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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Thirteen)

Chapter Thirteen

HE PUT FLOWERS ON HIS MOTHER'S GRAVE, AND she reached up, a slim hand spearing through earth and grass, to take them. As Gage stood in the flood of sunlight, in the quiet cemetery with its somber stones, his heart slammed into his throat. Draped in innocent white, she ascended-pretty and pale from the maw of dirt-clutching the bouquet like a bride her wedding roses.

Had they buried her in white? He didn't know.

"You used to bring me dandelions, and the wild butter-cups and violets that colored the little hill near our house in the summer."

His throat ached, straining to hold his trembling heart. "I remember."

"Do you?" She sniffed the roses, red as blood against her white dress. "It's hard to know what little boys remember, what little boys forget. We used to take walks in the woods, and in the fields. Do you remember that?"

"Yes."

"There are houses in the fields now, where we used to walk. But we could walk here, for a little while."

Her skirts billowed as she turned, and with his flowers cradled in the crook of her arm, began to walk. "There's so little time left," she said. "I was afraid you wouldn't come back, not after what happened when you were here last." She looked into his eyes. "I couldn't stop it. It's very strong, and getting stronger."

"I know that, too."

"I'm proud of you for staying, for being brave. Whatever happens, I want you to know I'm proud of you. If… If you fail, I'll be waiting for you. I don't want you to be afraid."

"It feeds on fear."

She looked at him again. A sleek black hornet crawled out from the delicate petals of a rose, but she looked nowhere but at him. "On many things. It's had an eternity to develop its appetites. If you could stop it…"

"We will stop it."

"How? There are only a few weeks left, such a little bit of time. What can you do this time you didn't do before? Except be brave. What do you plan to do?"

"Whatever it takes."

"You're still looking for answers, with time running out." Her smile was soft as she nodded, soft as a second hornet, then a third squirmed, black on red. "You were always a brave and stubborn boy. All those years your father had to punish you."

"Had to?"

"What choice did he have? Don't you remember what you did?"

"What did I do?"

"You killed me, and your sister. Don't you remember? We were walking in the fields, just like this, and you ran. Even when I told you not to, you ran and ran, and fell. You cried so hard, poor little boy." Her smile was full, and somehow luminous, as the roses disgorged hornets. And the hornets began to hum.

"Your knees were all scraped and scratched. So I had to carry you, and the weight of you, the strain of it, was too much for me. You see?"

She spread her arms and the white gown blossomed with blood. Hornets swarmed in buzzing black clouds until even the roses bled. "Only a few days later, the blood and the pain. From you, Gage."

"It's a lie." It was Cybil who spoke, who was suddenly at his side. "You're a lie. Gage, it's not your mother."

"I know."

"She's not so pretty now," it said. "Want to see?"

The white dress thinned to filthy rags over rotted flesh. It laughed and laughed as fat worms writhed through the flesh, as the flesh gave way to bone.

"How about you?" it said to Cybil. "Want to see Daddy?"

The bones re-formed into a man with sightless eyes and a charming grin. "There's my princess! Come give Daddy a kiss!"

"More lies."

"Oh, I can't see! I can't see! I can't see what a worthless shit I am." It laughed uproariously. "I chose death over you." Hornets stabbed out to crawl at the corners of its grin. "Death was better than your constant need, your unrelenting, sickening love. Didn't have to think twice before…" It mimed shooting a gun with its hand. And the side of its head exploded into a ruin of blood, bone, brain.

"That's the truth, isn't it? Remember, bitch?" Its single blind eye rolled in its socket, then the image burst into flame. "I'm waiting for you, for both of you. You'll burn. They all burn."

He woke with his hand clutching Cybil's, and her eyes staring into his.

"Are you okay?"

She nodded, but stayed as she was when he sat up. Dawn spread milky light into the room as her breath shuddered in and out.

"It wasn't them," she managed. "It wasn't them, and it wasn't the truth."

"No." Because he thought they both needed it, he took her hand again. "How did you do that? Get into my dream?"

