Ring of Five Stones first pages

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 a natural darkness. 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. It was not yet six and beginning to get light outside.

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. There was the black band on her left ring finger. She turned her hand over. The silvery black faceted bezel almost sparkled, though there was not enough light for that. 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, her laptop with no internet connection and a cheap printer. 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 thought about going 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 ask them 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 classic 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 two sets of drawers. 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, not a 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. She wasn’t exactly human. Leslie Ann smiled at her, as if she didn’t need any help, thank you. 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 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 that 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 subtle 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 farther, 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.

She left the stack and went into the next one to the left. There was another bucket at the back, in a similar position. The cord between buckets was a wick or a fuse. She went to the last stack on the left. There was no bucket here, but the cord from the previous set of shelves came up against the end wall from the right, then over to the window, which was open just an eighth of an inch, so that the cord could go out and hang down over the sill.

Someone was going to burn this place down. Now or later, someone would come to the fuse outside and light it. The people in the library would probably have plenty of time to get out, but the books would be destroyed.

Leslie Ann had once started to read the Gormenghast trilogy, but had to stop when the young anti-hero was preparing to burn the family library. The destruction of the library at Alexandria, however it had really happened, had always disturbed her, all that knowledge lost, some of it forever. The burning of the library in The Name of the Rose had been at the end of the book, otherwise she could not have finished it. This was not something she could ignore.

They wouldn’t believe her if she went to the circulation desk, and told them that someone wanted to burn down the library. What a wild story. So when she got to the desk, she pointed to the first stack she had been in and said, “Someone’s been sick all over some books back there.” The librarian looked at her aghast. This was something that was easy to believe. She went to see how much damage had been done. Leslie Ann turned away and went out the front door. 

It was winter here, but she was not back in Minneapolis. It didn’t look like Minneapolis at all. This was the town to which this library belonged. Alerting the librarian wasn’t enough, there was something else she had to do. She went down to the front lawn, and around side of the building.

She stopped at the back corner, and peeked carefully around it. She saw the back of a tall, thin man, barely three feet from her, facing the library wall. He was wearing a jacket but no coat, despite the cold. She slowly peeked a little further, just enough to see that he was holding the end of the fuse dangling down from the window above. He was fumbling in his pants pocket with his other hand. He was totally focused on what he was intending to do, and he did not notice her. He took something like a cigarette lighter out of his pocket, and thumbed the wheel until he got a flame. “Hey!” she shouted, as loudly as she could. 

The man startled, jerked half way around toward her, and took an involuntary step backward. She took a long step toward him, grabbed the fuse out of his hand, and pulled it as hard as she could. It broke off at the window sill. The man swung at her with the back of his hand, still holding the burning lighter, and hit her cheek hard enough to knock her down. 

“Fire!” Leslie Ann screamed. A window opened farther along the wall, up at the main floor, and the librarian she had sent to find the sick looked out. The man didn’t notice, he just glared at Leslie Ann, then turned away toward the street. Leslie Ann, even as she struggled to her feet, leaped at him as hard as she could, landed face down on the lawn, and caught his ankle. He tried to take a step and fell. “Fire!” she screamed again. The man tried to get up, but she held onto his ankle, screaming fire, until pedestrians from the street came to see what was happening.

“Stop him!” the librarian called to them from the window. They didn’t ask why, they just grabbed at him, and when he fought back, they knocked him down again, and kept him down until the police came, just a few minutes later. The man kept struggling, and the police had to subdue him again, a bit more decisively, before they could take him away.

“So where’s the fire?” one of the officers asked Leslie Ann.

“Come inside and I’ll show you.” Three officers went with her. 

The head librarian had arrived from the main branch, just moments ago, and the other two librarians were telling her what they knew, which wasn’t much. Leslie Ann had to explain several times what she had seen, what she had thought, and why she had done what she did. She finally realized that she wasn’t speaking English, and hadn’t been since she had gotten here. But then, the woman in the snow had not spoken English either.

One of the officers went into a stack and brought back a bucket. They knew what the oil on the rags was, a kind of fuel oil that was highly flammable and burned hot. 

Nobody understood why the arsonist had wanted to burn the library. Other policemen came in to take away the buckets and the fuse cord that had been strung between them. The police decided, after a while, that they had done all they could, and as they were getting ready to leave, Leslie Ann asked the older librarian, “What do you have in the attic?” There had to be an attic, if the spiral stairs went all the way to the ceiling.

“Withdrawn books,” she said. The policemen hesitated.

“Are they very old?”

“Some of them, I guess —”

“Wait a minute,” the head librarian said. “There are all those boxes way in the back.”

“I’ll go see,” the younger librarian said. She went to the stairs, up past the two balconies, to a trap door in the high ceiling, and through it. A moment later a light came on. The police decided to stick around.

“I’d forgotten about those,” the other librarian said.

“I just now remembered,” the head librarian said. “I was told they were up there when I started here, but I don’t know what they are.”

The librarian in the attic came part way down the stairs. “All those boxes at the very back have labels. Something about a Katsurigi Collection.”

The head librarian stared up at her, mouth open, face pale. “My God,” she said, using a phrase that meant much the same thing.

“Is that important?” one of the police officers asked.

