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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Seventeen)

Chapter Seventeen

HE TOLD THEM IN THE MORNING, AND TOLD THEM straight-out. Then he drank his coffee while the arguments and the alternatives swarmed around him. If it had been any of them proposing to jump into the mouth of hell without a parachute, Gage thought, he'd be doing the same. But it wasn't any of them, and there was a good reason for that.

"We'll draw straws." Fox stood scowling, hands jammed in his pockets. "The three of us. Short straw goes."

"Excuse me." Quinn jabbed a finger at him. "There are six of us here. We'll all draw straws."

"Six and a fraction." Cal shook his head. "You're pregnant, and you're not playing short straw with the baby."

"If the baby's father can play, so can its mother."

"The father isn't currently gestating," Cal shot back.

"Before we start talking about stupid straws, we need to think." At her wit's end, Cybil whirled around from her blind stare out of the kitchen window. "We're not going to stand around here saying one of us is going to die. Gee, which one should it be? None of us is willing to sacrifice one for the whole."

"I agree with Cybil. We'll find another way." Layla rubbed a hand over Fox's arm to soothe him. "The bloodstone is a weapon, and apparently the weapon. It has to get inside Twisse. How do we get it inside?"

"A projectile," Cal considered. "We could rig up something."

"What, a slingshot? A catapult?" Gage demanded. "A freaking cannon? This is the way. It's not just about getting it into Twisse, it's about taking it there. It's about jamming it down the bastard's throat. About blood-our blood."

"If that's true, and without more we can't say it is, we're back to straws." Cal shoved his own coffee aside to lean toward Gage. "It's been the three of us since day one. You don't get to decide."

"I didn't. It's the way it is."

"Then why you? Give me a reason."

"It's my turn. Simple as that. You jammed a knife into that thing last winter, showed us we could hurt it. A couple months later, Fox showed us we could kick its ass back and live through it. We wouldn't be sitting here, this close to ending it, if the two of you hadn't done those things. If these three women hadn't come here, stayed here, risked all they've risked. So it's my turn."

"What next?" Cybil snapped at him. "Are you going to call time-out?"

He looked at her calmly. "We both know what we saw, what we felt. And if we all look back, step by step, we can see this one coming. I was given the future for a reason."

"So you wouldn't have one?"

"So, whether I do or not, you do." Gage shifted his gaze from Cybil to Cal. "The town does. So wherever the hell Twisse plans to go next when he's done here has a future. I play the cards I'm dealt. I'm not folding."

Cal rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm not saying I'm on board with this, but say I am-we are-there's time to think of a way for you to do this without dying."

"I'm all for that."

"We pull you out," Fox suggested. "Maybe there's a way to pull you out. Get a rope on you, some sort of harness rig?" He looked at Cal. "We could yank him back out."

"We could work with something like that."

"If we could get Twisse to take an actual form," Layla put in. "The boy, the dog, a man."

"And get it to hold form long enough for me to ram the stone up its ass?"

"You said down his throat."

Gage grinned at Layla over his coffee. "Metaphorically. I'm going to check with my demonologist friend, Professor Linz. Believe me, I'm not going into this unprepared. All things being equal, I'd like to come out of this alive." He shifted his gaze to Cybil. "I've got some plans for after."

"Then we'll keep thinking, keep working. I've got to get into the office," Fox said, "but I'm going to cancel or reschedule all the appointments and court dates I can for the duration."

"I'll give you a ride in."

"Why? Shit, right. Napper, truck. Which means I've got to swing by and see Hawbaker again this morning and check with the mechanic about my truck."

"I want in on the first part," Gage said. "I'll follow you in. I can run you by the mechanic if you need to go."

Cal got to his feet. "We're going to figure this out," he said to the group at large. "We're going to find the way."

With the men gone, the women sat in the kitchen.

"This is so completely stupid." Quinn rapped the heel of her hand on the counter. "Draw straws? For God's sake. As if we're going to say sure, one of us falls on the damn grenade while the rest of us stand back and twiddle our thumbs."

"We weren't twiddling," Cybil said quietly. "Believe me. It was horrible, Q. Horrible. The noise, the smoke, the stink. And the cold. It was everything, this thing. It was mammoth. No evil little boy or big, bad dog."

