of our young dragons in their new habitat. As my insect repellent wore off and midges feasted on my neck, I spied a squidgy lump of undigested fur and bone. It looked fresh, so I scooped it into a sample tube. By determining what the dragons ate, we could gauge the suitability of potential release sites.

On my way back to the car, I discovered some late blackberries ripening in the sun, so I filled a spare sample bag with fruit. They would make a cheap and tasty crumble, especially if I swung by the farmer’s orchard to see if any crab-apples had fallen. Working for a conservation charity meant stretching the budget every possible way. Down in the villages they thought we were all rich foreigners, so they tried to overcharge us whenever they could.

The ancient Volvo started first time, and I eased it down the track with a minimum of jolting over potholes and ancient rusted trash. When I reached the smoother paving of the farmyard, I sighed with relief that the suspension had held out once more. I glimpsed the farmer emerging from a barn, and I opened the passenger-side window to greet him.

Then I saw what he was carrying. The farmer rushed toward me and threw the carcass onto the bonnet, splattering blood and tufts of wool all over the windscreen. He leaned down and shouted through the open window, blasting me with pipe-tobacco breath fuggy enough to smoke bees from a hive.

“Bastards! Are you trying to ruin us? You ignorant donkey —”

I’d made an effort to learn some Slovak, but he spoke far too fast for me to pick it all up. I let him shout for a while, until he ran down and started coughing. Then, not without trepidation, I got out of the car.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, carefully repeating one of the first phrases I’d learned. “If this is dragon-kill, you may be entitled to compensation —”

“If?” He pointed to the mangled lamb. “You think my cat did this? You think it fell down the stairs?”

“It might have died naturally. There are other scavengers….” Under pressure, I ran out of words. I didn’t want to provoke him, but we needed to educate the locals that very few losses were really due to predation. Our dragons, being young, mostly ate rabbits rather than livestock. This lamb wasn’t much smaller than an adult sheep: I was surprised a dragon had tackled it.

I riffled through my folder and plucked out the appropriate form. The farmer shot me a disgusted look from beneath his vast eyebrows. “Is that a magic spell to bring sheep to life?” He crumpled the paper and tossed it aside.

If he didn’t want compensation, that would stretch the budget further. A shrill voice came from a high window across the yard. I didn’t catch the words, but the farmer sagged under their weight. He bent down and grabbed the form, smoothing it as best he could. While he used the car’s roof to write down his details, I dumped the carcass into the back. At the lab, we’d examine the remaining skin for haemorrhages — only live animals haemorrhage when bitten.

The farmer handed me the completed form, which gave his name as Jozef squiggle-something, and said, “We have a right to protect our flocks. And we have plenty of guns.”

A fierce protective urge rose inside me. “You can’t possibly need to do that,” I said. “How often do you lose stock? When was the last time?”

“The more creatures you let loose, the more sheep we’ll lose.”

“That won’t happen. Our research shows —”

He shouted an obscene insult, and went on, “What do you know about farming, you soft-handed foreigner? You’ve never done a hard day’s work in your life! I’ve already called my brother. Our hunters will go up the mountains, through the towns, into the Belianska Cave if they have to.” He paused to glare at me and relight his pipe. “Wherever the monsters live, we’ll find them and shoot them.”

I wanted to tell him that was illegal. I wanted to convince him that iconic predators created far more tourist income than they destroyed in livestock. I wanted to talk to him about restoring ecosystems, and our responsibility to put a little magic back to replace all that we’d lost. But I looked at the blood on the farmer’s shirt, and realised this wasn’t the time.

“Jozef, I hope you’ll think again before you do that,” I said, getting into the car. “Once more, I’m sorry about this. The office will be in touch about any compensation.”

I decided not to ask for any apples as I left.

The smell of the carcass filled the car, making me queasy, and I couldn’t open the windows without attracting flies. I drove faster than normal, even though I still wasn’t fully accustomed to driving on the right-hand side of the road. When I reached Tatranske Matliare, I saw lights in our building. Alzbeta must have returned; I hadn’t seen her for a couple of days.

I picked up the carcass, hardly flinching at all, and carried it into the lab. It was lighter than I’d expected. I took a few photos, and a blood sample just in case. As I labelled the sample, Alzbeta came in from the office.

