June 2010


“The name comes to us from the Greek planetoi, which literally means ‘I wander.’ They, like many of the ancients, noticed that some stars seemed to move about the sky rather than remaining stationary, and hence they were known as wandering stars. Today, of course, we know that this is not the case, and that the orbits of the planets are more or less fixed in relation to the Earth. Their apparent wandering is but an illusion.”

“We all know this, Hempsey,” said Cullins. “Why do you prattle on telling us things we learned as students?”

“I am simply building up to the point of my discussion,” Hempsey replied evenly. “I ask you: what if one could prove those long-ago Greeks prophetic?”

“Surely you don’t mean-”

“Oh but I do,” Hempsey said. “Our astronomical observatories in Siam, Prussia, and Newfoundland confirm that, as we speak, a rogue planet is passing through our solar system.”

“So what’s the name of this band?” Jeanette asked.

“The Bad Electronic Twilight Cowboys,” Leif replied.

“Okay, what is is about bands these days?” Jeanette said, waving her arms. “Is it asking too much for a normal name, or does every single one have to be spat out of a Weird Word Generator? It’s like freakin’ Mad Libs, only they get taken seriously.”

“No,” said Leif, “the Mad Libs are playing in the second set.”

“What genre do the Bad Electronic Twilight Cowboys play?”

“Punk/ska/rock fusion.”

“That’s another thing!” Jeanette cried. “Why does every freakin’ band have to be its own genre? Why can’t we just call them punk? Or ska? Or rock? And why fusion–is that some sort of magic word that makes genres that have nothing to do with each other get along? What are the Mad Libs, a hair metal/chamber music fusion? Or maybe country/Andean panpipes/Tibetian yak horn fusion?”

Leif calmly took a sip from his energy drink. “I’m sensing a little hostility here. We still going?”

Jeanette sighed and gave her head a shake. “…it’s just the coffee talking. Let’s go.”

Dr. Stryver paged through the manusccript. “The Edoans worshiped a variety of deities, the most prominent of which was Eonar, god of summer. He was said to wander the countryside in the guise of a friendly old gardener, well-rounded by plentiful food and deeply tanned. Passersby would find him working their garden or fields, after which the harvest would be unusually bountiful.”

“Does the book say anything about his eye color?” Harry asked. “Or some kind of necklace or talisman? Maybe a weapon?”

“Hmm, let’s see…usually dressed as a laborer…known to indulge heartily in wine…ah! Yes, it says that those he visited sometimes knew him by his unworldly violet eyes. And…yes! There’s mention of a sickle or scythe-shaped charm, a gift from his son Edoyar, god of he harvest.”

Harry and Kim looked at each other meaningfully.

“As for a weapon…all it mentions is that Eonar was a renowned archer.”

“There’s no doubt, then,” said Kim. “That’s he man we saw in the Dennis Fields.”

Once they had properly tied me up and set me in a chair–not to mention making unambiguous gestures with their weapons–I was willing to listen to the Elrinists’ demands. “What’s it called?”

The lead Elrinist withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket and reverently unfolded it. “Dirk Chiseler and the Gilded Alchemist of the Sargasso Sea,” he said. “Parts I-XIV, in Astounding Tales magazine. July 7, 1938 thru January 17th 1939.”

I stared at him, thunderstruck.

“Well, do you have it in the archive or don’t you?” he cried. “It’s on the list on your website.”

“Well…” I said, examining the instruments of pain, both blunt and explosive, the Elrinists carried. “Let me get this straight. You want a run of a lousy pulp adventure story from a half-rate magazine?”

“It is the only copy in existence,” the head Elrinist said. “We seek it for the wisdom it carries, delivered from our Mission Commander’s mind before he began his great work. Surrender it to us…or die.”

The deadly seriousness in his voice was too much, and I couldn’t restrain my laughter any longer.

“They have me against somebody called ‘Sapphire’ Barnes,” said George. “Doesn’t sound too tough.”

“Oh, he’s not called ‘Sapphire’ Barnes because he’s delicate,” a nearby fan said.

“Or valuable,” added another.

“Or easily worn on one’s finger,” chimed a third.

“I have a feeling I’m not going to like what’s coming next.”

“He’s called ‘Sapphire’ because he’ll beat and choke you ’til you’re blue,” the first said, miming the action of choking with one hand while lashing out with the other.

George could feel his neck begin to burn with flop sweat. “I-I guess I should be grateful I’m not going up against ‘Ruby’ Barnes.”

“Oh yeah. He wears a tiara.”

Local lore had it that the man buried under the blank tombstone in the oldest section of the city cemetery had wandered into the town square over a hundred years ago, clutching a nugget of gold in one hand. His skin cold to the touch, the man had muttered “ice, ice,” before succumbing to death by frostbite.

The fact that New Mexico only saw large amounts of ice on rare occasions, and that the man had supposedly died in July, precluded any serious acceptance of the story. Yet still it circulated among the bored and ne’er-do-well during the height of summer, with many wondering what riches might be found in deciphering the crazed wanderer’s calling of ice.

