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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Seven)

Chapter Seven

SHE'D ASKED QUINN TO BRING HER A CHANGE OF clothes. After the horrible business of burying the dog, Cybil was filthy, sweaty, and stained. Rather than think about what stained her pants and shirt, she simply shoved them into a plastic bag, and once she'd showered, intended to shove that into Cal 's trash.

She'd gone to pieces, she admitted as she stepped under the spray. She'd done what needed to be done, true enough, but then her shaky wall of control had broken down into emotional rubble.

So much for cool, clearheaded Cybil Kinski.

Now, if she couldn't manage cool, she could at least make a stab at the clearheaded.

Was it worse or better that she'd melted down in front of Gage? Two ways of thinking, she supposed. Worse-much-for her pride, but for the overall picture, it was best they knew what made each other tick. In order to handle their end of this successfully, knowing each other's strengths, weaknesses, and breaking points was essential.

It was a pisser she'd broken first, but she'd accept that. Eventually.

It was a tough swallow, she supposed, when she'd always perceived herself as the strong one. As the one who made the choices-the tough choices when necessary-and followed them through. Other people fell apart-her mother, her sister-but she held it together. She'd made damn sure of it.

Second swallow, she admitted, was accepting that Gage was right. A dead dog wasn't going to be the worst of it. If she couldn't handle that, she'd be useless to the others. So she'd handle it.

Bury it, as he said, and move on.

When the door opened, she felt a flash of temper along with the chilly air. "Just turn around, hotshot, and go back the way you came."

"It's Q. You okay?"

The sound of her friend's voice had tears flooding her throat again. Ruthlessly, she swallowed them down. "Better. You were quick."

"We headed right over. Cal and I. Fox and Layla will be along as soon as they can. What can I do?"

Cybil turned off the spray. "Hand me a towel." She shoved back the shower curtain and took the one Quinn held out.

"God, Cyb, you look exhausted."

"It was my first day on the job as grave digger. I'm in damn good tune, but Jesus, Q, that's awful work. On every possible level."

As Cybil wrapped the first towel around herself, Quinn handed her a second for her hair. "Thank God you weren't hurt. You saved Gage's life."

"I'd say it was a mutual lifesaving affair." She glanced in the steamy mirror. Both emotional and physical weariness crumbled under the sheer weight of vanity. Who was that pale, drawn woman with the dull, bruised-looking eyes? "Oh my God. Please tell me you had the good sense to bring my makeup along with a change of clothes."

Reassured by the reaction, Quinn leaned a hip against the door. "How long have we been friends?"

"I should never have doubted you."

"Everything's on the bed. I'm going down to pour you a glass of wine while you get changed. Do you want anything else?"

"I think you've just covered the essentials."

Alone, Cybil brushed, dabbed, and blended away the signs of fatigue. She changed into the fresh clothes, did a final check, then gathered up the bag holding her soiled shirt and pants. Downstairs, she shoved the bag into the kitchen garbage, then backtracked to the front deck where Quinn sat with Cal and Gage.

Nobody, she imagined, wanted to sit on the back deck just at the moment.

She picked up her glass of wine, sat, then smiled at Cal. "So. How was your day?"

He answered her smile in kind, even as his patient gray eyes searched her face. "Not as eventful as yours. The Memorial Day committee met this morning to go over the final schedule for the day's events. Wendy Krauss, who'd had a couple of glasses of wine during today's birthday party for a league-mate, dropped a bowling ball on her foot. Broke her big toe, and a couple of teenagers got into a pushy-shovey over a dispute during a game of Foosball in the arcade."

"It's constant drama in Hawkins Hollow."

"Oh yeah."

Sipping her wine, Cybil looked out over the terraced slope, the curvy land, the winding creek. "It's a nice spot to sit after such a busy day. Your gardens are beautiful, Cal."

"They make me happy."

"Secluded spot, yet connected to the whole. You know almost everyone around here."

"Pretty much."

"You know who that dog belonged to."

He hesitated only a moment. "The Mullendores over on Foxwood Road. Their dog went missing day before yesterday." As if he needed the contact, Cal leaned down to stroke a hand on Lump's side as his dog snored at his feet. "Their place is in town. It's a long walk for a dog from there to here, but the way Gage described him, I'd say it was the Mullendores' Roscoe."

"Roscoe." Rest in peace, she thought. "Infecting animals is a usual pattern. And I know we have a list of documented attacks by pets and wildlife in the files. Still, as you say, it's a long way from town to here, on foot-even on four feet. No reports of sightings or attacks by a rabid dog?"