She pulled down her glasses from their perch high on her elderberry-dark hair. Watching her examine the sheep, I envied her aura of competence. She was about a decade older than me; she’d been the local warden for five years, after arriving from the Czech Republic. For my benefit, she usually spoke English.

“Definitely a live kill,” she said. “Claws first, and then a bite. You can see haemorrhaging on what’s left of the neck.”

She pointed. I lacked the expertise to confirm her diagnosis, as I hadn’t yet seen enough livestock kills. Alzbeta always handled the few that occurred.

“Are there any more tests we can do?” I asked.

“No, there’s no need,” she replied. “Might as well put it out for the griffins.”

I hauled the carcass into the yard, where it was greeted by delighted squawks. Then I changed into clean clothes, washed my hands, and returned to the car to pick up my log-book and the farmer’s compensation form.

Back inside, Alzbeta practically grabbed the form out of my hand. “I’ll deal with this. Did you get all of the dryads planted?”

“Yes, I just need to update the database.”

“Great job!” She smiled at me. That didn’t happen very often. Normally she looked sour, harassed and overworked. Today she seemed bright-eyed, full of nervous energy.

“Which dragon do you think made the kill?” I asked.

She gave me a blank stare, as if this was the most bizarre question in the world. Then she recovered herself, glanced at the form where the farmer had written his address, and said, “I guess the nearest would be Penelope, so probably her, though it doesn’t matter which. We only need to confirm that it was any of them, for the farmer to get his compensation.”

“But we should know, shouldn’t we? For the records, so we know which of them are moving onto bigger food?”

“Yes, of course. I said I’ll deal with it,” she said, in a tone that reminded me of my mother. “You still need to update the dryads, don’t you?”

Frustrated, I sat at my computer and started entering the GPS co-ordinates of each sapling that I’d planted.

Every time I tried to get involved with the dragons, Alzbeta kept rebuffing me. I’d had plenty of other projects to occupy my time: not just the dryads, but reintroducing kobolds into abandoned mines, saving the two-headed amphisbaena, and so on. Yet I’d volunteered for this placement because I wanted to work with dragons in the wild. It was the logical next step: I’d previously worked at an ostrich farm in Israel, where the ostriches incubated dragons’ eggs until they hatched, and the staff hand-fed the young dragonets until they could start catching their own food. I remembered the thrill of feeding scraps to a tiny dragon, no bigger than my foot. I used to imagine how it would look flying over the countryside, giving everyone a glimpse of awe-inspiring beauty. I remembered the pride I felt at contributing to the rewilding programme, helping to restore magic and mystery to the world.

I’d handled dragons. I had experience — admittedly, only a few weeks of experience, but I wasn’t some ignorant bungler who might accidentally break a dragon’s delicate wing. Alzbeta had no right to keep them to herself. How would anyone else ever learn?

It had been a long day out in the hills, and it took me another hour to finish the dryads’ records. To boost my chances of securing a permanent job, I needed to excel at bureaucracy as well as conservation. I painstakingly updated the database, cross-referencing permits from the Slovak authorities alongside European Union grant applications. Then I signed off the file. Alzbeta countersigned it before she left; she had some evening meeting to attend.

I yawned, and thought about going home, to the hostel that I shared with various students and gap-year travellers. On an ordinary day, I would have gone. But my placement was coming to an end, and I needed to squeeze as much experience out of it as possible. I was determined to expand the “dragons” entry on my CV.

And I remembered that I still had the scat sample in the car, the one I’d collected before all the business with the sheep carcass.

I’d brought in samples before, but Alzbeta had always done the analytics. Still, I’d watched her a couple of times, and the equipment hadn’t looked very difficult to use. Why shouldn’t I try it myself?

As I returned to the car to retrieve the sample, I heard the griffins in the yard squabbling over roosts as they settled down for the night. Back at the lab, I fired up the sequencer. This impressive piece of kit had presumably swallowed most of the budget. Just turning it on made me feel like I was starring in one of those TV shows where scientists and detectives make Important Discoveries using Shiny Machines.

The screen asked me for an authorisation code, which I supplied after ferreting out Alzbeta’s emergency Post-It note of passwords. I placed the sample tube, still sealed, in the appropriate receptacle. Then I closed the lid and pressed the Go button. The machine itself would open the tube, extract the contents, and run the analysis.