"But we fought it. We hurt it." Layla closed a hand around Cybil's arm. "If we hurt it enough, we'll weaken it. If we weaken it enough, it can't kill Gage."

"I don't know." She thought of what she'd seen, and of her own research. "I wish I did."

"Possibilities, Cyb. Remember that. What you see can be changed, has been changed because you see it."

"Some of it. We need to go upstairs. We need one of your spare pregnancy tests."

"Oh, but I took three." Distressed, Quinn pressed a hand to her belly. "And I even felt queasy this morning, and-"

"It's not for you. It's for Layla."

"Me? What? Why? I'm not pregnant. My period's not even due until-"

"I know when it's due," Cybil interrupted. "We're three women who've been living in the same house for months. Our cycles are on the same schedule."

"I'm on birth control."

"So was I," Quinn said thoughtfully. "But that doesn't explain why you think Layla's pregnant."

"So pee on a stick." Cybil rose, gave the come-ahead sign. "It's easy."

"Fine, fine, if it makes you feel better. But I'm not pregnant. I'd know. I'd sense it, wouldn't I?"

"It's harder to see ourselves." Cybil led the way upstairs, strolled into Quinn's room, sat on the bed while Quinn opened a drawer.

"Take your pick." She held out two boxes.

"It doesn't matter because it doesn't matter." Layla took one at random.

"Go pee," Cybil told her. "We'll wait."

When Layla went into the bathroom, Quinn turned to Cybil. "You want to tell me why she's in there peeing on a stick?"

"Let's just wait."

Moments later Layla came back with the test stick. "There, done. And no plus sign."

"It's been about thirty seconds since you flushed," Quinn pointed out.

"Thirty seconds, thirty minutes. I can't be pregnant. I'm getting married in February. I don't even have the ring yet. After February, and if we buy this house we're thinking about, and I decorate it, after my business is up and running smoothly, then I can be pregnant. Next February-our first anniversary-would be the perfect time to conceive. Everything should be in place by then."

"You really are an anal and organized soul," Cybil commented.

"Absolutely. And I know my own body, my own cycle, my own…" She trailed off when she glanced down at the test stick. "Oh."

"Let me see that." Quinn snatched it out of her hand. "That's a really big, really clear, really unmistakable plus for positive Miss I Can't Be Pregnant."

"Oh. Oh. Wow."

"I said holy shit a lot." Quinn passed the stick to Cybil. "Give yourself a minute. See how you feel after the shock clears."

"That might take more than a minute. I… I had a sort of loose schedule worked out, for when this would happen. We want kids. We talked about it. I just thought… Let me see that again." Taking it from Cybil, Layla stared. "Holy shit."

"Good shit or bad shit?" Quinn asked.

"Another minute, and that one sitting down." Layla dropped onto the bed and just breathed. Then she laughed. "Good, really, really good. About a year and a half ahead of schedule, but I can adjust. Fox is going to be over the moon! I'm pregnant. How did you know?" She swiveled to Cybil. "How did you know?"

"I saw you." Moved by the radiant smile, Cybil stroked Layla's hair. "Both you and Quinn. I've been expecting this. We saw you, Quinn, Gage and I. In the winter-next winter. You were napping on the couch when he came in. And when you turned over, well, you were unmistakably pregnant."

"How'd I look?"

"Enormous. And beautiful, and wonderfully happy. You both did. And I saw Layla. You were in your boutique, which looked terrific, by the way. Fox brought you flowers. They were for your first month in business. It was sometime in September."

"We think I could open in mid-August, if… I'm going to open in mid-August," she corrected.

"You weren't showing yet, not really, but something you said… I don't think Gage caught that. A man probably wouldn't. You were all so happy." Remembering what else she'd seen, only the night before, Cybil pressed her lips together. "That's how it should be. I believe now that's how it will be."

"Honey." Quinn sat beside her, draped an arm over Cybil's shoulder. "You think Gage has to die for all this to happen for the rest of us."

"I've seen it happen. I've seen all of it happen. So has he. How much is destiny, how much is choice? I just don't know anymore." She took Layla's hand, laid her head on Quinn's shoulder. "Some of the research, it talks about the need for sacrifice, for balance-destroy the dark, the light must die, too. The stone-the power source-must be taken into the dark, by the light. I didn't tell you."