"None."

"So, logically, this today was, again, target specific. The Big Evil Bastard not only infected that poor dog, but directed him here. You're often here alone during the day," she said to Gage. "Twisse couldn't know I'd be here, certainly not before he infected that dog if it's been missing for two days. So you go out, maybe take a nap in that appealing hammock Cal 's got between those maple trees, or maybe Cal goes out to cut the grass. Or Quinn takes a walk through the gardens."

"Any one of us could've been alone out there," Cal agreed. "And it might not have been a dog you buried."

"A clever way to do it," Cybil mused, "or try it, with little effort or energy on its part."

"Handy, having a woman with a gun around." Gage took a slow sip of his own wine.

"And one," Cybil added, "who eventually comes around to the simple truth that she didn't kill that dog. Twisse did. Just one more thing to add to the list of payback he's earned." She glanced toward the road. "Here come Fox and Layla."

"And dinner." Quinn touched a hand to Cybil's. "I ordered up a big salad and a couple of pizzas from Gino's, figuring we'd want to stick with the simple and the staple tonight."

"Good thinking. We've got a lot of ground to cover."

THEY DIDN'T, AS THEY OFTEN DID, TALK OF ORDINARY and easy things over the meal. The day had been too full, and the mood too urgent.

"You'll need to record this, Q," Cybil began, then turned to Gage. "Gage had a dream."

He held her gaze another few seconds, then relayed the dream of passion and death.

"Symbolism," Quinn decided quickly. "That doesn't go into the prophetic column. Obviously, no matter how good the sex might be, neither of you would just keep at it while the room burst into flame around you."

"Good point," Cybil murmured.

"Maybe it was such hot sex, they self-combusted." Fox shrugged. "Just trying to add a little levity."

"Really little." Layla poked his ribs. "We're all stressed, so violent or, ah, sexual dreams aren't surprising. And if you consider that… well, if you factor in that you, Gage, that you might be feeling somewhat-"

"Sexually frustrated," Quinn broke in, "and attracted to Cybil. We're all big boys and girls, and this isn't the time to be delicate. Sorry. But the fact is you and Cyb are healthy adults, not to mention really pretty, and you share an ability during a time of extreme stress. It'd be amazing if there weren't some sexual vibes buzzing about."

"Satisfy an urge, burn in hellfire?" Cal chewed on the thought as he chewed on pizza. "I don't think it's that simple, even symbolically speaking. Connect on intimate levels, there are consequences. And connect to forge another separate link in the chain the six of us have already created, increases the consequences and the power."

"I agree with that, exactly." With a nod of approval, Cybil smiled at Cal. "Too bad Q's in the way, or you and I could have hooked up."

"Staying in the way, sister."

"You're so selfish. Anyway, prophetic dreams, in my experience, are often clouded with symbolism. I think this one could go into that column, or at least be penciled into it."

"We could go upstairs now," Gage suggested. "Test the theory."

"That's a generous offer. Heroic really." Pausing, Cybil sipped her wine. "I'll pass. While I might be willing to sacrifice my body to sex for the good of the cause, I don't think it's necessary at this point."

"Just let me know when we've reached that point."

"You'll be the first. What?" she demanded as Quinn slapped a hand at the air.

"Just swatting at these damn buzzing vibes."

"Aren't you the funny one? But moving on," Cybil continued, "as the astute and handsome Caleb theorized, it's about connections, links. And there are links every bit as intimate as sex."

"Still tops my scoreboard," Fox commented. He grinned at Cybil's stony look and reached for more pizza. "But you were saying."

"Gage and I experienced one of those links when we combined our particular gifts. There was power, and there were consequences. Before that shared experience, he had another on his own. Ann Hawkins."

Cybil paused again, but this time to watch the iridescent flash of a hummingbird outside the window as it dived to the heart of a bold red blossom. "Before I left to come here, Quinn and I logged that incident, charted and mapped it. Gage went through it again for me, for my notes, in case there were any details that dropped out in the relay. There weren't, that I found."

"I thought about that off and on today," Layla put in. "She said she'd wept for him, for Gage, and that you would, Cybil. At least that's my interpretation. That it would matter."

"Tears should matter." Cybil continued to watch as the jeweled bird darted to another blossom.

"I wonder if tears are literal, like a magickal ingredient we'll need, or if they're symbolic again. Grief, joy-emotion. If it's the emotional connection that's important."

"And again, I agree exactly," Cybil added.

"We know emotions are part of it," Quinn continued. "Twisse feeds on the negative-fear, hate, anger. And it seems pretty likely the positive is one of the things that kept us all from being crisped at the Pagan Stone last trip."

