Blood Brothers Chapter Twenty


Chapter Twenty

CAL HOPED FOR A WEEK, TWO IF HE COULD MANAGE it. And got three days. Nature screwed his plans again, this time shooting temperatures up into the fifties. Mountains of snow melted into hills while the February thaw brought the fun of flash flooding, swollen creeks, and black ice when the thermometer dropped to freezing each night.

But three days after he'd had his lane plowed and the women were back in the house on High Street, the weather stabilized. Creeks ran high, but the ground sucked up most of the runoff. And he was coming up short on excuses to put off the hike to the Pagan Stone.

At his desk, with Lump contentedly sprawled on his back in the doorway, feet in the air, Cal put his mind into work. The winter leagues were winding up, and the spring groups would go into gear shortly. He knew he was on the edge of convincing his father the center would profit from the automatic scoring systems, and wanted to give it one more solid push. If they moved on it soon, they could have the systems up and running for the spring leagues.

They'd want to advertise, run a few specials. They'd have to train the staff, which meant training themselves.

He brought up the spreadsheet for February, noted that the month so far had been solid, even up a bit from last year. He'd use that as more ammunition. Which, of course, his father could and would counter that if they were up the way things were, why change it?

As he was holding the conversation in his head, Cal heard the click that meant a new e-mail had come in. He toggled over, saw Quinn's address.

Hi, Love of My Life,

I didn't want to call in case you were knee-deep in whatever requires you to be knee-deep. Let me know when you're not.

Meanwhile, this is Black's Local Weather Service reporting: Temperatures today should reach a high of forty-eight under partly sunny skies. Lows in the upper thirties. No precipitation is expected. Tomorrow's forecast is for sunny with a high of fifty.

Adding the visual, I can see widening patches of grass in both the front and backyard. Realistically, there's probably more snow, more mud in the woods, but, baby, it's time to saddle up and move out.

My team can be ready bright and early tomorrow and will bring suitable provisions.

Also, Cyb's confirmed the Clark branch connection, and is currently climbing out on some Kinski limbs to verify that. She thinks she may have a line on a couple of possibilities where Ann Hawkins stayed, or at least where she might have gone to give birth. I'll fill you in when I see you.

Let me know, soon as you can, if tomorrow works.

XXOO Quinn.

(I know that whole XXOO thing is dopey, but it seemed more refined than signing off with: I wish you could come over and do me. Even though I do.)

The last part made him smile even though the text of the post had a headache sneaking up the back of his skull.

He could put her off a day or two, and put her off honestly. He couldn't expect Fox to dump his scheduled clients or any court appearances at the snap of a finger, and she'd understand that. But if he were to use that, and his own schedule, he had to do it straight.

With some annoyance, he shot an e-mail to Fox, asking when he could clear time for the trip to the clearing. The annoyance increased when Fox answered back immediately.

Fri's good. Morning's clear, can clear full day if nec.

’’Well, f*k.’’ Cal pushed on the ache at the back of his head. Since e-mail wasn't bringing him any luck, he'd go see Quinn in person when he broke for lunch.

AS CAL PREPARED TO CLOSE OUT FOR THE MORNING, Bill Turner stopped in the office doorway.

’’Ah, got that toilet fixed in the ladies'room downstairs, and the leak in the freezer was just a hose needed replacing.’’

’’Thanks, Bill.’’ He swung his coat on as he spoke. ’’I've got a couple of things to do in town. Shouldn't be above an hour.’’

’’Okay, then. I was wondering if, ah...’’ Bill rubbed a hand over his chin, let it drop. ’’I was wondering if you think Gage'll be coming in, maybe the next day or two. Or if maybe I could, maybe I could run over to your place to have a word with him.’’

Rock and a hard place, Cal thought, and bought himself some time by adjusting his jacket. ’’I don't know if he's thinking about dropping by, Bill. He hasn't mentioned it. I think...Okay, look, I'd give him some time. I'd just give it some time before you made that first move. I know you want-’’

’’It's okay. That's okay. Appreciate it.’’

’’Shit,’’ Cal said under his breath as Bill walked away. Then, ’’Shit, shit, shit,’’ as he headed out himself.

He had to take Gage's side in this, how could he not? He'd seen firsthand what Bill's belt had done to Gage when they'd been kids. And yet, he'd also witnessed, firsthand, the dozens of ways Bill had turned himself around in the last few years.

And, hadn't he just seen the pain, guilt, even the grief on Bill's face just now? So either way he went, Cal knew he was going to feel guilty and annoyed.

He walked straight out and over to Quinn's.

She pulled open the door, yanked him in. Before he could say a word her arms were locked around his neck and her mouth was very busy on his. ’’I was hoping that was you.’’

’’Good thing it was, because Greg, the UPS guy on this route, might get the wrong idea if you greeted him that way.’’