Cybil lifted her hands, held them over her face, dropped them. "I didn't tell any of you because I didn't want to believe it. Didn't want to face it. I don't know why I had to fall in love with him to lose him. Not this way."

Quinn hugged harder. "We'll find another."

"I've tried."

"We'll all be trying now," Layla reminded her. "We'll find it."

"We don't give up," Quinn insisted. "That's the one thing we don't do."

"You're right. You're right." Hope wasn't something to dismiss, Cybil reminded herself. "And this isn't the moment for gloom and doom. Let's get out of this house. Let's just get out of this house for a few hours."

"I want to tell Fox. We could drive into town, and I could tell him face-to-face. Make his day."

"Perfect."

WHEN THEY LEARNED FROM FOX'S PEPPY NEW office manager that Fox was with a client, Layla decided to multitask.

"I'll run upstairs, get some more clothes, clean out the perishables from the kitchen. If he's not done by that time, well, I'll just wait."

"I'll let him know you're here as soon as he's free," the new office manager sang out as the three women started up the stairs.

"I'll start in the kitchen," Cybil said.

"I'll give you a hand with that. As soon as I pee." Quinn shifted from foot to foot. "It's probably psychological pee, because I know I'm pregnant. But my bladder thinks otherwise. Wow," she continued when Layla opened the door to Fox's apartment to the living room. "This place is…"

"The word is habitable." With a laugh, Layla shut the door behind them. "It's amazing what a regular cleaning woman can do."

They separated, Cybil to the kitchen, Quinn to the bathroom. Layla stepped into the bedroom, and froze with a knife point at her throat.

"Don't scream. It'll go right through you, right through, and that's not the way it has to be."

"I won't scream." Her gaze latched on to the bed-and the rope, the roll of duct tape on it. On the can of gasoline. Cybil's vision, she thought. Cybil and Gage had seen her bound and gagged, on the floor with fire crawling toward her.

"You don't want to do this. Not really. It's not you."

He eased the door shut. "It needs to burn. It all needs to burn. To purify."

She looked up at his face. She knew that face. Kaz. He delivered pizza for Gino's. He was only seventeen. But now his eyes gleamed with a kind of jittery madness she thought was ancient. And his grin was wild as he backed her toward the bed. "Take off your clothes," he said.

In the kitchen Cybil pulled milk, eggs, fruit out of the refrigerator, set them on the counter. When she turned toward a broom closet, hoping for a box or bag, she saw the broken pane in the back door. Instantly she pulled her.22 from her purse and reached for a knife in the block.

One missing, she thought, fighting panic. A knife already out of the block. Gripping hers, she spun back toward the living room just as Quinn opened the bathroom door. Cybil put her finger to her lips, pushed the knife into Quinn's hand. She gestured toward the bedroom door.

"Go get help," Cybil whispered.

"Not leaving you. Not leaving either one of you." Instead, Quinn pulled out her phone.

Inside, Layla stared at the boy who delivered the pizza, who liked to talk with Fox about sports. Keep his eyes on yours, she told herself while her heart made odd piping sounds in her chest. Talk. Keep talking to him. "Kaz, something's happened to you. It's not your fault."

"Blood and fire," he said, still grinning.

She took another backward step as he jabbed out with the knife, nicked her arm. And the hand fumbling in her purse behind her back finally clamped on its target. She did scream now, and so did he, as she spewed the pepper spray in his eyes.

At the screams, both Quinn and Cybil rushed the bedroom door. They saw Layla scrambling for a knife on the floor, and the boy they all recognized howling with his hands over his face. Whether it was instinct, panic, or simply rage, Cybil followed through. She kicked the boy in the groin, and when he doubled over, his hands leaving his streaming eyes for his crotch, shoved him into the closet. "Quick, quick, help me push the dresser in front of the door," she ordered when she slammed the closet door.

He screamed, he wept, he battered the door.

Though her hand trembled, Quinn retrieved her phone.

Within fifteen minutes, Chief Hawbaker pulled the weeping boy out of the bedroom closet.

"What's going on?" Kaz demanded. "My eyes! I can't see. Where am I? What's going on?"

