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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Eighteen)

Chapter Eighteen

ONCE AGAIN, GAGE CALLED FOR A MEETING AT Cal's office. Just his brothers. He'd made certain he'd been up and out of the house that morning before Cybil so much as stirred. He'd needed time to think, time alone, just as he needed time now with his two friends.

He laid out what he'd learned from Linz in calm and dispassionate terms.

"Screw that," was Fox's opinion. "Screw that, Gage."

"It's how it ends."

"Because some demon academic we don't know, who's never been here, never dealt with what we've dealt with says so?"

"Because it's how it ends," Gage repeated. "Everything we know, everything we've found out, everything we've dealt with leads right up to it."

"I'm going to have to go with the lawyer's technical terminology on this," Cal said after a moment. "Screw that."

Gage's eyes were green and clear; he'd made his peace with what had to be. "I appreciate the sentiment, but we all know better. None of us should have made it this far. The only reason we have is because Dent broke the rules, gave us abilities, gave us a power source. Time to pay up. Don't say 'why you.'" Gage tapped a finger in the air at Fox. "It's all over your face, and we've been over that part. It's my turn, and it's my goddamn destiny. It stops this time. This is when and how. Upside is I'm not going to have to haul my ass back here every seven years to save you guys."

"Screw that, too," Fox said, but without heat as he pushed to his feet. "There's going to be another way. You're looking at this in a straight line. You're not checking out the angles."

"Brother, angles are my business. It's either destroyed this time, or it becomes. Fully corporeal, fully in possession of all its former power. We've already seen that begin to happen."

Absently, Gage rubbed his shoulder where the scar rode. "I've got a souvenir. To destroy it, absolutely take it out, requires a life from our side. Blood sacrifice, to pay the price, to balance the scales. One light for the dark, and blah blah blah. I'm going to do this thing one way or the other. It'd be a hell of a lot easier if I had you behind me."

"We're not just going to sit back and watch you take one for the team," Cal told him. "We keep looking for another way."

"And if we don't find one? No bullshit, Cal," Gage added. "We've been through too much to bullshit each other."

"If we can't, can I have your car?"

Gage glanced over at Fox and felt the weight drop off his shoulders. They'd do what needed to be done. They'd stand behind him, just like always. "The way you drive? Hell no. Cybil gets it. That woman knows how to handle a car. I need you to lawyer up that kind of thing for me. I'd have that off my head."

"Okay, no problem." He shrugged off Cal 's curse. "And my fee's a bet. One thousand says we not only off the Big Evil Bastard, but you walk away from the Pagan Stone with the rest of us after we do."

"I want in on that," Cal said.

"That's a bet then."

Cal shook his head, absently rubbed Lump under his desk as the dog stirred from sleep. "Only a sick son of a bitch bets a thousand he's going to die."

Gage only smiled. "Dead or alive, I like to win."

"We need to take this back to the women," Fox put in, then narrowed his eyes at Gage. "Problem?"

"Depends. If we take it back to the women-"

"There's no if," Cal interrupted. "There are six of us in this."

"When we take it back to the women," Gage qualified, "the three of us go in as a unified front. I'm not going to be arguing with you and them. The deal is, we look for another way until time runs out. When time runs out and there's no other way, it's my way. Nobody welshes."

Cal rose, preparing to come around the desk to shake on the deal. The office door burst open. Cy Hudson, one of the fixtures of the Bowl-a-Rama's leagues, rushed in, teeth bared, and madly firing a.38. One of the bullets plowed into Cal 's sternum, took him down even as Gage and Fox dove at Cy.

His enormous bulk didn't topple, and his sheer madness flung them off like flies. He aimed at Cal again, shifted the gun at the last moment as Gage shouted, and Lump bunched to attack. Gage braced for the bullet, caught Fox rising up like a runner off the mark out of the corner of his eye.