In my eagerness, I’d forgotten that it was a slow process. Expensive as it was, the sequencer couldn’t produce instant results. I would have to wait. What could I do in the interim?

Having just entered the dryads’ locations into a database, I recalled that the dragons were all ringed with GPS transmitters. These enabled us to track their range. I logged in, and called up the records for the past few days. A map showed where our dragons had recently flown.

Zooming into the map, I found the farm where Jozef had dumped the sheep carcass on me. To my surprise, the flight paths disappeared. I frowned, and zoomed out. The dragons’ tracks reappeared around the edge of the display, but they were nowhere near the farmhouse. Perhaps the farmer’s land extended way up into the mountains; the map didn’t show which land belonged to which farmer.

The lack of an obvious dragon-track meant that I couldn’t determine the culprit. It might have been Penelope, or Chrysoprase, or the Prince of Wales, all of whom had flown in that area. I couldn’t tell whether any of them had lingered to make a kill: the GPS fixes were only half-hourly, to conserve the transmitters’ battery life.

I should have asked the farmer exactly where he’d found the carcass. Next time, I’d know to ask that question.

Except there wouldn’t be a next time, because my placement was nearly finished. If I’d had training earlier, then I would have done better this time. It was Alzbeta’s fault.

Annoyed, I stomped over to the sequencer to check its progress. The screen said, “Species analysis completed. Species detected: dragon, rabbit, hare, field vole, sparrow. Individual analysis pending.”

The sequencer could swiftly detect “dragon”, but it took longer to match individual characteristics against the profiles in our database, and determine exactly which dragon had left the scat.

But whichever dragon it was, it hadn’t eaten any sheep.

On impulse, I began poking around in the sequencer’s onscreen menus, looking for an Archive listing. As I’d hoped, the machine stored all the old analyses. It took me a little while to filter the dragon-scat entries from the other lab work. Yet the more of them I saw, the more my mouth widened in amazement. None of the dragons had ever eaten sheep. They’d only consumed smaller prey: rabbits, rodents, birds, insects.

So why did livestock keep getting killed? And why were dragons getting the blame?

Just to be sure, I logged back into the office computer and checked the older compensation claims. Alzbeta had indeed signed them off as dragon kills.

I scowled. Was it merely a scam, a money-making scheme? My fists clenched at the thought that I was volunteering to work for a tiny expenses allowance, while fraudsters were milking the budget.

Then I realised that it couldn’t be a scam, because there wasn’t enough profit — only a few sheep over several months, at a hundred euros per carcass. And Jozef had seemed genuinely angry at the death of his lamb. Something had killed it: “claws first, and then a bite,” Alzbeta had said.

If not a dragon, then what? Was it something mundane, like a fox or a rogue dog? No, because Jozef wouldn’t have blamed “monsters”. And Alzbeta surely wouldn’t authorise compensation for anything outside the Foundation’s remit.

I racked my brain for about eleven seconds, until I remembered the master database of all the reintroduction programmes. I called it up, and entered Slovakia in the regional filter. A list emerged: the dragons, the dryads, the kobolds, the griffins that never left our yard because they were too domesticated.

I already knew about every creature on the list. And none of them looked like a sheep-killer. Yet that made sense — if the real culprit had been in the database, then Alzbeta wouldn’t have needed to blame the dragons.

This was definitely a cover-up.

Suddenly, the office felt colder and full of shadows. I was alone, and far from home. The moonlight shining through the windows reminded me that I’d spent hours in the office after a full day outdoors. Feeling the need for human company, I closed everything down and set off back to the hostel.

As I drove, I kept wondering what had killed those sheep. Whichever creature was responsible, there couldn’t be very many of them. There’d only been half-a-dozen kills over the past six months.

A kill every month…. I pulled over and stopped the car, because I couldn’t focus on the road ahead. I was too busy trying to remember the dates on those compensation forms. Had they really been at monthly intervals?

I didn’t dare return to the office to check. I drove on, into the moonlight.

The next day, I decided that I didn’t need to go back to the office at all. My placement was almost over, and I’d completed the dryads project, so there would only be routine scut-work to do. And I felt disinclined to contribute any more of my labour in the service of a cover-up.

