The Pagan Stone (Chapter Twenty)

Chapter Twenty

THEY'D PLANNED TO STOP FOR REST AT HESTER'S Pool, where the young, mad Hester Deale had drowned herself weeks after giving birth to the child Twisse put inside her. But the water there bubbled red. On its agitated surface, bloated bodies of birds and some small mammals bobbed and floated.

"Not exactly the right ambiance for a quick picnic," Cal decided. With his hand on Quinn's shoulder, he leaned over to brush his lips at her temple. "You okay to go another ten minutes before we break?"

"Hey, I'm the three-miles-a-day girl."

"You're the pregnant girl. One of them."

"We're good," Layla said, then dug her fingers into Fox's arm. "Fox."

Something rose out of the churning water. Head, neck, shoulders, the dirty red sludge of the pond, dripping, running. Torso, hips, legs, until it stood on the churning surface as it might a platform of stone.

Hester Deale, bearer of the demon's seed, damned by madness, dead centuries and by her own hand, stared out of wild and ravaged eyes.

"You'll birth them screaming, demons all. You are the damned, and his seed is cold. So cold. My daughters." Her arms spread. "Come, join me. Spare yourselves. I've waited for you. Take my hand."

What she held out was brittle with bone, stained with red.

"Let's go." Fox put his arm firmly around Layla's waist, drew her away. "Crazy doesn't stop with death."

"Don't leave me here! Don't leave me here alone!"

Quinn glanced back once, with pity. "Was it her, or another of Twisse's masks?"

"It's her. It's Hester." Layla didn't look back. Couldn't. "I don't think Twisse can take her form-or Ann's. They're still a presence, so it can't mimic them. Do you think when we finish this, she'll be able to rest?"

"I believe it." Cybil looked back, watched Hester-weeping now-sink back into the pool. "She's part of us. What we're doing is for her, too."

They didn't stop at all. Whether it was nerves, adrenaline, or the Nutter Butters and Little Debbies Fox passed around, they kept hiking until they'd reached the clearing. The Pagan Stone stood silent. Waiting.

"It didn't try to stop us," Cal pointed out. "Barely messed with us."

"It didn't want to waste the energy." Cybil peeled off her pack. "Storing it up. And it thinks it destroyed the one weapon we had. Bastard's feeling cocky."

"Or like the last time we came here on the eve of a Seven, it's hitting the town." Cal pulled out his cell phone, punched the key for his father's. His face, his eyes were grim when he flipped it back closed. "Nothing but static."

"Jim Hawkins will kick demon ass." Quinn put her arms around Cal. "Like father, like son."

"Fox and I could try to see," Layla began, but Cal shook his head.

"No, nothing we can do. Not there, not at the farm. And there's something to be said for saving our energies. Let's set up."

In short order Gage dumped an armload of wood near Cybil as she unpacked provisions. "Seems superfluous. If we wait a few hours, there'll be plenty of fire."

"This is our fire. An important distinction." Cybil lifted a thermos. "Want some coffee?"

"For once, no. I'm going to have a beer." He looked around as he opened one. "Funny, but I'd feel a lot better if it had come after us, like last time. Bloody rain, lashing wind, bone-snapping cold. That bit with your father-"

"Yes, I know. It was like a tip of the hat. Have a nice walk, catch you later. Arrogance is a weakness, one we'll make sure it regrets."

He took her hand. "Come here a minute."

"We need to build the fire," she began as he drew her to the edge of the clearing.

" Cal 's the Boy Scout. He'll do it. There's not a lot of time left." He put his hands on her shoulders, ran them down her arms, up again. "I've got a favor to ask you."

"It's a good time to ask for one. But you'll have to live to make sure I followed through."

"I'll know. If it's a girl…" He saw the tears swim into her eyes, watched her will them back. "I want Catherine for her middle name-for my mother. I always felt first names should belong to the kid, but the middle one…"

"Catherine for your mother. That's a very easy favor."