Bill Turner came through the door like fury. He leaped onto Cy's back, fists pounding even as Fox went in low and the dog sprang, jaw snapping. The four of them went down in a bone-breaking tangle. The gun went off again even as Gage shoved up and grabbed a chair. He brought it down, brutally, twice on Cy's exposed head.

"Okay?" he said to Fox as Cy went limp.

"Yeah, yeah. Hey, boy, good dog." Fox hooked an arm around Lump's big neck. " Cal?"

Pushing up again, Gage dropped down beside Cal. Cal's face was bone white, his eyes glassy, and his breath came in short pants. But when Gage ripped his shirt open, he saw the spent bullet pushing up through the wound. Sidling over, Lump licked Cal 's face and whined.

"It's okay, you're okay. You're pushing it out." He gripped Cal 's hand, sent him all he could. "Give me something."

"Smashed a rib, I think," Cal managed. "Ripped hell out of me in there." He struggled to even his breathing as Lump nosed his shoulder. "I can't exactly tell."

"We've got it. Fox, for Christ's sake, give me a hand."

"Gage."

"What! Can't you see he's…" Furious, Gage whipped his head around. He saw Fox kneeling on the floor pressing the blood-soaked wad of his own shirt to Bill's chest.

"Call for an ambulance. I've got to keep the pressure on."

"Go. God." Cal pushed breath out, drew more in. He fisted his hand in Lump's fur. "I've got this. I've got this. Go."

But Gage kept Cal 's hand tight in his, drew out his phone. And with his eyes locked on his father's pale face, called for help.

CYBIL WOKE GROGGY, HEADACHY. THE GROGGY wasn't much of a surprise. Mornings weren't her finest hour, particularly after a restless night, and the dreams were a plague now. More, Gage had been closed in the night before. Barely speaking, she thought, as she grabbed a robe in case there were men in the house.

Well, his moods weren't her responsibility, she decided, and felt fairly closed in herself. She'd take her coffee out on the back deck-alone. And sulk.

The idea perked her up a little, or would have if she hadn't found both Layla and Quinn holding a whispered conference in the kitchen.

"Go away. Nobody talk to me until I've had two solid hits of caffeine."

"Sorry." Quinn blocked her path to the stove. "You'll have to put that off."

Warning flashed into her eyes. "Nobody tells me to put off my morning coffee. Move it or lose it, Q."

"No coffee until after this." She picked the pregnancy test off the counter, waved it in front of Cybil's face. "Your turn, Cyb."

"My turn for what. Move!"

"To pee on a stick."

Cybil's jones for coffee tripped over sheer shock. "What? Are you crazy? Just because sperm met egg for the two of you doesn't mean-"

"Isn't it funny I have this on hand just like I had one for Layla."

"Ha ha."

"And it's interesting," Layla continued, "how you pointed out yesterday the three of us are on the same cycle."

"I'm not pregnant."

Layla looked at Quinn. "Isn't that what I said?"

Nearly desperate for coffee, Cybil rolled her eyes. "I saw you pregnant. Both of you. I didn't see me that way."

"It's always harder to see ourselves," Quinn returned. "You've told me that a few times. Let's make it simple. You want coffee? Go pee on a stick. You won't get past both of us to the goal, Cyb."

Fuming, Cybil snatched the box. "Pregnancy's made both of you bossy and bitchy." She stalked off to the first-floor powder room.

"It has to mean something." Layla rubbed her hands over her arms, ridiculously nervous. "If we're right, or if we're wrong, it has to mean something. I just wish I could figure out what."

"I've got some ideas, but…" Worried, Quinn paced to the kitchen doorway. "We'll think about that later. After. And either way, we have to be with her on this."

"Well, of course. Why wouldn't… Oh. You mean if she is, and she doesn't want to be." With a nod, Layla stepped up so she stood beside Quinn. "No question about it. Whatever it is, whatever she needs."

They waited a few more minutes, then Quinn dragged both hands through her hair. "That's it. I can't stand it."