“If that’s what they really are. Etorain Katsurigi had a private collection of some of the rarest books in the world. It has been lost for more than seventy years.”

Everybody started talking about this, and about what it meant. It was obvious to everybody that that had been the arsonist’s target. But how could he have known about it? Maybe someone had told him. But that wasn’t any kind of answer at all, really, since how could they have known about it either?

Leslie Ann turned away, crossed the room to the entrance between the shelves of oversized books, and out through the little lobby. She was back in the city she knew without any sense of transition. She looked at her watch. The whole thing had taken, what, twenty minutes? Maybe half an hour. If she went back inside now, would she be in her own library? Or back in that strange one somewhere else? She thought she knew the answer, but she wasn’t going to test it. She went down the steps and turned toward home.

She was angry, mostly at the arsonist, but also at the woman in the snow. She was sure it was she who had sent her to that other library somehow. Leslie Ann didn’t need this kind of madness. Whether it was real — her face hurt where she had been struck, and there were grass marks on her coat — or just her imagination, it had nothing to do with the hoped-for promotion toward which she had been working so hard.

But it wasn’t the woman’s fault. Maybe it was she who had called to her the first time, but she was dead now. Someone else had called her to that alien library. Or something else — going up in flames … irreplaceable books … Damn, she hated that.

Be careful of hatred …

She didn’t actually hear the words. Not really. But she couldn’t deny their truth and importance. The woman in the snow had probably learned that the hard way.

Her face was really hurting by the time she got home. She hung up her coat, went into the tiny downstairs bathroom, and looked in the mirror over the sink. Her right cheek was red and swollen. She touched her cheekbone gently. She was going to have a magnificent bruise.

She was exhausted, even though she had not been up that long, and her little expedition hadn’t lasted that long. She had planned on doing things today, but instead she went back up to her room, lay down fully dressed on her bed, which she never did, and went to sleep.


She got to the store ahead of time, as she always did. Several of her crew were there a few minutes early as well. The two shifts overlapped by half an hour, which made the transition easy, though they almost never needed that much time. 

Carl Patterson, the day manager and her boss, saw her when she came in, then met her as she came out of the staff room where everybody kept their coats. “How are you?” He was in his mid thirties, fairly dark, a bit plump, and very secure in his position.

“I’m okay,” she said, then she remembered her cheek and reached up to touch it. “I really hurt myself. I slipped on the stairs coming down from my loft this morning.”

“You should get yourself a better place to live.” He went with her to the time clock.

“I will,” she said. “Some day.”

“Um, what I meant was, you’ve been working awfully hard lately.”


“Um, okay, but the last couple weeks you’ve been a bit distracted.”

“I have. Yes.”

“Look. I know when the district manager is going to come by. And, ah,” he looked around, just like in the movies, “I’m going to give him notice.”

“Really?” She didn’t have to pretend to be surprised.

“They’re not going to give you the promotion you want,” he said, his voice lowered, “but they might give you my job.”

“I see.” She felt breathless and disappointed at the same time.

“So look. You’ve got a lot of vacation coming. Take a month off, starting a week from Sunday. The DM won’t be here til three weeks after you get back. You’ll be all rested up and moving at full speed by the time he gets here. You see?”

“Yes, I do.” She read real concern in his face. “Thank you.”

“Sure. Um. Your work here shows up on my record too. That helped me get this new job. So I owe you. You see?”

“I do. Thank you.” She smiled at him, even though her face hurt.


The rest of the day went well. She got home without taking any unexpected side trips to other worlds. She didn’t dream about the man she had killed, nor about the library she had saved. But she did have a dream, just before morning, rather diffuse, about the woman in the snow. She was standing right in front of her, but at the same time she was far away.

I’m sorry, the woman said inaudibly.

It’s all right, Leslie Ann said, almost meaning it. She couldn’t hear her own voice either.

I wish it were, the woman said. Then she smiled, which made Leslie Ann feel good in an odd kind of way. Then something went wrong, and the woman was swept away, as if by some dark wind.


The next day was normal, and the next day, then Sunday. She read her textbook and did some homework. She went out after the drug store opened and got some more paper, pens, and folders. But on Monday, starting very subtly some time after she got up, there were hints of a sea smell, an all but inaudible sound of wind, and a suggestion that whatever she was standing on wasn’t quite as steady as it should be. She was going to be called on again — at least she had had two days to get over the last time — and these sensations were hints of what was to come. 

She always hung up her coat downstairs when she got home at night, but yesterday afternoon she had worn it up to her door. It could only mean that whatever was coming, it was going to happen right now. She put it on, opened her door, and went into another room entirely, with the sound of wind, the smell of ocean, and a slight rocking motion under her feet. She was on a ship at sea, just as she had been led to expect.

The room, or cabin, was paneled with wood. The low wooden ceiling had exposed rafters. There was a low door, flanked by small windows, in front of her. A table and four chairs beside her were heavy, and didn’t slide around with the movement of the ship. There was a built-in bunk under square windows on the right, with shelves above them, beyond which was the horizon between the sky and the sea. There were chests and cabinets on the other side of the table, against the wall on the left. She turned to look behind her, at an open door from which she had come, beyond which was only a shallow closet.

