nce upon a time there was a noble and wondrous sorcerer who dwelt in a great shining Star Palace deep inside the Lantern of the Lost Worlds. Far and wide was this sorcerer known for his powers, and the breadth and depth of his wisdom; and though he is a modest man, it must be said he was also known for his handsome looks. Dressed in his flowing robes of star-studded black, he cut a fine and dashing appearance, as was commented on far and wide, especially by women with deep discernment.

And once to this opulent star palace of his, which even in the gray somber miasma of the nebula, shown with a glorious golden light, there came a poor and helpless damsel, a brigand called Marann fleeing in her wretched, meteor pocked star skiff from the minions of the Black Cross who had sworn to haul her back in chains to the lair of their villainous leader, Ogun, and display her trembling form before all the scoundrels of the galaxy –


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Now, just a goddamn minute, Hoy. This is my story and that’s not how I recall it at all. What do you mean, ‘poor helpless damsel’? Do I look poor and helpless to you? And what is this ‘trembling form,’crap?

Uh, well, just a sort of poetic license, my dear. A poetic image. Yes, quite poetic. To see you standing there, your voluptuous form displayed so, er, magnificently in that scant armor of yours – which raises a question. Just how practical is armor that contains no more metal in it than a thimble does –

I can see right now you are not the man to tell my story.

I thought I was doing quite –

Well, once more, and in the grand tradition of our relationship, Hoy Ping Bob, you are wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong! You are definitely not the person to tell this story. If only there were someone else –

Well, I am a great sorcerer, am I not? One of the mightiest of the Brethren of the Arch Magi in the Lantern of the Lost Worlds? A wizard so powerful, am I not, that –

And what does that mean, you jackass?

 

Jackass … isn’t that something like a grulzak? But we digress. What it means, to use your so ill chosen words, my sweet flower, is that I have power. I have means. I have only to wave my hand thusly, and …

…And that’s how I got involved in this. I tell stories.

2

She arrived on the Planet of Hoy Ping Bob in a scarred and battered space fighter that had once been sleek and fast but was on its last legs now. She brought it down into the atmosphere and fought to control her speed before friction burned the fighter to a crisp. The hull glowed red. Plumes of smoke and small, stray pieces of the ship itself, flared out behind her. She fought the controls with all the skills available to her, and with those skills she landed the ship the way Flash Gordon would have.

Which is to say, she crashed it


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  She slowed the ship as much she could and lifted its nose just before it hit the ground and it plowed into the soil like a farmer eager for his first crop, sending high a cloud of dirt and rocks and stray vegetation for almost a mile before it stopped. And when it stopped it was almost at the Palace of Hoy Ping Bob.

A rain of dirt-dobs and pebbles fell behind and around the ship. The great fog of dust that marked her ship’s landing pattern settled. After a short while, the canopy over the pilot’s den unsealed with a short, emphatic buck. She raised it up and slid it backwards on its runners and looked upon the Palace for a long, sobering moment. And then she said, “What a dump.”

In the Lantern of the Lost Worlds, there are many wizards of great, shuddering renown. They live on planets and asteroids, in orbiting palaces, or in fields of energy and other forms of the Basic Matter of the Universe. Their powers and abilities may vary along a great spectrum, but they still have power and ability. And reputations. Usually not very civil reputations. One does not mess with a wizard in the Lantern of the Lost Worlds.

Hoy Ping Bob was a bit different.

He had been spending the morning in his tower sanctum, stirring and testing and adding to and testing again a sorcerer’s concoction he was brewing in a great cauldron. A week or more had he labored at his task, and it was nearing completion. A brew of extraordinary potency it was, and getting it right required all the talent and power of that great and fabled sorcerer. At last, after

  all these days, it was ready.Or at least it looked ready. One could never tell just by looks, of course, and indeed, one never wanted to tell just by looks. There were other more meaningful tests. The great wizard, gathered up the hem of his robes and walked across his sanctum to a cluttered cabinet and found himself a spoon made of wood, especially carved for him by those strange and sinister small denizens of Xy under the light of no less than five full moons. In addition, Hoy Ping Bob had fashioned about it a dozen potent thaumaturgies of his own devising toward the perfection of its purpose. Now he carried the spoon back to the vat. He dipped it in and carefully lifted up a sampling, giving it time to allow that greenish foam to settle, then tasted it carefully, tentatively.He smacked his lips, and tasted it again, then drank up all of the generous amount in the bowl of his sorcerer’s spoon. The stuff went down his throat and he studied the effects a moment.

And then the ground shook and the air exploded and there was a grinding noise and the ground continued to shake for several minutes and dust rose from the seldom swept floor of Hoy Ping Bob’s tower sanctum.He closed his eyes and


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  gave his judgment. “Smooth!” he said.Then he heard something else.

