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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Four)

Chapter Four

SHE'D BEEN RIGHT ABOUT THE CHICKEN; HE'D never had better. And he thought she'd been right to decree no discussion of her experience, or any demon-related topic during the group meal.

It was fascinating how much other the six of them had to talk about, even though they'd been in one another's pockets for months. Wedding plans, new business plans, books, movies, celebrity scandals, and small-town gossip bounced around the table like tennis balls. At any other time, in any other place, the gathering would have been exactly as it appeared-a group of friends and lovers enjoying each other and a perfectly prepared meal.

And how did he fit into the mix? His relationship with Cal and Fox had changed and evolved over the years as they'd gone from boys to men, certainly when he'd yanked out his roots in the Hollow to move on. But at its base it was what it had always been-the friendship of a lifetime. They simply were.

He liked the women they'd chosen, for their own sakes, and for the way they'd meshed with his friends into couples. It took unique women to face what they were all facing and stick it out. It told him that if any of them survived, the four of them would buck the odds and make the strange entity of marriage work.

In fact, he believed they'd thrive.

And if they survived, he'd move on again. He was the one who left-and who came back. That's how he made his life work, in any case. There was always the next game, and another chance to play. That's where he fit in, he supposed. The wild card that turned up after the cut and shuffle.

That left Cybil, with her encyclopedic brain, her genius in the kitchen, and her nerves of steel. Only once since they'd come together had he seen her break down. Twisse had triggered the deepest personal fear in all of them, Gage remembered, and for Cybil that was blindness. She'd wept in his arms when that was over. But she hadn't run.

No, she hadn't run. She'd stick it out, all of them would. Then if they lived through it, she'd move on. There wasn't a single cell of small-town girl in that interesting body of hers. Adaptable she was, he thought. She'd settled smoothly enough into the Hollow, the little house, but it was… like Frannie Hawkins's holding vase, he realized. This was just a temporary stop before she moved on to something more suited to her style.

But where, and to what would she move? He wondered that, wondered about her more than was wise.

She caught his glance, arched a brow. "Looking for a refund?"

"No."

"Well then. I'm going for a walk."

"Oh, but, Cyb-" Quinn began.

"Gage can come with me, while the four of you deal with the dishes."

"How come he gets out of kitchen duty?" Fox wanted to know.

"He shopped, he paid. I want a little air before we bring the Big Evil Bastard to the table. How about it, big guy? Be my escort?"

"Take your phone." Quinn caught Cybil's hand. "Just in case."

"I'll take my phone, and I'll put on a jacket. And I won't take candy from strangers. Relax, Mommy."

When she breezed out, Quinn turned to Gage. "Just don't go far, okay? Keep her close."

"This is Hawkins Hollow, everything in it's close."

She put on a light sweater and slipped black skids onto feet that were so often bare. The minute she stepped outside, she breathed deep. "I like spring nights. Summer's even better. I like the heat, but under the circumstances, I'm hoarding spring."

"Where do you want to go?"

" Main Street, of course. Where else? I like knowing my ground," she continued as they walked. "So I walk around town, drive around the area."

"And could probably draw a detailed map of both by now."

"Not only could, have. I do have an eye for detail." She took another breath, this one loaded with the scent of peonies rioting pink in someone's front garden. "Quinn's going to be happy here. It's so absolutely right for her."

"Why?"

He saw the question surprised her-or, he thought more accurately, the fact he'd asked surprised her.

"Neighborhood. That's Quinn. Developments, suburbia, no, not so much. Too… formed. But neighborhood, where she knows the tellers at the bank, the clerks at the market by name? That's all Q. She's a social creature who needs her alone time. So, the town-that gives her the neighborhood. And the house outside town-that gives her the alone. She gets it all," Cybil decided. "And the guy, too."

"Handy Cal falls in there."

"Very. I admit, when she first talked about Cal, I thought Bowling Alley Guy? Q's gone deep end." Laughing, she shook back her hair. "Shame on me for assuming a clich��. Of course, the minute I met him, I thought, oh, Really Cute Bowling Alley Guy! Then seeing them together clinched it. From my standpoint, they're both getting it all. I'll enjoy coming back here to visit them, and Fox and Layla."

They turned at the Square, and onto Main Street. One of the cars stopped at the light had its windows open and Green Day blasting. While Ma's Pantry and Gino's remained open-and a few teenagers loitered outside the pizza joint-the shops were closed for the night. By nine, Ma's would be dark, and just after eleven, Gino's would lock it up. The Hollow's version, Gage thought, of rolling up the sidewalks.