She marched to the door, knocked for form, then pushed the door open. "Cyb, how long does-Oh, Cybil." She knelt down immediately to gather Cybil up as her friend sat on the floor.

"What am I going to do?" Cybil managed. "What am I going to do?"

"Get off the floor to start." Briskly, Layla leaned down to help her up. "I'm going to make you some tea. We'll figure this out."

"I'm so stupid. So stupid." Cybil pressed her hands to her eyes as Quinn led her to the kitchen and a chair. "I should've seen it coming. All three of us. It's a perfect goddamn fit. It was right there in front of my face."

"It didn't click for me," Quinn told her. "The possibility of it didn't click in for me until the middle of the night. It's going to be all right, Cybil. Whatever you want or need, whatever you decide, Layla and I are going to be right there to make sure it's all right."

"It's not the same for me as it is for the two of you. Gage and I… We don't have any plans. We're not…" She managed a weak smile. "Linked the way you are with Cal and Fox."

"You're in love with him."

"Yes, I am." Cybil looked into Quinn's eyes. "But that doesn't mean we're together. He's not looking for-"

"Forget what he's looking for." Layla's voice was so sharp, Cybil blinked. "What are you looking for?"

"Well, it certainly wasn't this. I was looking to finish what we started here, and to have some time with him outside of this. If I looked further than that, and I'm not so strong and coolheaded that I didn't look further and hope that we might make something together. And not so wide-eyed and optimistic that I expect to."

"You know you don't have to decide right away." Quinn stroked Cybil's hair. "This is between the three of us, and we'll keep it that way as long as you want."

"You know we can't do that," Cybil replied. "There's a purpose in this, and that purpose might be the difference between life and death."

"Gods, demons, Fate-," Layla snapped. "None of them have a right to make this choice for you."

When Layla set the tea on the table, Cybil took her hand, squeezed fiercely. "Thanks. God. Thanks. The three of us, the three of them. Ann Hawkins had three sons and they were her hope, her faith, her courage. Now there are three more-the possibilities of three more inside us. There's a symmetry there that can't be ignored. In many cultures, in much lore, the pregnant woman holds particular power. We'll use that power."

She took a deep breath, reached for the tea. "I could, when it's finished, choose to end this possibility. My choice, and yes, screw gods and demons. My choice. And I don't choose to end this possibility. I'm not a child, and I'm not without resources. I love the father. Whatever happens between Gage and me, I absolutely believe this was meant."

She took another breath. "I know this is the right thing for me. And I know I'm officially scared to death."

"We'll all be going through it together." Quinn took Cybil's hand, took a good, strong hold. "That's going to help."

"Yes, it is. Don't say anything yet. I need to work out the best way to tell Gage. The best time, the best method. Meanwhile, the three of us need to try to figure out how we can use this surprising bout of mutual fertility. I can contact-"

"Hold that thought," Quinn said when the phone rang. After glancing at the display, she smiled. "Hello, lover. You-" The smile dropped away, and so did her color. "We're coming. I-" She shot alarmed glances at Cybil and Layla. "All right. Yes, all right. How bad? We'll meet you there."

She hung up. "Bill Turner-Gage's father-he's been shot."

THEY'D TAKEN HIS MOTHER AWAY IN AN AMBULANCE, Gage thought. All the lights, the sirens, the rush. He hadn't gone with her, of course. Frannie Hawkins had bundled him away, given him milk and cookies. Kept him close.

Now it was his father-the lights, the sirens, the rush. He wasn't entirely sure how it was he was speeding behind the ambulance, wedged in between Fox and Cal in the cab of Fox's truck. He could smell the blood. Cal's, the old man's.

There had been a lot of blood.

Cal was still pale, and the healing wasn't complete. Gage felt Cal tremble-quick, light shivers-as his body continued the pain and the effort of healing itself. But Cal wasn't dead, wasn't lying in a pool of his own blood as he'd been in the vision. They'd changed that… potential, as Cybil would call it.

