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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Six)

Chapter Six

HE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN SHE'D BE EXACTLY ON time. Not late, not early, but on the button. Cybil had that preciseness about her. She wore a shirt the color of ripe, juicy peaches with bark brown pants that cropped off a couple inches above her ankles, and sandals with a couple of thin straps that showed off those intriguing narrow feet with their toes painted to match the shirt. She'd scooped that mass of curling hair back at the temples so he could see the trio of tiny hoops on her left ear, the duet of them on her right.

She carried a brown handbag the size of a bull terrier.

"I heard you had a visitor. I'll need you to tell me about it so we're sure nothing gets lost in translation."

And right to business, he thought. "Fine." He started back toward the kitchen. If he had to run through it again, he wanted his coffee.

"Mind if I get something cold?"

"Help yourself."

She did. He watched as she pulled out the grapefruit juice and the diet ginger ale. "I'm a little put out she hasn't talked to me yet," Cybil said as she filled a glass with ice then proceeded to mix the two liquids in the glass. "But I'm trying to be big about it." She glanced over, cocked an eyebrow as she lifted the glass. "Do you want some?"

"Absolutely not."

"If I drank coffee all day the way you do, I'd be doing cartwheels off the ceiling." She glanced at the cards spread out on the counter. "I interrupted your game."

"Just passing the time."

"Hmm." She studied his card layout. "It's often called R��ussite-or Success-in France, where some historians believe it originated. In Britain, it's Patience, which I suppose you have to have to play it. The most interesting theory I've come across is that in its early origins the outcome was a form of fortune-telling. Mind?" she asked, tapping the deck, and he shrugged his go-ahead.

She turned up the card, continued the play. "Computer play's given the game a major boost in the last couple decades. Do you play online?"

"Rarely."

"Online poker?"

"Never. I like to be in the same room as my opponents. Winning's no fun if it's anonymous."

"I tried it once. I like to try most everything once."

His mind took a sidetrip into the possibilities of "most everything." "How'd you do?"

"Not bad. But, like you, I found it lacked the zip of the real thing. Well, where should we do this?" She set her drink down to pull a notebook from the massive area of her purse. "We can start with you giving me the details of this morning's visitation, then-"

"I had a dream about you."

Her head angled slightly. "Oh?"

"Given the X rating, you can have the option of sharing it with the others, if you think it applies, or keeping it to yourself."

"I'd have to hear it first." Her lips curved. "In minute detail."

"You came to my bedroom upstairs. Naked."

She flipped open the notebook, began to write. "That was brazen of me."

"There was some moonlight; it gave the room a blue wash. Very sexy, very black-and-white movie. It didn't feel like the first time; there was a sense of familiarity when I touched you. The kind that said, maybe the moves would be a bit different, maybe we'd change up the rhythm, but we'd danced before."

"Did we speak?"

"Not then." There was interest in her eyes, he noted, and amusement-both on the cool side. And no pretense of embarrassment. "I knew how you'd taste, knew the sounds you'd make when I put my hands on you. I knew where you like to be touched, and how. When I was inside you, when we were… locked, taking each other, the room began to bleed, and burn." The interest sharpened; the amusement died. "It rolled over us, that fire, that blood. Then you spoke. Right as it took us, right as you came, you said bestia."

"Sex and death. It sounds more like an erotic or stress dream than foresight."

"Probably. But I thought I should pass it on." He tapped a finger on her book. "For your notes."

"It would be hard not to have sex and death on the brain, considering. But-"

"Do you have a tattoo?" He watched her eyes narrow in consideration, and knew. "About this big," he continued, holding his thumb and forefinger a couple inches apart. "At the small of your back. It looks like a three with a small wavy line coming out of the bottom curve, then a separate symbol above-a curved line with a dot in the center."

"That would be Sanskrit for the Hindu mantra of ohm. The four parts stand for the four stages of concentration, which are awake, asleep, dreaming, and the transcendental state."

"And here I thought it was just sexy."

"It is." Turning, Cybil lifted the back of her shirt a few inches to reveal the symbols at the small of her back. "But it also has meaning. And since you obviously saw it, we'll have to consider your dream had some meaning."

