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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Eleven)

Chapter Eleven

SHE DIDN'T DREAM, AND THAT SURPRISED HER. Cybil had fully expected to be dogged by nightmares, portents, imagery, but instead had slept straight through the night.

Something accomplished, she supposed, as she'd gotten nowhere on the evening research. Hopefully, she'd do better today, rested and focused. Rising, she walked over to take a good, hard look at herself in the mirror.

She looked the same, she thought. She was the same. What had happened to her wasn't a turning point in her life. It didn't make her less, and it hadn't broken her down. If anything, the attack had given her more incentive, made her more involved and more determined to win.

It may feed on humans, she realized. But it didn't understand them. And that, she supposed, could be another weapon in their arsenal.

Now, she wanted a session at the gym to kick her energy level up. Sweating out the toxins, she thought, would be a kind of ritual cleansing. With any luck Quinn would be available for gym buddy. She pulled on a sports bra, bike pants, tossed what she'd need in a small tote. Stepping out, she noted Quinn's bedroom door was open, and the room empty. So, she'd grab a bottle of water out of the kitchen, and catch up with Quinn and Cal at the health club in the basement of the old library.

She strode into the kitchen, pulling up short when she saw Gage at the table with a mug of coffee and a deck of cards.

"You're out early."

"Never left." As she'd done herself, he gave her a long, hard look. "Bunked on the couch."

"Oh." It gave her a quiver in the belly. "You didn't need to do that."

"Do what?" His eyes never left her face, adding another quiver. "Stay, or bunk on the couch?"

She opened the refrigerator, got out the water. "Either. But thanks. I'm going over to the gym. I want some cardio. I assume that's where Quinn is?"

"Noises were made. Why don't you stick with the Gumby routine?"

"It's not what I'm after. Yoga relaxes me. I need to pump."

"Crap."

"What?" she demanded as he rose.

" Cal 's got half his gear here. I'll find something. Wait," he ordered and strode out.

If she was going to wait, she wanted coffee, so she picked up Gage's mug and finished his off. He came back wearing a pair of gray sweats that had seen much better days, and a Baltimore Orioles T-shirt. "Let's go," he ordered.

"Am I correct in assuming you're going to the gym with me?"

"Yeah, get it moving."

She opened the fridge, took out a second bottle of water and shoved it in her tote. She doubted he could have done or said anything at that particular moment that would have meant more to her. "I'm not going to argue or tell you I can get to the gym fine by myself. First, because it would be stupid after yesterday. And second, I want to see what you've got."

"You've already seen what I've got."

She laughed, and felt better than she'd have believed possible. "Good point."

She got a solid hour in, and had the bonus of watching Gage work up a nice sweat lifting weights. It was more than the very appealing view, she realized. Watching him gave her just a little more insight into him. He didn't want to be there, particularly, but since he was, he put his time to use. Focused, thorough, patient, she thought. It might have been more the cat-at-the-mouse-hole kind of patience than the altruistic sort, but the results were the same. He waited.

Looser and energized, she walked back with him. "Where will you go when this is over?" she asked, then moved her shoulders at his quiet look. "That's optimism, which is positive energy. Any particular destination in mind?"

"I've kicked around a couple. Probably Europe, unless there's something happening in the States. I'll come back for the wedding-Jesus, weddings now. You?"

"I'll go back to New York, I think, at least briefly. I miss it, and that's God's truth, so I'll give myself an infusion of crowds and noise and pace. Plus, I'll need to get back to work that pays. But I expect I'll put in considerable time here. The girl part of the weddings will be more demanding than your boy part of them. If I can swing it after Quinn's, I thought a few days on a nice island-palm trees and margaritas, and balmy, tropical nights."

"That's a plan."

"A flexible one, which is my favorite kind." As they turned at the Square, she gestured to the Bowl-a-Rama. "I admire people like that. Cal and his family, who dig in and build and make a genuine mark on a place. I'm grateful they exist, and glad of the fact that by existing and digging in and building, they allow me to make flexible plans and visit lots of those genuine marks someone else has made."

"No burning desire to make a mark?"

"I like to think I do make them, in my own fashion. I find things out. You need information to write a book, make a movie, rehab a house, build a shopping center, and I can get that for you. And I can get you information you didn't realize you needed or wanted. Maybe all of those projects would have gotten done without me, but I can promise you they're better with me. That's enough of a mark for me. How about you?"