"So, no yen to build yourself a cabin in Hawkins Wood?" he asked her.

"A cabin in the woods might be nice for the occasional weekend. And the small-town charm," she added, "is just that-charming for visits. I love visiting. It's one of my favorite things. But I'm an urbanite at heart, and I like to travel. I need a base so I have somewhere to leave from, to come back to. I have a very nice one in New York, left to me by my grandmother. How about you? Is there a base, a headquarters, for you?"

He shook his head. "I like hotel rooms."

"Me, too-or to qualify, a room in a well-run hotel. I love the service, the convenience of my well-appointed chamber in a hive where I can order up Do Not Disturb and room service at my whim."

"Twenty-four hours a day," he added. "And somebody comes in and cleans it all up while you're out doing something a lot more interesting."

"That can't be overstated. And I like looking out the window at a view that doesn't belong to me. Still, there are other types in the world, like many of the people in this town Twisse is so hell-bent to destroy. And they like looking out at the familiar. They need and want the comfort of that, and they're entitled to it."

That brought it back to square one, Gage thought. "And you'd bleed for that?"

"Oh, I hope not-at least not copiously. But it's Quinn's town now, and Layla's. I'd bleed for them. And for Cal and Fox." She turned her head, met his eyes. "And for you."

There was a jolt inside him at that, at the absolute truth he felt from her. Before he could respond, her phone rang.

"Saved by the ring tone," Cybil murmured, then drew out her phone, glanced at the display. "Hell. Damn. Fuck. Sorry, I'd better deal with this." She flipped the phone open. "Hello, Rissa."

She took a few steps away, but Gage had no trouble with the logistics or the ethics of eavesdropping on her end of the conversation. He heard a lot of "no"s between long, listening pauses. And several chilly, "I've already told you"s and "not this time"s followed by an "I'm sorry, Marissa" that spoke of impatience rather than apology. When she closed the phone, that impatience was clear on her face.

"Sorry. My sister, who's never quite grasped the concept that the world doesn't actually revolve around her. Hopefully she's pissed enough at me now to lay off for a few weeks."

"This would be flat-tire sister?"

"Sorry? Oh." And when she laughed, he could see her click back to the night they'd met when they'd nearly run into each other on a deserted county road as each of them traveled toward Hawkins Hollow. "Yes, the same sister who'd borrowed my car and left a flat spare in my trunk. The same who routinely 'borrows' what she likes, and if she remembers to return it, generally returns it damaged or useless."

"Then why did you lend her your car?"

"Excellent question. A weak moment. I don't have many, at least not anymore." Annoyance darkened her eyes now, the steely kind.

"I bet."

"She's in New York, flitting back from wherever she flitted off to this time and doesn't see why she and whatever leeches currently sucking on her can't stay at my place for a couple weeks. But golly, the locks and the security code have been changed-which was necessary because the last time she stayed there with a few friends, they trashed the place, broke an antique vase that had been my great-grandmother's, borrowed several items of my wardrobe-including my cashmere coat, which I'll never see again-and had the cops drop by at the request of the neighbors."

"Sounds like a fun gal," he commented when Cybil ran out of breath.

"Oh, she's nothing but. All right, I'm venting. You have the option of listening or tuning out. She was the baby, and she was pampered and spoiled as babies often are, especially when they're beautiful and charming. And she is, quite beautiful, quite charming. We were children of privilege for the first part of our lives. There was a lot of family money. There was an enormous and gorgeous home in Connecticut, a number of pied �� terres in interesting places. We had the best schools, traveled to Europe regularly, socialized with the children of wealthy and important people, and so on. Then came my father's accident, his blindness."

She said nothing for a moment, only continued to walk, her hands in her pockets, her eyes straight ahead. "He couldn't cope. He couldn't see, so he wouldn't see. Then one day, in our big gorgeous home in Connecticut, he locked himself in the library. They tried to break down the door when we heard the shot-we still had servants then, and they tried to break it down. I ran out, and around. I saw through the window, saw what he'd done. I broke the glass, got inside. I don't remember that very well. It was too late, of course. Nothing to be done. My mother was hysterical, Marissa was wild, but there was nothing to be done."

Gage said nothing, but then she knew him to be a man who often said nothing. So she plowed on.