The sensible action would be to stick out the final days, and not say anything that might rock the boat. I would probably never return to Slovakia, so what did any local misdeeds matter?

But I wanted to find out what was going on, if only to validate the efforts I’d already made. I phoned Alzbeta and asked her to meet me at a café in town, ostensibly for a celebratory lunch to mark the end of my placement. Although I could have talked to her at the office, I felt safer meeting her in public.

During my stay I’d quickly learned that food was cheaper if you went somewhere less tourist-oriented. Of course, this meant a lack of English-language menus, and I’d spent weeks ordering adventurously until I figured out what everything meant. This particular café served lots of bryndza and oštiepok — sheep cheese — which I no longer felt like eating. I sighed, and tapped my fingers on the red tablecloth while I stared at the Warhol-imitation prints on the walls.

When she arrived, Alzbeta ordered onion soup and an egg sandwich. Like many conservationists, she was a vegetarian — a fact that now seemed hard to square with my wild surmise of the night before. I ordered a tuna salad. Before Alzbeta could distract me with any small-talk, I looked her in the eye and said, “I know the dragons haven’t been eating sheep.”

She flinched, but didn’t speak.

“Something out there is eating sheep,” I went on. “What is it? And why are we covering up for it?”

“If you don’t know that, I’m not going to tell you,” she said, sounding relieved. “You’re right, there is a secret programme, but only a few senior people know about it. You haven’t been with the organisation for long enough.”

“Why does it have to be secret?” I demanded.

Alzbeta gave me a frosty stare. “The same reason as always: protection. We don’t publicise the location of the dragons’ nests, because we don’t want anyone hunting the dragons or stealing their eggs. You know that. And the principle is the same here.”

“But I’m a volunteer!” I protested. “I’m not an egg thief or some idiot with a shotgun —”

“No, but you’re only here temporarily. Soon you’ll go home to England, or to another placement elsewhere. You don’t need to know every detail of what’s happening here in Slovakia. If you did know, then….” She shook her head. “Secrets are like viruses. They spread. Even when people don’t mean to spread them.”

“So you don’t trust me?” I said bluntly.

“Not until you’ve proved yourself. Look, you seem like a nice guy, but I’ve only known you for three months. You’ve done a few placements, but they’ve been… what, less than a year altogether? If you stay with the Foundation, then gradually you’ll acquire more responsibility, and you’ll learn more about what we do.” She paused and held my gaze. “You’ve done well here — you’ve worked hard, you’ve been reliable. I’ll write you a good reference. You’ll get another job, a permanent post. Just give it time.”

Our food arrived, and she began lapping up her soup. I understood the implicit bribe that Alzbeta offered. If I stopped asking awkward questions, then she would smooth my path into a salaried role within the organisation. She would give me what I wanted.

Yet I’d formed that ambition when I thought I understood what the Phoenix Foundation did. Should I still aspire to join it? How could anyone be confident that they supported the organisation’s goals, if some of them were secret? It wasn’t just me. What about all the other volunteers, workers, donors?

“I understand your point about the dragons’ nests,” I said, “but we don’t hide the fact that we’re reintroducing dragons. Everyone knows they’re out there somewhere. Yet if we run secret programmes, then how can anyone agree or disagree with what we’re doing?” I remembered the European Union grant applications in the database. “We take taxpayers’ money. If we lie about what we do with it, that’s fraud!”

Alzbeta was already shaking her head. “It’s not fraud. Don’t be silly. We’re not spending it on unrelated fripperies. We’re fulfilling our mission. If you go to our website, what’s the slogan at the top of the home page?”

It took me a moment to remember: “‘Restoring the Magic’.”

“Exactly. But how magical is a dragon with GPS transmitters on its leg and CCTV cameras in its lair? Real magic is mysterious. It’s hidden. It’s not labelled on a map, and it doesn’t have technical specifications in a downloadable PDF file.”

“But it does kill sheep, apparently.”

Alzbeta shrugged. “A small number of sheep, for which full compensation is paid.”

“And the dragons get the blame.” I remembered Jozef’s anger. “That farmer talked about shooting them.”

