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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Two)

Chapter Two

SHE'S SO YOUNG. THAT WAS HIS FIRST THOUGHT. Younger, he realized, than he as they stood studying each other over her grave. She had a calm and quiet beauty, a kind of simplicity he thought would have kept her beautiful into old age. But she hadn't lived to see thirty.

And even now, a grown man, he felt something inside him ache with that loss.

"Why are you here?" he asked her, and her smile bloomed again.

"Don't you want me to be?"

"You never came before."

"Maybe you never looked before." She shook her dark hair back, breathed deep. "It's such a pretty day, all this May sunshine. And here you are, looking so lost, so angry. So sad. Don't you believe there's a better place, Gage? That death is the beginning of the next?"

"It was the end of before, for me." That, he supposed, was the black and white of it. "When you died, so did the better."

"Poor little boy. Do you hate me for leaving you?"

"You didn't leave me. You died."

"It amounts to the same." There was sorrow in her eyes, or perhaps it was pity. "I wasn't there for you, and did worse than leave you alone. I left you with him. I let him plant death inside me. So you were alone, and helpless, with a man who beat you and cursed you."

"Why did you marry him?"

"Women are weak, you must have learned that by now. If I hadn't been weak I would have left him, taken you and left him and this place." She turned, just a bit, so she looked back toward the Hollow. There was something else in her eyes now-he caught a glint of it-something brighter than pity. "I should have protected you and myself. We would have had a life together, away from here. But I can protect you now."

He watched the way she moved, the way her hair fell, the way the grass stirred at her feet. "How do the dead protect the living?"

"We see more. We know more." She turned back to him, held out her hands. "You asked why I was here. I'm here for that. To protect you, as I didn't during life. To save you. To tell you to go, go away from here. Leave this place. There's nothing but death and misery here, pain and loss. Go and live. Stay and you'll die, you'll rot in the ground as I am."

"Now see, you were doing pretty well up till then." The rage inside him was cold, and it was fierce, but his voice was casual as a shrug. "I might've bought it if you'd played more Mommy and Me cards. But you rushed it."

"I only want you safe."

"You want me dead. If not dead, at least gone. I'm not going anywhere, and you're not my mother. So take off the dress, asshole."

"Mommy's going to have to spank you for that." With a wave of its hand the demon blasted the air. The force knocked Gage off his feet. Even as he gained them, it was changing.

Its eyes went red, and shed bloody tears as it howled with laughter. "Bad boy! I'm going to punish you the most of all the bad boys. Flay your skin, drink your blood, gnaw your bones."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." In a show of indifference, Gage hooked his thumbs in his front pockets.

The face of his mother melted away into something hideous, something inhuman. The body bunched, the back humping, the hands and feet curling into claws, then sharpening into hooves. Then the mass of it twisted into a writhing formless black that choked the air with the stink of death.

The wind blew the stench into Gage's face, but he planted his feet and stood. He had no weapon, and after a quick calculation, decided to play the odds. He bunched his hand into a fist and punched it into the fetid black.

The burn was amazing. He wrenched his hand free, jabbed again. Pain stole his breath, so he sucked more of it and struck out a third time. It screamed. Fury, Gage thought. He recognized pure fury even when he was flying over his mother's gravestone and slamming hard to the ground.

It stood over him now, stood atop the gravestone in the form of the young boy it so often selected. "You'll beg for death," it told him. "Long after I've torn the others to bits, you'll beg. I will dine on you for years."

Gage swiped blood from his mouth, smiled, though a wave of nausea rolled over him. "Wanna bet?"

The thing that looked like a boy dug its hands into its own chest, ripped it open. On a mad roll of laughter, it vanished.

"Fucking crazy. The son of a bitch is fucking crazy." He sat a moment, catching his breath, studying his hand. It was raw and red with blisters, pus seeping from them and the shallow punctures he thought came from fangs. He could feel it healing as the pain was awesome. Cradling his arm, he got to his feet and swayed as dizziness rocked the ground under him.

He had to sit again, his back braced on the gravestone of his mother and sister, until the sickness passed, until the world steadied. In the pretty May sunshine, with only the dead for company, he breathed his way through the pain, focused his mind on the healing. As the burning eased, his system settled again.

Rising, he took one last look at the grave, then turned and walked away.

HE STOPPED BY THE FLOWER POT AND BOUGHT A splashy spring arrangement that had Amy, who worked the counter, speculating on who the lucky lady might be. He left her speculating. It was too hard to explain-and none of Amy's damn business-that he had flowers and mothers on the brain.