She looked at her hands, three fingers and a thumb, lightly furred on the back. She touched her face, longer between nose and lip, shorter between lip and chin, almost downy on cheeks and forehead. Her hair was coarse, and flowed straight back over large ears.

She had been transformed somehow, to look like the people of this world. That had happened at the library. It had probably happened in the snow. Maybe it always happened when someone went to another world. It was a good thing. Nobody here, just by looking at her, could tell that she was an extra-dimensional alien. 

What a weird thought.

She looked down at herself. She was a little larger around her hips. Her winter boots over her shoes were wider across the arch and narrower at the heel. Her coat was a shade darker, with a narrower waist and fuller skirts. They were the kind of clothes she would have, if she were native to this world. There was something about that which she couldn’t quite get straight in her mind. It was just the way it was. She stopped thinking about it.

Except that her long winter coat was a part of all this. It wasn’t by accident that she had not taken it off before going up to her room. She had no hint or clue as to why she had kept it on, and it was too warm, but she was not going to take it off now.

She went to the window to the right of the door, and looked out onto the ship. It was big, a sailing ship with six masts. The cabin in which she stood was on a high deck at the rear — the stern — on the right side — port or starboard, she couldn’t remember which it was. The main deck was two or three levels lower. There were men at their stations, on the deck and up in the sails, doing whatever sailors did when they were at sea. It all looked so normal. 

But she knew that there something was wrong here, something terrible and secret. She didn’t need any hint or clue, it was why she had been brought here.

She had stopped an attempted arson at the very last possible moment. Even ten seconds later, and she would have been too late. This time was different. Whatever she had to do, it wasn’t that urgent. 

How did she know that? 

The last time she had gone to a library, ordinarily a very safe place to be, if no one was trying to burn it down. This time, she was the only woman on a ship full of horny sailors. 

She turned away from the window. There had to be something here with which she could defend herself. She needed a knife, or a club, or even a candle stick. What she found was clothes, books, charts and charting tools. There was a medicine chest, a whiskey cabinet, even something like a small, three-stringed guitar. That might serve, but just for one time. She found nothing else.

She sat at the table, facing the door. It was too solidly built for her to take one of the legs off. The chair was too heavy, and it too wouldn’t come apart. The skirt of the table was rather larger than usual. She took hold of the under edge and pulled. There was a drawer, without a knob, and inside there were knives, forks, spoons, other things. They were all of silver except for one knife, which had a steel blade about six inches long, sharp enough for cutting steak. That was what she wanted. She stood, pulled the back of her coat aside, and stuck the knife into her belt, turning it so that the sharp edge, when she pulled it out, wouldn’t cut across her belt. The thought that she was being clever was more ironic than congratulatory. Maybe she could put the knife back, go to the closet door, and go back home. She readjusted her coat, and went to the door at the front, and out. 

The smell the sea was stronger here. There was a railing at the front of the deck, and stairs went down on right and left. She looked behind her at another railing above the cabins, of which there were two, and steep stairs going up on either side. What were stairs called on a ship? The door from which she had come was still open, the other one was closed.

She went to the rail, into the wind which blew from behind her and a bit to her right, flapping her coat skirts. The sails overhead, eight on this rearmost mast, were full, and at a slight angle to catch the wind. She looked back at the deck over the cabins. There was nobody there. Below her was another deck, like the one on which she stood, a bit longer from front to back, a bit wider. There had to be at least one more similar deck before the main deck. It was a big ship.

Maybe the crew, when they found her, would think her a stowaway, and just throw her overboard without asking questions. She didn’t think they would. There would be no point to her coming here if they were to do that. She took a breath and called out, “I need some help up here.” The words were not in English, nor were they in the language she had used in the library, or in the snowy forest. She was someplace else.

Men appeared on the deck below her. Some of the men up in the sails glanced down, but kept to whatever it was they were doing. A man came out of the other cabin behind her. They were all surprised, and in some cases frightened.

“I know there is something wrong here,” she called again. “I want to see your captain.”

“Who are you?” the man behind her shouted. “How did you get on board?”

“My name is Lesandro,” Leslie Ann said, turning to face him. “I don’t know how I got here.” Men were coming up the stairs from the deck below. Ladder, was that it? “I just know there’s something wrong. Are you the captain?”

“The captain’s below,” a man on her left said. He took her arm rather roughly. Another man came up on her right.

“You can see the captain there if you like,” the man from the cabin said, meaning, in fact, that she would have no choice.

“Maybe we should entertain her in the captain’s cabin first,” the man on her right said, taking her other arm just as roughly.

“By all means,” the man from the cabin said, and went back inside.

The two sailors half lifted her as they walked her toward the cabin from which she had come. The man on her right opened the door. They shoved her through so that she nearly fell, then came in after her and closed the door. She turned to face them. They were not smiling.

Scream? Run behind the table? Beg? She stood up straight and, on inspiration, slowly took off her coat. That was why she had worn it, she needed a prop. The men stopped and watched. Their expressions changed, but not in a nice way. 