She smiled. “Oh, it’s all a big show to make sure they get their money. I bet you thought he was hard done by, huh? It’s what they want us to think! But the compensation is actually more than the market value of those sheep. That’s why —” She stopped mid-sentence, and instead concluded, “That’s why you don’t need to worry about the dragons.”

I sighed and leaned back in my chair, wondering what she’d nearly said.

“Magic must have its secrets,” she said firmly. “Without secrets, it isn’t magic.”

“But we live in an open society — a democracy. To reintroduce dragons, we had to educate politicians and voters, and get them on board. That’s how it’s supposed to work. We can’t just secretly reintroduce anything on a whim, not without some kind of scrutiny. Not without licensing and all that.” The idea of mysterious magic sounded alluring in principle, but rather more alarming as a bloodthirsty monster roaming the countryside.

She laughed. “Democracy? This is magic! You can’t take a vote on transcendence. You can’t flip-flop every five years over whether the world is mysterious or not.”

“I take your point,” I said — not because I agreed with it, but because I wanted the conversation to end.

Alzbeta clearly wouldn’t come out and tell me what had really killed those sheep. Not until I’d been promoted within the organisation — whatever that involved. Was it just a matter of paperwork and job titles, or was it something rather more visceral?

And if I confronted her with my suspicion, forcing her to respond, then would she simply nod and say, “Oh, how clever of you to guess”? Or would she take steps to preserve the secrecy that “real magic” depended upon? I imagined another version of the compensation form — instead of “Sheep: €100”, it might read “Human: €1,000,000”. The Phoenix Foundation surely had insurance policies to cover all sorts of accidents, dragon-related and otherwise.

Alzbeta paid for the meal. She thanked me for all my efforts over the past three months, and she promised me a good reference for any job applications. “I admire your scruples,” she said. “That’s what the Foundation needs: people who ask questions and care about the issues.”

When I saw her drive away, my whole body sagged with the release of accumulated tension. I found a bench in the market square, and sat down to think. Pigeons swiftly approached on the off-chance of food, reminding me of the griffins in the yard; it made me nostalgic already.

I sympathised with Alzbeta. I understood her point about magic needing an elusive, esoteric side — the antithesis of today’s form-filling bureaucratic culture. And I appreciated her efforts to arrange compensation for those affected.

But on the other hand… the arrogance! I shivered, recalling how she’d laughed at the notion of democracy. It’s fashionable to denigrate politics: she probably thought she was on safe ground by sneering at it.

“Yet what’s the alternative?” I asked myself. “Trusting in a secret, self-appointed cabal? That only sounds attractive when you’re part of it.”

Did I want to be part of it? I was tempted. I remembered the exhilaration of standing on the slopes of the High Tatras, surrounded by dryads and dragons, thinking of the beauty I’d helped restore to a grey, faded world. It would surely feel even more intoxicating to know all the secrets of the magic around me, to be responsible for the world’s mysteries….

But Alzbeta had made it clear that becoming an insider would take years. And I hardly had a guarantee — she could simply have been fobbing me off, using an empty promise to keep me quiet. How could I trust her? How could I tell if Alzbeta was on the right side?

In the end, you can only judge people on what you know they’ve done. And the only thing I really knew about Alzbeta was that she’d lied.

I needed to learn more. I needed to stay with the Phoenix Foundation, and see what was happening around the world. Alzbeta’s cabal might be the benign guardians of the world’s secret magic. Or they might not — in which case, I needed to protect myself.

Looking around the square, I saw a jewellery shop. I walked inside, and I asked what they had in silver.

About the Author

Ian Creasey

Ian Creasey lives in Yorkshire, England. He began writing when rock & roll stardom failed to return his calls. So far he has sold seventy-odd short stories to various magazines and anthologies. His debut collection, Maps of the Edge, was published in 2011; a second collection, Escape Routes from Earth, came out in 2015. His interests include hiking and gardening — anything to get him outdoors and away from the computer screen.

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About the Narrator

Brian Lieberman

Brian is a froody marketer by day and unapologetic nerd by … also day. And night. And most of lunchtime as well. As the PseudoPod community manager, he mostly tends to the horrors of PseudoPod towers but occasionally ventures outward to visit the other Escape Artists podcasts. He lives in Columbia, Maryland with his wife, a roommate, a cat, and a school of fish.

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