"I just like to win. I can settle for having played if the game's solid, but winning's always better."

"Isn't it just," she agreed.

"But if I leave a mark, it gives the other players too much information, too much they might use if we faced each other over a pile of chips again. Better to have a blank slate, as much as possible. They don't know you, it's harder for them to read you."

"Yes." She spoke quietly. "Yes, that's exactly right. And to bring this into our situation, I had a similar thought this morning. It doesn't understand us. It can't really know us. It can anticipate some. What it did to me, what it did to Fox years ago by killing Carly right in front of him. It knows how to hurt, how to use specific weapons to harm and to undermine. But it still doesn't get it. It doesn't seem to comprehend that the opposite side of fear is courage. Every time it uses our fears, it only pushes us to find more courage. It can't read us, not accurately."

"Wouldn't flip to a bluff."

"A bluff? What bluff?"

"I don't know yet, but it's worth thinking about because you've got a point. I want a shower and my own clothes," he added the minute they stepped into the house, and headed straight upstairs.

Cybil considered. She heard the voices from the kitchen. Quinn and Cal had left the gym a good twenty minutes before, and were probably finishing up breakfast and talking with Fox and Layla. She could go back, grab some coffee before going up. Or…

Since the shower was already running, she stripped in the bedroom before strolling in. Hair dripping, Gage narrowed his eyes when she tugged back the curtain and stepped in with him.

"Mind?"

His gaze skimmed over her, then stayed steady on hers. "There's probably enough water for both of us."

"That's what I thought." Casually, she picked up her tube of gel, squirted a generous amount into her hand. "And twofers are more efficient. Plus." Watching him, she soaped her breasts in slow circles. "I could pay you back for the night spent on the couch, and the stint at the gym."

"I don't see any money on you."

"Barter system." Slick and soapy, she pressed against him. "Unless you'd rather take an IOU."

He plunged his hand into her hair, got a good grip to jerk her face up to his. "Pay up," he demanded, then closed his mouth over hers.

There it was, she thought, outrageously grateful. There was the instant thrill, the response, the need. It had taken nothing from her. His body moved wet and hard against hers, his mouth took from hers, and there was nothing, nothing but pleasure.

"Touch me." She demanded it, using her teeth, her nails. Nothing fragile here, nothing damaged or in need of tending. Touch me, she thought, take me. Make me feel utterly, utterly human.

He'd wanted to give her time, had been prepared to give her room. And perhaps to give both to himself as well. But her need, the challenge and raw edges of it spoke to his own. So he touched, hands sliding over that sleek skin as the steam plumed and the water pounded.

And he took, pressing her back to the wet tiles, keeping his eyes on hers as he thrust into her. What he saw in hers was dark delight. He gripped her hips to anchor her, drove them both to peak.

Winded, she dropped her head to his shoulder. "Just hang on a minute."

"Same goes."

"Okay. All right. Thanks for getting into the spirit so quickly."

"Same goes."

She laughed, stayed where she was. "This might be a good time to say that I didn't like you, particularly, when we first met."

He let his eyes close, let himself steep in her scent. "I'm going to repeat myself again. Same goes."

"My first instincts are generally very accurate. Not this time. I do like you, and not just because you're very talented in bed, and in the shower."

Idly, hardly realizing he did so, he traced the tattoo at the base of her spine with a fingertip. "You're not as annoying as I initially thought."

"Here we are, all wet and naked and sentimental." Sighing now, she eased back to study him through the steam. "I trust you. That's an important issue for me. I can work with someone I don't completely trust, it just makes it a little more of a challenge. I can sleep with someone I don't completely trust, it just means it's going to be a very brief encounter. But the work's more productive, and the sex more satisfying, when I trust."

"You want to shake on that?"

She laughed again. "A superfluous gesture, under the circumstances." She lifted the gel again, turned his hand over and poured some into his palm. And turned. "But you could wash my back."

AN HOUR LATER, CYBIL POURED HER FIRST FULL cup of coffee, and had to admit she felt well-buzzed without it. She went upstairs to the office where Quinn and Layla sat at laptops. On the chart, her rape was documented.

Good, Cybil thought. It was good to see it there, straight-out, and know she'd survived it intact. "I'm going to keep the setup in my room this morning," she told them. "But I asked Gage to come back later. It's time we tried another link. I'm hoping one or both of you will hang around, act as an anchor."

"We'll be here," Quinn said.

"Did you know Gage stayed, slept on the couch downstairs?"

