The mirror was a harsh herald. It told the truth, but it sure was blunt about it. Humphrey Hob wished for a gentler glimpse of reality as he surveyed his reflection’s growing bald patches. Taking a step back, Humphrey studied at the way his velvet robe grazed his knobby ankles. The robe was a deep green velvet, signifying that he was a novice in his skill set. Hopefully soon he would be wearing the red robes of a master.
After all, he had been scouted! He wasn’t a native Newburger who had grown up and been steeped in their particular field. It was true that sage abilities were individual; no one could measure a sage’s progress in years or against another’s success. People weren’t supposed to judge and laugh at the only old man in green. Yet they did, it was just the way of people. He wanted to tell them all that he had been hand-picked by a watcher, who had seen a rare talent in Humphrey’s alchemy skills and had brought Humphrey to Newburg to make a difference and Save the Worlds!
“A rare talent indeed!” agreed Humphrey as he gazed smugly at his profile in the mirror. His alchemical skills had brought riches to his kingdom that even the king had only dreamt of! Surely this was a talent worthy of a red robe! But then Humphrey’s face fell when he had to concede that his rare talent had covered nearly the entire country in gold. Crops were decimated and wells solidified. And when the kings’ prize heifer turned into what looked like a blasphemous golden idol, he called for Humphrey’s head. The Watchers appeared just in time, and Humphrey jumped at the chance to save his skin. If only he could save his hair as well.
His wheat colored locks were smudged with grey, and there were two large shiny areas of skin where his hair had receded like the inevitable tide eating away at the shoreline. He picked up a thin, worn book at his side entitled Everyday Enchantments: Simple Spells for the Simple Sage. The title had caught his eye a few days ago while he was perusing a rummage sale. He thumbed through the book, and found the entry called “Charm for a Sparse Crown.” He mumbled the description to his reflection. “To refurbish a naked noggin, phrase the following spell aloud in front of an untarnished mirror. Grasping a lion’s mane during the spell recitation is beneficial, but not necessary. For a hairier chest see page 26.”
Humphrey paused in doubt. Alchemy was a lot of chemistry and potion making with a little sage talent. He knew a few sage brews, but he had forgotten most of them in his relentless pursuit of the formula that would transform matter into gold. He certainly hadn’t devoted any time to dabbling in spells. He wondered if he even had the ability to cast spells! But he was a sage, wasn’t he? There was a chance.
Humphrey ran the spell through his head a few times. Once he was confident he had memorized it, he held the book out in front of him and spoke with conviction.
“Up above, invisible to me. Grow in close! Be clearly seen!"
He stared expectantly in the mirror. Nothing happened. Perhaps his sage talent didn’t extend to spells, and this Everyday Enchantments book was a merely a collection of strange poems for him. He examined the book in quiet disappointment. Then, he felt his scalp prickle and with an audible FLOOF, he saw his hair grow in thick and full of bounce. It was still grey in places, but he’d take it. He turned around as far as he could to see the back and feathered it with his hand.
“Very nice indeed!” But there was something else there he hadn’t noticed before; he had a bit of a pot belly. Had that always been there?
Before he had time to wonder in dismay for long, he felt a low rumble through the wood floor of his apartment. The walls were thin, true enough, but it felt as if the neighbors were bowling. As much noise as they made, he had never pegged them for apartment bowlers. Another rumble shook the floor, and it occurred to him that the noise might be coming from outside. He clapped the spell book shut in his hand and peeked through his moth-eaten curtains. Grey plumes of smoke were rising from the roof tops above lower Newburg. People below his window were either running in the street or pointing at the sky. What were they running from in the sky? Had a comet hit Newburg?
“How curious!” Humphrey flew out the door and down the stairs, spell book still in hand, propelled by visions of fireballs in the sky and the dangers of remaining in a rickety apartment building while the sky was falling.
He trotted down Manganese Road and hooked a left on Unity, his sage slippers pattering the cobblestones in a childlike manner. A third, heavy rumble sent a tremor under his feet, and he could hear people screaming in the distance. He reached Zinc Street where he had to rest at a solar lamp post and catch his breath. A fire engine wailed behind him and he hopped onto the curb as it hovered its way around the corner. He followed it and the smell of smoke down the Zinc Street and stopped at the edge of a small crowd. The hover vehicle settled down in an empty area beyond the crowd and Fire fighters began pouring out to assess the situation. A handful of injured people sat on the sidewalks, and a few of the Zinc Street stores had been decimated by large chunks of metal. The ground was littered with debris that smelled rancid.
