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The Ring Of Five Stones
Book Six Of The Black Ring
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-420-9
Genre: Fantasy/SF/Dark Fantasy
eBook Length: 428 Pages
Published: July 2018

From inside the flap

Leslie Ann Drover has the Black Ring, which was given to her by Jeanette just before she was killed. Leslie Ann, much more experienced in the world than Jeanette was, understands that this her Jeanette’s successor. She is younger than Jeanette, independent, self-supporting, and is learning leadership skills on her job. When she is called upon as the new hero, proves herself. And again. And again.

But the tasks, the adventures, become more complicated, the moral choices more difficult, the physical challenges harder, and the leadership more demanding. She rejects the idea that she might be crazy, and knows that these strange worlds and her body shapes are real. But it’s all getting to be too much. She doesn’t know if she’ll be able to go on alone.

She goes, without being summoned, from her apartment door to a world where there is no enemy to stop, in a not-quite medieval public house. There she finds Ikusa, one of Jeanette’s old companions, waiting for her. Together, they meet ever greater challenges until, at last, she has all five of the hero’s tokens.

But she must confront the Ecliptor personally. He was mortal, but is now almost a demi-god. And then she must find and go to the Enemy himself, Kada Barros. She cannot destroy him, and would not if she could. But she has to stop him somehow. Maybe there’s another way….

The Ring Of Five Stones (Excerpt)

Part Fourteen: Recruit

Chapter One Hundred One: Book, Ship, and Sacrifice

Even in the vague dark she could see the gray sword slice through the man's neck. It made only a thin red line. He continued to smile at her, in a way that suggested, and was, in itself, a violation of her, of her body, of her mind. She started to swing the sword again, in the same direction, but without having drawn it back first. The low whiskey voice of the woman in the snow said, Be careful of hatred. She lowered her hand. There was no sword.

The man's smile became a desperate grin. He had lost. He feared death, and he was going to die. His desperation became terror, even though he smiled ever more broadly in a ghastly way. He started to fall sideways. And suddenly, from somewhere inside herself, Leslie Ann felt sorry for him, a pity so sharp that it hurt, in her throat and in her chest.

She opened her eyes into darkness no longer vague. The image of the falling, grinning man did not fade away. She looked at the clock beside the head of the bed. It took a second for her eyes to focus on the glowing numbers. The alarm would go off in nine minutes. She turned it off.

She carefully slid out from under the covers and stood up. It was chilly, but she didn't reach for the thick flannel robe on the chair beside her bed. She tugged at the corner of the covers with a practiced movement, and the bed was all but made.

The palms of her hands were tingling. She looked at them. She saw, even in the darkness, the black band on her left ring finger. She turned her hand over. The silvery black faceted bezel almost sparkled, though there was no light. There was some kind of engraving, or inclusion within the bezel. She couldn't see what it was.

She began to shiver. She needed to go down to the little bathroom, so she put her robe on after all. It wasn't likely that the Dillards would come into the garage this early, but you never knew.

They didn't. She went back upstairs to get dressed. There were things she was planning to do before work, but they didn't seem very important right now. She had killed a man, and had watched a woman die. What was laundry and homework compared to that?

There was no image in her peripheral vision. She had answered the call, and the woman was dead. But the reality of the ring on her finger could only mean that this business was not over. She didn't want to think about it.

She had only the hot plate in her loft, and a tiny electric cooler for milk and cheese. There had been many times when she had wished that she could do more than just heat water or a can of something. Right now she wanted real coffee, not instant. And a couple eggs. And a sweet roll for some reason. She would have to go out and get it.

She went down to the garage, put on her long winter coat, went out to the alley, and went toward town. It was cold this early in the morning, though not as cold as it had been last night.

Walking always stimulated her thoughts, and she was not pleased to find that among those thoughts was the nightmare, like a shadow in the back of her head, eerily competing with everything else. At least there were no images. At least…. She tried to think about something else, but she couldn't banish the remnants. A thin red line …

She decided to go to a diner that was open early for people on their way to work. She ate there on occasion, their food was good, and their coffee was excellent. She had no idea what she would do afterward. The thought struck her, somewhere out of the left, that maybe she should have retrieved the sword. She hoped that the wounded man had been able to help the one who had been drugged, and that they had been able to get home.

As if it had all been real.

She found herself at the diner without any memory of how she had gotten there. She forced her thoughts back to the present moment, went inside, took a seat at the counter, and added bacon and orange juice to her order.

Memories - more of her feelings and emotions than of her dreams - came back to distract her while she waited, but distraction wasn't a problem here like it was at work. Many of the other customers were even more preoccupied than she was, anticipating what was going to happen during the day. Her order came and that helped. She drank her coffee, ate her breakfast, drank her orange juice, concentrating on what she was doing while keeping her anxiety, revulsion, fear - and her wonder at and sympathy for the dead woman - carefully at bay.

She paid and left. She could not go to work feeling like this. She wasn't due at the shop until four, but still. She didn't want to go back home. Maybe she should take a long walk, go ahead and let herself think, work things out, come to terms with what had seemed to have happened, and what it would imply if it had not been real. Then she could face her staff, and they would see her just as they always did. She would see how they felt about her taking some vacation time. The holidays were over, it wasn't a busy time of year. What she would do on her vacation she didn't know.

She wandered, unaware of where she was going, until she saw the library across the street. It was one of those classical Carnegie buildings, set in the corner of the block, with semi-circular steps leading up to a portico with columns and a dome. She liked the place, with its high ceiling, deep stacks, and heavy furniture. She went up and through the outer doors into the small lobby. Narrow, curving stairs went down on either side, to the children's department on the ground floor. She pushed open the swinging inner doors, and went into a different library altogether.