She let her shirt drop, turned back. "We both know that what we see is potential, not absolute. And that often what we see is crowded with symbolism. So, going by your dream, we have the potential to become lovers."

"Didn't need to dream to get that one."

"And as lovers we have the potential to pay a high price for the enjoyment." She kept her gaze steady on his as she spoke. "We could further speculate that while you want me on a physical level, on the emotional and mental levels, you don't. The idea of us pairing off strikes too close to following suit behind our friends, and you don't care to fall in line. Can't blame you, as I don't either. It's also irritating-an irritation I share-to consider this pairing up could be part of a larger plan put into place hundreds of years ago. How am I doing so far?"

"You're hitting the highlights."

"Then to finish up, I'd include the fact that your pessimistic nature-which I don't share-would sway your subconscious, or your gift, over to the get in, get off, get dead arena."

He let out a short laugh. "Okay."

"For me, I don't make decisions on lovers based on the possibility that orgasm might include being consumed by evil forces. It just takes all the romance out of it."

"You looking for romance, Cybil?"

"Everyone is. It's the personal definitions thereof that vary. Why don't we take this outside, on the deck? I like spring, and it doesn't last long. We might as well grab some of it while it's around."

"All right." Taking his coffee, he opened the door to the back deck. "Are you afraid?" he asked as she moved by him.

"Every day since I've come here. Aren't you?"

He left the door open behind them. "I used to be. I used to spend a lot of my life being afraid and pretending not to be. Then, along the way, I got to the fuck-it stage. Just fuck it. Now, mostly, the whole business just annoys me. It doesn't annoy you."

"Fascinates." She took sunglasses out of her purse, slid them on. "I think it's good all of us don't have the same reaction. This way we cover more ground." She sat at one of the tables on Cal 's deck, facing his back gardens, and the green woods that stood along their edges. "Tell me about Ann Hawkins."

So he did, and she took her notes. "Three," she began. "Three boys, descended from her and Dent. Faith, that's Cal 's area. Believing not only in himself, in you, in the town, but having the faith to accept what he can't literally see. The past, what happened before him. Hope falls to Fox, and his optimism that he can and will make a difference. His understanding and trust in what is. Which leaves the vision to you-what can be-for better or worse. A second three-Q, Layla, me-falls in with that, forming subsets. Cal and Q, Fox and Layla, and now you and me. Three into one-three men, three women, three subsets, into one unit. We've accomplished that in a very real sense. Just as we accomplished re-forming the three pieces of the bloodstone into one whole."

"Still doesn't tell us how to use it."

"But she made it clear, at least to me it's clear, that we have what we need. There's no other tangible element. That's something. Tears." Frowning, Cybil drummed her fingers on her notebook. "She wept for you, and if I'm interpreting correctly, she's saying I will. I'm happy to shed a few if it sends the Big Evil Bastard back to hell. Tears," she repeated, and closed her eyes. "They're often an ingredient used in magickal arts. I think they're usually female tears. You'll have your tears of a virgin, of a pregnant woman, of a mother, of an ancient, blah blah blah, depending. I don't know that much about it."

"There's something you don't know that much about?"

She shot him an answering smirk, tipped down her sunglasses to peer at him over them. "There are worlds I don't know much about, but almost nothing I can't find out everything about. We need to see. She appears to be saying that while the other subsets may certainly be called on to do more in their specific areas, they've done the bulk of their job there. It's time to look ahead, and that's up to you and me, partner."

"I can't whistle it up like a German shepherd."

"Of course you can. It takes practice, concentration, and attention. All of which you're capable of or you wouldn't be able to make a living playing cards. What may be more problematic is both of us being capable of calling it up together, and narrowing in on one potential future event."

She dug into her voluminous handbag again, and this time pulled out a deck of Tarot cards.

"Are you kidding me?"

"Tools," she said, and began to shuffle the oversized cards with some skill. "I also have runes, several types of crystal balls, a scrying mirror. At one point in my life I studied witch-craft very seriously, looking for answers as to why I could foretell. But like any religion or organization there are a lot of rules. The rules began to crowd me, so after a while, I simply accepted I had this gift, and my studies spread out in wider circles."

"When did you first know?"