"I don't know. I could see you, hear you, but at first I was removed from it-not part of it. It was almost like watching a movie, or a play, but through a film, or a curtain. Like gauze. Then I was in it. I pushed…" Dissatisfied, she shook her head. "No, that's not right, not really. It was less deliberate than that, more visceral. More like a flick, the way you'd give a curtain in your way an annoyed flick. I was so angry because I thought you believed what it was saying."

"I didn't. I knew what it was from the start. Bluff me once," Gage murmured.

"You were playing it." Cybil closed her eyes a moment. "You're good."

"It's looking for our hole card, wants to know what we've got. And it told us more than we told it."

"That there's still time." Now, she sat up beside him. "However strong it's getting, however much it might be able to do, it still has to wait for the seventh for the real show."

"Give the lady a cigar. It's about time for our bluff. Time to make the bastard believe we have more than we do."

"And we'd do that by…?"

Gage rose, went to the dresser, opened a drawer. "Bait."

Cybil stared at the bloodstone he held. "That's supposed to be in a safe place, not knocking around in… Wait. Let me see it."

Gage tossed it casually in the air, then over to her.

"This isn't our bloodstone."

"No, I picked it up at a rock shop a few days ago. But it fooled you for a minute."

"It's the same basic size, not quite the same shape. It might have power, too, Gage. The research I've done points to bloodstones as part of the Alpha Stone."

"It's not ours. Not the one it's worried about. It might be worthwhile finding out just how worried it is, and what it might do to get its hands on what it thinks is Dent's bloodstone."

"And to see how pissed off it gets when it realizes-if it does-this is a substitute."

"Can't be overstated. It's used our pain against us, our tragedies. Let's return the favor. The bloodstone helped Dent keep that thing under for three centuries. Stopped it in its tracks a good long while and set the stage for what we're doing. That's got to be one of the big losses."

"Okay. How do we con a demon?"

"I've got some ideas."

She had some of her own, but they were down avenues her research had taken her, avenues she didn't want to travel. So she kept her silence, and listened to his.

A COUPLE HOURS LATER, CYBIL STORMED OUT OF Cal's back door with sharp lashes of fury whipping from her. She spun around when Gage slammed out after her. "You've got no right, no right to make these plans, to make these decisions on your own."

"The hell I don't. It's my life."

"It's all our lives!" she tossed back. "We're supposed to work as a team. We're meant to work as a team."

"Meant? I'm sick to death of this destiny crap you're so high on. I make my own choices, and I deal with the results. I'm not going to let some ancient guardian make them for me."

"Oh, for God's sake." Everything about her snapped out in angry frustration, voice, hands, eyes. "We all have choices. Aren't we fighting, risking our lives, because Twisse takes away choice? But that doesn't mean any of us can just forget why we were brought together like this and go off on his own."

"I am on my own. Always have been."

"Oh, screw that! You're sick of destiny talk? Fine, I'm sick of your 'I'm a loner and I don't belong' refrain. It's boring. We're bound by blood, all of us."

"Is that what you think?" In contrast to her heat, his tone was brittle and cold. "You think I'm bound to you, by anything? Didn't we just cover this a little while ago? We're having sex. That's the beginning and the end of it. If you're looking for more-"

"You conceited ass. I'm talking about life and death and you're worried about me trying to get my hooks in you? Believe me, outside of the bedroom, I wouldn't have you on a bet."

Something flashed in his eyes. It might have been insult or challenge. It might have been hurt. "I'd take that bet, sister. I know your type."

"You don't know-"

"You want it all your way. You figure you're so damn smart you can run the show and everyone in it. Nobody runs me. And when this is over, you think you can keep me on the line or cut me loose, at your whim. You've got the looks, the brains, the style, what man could resist you? Well, you're looking at one."

"Is that so?" she said, her tone frigid. "Is what you were doing in bed with me last night your definition of resisting?"

"No, that's my definition of banging a willing and convenient woman."

Her angry color drained, but she inclined her head, regally. "In that case, you can consider me now unwilling and inconvenient, and do your substandard banging elsewhere."