Something from outside. A voice. A human voice.

A very feminine human voice.Could this concoction of his have a capability he had not suspected?Well, of course, it did have the capability of making him hear things, and see things too. But if the timbre of the voice was any indication (though it did sound a shade angry), this was something he wanted to see. And in the past the visions conjured up by his brewings had not always been, well, anything anyone would want to see.He went to the window and looked down and saw the wreckage of Marann’s star fighter and the long, long furrow it had plowed, and Marann herself.And Marann impressed him most.

For he was Hoy Ping Bob and, unlike most great wizards, of more or less a social bent. At least where flame haired maidens the shape of Valkyries, and dressed in armor that would not have protected a kitten were concerned. This was an interesting turn of events indeed.She was pounding on the door of his palace.He leaned out his window and said, “Hello, young lady. Are you looking for me?”

She stepped back and looked up at him. “Open the door,” she shouted.

“I’ll be down in a minute,” he said.

“Open the door now!”

  This tower of Hoy Ping Bob’s had four floors which were accessed by a staircase that curved round the inside of the outer wall. The great wizard cheerfully gathered up the hems of his robes and ran down the stairs with the energy of a much younger man, and opened the great door on which the young lady had been pounding. She pushed past him and stopped in the middle of the room, looking around. There was an expression on her face as she examined the place that made Hoy feel he should probably sweep the floor and polish the brass knobs on the staircase posts more often. Then she looked at him and had the same look on her face.

“Don’t just stand there, ninny. Close the door before you let the snakes in.”

“Snakes?” said he. “There are no snakes on all this planet –”

“Well, there soon will be,” she said, pushing past him and slamming shut the door. “Ogun, with his legion of vipers is right behind me and they’re not in a convivial mood. You might want to alert your master and suggest he have the space cannons brought into play. Maybe we


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  can blast those buggers out of space before they get here.”

“Space cannon? Why would anyone need space cannon, here?” said Hoy. “And as for that other thing, I am pleased to inform you –“ he was beaming, in fact “—that you have the honor of speaking with the wizard Hoy Ping Bob, provider of spells and thaumaturgies, gimcracks of magic, moments of wonder, to speak not at all of concoctions of the grandest smoothness.”

She just looked at him a moment. Her pained expression dissolved and was replaced with one of astonishment, or mayhap shock, and she said, in a low, hoarse voice, “You? A wizard?”

“At your service,” said Hoy Ping Bob most cheerfully.

“May the gods of the nebula have mercy,” said she in the same stunned tone she had used before.

“In fact,” said Hoy, heading toward the stairs, “If you’ll just come with me, it so happens I have just finished concocting one of those fabled concoctions for which I am justly famed, and I judge that in your state, it would have its uses.” She pushed past him on the stairs and glared upward at the shadows.

“My laboratory,” he said, accenting the second syllable. “Such a laboratory as few mortals have ever seen –“

  “It’s that mortality part that concerns me just now,” she said. “You say there are no space cannons on this whole world? What about armies? Armadas? Volunteers from the faithful populace?”

“What populace?” said he. “There is only me. “

“Only you?” she said, her eyes insultingly wide.

“And who else should we need?” he replied. He was at the top of the stairs now, before the door to his sanctum. He threw it open with a grand gesture and bade her enter. Her hand went to her sword but she recalled her manners in time and did not draw it. She stepped into the room and looked around. Hoy went straight to the cauldron, snatching up two clay mugs from a small table as he passed it. He dipped one of the mugs into the cauldron, filling it to the brim with amber utopia and handed it to her. “I think you’ll like this,” he said, turning back to the cauldron to fill his own mug.

“The walls have fungus on them,” she said, still examining the room.


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  “This would remove it,” said Hoy, bouncing the mug in the air in front of him. “But I just can’t bring myself to waste a cupful on something like that. Now, then.” He gestured grandly in a toast. “To the stars!”

“And the snakes that infest ‘em,” said she. And they sipped their drinks.

“Star saints preserve us!” said the lady.

“And this stuff can do that, too,” confessed Hoy. “Have you ever tasted such smoothness?”

“Not exactly the word I was thinking of,” she said. Her voice had a new rasp in it, but her face held a look now that had an iota of respect curled up in the corner of it. “Do you make this stuff often?”

“Every chance I get,” said he. “Now what’s all this stuff about snakes and the Fellowship and that skullard Ogun?”

“You’ve met Ogun, have you?” She drained her cup. “Now I put more study to it, there is a certain smooth quality to this bugjuice. Have you any more?”

He indicated the cauldron. “Help yourself.”

So she did.