She pressed the heel of her right boot with the toe of her left, and pulled the boot off. Then she took off the left boot the same way. She pulled the front of her shirt out of her waistband. She had their complete attention. She reached around behind her to pull out the back of her shirt, took the knife from her belt, remembered a man who’s head she had cut off and, holding the knife up along and behind her wrist, walked in what she hoped was a mildly provocative way toward the man on her right. Whatever she was going to do, she would have only one chance. 

The man reached for her. She stepped right up to him and stabbed him as hard as she could through his solar plexus. He gasped and stumbled. She jerked the knife out of him and turned to the other man. Again she stepped closer before he could grab her, and put the knife, edge up, between his legs, up against his groin, and cut him just a little bit. The first man fell. The one still standing gasped, paled, fluttered his hands, anticipating castration. She knew she could do it if she had to. The man interpreted her twitch of disgust as a threat, and got very still.

Now what? Make it up as she went along, as someone once said. The knife wasn’t really that sharp. “I want you to call the man from that other cabin,” she said. “Tell him to come in here.” Her voice, thank God, didn’t tremble. “Be careful. If you do it the wrong way,” she felt that the edge of the blade was just to one side of him, and turned it toward his scrotum, “I’ll cut you off and let you bleed to death.” The thought made her belly shrink.

“Okay,” he said, his voice possibly an octave and a half higher than it usually was. He cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said again, his voice much lower, a hoarse whisper. He glanced at the wall — bulkhead? whatever — between the two cabins, then jerked his head at it.

Leslie Ann kept the knife in place and went with him as he sidled sideways, very carefully. They got to the wall, he raised his hand as if to knock, hesitated, stared at her with frightened eyes, cleared his throat again, then knocked on the wooden paneling. “Josmith,” he called, sounding almost normal. “You might want to come in here.”

“You need help?” Josmith called back.

“Nah, you know, I just thought …”

Hell,” or a word that meant something similar, “why not?”

Now what was she going to do? … making it up as she went along…. She pulled the knife very carefully out of the man’s crotch. He winced, his lips pulled back. She stepped back, keeping the knife — there was blood on it — pointing more or less at the man’s stomach. “Let’s go over by the door,” she said. The door to the other cabin opened and closed.

The sailor had to work to take his eyes off the knife, but he did, and went toward the door just as it opened. Leslie Ann stood behind him, so Josmith wouldn’t see her right away. Josmith came in with a mildly expectant expression on his face, closed the door behind him, then noticed the body on the floor. Leslie Ann, still unnoticed, carefully put the knife back into her belt. Her hands tingled. Then, with her hands down beside her, she came out from behind the sailor and said, “I want to see the captain.”

Josmith was startled. He stared at her, glanced at the sailor, who just stood there, then looked at Leslie Ann again. She raised her hands slightly and, surprising herself, wiggled her fingers. His face went pale. She had no idea what he was imagining.

“All right,” he said as if his throat were full of phlegm.

Leslie Ann made sure that the tail of her shirt concealed the knife, then gestured toward the door. Josmith turned toward it. Leslie Ann came up beside the sailor, glanced down at his crotch, back up at his eyes, then went out after Josmith. They walked toward the right hand ladder. The cabin door closed behind her, but no footsteps followed.

They crossed the deck below, then the one below that, then down to the main deck. Her heart was pounding. Her hands still tingled. She refused to imagine what it might have been like if she had actually had to cut that man.

Josmith’s stride became more natural and confident. He must have been wondering what he had been worried about. The sailors they passed stared, but said nothing. She heard only normal sounds behind her as they went on with what they had been doing. They got to a door at the other end of the ship, where three more decks stepped up and forward from the main deck. She quickly pulled out the knife and pressed up between Josmith’s legs, her hand against his butt. There was no reaction from behind her. Maybe nobody had noticed. She turned the edge against his soft parts. He stood absolutely still.

Her mind fluttered, but her hand was perfectly steady as she pressed it against him just a little harder, and angled the blade just a little more dangerously. “There is no margin for error,” she said softly. Her voice was almost gentle, not at all hard, but he could have no doubt that she would do it.

He nodded his head jerkily, then opened the door. She followed him, completely synchronized with his movements, but without the vaguest idea of what she was going to do.

There were doors on either side of the narrow passage, off-set from each other, and there was another door at the far end, at which a man had been leaning with his arms crossed. He stood straight, now, as if on guard, his arms down at his sides. 

Josmith went to him, walking a little oddly because of the knife between his legs. The guard didn’t see Leslie Ann behind him. Josmith gestured to him to open the door, then to precede him into the storage room beyond. They went to another door on the far side of the room. The man looked over his shoulder, Josmith nodded, the man unlocked it and stepped aside. Leslie Ann twitched the knife. Josmith gestured to the sailor to go in ahead of him. The sailor was a bit confused, but he went. Josmith followed with Leslie Ann close behind. There were windows on either side, and more than a dozen men sitting on crates. 

Leslie Ann took the knife from between Josmith’s legs when they were all three inside. He let out a long, shuddering sigh. She put the knife back into the belt behind her back, adjusted her shirt, and stepped out from behind him. The guard was surprised, but most of the prisoners had been sitting where they could see her when she had come in. 