“What happened?” he asked a young woman beside him. She had a moldy orange peel on her tightly braided hair. Humphrey did a double take.
“I-I don’t really know. These large spheres of junk just appeared up above out of nowhere. They hovered for a moment. Then they grew closer and closer and just dropped onto the stores and in the street. It looks like they were made of garbage,” the young woman answered in disbelief.
“Yes, um, about that…” he gestured to the orange peel, and she removed it gratefully. The woman attempted to peek over the crowd again to get a better idea of what was happening.
Not comets then, Humphrey thought. He gazed at the sky. There was nothing visible there. Then the woman’s words echoed in his mind.
“Up above. It grew closer and closer. Appeared out of nowhere.” Could it be? Humphrey clutched at his newly grown mane of hair and recalled the spell he used moments ago to grow it. It sounded eerily like the words the woman had used to describe the chaotic events that had transpired. “Up above, invisible to me. Grow in close, and be clearly seen.” Humphrey drew his hands down his scraggly beard and then anxiously clasped them at his heart as he pushed gently through the crowd to see just how much damaged he had caused this time.
Oh please let no one be dead! He thought. A teenager rushed past him running the opposite direction with his hands on his cheeks. Humphrey looked after him in puzzlement until a pungent aroma began to burn his nostrils, and he was drawn back to the scene in the street. Heaps of stretched metal lay half buried in the road, and broken glass from the shattered store windows blanketed the ground. Nick’s shoe store was now home to a hunk of plastic and steel that had shorn away its storefront. Firemen were putting out the last of the small fires, and a few people climbed into an ambulance that hovered away with its lights off. A couple of beneficial insects piled as much food garbage as they could in their arms. The human part of their genetic makeup must have been holding them back from going on all sixes and eating the rotting garbage right from the ground. The pungent aroma wasn’t entirely coming from the garbage, however. A puddle of pale yellow liquid had formed under one of the masses. It was spreading and beginning to bubble and fume.
Humphrey bit a fingernail in worry. This wasn’t as bad as turning a kingdom into gold, but it was close. Destroying cities was becoming a habit for him. He should have experimented on a smaller spell first, perhaps the one for finding lost socks.
“Dr. Weber! Dr. Weber!” shrieked a frantic voice behind him. A young lady was pushing desperately through the crowd, fighting her way toward a willowy woman with silver hair standing near Humphrey. “I’m so glad I found you! I heard the catastrophe, and I couldn’t find you at the lab. I was so worried you were hurt.”
“I know! I can’t believe it myself, Katy! I was in Nick’s buying new racquet ball shoes and I barely escaped with my life!” the silver haired woman replied.
“Oh, I am so sorry!” Humphrey interjected, full of remorse.
Dr. Weber turned her icy blue eyes on him and said, “YOU’RE sorry? Is all of this your doing?”
“Oh well, perhaps, probably, almost certainly, I would say. I uh was just trying out this spell you see and…”
“Spell! Oh for crones’ sake, you sages shouldn’t be allowed here! Newburg should be a scientific community only! All of these wand wavers running around disrupting our work.” Dr. Wbber pulled a slim silver device from her purse and began waving it around in the air over the bubbling puddle.
“I’ve never known anyone to use a wand. Except perhaps for you just now,” Humphrey said innocently. Dr. Webber pushed a button on the device, and with great annoyance, said, “This is not a wand you buffoon, it’s a particle reader. I’m trying to determine exactly what toxins we’re breathing in right now.”
“Ah,” Humphrey uttered.
The device began to beep at irregular intervals and Humphrey stepped meekly to the side and wrung his hands. A hush descended over the people behind him and he turned to see the crowd parting as the figure of a familiar woman passed through it. She wore a form fitting blue dress with severe shoulder pads, and her blue patent leather stilettos struck the ground with purpose. Her mouth was a thin line of crimson lipstick. She stopped beside Humphrey and clasped her hands behind her back as took in the situation with shrewd brown eyes.
“Ah, Miss Bliss, how pleasant to see you,” said Humphrey. At the mention of the name, Dr. Webber suddenly stopped waving her particle reader and straightened.
“It’s Mz. Mr. Blank,” the woman in blue corrected.
“Yes, of course, MIZZ Bliss,” he said as he straightened his robe and tried to suck in his belly.
“Madam Parliamentarian,” began a modest looking man with a silver badge on his uniform. “There were six injured, none critical. The patients have been taken by ambulance to the hospital. All the effected and adjacent establishments have been cleared, but we’re still trying to ascertain what caused the impacts.”