"Part of the point. I go my way on this because this has all played out long enough for me. This fight, this town, you. All of it."

Her hands curled at her sides. "I don't care how selfish you are, how stupid you are, after this is done. But before it is, you're not going to jeopardize all the work we've done, all the progress we've made."

"Progress, my ass. Since you and your girl pals got here, we've been bogged down in charts, graphs, exploring our emotional thresholds, and other bullshit."

"Before we got here, you and your idiot brothers fumbled around on this for twenty years."

He backed her against the rail. "You haven't lived through a Seven. You think you know? What you've dealt with so far's been nothing. A few chills and spills. Wait until you see some guy disembowel himself, or try to stop some teenage girl from lighting the match after she's poured gas all over herself and her baby brother. Then you talk to me about what I can do, what I can't. You think seeing your old man put a bullet in his ear makes you some kind of expert? That was quick and clean, and you got off easy."

"You son of a bitch."

"Suck it up." His words were a slap, quick and careless. "If Twisse isn't offed before the next Seven, you're going to be dealing with a lot worse than a father who'd rather kill himself than stand up with his family."

She swung out, and there was enough behind the blow to have his head jerking back. With his ears ringing from it, he gripped her arms to ward off a second attack. "Do you want to talk about fathers, Gage? Do you really want to bring up fathers, considering your own?"

Before he could respond, Quinn rushed out. "Hold it, hold it, hold it!"

"Go back inside," Cybil ordered, "this doesn't concern you."

"The hell it doesn't. What the hell's wrong with you? Both of you?"

"Step back, Gage." Cal pushed through the door, with Fox and Layla behind him. "Just step back. Let's go inside and talk this out."

"Back off."

"Okay, okay, that's not the way to win friends and influence people." Fox moved up, put a hand on Gage's arm. "Let's take a breath here and-"

Gage shoved him off, knocked him back a step. "The back off goes for you, too, Peace and Love."

"You want to go a round with me?" Fox challenged.

"Jesus!" Layla fisted her hands in her hair. "Stop! Just because Gage is being an idiot doesn't mean you have to be one."

"Now I'm an idiot?" Fox rounded on Layla. "He shoves Cybil around, tells me to back off, and I'm an idiot."

"I didn't say you were an idiot, I said you didn't have to be an idiot. But apparently I'm wrong about that."

"Don't start on me. I didn't get this stupid ball rolling."

"I don't care who got it rolling." Cal held up his hands. "It stops here."

"Who gave you the gold star and put you in charge?" Gage demanded. "You don't tell me what to do. We wouldn't be in this mess in the first place without you and your ridiculous blood brothers ritual with your pussy Boy Scout knife."

It erupted then, the shouts, the accusations, each rolling over the next into an ugly mass of anger, resentment, and hurt. Words struck like fists, and none of them paid attention to the darkening sky or the oncoming rumble of thunder.

"Oh, just stop! Stop it. Shut the hell up!" Cybil pitched her voice over the chaos, silencing it to a ragged and humming silence. "Can't you see he doesn't give a damn what the rest of you think or feel? It's all about him, maybe it always has been. If he wants to go his own way, he'll go. I, for one, am done." She looked dead into Gage's eyes. "I'm done here."

Without a backward glance, she walked back into the house.

"Cyb. Shit." Quinn scalded the men with one long stare. "Nice job. Come on, Layla."

When Quinn and Layla slammed in behind Cybil, Cal swore again. "Who the hell are you to lay all this on me? Not who I thought, that's for damn sure. Maybe Cybil's right. Maybe it's time to be done with you."

"You'd better cool off," Fox managed as Cal left them. "You'd better take some time and cool the hell off unless you really do like being alone."

And alone, Gage let his mind seethe with resentment, let his thoughts travel on the stony road of blame and grievances. They turned on him, all of them, because he had the balls to take a step, because he'd decided to stop sitting around scratching his ass and studying charts. The hell with them. All of them.

