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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Sixteen)

Chapter Sixteen

LAYLA CAME INTO THE DINING ROOM, WHICH WAS currently in the process of morphing into their main research area. Laptops, stacks of files, charts, maps covered the table. The dry-erase board stood wedged in a corner, and Cal crouched on the floor hooking up a printer.

"Fox says he grabbed dinner at the farm, and we should probably start without him-Gage and Cybil should start without him, that is. He might be a couple hours yet. I didn't tell him the news." She beamed at Quinn. "I had to saw my tongue off a couple times, but I thought you and Cal would want to tell him in person about the baby."

"I think I still need somebody to tell me again, a few times."

"How about if I just call you Daddy?" Quinn suggested.

He let out the breathless laugh of a man caught between the thrill and the terror. "Wow." Then shifted to where Quinn sorted the files. "Wow." When he took Quinn's hand, and the two of them just stared at each other, Layla eased out of the room.

"They're basking," she told Gage and Cybil in the kitchen.

"They're entitled." Cybil closed a cupboard door, put her hands on her hips, and did a survey of the room. "I think this'll have to do. All the perishables from our place are stowed, and we'll have to live with the spill-over in dry goods."

"I'll get what makes sense out of Fox's apartment tomorrow," Layla said. "Is there anything else I can do?"

"Flip for the guest room." Gage took a quarter out of his pocket. "Loser takes the pullout in the office."

"Oh." Layla frowned at the coin. "I want to be gracious and say you're already in there, but I've slept on that pullout. Heads. No… tails."

"Pick one, sweetheart."

She fisted her hands on either side of her head, wiggled her hips, squeezed her eyes tight. Gage had seen people invent stranger rituals for luck.

"Tails."

Gage flipped it, snagged it, slapped it on the back of his hand. "Should've gone with your first instinct."

She sighed over the eagle. "Oh well. Fox is going to be a while, so…"

"We'll try the link as soon as the dining room's set up." Cybil glanced out the window. "I guess we stick inside. It's starting to rain."

"Plus, snakes. Well, enough basking for them." Layla walked back in the dining room to help organize.

"YOU'RE TAKING A LOT ON." FOX STOOD BY HIS FATHER on the back porch of the farmhouse, staring out through the steady, soaking rain.

"I was at Woodstock, kid of mine. We'll be fine."

In the distant field a handful of tents stood already pitched. He and his father, along with his brother, Ridge, and Bill Turner, had put together a wooden platform, hung a canopy over it on poles to serve as a kind of cook tent.

That wasn't so weird, Fox thought, but the line of bright blue Porta Potties along the back edge of the field? That was a strange sight.

His parents would take it in stride, Fox knew. That's what they did.

"Bill's going to hook up a few shower areas," Brian went on, adjusting the bill of his ball cap as he stood in his old work boots and ancient Levi's. "He's a handy guy."

"Yeah."

"They'll be pretty rude and crude, but it'll serve for a week or two, and supplement the schedule your mom and Sparrow are going to make up for people to use the house."

"Don't just let people have the run of the place." Fox looked into his father's calm eyes. "Come on, Dad, I know you guys. Not everybody's honest and trustworthy."

"You mean there are dishonest people in the world who aren't in politics?" Brian lifted his eyebrows high. "Next thing you're going to tell me there's no Easter Bunny."

"Just lock up at night for a change. Just for now."

Brian made a noncommittal sound. "Jim expects some people to start heading over within the next couple of days."

Fox surrendered. His parents would do what they would do. "Could he give you any idea how many?"

"A couple hundred. People listen to Jim. More if he can manage it."

"I'll help as much as I can."

"You don't worry about that. We'll take care of this. You do what you have to do, and goddamn it, you take care of yourself. You're the only oldest son I've got."

"That's true." He turned, gave Brian a hug. "I'll see you later."

He jogged out to his truck, through the soft summer rain. Hot shower, dry clothes, beer, he thought. In that order. Better, maybe he could talk Layla into the shower with him. He started the truck, backed around his brother's pickup to head out to the road.

He hoped Gage and Cybil had some luck, or were having some if they were into the link-up. Things had started to… pulse, he decided. He could feel it. The town had taken on shadows, he thought, that had nothing to do with summer rain or wet, gloomy nights. Just a couple more answers, he thought. Just a couple more pieces of the puzzle. That's all they needed.

He caught the flash of headlights, well behind him, in his rearview mirror, and made the next turn. His windshield wipers swished, and Stone Sour rocked out of the radio. Tapping his hands on the wheel, thinking of that hot shower, he drove another mile before his engine clicked and coughed.