That was one of the problems-and in his mind they were legion-with small towns. Everybody wanted to know everything about everyone else, or pretend they did. When they didn't know enough, they were just as likely to make it up and call it God's truth.

There were plenty in the Hollow who'd whispered and muttered about him. Poor kid, bad boy, troublemaker, bad news, good riddance. Maybe it had stung off and on, and maybe that sting had gone deep when he'd been younger. But he'd had what he supposed he could call a balm. He'd had Cal and Fox. He'd had family.

His mother was gone, and had been for a very long time. That, he thought as he drove out of town, had certainly come home to him today. So he'd make a gesture long overdue.

Of course, she might not be home. Frannie Hawkins didn't hold a job outside the home-exactly. Her work was her home, and the various committees she chaired or participated in. If there was a committee, society, or organization in the Hollow, it was likely Cal 's mother had a hand in it.

He pulled up behind the clean and tidy car he recognized as hers in the drive of the tidy house where the Hawkinses had lived as long as Gage remembered. And the tidy woman who ran the house knelt on a square of bright pink foam as she planted-maybe they were petunias-at the edges of her already impressive front-yard garden.

Her hair was a glossy blond under a wide-brimmed straw hat, and her hands were covered with sturdy brown gloves. He imagined she thought of her navy pants and pink T-shirt as work clothes. She turned her head at the sound of the car, then her pretty face lit with a smile when she saw Gage.

That was, always had been, a small wonder to him. That she smiled, and meant it, when she saw him. She tugged off her gloves as she rose. "What a nice surprise. And look at those flowers! They're almost as gorgeous as you are."

"Coals to Newcastle."

She touched his cheek, then took the offered flowers. "I can never have too many flowers. Let's go in so I can put them in water."

"I interrupted you."

"Gardening is a constant work in progress. I can't stop fiddling."

The house was the same for her, he knew. She upholstered, sewed, painted, made crafty little arrangements. And still the house was always warm, always welcoming, never set and stiff.

She led him back through the kitchen and into the laundry room where, being Frannie Hawkins, she had a sink for the specific purpose of flower arranging. "I'm just going to put these in a holding vase, then get us something cold to drink."

"I don't want to hold you up."

"Gage." She waved off his protest as she got down a holding vase, filled it. "Go, sit out back on the patio. It's too pretty to be inside. I'll bring us out some iced tea."

He did as she asked, mostly because he needed to figure out exactly what he'd come here to say to her, and how he wanted to say it. She'd been busy in the back garden as well, and with her container pots. All the color, the shapes, the textures seemed somehow magically perfect and completely natural. He knew, because he'd seen her, that she routinely sketched out her plans for her beds, her pots every year.

Unlike Fox's mother, Frannie Hawkins absolutely never allowed other hands to weed. She trusted no one to tug out bindweed instead of petunias, or whatever. But he'd hauled his share of mulch for her over the years, his share of rocks. He supposed, in some way, that made her magazine-cover gardens his, in a very limited sense.

She stepped out. There was iced tea with sprigs of mint in a fat green glass pitcher, the tall coordinating glasses, and a plate of cookies. They sat at her shaded table, looking out over trim grass and flowing flowers.

"I always remember this backyard," he told her. "Fox's farm was like Adventure World, and this was…"

She laughed. "What? Cal 's mom's obsession?"

"No. Somewhere between fairyland and sanctuary."

Her smile faded into quiet warmth. "What a lovely thing to say."

He knew what he wanted to say, Gage realized. "You always let me in. I was thinking about things today. You and Fox's mother, you always let me in. You never once turned me away."

"Why in the world would I?"

He looked at her then, into her pretty blue eyes. "My father was a drunk, and I was a troublemaker."

"Gage."

"If Cal or Fox had trouble, I probably started it."

"I think they started plenty of their own and dragged you into that."

"You and Jim, you made sure I had a roof over my head-and you made it clear I could have this one, I could have yours whenever I needed it. You kept my father on at the center, even when you should've let him go, and you did that for me. But you never made me feel like it was charity. You and Fox's parents, you made sure I had clothes, shoes, work so I had spending money. And you never made me feel it was because you felt sorry for that poor Turner kid."

"I never thought of you, and I don't imagine Jo Barry ever thought of you, as 'that poor Turner kid.' You were, and are, the son of my friend. Your mother was my friend, Gage."

"I know. Still, you could've discouraged Cal from hanging out with me. A lot of people would have. I'm the one who had the idea of going into the woods that night."