She let her hands hang loosely at her side. She could still lose everything if she did this the wrong way. She looked from one sailor to another. That one there, a little older than the rest, a little calmer, and at the same time a little angrier, he would be the one.

“Captain,” she said, “how do we get your ship back?”


It wasn’t hard, but it took time. The leaders of the mutiny were called forward one by one. They were each captured as they came in and tied up. Then Captain Arofane, with First Mate Josmith, the ex-prisoners, and Leslie Ann following behind, left the storage area, and announced to the surprised crew that the mutiny was over. The sailors who had been locked up with the captain were men he could trust. They went among the crew, securing those who might cause trouble. Leslie Ann went with Arofane, Josmith, and two others back to the stern cabins. But instead of going into Arofane’s cabin, she directed them into the mate’s cabin. There was, she knew somehow, something here. Josmith became truly frightened at last.

The captain had, with some difficulty, refrained from asking Leslie Ann any questions, but he could hold back no longer. “Who are you? How did you get here? What did you do to this man?” He pointed a not too steady finger at his ex-first mate.

“My name is Lesandro,” Leslie Ann said. “At least, that’s what it is here. I came from very far away. I don’t really know how I got here, but I guess it was something like magic, if you believe in that sort of thing. I don’t. And aside from holding this knife,” she showed it to him, “in a rather threatening fashion,” she took a deep breath and let it out slowly, “I didn’t really do anything to him, or to the surviving man next door. Another man in there is dead.”

“She’s a witch,” Josmith said.

“I guess I am,” Leslie Ann said to him. “I was sent here to put down your mutiny, so that Captain Arofane can get on with his mission. The reason we are here,” she said to the captain, “instead of in your cabin, is because there is a real stowaway.” She knew the truth of that, even as she said it. She pointed at the bunk.

The two sailors went to it, lifted the mattress like a trunk lid, and another man came up out of it, flailing and kicking. He knocked them away from him, and ran toward the door. Josmith, his face enraged, struck the man in the stomach as he tried to pass, doubling him up and staggering him him back two or three steps. The two sailors recovered their balance and grabbed him, twisted his arms behind him, and forced his head down toward the deck. He gasped and choked and struggled to breathe.

“Don’t let him talk!” Josmith shouted. “Gag him! Don’t let him talk!”

The captain went to the closet, came back with a shirt, and started stuffing a sleeve into the stowaway’s mouth.

“If he talks,” Josmith said, “you believe. He started by talking to me in the night. I thought I was dreaming, I didn’t know he was here. And when he finally showed himself, I was completely under his spell. He had me bring others in, one at a time. It didn’t feel wrong when I did it.”

“What did he want?” Arofane asked.

“I don’t know. He never said. Just to go anywhere but where we’re supposed to, anywhere at all.”

The two sailors were holding the stowaway upright now. He was choking around the shirt sleeve, gasping through his nose.

“We can’t leave him like that,” Arofane said. “How will he eat or drink?”

Josmith took three big breaths, then said, “I can fix it.” He went to the door and held it open. The men holding the stowaway went out. Josmith looked at Leslie Ann, then followed them. Leslie Ann and Arofane went after him.

Josmith went behind the captive. “Let me have him,” he said. The sailors held him so that he could take hold of the stowaway, with his arms still twisted up behind him, in a bear hug. He looked at Leslie Ann, said, “Forgive me,” dragged the stowaway to the rail, and jumped with him over the side. Leslie Ann turned away before she heard the splash, then stood there trembling.

The captain, after a moment, came to her and put a hand on her shoulder to try to calm her. “How did you know?”

“I am guided.” She managed to keep her voice steady.

“By whom?”

“I don’t know.” But she did. She knew. She looked at the black ring.

“How will you get home?” he asked at last.

“I’ll show you.” She went to his cabin, and they went in. The dead man was lying where she had left him. The other man had pulled a chair around, and was sitting facing the door. There was a little blood at his crotch.

“It’s all over,” she told him. She put the knife down on the table, tucked in her shirt, picked up her boots and coat from the floor. “This way,” she said, and walked through the closet door into her own room.

She was shaking so badly that she just dropped the coat and boots and sat in her chair. There was no ship on the other side of the door now. “Why are you doing this to me?” she called out to the woman in the snow, the woman in her dream.

She got no answer, other than an imaginary hint of apology and sympathy. 

She calmed down after an hour or so, then she spent more time just sitting and staring at nothing, trying her best to think about nothing at all,  until she was able, at last, to do some homework. It took longer than it usually did, and some of it wasn’t done well, so she might have to do it over again. She had macaroni and cheese for lunch, did laundry, and took one of her uniforms to the cleaners on her way to work. She did her best to be herself, and felt no winter or water on the way home.


She did not sleep well. She dreamed during the night, about almost cutting men where it would hurt most, and woke up several times, crying. The man she had stabbed in the stomach didn’t bother her at all.

She woke up late and fixed herself a can of Beefaroni for lunch. She didn’t have to think about it while doing it, or while eating it, or about anything else either. She went down to the little bathroom, then rinsed out the can and put it in the trash bin, put on her coat, left her garage, and walked away, turning corners at random, going nowhere, just moving. It took her a while, but eventually she was able to think again. 