"We talked about going back with him, to Cal 's." Layla swiveled away from the keyboard. "He said he was staying. The fact is, none of us wanted to leave in case you had a bad night."

"Maybe because none of you left, I didn't have one. Thanks."

"I've got something that might perk you up, too. This house." Quinn spread her hands. "Or the land this house is on-considerably more of it at one time, but this particular plot? Ann Hawkins's grandson Patrick Hawkins, son of Fletcher, owned it. Fox is checking on his building, but I'd say we're well on the way to proving another theory."

"If this is right, and even if Gage's definition of it as prison is more accurate than mine as sanctuary," Layla continued, "it could give us a viable way to protect people. At least some people."

"The more we can protect or at least give a fighting chance to, the more we'll be able to focus on attack." Cybil nodded. "I agree. And we are going to have to attack. It's going to have to be at the Pagan Stone. I know we haven't discussed it, not in detail since the men are resistant, but whatever we do to end it is going to have to be done there. We can't be here, in town, putting out fires, trying to stop people from hurting themselves or each other. We all know when and where we'll take our stand."

"Midnight," Quinn said with a sigh. "As July seventh begins. As this Seven begins, in full. I know you're right. I think we all know it, but it feels like we're deserting the field."

"And it's going to be harder on them, the guys," Layla added. "Because they tried it before, and failed."

"We're not deserting the field. We're taking the game to ours. We won't fail this time, because we can't." Cybil looked back at the chart. "It doesn't know us. It thinks it understands, and part of its understanding is that we're weak, fragile, vulnerable. It's got reason to think that. It comes, and in a very real way, it wins. Every time. Getting stronger, every time."

"Dent took it down," Layla reminded her. "For centuries."

"Dent broke the rules, sacrificed himself. And he was a guardian." Quinn angled her head as she studied Cybil's face. "And still, it was a stopgap, still the burden and some of the power had to be passed on. Diluted, fractured. It took the six of us to reform that power and we still don't know how to use it. But…"

"Yes, but. We have it now, and the means to learn. We know the time and the place," Cybil said again. "We're complete with the six of us. Those images I had, of something happening to each of us. I think they were warnings. It has to try to fracture us again, to dilute what we have. We can't and we won't let that happen."

"I'll talk to Cal about ending this at the Pagan Stone. Part of him knows it has to be that way already."

"The same with Fox," Layla said. "I'll talk to him."

"Which leaves me with Gage." Cybil let out a breath.

GAGE PACED CAL 'S OFFICE. "SHE WANTS TO TRY the link again. Today."

"Not that many todays left, son, before the big one. No point wasting any."

"You know what it's like, even pushing that on your own. It's a fucking sucker punch. She had a bad experience yesterday. The worst."

"Are you looking out for her?"

Gage stopped, baffled, annoyed. "No more than I would anybody. Plus, I'm looking out for myself. If she can't handle it-"

"Too late for that, you already put her first. Don't bother bullshitting me. You've got a thing. Why wouldn't you have a thing?"

"The thing is sex," Gage insisted. "And, sure, a mutual dependency given the circumstances. We're in this together, so we look out for each other. That's all I'm doing."

"Uh-huh."

Gage turned back with a stony look that did nothing to break Cal 's grin. "Look, it's different for you."

"Sex is different for me?"

"For one thing." Frustrated, Gage jammed his hands in his pockets. "For a lot of things. You're dead-normal guy."

"Don't use the word dead, under the circumstances."

Jingling the change in his pocket, Gage worked it out in his head. "You're Bowl-a-Rama boy, Cal. House-in-the-country guy, with the tight family ball, the big, stupid dog-no offense," he added, glancing down at Lump, who snored away with all four feet in the air.

"None taken."

"You're a Hawkins of the Hollow, and always will be. You've got the sexy blonde who's happy to plunk her particularly fine ass down here with you and your big, stupid dog in your house in the country, and raise a brood of kids."

"Sounds about right."

"As for Fox, he's as mired here as you. Hippie kid turned town lawyer with his sprawling and interesting family who snags the pretty brunette who turns out to have a spine of steel-enough of one to open a business in this town because that works for them. Like the house with a garden and a bunch of kids will work for them. The four of you will probably be happy as lunatics."

"That's the plan."

"That's if we live, and you know, I know, we all know some of us might not make it."

"If and might." Cal nodded. "Well, life's a gamble."