The look she gave him was pure mother. "And neither one of them had anything to do with it?"

"Sure, but it was my idea, and you probably figured that out twenty years ago. You still kept the door open for me."

"None of that was your fault. I don't know a lot of what you're doing now, the six of you, what you've discovered, what you plan to do. Cal keeps a lot of it from me. I guess I let him. But I know enough to be certain what happened at the Pagan Stone when the three of you were boys wasn't your fault. And I know without the three of you, and all you've done, all you've risked, I wouldn't be sitting here on my patio on this pretty day in May. There'd be no Hawkins Hollow without you, Gage. Without you, Cal, and Fox, this town would be dead."

She laid a hand over his, squeezed. "I'm so proud of you."

With her, maybe particularly with her, he couldn't be less than honest. "I'm not here for the town."

"I know. For some odd reason, it only makes me prouder that you're here. You're a good man, Gage. You are," she said, with some heat when she saw the denial on his face. "You'll never convince me otherwise. You've been the best of friends to my son. You've been the best of brothers. My door isn't just open to you. This is your home, whenever you need it."

He needed a moment to settle himself. "I love you." He looked back into her eyes. "I guess that's what I came here to say. I can't remember my mother very well, but I remember you and Jo Barry. I guess that's made the difference."

"Oh. That's done it." So she cried a little as she got up to wrap her arms around him.

To make it two for two, Gage hit the nursery just outside of town. Figuring Joanne Barry would appreciate a plant even more than flowers, he found a flowering orchid that fit his bill. He drove out to the farm, and when he found no one at home, left the orchid on the big front porch with a note under the pot.

The gestures, the talk with Frannie had smoothed out the rough edges from his visit to the cemetery. He considered heading home and doing some solo research, but reminded himself-for better or worse-he was part of a team. His first choice was Fox, but when he drove by the office, Fox's truck was no longer parked out front. In court, Gage assumed, or off meeting a client. With Cal at the bowling center, and the old man working there, that avenue simply wasn't an option.

Gage swung around and made the turn toward the rental house. It appeared it would be ladies' day for him.

Both Cybil's and Quinn's cars were out front. He walked into the house as he had that morning, without knocking. With coffee on his mind, he started back to the kitchen as Cybil appeared at the top of the steps.

"Twice in one day," she said. "Don't tell me you're becoming sociable."

"I want coffee. Are you and Quinn in the office up there?"

"We are, just a couple of busy demon-researching worker bees."

"I'll be up in a minute."

He caught the sexy arch of her eyebrow before he continued back. Armed with a mug of coffee, he backtracked and headed up the stairs. Quinn sat at the keyboard, her quick fingers tapping. They continued to tap even as she glanced up and sent him her big, bright smile. "Hi. Have a seat."

"That's okay." Instead he wandered over to the town map tacked to the wall, studied all the colored pins ranged over it that represented incidents involving paranormal activity.

The graveyard wasn't a favorite, he noted, but it got some play. He moved on to the charts and graphs Layla had generated. There, too, he noted the graveyard wasn't a usual haunt, for lack of a better term. Maybe it was too clich��d to meet the Big Evil Bastard's standards.

Behind him, Cybil sat studying her own laptop screen. "I've found a source that claims the bloodstone was originally part of the great Alpha-or Life Stone. It's interesting."

"Does it tell us how to use it to kill the fucker?"

Cybil glanced up briefly, spoke to Gage's back. "No. It does, however, speak of wars between the dark and the light-the Alpha and the Omega, the gods and the demons-depending on which version of the mythology I've found. And during these wars, the great stone exploded into many fragments, infused with the blood and the power of the gods. And these fragments were given to the guardians."

"Hey now." Quinn stopped typing, swiveled to face Cybil. "That's hitting close to home. If so, the bloodstone was passed down to Dent as a guardian. And he, in turn, passed it to our guys here in three equal fragments."

"I've got other sources that cite the bloodstone's use in magickal rituals, its ability to stimulate physical strength and healing."

"Another bingo," Quinn said.

"It's also reputed to aid in regulating the female menstrual cycle."

Gage turned at that. "Do you mind?"

"Not a bit," Cybil said easily. "But more to our purposes, the bloodstone is, by all accounts, a healing stone."

"We already knew that. Cal and Fox and I did our homework on the stone years ago."