"If it's a boy, I don't want you to name him after me. No juniors or any crap like that. Pick something, and put your father's name in the middle. That's it. And, make sure he knows-or she, whichever-not to be a sucker. You don't draw to an inside straight, don't bet what you can't afford to lose and-"

"Should I be writing this down?"

He gave her hair a tug. "You'll remember. Give him these." Gage pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket. "The last hand I played with this deck? Four aces. So it's lucky."

"I'll hold them, until after. I have to believe-you have to let me believe-you'll be able to give them to him yourself."

"Fair enough." He put his hands on her face, skimmed his fingers up into her hair, curled them there as he brought his lips down to hers. "You're the best thing that ever came my way." He kissed her hands, then looked into her eyes. "Let's get this done."

Step by step, Cybil told herself. The fire, the stone, the candles, the words. The circle of salt. Fox had turned on a little boom box so there was music. That, too, was a step in Cybil's opinion. We whistle while we work, you bastard.

"Tell me what you need from me." Quinn spoke quietly as she helped Cybil arrange more candles on the table of the stone.

"Believe we'll end it-that he'll end it. And live."

"Then I will. I do. Look at me, Cybil. No one, not even Cal knows me like you. I believe."

"So do I." Layla stepped up, laid her hand over Cybil's. "I believe it."

"There, you see." Quinn closed her hand over the two of theirs. "Three pregnant women can't be… Whoa, what was that?"

"It… moved." Layla glanced up at both of them. "Didn't it?"

"Shh. Wait." Spreading her fingers over the stone under Layla's and Quinn's, Cybil fought to feel. "It's heating, and it's vibrating. Like it's breathing."

"The first time Cal and I touched it together, it warmed," Quinn said. "And then we were slapped back a few hundred years. If we could focus, maybe there's something we're supposed to see."

Without warning, the wind lashed out, hard, slapping hands, and knocked all three of them to the ground.

"Show time," Fox called out as black, pulsing clouds rolled across the sky toward the setting sun.

IN TOWN JIM HAWKINS HELPED CHIEF HAWBAKER drag a screaming man into the Bowl-a-Rama. Jim's face was bloody, his shirt torn, and he'd lost one of his shoes in the scuffle out on Main Street. The alleys echoed with the screams, wails, the gibbering laughter of more than a dozen they'd already pulled in and restrained.

"We're going to run out of rope." Favoring his throbbing arm where the man who'd taught his son U.S. history sank his teeth, Hawbaker secured the rope and the now-giggling teacher to a ball return. "Christ Jesus, Jim."

"A few more hours." Air wheezed in and out of Jim's lungs as he dropped down, mopped at his streaming face. They had half a dozen people locked into the old library, a scattering of others secured in what Cal told him were other safe zones. "We've just got to hold things a few more hours."

"There are hundreds of people left in town. And a handful of us still in our right mind that aren't burrowed in somewhere, hiding. Fire at the school, another in the flower shop, two more residential."

"They got them out."

"This time." Outside something crashed. Hawbaker gained his feet, drew out his service revolver.

Inside Jim's chest, his already laboring heart sprinted. Then Hawbaker turned the gun, holding it butt first toward Jim. "You need to take this."

"Shit fire, Wayne. Why?"

"My head's pounding. Like something's beating on it trying to get in." As he spoke, Hawbaker wiped at his face, shiny with sweat. "If it does, I want you holding the weapon. I want you to take care of it. Take care of me if you have to."

Jim got slowly to his feet and with considerable care, took the gun. "The way I look at it? Anybody doing what we've been doing the last couple hours is bound to have the mother of all headaches. I've got some Extra-Strength Tylenol behind the grill."

Hawbaker stared at Jim, then burst out laughing, laughed until his sides ached. "Sure, hell. Tylenol." Laughed until his eyes ran wet. Until he felt human. "That'll do her." At the next crash, he looked toward the doors and sighed. "You'd better bring the whole bottle."