Score another for the home team.

But they hadn't seen the old man. There'd been no vision of his father-dead or alive. No foresight of the old man leaping through the door and onto crazed Cy Hudson's back. No preview of that hot, determined look in his eyes. There sure as hell hadn't been any quick peek through the window to show him the way the old man lay on the floor, bleeding through Fox's wadded-up shirt.

He'd looked broken, Gage realized. Broken and frail and old when they'd loaded him into the ambulance. It wasn't right, it wasn't the right image. It didn't match the picture of Bill Turner that Gage carried around in his head the way, he supposed, he carried the picture of his mother in his wallet.

In that, she was forever young, forever smiling.

In Gage's head, Bill Turner was a big man, hefting the sway of a beer belly. He was hard eyes, hard mouth, hard hands. That was Bill Turner. As soon backhand you as look at you Bill Turner.

Who the hell was that broken bleeding man in the ambulance up ahead? And why the hell was he following him?

It blurred on him. The road, the cars, the buildings as Fox swung toward the hospital. He couldn't quite solidify it, couldn't quite bring it into focus. His body moved-getting out of the truck, climbing out when Fox slammed to the curb of the emergency entrance, striding into the ER. Part of his brain registered odd details. The change in temperature from June warmth to the chill of air-conditioning, the different sounds, voices, the new rush as medical people descended on the broken, bleeding man. He heard phones ringing-a tinny, irritatingly demanding sound.

Answer the phone, he thought, answer the goddamn phone.

Someone spoke to him, peppering him with questions. Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, and he wondered how the hell they expected the old man to answer when they'd already wheeled him off. Then he remembered he was Mr. Turner.

"What?"

What was his father's blood type?

Did he have any allergies?

His age?

Was he on any medications, taking any drugs?

"I don't know," was all Gage could say. "I don't know."

"I'll take it." Cal took Gage's arm, gave him a quick shake. "Sit down, get coffee. Fox."

"I'm on that."

There was coffee in his hand. How had that happened? Surprisingly good coffee. He sat with Cal and Fox in a waiting room. Gray and blue couches, chairs. A TV set on some morning show with a man and a woman laughing behind a desk.

Surgical waiting room, he remembered, as if coming out of a dream. The old man was in surgery. GSW-that's what they called it. Gunshot wound. The old man was in surgery because he had a bullet in him. Supposed to be in me, Gage remembered as his mind replayed that quick whip of the gun toward him. That.38 slug should be in me.

"I need to take a walk." As Fox started to stand with him, Gage shook his head. "No, I just need some air. I'm just… have to clear my head."

He rode down in the elevator with a sad-eyed woman with graying roots and a man with a seersucker blazer buttoned tight over a soccer ball belly.

He wondered if they'd left anyone broken and bleeding upstairs.

On the main level, he passed the gift shop with its forest of shiny balloons (Get Well Soon! It's a Boy!) and cold case of overpriced floral arrangements, racks of glossy magazines and paperback novels. He went straight out the front doors, turned left, and walked without any thought of destination.

Busy place, he thought idly. Cars, trucks, SUVs jammed the lots, while others circled, searching for a spot to park. Some of them would stop by the gift shop for glossy magazines and balloons. A lot of sick people around, he supposed, and wondered how many of them had a GSW. Was there an appropriate tagline on a balloon for a GSW?

He heard Cybil call his name. Though the sound of it seemed absurdly out of place, he turned. She hurried down the sidewalk toward him, at just short of a run. All that dark, curling hair was sunstruck, flying around that fabulous face.

Gage had the odd thought that if a man had to die, he could go happier knowing a woman like Cybil Kinski had once run to him.

She caught him, grabbed both his hands. "Your father?"

"In surgery. How'd you get here?"

" Cal called. Quinn and Layla went in. I saw you so… Can you tell me what happened?"