"All of this comes to blood," Cybil went on. "We know that, too. Blood sacrifice, blood ties, bloodstone. And also fire. Fire's played a role in many of the incidents, and was a major factor the night Dent and Twisse tangled, and the night you and Cal and Fox first camped at the Pagan Stone. Certainly on the night the six of us fused the stone back into one whole. So think about this-what do you get when you strike stones together? A spark, and sparks lead to fire. The creation of fire was, arguably, the first magickal act of man. Bloodstone-fire and blood. Fire not only burns, it purifies. Maybe it's fire that will kill it."

"What, you want to stand around banging stones together and hope a magic spark lands on Twisse?"

"Aren't you in a cheery mood?"

"If fire could kill it, it would already be dead. I've seen it ride on flames like they were a damn surfboard."

"Its fire, not ours," Cybil pointed out. "Fire created from the Alpha Stone, from the fragment of that stone passed to you, through Dent, by the gods. Fusing it that night made one hell of a blaze."

"How do you propose to light a magic fire with a single stone?"

"I'm working on it. How about you?" Cybil countered. "Any better ideas?"

This wasn't why he was here, Gage reminded himself. He hadn't come to debate magic stones and conjuring the fire of gods. He wasn't even sure why he was baiting her. She'd come through, he reminded himself, all the way through in fusing the three parts of the stone into one.

"I had a visit today, from our resident demon."

"Why didn't you say so?" All business, Quinn reached for her tape recorder. "Where, when, how?"

"In the cemetery, shortly after I left here this morning."

"What time was that?" Quinn looked at Cybil. "Around ten, right? So between ten and ten thirty?" she asked Gage.

"Close enough. I didn't check my watch."

"What form did it take?"

"My mother's."

Immediately, Quinn went from brisk to sympathetic. "Oh, Gage, I'm sorry."

"Has it ever done that before?" Cybil asked. "Appeared in a form of someone you know?"

"New trick. That's why it had me conned for a minute. Anyway, it looked like her, like I remember her. Or, actually, I don't remember her that well. It looked like pictures I've seen of her."

The picture, he thought, his father had kept on the table beside his bed.

"She-it-was young," he continued. "Younger than me, and wearing one of those summer dresses."

He sat now, drinking his cooling coffee as he related the event, and the conversation nearly word for word.

"You punched it?" Quinn demanded.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time."

Saying nothing, Cybil rose, crossed to him, held out her hand for his. She examined his, back, palm, fingers. "Healed. I'd wondered about that. If you'd heal completely if it was able to wound you directly."

"I didn't say it wounded me."

"Of course it did. You punched your fist into the belly of the beast, literally. What kinds of wounds were there?"

"Burns, punctures. Fucker bit me. Fights like a girl."

She cocked her head, appreciating his grin. "I'm a girl, and I don't bite… in a fight. How long did it take to heal?"

"A while. Maybe an hour altogether."

"Longer, considerably, than if you'd sustained burns from a natural source. Any side effects?"

He started to shrug that off, then reminded himself every detail mattered. "A little nausea, a little dizziness. But it hurt like a mother, so you'll have that."

She cocked her head, sent him a speculative look. "What did you do afterward? There's a couple of hours between then and now."

"I had some things I needed to do. We punching time clocks now?"

"Just curious. We'll write it up, log it in. I'm going to make some tea. Do you want any, Quinn?"

"I want a root beer float, but…" Quinn held up her bottle of water. "I'll stick with this."

When Cybil walked out, Gage drummed his fingers on his thigh a moment, then pushed to his feet. "I'm going to top off my coffee."

"You do that." Quinn held her own speculative look until he'd left. Rocks weren't the only things that shot off sparks when they slapped together, she mused.

Cybil put the kettle on, set out the pot, measured her tea. When Gage stepped in, she plucked an apple from the bowl, cut it neatly in quarters, then offered him one.

"So here we are again." After getting a plate, she quartered a second apple, added a few sprigs of grapes. "When Quinn starts talking root beer floats, she needs a snack. If you're looking for something more substantial, there're sandwich makings or cold pasta salad."

"I'm good." He watched her as she added a few crackers, a handful of cubed cheese to the snack plate. "There's no need to get pissy."

She cocked that brow at him. "Why would I be pissy?"

"Exactly."

Taking one of the apple slices, she leaned back against the counter, and took a tiny bite. "You're misreading me. I came down because I wanted tea, not because I was annoyed with you. Annoyance wasn't what I felt. You probably won't like what I was feeling, what I do feel."

"What's that?"

"Sorry that it used your personal grief against you."

"I don't have any personal grief."