"Oh, come on! Didn't I just give you a tune-up?" Even as he spoke, the truck shuddered, slowed. Annoyed, he eased to the side of the road, coasting when the engine simply died on him like a sick dog.

"The rain just makes it perfect, doesn't it?" He started to get out, considered. As his tawny eyes shifted to his rearview mirror, he pulled out his phone. And cursed when he saw the No Service display. "Yeah, yeah, can you hear me now?"

The road behind him was dark and fogged with rain when he closed his fingers on the handle of the door.

IN THE LIVING ROOM, GAGE AND CYBIL SAT ON THE floor, facing each other. And facing each other, reached out to clasp hands. "I think we should try focusing on the three of you," she said to Gage, "and the bloodstone. It came to the three of you. So we could start there. The three of you, then the stone."

"Worth a shot. Ready?"

She nodded, leveled her breathing as he did. He came first to her mind. The man, the potential. She focused on what she saw in him as much as his face, his eyes, his hands. And moved on to Cal, putting him shoulder-to-shoulder with Gage inside her head. The physical Cal, and what she considered the spiritual Cal, before pulling Fox into her head.

Brothers, she thought. Blood brothers. Men who stood for each other, believed in each other, loved each other.

The drumming of the rain increased. It all but roared in her ears. A dark road, the splatting rain. A swath of lights turning the wet pavement to black glass. Two men stood in the rain on the black glass of the pavement. For a flash, she saw Fox's face clearly, just as she saw the gun glistening as it pointed at him.

Then she was falling, cut loose so that her breath gasped in and out, so that she fumbled for a moment for the support that wrenched away. She heard Gage's voice dimly.

"It's Fox. He's in trouble. Let's go."

Dizzy, Cybil pushed to her knees as Layla rushed toward Gage, grabbed his arm. "Where? What's happening? I'm coming with you."

"No, you're not. Let's move!"

"He's right. Let them go. Let them go now." Flailing out with a hand, Cybil gripped Layla's. "I don't know how much time there is."

"I can find him. I can find him." Clutching Cybil's hand, and now Quinn's, Layla pushed everything she had toward Fox. Her eyes darkened, went glassy green. "He's close. Only a couple of miles… He's pushing back, pushing toward us. The first bend, the first bend on White Rock Road, heading here from the farm. Hurry. Hurry. It's Napper. He's got a gun."

FOX HUNCHED AGAINST THE RAIN AND LIFTED the hood of the truck. He knew how to build things. Ask him to make a table, stud out a wall, no problem. Engines? Not so much. Basic stuff, sure-change the oil, jump the battery, go wild and replace a fan belt.

As he stood in the rain with headlights approaching, the basic stuff, and his own gift, was all he needed to assess the situation. Getting out of it in one piece? That might not be as simple.

He could run, he supposed. But it just wasn't in him. Fox shifted, angled his body, and watched Derrick Napper swagger toward him through the rain.

"Got trouble, don't you?"

"Looks like." Fox didn't see the gun Napper held in the hand he kept down at his side so much as he sensed it. "How much sugar did it take?"

"Not as stupid as you look." Now Napper raised the gun. "We're going to take a little walk back into the woods here, O'Dell. We're going to have a talk about you getting me fired."

Fox didn't look at the gun but kept his gaze level on Napper's "I got you fired? I thought you pulled that one off all by yourself."

"You don't have your slut of a mother, or your two faggot friends around to protect you now, do you? Now you're going to find out what happens to people who fuck with me, like you've been fucking with me my whole life."

"You really see it that way?" Fox spoke almost conversationally. He changed his stance slightly, planting his feet. "I was fucking with you every time you jumped me on the playground when we were kids? When you ambushed me in the parking lot of the bank? Funny how that works. But I guess you could loosely define it as me fucking with you every time you tried to kick my ass and failed."

"You're going to wish I only beat down on you by the time I'm done."

"Put the gun down and walk away, Napper. I'd say I don't want to hurt you, but what's the point in lying? Put it down and walk away while you can."

"While I can?" Napper pressed the gun to Fox's chest and pushed him back a step. "You really are stupid. You're going to hurt me, is that what you think?" His voice rose to a shout. "Who's got the gun, asshole?"

Watching Napper's eyes, Fox swung up the baseball bat he'd held behind his back. He felt it crack against bone, just as he felt the vicious punch of the bullet in his arm. The gun skittered off into the wet dark. "Nobody. Asshole." Fox swung again for insurance, this time plowing the bat into Napper's belly. And holding it like a batter preparing to swing for the fences, he looked down at the man sprawled at his feet. "Pretty sure I broke your arm. I bet that hurts."