"He doesn't know," Cybil said as she stood clutching Quinn's hand. He was nothing but a hurt and confused teenage boy now. "It let him go."

After cuffing Kaz, Hawbaker nodded to the can on the floor. "That what you used on him?"

"Pepper spray." Layla sat on the side of the bed, clinging to Fox. Cybil wasn't sure if she held him to stop him from leaping at the pitiful boy, or to ground herself. "I lived in New York."

"I'm going to take him in, deal with his eyes. You need to come in, all of you, make your statements."

"We'll be in later." Fox leveled his gaze on Kaz. "I want him locked up until we get there, sort this out."

Hawbaker studied the rope, the knives, the can of gas. "He will be."

"My eyes are burning. I don't understand," Kaz wept as Hawbaker guided him out. "Fox, hey, Fox, what's up with this?"

"It wasn't him." Layla pressed her face to Fox's shoulder. "It wasn't really him."

"I'm going to get you some water." Cybil started out, stopped as Cal and Gage rushed through the apartment door. "We're all right. Everyone's all right."

"Don't touch anything," Fox warned. "Come on, Layla, let's get you out of here."

"It wasn't him," she repeated, and took Fox's face in her hands. "You know it wasn't his fault."

"Yeah, I know. Doesn't mean I don't want to beat him into a bloody pulp right at the moment, but I know."

"Somebody want to fill us in?" Cal demanded.

"He was going to kill Layla," Gage said tightly. "The kid. What Cybil and I saw. Strip her down, tie her up, light the place up."

"But we stopped it. The way Fox stopped Napper. It didn't happen. That's twice now." Layla let out a breath. "That's two we've changed."

"Three." Cybil gestured toward Fox's front door. "That's it, isn't it?" She turned to Gage. "That's the door we saw Quinn trying to get out of when a knife was stabbing down at her. The knife Kaz had. The one from out of the block in the kitchen. Neither of those things happened because we were prepared. We changed the potential."

"More weight on our side of the scale." Cal drew Quinn to him.

"We need to go down to the police station, deal with this. Press charges."

"Fox."

"Unless," he continued over Layla's distress, "he gets out of town. Out to the farm, or just out, until after the Seven. We'll talk to him, and his parents. He can't stay in the Hollow. We can't risk it."

Layla let out another breath. "If the rest of you could go ahead? I want a few minutes to talk to Fox."

LATER, BECAUSE IT SEEMED LIKE THE THING TO do, Cybil dragged Gage back to Fox's apartment to load up the food.

"What's the big fucking deal about a quart of milk and some eggs?"

"It's more than that, and besides, I don't approve of waste. And it saves Layla from even thinking about coming back up here until she's steadier. And why are you so irritable?"

"Oh, I don't know, maybe it has something to do with having a woman I like quite a lot being held at knifepoint by some infected pizza delivery boy."

"You could always tip that and be happy Layla was carrying pepper spray and between her quick reflexes and Quinn and me, we managed to handle it." As a tension headache turned her shoulders into throbbing knots of concrete, Cybil bagged the milk. "And the pizza delivery boy, who was being used, is on his way to stay with his grandparents in Virginia along with the rest of his family. That's five people out of harm's way."

"I could look at it that way."

His tone made her lips twitch. "But you'd rather be irritable."

"Maybe. And we can factor in that now we've got two pregnant women instead of one to worry about."

"Both of whom have proven themselves completely capable, particularly today. Pregnant Layla managed to keep her head, to reach into her very stylish handbag and yank out a can of pepper spray. Then to blast same in that poor kid's eyes. Saving herself, potentially saving both Quinn and me from any harm. Certainly saving that boy. I would have shot him, Gage."

She sighed as she packed up food. The tension, she realized, wasn't simply about what had happened, but what might have happened. "I would have shot that boy without an instant's hesitation. I know this. She saved me from having to live with that."

"With that toy you carry, you'd have just pissed him off."

Because her lips twitched again, she turned to him. "If that's an attempt to make me feel better, it's not bad. But Jesus, I could use some aspirin."

When he walked away, she continued bagging food. He returned with a bottle of pills, poured her a glass of water. "Medicine cabinet in the bathroom," he told her.