"For me, gambling's life. If I get through, it's on to the next. There's no house in the country, no nine-to-five or what's for dinner, honey in me."

"And you figure that's what Cybil's looking for?"

"I don't know what she's looking for. It's not my business to know, that's the point." Uneasy, he raked his fingers through his dark hair. Then stopped, annoyed, knowing the gesture was one of his tells. "We're having sex," he continued. "We've got a mutual goal to kill this bastard and live to talk about it. That's it."

"Fine." Obligingly, Cal spread his hands. "Then what are you so worked up about?"

"I… Damned if I know," Gage admitted. "Maybe I don't want to be responsible, and linking up that way makes me responsible. They can claim equal shares all they want, but you know how it is, you know how it feels."

"Yeah, I do."

"What happened… What it did to her, how am I supposed to get that out of my head, Cal? How am I supposed to put that aside?"

"You can't, you don't. But that doesn't mean we can stop. We all know that, too."

"Maybe she gets to me." He let out a breath. "Okay, she gets to me, no maybe about it. Hardly a surprise, considering." His fingers itched to drag through his hair again, and he kept them firmly at his side. "This is all fucking intense."

"Caring about her doesn't equal house in the country and big, stupid dog, son."

"No." Gage let himself relax. "No, it doesn't. I could spell that out for her. Diplomatically this time."

"Sure, you do that. I'll bring the platter so your head has somewhere to sit after she knocks it off and hands it to you."

"Point," Gage muttered. "So we let it ride, that's all. But when we do the link-up, I want you and Fox there."

"Then we will be."

HE STILL DIDN'T LIKE IT, BUT GAGE WAS REALISTIC enough to know a lot of things needed doing he didn't like. He'd offset that by setting the time and place. His ground-and Cal 's house was the closest to his ground as any in the Hollow-and late enough in the day to have his brothers with him.

If anything went wrong, he'd have backup.

"Even considering Crazy Roscoe, I'd rather do this outside." Cybil glanced around the room, then zeroed in on Gage. "The fact is, we might need to do this later on, and in the open, so we might as well figure out how to defend ourselves if necessary."

"Fine. Hold on." Gage walked out of the room, returning moments later with his Luger.

"Don't even think about handing that to me," Fox told him.

"So grab a garden tool like last time." Gage turned to Cal.

"Okay. Shit." With considerable care, Cal took the gun.

"Safety's on."

Cybil opened her bag, took out her.22 and handed it to Quinn. Quinn flipped open the cylinder, examined the chamber, then smoothly locked it back in place. "Okay," she said while Cal stared at her.

"Well, the things you learn about the love of your life. Maybe you should take the big one."

"That's okay, cutie, you can handle it."

"Quinn's an excellent shot," Cybil commented. "So, are we ready for this?"

As they headed out the back, through the kitchen, Fox pulled two knives from the block on Cal 's counter. "Just in case," he said when he gave one to Layla.

"Just in case."

Clouds were edging in, Gage noted, but for now there was enough light and the breeze was easy. Like Cybil, he sat on the grass while their friends circled around them.

"Why don't we try to focus on a specific place?" she suggested.

"Such as?"

"Right here. Cal 's house. It's a good starting point. We can work our way out from there. Ease into it this time, and we might lessen the side effects."

"Okay." He took her hands. He looked into her eyes. This place, he thought. This grass, this wood, this glass, this dirt.

He saw it in his mind, the lay of the land, the slopes and rises, the lines of the house. Colors and shapes. As he let it form, the greens of spring, the blooms of it faded, withered, browned. White crept in until snow covered the ground, layered on the branches. It fell still, in fat, fast flakes. He felt them, cold and wet against his skin. In his hands, Cybil's hands chilled.

Smoke spiraled from the chimney, and a cardinal, a bright red splash, winged through the falling snow to land in the bird feeder.

Inside, he thought. Who was inside? Who'd built the fire, filled the feeder? Gripping Cybil's hand, he walked through the walls, into the kitchen. A bowl he recognized as Fox's mother's work sat on the counter holding fruit. Music drifted in, something classical that struck the first uneasy note in him. Cal wasn't the classical type, and he'd never known Quinn to go for it.

Who was listening to the music? Who'd bought the apples, the oranges in the bowl? The thought of strangers in Cal 's house pushed him forward, lit a spark of anger in him. Cybil's hands tightened on his, nudged him back. He sensed, almost heard her.

No anger. No fear. Wait and see.

Locking down emotion, he moved with her.