"That I could foretell? I'm not altogether sure. It wasn't like you, in a blinding flash. I've always had vivid dreams. I used to tell my parents about them, when I was a little girl. Or cry for them in the middle of the night if the dreams scared me. They often did. Or there would be what I'd have called d��j�� vu if I'd known the term as a child. My paternal grandmother, who had Romany blood, told me I had the sight. I did my best to learn how to refine it, control it. There were still dreams, some good, some bad. I often dreamt of fire. Of walking through it, of dying in it, of causing it."

She did a quick spread. The colorful illustrations on the cards drew him closer to the table. "I think I dreamed of you," she said, "long before I met you."

"Think?"

"I never saw your face. Or if I did, I couldn't keep it in my head when I woke. But in the dreams, or the visions, I knew someone was waiting for me. A lover, or so it seemed. I had my first orgasm at about fourteen during one of those dreams. I'd wake from those dreams, aroused or satisfied. Or quaking with terror. Because sometimes it wasn't a lover-or not a human one-waiting for me. I never saw its face either, not even when it burned me alive." She looked up at him now. "So I learned all I could, and I learned how to keep my mind and body centered with yoga, meditation, herbs, trances-any and everything to stave off the beast in the dreams. It works most of the time. Or did."

"Harder to keep that center here in the Hollow?"

"Yes."

He sat, waved a finger at the spread. "So, what does the future hold?"

"This? Just a little personal Q and A. As to the rest…" She scooped the cards together, shuffled again. "Let's find out."

She set them down, said, "Cut," and when he did she fanned the deck facedown on the table. "Let's try a simple pick-a-card. You first."

Willing to play, he slid one out of the fan, and at her nod, turned it over. On the card, the couple was twined together, with her dark hair wound around their naked bodies.

"The Lovers," Cybil announced. "Shows where your mind's lodged."

"They're your cards, sugar."

"Mmm-hmm." She chose one for herself. "The Wheel of Fortune-more in your line, if we're speaking literally. Symbolizing change, chance, for good or for ill. Take another."

He turned over the Magician.

"Major Arcana, three for three." The faintest of frowns marred her brows. "It's actually one of my favorite cards, not only the art, but it stands for imagination, creativity, magic, of course. And in this case, we could say it stands for Giles Dent, your ancestor." She drew out another card, slowly turned it over. "And mine. The Devil. Greed, destruction, obsession, tyranny. Go again."

He drew the High Priestess. And without waiting, Cybil chose the Hanged Man.

"Our maternal ancestors, despite the male figure in mine. Understanding and wisdom in yours, martyrdom in mine. And still all Major Arcanas, all absolutely apt. Again."

He slid out and turned the Tower, and she Death.

"Change, potential disaster, but with the other cards you've chosen, the possibility of change for the positive, the potential to rebuild. Mine, obviously an end, and not so sunny when viewed with my other picks. Though it rarely stands for literal death, it does symbolize an absolute end."

She lifted her glass. "I need a refill."

He rose before she did, took the glass. "I'll get it. I saw how you made it."

It would give her time to settle down, Gage thought as he stepped inside. However fascinating she found the process, the results of this particular experiment had shaken her. He knew something about Tarot himself-there was no area of the occult he hadn't poked into for answers over the years. And if he'd been betting on the pulls, he wouldn't have put money on two people drawing eight Major Arcana in a row out of a deck.

He fixed her drink, switched for his next round from coffee to water. When he went outside again, she stood at the rail looking out toward the woods.

"I reshuffled, recut. And I drew eight cards at random. Only two were Major Arcana, but oddly enough they were the Devil and Death again." When she turned he noted she'd settled herself. "Interesting, isn't it? You and I together pull the most powerful and pointed cards. Because we were meant to, or because we, without direct purpose, foresaw where those cards were in the fan, and instinctively chose them."

"Why don't we try another tool? Have you got your crystal ball in that duffel bag of yours?"

"No, and it happens to be Prada. Are you willing to try to look forward, to link our ability and see what happens?"

"What did you have in mind?"

"Accepting and exploiting, hopefully, the connection. I'm better able to focus during or after meditation, but-"

"I know how to meditate."

"With all that caffeine in your system?"