"IT BROUGHT THE NIGHT," CAL SHOUTED AS THE wind tore at them with frozen hands. Outside the circle, snakes writhed, biting, devouring each other until they burned to cinders.

"Among other things." Quinn hefted the machete, ready to slice at anything that got through.

"We can't move on it yet." Gage watched a three-headed dog pace the clearing, snapping, snarling. "It's trying to draw us out, to sucker us in."

"It's not really here." Fox shifted to try to block Layla from the worst of the wind, but it came from everywhere. "This is just… echoes."

"Really loud echoes." Layla clamped a hand on the handle of her froe.

"It's stronger in the dark. Always stronger in the dark." Gage watched the huge black dog pace, wondered if it was worth a bullet. "And stronger during the Seven. We're nearly there."

"Stronger now than ever. But we don't take sucker bets." Cybil bared her teeth in a grin. "And we're going to draw it in."

"If it's in town now, if it's this strong and in town…"

"They'll hold it." Cybil watched a rat, plump as a kitten, leap on the dog's ridged back. "And we'll reel it in."

Fox's phone beeped. "Can't read the display. It's black. Before he could flip it open, the voices poured out. Screaming, sobbing, calling his name. His mother's, his father's, dozens of others.

"It's a lie," Layla shouted. "Fox, it's a lie."

"I can't tell." He lifted desperate eyes to hers. "I can't tell."

"It's a lie." Before he could stop her, Layla snatched the phone, hurled it away.

With a long, appreciative whistle, Bill Turner walked out of the woods. "Sign her up! Bitch's got an arm on her. Hey, you useless little piece of shit. I got something for you." He snapped the belt held in his hands. "Come on out and take it like a man."

"Hey, asshole!" Cybil elbowed Gage aside. "He died like a man. You won't. You'll die squealing."

"Don't taunt the demon, sugar," Gage told her. "Positive human emotions, remember."

"Damn. You're right. I'll give you a positive human emotion." She spun around and in the mad wind yanked Gage to her for a deep, drowning kiss.

"I'm saving you for dessert!" The thing in Bill's form shifted, changed. She heard her father's voice boom out now. "What I plant in you will rip and claw to be born."

She closed her mind to it, poured the love she felt-so strong, so new-into Gage. "It doesn't know," she whispered against his mouth.

The wind died; the world fell silent. She thought: Eye of the storm, and took a breath. "It doesn't know," she repeated, and touched her fingers lightly to her belly. "It's one of the answers we never found. It has to be. Another way, if we can figure out how to use it."

"We've got a little over an hour left until eleven thirty-that hour of light before midnight." Cal looked up at the pure black sky. "We have to get started."

"You're right. Let's light the candles while we can." And she'd pray the answer would come in time.

Once again the candles burned. Once again the knife that had joined three boys as brothers drew blood, and those wounded hands clasped firm. But this time, Cybil thought, they weren't three, they weren't six-but the potential of nine.

On the Pagan Stone six candles burned, one to represent each other, and a seventh to symbolize their single purpose. Inside that ring of fire three small white candles flickered for the lights they'd sparked.

"It's coming." Gage looked into Cybil's eyes.

"How do you know?"

"He's right." Cal glanced at Fox, got a nod, then leaned over to kiss Quinn. "No matter what, stay inside the circle."

"I'll stay in as long as you do."

"Let's not fight, kids," Fox said before Cal could argue. "Time's a wasting."

He leaned over, kissed Layla hard. "Layla, you're my it. Quinn, Cybil, you go into the small and exclusive club of the best women I know. You guys? I wouldn't change a minute of the last thirty-one years. So when we come through the other side of this, we'll exchange manly handshakes. I'm going for big, sloppy kisses from the women, with a little something extra from my it."

