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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Fourteen)

Chapter Fourteen

WHEN GAGE WOKE HE DIDN'T JUST WANT COFFEE, he wanted it desperately. He sat up first, testing, and when the room stayed steady, stood. No weakness, no nausea, no dizziness. All good news. And no odd euphoria, he realized as his mind tracked back.

What the hell had she put in that tea?

As much as he craved coffee, he wanted a shower more, so walked into the bathroom and stripped. In the mirror, he studied his shoulder, poked at the puckered crescent marring the skin. It was odd having a scar after all these years, a tangible reminder of those keen, feral teeth tearing into him. He'd broken bones, been stabbed, shot, burned, and not a mark to show for it. But Twisse, in the form of that little bastard, manages to get a quick bite, and it appeared he'd be carrying the scar from it for the rest of his life.

However long that might be.

He showered, dressed, and headed out in search of coffee. He stopped at Cal 's home office where both Layla and Quinn were hunkered at a computer. Both looked up, both gave him the let's-have-a-look-at-you once-over.

"How are you feeling?" Layla asked him.

"I want coffee."

"Back to normal then." Quinn's look brightened into a smile. "Should be some downstairs. Cyb's down there, and you might be able to sweet-talk her into fixing you something to eat if you want it."

"Where's everybody else?"

"They ran into town. Various errands." Quinn glanced down at the computer, and the clock in the bottom corner. "They should be back any minute. Maybe I should call Cal, just have them bring food back. Cyb's burrowed, and might not be sweet-talked into cooking all that easy."

"I want coffee," he repeated, and walked away.

She didn't seem especially burrowed, Gage thought when he saw Cybil at Cal's kitchen counter. She had her laptop, her notebook, a bottle of water, but she sat right out in the open. And whatever she was doing, she stopped when he came in.

"You look better."

"Feel better. Couldn't have felt much worse." He poured the last cup of coffee, wished someone else would make a fresh pot. And so thinking, turned to study her. "How about making fresh coffee since I almost died?"

"Doing ordinary, routine things, such as making fresh coffee, would probably make you appreciate life more."

So much for sweet talk, he decided. Since there was a bag of Fritos on the counter, he dug in. "What was in the tea?"

She only smiled. "About four hours' sleep, apparently. Someone dropped by to see you while you were out."

"Who?"

"Ann Hawkins."

He considered, sipped coffee. "Is that so? Sorry I missed her."

"We had a nice chat while you sawed a few off."

"Cute. What about?"

"Life, love, the pursuit of happiness." She picked up her bottle of water. "Death, demons. You know, the usual."

"More cute. You're on a roll." And on edge, he mused. However well she masked it, he sensed nerves.

"I'm working on something that popped into my head when we talked. We'll go over it when I nail it down a bit more. She loves you."

"Sorry?"

"She loves you. I could see it in the way she looked at you while you were sleeping. And by the expression on your face now, I see that kind of talk is uncomfortable for a big he-man like you. But that's what I saw on her face, heard in her voice. For what it's worth. Now, go find something else to do and somewhere else to do it. I'm working."

Instead, he crossed over, grabbed a fistful of her hair and tugged her head back so he could crush his mouth to hers. The moment flashed, then spun, then held. He felt another hint of dizziness, another taste of euphoria before he released her.

Her eyes opened, slow and sleepy. "What was that about?"

"Just another ordinary, routine thing to help me appreciate life."

She laughed. "You're cute, too. Oh the hell with it," she said and pulled him against her to hold on, to lay her head on his shoulder where the demon's mark rode. "Scared me. Really, really scared me."

"Me, too. I was going. It didn't seem so bad, all in all." He tipped her head back again. This face, he thought, these eyes. They'd filled his vision, his head. They'd brought him back. "Then I heard you bitching at me. You slugged me, too."

"Slapped, that time. I slugged you before, during our brilliant performance on the deck."

"Yeah. And about that. I don't remember us talking about punching."

"What can I say. I'm a genius at improv. Plus, it seriously and genuinely pissed you off and we needed plenty of anger to sucker the Big Evil Bastard in. Your plan, remember? And you said we'd all have to get rough and real to make it work."

"Yeah." He picked up her hand, studied it. "You've got a decent right jab."

"That may be, but I believe it hurt my hand more than it hurt your face."