He only tipped back his water bottle. "We'd better take it back inside."

"Actually, I was thinking of out here, on the grass. The gardens, the woods, the air." She took off her sunglasses, set them down on the rail, then wandered down the steps. "What do you do to relax, body and mind?"

"I play cards. I have sex. We could play strip poker, and after you lose I'll make sure we're both relaxed."

"Interesting, but I was thinking more of yoga." She slid out of her shoes, and into Prayer Position. With fluid grace she moved into a basic Sun Sign.

"I'm not doing that," Gage said as he followed her into the yard. "But I'll watch you."

"It'll just take me a minute. And on your suggestion? We made a deal. We weren't going to have sex."

"The deal was I wouldn't try to seduce you, not that we wouldn't have sex."

"Semantics."

"Specifics."

From the Down Dog position, she turned her head to look up at him. "I suppose you're right. In any case." She finished, then lowered to the grass to sit in the Lotus position.

"I'm not doing that either." But he sat across from her.

Where normally she would have rested the back of her hands on her knees, she reached out to take his. "Can you clear your mind like this?"

"I can if you can."

She smiled. "All right. Do whatever you do that works for you-other than cards and sex."

He didn't have any objections to sitting on the grass on a May afternoon with a beautiful woman. Not that he expected anything to happen. He expected her to close her eyes and float off on whatever mantra (the ohm symbol at the base of her spine, that intriguing symbol on flesh the color of gold dust, right at the subtle dip from smooth back to firm ass).

Don't think about it, he warned himself. That wasn't the way to relax.

In any case, she didn't close her eyes, so he stared straight into them. A man couldn't ask for a more appealing focal point than that rich velvet brown. He timed his breathing to hers-or she to his, he wasn't sure. But in a matter of seconds they were in tune, perfectly in rhythm.

Her eyes were all he could see. Drowning pools. Her fingertips were so light on his, yet he felt weightless, as if he'd float up and away without that tenuous contact.

And he felt, for a moment, absolutely right, and completely connected to her.

It slammed and screamed through him, so fast, image after image ramming into the next. Fox lying by the side of the road in the rain. Cal sprawled, his shirt blood-soaked, on the floor of his office. Quinn screaming in terror, beating her hands on a locked door, and the knife that sliced down to cut her throat. Layla, bound and gagged, eyes wild with fear as flames snaked across the floor toward her.

He saw himself, by the Pagan Stone, with Cybil lying lifeless on the altar flames. And heard himself scream with rage an instant before it leaped out of the woods and took him to the dark.

Then it all jumbled together, image and sound, blurring, changing. The bloodstone fired in his hand, and voices rose with words he couldn't understand. And he was alone, alone as those flames rose from his hand toward the hot summer moon. Alone as it came out of the shadows, grinning.

He didn't know who broke contact, but the visions snapped off into a red haze of pain. He heard Cybil say his name, once, twice, and the third time with the kind of verbal slap that made him snarl.

"What?"

"Pay attention. Pay attention to the points I'm pressing. I need you to do this for me when I'm done. Are you hearing me?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." He could hear her, nagging at him, while his head fucking exploded. Like drilling holes in the back of his neck with her fingers was going to…

The pain eased from hot, stabbing knives to a dull misery. And when she took his hand, pressing, pressing on the web between his thumb and forefinger, the misery downshifted to annoying ache.

He risked opening his eyes and looked straight into hers, and saw that rich velvet was clouded. Saw her face was bone white, while she took slow, even breaths. "Okay, okay."

He pulled his hand from hers, placed his on the back of her neck. "Is this right?"

"A little to the… Yes. Yes. Firm, you won't hurt me."

He couldn't do worse than the visions had, so he pressed hard on the knots that pain and tension had built under her skin while she addressed the accupressure points on her own hand.

She'd tended to him first, Gage realized, and wasn't sure whether to be embarrassed or grateful. He watched those clouds of pain dissolve until she closed her eyes on a relief he understood perfectly.

"All right, that's better. That'll do. I just need to…" She slid back, lay down on the grass with her face to the sun, eyes closed.

"Good idea." He did exactly the same.