’’He is kind of cute. Come on back to the kitchen. I'd just come down to do a coffee run. We're all working on various projects upstairs. Did you get my e-mail?’’

’’Yeah.’’

’’So, we're all set for tomorrow?’’ She glanced back as she reached up for the coffee.

’’No, tomorrow's no good. Fox can't clear his slate until Friday.’’

’’Oh.’’ Her lips moved into a pout, quickly gone. ’’Okay then, Friday it is. Meanwhile we'll keep reading, researching, working. Cyb thinks she's got a couple of good possibilities on...What?’’ she asked when she got a good look at his face. ’’What's going on?’’

’’Okay.’’ He took a couple paces away, then back. ’’Okay, I'm just going to say it. I don't want you going back in there. Just be quiet a minute, will you?’’ he said when he saw the retort forming. ’’I wish there was a way I could stop you from going, that there was a way I could ignore the fact that we all need to go. I know you're a part of this, and I know you have to go back to the Pagan Stone. I know there's going to be more you have to be a part of than I'd wish otherwise. But I can wish you weren't part of this, Quinn, and that you were somewhere safe until this is over. I can want that, just as I know I can't have what I want.

’’If you want to be pissed off about that, you'll have to be pissed off.’’

She waited a beat. ’’Have you had lunch?’’

’’No. What does that have to do with anything?’’

’’I'm going to make you a sandwich-an offer I never make lightly.’’

’’Why are you making it now?’’

’’Because I love you. Take off your coat. I love that you'd say all that to me,’’ she began as she opened the refrigerator for fixings. ’’That you'd need to let me know how you felt about it. Now if you'd tried ordering me to stay out of it, if you'd lied or tried to do some sort of end-run around me, I'd feel different. I'd still love you, because that sort of thing sticks with me, but I'd be mad, and more, I'd be disappointed in you. As it is, Cal, I'm finding myself pretty damn pleased and a hell of a lot smug that my head and heart worked so well together and picked the perfect guy. The perfect guy for me.’’

She cut the sandwich into two tidy triangles, offered it. ’’Do you want coffee or milk?’’

’’You don't have milk, you have white water. Coffee'd be fine, thanks.’’ He took a bite of the turkey and Swiss with alfalfa on whole wheat. ’’Pretty good sandwich.’’

’’Don't get used to the service.’’ She glanced over as she poured out coffee. ’’We should get an early start on Friday, don't you think? Like dawn?’’

’’Yeah.’’ He touched her cheek with his free hand. ’’We'll head in at first light.’’

SINCE HE'D HAD GOOD LUCK WITH QUINN, AND gotten lunch out of it, Cal decided he was going to speak his mind to Gage next. The minute he and Lump stepped into the house, he smelled food. And when they wandered back, Cal found Gage in the kitchen, taking a pull off a beer as he stirred something in a pot.

’’You made food.’’

’’Chili. I was hungry. Fox called. He tells me we're taking the ladies for a hike Friday.’’

’’Yeah. First light.’’

’’Should be interesting.’’

’’Has to be done.’’ Cal dumped out food for Lump before getting a beer of his own. And so, he thought, did this have to be done. ’’I need to talk to you about your father.’’

Cal saw Gage close off. Like a switch flipped, a finger snapped, his face simply blanked out. ’’He works for you;that's your business. I've got nothing to say.’’

’’You've got every right to shut him out. I'm not saying different. I'm letting you know he asks about you. He wants to see you. Look, he's been sober five years now, and if he'd been sober fifty it wouldn't change the way he treated you. But this is a small town, Gage, and you can't dodge him forever. My sense is he's got things to say to you, and you may want to get it done, put it behind you. That's it.’’

There was a reason Gage made his living at poker. It showed now in a face, a voice, completely devoid of expression. ’’My sense is you should take yourself out of the middle. I haven't asked you to stand there.’’

Cal held up a hand for peace. ’’Fine.’’

’’Sounds like the old man's stuck on Steps Eight and Nine with me. He can't make amends on this, Cal. I don't give a damn about his amends.’’

’’Okay. I'm not trying to convince you otherwise. Just letting you know.’’

’’Now I know.’’

IT OCCURRED TO CAL WHEN HE STOOD AT THE window on Friday morning, watching the headlights cut through the dim predawn, that it had been almost a month exactly since Quinn had first driven up to his house.

How could so much have happened? How could so much have changed in such a short time?

It had been slightly less than that month since he'd led her into the woods the first time. When he'd led her to the Pagan Stone.

In those short weeks of the shortest month he'd learned it wasn't only himself and his two blood brothers who were destined to face this threat. There were three women now, equally involved.

And he was completely in love with one of them.

He stood just as he was to watch her climb out of Fox's truck. Her bright hair spilled out from under the dark watch cap. She wore a bold red jacket and scarred hiking boots. He could see the laugh on her face as she said something to Cybil, and her breath whisked out in clouds in the early morning chill.