"In other words, she wasn't telling us anything we don't already know."

"Positive reinforcement," Quinn said to Gage. "And she said, clearly, we have everything we need to win this. Figuring out what that everything is, and how to use it-that's the problem."

"Weaknesses versus strengths." Fox took a swig of his beer. "Twisse knows our weaknesses, and plays on them. We need to counter that, and in fact, negate that, with our strengths. Basic strategy."

"That's good." Layla nodded. "We need to make lists."

"My girl's hell on lists."

"Seriously. Our strengths and weaknesses as a group, and as individuals. It's war, isn't it? Our strengths are our weapons, and weaknesses are the gaps in our defense. Shore up the defense, or at least recognize where the gaps are, and we build up the offensive position."

"I've been teaching her chess," Fox told the group. "She catches on quick."

"It's a little late in the day for lists," Gage said.

Unoffended, Layla shook her head. "It's never too late for lists."

As Cybil picked up her wine, the hummingbird shot away like a sparkling bullet. "Next on mine is cards."

"You want to play cards?" Cal asked her. "Aren't we a little busy for a game?"

"You're never too busy for a game," Gage corrected. "But I think the lady's referring to her Tarot deck."

"I brought it with me today, and Gage and I conducted an experiment."

Though she trusted her memory, Cybil took out her notes to relate the result to the others. "All Major Arcana, all with meanings specific to both of us," she concluded. "As our resident gambler would agree, the odds of that being coincidence are in the astronomical range. The cards are open to various interpretations depending on the reader, the question, the surrounding cards, and so on. But it feels as though, in this case, they spoke of connection-physical, emotional, psychic connection. Then the symbol of each ancestry, and the potential for dramatic change, and consequence. I'd like to do a series of this same experiment. Cal and Quinn, Fox and Layla, all three men, all three women, and lastly, all six of us together."

"You always had a hand with Tarot," Quinn said.

"My Romany forebears. But this today was more than that."

"You did the card trick before the dog came on the scene," Fox commented. "Before the attack."

"Yeah." As the memory still unsettled her, Cybil reached for her wine. "Before."

"Maybe it was part of the trigger. That," Fox continued, "and you and Gage linking up. We still need the details on that, but if the cards weren't coincidence, and the linking generates energy and power, it doesn't seem like another coincidence that the attack came right on the heels."

"No," Cybil said slowly. "No, it really doesn't."

"You were outside," Quinn prompted. "In the backyard."

"Yeah." Cybil glanced at Gage. "Why don't you take this part?"

He didn't particularly care to give reports, but he assumed it was still difficult for her to speak of it. He ran it through, from the moment they'd sat and linked fingertips on the grass, to the moment Cybil fired the kill shot.

"Oh, honey." Her face filled with concern, Layla reached for Cybil's hand.

"Excuse me?" Gage held up a finger. "Teeth, claws, rended flesh, spilled blood. Crazy Roscoe took a chunk out of my shoulder the size of a-"

"Oh, honey." Layla rose and surprised and amused Gage by rounding the table to plant a kiss on his cheek.

"That's more like it. Anyway, that covers it."

"Gage has neglected to add that I fell apart. If we're making lists, that one has to go under weakness. I had a serious meltdown afterward. I can't guarantee it won't happen again, but I don't think it will."

"Said meltdown was intense, but brief," Gage continued. "And went into effect after the job was done. Personally, I don't give a rat's ass how much anybody gnashes their teeth or freaks after the job's done."

"Point well taken," Cybil decided.

"It made a mistake." Quinn spoke quietly, but her eyes were a vivid and burning blue. "It made a big goddamn mistake."

"How?" Cal asked her.

"For three of us here, a crucial element of this has all been theory before today. We've talked about what happens to people during the Seven, what they're capable of doing when infected. But only you, Fox, and Gage have ever dealt with it face-to-face. Only the three of you have ever had to defend yourselves or someone else from an attack of another living thing. An ordinary living thing that's turned into a threat. How could we know, how could we be sure, how we'd react, if we'd really be able to do what needed to be done when we were faced with it? Now we do.

"That dog today wasn't one of Twisse's nasty illusions. It was flesh and blood. Meltdown, my ass, Cyb. You didn't panic, you didn't run, you didn't freeze. You got a gun and you put it down. You saved a life. So the bastard made a big mistake with his preview of coming attractions. Because now four of us have had face-offs, and I'll be damned if Layla and I aren't just as able to stand up the way Cybil did. My vote? That's a big red check in the plus column."