"We didn't control it," she said after a moment. "It just dragged us along like dogs on a leash. I couldn't stop it, or slow it down. I couldn't block the fear out."

"Proving you're a complete failure."

He heard her muffled laugh, knew her lips would be curved. "That makes two of us, tough guy. We'll do better. We have to. What did you see?"

"You first."

"All of us dead or dying. Fox, bleeding on the side of the road, in the dark and the rain. Headlights, I think the headlights from his truck." She went through them all, her voice shaking a little.

"The same for me. Then it changed."

"It was all so fast, then it got faster, more blurred, images overlapping. Ordinary things rolling into nightmares, so fast it was impossible to tell one from the other. Everything so fractured. But in the end, you had the stone."

"Yeah, everyone's dead, and I've got the stone. And the bastard killed me while it was burning in my hand."

"Did it, or was that an interpretation? What I know is that the stone was there, right through the end, that you had it, and that it held power." She rolled to her side to face him. "And I know that what we saw were possibilities. Foresight is forearmed. So we tell the others the possibilities, and we all strap it on."

"Strap what on?"

"Whatever it takes. What?" she demanded when he pressed his fingers to his eyes and shook his head.

"I just got a picture of you strapping that little pearl-handled.22 to your thigh. I must be feeling better."

"Hmm. What was I wearing?"

He dropped his hands and grinned at her. "We both must be feeling better. Why don't we…" This time he rolled on top of her.

"Hold on there, cowboy. A deal's a deal."

"No seduction intended."

She gave him a casual smile. "None taken."

"You're a hard case, Cybil." Testing, he took her hands, then drew her arms up over her head. Positive energy-she was big on positive energy. And Christ knew he could use some now.

She didn't resist, only continued to watch him with that half smile on her face.

"I was thinking the two of us deserve a little payoff," he told her.

"Which would be rolling around naked in Cal 's backyard?"

"You read my mind."

"Not gonna happen."

"Okay. Just say when."

He took her mouth, and there was nothing testing or teasing about it. He went for the heat, and what he found spiked like a fever. Her fingers curled on his and held as her lips parted. It was more demand than invitation, more challenge than surrender. Under him, her body seemed to ripple-rising waves of energy.

Very positive.

No seduction, she thought, no persuasion, and her body responded, rejoiced, in the possession. The honesty of sheer and undisguised lust meant equal terms. Needs trapped inside her for months raced free. She'd take more, just a little more, before herding them back into the pen.

Hooking a leg around him, she arched her hips, deliberately pressing center to center before she pushed to reverse their positions. Now her mouth took command, took its fill as his hands fisted in her hair. When she heard the growl, she laughed against his lips. But when it sounded again, she felt ice slide down her spine.

Slowly, she drew her lips a breath from his. "Did you hear that?"

"Yeah."

She lifted her head another inch, and that ice floe spread. "We've got an audience."

The dog was massive, its brown fur matted and stained. Frothy drool dripped from its jowls as it lurched drunkenly out of the woods.

"That isn't Twisse," Cybil whispered.

"No."

"Meaning it's real."

"Real, and rabid. How fast can you run?"

"As fast as I need to."

"Get into the house. My gun's upstairs, on the table beside the bed. Get it, get back, and shoot the damn dog. I'll keep it off you."

Cybil ignored the rise of gorge at the thought of killing a dog. "My.22's in my bag on the deck. We can both make it."

"Go, get inside. Don't stop."

He dragged her up, gave her one hard shove toward the house. And the dog gathered itself, and charged.

He didn't run with her, and she didn't allow herself to think, not even when she heard the horrible sounds behind her. With her heart slamming, she flew onto the deck, shoved her hand into her bag and closed it around the butt of her revolver.

The scream she loosed when she turned was as much terror as an attempt to draw the dog's attention to her. But it only continued to roll, snap, to clamp its teeth into Gage as they fought a vicious war on Cal 's pretty green grass.

She raced back, releasing the safety as she ran.

"Shoot it! Shoot the fucker!"

"I can't get a clear shot!"