She knew enough to be afraid, he understood that. But she refused to allow fear to dictate her moves. He hoped he could say the same as he had more to risk now. He had her.

He stood watch until he heard Fox use his key to unlock the front door, then Cal went down to join them, and to gather his things for the day.

Fog smoked the ground that the cold had hardened like stone overnight. By midday, Cal knew the path would be sloppy again, but for now it was quick and easy going.

There were still pockets and lumpy hills of snow, and he identified the hoofprints of the deer that roamed the woods, to Layla's delight. If any of them were nervous, they hid it well, at least on this first leg of the hike.

It was so different from that long-ago day in July when he and Fox and Gage had made this trip. No boom box pumping out rap or heavy metal, no snacks of Little Debbies, no innocent, youthful excitement of a stolen day, and the night to come.

None of them had ever been so innocent again.

He caught himself lifting a hand to his face, where his glasses used to slide down the bridge of his nose.

’’How you doing, Captain?’’ Quinn stepped up to match her pace to his, gave him a light arm bump.

’’Okay. I was just thinking about that day. Everything hot and green, Fox hauling that stupid boom box. My mother's lemonade, snack cakes.’’

’’Sweat rolling,’’ Fox continued from just behind him.

’’We're coming up on Hester's Pool,’’ Gage said, breaking the memory.

The water made Cal think of quicksand rather than the cool and forbidden pool he and his friends had leaped into so long ago. He could imagine going in now, being sucked in, deeper and deeper until he never saw light again.

They stopped as they had before, but now it was coffee instead of lemonade.

’’There's been deer here, too.’’ Layla pointed at the ground. ’’Those are deer prints, right?’’

’’Some deer,’’ Fox confirmed. ’’Raccoon.’’ He took her arm to turn her, pointed to the prints on the ground.

’’Raccoons?’’ Grinning, she bent to take a closer look. ’’What else might be in here?’’

’’Some of my namesakes, wild turkey, now and then-though mostly north of here-you might see bear.’’

She straightened quickly. ’’Bear.’’

’’Mostly north,’’ he repeated, but found it as good an excuse as any to take her hand.

Cybil crouched by the edge of the pool, stared at the water.

’’A little cold to think about taking a dip,’’ Gage told her.

’’Hester drowned herself here.’’ She glanced up, then looked over at Cal. ’’And when you went in that day, you saw her.’’

’’Yeah. Yeah, I saw her.’’

’’And you and Quinn have both seen her in your heads. Layla's dreamed of her, vividly. So...maybe I can get something.’’

’’I thought yours was precog, not the past,’’ Cal began.

’’It is, but I still get vibes from people, from places that are strong enough to send them out. How about you?’’ She looked back at Gage. ’’We might stir up more in tandem. Are you up for that?’’

Saying nothing, he held out a hand. She took it, rose to her feet. Together, they stared at that still, brown surface.

The water began to beat and froth. It began to spin, to spew up white-tipped waves. It roared like a sea mating with a wild and vicious storm.

And a hand shot out to claw at the ground.

Hester pulled herself out of that churning water-bone white skin, a mass of wet, tangled hair, dark, glassy eyes. The effort, or her madness, peeled her lips back from her teeth.

Cybil heard herself scream as Hester Deale's arms opened, as they locked around her and dragged her toward that swirling brown pool.

’’Cyb! Cyb! Cybil!’’

She came back struggling, and found herself locked not in Hester's arms, but Gage's. ’’What the hell was that?’’

’’You were going in.’’

She stayed where she was, feeling her heart hammer against his as Quinn gripped her shoulder. Cybil took another look at the still surface of the pool. ’’That would've been really unpleasant.’’

She was trembling, one hard jolt after the next, but Gage had to give her points for keeping her voice even.

’’Did you get anything?’’ she asked him.

’’Water kicked up;she came up. You started to tip.’’

’’She grabbed me. She...embraced me. That's what I think, but I wasn't focused enough to feel or sense what she felt. Maybe if we tried it again-’’

’’We've got to get moving now,’’ Cal interrupted.

’’It only took a minute.’’

’’Try nearly fifteen,’’ Fox corrected.

’’But...’’ Cybil eased back from Gage when she realized she was still in his arms. ’’Did it seem that long to you?’’

’’No. It was immediate.’’

’’It wasn't.’’ Layla held out another thermos lid of coffee. ’’We were arguing about whether we should pull you back, and how we should if we did. Quinn said to leave you be for another few minutes, that sometimes it took you a while to warm up.’’

’’Well, it felt like a minute, no more than, for the whole deal. And it didn't feel like something from before.’’ Again, Cybil looked at Gage.

’’No, it didn't. So if I were you, I wouldn't think about taking a dip anytime soon.’’

’’I prefer a nice blue pool, with a swim-up bar.’’

’’Bikini margaritas.’’ Quinn rubbed her hand up and down Cybil's arm.

