The bookseller counted his stock, as he did every morning. The ritual was born not of paranoia but of the strictest necessity, for he had many rare and valuable volumes upon his shelves.
One thousand and three, as expected. The number had gone unchanged for a month. Business was slow, but he preferred it that way.
A great number of his books had taken incredible effort to find and procure, and he was loth to part with them.
Long blue shadows stretched through the shop window when the bell rang. The bookseller looked up from his reading to see a customer in the doorway, silhouetted in a halo of fiery light.
"A quaint shop." The stranger smiled. "I've heard it said you carry books which are not easily found."
It was so. The stranger looked pleased.
"My particular request is a queer old tome, whose true name is quite impossible for the modern tongue to pronounce. Or it may have no name at all, merely an arcane symbol upon the binding.
In the medieval era it was referred to, by those who dared speak of it, simply as Astramorteia."
"The Death of Stars?"
"Not quite. This is no book of astronomy. If you do not have it today, I will inquire again tomorrow."
"Sir," the bookseller protested, "books of this nature are not so simply acquired. It may take some time to find such a rare work."
"Time?" The stranger scoffed. "What has time to do with it? I will return tomorrow."
The stranger did return, at the same stroke of the clock, not only the next day, but the day after, and the day after that, each time promising to return tomorrow.
The bookseller could find no trace of the strange book, and not for lack of trying: his sources either had never heard of it, or pretended to have never heard of it.
And still the stranger appeared.
The bookseller turned his investigations from book to customer, and still could learn nothing.
Indeed, the stranger seemed to appear just before entering the shop, and utterly vanish immediately upon leaving. A year passed. Then two.
The bookseller could think of little else but the strange word, Astramorteia. When awake he pondered its cryptic meaning.
When asleep he dreamed of its eldritch appearance, a living book whose evil secrets manifested in dark, celestial horrors. And still the stranger appeared.
Ten years passed. In that time the bookseller's gray hair became no whiter, and his wrinkled face no more lined. His body had aged not a day, though his mind had lived a decade of miseries.
At last, in the long sealed sepulcher of a forgotten king, the book was found. With inexpressible joy, the bookseller presented it to the stranger.
"Excellent," the stranger said, accepting the tome without emotion.
"Now I must ask, in your collection do you have a certain work called the Book of Kxtee? If you do not have it today, I will inquire again tomorrow."