He closed her hand into a loose fist, then brought it to his lips. Over her knuckles he saw those gorgeous eyes go wide with shock. "What? I'm not allowed to make a romantic gesture?"

"No. Yes. Yes," she said again. "It was just unexpected."

"I've got a few more, but we made a deal early on." Intrigued by her reaction, he rubbed his thumb over the knuckles he'd just kissed. "No seduction. Maybe you want to close that deal off, consider it old, finished business."

"Ah… maybe."

"Well then, why don't we…" He trailed off at the sound of the front door opening, slamming. "Continue this later?"

"Why don't we."

Fox strode in first, carting a couple of bags. "Look who's back from the dead. Got food, got stuff, got beer. Couple of twelve-packs in the car. You ought to go out, give Cal a hand bringing the rest in."

"Got coffee?" Gage demanded.

"Two pounds of beans."

"Grind and brew," Gage ordered and walked out to help Cal.

Cybil looked at Fox, who was already pulling a Coke out of the fridge. "I don't suppose you'd take that and go away, and take the rest of your kind with you for an hour."

"Can't. Perishables." He pulled milk out of one of the grocery bags. "Plus, starving."

"Oh well." Cybil pushed away from the laptop. "I'll help you put those away. Then I guess we'll eat, and talk."

SHE WASN'T REQUIRED TO COOK, WHICH CYBIL felt she was often cornered into doing. Apparently Cal and Fox had decided it was time for their own backyard barbecue. There were worse ways to spend a June afternoon than watching three good-looking men standing over a smoking grill.

And just look at them, she thought as she and the other women set bowls of deli potato salad, coleslaw, pickles, and condiments on the picnic table. As united over patties as they were over war. Just look at all of us. She paused a moment to do just that. They were about to have a backyard picnic, and in the same backyard hours before, one of them had bled, had suffered. Had nearly died. Now there was music pumping out of Cal's outdoor speakers, burgers sizzling on the grill, and beer frosty in the cooler.

Twisse thought he could beat them, beat this? No. Not in a century of Sevens. It would never beat what it could never understand, and constantly underestimated.

"You okay?" Quinn rubbed a hand over Cybil's back.

"Yes." A weight of stress and doubts dropped away. She might have to pick them up again, but for now, it was a beautiful day in June. "Yes, I am."

"Quite a view," Quinn added, nodding toward the men at the grill.

"Camera worthy."

"Excellent idea. Be right back."

"Where's she going?" Layla asked.

"I have no idea. Just as I have no idea why it apparently takes three grown men to cook some hamburgers."

"One to cook, one to kibitz, and one to insult the other two."

"Ah. Another mystery solved." Cybil lifted her brow when Quinn dashed out with her camera.

"Aren't those dogs and burgers done yet?" Quinn called out, and putting the camera on the deck rail, peered through the viewer, adjusted angles. "Hurry up. This is a photo op."

"If you were going to take pictures, you might have given us some warning so we could fix ourselves up," Cybil complained.

"You look great, Miss Fussy. Stand more over there. Cal! Come on."

"Just hold your pixels, Blondie."

"Fox, he doesn't need you. Stand over here between Layla and Cyb."

"I can have both?" Strolling over, Fox wrapped arms around each of their waists.

For the next five minutes, Quinn directed, ordered, adjusted until the five of them were arranged to her satisfaction. "Perfect! Set. I'll take a couple by remote." She hurried down, positioned herself between Cal and Gage.

"Food's going to get cold," Cal complained.

"Smile!" She clicked the remote. "Don't move, don't move. I want a backup."

"Starving," Fox sang out, then laughed when Layla dug her fingers into his ribs. "Mom! Layla's picking on me."

"Don't make me come over there," Quinn warned. "On three. One, two, three. Now just stay put while I check to make sure I got a good one."

The mutters and complaints apparently held no sway as she hurried up to the deck, bent down to call back the last two shots. "They're great. Go, Team Human!"

"Let's eat," Cal announced.

As they sat, as food was grabbed, conversation rolled, beers were uncapped, Cybil knew one true thing. They called themselves a team, and they were. But they were more than that. They were family.

It was a family who would kill the beast.