"Oh, shut up." She took another, and this time angry, bite out of the apple. "That is annoying. You were in the cemetery. As I sincerely doubt you go there for nature walks, I have to conclude you went to visit your mother's grave. And Twisse defiled-or tried to-your memory of her. Don't tell me you don't have grief for the loss of your mother. I lost my father years ago, too. And he chose to leave me, chose to put a bullet in his brain, and still I have grief. You didn't want to talk about it, so I gave you your privacy, then you follow me down here and tell me I'm pissy."

"Which is obviously off," he said dryly, "as you're not in the least pissy."

"I wasn't," she muttered. She let out a breath, then nibbled on the apple again as the kettle began to sputter. "You said she looked very young. How young?"

"Early twenties, I guess. Most of my impressions of her, physically, are from photographs. I… Shit. Shit." He dug out his wallet, pulled a small picture from under his driver's license. "This, this is the way she looked, down to the goddamn dress."

After turning off the burner, Cybil moved to him, stood side-by-side to study the photo in his hand. Her hair was dark and loose, her body slim in the yellow sundress. The little boy was about a year, a year and a half, Cybil judged, and propped on her hip as both of them laughed into the camera.

"She was lovely. You favor her."

"He took this out of my head. You were right about that. I haven't looked at this in… I don't know, a few years maybe. But it's my clearest memory of her because…"

"Because it's the one you carry with you." Now Cybil laid her hand on his arm. "Be annoyed if that's how you have to handle it, but I'm so sorry."

"I knew it wasn't her. It only took a minute for me to know it wasn't her."

And in that minute, she thought, he must have felt unbearable grief and joy. She turned back to pour the water into the pot. "I hope you hit a couple of vital organs, if organs it has, when you punched it."

"That's what I like about you, that healthy taste for violence." He slipped the picture of his mother back into his wallet.

"I'm a fan of the physical, in a lot of areas. It's interesting, isn't it, that in this guise, its first push was to try to convince you to leave. Not to attack, not even to taunt as it has before, but to use a trusted form to tell you to go, to save yourself. I think we have it worried."

"Yeah, it looked really concerned when it knocked me on my ass."

"Got up again, didn't you?" She arranged the plate, the pot, a cup on a tray. " Cal should be here in another hour, and Fox and Layla shortly after. Unless you've got a better offer, why don't you stay for dinner?"

"Are you cooking?"

"That is, apparently, my lot in this strange life we're leading at the moment."

"I'll take that offer."

"Fine. Carry this up for me, and we'll put you to work in the meantime."

"I don't make charts."

She shot him that smug look over her shoulder as she started out ahead of him. "You do today if you want to eat."

LATER, GAGE SAT ON THE FRONT STEPS, ENJOYING the first beer of the evening with Fox and Cal. Fox had changed out of his lawyer suit into jeans and a short-sleeved sweatshirt. He looked, as Fox habitually did, comfortable in his own skin.

How many times had they done just this? Gage wondered. Sat, sharing a beer? Countless times. And often when he was in another part of the world, he might sit, sip a beer, and think of them in the Hollow.

And there were times he came back, between the Seven, because he missed them as he'd miss his own legs. Then they could sit like this, in the long evening sunlight without the weight of the world-or at least this corner of it-on their shoulders.

But the weight was there now with less than two months left before what they all accepted was do or die.

"We could go back to the cemetery, the three of us," Fox suggested. "See if it wants another round."

"I don't think so. It had its fun."

"Next time you go wandering around, don't go unarmed. I don't mean that damn gun," Cal added. "You can pick up a decent and legal folding knife down at Mullendore's. No point letting it try to take a chunk out of your hand."

Idly, Gage flexed the hand in question. "Felt good to punch the bastard, but you're right. I didn't even have a damn penknife on me. I won't make that mistake again."

"Can it just come back as the dead-sorry," Fox added, laying a hand on Gage's shoulder.

"It's okay. Quinn brought that up earlier. If it can take the form of the living, it's a big skill. The dead's hard enough. Cybil thinks not. She had some convoluted, intellectual theory, which I stopped listening to after she and Quinn started the debate. But I'm leaning toward Cybil's end of it. It had substance. But the image, the form-that was like a shell, and the shell was… borrowed, was the gist of Cybil's long, involved lecture on corporeal changes and shape-shifting. It can't borrow from the living because they're still wearing the shell, so to speak."

"Whatever," Fox said after a moment. "We know Twisse has a new twist. If he wants to play that game again, we'll be ready."

Maybe, Gage thought, but the odds were long. And getting longer every day.

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