"Is that your closing?" Gage demanded. The stone tucked in his pocket weighed like lead. "I'm taking big, sloppy kisses all around. One in advance." He grabbed Cybil. If his life had come down to minutes, he was taking the taste of her into the dark. He felt her hand fist on his shirt-a strong, possessive grip. Then she let him go.

"Just a down payment," she told him. With her face pale and set, she drew both her weapons. "I feel it now, too. It's close."

From somewhere in the bowels of the black woods, it roared. Trees trembled, then lashed at each other like enemies. At the edges of the clearing, fire sputtered, sparked, then spewed.

"Bang, bang, on the door, baby," Quinn murmured, and had Cal gawking at her.

"'Love Shack'?"

"I don't know why that popped in my head," she began, but Fox started laughing like a loon.

"Perfect! Knock a little louder, sugar," he sang out.

"Oh God. Bang, bang, on the door, baby," Layla repeated, and unsheathed her froe.

"Come on," Fox demanded, "put something behind it. I can't hear you."

As the fire gushed, as the stench of what came poured over the air, they sang. Foolish, maybe, Gage thought. But it was so in-your-face, so utterly and humanly defiant. Could do worse, he decided, could do a hell of a lot worse as a battle cry.

The sky hemorrhaged bloody rain that spat and sizzled on the ground, casting up a fetid haze of smoke. Through that smoke it came, while in the woods trees crashed and the wind howled like a thousand tortured voices.

The boy stood in the clearing.

It should have been ludicrous. It should, Gage thought, have been laughable. Instead it was horrible. And when the smiling child opened its mouth, the sound that ripped from it filled the world.

Still, they sang.

Gage fired, saw the bullets punch into flesh, saw the blackened blood ooze. Its scream tore gullies in the ground. Then it flew, spinning in blurry circles that spiraled smoke and dirt into a choking cloud. It changed. Boy to dog, dog to snake, snake to man, all whirling, coiling, screaming. Not its true form. The stone was useless until it took its true form.

"Bang, bang, bang," Cal shouted, and leaped out of the circle to slash, and slash, and slash with his knife.

Now it shrieked, and however inhuman the sound, there was both pain and fury in it. With a nod, Gage slipped the bloodstone out of his pocket, set it in the center of the burning candles.

As one, they rushed out of the circle, and into hell.

Blood and fire. One fell, one rose. The fierce cold bit like teeth, and the stinking smoke scored the throat. Behind them, in the center of the circle, the Pagan Stone flashed, then boiled in flame.

He saw something strike out of the smoke, rip across Cal 's chest. Even as his friend staggered, Fox was rushing in, hacking at what was no longer there. Fox called out to Layla, shoved her down. This time Gage saw claws slice out of the smoke, and miss Layla's face by inches.

"It's playing with us," Gage shouted. Something leaped onto his back, sank its teeth into him. He tried to buck it off, to roll. Then the weight was gone and Cybil stood with her knife black with blood.

"Let it play," she said coldly. "I like it rough, remember?"

He shook his head. "Fall back. Everybody, back inside!"

Shoving to his feet, he all but dragged her into the circle where the Pagan Stone ran with fire.

"We're hurting it." Layla dropped to her knees to catch her breath. "I can feel its pain."

"Not enough." They were all bloody, Gage thought. Every one of them splashed or stained with blood-its and their own. And time was running out. "We can't take it this way. There's only one way." He put his hand on Cybil's until she lowered her knife. "When it takes its true form."

"It'll kill you before you have a chance to kill yourself! At least when we're fighting it, we're giving it pain, we're weakening it."

"No, we're not." Fox rubbed his stinging eyes. "We're just entertaining it. Maybe distracting it a little. I'm sorry."

"But…" Distracting it. Cybil looked back at the Pagan Stone. That was theirs. She believed that. Had to believe it. It had responded when she, Quinn, and Layla had laid hands on it together.