So they ate, as the June afternoon slipped into June evening, with the flowers blooming around them, and the lazy dog-sated with handouts-snoring on the soft green grass. At the edges of that soft green grass, the woods stayed silent and still. Cybil nursed a single beer through the lazy meal. When the interlude passed, she wanted her head clear for the discussion that had to follow.

"We got cake," Fox announced.

"What? Cake? What?" Quinn set down her own beer. "I can't eat cake after eating a burger and potato salad. It's against my lifestyle change. It's just not… Damn it, what kind of cake?"

"The kind from the bakery with the icing and the little flowers."

"You bastard." She propped her chin on her fist and looked pitifully at Fox. "Why is there cake?"

"It's for Gage."

"You got me a cake?"

"Yeah." Cal sent Gage a sober and serious nod. "We got you a Glad You Didn't Die cake. Betts at the bakery wrote that on it. She was confused, but she wrote it on. She had cherry pie, which was my first choice, but O'Dell said it had to be cake."

"We could've bought both," Fox pointed out.

"Somebody brings cake and pie into this house," Quinn said darkly, "somebody will die. By my hand."

"Anticipating that," Cal said, "we just went for the cake."

Gage considered a minute. "You guys are idiots. The appropriate Glad You Didn't Die token is a hooker and a bottle of Jack."

"We couldn't find a hooker." Fox shrugged. "Our time was limited."

"You could give him an IOU," Layla suggested.

Gage grinned at her. "All markers cheerfully accepted."

"Meanwhile, I guess we'd better clear this up, clean it up, and take a little time before we indulge in celebratory cake-of which I can have a stingy little sliver," Quinn said.

Cybil rose first. "I've been working on something, and need to explain it. After we clear the decks here, do you all want to have that explanation, and the inevitable ensuing discussion, inside or out here?"

There was another moment of silence before Gage spoke. "It's a nice night."

"Out here then. Well, as the men hunted, gathered, and cooked, I guess the cleanup's on us, ladies."

As the women cleared and carried, Gage walked over to the edge of the woods with his friends and watched Lump sniff, lift his leg, sniff, lift his leg.

"Dog's got wicked bladder control," Fox commented.

"He does that. Good instincts, too. He won't go any farther into the woods than that anymore, not without me. Wonder where the Big Evil Bastard is now," Cal asked.

"The hits it took today?" Fox's smile was fierce. "It'll need some alone time, you bet your ass. Jesus, Gage, I thought you had the bastard. Nailed it right between the eyes, ripped holes all over it. I thought: Fucking A, we're taking it out right here and now. If I hadn't gotten so goddamn smug, it might not have gotten by us and bitten you."

"I didn't die, remember? The cake says so. It's not on you," Gage continued. "Or you," he added to Cal. "Or any of us. It got under our guard and took me down. Temporarily. But it showed us something we didn't know. It's not all illusion anymore, or infection. It can take on corporeal form, or enough of one to do damage now. It's evolved. In the who-did-damage-to-who department today, I'd say we broke even. But in the strategy department? We kicked its ass."

"It was fun, too. Yelling at each other." Fox dipped his hands in his pockets. "Like therapy. I did worry that Layla was going to take a page out of Cybil's playbook and punch me. Man, she really clocked you."

"She hits like a girl."

Fox snorted. "Not from my angle. You had little X's in your eyes for a couple seconds there."

"Bullshit."

"Birdies circling over your head," Cal put in. "I was embarrassed for you and all mankind."

"You want to see some birdies?"

Cal grinned, then sobered. "Cybil was pretty quiet during dinner." He glanced over his shoulder. "I guess we'd better go find out what she's got on her mind."

Cybil switched to sun tea, and noted Gage had gone back to coffee. Though she'd been sorry to cut back on the mood, she'd turned the music off herself. It was time Team Human, as Quinn had called it, got back to business.

"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to do a quick roundup of today's events," she began. "Gage's brainstorm about using a substitute bloodstone and drawing Twisse in with our own negative and violent emotions worked."

"Points for us," Quinn commented.

"Points for us. More points for us because we have to assume that it believes it destroyed the bloodstone. It believes it's destroyed our best weapon against it. Still, our ambush had mixed results. We hurt it. Nothing screams like that unless there's pain. It hurt us. It was able to solidify its form, at least temporarily, but long enough to sink its teeth into Gage. We all saw the wound, and it looked nasty, but hardly life-threatening. And we all know he nearly died from it. We thought venom, poison. Gage, I don't know if you have a sense of what happened to you."