’’Spring break, two thousand.’’ Cybil caught Quinn's hand, squeezed. ’’I'm fine, Q.’’

’’I'll buy the first round of those margaritas when this is done. Ready to move on?’’ Cal asked.

He hitched up his pack, turned. Then shook his head. ’’This isn't right.’’

’’We're leaving the haunted pool to walk through the demonic woods.’’ Quinn worked up a smile. ’’What could be wrong?’’

’’That's not the path.’’ He gestured toward the thawing track. ’’That's not the direction.’’ He squinted up at the sun as he pulled his old Boy Scout compass out of his pocket.

’’Ever thought about upgrading to a GPS?’’ Gage asked him.

’’This does the job. See, we need to head west from here. That trail's leading north. That trail shouldn't even be there.’’

’’It's not there.’’ Fox's eyes narrowed, darkened. ’’There's no trail, just underbrush, a thicket of wild blackberries. It's not real.’’ He shifted, angled himself. ’’It's that way.’’ He gestured west. ’’It's hard to see, it's like looking through mud, but...’’

Layla stepped forward, took his hand.

’’Okay, yeah. That's better.’’

’’You're pointing at a really big-ass tree,’’ Cybil told him.

’’That isn't there.’’ Still holding Layla's hand, Fox walked forward. The image of the large oak broke apart as he walked through it.

’’Nice trick.’’ Quinn let out a breath. ’’So, Twisse doesn't want us to go to the clearing. I'll take point.’’

’’I'll take point.’’ Cal took her arm to tug her behind him. ’’I've got the compass.’’ He had only to glance back at his friends to have them falling in line. Fox taking center, Gage the rear with the women between.

As soon as the track widened enough to allow it, Quinn moved up beside Cal. ’’This is the way it has to work.’’ She glanced back to see the other women had followed her lead, and now walked abreast with their partners. ’’We're linked up this way, Cal. Two-by-two, trios, the group of six. Whatever the reasons are, that's the way it is.’’

’’We're walking into something. I can't see what it is, but I'm walking you and the others right into it.’’

’’We're all on our own two feet, Cal.’’ She passed him the bottle of water she carried in her coat pocket. ’’I don't know if I love you because you're Mr. Responsibility or in spite of it.’’

’’As long as you do. And since you do, maybe we should think about the idea of getting married.’’

’’I like the idea,’’ she said after a moment. ’’If you want my thoughts on it.’’

’’I do.’’ Stupid, he thought, stupid way to propose, and a ridiculous place for it, too. Then again, when they couldn't be sure what was around the bend, it made sense to grab what you did now, tight and quick. ’’As it happens, I agree with you. More thoughts on the idea would be that my mother, especially, will want the splash-big deal, big party, bells and whistles.’’

’’I happen to agree with that, too. How is she with communication by phone and/or e-mail?’’

’’She's all about that.’’

’’Great. I'll hook her up with my mother and they can go for it. How's your September schedule?’’

’’September?’’

She studied the winter woods, watched a squirrel scamper up a tree and across a thick branch. ’’I bet the Hollow's beautiful in September. Still green, but with just a hint of the color to come.’’

’’I was thinking sooner. Like April, or May.’’ Before, Cal thought. Before July, and what might be the end of everything he knew and loved.

’’It takes a while to organize those bells and whistles.’’ When she looked at him he understood she read him clearly. ’’After, Cal, after we've won. One more thing to celebrate. When we're-’’

She broke off when he touched a finger to her lips.

The sound came clearly now as all movement and conversation stopped. The wet and throaty snarl rolled across the air, and shot cold down the spine. Lump curled down on his haunches and whined.

’’He hears it, too, this time.’’ Cal shifted, and though the movement was slight, it put Quinn between him and Fox.

’’I don't guess we could be lucky, and that's just a bear.’’ Layla cleared her throat. ’’Either way, I think we should keep moving. Whatever it is doesn't want us to, so...’’

’’We're here to flip it the bird,’’ Fox finished.

’’Come on, Lump, come on with me.’’

The dog shivered at Cal's command, but rose, and with its side pressed to Cal's legs, walked down the trail toward the Pagan Stone.

The wolf-Cal would never have referred to the thing as a dog-stood at the mouth of the clearing. It was huge and black, with eyes that were somehow human. Lump tried a halfhearted snarl in answer to the low, warning growl, then cowered against Cal.

’’Are we going to walk through that, too?’’ Gage asked from the rear.

’’It's not like the false trail.’’ Fox shook his head. ’’It's not real, but it's there.’’

’’Okay.’’ Gage started to pull off his pack.

And the thing leaped.

It seemed to fly, Cal thought, a mass of muscle and teeth. He fisted his hands to defend, but there was nothing to fight.

’’I felt...’’ Slowly, Quinn lowered the arms she'd thrown up to protect her face.