"It was afterward we learned there'd been what they like to call 'considerable financial reversals' since my father's accident. As his untimely death gave him no time to reverse the reversals, we would have to condense, so to speak. My mother dealt with the shock and the grief, which were very real for her, by fleeing with us to Europe and squandering great quantities of money. In a year, she'd married an operator who squandered more, conned her into funnelling most of what was left to him, then left her for greener pastures."

The bitterness in her tone was so ripe, he imagined she could taste it.

"It could've been worse, much worse. We could've been destitute and instead we simply had to learn how to live on more limited resources and earn our way. My mother's since married again, to a very good man. Solid and kind. Should I stop?"

"No."

"Good. Marissa, as I did, came into a-by our former standards-modest inheritance at twenty-one. She'd already been married lavishly, and divorced bitterly, by this time. She blew through the money like a force-five hurricane. She toys with modeling, does very decently with magazine shoots and billboards when she bothers. But what she wants most is to be a celebrity, of any sort, and she continues to pursue the lifestyle of one-or what she perceives to be the lifestyle of one. As a result, she's very often broke and can only use her charm and beauty as currency. Since neither has worked on me for a long time, we're usually at odds."

"Does she know where you are?"

"No, thank God. I didn't tell her, and won't, first because as big a pain in my ass as she is, she remains my sister and I don't want her hurt. Second, more selfishly, I don't want her in my hair. She's very like my mother, or as my mother was before this third marriage settled and contented her. People always said I took after my father."

"So he was smart and sexy?"

She smiled a little. "That's a nice thing to say after I've unloaded on you. I've wondered if being like my father meant I wouldn't be able to face the worst life threw at me."

"You already did. You broke the window."

She let out a breath that trembled in a way that warned him there were tears behind it. But she held them back-major points for her-and turning, looked up at him with those deep, dark eyes. "All right, you've earned this for listening, and I've earned it for being smart enough to dump it on a man who would."

She gripped his shirt front, rose on her toes. Then she slid her hands over his shoulders, linked her arms around his neck.

Her mouth was silk and heat and promise. It moved over his, a slow glide that invited him in, to sample or to taste fully. The flavors of her wound through him, strong and sweet, beckoning like a crooked finger.

Come on, have a little more.

When she started to ease away, he gripped her hips, brought her back up to her toes. And had a little more.

She didn't regret it. How could she? She'd offered, he'd answered. How could she regret being kissed on a quiet spring night by a man who knew exactly how she wanted to be kissed?

Hard and deep, with just a hint of bite.

If her pulse tripped, if her belly fluttered, if this sample caused her system to yearn, to burn, she chose to ride the excitement, not step away with regret. So when she stepped back, it wasn't with regret, it wasn't with caution, but with the clear understanding that a man like Gage Turner respected a challenge. And giving him one would undoubtedly prove more satisfying to both of them.

"That might've been a slight overpayment," she decided. "But you can keep the change."

He grinned back at her. "That was your change."

She laughed, and on impulse held out a hand for his. "I'd say our after-dinner walk did both of us good. We'd better get back."

IN THE LIVING ROOM, CYBIL SAT WITH HER FEET tucked up, a mug of tea in her hand as she relayed the incident from that afternoon for the group, and Quinn's recorder.

She didn't skimp on the details, Gage noted, and she didn't flinch from them.

"There was blood in the house," Quinn prompted.

"The illusion of blood."

"And the flies, the noise. The dark. You saw and heard all that, too?" Quinn asked Gage.

"Yeah."

"The doors and windows were locked from the inside."

"The front door opened when I tried it, from the outside," Gage qualified. "But when we went back in, the kitchen door was still locked, so was the window over the sink."

"But it-the boy," Layla said slowly, "was outside, on the window. It never came in."

"I think it couldn't." Cybil took a thoughtful sip of tea. "How much more threatened would I have felt if it was locked in here with me? If it could have gotten in, I think it would have. It could cause me to see and hear-even feel things that weren't real inside the house. It could lock the door, the window in the room where I was when it started. Not the front," she said. "Maybe it used up that area of its power on the back of the house. It could only make me think the front door was locked. Stupid. I never thought of it when it was happening."

"Yeah." Cal shook his head at her. "It's pretty stupid of you not to cop to that when the house was bleeding and shaking and you were stuck in the dark with demon boy crawling on the window."

"Now that we've established Cybil completely loses her head in a crisis, we should ask ourselves why it couldn't come in." Fox sat on the floor, scratching Lump on his big head. "Maybe it's like the vampire deal. Has to be invited."