 

“Now, I repeat,” said he. “Tell me of your contretemps with Ogun. ”

He had placed himself in a large chair carved from a single very large piece of bone and well-stocked with thick pillows. She looked around and, failing to find a chair uncomfortable enough for her Amazon’s needs, chose an old, unpainted straight-backed wooden one over by the table and dragged it in front of Hoy Ping Bob. “Well, this stuff is welcome,” said she, holding up her cup which was carved in the shape of a more or less human skull, “but I wish you had a few energy cannons.”

“Poof. And piffle,” said he. “Ogun.”

“Oh yes, Ogun. Did I tell you I cut off his ear?”

“Did you really?” said Hoy, with utter delight. “Have you got it with you?”

“No. I left it on the floor in his Great Hall, back on Klystra. I’m not much for souvenirs, you know. Besides, he’ll grow it back.”

“He will?”


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“He’s the leader of the Fellowship of the Black Cross, isn’t he? They’re part snakes, you know, like the Valusians. Have you ever known a snake couldn’t grow its ear back if you cut it off?”

“I’ve never actually seen a snake that had ears --,” began Hoy.

“Well, take it from me, they can grow them back if you cut them off.” She sighed. “There was a lot of satisfaction to chopping off that thing, though he has parts I’ll bet would give even greater satisfaction if I chopped them free of him. He squirted blood like one of those wine fountains you see in Aelon’s courtyard –“

“You’ve been to Aelon’s courtyard?”

“And he screamed like a little girl, he did, not to mention the way he jumped and whirled around like a bull gelded by accident. I would have done worse to him than that but –”

“The witch Aelon? She’s never even invited me to her planet, much less her courtyard. In fact, she rather formally asked me to stay away from the place and here you are –“

“Should I save my story for a better occasion?” asked she.

“Nay, nay,” said Hoy, magnanimously. And because he had wisely situated is chair conveniently beside the cauldron, he refilled his mug. “You were saying?”

  “Well, the Black Cross. Those Worm-worshipping weasels are always up to one thing or another to annoy and frighten their neighbors. You know how it is. They’re headquartered on Klystra, which is riddled with deep caverns and places where they can hide their armadas and bases, but they try to avoid causing any trouble out there because if they did somebody would send a space navy around to see them. Render unto Caesar what Caesar wants rendered into smithereens, and so on. So they go into the Lantern of the Lost Worlds where all the pirates and warlords hang out and do their dirty work there. There are a few planets in the nebula where the locals are peaceful enough and hard working and the Fellowship harasses those worlds, calling their raids and attacks ‘tax collection’ and claiming they perform a service by keeping away greater menaces. This might be a convincing argument if anyone ever saw a menace that was greater than the Black Cross is. So I decided to teach them a lesson.” She paused to sip her drink.


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  “You might have noticed I have a fast, wonderfully maneuverable little star fighter, or I did before I landed it so roughly at your front doorstep. I set myself the task of being a nuisance to them and had a grand time of it. I would zip into the nebula and fly among the energy clouds until I detected one of Ogun’s fleets somewhere and then I would just flit in on whatever malevolent mission engaged them and nip at their heels. I did a grand job of heel nipping, too. I cost him several ships and not a single dent were the bastards able to put in the hull of my ship to avenge their losses of materiel or crew members.“

“An inspiring performance,” said Hoy Ping Bob.

“You don’t know the half of it. And I’d be doing that still except my temper got the best of me.” She looked morose.

Alarmed, Hoy realized her cup was empty. He took it from her and scooped some drams into it from the cauldron and handed it back. “Bless you my child,” said he, “drink this.”


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  “I am thirsty,” she confessed, and took the cup with a grateful glance at the benevolent wizard. “Now what was I saying? Ah, of course.” She sipped a sip. “This helps me remember. The skullard insulted me. He said I fought like a girl! He said I just darted in and out of cover, inflicting damage from hiding places and then running before anyone could react. That I would swoon if I were ever cornered by a fighting man like him. So I went to Klystra and found the cave he was in and killed half a dozen or so of his guards and confronted Ogun himself – face to face – and chopped his ear off. I bet he did some swooning on his own once he stopped hopping about and whining so much. Then I got out of there but he had ships ready just in case and they followed me into the Lantern. I lost them here in the nebula, but they inflicted a bit of damage and I suspect they’ll find my trail soon enough.” She sighed and took another sip of Hoy’s nectar. “And you here with no defenses except my sword arm.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Hoy Ping Bob. “Not at all. I am a wizard, you know.”

“You keep saying that,” said she. “In my time I’ve known a wizard or two, and a few witches. I’ve been on Minchmont at poor, sweet Casingrim’s lodgings, which are sumptuous and impressive indeed, and he no great shakes of a sorcerer by his own admission. I visited Cas Maligrys as well. His palace is tall and built of blocks carved out of emerald and amethyst and ruby, and roofed over with silver. I’ve seen the estates where Meriem Abd Alhazred, the High Priestess of Cthulhu lives, and on Aelon’s planet –”

  “I just can’t get over the fact that you’ve actually been to Aelon’s world. She’s such an inhospitable person.”