"It burned," he said. "I've been burned, all three of us have. But I've never felt anything like this. Felt like my goddamn bones were cooking. I could feel it spreading, closing me down. I could think, I could feel, but I couldn't move or speak. So yeah, I'd go with venom, some sort of paralytic."

Nodding absently, Cybil scribbled some notes. "There are a number of creatures both in nature and in lore that poison and paralyze their prey. Several species of marine animals and fish, arachnids, reptiles. In lore, the Din, a magical catlike beast, possesses an extra claw that holds paralytic poison. The vampire, and so on."

"We've always known it could infect the mind," Cal put in. "Now we've seen it can poison the body."

"And may have killed humans and guardians just that way," Cybil agreed. "Everything in our research, everything we've learned tells us that this demon left the last guardian for dead, but the guardian lived long enough to pass the power and the burden to a human boy. So it's very possible the guardian was poisoned, its injuries more severe and the poison more concentrated and powerful than in Gage's bite today. It's talked about devouring us, consuming us, eating us. Those may not be colorful euphemisms."

Quinn winced. "May I just say: Eewwww."

"I'll second that eewwww and add an Oh God," Layla said.

"The missing," Cybil continued. "In our documented and anecdotal evidence, there are always people missing after the demon sweeps through. We've assumed they've gone off insane, or died, killed each other-and that's very likely true for some, maybe even most. But there were likely others who it used for…"

"Munchies," Fox added.

"Somehow this discussion isn't making me feel more optimistic and cheerful."

"Sorry." Cybil offered Cal a smile. "I'm hoping to change that. Ann Hawkins finally decided to pay me a visit, in Gage's room while he was sleeping. I've given you the highlights of our conversation-the pep talk, we'll say. But not all the highlights, because I wanted to check some things out first. She said Gage was alive, more than alive. That he'd brought something back. Another weapon."

"I was a little out of it, but I'm pretty sure I came back empty-handed."

"Not in your hands," Cybil told him. "Its blood, our blood, their blood. And now, Gage, your blood."

"What about my blood?"

"Oh! Oh well, shit!" Quinn's grin spread.

"Hardly a wonder we've been friends so long." Cybil nodded at her. "You survived," she said to Gage. "Your body fought off the poison, the infection. Antibodies, immunoglobulins."

Layla raised a hand. "Sorry, science isn't my strong suit."

"Antibodies are produced by the immune system, in response to an antigen-bacteria, toxins, viruses. Basically, we've got hundreds of thousands of blood cells capable of producing a single type of antibody, and its job would be to bind with the invading antigen, and that triggers a signal for the body to manufacture more of the antibody. It neutralizes the effect of the toxin."

"Gage's blood kicked the poison's ass," Fox said. "He's got an advantage on that, like me and Cal. Our healing gifts."

"Yes. It helped him survive, and because he survived, his blood produced the antibodies that destroyed the toxin, and his blood now contains the basis for immunity. It bit you before," Cybil reminded Gage. "At the cemetery."

"I didn't have a reaction to that like I did today."

"It barely nipped you, and on the hand. Did it burn?"

"Yeah, some. Yeah, a lot, but-"

"Did you feel any nausea or dizziness?"

He started to deny it, then considered. "Maybe a little. Maybe it took longer than I expected to heal."

"You've survived two bites-one minor, and one serious-and closer to the heart. It's speculative," she hurried on, "it's not a hundred percent. But antibodies can recognize and neutralize toxins. It's a leap of faith from the science to taking what Ann said to me as what I'm suggesting now. But we don't have the time, the means, or the ability to test Gage's blood, analyze it. We don't have a sample of the poison."

"I don't think anyone's going to volunteer to get one," Fox added.

"You could be immune," Cybil said to Gage. "The way some people are to certain venoms after being bitten, or diseases after recovery from them. And your blood may be a kind of antivenom."

"You're not suggesting you send some of my blood off to the lab and have it made into a serum."

"No, first because serology is complicated and again, we don't have the means or the know-how. But this isn't just about science. It's also about parascience. It's about magicks."