"Or, keeping Dracula inside of fiction where he belongs, it just wasn't up to full power. And won't be," Gage reminded them, "for a few more weeks."

"Actually…" Cybil frowned. "If we consider vampyric lore, it's not impossible the undead, drinker of blood, and so forth, doesn't have its legitimate roots in this demon. Some of that lore speaks of the vampire's ability to hypnotize its victims or foes-mind control. It feeds off human blood. This is more your area, Quinn, than mine."

"You're doing fine."

"All right, to stick with this channel, vampires are often said to have the ability to turn into a bat, a wolf. This demon certainly shape-shifts-which adds the possibility of the shape-shifter, of which the lycanthrope is a subset, found in various lore. To some extent, these might be bastardizations of this demon."

She picked up her own notebook, scribbled in it as she continued. "Undead. We know now that it can take the form of someone who's died. What if this isn't, as we thought, a new trick, but an ability it had before Dent imprisoned it, and is only now, as what we're told is the final Seven approaches, able to pull that out of its hat again?"

"So it kills Uncle Harry," Fox proposed, "then for fun, it comes back as Uncle Harry to terrorize and kill the rest of the family."

"It does have a sick sense of fun." Quinn nodded. "Should we start sharpening stakes?"

"No. But we'd better figure out how the weapon we do have works. Still, this is interesting." Thoughtfully, Cybil tapped her pencil on the notepad. "If it couldn't come in, that might give us a little more security, and peace of mind. Have any of you ever seen it inside a home?" Cybil asked.

"It just gets the people in it to kill themselves, or each other, or burn the place down." Gage shrugged. "Often all of the above."

"Maybe there's a way to block it, or at least weaken it." Layla slid off her chair to sit on the floor beside Fox. "It's energy, right? And energy that feeds on, or at least seems to prefer, negative emotions. Anger, fear, hate. At every Seven, or the approach of one, it targets birds and animals first-smaller brains, less intellect than humans. And it recharges on that, then moves, usually, to people who're under some influence. Alcohol, drugs, or those emotions again. Until it's stronger."

"It's coming out stronger this time," Cal pointed out. "It's already moved past animals, and was able to infect Block Kholer to the point he nearly beat Fox to death."

As Layla took Fox's hand, Cybil considered. "That was target specific, and it wasn't able to infect the chief of police when he got there and dragged Block off. Target specific might be another advantage."

"Unless you're the target," Fox pointed out. "Then it seriously sucks."

Cybil smiled at him. "True enough. It doesn't just feed off hate, it hates. Us especially. As far as we know, everything it's done or been able to do since February targets one of us, or the group as a whole."

She set her notebook on the arm of the sofa. "It's expending a lot of energy to scare us, hurt us. That's a thought I had today when it had me trapped in here. Well, before it went dark and I wasn't so cocky. That it was using up energy. Maybe we can taunt it into using more. It's stronger, yes, and it's getter stronger yet, but anytime it puts on a big show, there's a lull afterward. It's still recharging. And while there might not be a way to block or weaken it, there might be a way to divert it. If it's aiming at us, its ability to infect the Hollow may be diminished."

"I'm pretty sure I can state categorically it's been aimed at us plenty, and still managed to wreak havoc in the Hollow."

Cybil nodded at Fox. "Because you've always been in the Hollow trying to save lives, fight it off."

"What choice do we have?" Cal demanded. "We can't leave people unprotected."

"I'm suggesting they might not need as much protection if we were able to draw it away."

"How? And where?"

"How might be a challenge," Cybil began.

"But where would be the Pagan Stone. Tried that," Gage continued. "Fourteen years ago."

"Yes, I've read that in Quinn's notes, but-"

"Do you remember our last trip there?" Gage asked her. "That was a walk on the beach compared to getting through Hawkins Wood anywhere close to the Seven."

"We made it that time, two Sevens ago. Barely," Fox added. "We thought maybe we could stop it by repeating the ritual at the same time, the same place. Midnight, our birthday-the dawn of the Seven, so to speak. Didn't work, obviously. By the time we got back to town, it was bad. One of the worst nights of this ever."

"Because we weren't here to help anyone," Cal finished. "We'd left the town unprotected. How can we risk that again?"