What the Hell was she doing here?

She should have come in through a corner of the reading room. Instead she came in between cases of oversized books, two on either side, in the long side of the room. She stopped when she wouldn't be in the way of anybody coming in behind her.

The circulation desk at the far side was wide and straight, not a three-sided square open at the back. To the left of it was an old fashioned card catalogue with drawers, two sets of drawers it looked like. The stacks behind the desk, along the full width of the room, had two balconies above the main floor, not one. The shelves against the side walls, under high windows, had almost vertical ladders on rails, instead of being free-standing and at an angle on wheels. A broad spiral stairway behind the desk went to the balconies, and even up to the ceiling.

She was not as surprised as she thought she should be, and that bothered her. She was still suffering the after effects of what had happened last night, and here she was, transported to somewhere else for a second time. She thought for a long moment about just turning around and leaving. She had her own life to live. But her being brought here, or sent here, or led here, had not been a capricious act. She was sure of that. But still …

This was not her library, but the transition from the known to the unknown had, in itself, been easy, no sudden dislocation as going from a city street to the snowy forest had been. There was nothing about the library, in itself, to be frightening or disturbing or threatening. It just wasn't the library she had expected it to be. And it was the second time in less than twelve hours. There was something almost clumsy about it, as if whoever or whatever had done this to her wasn't quite as experienced at doing it as she should have been.

What a strange thought.

But it was a library, and she liked libraries, and she couldn't help but wonder what kind of books she would find here. Maybe she could take some time to look around. If she checked out a book, could she take it back home? She had a library card, but she was sure it wouldn't work here. But, no matter how curious she was about this library and what it might contain, she would really rather that she hadn't come.

There were two librarians working behind the circulation desk. The younger woman, maybe in her mid thirties, looked up at her expectantly. Leslie Ann smiled at her, as if she didn't need any help, thank you. She wasn't exactly human. The woman smiled back and returned to her work. The older woman, in her sixties or so, remained occupied with what she was doing.

She couldn't just stand there. Someone would eventually ask her what she wanted. She could say that it was her first time here, and she just wanted to look around. So she should do that. But if, after a while, if she didn't find out why she was here, someone was sure to ask her if she needed any help, and she had no idea what she would say. What would she do back home? She went to the card catalogue beside the desk.

The two sets of drawers were each five drawers wide and six drawers high, set on low tables made for them. The drawers this set had brass pulls with paper labels, each with two sets of three letters, indicating the range of what was inside. They were not in any alphabet she had ever seen, but she knew what the letters were, and knew that they were in the proper order. That made the back of her head feel tight. She had no idea how that worked.

She pulled open a drawer, and started flipping through the cards. Most of them were printed, some of them were typed, some had hand-written notes or corrections. There was nothing unusual about them, but it made her feel unreal. She was not in her own world any more. There should have been a computer terminal.

She flipped through the cards until she noticed that her hands were not the hands she knew. The fingers were shorter, thicker, paler, with heavier nails. She looked over at the librarians. Their necks were shorter, their heads were rounder, and there was something subtly but truly different about their eyes and mouths. But they had not reacted to Leslie Ann as if she were an alien. Maybe she looked like them. Which should have been reassuring, but it wasn't.

She read one of the cards. Though the language, its vocabulary and grammar, was completely foreign to her, she knew that the book was about raising flowers in a garden. The next card was about a recent period in a history not her own. The one after that was a biography. The cards were arranged alphabetically by author. Well, that at least was normal, and as it should be. The other set of drawers had cards by subject, with a code like Dewey Decimal, indicating where they would be on the shelves. The sheer normality of that made her feel even more unreal.

She was breathing was too quickly. She made herself stop, take a deep breath, then another. Then she looked down at the card she was now reading, something about cooking with an ingredient she didn't recognize. It meant nothing to her, but she pretended that she had found something interesting. She closed the drawer, went to the narrow stack just to the left of the catalogue, and went in between the shelves. She didn't quite read the spines of the books she wasn't looking at. She went a little further, then looked back to the reading room. There was nobody who might look in and see her. She could take her time.

There was a tall, narrow window at the back end of the stack. It contributed significantly to the illumination between the shelves. The overhead tubes were not very bright, and were not really fluorescents. Or maybe they were, she couldn't tell.

She went to the window and looked out. There was huge tree in the middle of a mowed lawn. It was about ten feet to the ground. There was a street on the right, with commercial buildings on the other side. The backs of other buildings were beyond the tree, and on the left.

There were no warriors. There was no screaming and cursing and clashing of metal against metal. And there was no desperate woman, prepared to die, just to give her a black ring.

She looked at it in the light of the window. It was crystal, but she could not see through it. It was heavy, and it fit her perfectly, though her finger here was a different size. The symbol, barely visible within it, had profound meaning, but she had no idea what it was.

Her eyes refocused on a bucket below her hand, on the bottom shelf on the left, against the wall where the last few books should have been. It was filled with rags that had a greasy wet look to them. A thick, kinky cord came out of the bucket, went down to the floor, along the wall under the window close to the molding, and went behind the last books on the right. There was no smell.

A cold finger went down her back. This was not something left behind by the cleaning crew. She knelt by the bucket and touched a rag. Her finger came away slick with oil. Another cord came out of the back of the bucket, and went between the wall and the books on the shelf backing onto this one.

It was an incendiary device. In a library. That was why she was here.