He glanced up briefly as another set of headlights cut through the rain. "I told you to walk away." Crouching, he jerked Napper's head up by the hair, stared into the pasty white face. "Was it worth it?" Fox demanded. "Jesus, was it ever worth it?"

He let Napper go, rose to wait for his friends.

They came out of Gage's car fast-like bullets, Fox thought, since bullets were on his mind. "Thanks for coming. One of you needs to call Hawbaker. I can't get cell service right here."

Cal scanned the situation, heaved out a breath. "I'll take care of it." Pulling out his cell phone, he walked a few yards down the road.

"You're bleeding," Gage commented.

"Yeah. The gun went off when I broke his arm. The bullet went right through the meat. Hurts like a mother." He stared down at Napper, who sat wheezing on the wet pavement. "His arm's going to hurt a lot longer. Don't touch that," he added as Gage bent to pick up the gun. "Let's not screw up the evidence by getting your fingerprints on his weapon."

Fox yanked out his bandanna, offered it. "Wrap it up in this, will you? And for God's sake be careful with it."

"Walk on down with Cal."

Gage's flat, frigid tone had Fox's head jerking back up, and his eyes met Gage's. He shook his head. "No. No reason for that, Gage."

"He shot you. And you know damn well he meant to kill you."

"He meant to. He wanted to. You know, I've been carrying this bat around in the truck ever since you and Cybil had that preview of me lying on the side of the road. I'm a lucky guy." He laid a hand on his arm, grimaced at the smear of red he took away. "Mostly. We're going to do this straight, according to the law."

"He doesn't give a damn about the law."

"We're not like him."

Cal walked back to them. "The chief's on his way. I called the house, too. Layla knows you're okay."

"Thanks." Fox cradled his injured arm. "So, did either of you catch any of the game? O's in New York?"

They stood in the rain, waiting for the cops, and talked baseball.

LAYLA STREAKED OUT OF THE HOUSE, LAUNCHING herself at Fox as he levered himself out of the car he, Cal, and Gage had squeezed into. As Cybil and Quinn stood on the porch, Gage walked up. "He's fine."

"But what happened? What-You're all soaked." Quinn drew in a breath. "Let's get inside so you all can get into dry clothes. We'll suck it up until you are."

"All but this one thing," Cybil interrupted. "Where is he? Where is that son of a bitch?"

"In police custody." With his arm snug around Layla, Fox climbed the steps to the deck. "Getting his broken arm treated and being booked on a nice variety of charges. Christ, I want a beer."

A short time later, dry, a beer in hand, Fox filled them in. "At first I was just irritated, started to get out of the truck, pop the hood. Then I remembered what Gage and Cybil had seen, which is why I had my trusty Louisville Slugger under the seat."

"Thank God," Layla breathed, then turned her head to press her lips to his healed arm.

"I had nearly a full tank, and I'd had the truck tuned up a couple weeks ago, so I focused on the engine."

"You know zero about engines," Gage pointed out.

Fox shot up his middle finger. "Sugar in the gas tank. Engine'll run for a couple miles or so, then it coughs up and dies. Now my truck's DOA."

"That's urban myth." Cal gestured with his own beer. "It sounds like the sugar got through, clogged your fuel filter or your injectors, and that's what stopped your engine. You just need your mechanic to change the filters a few times, and drop the tank, clean it out. Cost you a couple hundred."

"Really? That's it? But I thought-"

"You're questioning MacGyver?" Gage asked him.

"Lost my head for a minute. Anyway, I got the sabotage, and it wasn't a stretch to who. I just angled myself with the bat behind me when Napper showed up."

"With a gun," Layla added.

Fox squeezed her hand. "Bullets bounce off me. Almost. And we think of it this way. Napper's going to be behind bars and out of our hair. I was prepared because of Gage and Cybil, so instead of lying by the side of the road, I'm sitting here. It's all good."

"Positive," Cybil said. "A positive outcome, and one more in the plus column for us. That's important. Over and above the fact our Fox is sitting here, he was able to turn a potentially negative outcome into a positive one. Destiny has more than one road."

"I'm real happy to be off the road for the moment. In other news…" Fox told them about the progress at the farm. He grinned over at Quinn when she yawned. "Boring you?"

"No. Sorry. I guess it's part of the baby thing."

"What baby thing?"

"Oh God, we didn't tell you. With all the bullets bouncing off you and Porta Potties, we forgot. I'm pregnant."