“Yes, Sergeant Marcus. I’ve been apprised,” said Mz. Bliss. “Please continue your efforts.”
“What is your particle reader detecting, Dr. Weber?”
“So far, it’s gathered moderate levels of lead and dioxin, but it’s also reading high amounts of toxic veskrilene coming from this puddle. The fumes are dissipating, but if it leaks into the water table it could be disastrous.” The crowd murmured. “We need the Alchemist,” Dr. Weber said.
“Yes indeed” Mz. Bliss agreed.
Feeling blood rush to his face, Humphrey explained, “Oh dear, you see, though I may have caused this, I have no idea how to fix it.”
“No you idiot!” Dr. Weber said, her ire stirred once more, “Not AN alchemist, THE alchemist.”
"Dr. Weber is referring to the special transmutational skills of Master Athalard whom I took the precaution of sending for already.”
“Quite right, quite right,” Humphrey said abashed, and shrank back.
Master Athalard arrived then as if he had been waiting for his cue. He stood bald and proud on a personal hovercraft, a gift from the parliamentarian herself. Dr. Weber rolled her eyes at the sight of it. With a flourish of red robes, he dismounted his floating chariot and greeted Mz. Bliss with an effusive smile. “Madam Parliamentarian,” he said, “I hear I may be of some service.”
“Yes. There has been some sort of chemical leak. Dr. Weber believes it is veskrilene.” Mz. Bliss gestured to the pool of bubbling liquid.
“Is that so?” The alchemist’s straight, dark eyebrows elevated on his forehead in surprise. He opened a compartment on his pinky ring and took a pinch of a blue powder stored inside. Then, he sprinkled the powder over the pale yellow puddle. The pool turned green and began to fizz. After a moment, the fizzing subsided, and the puddle returned to its former bubbling yellow state.
Dr. Weber’s suspicions are confirmed!” he announced to the crowd. “The chemical was veskrilite, but has become veskrilene.” Dr. Weber smirked.
“Can it be cleared?” asked Mz. Bliss.
“Let me see if I have the appropriate solutions on hand.” Athalard opened his red cloak to reveal row upon row of glass vials tucked into pockets sewn inside. “Yes, here we are,” he said as he selected three vials that clinked against each other. He held the first vial over the puddle and poured out its entire contents.
The pool stopped bubbling and emitted a thick, grey smoke. The crowd behind Humphrey murmured at the change. Athalard turned to the crowd. “I demand silence!” he declared dramatically. The people shushed. Athalard knelt over the smoking pool of liquid with the remaining two vials in hand. The crowd held its collective breath. With rapt attention, Humphrey hovered over Athalard’s kneeling form as he poured slowly from one vial and added a quick drop from another. The reaction gave off a great POOF, and the puddle of veskrilene turned to solid gold.
The crowd awed and applauded. Athalard rose, but dismissed the praise with a demure wave of his hands. “Now, now. I was just doing my duty,” he said with a smile.
Humphrey noticed steam rising from the shining pool of gold. That was unusual. None of his experiments had produced steam. He reached a hand down to inspect the gold, but jumped back in pain. “Yowch!”
“Yes, it will be too cold to handle for some time,” Athalard said casually.
“I thought your veskrilite was safe, Master Athalard. It was supposed to be an environmentally friendly wonder substance,” mocked Dr. Weber.
“You’re right again, Dr. Weber. Veskrilite is absolutely safe. Unless it is exposed to an acid, perhaps like one found in your InvisiTech formula,” Athalard said, handing her a canister from among the refuse with the words INVISITECH emblazoned on it.
Mz. Bliss cocked an eyebrow at this new information. Dr. Weber snatched the canister from Athalard’s grasp and said, “Sure. There is a mild, vinegar-like acid in my formula, but it’s only active if it’s chemically unbound. My. HOW COULD THAT HAVE HAPPENED? Some errant magic spell, maybe?!” She glared accusingly at Humphrey who managed an apologetic smile.
“I would like to understand how the InvisiTech and the veskrilite were brought together in the first place,” Mz. Bliss stated in a tone suggesting she was nearly finished being civil and more direct methods would soon be applied to find the truth.
“Excuse me, Madam,” said Sergeant Marcus.
“We’ve found this ID number on several pieces of the debris.” Sergeant Marcus handed Mz. Bliss a foot long piece of scorched, industrial plastic bearing a 6 digit dashed code.
“Is this not the code to YOUR lab Dr. Weber?”
“Well, yes it is,” Dr. Weber answered incredulously.
“Please tell us why a large portion of your lab has found its way into Zinc Street.”