"That's telling him, Blondie." Cal leaned over, kissed her.

"You're right." Fox lifted his beer in toast. "It wanted to show off, and got shot down. Literally. Psych."

Cybil continued to stare at Quinn for another moment, as the last knots of shock and grief inside her untangled. "You've always been able to cut through the bullshit, haven't you? So, okay then." She took her first truly clear breath in hours. "Let's take a moment to congratulate ourselves… And that's the moment. Somebody start clearing the table, and I'll get my cards."

As she left the room, Gage pushed away from the table and followed her.

"Look, you've already proved a lot today."

Reaching in her purse she hunted for her cards.

"There's no need to deal from your magic deck tonight. You're tired."

"You're right, I am tired." But it was annoying to be told so when she'd gone to the trouble to mask it. "I imagine in the days before the Seven, and during it, you and Cal and Fox function at a state well beyond tired."

"When it comes to that, choices are limited to none. It hasn't come to that yet."

"But it will. And while I'm not above needing or wanting to prove something, this isn't about that. I appreciate the concern, but-"

She broke off when he took her arm. "I don't like being concerned."

The look on his face was one of barely restrained frustration. "No, I bet you don't. I can't help you with that, Gage."

"Look. Look." The frustration rippled again, more visibly. "Let's just get something straight, right from the jump."

"By all means."

"The way the others have hooked up, that's not in the cards. Not those," he said pointing at the Tarot deck. "Not mine, not any. It's not about love songs and playing house for me."

She angled her head, kept an easy, reasonable smile on her face. "Are you under the impression I want you to sing to me, and play house?"

"Cut it out, Cybil."

"No, you cut it out, you arrogant ass. If you've got some jitters that I'm somehow going to spin you in my web until you're serenading under my window and picking out china patterns, that's your problem." She shot a finger at him and her smile was no longer easy and reasonable, but had hardened to a sneer. "If you actually have it in your tiny brain that I would want that, you're just stupid. Which is redundant due to tiny brain, and I hate being annoyed enough to be redundant."

"Are you going to stand there and try to tell me that when the rest of them are falling off the cliff like lemmings, you haven't given a thought to grabbing hold and dragging me off with you?"

"What a lovely image, and quite the testament to your views on our friends' feelings for each other."

"It's apt enough," he muttered. "Add in Quinn's buzzing vibes and it strikes me as pretty damn reasonable to lay it out."

"Then let me lay this out. If and when I decide I want a man for the long term, it won't be because Fate crammed him down my throat. If and when," she repeated, "and contrary to what you with your sexist stupidity might believe-not every woman is looking for long-term-I won't need to grab or drag. If I did, I wouldn't want the son of a bitch. You're safe from my wiles and whims, you narcissistic jerk. If that doesn't reassure you, you can kiss my ass."

She shoved by him, marched into the dining room to slap the deck on the table. "I need to clear my head first," she said to no one in particular, then sailed out into the kitchen and through the back door.

After a quick glance at Cal, Quinn headed out after her. "She's mighty pissed," Quinn commented when Layla stepped out behind her.

"So I see."

After a rapid stride up the deck and down again, Cybil whirled to them. "Even in my current state of blind rage, I'm not going to say all men are arrogant, ignorant pigs who deserve a good kick in their precious balls."

"Just one particular man," Quinn translated.

"One particular, who just had the nerve to warn me that any secret, cherished dreams I might have regarding him are held in vain."

"Oh God." The hands Quinn put to her face muffled a sound caught between a groan and a snorting laugh.

"I shouldn't mistake the fact that the four of you, who've run over the cliff like lemmings, I may add, are a precursor of my future bliss with him."

"As I'm not certain his healing powers are a match for the Wrath of the Cyb, do we need to call nine-one-one?"

"If so," Layla considered, "we should let him suffer a little while longer first. Lemmings?"

"To be fair, though God knows why I should be, I'd say that remark was more due to his concern over his own situation than his opinion of any of you."

Quinn cleared her throat. "Ah, just to throw a wrench at the monkey, it's also possible he went asshat because he's projecting somewhat, due to complicated feelings for and about you."

Cybil merely shrugged at Quinn. "That would be his problem."

"Absolutely. But in your position I'd take some satisfaction from that. The possibility that he's not as worried you'll fall for him as he is he'll fall for you."

Now Cybil pursed her lips. Temper throttled back to give consideration room on the road. "Hmm. I was too mightily pissed to see that angle. I like it. I ought to give him the Treatment."

"Dear God, Cyb." With exaggerated horror on her face, Quinn gripped her friend's arm. "Not the Treatment."