He took the bloodstone out of his pocket, studied it. It meant absolutely nothing. None of it. The risks, the effort, the work, the years. He'd come back, time after time. He'd bled time after time. And for what?

He laid the stone on the porch rail, stared bitterly out at Cal 's blooming backyard. For what? For whom? What had the Hollow ever given him? A dead mother, a drunk for a father. Pitying or suspicious looks by the good townspeople. And oh yeah, just recently, it got him handcuffed and shoved around by an asshole the town deemed worthy to wear a badge.

She was done? He sneered, thinking of Cybil. No, he was done. Hawkins Hollow and everyone in it could go straight to hell.

He turned, slammed back into the house to get his things.

It oozed out of the woods, a miasma of black. Inside the house, angry voices rang out again, and it seemed to shudder with pleasure. As it flowed over grass, pretty beds of flowers, it began to take shape. Limbs, torso, head writhing into form through the murk. Fingers, feet, eyes glowing unearthly green took shape as it crept closer to the pretty house with its generous deck and cheerful flowers raining out of glossy pots.

Ears and chin, and a grinning mouth that flashed its teeth. The thrill it felt was terrible. It smeared blood over the green of the grass, the bright petals of flowers, because it could.

Soon all would burn, all, and it would dance on the bloody ashes. The boy danced now, in greedy delight, then hopped up to crouch on the rail beside the stone. A small thing, it thought. Such a small thing to have caused so much trouble, so much time.

It cocked its head. What secrets did it hold? What power? And why were those secrets, that power blocked so that in no form could it see? Blocked from them, too, it thought. Yes, yes, the guardian had given them the key, but not the lock.

It wanted to touch the deep green and dark red of it. To steal whatever waited inside. It reached out, drew its hand back. But no, better to destroy. Always better to destroy. And it spread its hands over the stone.

"Yo," Gage said from the doorway, and shot the boy dead center of the forehead.

It screamed, and what poured from the wound was thick and black, and reeked like death. It leaped, even as Gage continued to fire, as the others rushed out of the house with him. Perched on the roof, it snarled like a mad dog.

Wind and rain erupted in a horrific gush. Taking position in the yard, Gage reloaded, prepared to fire again.

"Try not to shoot my house," Cal told him.

It leaped again, and as it slammed its fists into the air, the bloodstone exploded into dozens of fragments, into clouds of dust. The boy screamed, in triumph now, even as the blood ran from it. It spun, then it swooped, snake-fast, to latch its teeth into Gage's shoulder. As Gage dropped helplessly to his knees, it vanished.

Dimly, Gage heard voices, but they were smothered by a drowning fog of pain. He saw the sky, saw it was going blue again, but the faces that leaned over him were blurred and indistinct.

Had it killed him? If so, he wished to Christ death would get a damn move on so the agony would end. It burned, burned, boiling blood, searing bone, and inside his head he screamed. But he had no breath to make a sound, no strength even to writhe in the torment that squeezed, that clawed like flaming talons.

So he closed his eyes.

Enough, he thought. Enough now. Time to go.

So, in surrender, he began to float away from the pain.

The sharp slap to his face irritated him. The second pissed him off. Couldn't he die in relative peace?

"You come back, you son of a bitch! Do you hear me? You come back. You fight, you fucking coward. You are not going to die and let that bastard win."

The pain-goddamn it-the pain flooded back. When he opened his eyes in defense, Cybil's face filled his blurry vision, and her voice just kept badgering, hammering. Those dark eyes of hers were drenched with fury and tears.

He wheezed in an agonizing breath. "I wish you'd shut up."

" Cal. Fox."

"We've got him. Come on, Gage." Cal 's voice came from some strange distance-miles off, it seemed, and buried in mud. "Focus. Right shoulder. It's your right shoulder. We're with you. Focus on the pain."

"How the fuck am I supposed to do anything else?"

"He's saying something." Fox's face edged into Gage's view. "Can you hear him? He's trying to tell us something."

"I am telling you something, you asshole."

"His pulse is weak. It's getting weaker."

Who was that? Gage wondered. Layla? He saw her words as pale blue lights, drifting at the corner of his eye.