Dropping her knife-what good was it now?-she spun to the Pagan Stone. Holding her breath, she plunged a hand through the flame to lay it on the burning altar. "Quinn! Layla!"

"What the hell are you doing?" Gage demanded.

"Distracting it. And I sincerely hope pissing it off." In the fire was heat, but no burn. This, she thought, wild with hope, was an answer. "It doesn't know." She placed her free hand on her belly as the spearing fire illuminated her face. "This is power. It's light. It's us. Q, please."

Without a moment's hesitation, Quinn shot her hand through the fire, laid it on Cybil's. "It's moving!" Quinn called out. "Layla."

But Layla was already there, and her hand closed over theirs.

It sang, Cybil thought. In her head she heard the stone sing in thousands of pure voices. The flame that shot up from the center of the stone was blinding white. Beneath them, the ground began to shake, a sudden and furious violence.

"Don't let go," Cybil called out. What had she done? she thought as her eyes blurred with tears. Oh God, what had she done.

Looking through that white shaft of flame, she met Gage's eyes. "You're one smart cookie," he said.

In the clearing, through the smoke, in the smoke, of the smoke, the black formed-and its hate of the light, its fury toward its radiance spewed into the air. Arms, legs, head-it was impossible to know-bulged. Eyes, eerily green, rimmed with red blinked open by the score. It grew, rolling and rising until it consumed both earth and sky. Grew until there was only the dark, the red walls of flames. And its hungry wrath.

She heard its scream of rage in her head, knew the others did, too.

I'll rip it squalling from your belly and drink it like wine.

Now, Cybil thought, now it knew.

"It's time. Don't let go." The stone shook under her hand, but her eyes never left Gage. "Don't let go."

"I don't plan to." He shot his hand through the fire, clutched the flaming bloodstone.

Then he turned away from her. Even then her face was in his mind. For one last moment, he stood linked with Cal and Fox. Brothers, he thought, start to finish. "Now or never," he said. "Take care of what's mine."

And with the bloodstone vised in his fist, he leaped into the black.

"No. No, no, no." Cybil's tears fell through the flame to pool on the stone.

"Hang on." Quinn clutched her hand tighter, locked an arm around her for support. On the other side, Layla did the same.

"I can't see him," Layla called out. "I can't see him. Fox!"

He came to her, and with nothing left but instinct and grief, both he and Cal laid hands on the stone. The black roared, its eyes rolled with what might have been pleasure.

"It's not going to take him, not like this." Cal shouted over the storm of sound. "I'm going after him."

"You can't." Cybil choked back a sob. "This is what he needs to finish it. This is the answer. Don't let go, of the stone, of each other. Of Gage. Don't let go."

Through the rain sliced a bolt of light. And the world quaked.

IN THE HOLLOW, JIM HAWKINS COLLAPSED ON THE street. Beside him, Hawbaker shielded his eyes from a sudden burst of light. "Did you hear that?" Jim demanded, but his voice was swallowed in the din. "Did you hear that?"

They knelt in the center of Main Street, washed in the brilliance, and clutched each other like drunks.

At the farm, Brian held his wife's hand as hundreds of people stood in his fields staring at the sky. "Jesus, Jo, Jesus. The woods are on fire. Hawkins Woods."

"It's not fire. Not just fire," she said as her throat throbbed. "It's… something else."

At the Pagan Stone, the rain turned to fire, and the fire turned to light. Those sparks of light struck the black to sizzle, to smoke. Its eyes began to wheel now, not in hunger or pleasure, but in shock, in pain, and in fury.

"He's doing it," Cybil murmured. "He's killing it." Even through her grief, she felt stunning pride. "Hold on to him. We have to hold on to him. We can bring him back."

SENSATION WAS ALL HE HAD. PAIN, SOMETHING SO far above agony it had no name. Ferocious cold bound by intolerable heat. Thousands of claws, thousands of teeth tore and ripped at him-each wound a separate, searing misery. His own blood burned under his broken skin, and its blood coated him like oil.