"Cy brought his.38 into Cal 's office, shot up the place. Cal, too."

" Cal -"

"He's okay. You know how it goes."

An ambulance roared into the lot hot, sirens, lights. Someone else in trouble, Gage thought. Another balloon on a string.

"Gage. Let's find a place to sit down."

He brought himself back to her, to Cybil with the gypsy eyes. "No, I'm… walking. It happened fast. Couple of fingersnaps. Let's see. Bang, bang, Cal 's down. Cy aims for him again, so I yelled out. No…" Not quite right, he remembered.

"It doesn't matter." She hooked her arm around his waist. If she could have taken his weight, she would have. But the weight he carried wasn't physical.

"It does. It all matters."

"You're right." Gently, she guided him around so they were walking back toward the hospital. "Tell me what happened."

"We went for him first, for Cy, but the guy's built like a mountain, and you add in the infection. Shook us right off. Then I yelled. He turned the gun at me."

In his mind, it replayed in slow motion, every detail, every movement. "The dog had been asleep, as usual, under the desk. He came up like vengeance. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. Fox is about to charge Cy again, might've had enough time. We'll never know. The old man, he comes through the door like a freight train, jumps Cy, and the three of them go down-and the dog, too. The gun went off. Fox was okay, so I got over to Cal. Never gave the old man a thought. Fox was okay, Cal was bleeding and working on pushing the goddamn bullet out. I never gave the old man a thought."

Cybil stopped, turned to him. She said nothing, only watched his face, held his hands.

"I looked over. Fox must've pulled his shirt off. He was using it to put pressure on the wound. Chest wound. GSW. The old man, he can't push the goddamn bullet out like we can."

She released his hands to put her arms around him.

"I don't know how I'm supposed to feel."

"You don't have to decide."

"I could've taken the bullet. Odds are it wouldn't have killed me."

" Cal could've taken another, on the same scale. But you tried to stop it. That's what people do, Gage. They try to stop it."

"We didn't see this, Cybil."

"No, we didn't."

"I changed it. I called a meeting with Cal and Fox, so we were there. Instead of Cal being alone in his office when Cy came in shooting, we were there."

"Gage, listen to me." She brought their hands together between them, looked over the joining directly into his eyes. "You're asking yourself, you're wondering if being there makes you to blame for what happened. You know in your heart, in your head-you know after twenty-one years of fighting this what's to blame."

" Cal 's alive. I know that matters to me more-"

"This isn't about more, or about less."

"He-the old man-it's the first time in my life I remember him stepping up for me. It's hard knowing it might be the last."

Standing in the June sunshine, as the scream of another ambulance hacked through the air, her heart broke for him. "We could look now, look at your father, if that would help you."

"No." He laid his cheek on the top of her head. "We'll wait."

HE THOUGHT IT WOULD BE HOURS. THE WAITING and the wondering and second-guessing that went with it. But Gage had barely reached the waiting room when a doctor in surgical scrubs came in. Gage knew as soon as their eyes met. He saw death in them. Inside his belly something twisted viciously, like a clenched fist jerking once, hard. Then it let go, and what was left behind was numb.

"Mr. Turner."

Gage rose, waved his friends back. He walked out to listen to the doctor tell him the old man was dead.

HE'D BURY THE OLD MAN BESIDE HIS WIFE AND daughter. That Gage could do. He wasn't having any damn viewing, or what he thought of as the after-graveside buffet. Short, simple, done. He let Cal handle the arrangements for a graveside service as long as it was brief. God knew Cal knew Bill Turner better than he did. Certainly the Bill Turner who died on the operating table.

He retrieved his father's one good suit from the apartment and delivered it to the funeral home. He ordered the headstone, paid for it and the other expenses in cash.

At some point, he supposed, he'd need to clean out the apartment, donate everything to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Something. Or, as the odds were Cal would be making arrangements for his own graveside service before much longer, Gage figured he could leave that little chore to Cal and Fox.