’’Yeah. Not just the cold, not that time.’’ Cal gripped her arm to keep her close. ’’There was weight, just for a second, and there was substance.’’

’’We never had that before, not even during the Seven.’’ Fox scanned the woods on both sides. ’’Whatever form Twisse took, whatever we saw, it wasn't really there. It's always been mind games.’’

’’If it can solidify, it can hurt us directly,’’ Layla pointed out.

’’And be hurt.’’ From behind her Gage pulled a 9mm Glock out of his pack.

’’Good thinking,’’ was Cybil's cool opinion.

’’Jesus Christ, Gage, where the hell did you get that?’’

Gage lifted his eyebrows at Fox. ’’Guy I know down in D.C. Are we going to stand here in a huddle, or are we going in?’’

’’Don't point that at anybody,’’ Fox demanded.

’’Safety's on.’’

’’That's what they always say before they accidentally blow a hole in the best friend.’’

They stepped into the clearing, and the stone.

’’My God, it's beautiful.’’ Cybil breathed the words reverently as she moved toward it. ’’It can't possibly be a natural formation, it's too perfect. It's designed, and for worship, I'd think. And it's warm. Feel it. The stone's warm.’’ She circled it. ’’Anyone with any sensitivity has to feel, has to know this is sacred ground.’’

’’Sacred to who?’’ Gage countered. ’’Because what came up out of here twenty-one years ago wasn't all bright and friendly.’’

’’It wasn't all dark either. We felt both.’’ Cal looked at Fox. ’’We saw both.’’

’’Yeah. It's just the big, black scary mass got most of our attention while we were being blasted off our feet.’’

’’But the other gave us most of his, that's what I think. I walked out of here not only without a scratch, but with twenty-twenty vision and a hell of an immune system.’’

’’The scratches on my arms had healed up, and the bruises from my most recent tussle with Napper.’’ Fox shrugged. ’’Never been sick a day since.’’

’’How about you?’’ Cybil asked Gage. ’’Any miraculous healing?’’

’’None of us had a mark on him after the blast,’’ Cal began.

’’It's no deal, Cal. No secrets from the team. My old man used his belt on me the night before we were heading in here. A habit of his when he'd get a drunk on. I was carrying the welts when I came in, but not when I walked out.’’

’’I see.’’ Cybil held Gage's eyes for several beats. ’’The fact that you were given protection, and your specific abilities, enabled you to defend your ground, so to speak. Otherwise, you'd have been three helpless little boys.’’

’’It's clean.’’ Layla's comment had everyone turning to where she stood by the stone. ’’That's what comes to my mind. I don't think it was ever used for sacrifice. Not blood and death, not for the dark. It feels clean.’’

’’I've seen the blood on it,’’ Gage said. ’’I've seen it burn. I've heard the screams.’’

’’That's not its purpose. Maybe that's what Twisse wants.’’ Quinn laid her palm on the stone. ’’To defile it, to twist its power. If he can, well, he'll own it, won't he? Cal?’’

’’Okay.’’ His hand hovered over hers. ’’Ready?’’ At her nod, he joined his hand to hers on the stone.

At first there was only her, only Quinn. Only the courage in her eyes. Then the world tumbled back, five years, twenty, so that he saw the boy he'd been with his friends, scoring his knife over their wrists to bind them together. Then rushing back, decades, centuries, to the blaze and the screams while the stone stood cool and white in the midst of hell.

Back to another waning winter where Giles Dent stood with Ann Hawkins as he stood with Quinn now. Dent's words came from his lips.

’’We have only until summer. This I cannot change, even for you. Duty outstrips even my love for you, and for the lives we have made.’’ He touched a hand to her belly. ’’I wish, above all, that I could be with you when they come into the world.’’

’’Let me stay. Beloved.’’

’’I am the guardian. You are the hope. I cannot destroy the beast, only chain it for a time. Still, I do not leave you. It is not death, but an endless struggle, a war only I can wage. Until what comes from us makes the end. They will have all I can give, this I swear to you. If they are victorious in their time, I will be with you again.’’

’’What will I tell them of their father?’’

’’That he loved their mother, and them, with the whole of his heart.’’

’’Giles, it has a man's form. A man can bleed, a man can die.’’

’’It is not a man, and it is not in my power to destroy it. That will be for those who come after us both. It, too, will make its own. Not through love. They will not be what it intends. It cannot own them if they are beyond its reach, even its ken. This is for me to do. I am not the first, Ann, only the last. What comes from us is the future.’’

She pressed a hand to her side. ’’They quicken,’’ she whispered. ’’When, Giles, when will it end? All the lives we have lived before, all the joy and the pain we have known? When will there be peace for us?’’

’’Be my heart.’’ He lifted her hands to his lips. ’’I will be your courage. And we will find each other once more.’’

Tears slid down Quinn's cheeks even as she felt the images fade. ’’We're all they have. If we don't find the way, they're lost to each other. I felt her heart breaking inside me.’’