His arms, his hands, were torn and bleeding. "Goddamn it, shoot!" As he shouted, he wrenched the dog's head up, looked straight into those madly snapping jaws. The dog's body jerked, once, twice, as bullets plowed into its flank, and still it tried to go for the throat. On the next shot it let out a high shriek of pain, and those mad eyes went glassy. Panting, Gage shoved the weight aside, crawled over the blood-slicked grass.

Through the haze of pain he heard weeping. Through the haze of pain he saw Cybil step up to the dying dog and fire the coup de grace into its head.

"It wasn't dead. It was suffering. Let me get you inside. God, you're torn up."

"I'll heal." But he put his arm around her shoulders, let her take his weight. He made it as far as the steps before his legs gave out. "Give me a minute. I need a minute."

She left him slumped on the steps to dash inside. Minutes later, she rushed out again with a fresh bottle of water, a basin filled with more, and several cloths. "Should I call Cal and Fox? When Fox was hurt it helped him to have you both."

"No. Not that bad."

"Let me see. I need to see." Quickly, efficiently, she drew off what was left of his shirt. Her breath might have shuddered at the tears and rips in his flesh, but she washed the wounds with a steady hand. "The shoulder's bad."

"Unnecessary information seeing as it's my shoulder." He hissed as she pressed the cool, wet cloth to the wound. "Anyway, nice shooting, Tex. "

She used the bottled water to dampen a fresh cloth, then wiped it gently over his face. "I know it hurts. I know the healing hurts almost as much as the need for it."

"It's no spring picnic. Do me a favor? Get me a whiskey?"

"All right."

Inside, she braced her hands on the counter a moment. She wanted to be sick, badly wanted to be sick. But she pushed down the need, shuddered her way past it. And pulling down the bottle of Jameson, poured him a generous three fingers.

When she came back out with it, she saw that most of his surface injuries had healed, and the more serious ones had begun to close. He downed two-thirds of the whiskey she handed him in one pull, then, studying her face, held out the glass. "Down the rest, sweetheart. You look like you could use it."

She nodded, downed it. Then she did what she'd avoided doing. She turned and looked at what lay on the blood-stained grass. "I've never killed anything before. Clay pigeons, targets, shooting gallery bears. But I never put bullets into a living thing."

"If you hadn't, I might be dead. That dog weighs a good eighty pounds, mostly muscle, and it was shithouse crazy."

"It has a collar, tags." Steeling herself, she crossed the lawn, crouched. "An up-to-date rabies tag. It wasn't rabid, Gage, not in the usual sense. But I guess we both knew that."

She straightened when Gage limped over to join her. "What do we do now?" she asked him.

"We bury it."

"But… Gage, this was someone's dog. This wasn't a stray, he belonged to someone. They must be looking for him."

"Getting him back dead isn't going to help. Trying to explain why you put four bullets in a household pet-one who won't show rabies on any test-isn't going to help." Gage gripped her shoulders, fingers digging in for emphasis. "This is a goddamn war, do you understand? One we've been fighting a long time. More than dogs die, Cybil, so you're going to have to man up. Telling some kid that Fido won't be home for dinner because a demon infected him isn't on the boards. We bury it, we move on."

"It must help not to have any feelings, any guilt or remorse."

"That's right, it does. Go home. We're done for the day."

"Where are you going?" she demanded when he turned away.

"To get a damn shovel."

Gritting her teeth, she marched to the garden shed ahead of him, wrenched open the door.

"I said go home."

"I say go to hell; we'll see who gets where first. I put that dog down, didn't I? So I'll help bury him." She wrenched down a shovel, all but threw it at Gage before grabbing another. "And here's something else, you son of a bitch, we're not done for the day. What happened here needs to be shared with the others. Whether you like it or not you're part of a team. This whole ugly business has to be reported, documented, charted. Burying it isn't enough. It's not enough. It's not."

She pressed the back of her hand to her mouth, choked back a sob as the cracks in her composure widened. When she would have pushed by him, Gage grabbed her, pulled her against him.

"Get away from me."

"Shut up. Just shut up." He held firm, ignoring her struggles, and when she gave up, gave in and clung, he held her still. "You did what you had to do," he murmured. "You did fine. You held up. Go on inside, let me finish this. You can call the others."

She leaned against him another moment. "We'll finish it. We'll bury him together. Then we'll go call the others."

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