"What's the Treatment?" Layla demanded. "Does it hurt?"

"The Treatment, designed and implemented by Cybil Kinski, is many faceted and multilayered," Quinn told her. "No man can hold against it."

"It's approach, attitude, response." Absently, Cybil brushed at her hair. "Knowing the quarry and adjusting that approach, attitude, and response to his specific qualifications. You can add in seduction and sex if that's acceptable to you, but it's really more about luring them to exactly where you want them. Eye contact, body language, conversation, wardrobe-all of that specifically tailored toward the man in question."

She let out a huff of breath. "But this isn't the time for that sort of thing. No matter how much he deserves it. But after this is over…"

"Okay, I have to know," Layla decided. "How would you tailor the Treatment for Gage?"

"It's elemental, really. He prefers sophisticated women with some style. Though he probably thinks otherwise, he's more truly attracted to-because he respects-women of strength. She shouldn't be coy about sex, but if she's sure, buddy, let's roll, he's not going to think about her twice afterward. He likes brains, leavened with humor."

"Ah, don't hit me," Layla said, "but it sounds like you're describing yourself."

That put a momentary hitch in Cybil's stride, but she continued. "Unlike Fox, we'll say, he isn't inclined to nurture. Unlike Cal, he isn't drawn to his roots, or to putting them down. He gambles, and a woman who knows how to play the game well would draw his attention. One who knows how to win, and how to lose. He can be drawn in physically-but what man can't-but only to a point. He has excellent control under most circumstances, so control would be key in drawing him."

"She'd have notes on all of this if she were going to do it." Like a proud mama, Quinn beamed at Cybil. "Then she'd do a detailed outline."

"Of course, but since this is just hypothetical…" Moving her shoulders, Cybil continued. "He requires challenge, so you'd have to walk the line between interest and disinterest, giving him just enough of both. No running hot and cold, which, oddly enough, some men can't resist, but finding just the right temperature-then varying it at unexpected moments to keep him just a bit off balance. And-"

She stopped, shook her head. "Doesn't matter, as I'm not going to do it. The stakes are too high to play that kind of game."

"When we were in college, she used it on this guy who cheated on me, then suggested we have a threesome with the girl he cheated on me with. Oink." After slinging an arm around Cybil's shoulders, Quinn gave Cybil a hard squeeze. "Cyb wound that fuckhead up like a clock, then just when he thought his alarm was going to go off, slapped him off the nightstand. It was beautiful. But yeah, probably inappropriate under our current circumstances."

"Oh well." With a shrug, Cybil shook back her hair. "It was fun thinking about it. And it calmed me down. We'd better go back in, get started."

Layla tugged Quinn back as Cybil went inside. "Am I really the only one who noticed that she just kept describing herself as the kind of woman Gage would fall for?"

"Nope. But isn't it interesting that Cyb didn't appear to get that?" Quinn draped an arm around Layla's shoulders now. "Even though, in my opinion, she was right on target. She's exactly the woman he'd fall for. Won't this be fun to watch?"

"Is it Fate, Quinn, or choice? For all of us?"

"I vote choice, but you know what?" She gave Layla a pat. "I don't much care, not as long as we all live happy-ever-after."

Thinking of just that, Layla looked at Fox as she walked into the kitchen. He popped the top on a Coke, laughing at something Cal said. As his tawny eyes glanced her way, they warmed like suns.

"Ready for a little fortune-telling?" He held out a hand for hers.

"I want to ask you a question first." It was important to ask now, she realized, before those cards were turned.

"Sure, what do you need?"

"I need to know if you'll marry me."

The conversations around them stopped. For several long seconds there was no sound as he stared at her. "Okay. Now?"

"Fox."

"Because I was thinking more like February. You know what a crappy month February is? Why shouldn't there be something really great to look forward to in the mostly crappy month of February?" He took a slug of his Coke, then set it down as she stared back at him. "Plus, it was February when I saw you for the first time. But not Valentine's Day because, you know, complete clich�� and way too traditional."

"You've been thinking?"

"Yeah, I've been thinking, seeing as I'm completely in love with you. But I'm glad you asked me first. Takes the pressure off." With a laugh, he lifted her off her feet. "February work for you?"

"February's perfect." She laid her hands on his cheeks, kissed him. Then lifting her head, she grinned. "Fox and I are getting married in February."

Amid the congratulations and hugs, Cybil caught Gage's eye. "Don't worry," she said quietly. "I won't propose."

She put on the kettle for tea, to keep her calm and centered when they went back to work.

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