They lied to the police, which wouldn't keep Gage from sleeping at night. With Jim Hawkins's help, they'd tampered with evidence. Cy remembered nothing, and Gage figured if the old man had to die, that shouldn't be for nothing either.

He came out of the funeral home, telling himself he'd done all he could. And he saw Frannie Hawkins standing beside his car.

"Cybil said you'd be here. I didn't want to come in, to intrude."

"You've never intruded."

She put her arms around him-one good, hard hug. "I'm sorry. I know how things were between you and Bill, but I'm sorry."

"I am, too. I'm just not sure what that covers."

"However things were, however he was, in the past, in the end he did everything he could to protect you-and my boy, and Fox. And in the end, you've done exactly the right thing for them, for the Hollow, and for Bill."

"I'm laying the rap for his own death on him."

"You're saving a good man, an innocent man from a murder charge and prison." Frannie's face radiated compassion. "It wasn't Cy who shot Cal or Bill-and we know that. It isn't Cy who should spend, potentially, the rest of his life behind bars, leave his wife alone, his kids and grandkids."

"No. We talked about that. The old man's not in a position to put his two cents in, so…"

"Then you should understand Bill considered Cy a friend, and it was mutual. After Bill quit drinking, Cy was one of the ones who'd sit around with him, drinking coffee or Cokes. I want you to know I feel absolutely certain this is what Bill would want you to do. As far as anyone knows, Bill came in with the gun, God knows why because none of us do, and when Cy and the rest of you tried to stop him, there was an accident. Bill wouldn't want Cy punished for what was beyond his control. And nothing can hurt Bill now. You know what happened, what Bill did in the end. It doesn't matter what anyone else knows."

It helped hearing it, helped rub dull the sharper edges of guilt. "I can't feel-the grief, the anger. I can't feel it."

"If and when you need to, you will. All you need to know now is you've done what can and should be done. That's enough."

"Would you do something for me?"

"Just about anything."

"When I'm not around, will you put flowers out there now and again? For the three of them."

"Yes. I will."

He stepped over to her car, opened the door for her. "Now I'm going to ask you something."

"Ask away."

"If you knew you had a week or two to live, what would you do?"

She started to speak, stopped, and Gage understood she'd smothered her instinctive response-for his sake. Instead, she smiled. "How am I feeling?"

"Good."

"In that case, I'd do exactly as I pleased, particularly if it was something I'd normally deny myself or hesitate over. I'd grab everything I wanted, needed. I'd make sure the people who annoyed me knew just what I thought. And more important, that everyone I loved knew how much they meant to me."

"No confessing your sins, making amends?"

"If I haven't confessed and amended by that point, screw it. It's all about me now."

Laughing, he leaned down and kissed her. "I really love you."

"I know you do."

AS USUAL, IN GAGE'S OPINION, FRANNIE HAD HER sensible finger on the heart of the matter. But first things first. He knew too well that death-anyone's death- wouldn't stop the approach of the Seven. The meeting they'd held in Cal 's office now had to be open to all six.

"The deal's pretty straightforward," he began. They sat, all of them, in Cal 's living room on the night before his father's burial. "Some of the books and folklore Linz accessed have fancy or fanciful language, but it boils down to this: The bloodstone-our stone-is the key. Part of the Alpha Stone, just as Cybil theorized. A power source. And oddly enough, in some of Linz 's studies, this fragment is called the Pagan Stone. I don't see that as coincidence."

"What's the lock?" Quinn asked.

"Its heart. The black, festering heart of our own Big Evil Bastard. Insert key, turn, the lock opens and the Evil Bastard goes back to hell. Simple as that."

"No," Cybil said slowly, "it's not."

"Actually it is. But you've got to ante up first."

"And you're saying you're what we ante up?"

"The stakes are a little too rich for me," Layla added. "Why play its game? We'll find one of our own, and use our rules."