"What? Seriously? I'm busy getting shot and digging latrines, and the next thing I know we're having a baby." He pushed out of the chair to cross over and kiss her, then punched Cal in the shoulder. "Take the woman to bed. Obviously you know how."

"He does, but I can get myself there. And I think I will." Rising, Quinn laid her hands on Fox's cheeks. "Welcome home."

"I'll be right up." Cal got to his feet. "We could all use some sleep. We didn't get very far with the link, being rudely interrupted. Tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow," Gage agreed.

"I think I'll go up, too." Cybil stepped over to Fox, kissed him. "Nice work, cutie."

She heard Quinn's laugh as she passed Cal's bedroom door, and smiled. Talk about positive energy, she thought. Q had always had it in abundance. Now, it would likely be pouring off her like light. And light was just what they needed.

She was a little tired herself, Cybil admitted. She supposed they all were, with the bombarding dreams and restless nights. Maybe she'd try a little yoga, or a warm bath, something to soothe her system into relaxation.

Gage came up behind her, and as she started to glance back, he took her hips, turned her. He moved her back against the door to close it, held her there.

"Well, hello."

His hands moved from her hips to her wrists, then drew her arms over her head. The system she'd thought to relax went on high alert. Braced for, anticipating the demand she saw in his eyes, she could only sigh when his mouth descended to hers. Then could only tremble when instead of demand there was tenderness.

Soft, quiet, the kiss soothed even as it aroused. While his hands held hers prisoner, adding an excited kick to her heartbeat, his mouth took its time exploring and exploiting hers. She sank into the pleasure of it, with a purr in her throat when he cuffed her wrists with one hand and stroked her body with the other.

The light, almost delicate touch stirred desire in her belly, weakened her knees. And all the while his lips slid and skimmed against hers. He flipped open the button at her waistband, danced his fingers under her skirt, closed his teeth lightly, very lightly over her jaw.

She imagined herself pouring into his hands like cream.

Then he hooked his hand in the neck of her shirt, and tore it down the center.

He saw the shock in her eyes, heard it in her quick gasp. Once again, his fingers played lightly over her skin. "Seduction shouldn't be predictable. You think you know." His mouth took hers again in a long, drugging kiss. "But you don't. You won't."

His hand tightened on her wrists, a kind of warning while the kiss shimmered like silk. He felt her melt into it, degree by degree, that lovely body yielding, those lovely limbs going limp. So he shot his hand between her legs and drove her to a fast, almost brutal peak and muffled her shocked cries with his mouth.

"I want you in ways you can't imagine."

Her breath shuddered out; her eyes stayed on his. "Yes, I can."

And he smiled. "Let's find out."

He whipped her around so she was forced to brace her hands against the door, then fist them there as he did things to her body, to her mind, things that pushed her past desperation into surrender, then ripped her back again. Then he slowed, and once again he soothed, and he lifted her into his arms. At the bed she would have turned into him, curled into him in absolute bliss, but he pinned her beneath him.

"Not quite finished."

"Oh God." She shuddered when he lowered his head to flick his tongue over her nipple. "Do we have a crash cart?"

His lips curved against her breast. "I'll bring you back." And he took her hungrily into his mouth.

She shivered under him, and she gave. She yielded under him, and she surrendered. Her body lifted, held trembling before it fell again. And always, always, he knew she was with him, bound with him, need fused to need. She was strength and beauty, beyond any he'd thought to possess, and she was with him.

When he was inside her again, hard against soft, he knew her blood pounded as his did. Knew when she said his name, they were lost. Lost together.

She floated, what else could she do but float on the warm lake of pleasure? No stress, no fatigue, no fears for tomorrow. Exhaustion was bliss, she thought. Gliding on it, she opened her eyes, and found him watching her.

She had enough energy to smile. "If you're even thinking about going again, you must've suffered brain damage the last round."

"It was a knockout." How could he explain what happened inside him when they came together? He didn't have the words. Instead, he lowered his head to touch his lips to hers. "I thought you were asleep."

"Better than asleep. In the lovely, lovely between."

He took her hand, and she saw what was in his eyes. "Oh. But-"

"When better?" he asked her. "What's more relaxing than sex? What releases more positive energy, if it's done right? And, sweetheart, we did it right. But we both have to want to try it."

She let herself breathe. He was right. Linking now when they couldn't be any closer in mind and body might break through the block that had frustrated them the last several attempts.

"All right." She shifted so they lay on the bed face-to-face, heart-to-heart. "The same way we were going to try it earlier. Focusing on you, Cal, Fox, then the stone."