She downed the pills. "Back to our latest adventure, both Layla and Quinn came out of this with barely a scratch-unlike the potential outcome we saw. That's a big."

"No argument." He went behind her, put his hands on her shoulders and began to push at the knots.

"Oh God." Her eyes closed in relief. "Thanks."

"So not everything we see will happen, and things we don't see will. We didn't see pregnant Layla."

"Yes, we did." She gave his hands more credit than the aspirin for knocking back the leading edge of the headache. "You didn't recognize what you saw. We saw her and Fox in her boutique, this coming September. She was pregnant."

"How do you-never mind. Woman thing," Gage decided. "Why didn't you mention it at the time?"

"I'm not really sure. But what it tells me is that some things are meant, and some things can be changed." She turned now so they were eye-to-eye. "You don't have to die, Gage."

"I'd rather not, all in all. But I won't back off from it."

"I understand that. But the things we've seen played some part in helping our friends stay alive. I have to believe they'll help you do the same. I don't want to lose you." Afraid she might fall apart, she pushed the first of two grocery bags into his arms and spoke lightly. "You come in handy."

"As a pack mule."

She shoved the second bag at him. "Among other things." Because his arms were full, she toed up, brushed her lips over his. "We'd better get going. We'll need to stop by the bakery."

"For?"

"Another Glad You're Not Dead cake. It's a nice tradition." She opened the door, let him pass through ahead of her. "I'll tell you what, for your birthday-when you're still alive-I'll bake you one."

"You'll bake me a cake if I live."

"A spectacular cake." She closed Fox's door firmly, glanced at the plywood Gage had put up where the glass pane was broken. "Six layers, one for each of us." When her eyes stung and welled inexplicably, she pulled her sunglasses out of her bag, put them on.

"Seven," Gage corrected. "Seven's the magic number, right? It should be seven."

"July seventh, a seven-layer cake." She waited for him to put the bags in the trunk of his car. "That's a deal."

"When's your birthday?"

"November." She slid into the car. "The second of November."

"I'll tell you what. If I get to eat a piece of your famous seven-layer cake, I'll take you anywhere you want to go on your birthday."

Despite the ache in her belly, she sent him an easy smile. "Careful. There are a lot of places I want to go."

"Good. Same here."

THAT WAS JUST ONE OF THE THINGS ABOUT HER, Gage thought, that kept pushing at his mind. There were a lot of places they wanted to go. When had it stopped being he and she in his mind, and become they? He couldn't pinpoint it, but he knew that he wanted to go to all of those places with her.

He wanted to show her his favorite spots, to see hers. And he wanted to go to places neither of them had ever been, and experience them together for the first time.

He didn't want just to follow the game any longer. To simply go wherever and whenever alone. He wanted to go, to see, to do, and God knew he wanted to play, but the idea of alone didn't have the appeal it once had.

Irritable, she'd called him. Maybe that was part of the reason why. It was, in his opinion, a damn good reason for being irritable. It was ludicrous, he decided, and started to pace the guest room instead of checking his e-mail as he'd intended. It was absolutely insane to start thinking about long-term, about commitment, about being part of a couple instead of going solo.

But he was thinking about it. That was the kicker. And he could imagine it, could see how it might be-the potential of it-with Cybil. He could imagine the two of them exploring the world together without the weight of it on their shoulders. He could even imagine having a base with her somewhere. New York, Vegas, Paris-wherever.

A home with her, somewhere to come back to.

The only place he'd ever had to come back to was Hawkins Hollow. And not by choice, not really by choice.

But this could be, if he took the bet.

It might be fun talking her into it.

There was time left, he thought, enough time left for him to work out a game plan. Have to be cagey about it, he mused as he sat down at his laptop. He'd have to find just the right way to tie her up in those strings they'd both agreed they didn't want. Then once he had, he could just tie a knot here, tie a knot there. She was a smart one, but then so was he. He'd lay odds he could have her wrapped up before she realized he'd changed the game-and the rules.

Pleased with the idea, he opened an e-mail from Professor Linz. And as he read, his belly tightened; his eyes chilled.

So much, he thought, fatalistically, for planning futures. His was already set-and it had less than two weeks to run.

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