Illustrated by Jim Garrison

It was spring on the world where Hoy Ping Bob had his great tower-like Palace built; but then in his opinion, it always was. Hoy Ping Bob loved spring. He loved reclining in a comfortable chair near a simmering cauldron of that wondrous and legendary brew for which he was so renown, quaffing the occasional quaff, and pronouncing his judgment upon it, almost always with the single word, “Smooth!” well drawn out. The sky might be grim and dark, torn with great red gouts of lightning – that was, after all, pretty much inevitable for his nameless world circled a small sun inside a nebula. There might be snow on the hillsides; and the nearby lakes – the far away ones, also – might be frozen over, but that was unimportant. For in the heart of Hoy Ping Bob he knew that he brewed spring in the ancient iron cauldron just to the right of the chair in which he sat; he tried always to have a fresh supply brewing at all times, and in handy reach.

Thus was he employed, that day when spring defied the icy cold of a recent blizzard and the comfort of an especially smooth variation on his usual concoction nestled in his stomach and send radiant warmth through all his muscles, nerve and soul, when suddenly his peaceful reverie was interrupted by the heavy sound of knocking on the door. Hoy Ping Bob looked up and blinked. The knocking repeated itself, plainly heard above the howling wind. “Why, I have a guest!” said Hoy Ping Bob with some astonishment. He sat down his heavy earthen mug and got to his feet.

He tried not to open the door too far, but the wind pushed against it like an angry shoulder. Hoy Ping Bob peered out. There stood a small creature, possibly human though it was hard to tell so bundled up was this hapless beast. “Hello,” said Hoy Ping Bob.

“Ah, Hoy, me hearty,” said the creature, and the voice was not only human, it sounded to be female. Some of Hoy’s favorite humans were females. He stepped back and let the door open even farther and said, “Come in.” The woman and much wind and some snow complied.

She stood there, stomping her feet on the floor, letting great clumps of melting snow and bits of ice fall off her. She was small for a human and probably slender, though it was hard to tell beneath all the furs in which she’d bundled herself. “Ay, and I see you’ve not lost the custom of keeping a generous supply of your famous brew on hand for such guests as might drop in, unexpected like.”

“Do I know you?” Hoy asked.

She unbundled the furs from around her and laid them on a table by the wall. “Do you know me? Of course you do. How could you forget?”

“I was wondering that very thing.”

“Pasquintain, said his guest. “Do you not recall me now? Gaze upon me face once more, Hoy Ping Bob, and while you’re at it, I’d appreciate it if you’d ladle me up a bit of that liquid heat you have there.”

“Of course,” he said. He found another mug and poured some libation in it from a crockery jug that, happily, was not quite empty yet. He handed it to her and she attacked it eagerly.

“Pasquintain?” said he. “Pasquintain? When was I last on Pasquintain? Oh! I recall. It seems to me I ran a business there. That’s right,” the star-mage said, as it all came clear. “I was warden of a prison. And you – How is it we know each other?”

“You might as say we was business acquaintances,” said she. “Sadie the Ladie, being my handle and all.”

“Oh, that rings a bell,” he said. “They let you out?”

“In a manner of speaking.” She took another sip of Hoy Ping Bob’s brew and contentedly sighed. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you was wasted as a warden.” She lifted her mug for emphasis. “You show a fine aptitude for chemistry here, I don’t mind saying.”

“Thank you. It’s a matter of practice.”

“Then you could certainly use some help drinking your supply down,” said she. “Though in truth, it was other business has brought me here.”

“Business …”

“You being a famous and powerful star mage and all.” He was holding a bundle in front of her. It appeared to be a large rectangular block of something wrapped in heavy fabric. Hoy Ping Bob was already getting vibrations from it that he disliked.

Sadie took it over to the table next to Hoy’s chair and put it down. She unwrapped the thing and Hoy saw that it was what he feared it might be; a book. And not just any book. The light the cover of the thing shimmered with was a dullish green in tint. It was bound in something that Hoy took to be human flesh, nicely tanned. The binding style was old-fashioned, possibly (in fact likely) predating spaceflight on most worlds. There was a clasp lock, though the key was tied to it by a faded brown string. The book was huge, with well over a thousand pages. It was a copy of the Necronomicon.