"The bleeding's stopped. It's already stopped. The punctures aren't that deep now. It has to be something else. Some sort of poison."

And Quinn chimed in, Gage thought. Gang's all here. Just let me go, for God's sake. Just let me go.

"We won't. We can't." Cybil leaned closer, but this time her lips rather than her hand laid over his cheek. Blessedly cool. "Please. You have to stay. You have to come back. We can't lose you."

Tears spilled out of her eyes, dropped gently onto the wound. They washed through his blood, into the bite, and eased the burn.

"I know it hurts." She stroked his cheeks, his hair, his screaming shoulder, and wept. "I know it hurts, but you have to stay."

"He moved. His hand moved." Fox's fingers tightened on Gage's as Gage's flexed. " Cal?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Right shoulder, Gage. Start there. We've got you."

He closed his eyes again, but not in surrender this time. Bearing down, he concentrated on the source of the pain, followed it as it spread from his shoulder, down his arm, across his chest. He felt his lungs open again as if the hands that had squeezed them closed now slipped away.

"His pulse is stronger!" Layla called out.

"His color's coming back, too. He's coming back, Cyb," Quinn said.

From where she sat on the ground, cradling his head in her lap, Cybil leaned back down, watched his eyes. "It's almost over," she crooned. "Just a little more."

"Okay. Okay." He saw her clearly now, felt the grass under him, the grip of his friends' hands over his. "I've got it. Did you call me a fucking coward?"

Her breath drew in on a watery laugh. "It worked."

"Welcome back, man," Fox said to him. "The wound's closing. Let's get you inside."

"I got it," Gage repeated, but couldn't so much as lift his head. "Okay, maybe I don't."

"Give him another minute," Quinn suggested. "The wound's closed now, but… there's a scar."

"Let's go inside." Cybil sent looks to Quinn and Layla that said more than her words. "We'll make Gage some tea, get his bed ready."

"I don't want tea. I don't want a bed."

"You're getting both." Cybil shifted his head from her lap, patted his cheek, then rose. If she understood men at all-and Gage in particular-he'd prefer the women out of sight when his friends helped him into the house.

"I want coffee," Gage said, but the women were already headed back to the house.

"Bet you do. Quinn's right about the scar," Fox added. "Nothing's ever scarred us since the blood brothers ritual."

"None of us had a demon try to take a bite out of us either," Cal put in. "It's never been able to do anything like that before, not even during the Seven."

"Times change. Give me a hand, will you? Let's just start with sitting up." With his friends on either arm, Gage managed to make it to sitting. Where his head spun for three wicked revolutions. "Jesus." He sat, with his head braced by his updrawn knees. "I've never felt pain like that and I've had plenty of pain. Did I scream?"

"No. You went white, dropped like a stone." Cal swiped sweat off his own face.

"Inside I was screaming like a little girl. Where's my shirt?" he demanded when he lifted his head and realized he was naked to the waist.

"We had to rip it off you, get to the wound," Fox told him. "You didn't move, not a flicker, Gage. You were barely breathing. I swear to God, I thought you were gone."

"I was. Or nearly." Cautiously, Gage turned his head, pressed fingers to the scar on his shoulder. "It doesn't even ache now. I feel pretty weak, a lot shaky, but there's no pain."

"You need to sleep. You know how it goes," Cal added. "It sucks you dry, that intense a healing."

"Yeah, maybe. Get me up, will you?"

With an arm slung around each of his friends, Gage gained his rubbery legs. When half a dozen steps toward the house left him kitten-weak, he accepted he'd need that bed. But there was satisfaction in his belly as he looked at the empty porch rail.

"Bastard blew that rock to hell and back."

"Yeah, he did. Can you make the steps?"

"I can make them." In fact, he was smiling through gritted teeth when Cal and Fox all but carried him into the house.

Since he was too tired to fight off a trio of females, he drank the tea Cybil foisted on him. And he dropped onto the bed with its freshly smoothed sheets and plumped pillows.