’’He believed in what he'd done, what he had to do. He believed in us, though he couldn't see it clearly. I don't think he could see us, all of us,’’ Cal said as he looked around. ’’Not clearly. He took it on faith.’’

’’Fine for him.’’ Gage shifted his weight. ’’But I put a little more of mine in this Glock.’’

It wasn't the wolf, but the boy that stood on the edge of the clearing. Grinning, grinning. He lifted his hands, showed fingernails that were sharpened to claws.

The sun dimmed from midday to twilight;the air from cool to frigid. And thunder rumbled in the late winter sky.

In a lightning move so unexpected Cal couldn't prevent it, Lump sprang. The thing who masked as a boy squealed with laughter, shinnied up a tree like a monkey.

But Cal had seen it, in a flash of an instant. He'd seen the shock, and what might have been fear.

’’Shoot it,’’ Cal shouted to Gage, even as he dashed forward to grab Lump's collar. ’’Shoot the son of a bitch.’’

’’Jesus, you don't actually think a bullet's going to-’’

Over Fox's objection, Gage fired. Without hesitation, he aimed for the boy's heart.

The bullet cracked the air, struck the tree. This time no one could miss the look of shock on the boy's face. His howl of pain and fury gushed across the clearing and shook the ground.

With ruthless purpose, Gage emptied the clip into it.

It changed. It grew. It twisted itself into something massive and black and sinuous that rose over Cal as he stood his ground, fighting to hold back his dog, who strained and barked like a mad thing.

The stench of it, the cold of it hammered down on him like stones. ’’We're still here,’’ Cal shouted. ’’This is our place, and you can go to hell.’’

He staggered against a blast of sound and slapping air.

’’Better reload, Deadeye,’’ Cybil commanded.

’’Knew I should've bought a howitzer.’’ But Gage slapped in a full clip.

’’This isn't your place,’’ Cal shouted again. The wind threatened to knock him off his feet, seemed to tear at his clothes and his skin like a thousand knives. Through the scream of it, he heard the crack of gunfire, and the rage it spewed out clamped on his throat like claws.

Then Quinn braced against his side. And Fox shouldered in at his other. They formed a line, all six.

’’This,’’ Cal called out, ’’is ours. Our place and our time. You couldn't have my dog, and you can't have my town.’’

’’So f*k off,’’ Fox suggested, and bending picked up a rock. He hurled it, a straightaway fast ball.

’’Hello, got a gun here.’’

Fox's grin at Gage was wild and wide as the feral wind battered them. ’’Throwing rocks is an insult. It'll undermine its confidence.’’

Die here!

It wasn't a voice, but a tidal wave of sound and wind that knocked them to the ground, scattered them like bowling pins.

’’Undermine, my ass.’’ Gage shoved to his knees and began firing again.

’’You'll die here.’’ Cal spoke coolly as the others took Fox's tack and began to hurl stones and sticks.

Fire swept across the clearing, its flames like shards of ice. Smoke belched up in fetid clouds as it roared its outrage.

’’You'll die here,’’ Cal repeated. Pulling his knife from its sheath, he rushed foward to plunge it into the boiling black mass.

It screamed. He thought it screamed, thought the sound held something of pain as well as fury. The shock of power sang up his arm, stabbed through him like a blade, twin edges of scorching heat and impossible cold. It flung him away, sent him flying through the smoke like a pebble from a sling. Breathless, bones jarred from the fall, Cal scrambled to his feet.

’’You'll die here!’’ This time he shouted it as he gripped the knife, as he charged forward.

The thing that was a wolf, a boy, a man, a demon looked at him with eyes of hate.

And vanished.

’’But not today.’’ The fire died, the smoke cleared as he bent over to suck in air. ’’Anybody hurt? Is everybody okay? Quinn. Hey, Lump, hey.’’ He nearly toppled backward when Lump leaped up, paws on shoulders to lap his face.

’’Your nose is bleeding.’’ Scurrying over on her hands and knees, Quinn gripped his arm to pull herself to her feet. ’’Cal.’’ Her hands rushed over his face, his body. ’’Oh God, Cal. I've never seen anything so brave, or so goddamn stupid.’’

’’Yeah, well.’’ In a defiant move, he swiped at the blood. ’’It pissed me off. If that was its best shot, it fell way short.’’

’’It didn't dish out anything a really big drink and a long hot bath won't cure,’’ Cybil decided. ’’Layla? Okay?’’

’’Okay.’’ Face fierce, Layla brushed at her stinging cheeks. ’’Okay.’’ She took Fox's outstretched hand and got to her feet. ’’We scared it. We scared it, and it ran away.’’

’’Even better. We hurt it.’’ Quinn took a couple shuddering breaths, then much as Lump had, leaped at Cal. ’’We're all right. We're all okay. You were amazing. You were beyond belief. Oh God, God, give me a really big kiss.’’