Dr. Weber’s eyes widened. She glanced at her assistant, Katy, for moral support, but Katy merely looked puzzled at her.
“Oh, fine! These were all old projects from my lab. I needed room for my newest experiments, and all this had to go. It was going to take too long to fill out the novel-length prior use forms at the recycling center, not to mention the exorbitant fees they charge. So…I improvised.”
“How,” Mz. Bliss questioned.
"Well… I … sprayed the outdated equipment with my invisible ink, and bound them together on my old mega-superconductors- I was throwing them out anyway-then I used the sky train’s magnetic field to levitate them,” Dr. Weber explained simply.
Humphrey gulped. His humble hair-growth charm had undone all of this! The spell made the invisible ink visible, and the heaps of trash grew close just like his hair did!
“And the rest of the garbage. How did it mix with your previously used lab equipment?” Mz. Bliss asked.
“Others caught wind of what I was doing. I added their garbage in with the last bit of my old projects and made it disappear for a fraction of what the recycling center or the beneficial insects would have charged.”
Crowd murmured again, this time disapprovingly.
“Oh shush!” Dr. Weber shouted. “It wasn’t hurting anyone. Not until a glorified Greenrobe with his book of magic tricks messed with it. I’m telling you, Madam Parliamentarian, we need to be stricter rules for sages so they can’t interfere with…”
“They’re interfering?” yelled a female voice from the crowd. “Your mass in the sky interfered with my wind current study!”
“Wind currents? Oh please!” Dr. Weber laughed.
“It’s to study climate change!” the voice rebuffed.
“Everyone knows climate change is happening, Tina! Move on!” Dr. Weber yelled.
“Excuse me, did you say a Greenrobe interfered?” asked Athalard who turned again to Humphrey. Humphrey gave a weak smile and wave. “I should have known,” Athalard sneered. “I see you’ve been dabbling in things you don’t understand again, Humphrey.” Athalard grabbed the worn spellbook from Humphrey’s hand. “Oh not Everyday Enchantments again? This book had a spell that made Mrs. Flanagan cough up toads! I warned the rest of the Council of Sages about this. I did,” he said insistently to Mz. Bliss. “Because even a silly book of poorly written spells can wreak havoc if it is in the hands of a fool.” He locked eyes with Humphrey, and Humphrey withered in shame.
“Enough,” Mz. Bliss asserted quietly. Athalard clamped his mouth shut. “Sergeant.”
Sergeant Marcus pulled out a pen and scribbled something on his ticket pad. Handing the ticket toward Dr. Weber he said, “I really have enjoyed the invisible ink, Doc. It saves me a lot of stains on my uniform.”
Dr. Weber ripped the ticket from his hand with disgust.
“I’m confident the money you profited from your refuse side venture will help toward rebuilding Zinc Street,” Mz. Bliss said. Dr. Weber scowled at the ticket. “Sergeant Marcus, post a guard around the gold until the excavation team arrives. The new gold will be useful in these refurbished mega-superconductors.” Then the crowd parted for her again, and Humphrey heard her calling for a sage crew to use a levitation spell on the large debris.
People began to gradually disperse, though some stayed to help in the cleanup efforts. Dr. Weber appeared behind Humphrey and startled him. “It was urgent that I clean out my lab immediately to make room for a new experiment that is nearly completed. Do me the greatest favor??? And refrain from any magic for the time being? In fact, why don’t you just stick to only breathing with your mouth open? Do you think you can handle that?”
The irises of Dr. Weber’s pale blue eyes were as small as pin pricks. Her hair looked like gossamer in the evening sunlight. As he slowly closed his mouth, Humphrey felt the opposing forces of abject fear and acute fascination warring within him.
Repulsed by his lack of response, Dr. Weber threw up her hands and stomped away.
“Pity you didn’t have this much trouble speaking when you read that spell this afternoon, eh Humphrey?” said Athalard as he whizzed away on his solo hover.
Humphrey sighed and slumped as he watched him zoom into the sunset.
“He’s rather pompous, isn’t he?” Remarked a slight woman nearby with a digital notebook in hand and a stylus stuck into her hair bun.
“Yes well he did save the day, didn’t he?” Humphrey acknowledged.
“Did he? It seems you were the one who brought all this trash travesty to our attention. Who knows how long it could have gone on, and how much more drastic the consequences had you not revealed it?” The woman pulled the stylus from her hair and wrote in her notebook as she walked away.
“Huh,” Humphrey muttered and smiled to himself. He put a hand through his very full head of hair and then whistled as he picked up bits of plastic from the street.