A fire crackled in the hearth. Tulips spilled out of a clear glass vase on the mantel. And on the couch, Quinn slept under a colorful blanket. As he watched, Cal stepped to her, leaned over, and kissed her cheek. Even as the restrained tension eased out of Gage, Quinn stirred.

She smiled as her eyes opened. "Hi."

"Hi, Blondie."

"Sorry. Mozart may be good for the kid, but it puts me to sleep every time."

As she shifted, as the blanket slid down, Gage saw she was hugely pregnant. Her hands crossed over her belly, and Cal 's closed over them.

It flicked off, the sounds, the images, the scents, and he was back on the grass staring into Cybil's eyes.

"It's nice to have a positive possibility for a change," she managed.

"Headache?" Quinn asked immediately. "Nausea?"

"Not really. It was easier, smoother. And the vision was a quiet one. I think that makes a difference, too. A happy one. You and Cal, in the house. It was winter, and you were sitting in front of the fire."

She squeezed Gage's hand, shot him a look. He took both as a warning, and shrugged. She didn't want to bring up the bun in the oven, fine.

"I like that better than the last one you had of us," Quinn decided. "So, how'd I look? Any disfiguring scars from demon battles?"

"Actually, you looked fabulous. Both of you did. Let's try again. Not a place this time, but people." Cybil looked up at Fox and Layla. "If that's okay with you?"

"Yeah." Layla reached for Fox's hand. "Okay."

"The same way." Cybil met Gage's eyes, settled her breathing. "Slow."

He brought them into his mind as he had Cal 's house, shapes, colors, textures. He envisioned them as they were now, standing hand-in-hand behind him. Again, what was faded into what might be.

The shop, he decided. Layla's future boutique with the counters, the displays, the racks. She sat at a fancy little desk, typing something on a laptop. When the door opened, she glanced up and stood as Fox strolled in.

"Good day?" he asked.

"Good day. September's looking great, and I got more fall stock in this afternoon."

"Then congratulations and happy anniversary." He brought a bouquet of pink roses from behind his back.

"They're gorgeous! Happy anniversary."

"One month since your official grand opening."

She laughed, and as she took the flowers, the diamond on her finger caught the light and sizzled. "Then let's go home and celebrate. I'll have my one glass of wine a week."

"You're on." He put his arms around her. "We made it."

"Yes, we did."

When they came back, Cybil's hands once again squeezed his. "You take this one," she suggested.

"Your shop looks pretty slick, and so did you," he added when Layla let out a shaky breath. "That one looked pretty much like he always did. So considering these are possibilities, you've still got time to dump him."

He looked up at the sky. "We're going to get rained on before much longer."

"We've got time for another," Cybil insisted. "Let's go for the gold. The Pagan Stone."

He'd expected her to want to see herself, specifically, or the two of them. As he'd thought before, she surprised him. "We do this, that's it for tonight."

"Agreed. I've got some ideas for other avenues. Another time. Ready?"

It came too fast. He knew it the moment he opened to it, to her. Not a drift this time, but the sensation of being the pebble flying from the slingshot. The flight flung him straight into the holocaust. It rained blood and fire, each striking the scorched ground of the clearing to flash, to burn. The stone boiled with both.

He saw Cybil, her face pale as wax. Her hand bled, as did his. His lungs strained as he fought to breathe in the smoke-thickened air. He heard the shouts around him, and braced.

For what? For what? What did he know?

It came from everywhere at once. Out of the dark, the smoke, out of the ground, the air. When he reached for his gun, his hand came up empty. When he reached for Cybil, it struck, knocking her to the ground where she lay still as death.

He was alone with his own fear and fury. The thing that surrounded him roared in a sound of greedy triumph. Whatever sliced out at him carved a burning gash across his chest. The pain all but swallowed him whole.

Staggering, he tried to drag Cybil away. Her eyes flickered open, latched on to his. "Do it now. You have to do it now. There's no other choice."

He leaped toward the Pagan Stone, fell painfully against it. And he grasped the burning bloodstone atop it in his bare hand. With it closed in his fist, with its flames licking between his clenched fingers, he plunged with it into absolute black.

There was nothing, there was nothing, there was nothing but pain. Then he lay on the Pagan Stone as its fire consumed him.

He clawed his way back, head ringing, nausea a wretched churn in his belly. Swiping blood from his nose, he looked into Cybil's glassy eyes. "So much for slow and easy."

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