“A bit moody, and maybe a touch distant,” Marann said. “But an interesting maid once you get to know her. And she can tell you absolutely everything that ever happened in this part of the Galaxy –”

“Well, there you are,” said Hoy Ping Bob. “I was never one for gossip.”

And then the ground shook beneath the very foundation of his tower and they heard an explosion not far away.

“I’m betting that’s the Black Cross,” said Marann, finishing her drink.

“Would you care for more?”

“Whether you mean explosions or your fine liquor, I suspect I’ve had enough of each,” said she. She stood up and drew her sword, but looking around saw nothing much to hack away at with it since she had more or less resigned herself to Hoy Ping Bob’s nature, so she slid the pig sticker back into its sheath. “I guess this is it,” she said. “But I’m hoping they have orders to try and take me alive so that I’ll get the opportunity to fill up your lower halls with their blood and entrails, to say nothing of twenty or thirty of their heads, just to see if they can grow those back as easily as they grow back ears –”


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  “Are you really that bloodthirsty?” asked Hoy, seated on his pillow covered chair. “Or do you just have too much work ethic?”

There was another explosion near by and another and they could hear the engines of the warships zooming overhead.

“If they keep that up,” said Hoy Ping Bob, “they’ll ruin my landscaping.” He set down the cup on a handy table and pushed himself up.

The warrior woman had gone to the window. “They’re landing. You’ll have to be the judge of whether or not they’re damaging your landscape. A lot of the rocks are smaller than they were and scattered about a lot more. But since there’s no grass or shrubs or anything else but rocks –”

“The finest rocks in the nebula,” said Hoy, with modesty. He was at the window beside her. Sure enough, the villains were landing their ships and squads of soldiers were pouring out of them and forming up prior to charging the modest fortress-tower where Hoy Ping Bob resided, and a very formidable force of evil-face serpent men they were, too. “I suggest you look away from the window,” he said to her.

  “What? And take my eye off them? Never!” She whipped out her sword again and held it eagerly, her eyes aglitter with anticipation.

“If you don’t turn away from the window,” said he, “it will just make my job the harder. Not that I’m not up to it,” he added. “But it will require an effort, and I’m sure it will take a lot out of me.” He glanced appreciatively at the cauldron. “Fortunately, that cauldron is well stocked, so I’ll have no trouble restoring myself after all this effort.”

And he waved his hand.

“Maybe I should go down and meet them at the door,” said Marann.

“There won’t be time,” said Hoy Ping Bob, looking exhausted. He went to his chair and sat down.

The Black Cross squads were forming up, now, facing Hoy’s tower. An officer, who was not facing the tower, stood in front of them, his arm rose, holding a sword, ready to give the command to attack.


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Suddenly Marann gave an exclamation and jumped back an inch from the window. From outside could be heard much yelling and crying out. “What’s got into them?” she said. “They’re jumping around and yelling like they’ve all seen ghosts – their own – and I can’t see anything.”

“And it wasn’t easy to fix things so they could all see it and you couldn’t,” said Hoy. “I am exhausted! Positively, exhausted.”

Which reminded him how convenient his chair was to the cauldron.

Whatever had the men upset, it was behind the poor officer and he just stared at his troops, dumbstruck. Then he looked around and even from the window, Marann could see how pale he turned, even before the thing – which she could not see – pulled his upraised arm off as if it were a fly’s wing. The officer was lifted up and turned around and his legs used like a wishbone and the two resultant parts of him cast aside, amid much spraying of blood and other liquids from the body, and the thing she could not see waded in among the soldiers.

She watched for a while with great amusement and though she couldn’t see the thing that did it, she would see what was done to the men that weren’t quick enough to run away. “A lot of them are escaping,” she said. “This little world of yours will be littered with Black Cross soldiers.”

  “I wouldn’t worry about it. The thing I conjured up likes the chase as much as the rending limb from limb,” said Hoy Ping Bob. “There’s plenty left in the cauldron,” he added, “and no real need for you to use that sword, now.”

She sighed, then sighed again, then slipped her sword back into its scabbard. The screaming outside was starting to die down.

She went over to the cauldron and dipped her cup into it. “How long does a cauldron full of this drink usually last you, wizard?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said he. “It’s simple magic and not nearly as exhausting as conjuring my defensive forces.”

She sat down to drink her cupful, and this time she chose herself a chair almost as filled with pillows as the one occupied by Hoy Ping Bob.

She took a deep drink from her cup and closed her eyes, delightedly.

“Smooth,” she said, drawing out the word. And Hoy Ping Bob said it with her.

######

CONTENTS


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