She had been chosen the first time, maybe out of desperation. Sending her to the library sort of made sense, considering how she felt about it, as if whoever it was could actually know her feelings. But why hadn’t they chosen someone who was far more capable of quelling a mutiny? Had she really been the best one for the job? Running a fast food restaurant had certainly not prepared her for anything like that. But she had done it.

She would never know whether that had actually done any good. Did the woman in the snow have any understanding of how much Leslie Ann was disturbed by all this? 

Yeah, she probably did. Maybe she had had to do even worse things. Maybe that was why she had apologized in the dream.

By the time she got to the store, a few minutes before four, she knew she would be able to keep her distress carefully tucked away in the back of her head.

“I made the arrangements,” Carl Patterson said, shortly after she hung up her coat. “Four weeks off, starting Sunday. Like I said.”

“Thank you,” Leslie Ann said. “I’m going to need that vacation a lot more than I thought I did.”

“Go some place nice. You’ve got four weeks. I know you’ve got a little money saved up. Get yourself straightened out, so that when you come back,” he lowered his voice, “you can make the district manager want to give you my job.”

She smiled at him and almost laughed. He really cared about her, and that surprised her. “I think that’s a very good idea,” she said.


The rest of the day went well. And the only dreams she had that night were the usual montage of unrelated ideas and images, which faded away even before she woke up. She fixed herself a bowl of cereal and ate it. Then she paid some bills, got some groceries including more milk, redid some of her distance learning homework, and did some more. She had lunch, was able to read more of the biography of Jane Austin. Her crew that night worked especially hard for some reason. 

But on her way home she took a wrong turn somewhere, and wound up in a night-time forest. Damn. Not even two full days.

The ground was level. It was dark, but she could see that there wasn’t much undergrowth. She couldn’t tell the nature of the trees, other than that they were fairly large, spaced only ten or twelve feet apart, and in full leaf. The air smelled of leafy compost. The sounds of night started up, as if the creatures living here had been startled by her sudden arrival.

It was too warm for her coat. She unbuttoned it, but she did not take it off. She might need it for dramatic effect again. Now which way should she go? She turned half way around to look behind her. It was just forest, with no indication of how she had gotten here. She turned the rest of the way around, trying to see through the darkness, looking for anything that might give her a clue. There was nothing special, nothing to see, nothing to hear. She turned around again, and now she got the very distinct feeling that she should go in one particular direction. She took a breath and started walking.

It was easy going, and the sense of direction persisted, so she knew that she wouldn’t loose her way. She became aware, after about twenty minutes, of a hint of light up ahead. A few minutes later she began to hear voices. She got closer, and now she could hear inflections and intonations suggestive of fear, encouragement, protest, and command. The light was brighter, but it was coming from below a slope, still some way off.

She got close enough to be able to distinguish some of the words, and by that time the people seemed to have come to an understanding. The voices continued, almost in unison, a kind of chanting or prayer.

She kept going until she came to the edge of a depression. There were tall, dim torches among the trees at or near the bottom, in a ring in which thirty or forty people stood, all facing the center of the circle. They were wearing simple robes, that looked as though they had been made up at the last minute. There was a man almost at the center, also in a robe, his back to her, his arms slightly raised to the sides. There was something like a table in front of him. She couldn’t see what was on it, because of the way the sleeves of his robe hung from his arms. 

The voices were not in unison, though they tried to be, which made it difficult to make out most of the words, except a few which might have been “forgive us” or “gift” or “hear us” or “thy hands.” And there was more than a hint of fear in most of the voices.

She went into the hollow, and to within a few yards of the ring of torches. Their pale flames moved the leaves overhead and cooked them. The people were all taller than she, and they were not at all human. They had long legs and arms, their skin and hair was white.

The man facing the table at the center raised his arms. The makeshift robe slid down to reveal white dress shirtsleeves with cuffs. “We have come today,” he intoned in a voice that resonated and thrilled her, even though she knew that this was her enemy, “at this hour of morning, to prove our devotion, by offering up one of ourselves, as an act of contrition, in hopes of forgiveness.”

A thrill ran down her back. What he said sounded like a human sacrifice. But his voice made the words, which were so wrong, feel right and just and true. Don’t let him talk, Josmith had said. The man he had carried overboard would have sounded like this.

She had to stop this somehow, but she had no thought as to how she was going to do it. 

The people paid no attention to her as she came to the ring of the torches, focused as they were on what they were going to do, what their leader was going to do. “Accept, oh Faynaya,” he said, “this our sister offered to you. Release us from the error of our sins. Take her spirit into you, where she may live forever.”

What tripe. The wrongness of it, even with the magic of his voice, was all too obvious. The people witnessing this travesty were murmuring now, still frightened, still uncertain — and desperate, that was what she had missed before. Fearful, not only of what this man was about to do, but also of what had prompted them to participate in it, and of what might happen if the sacrifice did not end as they had been led to believe.

She was not going to just stand there. She was going to do something about it, and she would have to do it soon. At some point he would raise a knife, or an axe, or a club, or something, and then it would be too late.

Her stomach clenched, and clenched again, and again. This was insane. They would grab her, and do her next. She pushed her fists into her coat pockets, and walked past the torches into the edge of the crowd. The people nearest her, surprised, stepped aside, and stared at her as she passed them.