"Why doncha lie down with me, sugar?"

"That's sweet, honey."

"Not you." Gage waved off Fox, pointed to Cybil. "Big brown eyes there. Fact, maybe all the pretty women oughta lie down here with me. Plenty of room."

"What the hell did you put in that tea?" Cal demanded.

"Secret ingredient. Go ahead." Cybil sat on the side of the bed. "I'll stay with him until he drops off."

"Come on over here and say that."

Smiling, Cybil waved off the others, then angling her head, studied Gage's face.

"Hello, gorgeous," he mumbled.

"Hello, handsome. You've had a busy morning. Go to sleep."

"Pissed you off."

"Pissed you off back. That was the plan."

"Damn good plan."

"Risky, potentially stupid plan."

He smirked. "Worked."

"You have me there."

"Didn't mean that shit about your father."

"I know. Shh." She bent down, kissed his cheek.

"Maybe meant some of the other shit-can't remember. Did you?"

"We'll talk about it later."

"She said-Ann Hawkins said-you'd cry for me. That it would matter. You did. It did. You brought me back, Cybil."

"I gave you a jumpstart. You did the rest. Gage." Shuddering once, she laid her cheek against his. "I thought you'd die. Nothing's ever scared me like that, or torn at me like that. I thought you'd die. That we'd lose you. That I would. You were dying in my arms, and until that moment, I didn't realize that I-"

She lifted her head, broke off when she saw he'd fallen asleep. "Well." She drew a long breath, then another. "Well, that's probably excellent timing for both of us. No point in humiliating myself or putting you on the spot by telling you, at a weak moment for both of us, that I've been stupid enough to fall in love with you."

Taking his hand, she sat with him a little while longer as he slept. And she wondered if she'd find the way to be smart enough to get over him.

"Do you think you must?"

Slowly, Cybil lifted her gaze from Gage's face, and looked into Ann Hawkins's. "Well, last but not least." It didn't surprise her she was so calm. She'd been waiting for this, and she'd seen much more shocking things now than a ghost by a bedside on a June morning.

"Do you think you must?" Ann repeated.

"Must what?"

"Close your heart to what you feel for him. Deny yourself the joy and the pain of it."

"I'm not a fan of pain."

"But it's life. Only the dead feel nothing."

"What about you?"

Ann's lips curved. "It is not death. My own love told me that. There is more than the dark and the light. So many shades between. I feel yet, because it is not finished. When it is, one thing ends, another begins. You are young, and may have many years in this life, in this body, in this time. Why would you live it with a closed heart?"

"Easy for you to say. Your love was returned. I know what it is to live loving someone who can't or won't love you back, or not enough."

"Your father was consumed by despair. He lost his sight, and couldn't see love."

What's the difference? Cybil thought, but shook her head. "This would be a fascinating conversation over a drink sometime, just us girls, but at the moment we're more into the life-or-death mode around here. You may have noticed."

"You are angry."

"Of course I'm angry. He nearly died today, nearly died in my arms trying to find a way to stop something that was pushed on him, on all of us. He may die yet, any or all of us might. I've seen how it might be."

"You haven't told them all you've learned, all you've seen."

Cybil looked down at Gage again. "No, I haven't."

"You will see more before it is done. Child-"

"I'm not your child."

"No, but neither are you its. Life or death, you say, and so it is. Either the light or the dark will end with the Seven. My love will either be freed, or be damned."

"And mine?" Cybil demanded.

"He will make his choice, and so will you all. I have no one but you, my hope, my faith, my courage. Only today, you used all of those. And he sleeps," Ann murmured, looking down at Gage. "Alive. More than alive, he brought back from death's shadow another answer. Another weapon."

Cybil got to her feet. "What answer? What weapon?"

"You are an educated woman with a strong and seeking mind. Find it. Use it. All is in your hands now. Yours, his, and the others'. And it fears you. His blood, its blood," she said as she began to fade, "our blood, your blood. And theirs."

Standing alone, Cybil again looked down at Gage. "His blood," she said quietly, and hurried out of the room.

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