As she laughed and wept, he took her mouth. He held her close, understanding that of all the answers they needed, for him she was the first.

They weren't going down this time, he realized.

’’We're going to win this.’’ He drew her away so he could look into her eyes. His were calm, steady, and clear. ’’I never believed it before, not really. But I do now. I know it now. Quinn.’’ He pressed his lips to her forehead. ’’We're going to win this, and we're getting married in September.’’

’’Damn straight.’’

When she wrapped around him again, it was victory enough for now. It was enough to stand on until the next time. And the next time, he determined, they'd be better armed.

’’Let's go home. It's a long walk back, and we've got a hell of a lot to do.’’

She held on another moment, held tight while he looked over her head into the eyes of his brothers. Gage nodded, then shoved the gun back in his pack. Swinging it on, he crossed the clearing to the path beyond.

The sun bloomed overhead, and the wind died. They walked out of the clearing, through the winter woods, three men, three women, and a dog.

On its ground the Pagan Stone stood silent, waiting for their return.

Hawkins Hollow

June 1994

ON A BRIGHT SUMMER MORNING, A TEACUP poodle drowned in the Bestlers'backyard swimming pool. At first, Lynne Bestler, who'd gone out to sneak in a solitary swim before her kids woke, thought it was a dead squirrel. Which would've been bad enough. But when she steeled herself to scoop out the tangle of fur with the net, she recognized her neighbor's beloved Marcell.

Squirrels generally didn't wear rhinestone collars.

Her shouts, and the splash as Lynne tossed the hapless dog, net and all, back into the pool, brought Lynne's husband rushing out in his boxers. Their mother's sobs and their father's curses as he jumped in to grab the pole and tow the body to the side, woke the Bestler twins, who stood screaming in their matching My Little Pony nightgowns. Within moments, the backyard hysteria had neighbors hurrying to fences just as Bestler dragged himself and his burden out of the water. As, like many men, Bestler had developed an attachment to ancient underwear, the weight of the water was too much for the worn elastic.

So Bestler came out of his pool with a dead dog, and no boxers.

The bright summer morning in the little town of Hawkins Hollow began with shock, grief, farce, and drama.

Fox learned of Marcell's untimely death minutes after he stepped into Ma's Pantry to pick up a sixteen-ounce bottle of Coke and a couple of Slim Jims.

He'd copped a quick break from working with his father on a kitchen remodel down Main Street. Mrs. Larson wanted new countertops, cabinet doors, new floors, new paint. She called it freshening things up, and Fox called it a way to earn enough money to take Allyson Brendon out for pizza and the movies on Saturday night. He hoped to use that gateway to talk her into the backseat of his ancient VW Bug.

He didn't mind working with his dad. He hoped to hell he wouldn't spend the rest of his life swinging a hammer or running a power saw, but he didn't mind it. His father's company was always easy, and the job got Fox out of gardening and animal duty on their little farm. It also provided easy access to Cokes and Slim Jims-two items which would never, never be found in the O'Dell-Barry household.

His mother ruled there.

So he heard about the dog from Susan Keefaffer, who rang up his purchases while a few people with nothing better to do on a June afternoon sat at the counter over coffee and gossip.

He didn't know Marcell, but Fox had a soft spot for animals, so he suffered a twist of grief for the unfortunate poodle. That was leavened somewhat by the idea of Mr. Bestler, whom he did know, standing ’’naked as a jaybird,’’ in Susan Keefaffer's words, beside his backyard pool.

While it made Fox sad to imagine some poor dog drowning in a swimming pool, he didn't connect it-not then-to the nightmare he and his two closest friends had lived through seven years before.

He'd had a dream the night before, a dream of blood and fire, of voices chanting in a language he didn't understand. But then he'd watched a double feature of videos-The Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre-with his friends Cal and Gage.

He didn't connect a dead French poodle with the dream, or with what had burned through Hawkins Hollow for a week after his tenth birthday. After the night he and Cal and Gage had spent at the Pagan Stone in Hawkins Wood-and everything had changed for them, and for the Hollow.

In a few weeks he and Cal and Gage would all turn seventeen-and that was on his mind. Baltimore had a damn good chance at a pennant this year, so that was on his mind. He'd be going back to high school as a senior, which meant top of the food chain at last, and planning for college.

What occupied a sixteen-year-old boy was considerably different than what occupied a ten-year-old. Including rounding third and heading for home with Allyson Brendon.

So when he walked back down the street, a lean boy not quite beyond the gangly stage of adolescence, his dense brown hair tied back in a stubby tail, golden brown eyes shaded with Oakleys, it was, for him, just another ordinary day.

The town looked as it always did. Tidy, a little old-timey, with the old stone townhouses or shops, the painted porches, the high curbs. He glanced back over his shoulder toward the Bowl-a-Rama on the square. It was the biggest building in town, and where Cal and Gage were both working.