She stopped a few feet behind the man who was conducting the sacrifice. He was not aware of her at all. He lowered his arms to his sides, and she saw, now, only half hidden by his robes, that there was a girl, lying on her side on the table. She was facing him, her head to his left, staring at him in horror, her feet bound up against her bare bottom on his right. There was trickle of blood from behind her heels, running down her lower buttock, and dripping onto the impromptu altar.

The girl looked past the man and saw Leslie Ann. The people on either side saw her too, and pulled away from her. Those who were on the other side of the altar pulled back. There were others who couldn’t see her because of the man, or did not see her yet because their attention was too tightly focused on the victim.

The man moved his right hand to his waist. 

“Don’t do that,” Leslie Ann said.

He jerked around, his mouth wide open in surprise, and flung his arms out when he almost lost his balance. He had not had time to pull the long knife from its sheath, which was hanging from a heavy cord around his waist. He was wearing black dress slacks, with a crease in front, and with a belt in belt loops. The knife sheath hung just above his crotch.

Leslie Ann moved so quickly that she surprised herself. She reached out with her left hand, on an arm that was a lot longer than it should have been. She grabbed the handle of the knife, and jerked it up and away from the sheath. The man clutched his hands over the sheath, protecting his crotch. The people around her made gasping noises, wordless sounds of protest, and backed off a step or two. Those who hadn’t seen what she had done called out, “What —” and “Who —” and “What —” again. Leslie Ann took one step back, held the knife down at her side, her right fist still deep in her coat pocket. Her mind was an almost painful blank.

Her stomach fluttered again, and again, and again. She shouldn’t be doing this — yes she should. She didn’t have to do this — yes she did. Not because someone was making her — the realization was like a brightness in her — but because she was making the decision to stop this evil, and knew, somehow, that she could.

She could drop the knife now and run away. These men and women were too surprised to stop her. She could do that if she wanted, and a part of her very much did. But another part, somehow more present, wanted very much to cut the girl free instead.

The man, as if he had been frozen in time, now took a half step toward her, and raised his hands as if to take her by the shoulders. She stepped back, put the knife behind her, took her right hand out of her pocket, pointed at the bridge of his nose, and said, “No!”

He stopped, surprised rather than intimidated. The people around them, murmuring uncertainly, inched backward.

Then the man straightened up, lowered his arms and, with a smug kind of smile, said, “Give me the knife.”

Give him the knife. Yes, that was the thing to do. Right up his crotch. But behind him on one side she saw the bare feet and naked buttocks of the girl, the trickle of blood coming down, and on the other side the girl’s face, terrified and pleading. “Did he rape you?” she asked her. Her voice wasn’t loud but everybody heard.

“Yes,” the girl said, and the people became quiet.

“Virgin sacrifice?” Leslie Ann asked the crowd, more loudly this time, her eyes again on the man’s face.

“Yes,” several people said, doubt and uncertainty and a question of their own in their voices.

“She’s not a virgin if she’s been raped,” Leslie Ann said.

The man’s confidence and condescension did not waver. “A part of the sacrifice,” he said, smiling.

“Bullshit,” Leslie Ann said, or words with the same meaning.

The people around her began murmuring, words of protest now, at her, not at him. They could overwhelm her so easily.

The man, as if he were talking to a child in danger of hurting itself, said, “Give me the knife.” He was so reasonable, so mature, so understanding.

Leslie Ann wanted to. She really did, his voice had that quality. But she held the knife down at her side and said, “Take it.” 

Her challenge surprised her and frightened her. The people beside her and behind her could so easily grab her. The people beyond the man and the altar moved, so that they could see her. The girl on the altar closed her eyes, and started crying.

“You son of a bitch,” Leslie Ann muttered with an intensity everybody could feel.

“Give me the knife,” the man said, more loudly, no longer pleasant and condescending. He was on the verge of anger, his patience was running out.

“Take it!” Leslie Ann snarled at him. Her stomach fluttered, flipped, pulsed, her skin crawled, her shins ached. Any minute now, any second, they would grab her, and it would be her turn to be put on the altar and raped and murdered.

“Please,” the girl cried out.

“It’s dawn,” someone said.

“Too late,” and “It’s too late,” other people said.

“It’s not too late!” the man shouted.

“But you said,” people said, in a variety of ways.

Leslie Ann just stared at him, keeping herself immobile. She wasn’t really quaking, it just felt like that.

“Please,” the girl cried again.

The man leaned forward and reached for Leslie Ann’s left arm with both hands. She raised the knife before he could grab her, quickly and surely, and put the point of the blade up under his chin, barely penetrating his skin. He stopped, his arms still outstretched.

“Set her free,” Leslie Ann said to the people.

“Please,” the girl cried, whimpered, desperately.

“I’ll —” the man started to say, but the knife cut him as he moved his jaw, and he stopped, and let his arms fall. That was what she wanted, not to kill him, but to shut him up.

“Set her free,” Leslie Ann said again, more quietly this time. She kept the knife where it was, while the people cut the girl’s bonds.