She flicked open the book and showed him a sample page.

“Hmmm,” he said. “Naacal.”

“Bless you,” said she.

“No, I mean the language it’s written in. Hieratic Naacal, at that. You don’t see that often, except when a copy is …”

He caught himself just in time before he said the word, “Cursed.”

“Is? Is what?”

“Uh, rare. Very rare.” He took her cup from her and filled it up again without being asked. “Sit down, make yourself comfortable.”

She sat but instead of making herself comfortable she perched on the edge of the seat and gave him an anxious look. He turned a couple of pages, pausing to read what he had turned to. He shuddered and moved on to another section.

“I been having the devil’s own time, trying to find me a purchaser for this bit of treasure,” she said.

“I bet you have.” He looked up at her. “And how was it you came by this?” he asked.

“Oh, it were by honest means,” she said. “’T was in a card game at Trooper Keith’s. Are you familiar with the establishment?”

“Run by the dangerous and adventurous Trooper Keith and the exotic and rather perky Princess Sandy? It’s at the Sharsfryd space port on Ullusk, is it not?”

“The very place.”

He smiled and gazed into his past a moment. “Many are the pleasant and rewarding hours I’ve spent in their tap room, in the company of them both, partaking of their finest killdevil and gazing at the Princess Sandy’s legs …,” he mused.

“It was in a poker game there. A fellow named Fedger ran afoul of my legended skill as a card player and found himself with nothing to raise a bet with save this book. It looked an interesting book, and as I am of a literate bent, and love to wile away an hour or two with inspiring literature when the opportunity presents, I let him wager. He lost of course.”

“Of course. And you’ve been having a devil of a time finding a buyer, ever since.”

Sadie the Ladie heaved a sigh. “The bad luck began that very day. Trooper Keith’s burned down, it did. Not that that was his bad luck. Seems he’d already received an offer on the land, and happened to own a plot of ground across the port from his original location where he’s since rebuilt. But it was a dry world, Ullusk was, till he reopened. I took me winnings and began wandering hither and yon among the local worlds, visiting the more famous collectors of such like treasures, and a few star magi in the hopes one of them would be interested in this book.”

“Any luck?”

“Oh, lots of luck. I was on Grinbrym and found me two takers, whom I had in a ferocious bidding war. But no luck there. They was too ferocious if you get me drift and killed each other. The authorities blamed me, either that or they were ticked off I brought a copy of the Necronomicon to their shabby planet. Fortunately I got off the place half an hour before it blew up.”

Hoy Ping Bob shook his head in sympathy.

“Then,” she went on, “there was the Brotherhood of the Black Cross, as scurvy a crew to deal with as you could hope. In my day, you could trust a pirate to keep his word, as long as you were just as likely to slit his throat as he was yours. Not them. Even if you clearly got the advantage on them, those bastitches will still try to get around your backside with a sharp edge and a sharper point. Their patrols are hunting for me to this moment.”

“Well, you are in luck in that regard,” said Hoy Ping Bob. “Those fools don’t dare come here any more.” He came to the page he was searching for and said, “Ah ha!”

“You found it, did ye?” said Sadie the Ladie.

He gazed down at the open pages of the book and nodded.

Both pages were filled with numbers. Not numbers in the script of Naacal, but modern Terran numbers. The pages were filled with eights and nines, and he could already see a stray zero or two. The numbers moved.

They glided over the pages, they flickered like lights being turned on and off, they spun.

Two pages full of them.

Sadie said, “When I started out, them was in Naacal, but I can’t read Naacal and didn’t know what it meant. So they changed into numbers such as I can read. Still don’t know what it means, of course.”

“It’s a curse,” said Hoy Ping Bob. “It means as soon as these numbers flicker and glide their way past eight and past nine and the page fills up with zeroes, uh, I don’t quite know how to put it.”

She turned very pale as he spoke the words. “And I’d just as soon you didn’t say it, far as that goes. You mean the curse is on me?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“But can it be got rid of?” she asked.

“Certainly,” said Hoy Ping Bob. “All it takes is for you to find yourself a buyer to take it off your hands. Fedger must have realized what was happening and saw an opportunity to get rid of it during that poker game – and you walked right into his trap.”