When he and his father knocked off for the day, he thought, he'd head on up, see what was happening.

He crossed over to the Larson place, walked into the unlocked house where Bonnie Raitt's smooth Delta blues slid smoothly out of the kitchen. His father sang along with her in his clear and easy voice as he checked the level on the shelves Mrs. Larson wanted in her utility closet. Though the windows and back door were open to their screens, the room smelled of sawdust, sweat, and the glue they'd used that morning to lay the new Formica.

His father worked in old Levi's and his Give Peace a Chance T-shirt. His hair was six inches longer than Fox's, worn in a tail under a blue bandanna. He'd shaved off the beard and mustache he'd had as long as Fox remembered. Fox still wasn't quite used to seeing so much of his father's face-or so much of himself in it.

’’A dog drowned in the Bestlers'swimming pool over on Laurel Lane,’’ Fox told him, and Brian stopped working to turn.

’’That's a damn shame. Anybody know how it happened?’’

’’Not really. It was one of those little poodles, so think it must've fallen in, then it couldn't get out again.’’

’’You'd think somebody would've heard it barking. That's a lousy way to go.’’ Brian set down his tools, smiled at his boy. ’’Gimme one of those Slim Jims.’’

’’What Slim Jims?’’

’’The ones you've got in your back pocket. You're not carrying a bag, and you weren't gone long enough to scarf down Hostess Pies or Twinkies. I'm betting you're packing the Jims. I get one, and your mom never has to know we ate chemicals and meat by-products. It's called blackmail, kid of mine.’’

Fox snorted, pulled them out. He'd bought two for just this purpose. Father and son unwrapped, bit off, chewed in perfect harmony. ’’The counter looks good, Dad.’’

’’Yeah, it does.’’ Brian ran a hand over the smooth, eggshell surface. ’’Mrs. Larson's not much for color, but it's good work. I don't know who I'm going to get to be my lapdog when you head off to college.’’

’’Ridge is next in line,’’ Fox said, thinking of his younger brother. ’’Ridge wouldn't keep measurements in his head for two minutes running, and he'd probably cut off a finger dreaming while he was using a band saw. No.’’ Brian smiled, shrugged. ’’This kind of work isn't for Ridge, or for you, for that matter. Or either of your sisters. I guess I'm going to have to rent a kid to get one who wants to work with wood.’’

’’I never said I didn't want to.’’ Not out loud.

His father looked at him the way he sometimes did, as if he saw more than what was there. ’’You've got a good eye, you've got good hands. You'll be handy around your own house once you get one. But you won't be strapping on a tool belt to make a living. Until you figure out just what it is you want, you can haul these scraps on out to the Dumpster.’’

’’Sure.’’ Fox gathered up scraps, trash, began to cart them out the back, across the narrow yard to the Dumpster the Larsons had rented for the duration of the remodel.

He glanced toward the adjoining yard and the sound of kids playing. And the armload he carried thumped and bounced on the ground as his body went numb.

The little boys played with trucks and shovels and pails in a bright blue sandbox. But it wasn't filled with sand. Blood covered their bare arms as they pushed their Tonka trucks through the muck inside the box. He stumbled back as the boys made engine sounds, as red lapped over the bright blue sides and dripped onto the green grass.

On the fence between the yards, where hydrangeas headed up toward bloom, crouched a boy that wasn't a boy. He bared its teeth in a grin as Fox backed toward the house.

’’Dad! Dad!’’

The tone, the breathless fear had Brian rushing outside. ’’What? What is it?’’

’’Don't you-can't you see?’’ But even as he said it, as he pointed, something inside Fox knew. It wasn't real.

’’What?’’ Firmly now, Brian took his son's shoulders. ’’What do you see?’’

The boy that wasn't a boy danced along the top of the chain-link fence while flames spurted up below and burned the hydrangeas to cinders.

’’I have to go. I have to go see Cal and Gage. Right now, Dad. I have to-’’

’’Go.’’ Brian released his hold on Fox, stepped back. He didn't question. ’’Go.’’

He all but flew through the house and out again, up the sidewalk to the square. The town no longer looked as it usubeen that horrible week in July seven years before.

Fire and blood, he remembered, thinking of the dream. He burst into the Bowl-a-Rama, where the summer afternoon leagues were in full swing. The thunder of balls, the crash of pins pounded in his head as he ran straight to the front desk where Cal worked.

’’Where's Gage?’’ Fox demanded.

’’Jesus, what's up with you?’’

’’Where's Gage?’’ Fox repeated, and Cal 's amused gray eyes sobered. ’’Working the arcade. He's...he's coming out now.’’

At Cal 's quick signal, Gage sauntered over. ’’Hello, ladies. What...’’ The smirk died after one look at Fox's face. ’’What happened?’’

’’It's back,’’ Fox said. ’’It's come back.’’

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