Her eyes. He could see himself in them. Feel himself in them. He let himself sink, then drew himself out until he stood in the clearing with the Pagan Stone. Alone.

He thought the air smelled of her-secret, seductive. The sunlight glowed gold; the trees massed with thick green. Cal moved to his side, fully formed, his gray eyes quiet, serious. And an ax held in his hands. Fox flanked him, face fierce. He held a glistening scythe.

For a moment they stood, only the three, facing the stone atop the stone.

Then hell came.

The dark, the wind, the blood-soaked rain attacked like animals. Fire roared in bellowing walls and sheathed the stones like blazing skin. He knew, in that instant, the war they'd believed they'd fought for twenty-one years had been only skirmishes, only feints and retreats.

This was war.

Soaked with sweat and blood, the women fought with them. Blades and fists and bullets whipping through a sea of screams. The iced air choked with smoke as they fell, fought back. Something sliced across his chest like claws, ripping flesh, spilling more blood. His blood stained the ground, and sizzled.

Midnight. He heard himself think it. Nearly midnight. And smearing his hands over the wound, he reached for Cybil. With tears glistening in her eyes, she gripped his hand, reached for Cal.

In turn, one by one, they joined until their hands, their blood, their minds, their will joined as well. Until the six were one. The ground split, the fire ripped its way closer. And the mass of black took form. Once again, he looked into Cybil's eyes, and taking what he found there, he broke the chain.

Reaching into the flames, he pulled the burning stone out with his bare hand. Closing it into his fist, he leaped, alone, into the black.

Into the belly of the beast.

"Stop, stop, stop." Cybil knelt beside him on the bed, beating her hands on his chest. "Come back, come back. Oh God, Gage, come back."

Could he? Could anyone come back from that? That cold, that burn, that pain, that terror? When he opened his eyes, it rolled through him, all of it, to center like a swarm of wasps in his head.

"Your nose is bleeding," he managed.

She made a sound, something between a sob and a curse before she slid off the bed, stumbled to the bath. She came back with a cloth for each of them, pressed her own against her bone-white face. "Where… Where's that spot?" He fumbled for the accupressure points on her hand, her neck.

"Doesn't matter."

"It does if your head feels like mine. Might be sick." He laid still, closed his eyes. "Really hate being sick. Let's just take a minute."

Shaking, shaking, she lay beside him, wrapped close. "I thought… I didn't think you were breathing. What did you see?"

"That it's going to be worse than anything we've come up against, anything we imagined we would. You saw it. I felt you right there with me."

"I saw you die. Did you see that?"

The bitterness in her tone surprised him enough for him to risk sitting up. "No. I took the stone, I've seen that before. The blood, the fire, the stone. I took it, and I went right into the bastard. Then…" He couldn't describe what he'd seen, what he'd felt. He didn't want to. "That's it. You were punching me and telling me to come back."

"I saw you die," she repeated. "You went into it, and you were gone. Everything went mad. Everything was mad, but it got worse. And the thing, form after form after form, twisting, screaming, burning. I don't know how long. Then, the light was blinding. I couldn't see. Light and heat and sound. Then silence. It was gone, and you were lying on the ground, covered with blood. Dead."

"What do you mean it was gone?"

"Did you hear what I said. You were dead. Not dying, not unconscious or floating in some damn limbo. When we got to you, you were dead."

"We? All of you?"

"Yes, yes, yes." She covered her face with her hands.

"Stop it." He yanked them back down. "Did we kill it?"

Her tearful eyes met his. "We killed you."

"Bullshit. Did we destroy it, Cybil? Did taking the bloodstone into it destroy it?"

"I can't be sure-" But when he gripped her shoulders, she closed her eyes, dug for strength. "Yes. There was nothing left of it. You took it back to hell."

The light on his face burned like the fires that waited there. "Now we know how it's done."

"You can't be serious. It killed you."

"We saw Fox dead on the side of the road. Right now he's on the lumpy pullout sleeping like a baby or banging Layla. Potential, remember. It's one of your favorites."

"None of us are going to let you do this."

"None of you makes decisions for me."

"Why does it have to be you?"

"It's a gamble." He shrugged. "It's what I do. Relax, sugar." He gave her arm an absent stroke. "We've made it this far. We'll hash it out some yet, look at the angles, options. Let's get some sleep."

"Gage."

"We'll sleep on it, kick it around tomorrow."

But as he lay in the dark, knowing she lay wakeful beside him, Gage had already made up his mind.

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