“Is that all I can do?”

“Or find a thief to steal it.”

“Can’t I just give it away? Or destroy it – say burn it up?”

“Not this curse. There has to be a price.”

She stood up and nodded. “Good thing I know so many thieves, then. All I have to do is convince one of them this is valuable. Right?”

He thought for a moment. “Your problem, Sadie, is that time is running out. As the numbers get higher, the pages fill up faster. You might not have time to get to another planet, I’m afraid.”

“But – but the curse can be broken, can’t it?”

Hoy Ping Bob nodded. “I suppose. Well, actually it can. But only with a great sacrifice.”

“I’ll sacrifice anything. I’ve suspected the worst about this thing for some time,” she said.

“That’s why I came here. I knew you to be a great star mage and one who had a touch more compassion than most of them.”

Hoy Ping Bob sighed. He was thinking of the future. He was thinking what it would mean to undertake the removal of this curse.

“Just tell me what to do?” she said.

The wise thing would have been never to have told her what was going on in the first place, he thought. To just send her on her way; to refuse to get involved in any way. But he had told her what she wanted to know and he felt that he was now involved whether he wanted to be or not. Suddenly it was winter on this little world of his.

He reached into a pocket of his star mage’s robe and pulled out a handful of coins. He poked around in them a moment until he found the smallest one, a tin piece from Klystra. He held it up.

“Let me buy the book from you,” he said.

She scowled. “Fer just that?”

“You could keep it if you’d rather.”

“I guess I could at that,” she said. “How do I know you aren’t just telling me one, and that there isn’t any curse?”

“With all the things that have happened since you acquired it?”

She bit her lip and looked forlornly at the tin coin in his hand. “But is that your best offer?”

“Zounds, woman! Are you insane? We’re talking about your life here. That book will kill you within a day if you hang onto it.”

“Oh. That soon?”

“That soon.”

She took the coin and handed him the book.

He put the book down on the table. It looked for a moment as if Sadie the Ladie was going to bite the coin to make certain it was real. But she saw him watching her and just stuffed it into her purse instead.

“There are other conditions.”

“There is?” she said, suspiciously.

“There are two,” said Hoy Ping Bob. “The first is that you must leave this planet as quickly as you can and never come back.”

“What?” she said. “Why, that’s easy. I can do that.” She actually smiled. “I can really do that. What’s the other one?”

“No alcoholic beverages – for a week,” he said.

“None?” said she.

“Not a drop, not a dram.”

She looked shocked. “But what if I get bit by a snake and need medicinal aid.”

“I advise you to avoid snakes at all cost for the next week.”

“But … but …”

“We could extend it to two weeks,” said Hoy Ping Bob.

“I think I can manage a week,” said Sadie the Ladie. She grabbed up her furs and bundled herself in them, then left without so much as a “So long,” to Hoy Ping Bob, much less a “Thanks.”

Not that he cared. He was glad to see her gone.

He took a look at the book. As he had known would be the case, the pages now showed only the number 1. Hundreds of them, gliding, flickering, spinning. The curse had begun to measure what remained of the life of Hoy Ping Bob.

He closed the book and went into an adjacent room where there was another cauldron the same size as the one in the main room. He put the book in the bottom of the cauldron. It took a little while to bring every earthen jar from the front room into the back one, and he was sorely tempted to pause in the chore and help himself to a short draught. But he knew better than to do that.

He spent the rest of the afternoon emptying the jars into the cauldron until the jars were empty and the cauldron full. The cauldron bagan to simmer.

He heaved a sigh and went into the front room and began to prepare the next batch of his brew. The work was pleasant, he was skilful at it. But it took several hours before he could light the fire beneath the cauldron.

He went back into the adjacent workroom to check on the book. It was almost gone. Through the clear brew he could see bits and pieces of it on the bottom of the cauldron, mostly the spine and covers of the book, and the lock and key. There was one thing else. Numbers. Thousands of them floated and swarmed in the liquid, disintegrating as he watched.

He went back into the front room and checked the new batch of brew that he had begun.

It would be a week before it was ready for him to drink.

Oh well, thought Hoy Ping Bob with a pleasant grin. He would not be the only person having to put up with a dry week, would he?