One man in particular had hit the town library and historical society in search of proof–Carlos’ father, during a stretch of unemployment in the late 1960’s. There had been plentiful newspaper accounts, many embellished, and a careful survey of the cemetery confirmed that someone or something was indeed buried there. But eyewitness testimony had been hard to come by, and the only clue as to the disposition of the gold supposedly clutched in the dying man’s hand come in the form of a sudden building spree around 1881.

But, for Carlos, that was more than enough.

Danya wasn’t terribly good with firearms, but the rules of her order forbade open use of elemental power among the uninitiated (she, along with many of the younger initiates, glibly referred to this as the “Harry Potter Rule”). Many cantrips involved a small projectile, a sudden burst of speed, and maybe a flash and crack for theatricality–not unlike a gunshot.

So by loading a pistol with blanks and heading down to the Rio de Janiero shooting range (creatively named after the January River that wound through downtown Sutton, Ohio), was a way to practice in public without much suspicion. And, if an assailant threatened on a lonely winter’s night, who could have told the difference between a clean gunshot and an Invocation of Stony Ignition and Animation?

She was enjoying herself, and attempting to draw a star on the paper target using Invocations of Base Metals From Air combined with Invocations of Airy Speed, when a shooter in the next booth leaned over.

“You have wonderful aim. Where’d you learn to handle a pistol?”

My office hours tended to attract three kinds of students:

First was the OCD Overachiever. You know the type: straight-A’s since they’ve been getting grades, always going the extra mile to ensure the streak remains unbroken. OCD Overachievers would usually stop by to prove how Committed and Dependable they were, and to establish a rapport with me so I would be less likely to grade them harshly. If I wanted smoke blown up my ass, I’d have been at home with a pack of cigarettes and a short length of hose; nevertheless, they were something of an ego boost.

Next was the Needy Wheedler. They typically needed my signature on something or other, usually something from the athletic department or one of the variety of student offices that managed academic probation or at-risk students. Needy Wheedlers had to get my signature to play polo against State, or to avoid expulsion, or something along those lines. They’d get very nervous if I didn’t sign the forms immidiately, even more so if I began asking questions or musing about what the criteria for judgment were. As long as my John Hancock was on that all-important slip of paper at the end, they didn’t paricularly care–which could be kind of fun as I led them through roundabout conversations and red herrings to claim their prize.

Finally, and most commonly, was the Desperate Bargainer. They typically showed up after a major assignment or test, desperate to dredge up some extra credit or other way to stave off imminent failure. Often, I’d never seen them in class before the assignment was due, and then they were in my office, trying to be my best friend or telling a sob story about how success in my class was the only thing keeping their family off the street and paying for little Jimmy’s insulin.

Macy was a Desperate Bargainer, one of the most desperate I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t until later that I realized what exactly it was underlaying it all.

“We call it the Cabinet of Horrors, you know,” the nurse said.

Jeremy’s eyes widened. “You’re making that up.”

“Oh no. It was donated to the hospital by Dr. Julius Rhinehart, a notorious rogue and quack who owned what they used to call a ‘cabinet of curiosities,’ a collection of wierd and deformed plants, animals, and even…body parts.”

“For real?” Jeremy was still and attentive for the first time since he’d been admitted.

“Some say that the ‘curiosities’ in Dr. Rhinehart’s cabinet were stitched together from failed experiments or patients that his vile, poisonous patent medicines killed.”

“They wouldn’t let him get away with that,” Jeremy said confidently, though there was a hint of quaver in his voice.

“Maybe not today, but back in the old days, well…anything went! Dr. Rhinehart was on the hospital’s board of directors even though he didn’t have a proper degree, after all, and people were happy to look the other way if it kept the money coming.”

“How’d the hospital get it, then?” Jeremy asked. “Is all that…stuff…still inside it?”

“Rhinehart eventually died after taking some of his own medicine, and he left the cabinet to the hospital. As for what’s inside of it…well, I’ve never seen it open!”

Jeremy had more questions–and barely even noticed his IV change–but no answers were forthcoming, and the nurse sauntered out with a knowing look on her face.

“Janice, that was mean,” one of her fellows said. “Scaring the poor kid like that.”

“If it means he’s quiet and still, I’ll tell him Dracula himself is buried under the west parking lot.”

Of course, there was the matter of the substance’s alchemical properties, as well. Johnathan had been experimenting with its rational, scientific aspects, but was quite thrilled to take it “off the books” to see what its interaction with the fantastical might be. He wasn’t so naive as to expect it to the lead-to-gold bullet ameteurs had so long sought, but he had enough of the Knack to see that the ore was particularly drawn to the ley line which ran through the laboratory.

His thoughts were interrupted on seeing a light on in the lab.

No, not a light–a flashlight, swinging to and fro, accompanied by scrapings, crashes, and other generally unhealthy sounds.

Creeping up as silently as he could, Johnathan eased the door open and flicked on the overhead light, illuminating a scene of utter ruin with a slim intruder at its heart.

“May I ask what you’re doing redecorating my laboratory at the witching hour?” he asked. Behind his back, one hand began to silently go through the motions of a holding charm.

“Ah…janitor in training?”

“Nice try.”

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