Cybil started to speak, then decided to let it go for now. "Well, back to the bloodstone then. That's one of the new elements on our side of the scoreboard. I've got some avenues I'm exploring. And was about to push a little deeper earlier today when I was so rudely interrupted. I'll get back on that tomorrow. I was also going to suggest, if you're up for it, Gage, that you and I try what Cal and Quinn have, and Fox and Layla."

"You want to have sex? Always up for it."

"That's so sweet, but I was staying on topic and speaking of combining abilities. We have past." She gestured to Cal and Quinn. "We have now, with Fox and Layla. You and I see forward. Maybe it's time to find out if we see further, or clearer, together."

"I'm game if you are."

"How about tomorrow then? I'll drive out to Cal 's, maybe about one."

"Ah, about that." Cal cleared his throat. "After today, I think we have to limit solo time as much as possible. Nobody should be staying here or at my place alone at night, for one thing. We can split that up, so there's at least two-better three-in one place. And during the day, we should use the buddy system whenever possible. You shouldn't drive out to my place alone, Cybil."

"I'm not going to disagree about safety and strength in numbers. So, who's going to buddy up with Fox whenever he has to drive up to Hagerstown, to the courthouse? Or with Gage when he's zipping from here to there?"

Fox shook his head sadly at Cal. "Warned you, didn't I?"

"For the record, I'm not the least bit insulted that you'd want to protect me and my fellow females." Cybil smiled at Cal. "And I agree we should stick together as much as possible. But it's not practical or feasible that we can avoid basic alone time or tasks for the duration. We're six weeks out. I think we can all promise to be sensible and cautious. I, for one, won't be lighting the candle and creeping down to the basement at midnight to investigate strange noises."

"I'll come here," Gage told her.

"No, because now it's a matter of principle. And I think we'd have more luck with this at Cal 's. This house still feels…"

"Smudged," Quinn finished. She reached over to rub Cybil's knee. "It'll fade."

"Yes, it will. Well, while you all work out who's sleeping where tonight, I'm going to bed." Rising, she glanced at Gage. "I'll see you tomorrow."

She wanted a long hot soak in the tub, but that struck her as too close to going down into a dark basement. Both were horror-movie clich��s for a reason, after all. She settled on the nightly routine of cleanser, toner, moisturizer. As she started to turn down the bed, Quinn came in.

"Cal and I are staying here tonight."

"All right, but wouldn't it make more sense for you two to go home, with Gage?"

"Fox and Layla are bunking at Cal 's. I wanted to be here tonight."

Because she understood, Cybil's eyes stung. She sat on the side of the bed, took Quinn's hand, laid it against her cheek as Quinn sat beside her.

"I was all right until the lights went out. More interested, even intrigued than scared. Then they went out, and I couldn't see. Nothing was as horrible as that."

"I know. I can sleep in here with you tonight."

Cybil shook her head, tipped it to Quinn's shoulder. "It's enough to know you're across the hall. We all felt it, didn't we? That smudge like you said, that smear it left on the house. I was afraid it was just me, just being paranoid."

"We all felt it. It'll fade, Cyb. We won't give ground."

"It'll never understand how we are together, or what we are together. It would never understand that you knew I'd sleep better tonight with you in the house, or that I'd be better talking to you for a few minutes alone."

"It's one of the ways we'll beat it."

"I believe that." She sighed. "Marissa called."

"Crap."

"Yeah, and it was-the usual crap. 'Can't you do this, can't I have that? Why are you so mean?' It just added to an upsetting day. I dumped a good chunk of my unfortunate family history on Gage's head."

"Really?"

"Yes, I know, not my usual style. It was a weak moment, but he handled it well. He didn't say much, but he said exactly the right thing. Then I kissed his brains out."

"Well." Quinn gave her a friendly shoulder bump. "It's about damn time."

"Maybe it is, I don't know. I don't know if it would complicate things, simplify them, or make no damn difference at all. But while I'm sure the sex would be good-in fact superior-I'm equally sure it would be as risky as going down in the basement to see what the banging's about."

"It could be, but since there'd be two of you involved, you wouldn't be going down to the basement alone."

"True." Pursing her lips, Cybil studied her own toes. "And there would be some comfort when we were both hacked to death by the ax murderer."

"At least you'd've had sex first."

"Superior sex. I'll sleep on it." She gave Quinn a squeeze. "Go on, go snuggle up with your adorable guy. I'm going to do a little yoga to help me relax before I go to bed."

"Just call if you need me."

Cybil nodded. That was the thing, she thought when Quinn left her. That was a constant in her life. If she needed Quinn, all she had to do was call.

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