A thin line of blood trickled slowly down the blade of the knife, over the guard, onto her hand. The man straightened up. She moved with him, pressed up harder, pressing the point deeper. She could push it right up through his tongue, through the roof of his mouth. Blood flowed a little more freely. He gasped softly.

“You have been deceived,” Leslie Ann said to the people around him. Some of them were helping the girl to her feet. Several had taken off their robes, and were offering to, or trying to cover her nakedness. The man moved his head. Leslie Ann pressed harder. The blood dripped off the handle of the knife, off her fist. “You only believe him when he speaks,” she went on. The man, furious, raised his hands to grab her arm. She cut him down the underside of his chin, almost to his throat. He stopped. “Do you still believe his lies, now that he is silent?”

Several people were leading the girl away. The others, whom Leslie Ann could see without moving her eyes from the man’s face, were looking at him, with expressions that were both angry and confused.

“But why?” someone asked.

“To make you as evil as himself.” She thought about slicing down through his Adam’s apple. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would silence him forever. She thought about it, but she could not bring herself to do it. She lowered the knife.

The man made a small choking sound, then he said, “You should have kept your advantage.” His voice was rough. It had lost its persuasive quality.

A man punched him in the back of his head. Another punched him on his cheek. A woman kicked him just above his knee, nearly knocking him down. Then others started swinging and kicking and, with a cry, the man turned, and seemed to grow very thin, like a piece of paper twisting, and then he was gone.

The people, startled, jerked back, then looked around as if he had somehow just slipped off between them. Leslie Ann backed away from them, threw down the knife, then turned and walked quickly off through the trees, into a cold alley not far from her garage. She stopped, startled by the sudden transition, then looked at her left hand. There was blood on the back of it and on her fingers. There was no blood on the black ring.

Her chest convulsed. She was sobbing. What the Hell was happening to her? Why was she being made to do things like this? Was she being prepared for something worse? 

She didn’t have to have anyone tell her that yes, she was. These little expeditions were just the beginning, just training for what was to come. And yet she could stop it if she wanted to. She knew she could do that. And let people die.

She walked home, plodding, her feet heavy, her left hand out to the side so that she wouldn’t get blood on her coat. From the feel at her wrist she already had. She sobbed, all but silently, all the way to the side door of her garage. She went in, and into her little bathroom, and turned on the light. Her face in the mirror was distorted by her emotion, streaked with tears. She looked down at her bloody left hand. Some blood had gotten onto the sleeve of her coat. She turned on the water in the sink, pulled her coat sleeve up, and rinsed her hands off as much as she could. Then she took off the coat so she could wash her hands and wrists thoroughly. Then, still crying, she very carefully rinsed the edge of the coat sleeve, wetting it and squeezing it until there was no more blood in the water. She left the little bathroom, and hung the coat up to dry.

She was no longer crying by the time she got up to her room. She had a stuffed nose which was giving her a headache. She sat down in her chair. Her watch said that it was after one. Hardly any time at all.

That man had been so evil. His voice had had such power. The man on the ship must have had a voice like that. The man at the library had not, or he would have used it.

She saw, in her mind’s eye, how the man had twisted away into nothingness. What a bizarre image. Had he appeared there the same way? If people had seen her, coming and going, would they have seen the same thing? 

He had to have been in that world for some time, to have seduced and perverted the people the way he had. Not that many people, really. Not enough people, certainly, to have made any difference to the world.

At least, not right away. If the sacrifice had ended the way he had told them it would, there would be more people at another sacrifice. And then more. And then more frequent sacrifices, and the people would have become intoxicated by their own evil, and the infection would have spread. How far before someone finally figured out what was going on and put a stop to it? Maybe, after a while, they couldn’t put a stop to it. Maybe that was why she had been called, right at the beginning, when the evil could be stopped before it really started.

The ship. The enemy had tried to divert it. What would have happened, what would have failed to have happened, if it had not gone to where it was supposed to go?

The library. It could have burned, with irreplaceable books hidden in its attic.

And the woman in the snow, who had actually died, after all, sacrificing herself to give Leslie Ann the ring when she could have escaped alive. It wasn’t the ring which had taken her to the library and the ship. It certainly couldn’t have taken her to the snowy place. She had to have done it herself somehow.

She took off the ring and held it in the palm of her hand. It was heavy, and silvery black like hematite, but blacker, and at the same time more silvery, and it was transparent, like obsidian, though she couldn’t see through even the thinnest part, only that strange figure under the facets of the bezel.

She could have refused to go to those places. Or, having gone there, she could have refused to do what she did.

She could have let that girl die.

No outside influence had forced her to save the girl. She had been given the chance, and had made that choice herself, disgusted, terrified, and angry. She could have run away, but she had not. If she had refused to do what she had been asked to do, she would have just come home again. With a guilty conscience. And nightmares, for who knew how long.

Maybe, if she didn’t wear the ring, she wouldn’t be called again. Maybe she could refuse it all as easily as that. Let the girl die. Let the sailors become lost. Let the knowledge be destroyed. Let the woman have died for nothing.

She looked at the ring. The peculiar symbol embedded in it, an inclusion maybe, meant something profound, but not to her. She could just throw it away.

She put the ring on, went to bed, and slept without dreams.



If you want to read more, you can get it here.