Cybil laid her hands on her notebook as the moon made its slow rise through the trees. "You and Cal and Fox mixed your blood twenty-one years ago and opened the door for Twisse, as we believe Dent planned all along. The six of us mixed blood, ritualistically, and fused the three sections of the bloodstone you were given into one."

"You're banking that another blood ritual, mixing mine with all of yours, will transfer this immunity-if I have it-to the rest of you."

"Yes. Yes, I do."

"Then let's do it."

Just like that, she thought, relieved. Just like that. "I'd like to do a little more research on the ritual itself-when, how, where it should be performed."

"Don't hedge your bets, sugar. It happened here, so it should be here. It happened today, so it should be today."

Layla spoke before Cybil could. "I agree with Gage and not just because of the eewwww, oh God. Though that's a factor. Twisse is hurt, but it won't stay that way. We don't know how long we have before it comes back. If you think this is a defense, then let's put up the shield now."

"Cyb, you researched blood rituals inside and out before our last trip to the Pagan Stone. You know we can do this." Quinn looked around the table. "We know we can do it."

"We need words, and-"

"I'll handle it." Quinn pushed to her feet. "Writing under pressure is one of my best things. Set it up, and give me five," she added before she walked into the house.

"Well." Cybil blew out a breath. "I guess it's here and now."

She scouted through Cal's gardens for specific flowers and herbs, and continued to snip when Gage crossed the lawn to her. They stood in the wash of moonlight.

"Making a bouquet?"

"Candles, herbs, flowers, words, movements." She moved a shoulder. "Maybe they're trappings, maybe they're largely symbolic, but I believe in symbols. They're a sign of respect, if nothing else. Anytime you shed blood, anytime you ask a higher power for a favor, it should be with respect."

"You're a smart woman, Cybil."

"I am."

He took her arm, held it until she'd turned to face him. "If this works, it's because you were smart enough to put it together."

"If it doesn't?"

"It won't be because of the lack of brainpower."

"Are you seducing me by flattering my mind?"

"No." He smiled, trailed a finger over her cheek. "I'll seduce you by clouding your mind. I'm telling you this is going to work."

"Optimism? From you?"

"You're not the only one who's looked into rites and rituals. I've spent a lot of the time I'm away from here looking into those areas. Some of it's show. But some? It's faith and respect, and it's truth. It's going to work because between the six of us, we cover those bases. It's going to work because it's not just my blood, not just antibodies and science. Your tears are in me now. I felt them. So whatever I brought back, part of it's you. Get your symbols, and let's do this thing."

She stood where she was when he walked away, stood in the moonlight with flowers in her hands, and closed her eyes. Close her heart? she thought. Get over him? No, no, not if she lived a dozen lifetimes.

It was life, Ann Hawkins had told her. The joy and the pain. It was time to accept she'd have to feel both.

They lighted the candles, and sprinkled the flowers and herbs over the ground where Gage had fallen. Over them, in the center of the circle they formed, Quinn laid the photograph she'd taken of them. All six of them linked-hands or arms-with the big dog leaning adoringly against Cal's leg.

"Nice touch," Cybil commented, and Quinn smiled.

"I thought so. I kept the words simple. Pass it around," she suggested.

Cybil took the page first, and read. "You do good work." She passed it to Gage, and so the words went from hand to hand. "Everybody got it?"

Gage took Cal 's Boy Scout knife, skimmed the blade across his palm. Cal took the knife, mirrored the gesture. As with the words, the knife passed from hand to hand.

And they spoke together as hands clasped, and blood mixed.

"Brother to brother, brother to sister, lover to lover. Life to life for the then, for the now, for the to be. Through faith, through hope, in truth. With blood and tears to shield light from black. Brother to brother, brother to sister, lover to lover."

Though there was no wind, the candle flames swayed and rose higher. Cal crouched. "Friend to friend," he said and taking Lump's paw, scored a shallow cut. Lump stared, dark eyes full of trust as Cal closed his hand over the cut. "Sorry, pal." He straightened, shrugged. "I couldn't leave him out."

"He's part of the team." Quinn bent, picked up the photograph. "I don't feel any different, but I believe it worked."

"So do I." Layla crouched to gather up the flowers and herbs. "I'm going to put these in water. It just… seems like the right thing to do."

"It's been a good day." Fox took Layla's hand, brushed his lips over her palm. "I've got one thing to say. Who wants cake?"

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