"It's not its game," Gage corrected. "It's the only game we've got. And one it's been trying to delay and destroy for eons. The bloodstone destroys it, which is why it came to us in threes, why we weren't able to put it together until now. Until we were old enough, until we were all a part of it. It took all six of us. The rest of it will, too. But only one of us turns the key. That's for me."

"How?" Cybil demanded. "By going inside it? By dying and going to hell with it?"

"'Into the black.' You already know this," he said, watching her face. "You've already found what Linz did."

"Some sources theorize the bloodstone-or Pagan Stone-this particular fragment of the Alpha, will destroy the dark, the black, the demon, if it pierces its heart. Can," she said quickly, "may-if it's been imbued with the blood of the chosen, if it's taken in at exactly the right time. If, can, may."

"You didn't share this?"

"I'm still verifying. I'm still checking sources. No," she added after a moment of silence. "I didn't share it."

"'Into the black,'" Gage repeated. "All the lore uses that phrase or a close variation. The dark, the black. The heart of the beast, and only when it's in its true form. Bestia. And every living thing around it, not protected, dies when it dies. Its death requires equal sacrifice. Blood sacrifice. A light to smother the dark. And you'd found that, too," he added to Cybil.

"I found some sources that speak of sacrifice, balance." She started to qualify, to argue-anything-then stopped. They were all entitled to hear it. "Most of the sources I've found claim that to pierce the heart, the demon must be in his true form, and the stone must be taken into it by the guardian, by the light. And that light must go in with full knowledge that, by destroying, he will, in turn, be destroyed. The sacrifice must be made with free will."

Gage nodded. "That jibes with Linz."

"Isn't that handy? Doesn't that just tie it up in a bow?"

For a moment, as Gage and Cybil watched each other, no one spoke. Then Quinn made an ahem sound. "Okay, question." Quinn held up a finger. "If the bloodstone and a sacrifice does the job, why didn't Dent kill it?"

Still watching Cybil, Gage answered. "First, it came as Twisse, not in its true form."

"I think there's more," Cal said. "I've been thinking about this since Gage ran it by us. Dent had broken the rules, and intended to break more. He couldn't destroy it. It couldn't be done by his hand. So he paved the way for us. He weakened it, made certain it couldn't become, as Linz says. Not fully corporeal, not in full power. He bought time, and passed all he could down to his ancestors-to us-to finish it."

"I'll go with that. But I don't think it's the whole story." Quinn glanced at Cybil, and her eyes held sorrow and apology. "Destroying the demon was-is-Dent's mission. His reason to exist. His sacrifice-his life-wouldn't be enough. True sacrifice involves choice. We all have choices in this. Dent isn't wholly human. Despite our heritages, all of us are. This is the price, the choice to sacrifice life for the whole. Cyb-"

Cybil held up a hand. "There's always a price." She spoke steadily. "Historically, gods demand payment. Or in more pedestrian terms, nothing's free. That doesn't mean we have to accept the price is death. Not without trying to find another way to pay the freight."

"I'm all for coming up with an alternate payment plan. But," Gage added, "we all have to agree, right here and now so we get this behind us, that if we can't, I take point on this. Agree or not, that's how it's going to be. It'd be easier for me if we agreed."

No one spoke, and everyone understood Cybil had to be the first.

"We're a team," she began. "None of us would question just how completely we've become one. Within that team we've formed various units. The three men, the three women, the couples. All of those units play into the dynamics of the team. But within those units we're all individual. We're all who we are, and that's the core of what makes us what and who we are together. None of us can make a choice for another. If this is yours, I won't be responsible for making it harder, for adding to the stress, for possibly distracting you, or any of us so we make a mistake. I'll agree, believing we'll find a way where all of us walk away whole. But I'll agree, more importantly, because I believe in you. I believe in you, Gage.

"That's all I have to say. I'm tired. I'm going up."

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