Around him, the dark closed in, squeezing him in a terrible embrace so he waited to feel his own ribs snap. In his ears sounds seemed to boil-screeches, screams, laughter, pleas.

Was it eating him alive? Gage wondered.

Still he crawled and shoved through the quivering wet mass, gagging on the stench, wheezing for what little dirty air was left to him. In the heat, what was left of his shirt smoked. In the cold, his fingers numbed.

This, he thought, was hell.

And there, up there, that pulsing black mass with its burning red eye, was the heart of hell.

With his strength draining, with it simply leaking out of him like water through a sieve, he struggled for another inch, still another. Dozens of images tumbled through his brain. His mother, holding his hand as they walked across a green summer field. Cal and Gage plowing toy cars through the sand of a sandbox Brian had built at the farm. Riding bikes with them along Main Street. Pressing bloody wrists together by the campfire. Cybil, casting that sultry look over her shoulder. Moving to him. Moving under him. Weeping for him.

Nearly over, he thought. Life flashing in front of my eyes. So fucking tired. Going numb. Going out. Nearly done. And the light, he mused, dizzy now. Tunnel of light. Fucking clich��.

Cards on the table now. He felt-thought he felt-the bloodstone vibrate in his hand. As he reared back, it shot fire through his clutched fingers.

The light washed white, blinding him. In his mind, he saw a figure. The man closed his hands over his. Eyes, clear and gray, looked into his.

It is not death. My blood, her blood, our blood. Its end in the fire.

Their joined hands plunged the stone into the heart of the beast.

In the clearing, the explosion knocked Cybil off her feet. The rush of heat rolled over her, sent her tumbling like a pebble in an angry surf. The light blazed like the sun, dazzling her eyes before throwing everything into sharp relief. For a moment the woods, the stone, the sky were a single sheet of fire, and in the next stood utterly still, like the negative of a photograph.

At the edge of the clearing two figures shimmered-a man and a woman locked in a desperate embrace. In a fingersnap they were gone, and the world moved again.

A rush of wind, a last throaty call of flame, the smoke that crawled along the ground, then faded as that ground burgeoned up, swallowed it. When the wind died to a quiet breeze, the fire guttering out, she saw Gage lying motionless on that ruined earth.

She pushed up to run to him, dropping down to lay her trembling fingers at his throat. "I can't find a pulse!" So much blood. His face, his body looked as if he'd been torn to pieces.

"Come on, goddamn it." Cal knelt, gripped one of Gage's hands as Fox took the other. "Come back."

"CPR," Layla said, and Quinn was already straddling Gage, crossing her hands over his chest to pump.

Cybil started to tip his head back to begin mouth-to-mouth. And saw the Pagan Stone was still sheathed in fire, pure and white. There. She had seen him there.

"Get him on the stone. On the altar. Hurry, hurry."

Cal and Fox carried him-bloodied and lifeless-to lay him on the simmering white flames. "Blood and fire," Cybil repeated, kissing his hand, then his lips. "I had a dream-I got it wrong, that's all. All of you on the stone, like I'd killed you, and Gage coming out of the dark to kill me. Ego, that's all. Please, Gage, please. Just my ego. Not me, not about me. All of us around the stone, and Gage coming out of the dark after killing it. "Please come back. Please."

She pressed her lips to his again, willing him to breathe. Her tears fell on his face. "Death isn't the answer. Life's the answer."

She laid her lips on his again and his moved against hers.

"Gage! He's breathing. He's-"

"We've got him." Cal squeezed his hand on Gage's hand. "We've got you."

His eyes fluttered open, and met Cybil's. "I-I got lucky."

On a shudder, Cybil laid her head on his chest, listened to the beat of his heart. "We all did."

"Hey, Turner." With his grin huge, Fox leaned over so Gage could see his face. "You owe me a thousand dollars. Happy fucking birthday."