The Hollow Chapter Twenty

SOME PEOPLE MIGHT THINK IT WAS A LITTLE ODD to get up in the morning, go to work as usual when the evening plans included blood rituals. But Fox figured it was pretty much standard operating procedure for him and his friends.

Layla, who in straight managerial areas could make the beloved Alice Hawbaker look like a slacker, had squeezed and manipulated his schedule to ensure the office closed promptly at three on the big day. He'd already packed his kit. Most might not know what to take along on an early evening hike through the woods by a haunted pool toward a mystical clearing ruled by an ancient altar stone, but Fox had that down. For once, he'd even remembered to check the forecast.

Clear skies-that was a plus-with temps sliding from a balmy seventy to the cool but pleasant midfifties.

Layers were the key to comfort.

In his pocket was his third of the bloodstone. He hoped it would prove to be another key.

While Layla changed, he added some essentials to his cooler. He glanced around when she came in, and he broke into a smile. ’’You look like the cover for Hiking Style-if there is such a thing.’’

’’I actually debated with myself over earrings.’’ She surveyed his cooler and open pack. Coke, Little Debbies, Nutter Butters. ’’I guess it's like you say, we all do what we do.’’

’’These particular provisions are a time-honored tradition.’’

’’At least the sugar rush is guaranteed. God, Fox, are we crazy?’’

’’It's the times that are crazy. We're just in them.’’

’’Is that a knife?’’ She gaped at the sheath on his belt. ’’You're taking a knife? I didn't know you had a knife.’’

’’It's actually a gardening saw. Japanese sickle knife. It's a nice one.’’

’’And what?’’ She put a hand to the side of her head as if the pressure would help her mind make sense of it all. ’’You're planning on doing a little pruning while we're there?’’

’’You never know, do you?’’

She put a hand on his arm as he closed his pack. ’’Fox.’’

’’Odds are Twisse is going to take an interest in what we're doing tonight. It can be hurt. Cal did some damage with his handy Boy Scout knife the last time we were there. You can bet Gage is bringing that damn gun. I'm not going in there with just my Nutter Butters.’’

She started to argue-he saw it in her eyes-then something else came into them. ’’Have you got a spare?’’

Saying nothing, he went to the utility closet, rooted around. ’’It's called a froe.’’ He showed her the long, flat blade. ’’It's good for splitting wooden pins in joinery work. Or taking a slice out of a demon. Keep it in the scabbard,’’ he added, sliding it into the leather. ’’It's sharp.’’

’’Okay.’’

’’Don't take this the wrong way.’’ He laid his hands on her shoulders. ’’Remember I'm a strong proponent of equality, of women's rights. I'm going to protect you, Layla.’’

’’Don't take this the wrong way. I'm going to protect you, too.’’

He brushed his lips to hers. ’’I guess we're set then.’’

THEY MET AT CAL'S TO BEGIN THE HIKE ON THE path near his home. The woods had changed, Layla thought, since her previous trip. There had been snow then, pooled in pockets of shade, and the trail had been slick with mud, the trees barren and stark. Now, leaves were tender on the branches, and the soft white of the wild dogwoods shimmered in the slanting sun.

Now, she had a knife in a leather scabbard bumping against her hip.

She'd walked here before, toward the unknown, with five other people and Cal's affable dog. This time, she knew what might be waiting, and she went toward it as part of a team. She went toward it beside the man she loved. Because of that, this time she had more to lose.

Quinn slowed, pointed at the scabbard. ’’Is that a knife?’’

’’Actually, it's a froe.’’

’’What the hell's a froe?’’

’’It's a tool.’’ Cybil reached out from behind Layla to test the weight of the scabbard. ’’Used for cutting wood by splitting it along the grain. Safer than an ax. This one, by its size and shape, is probably a bamboo froe, and it's used for splitting out the bamboo pins used in Japanese joinery.’’

’’What she said,’’ Layla agreed.

’’Well, I want a froe, or something. I want a sheath. No,’’ Quinn decided. ’’I want a machete. Nice long handle, wicked curved blade. I need to buy a machete.’’

’’You can use mine next time,’’ Cal told her.

’’You have a machete? Gosh, my man is full of hidden pockets. Why do you have a machete?’’

’’For whacking at weeds and brush. Maybe it's more of a scythe.’’

’’What's the difference? No.’’ Quinn held up her hand before Cybil could speak. ’’Never mind.’’

’’Then I'll just say you probably want the scythe, as, traditionally, it has a long handle. However...’’ Cybil trailed off. ’’The trees are bleeding.’’

’’It happens,’’ Gage told her. ’’Puts off the tourists.’’

The thick red ran in rivulets down bark to spread over the carpeting leaves. The air stank of burnt copper as they followed the path to Hester's Pool.

There they stopped beside the brown water, and there the brown water began to bubble and redden.

’’Does it know we're here?’’ Layla spoke quietly. ’’Or is this the demon version of a security system? Can it think this kind of thing scares us at this point, or is it what Gage said? A show for the tourists?’’

’’Maybe it's some of both.’’ Fox offered her a Coke, but she shook her head. ’’Security systems send out an alert. So if the Big Evil Bastard doesn't know when we head in, it knows when we reach certain points.’’

’’And this is a cold spot-in paranormal speak,’’ Quinn explained. ’’A place of import and power. When we... Oh, Jesus.’’

She wrinkled her nose as something bobbed to the surface.

’’Dead rabbit.’’ Cal put a hand on her shoulder, then tightened his grip when other corpses rose to the bubbling surface.

Birds, squirrels, foxes. Quinn made a sound of distress, but she lifted her camera and began to document. Death smeared its stench on the air.

’’It's been busy in here,’’ Gage mumbled.

As he spoke, the bloated body of a doe floated up.

’’That's enough, Quinn,’’ Cal murmured.

’’It's not.’’ But she lowered the camera. Her voice was raw, her eyes fierce. ’’It's not enough. They were harmless, and this is their world. And I know, I know it's stupid to get so upset about... fauna when human lives are at stake, but-’’

’’Come on, Q.’’ Cybil draped an arm around her, turned Quinn away. ’’There's nothing to be done.’’

’’We need to get them out.’’ Fox stared at the obscenity, made himself see it, made himself harden. ’’Not now, but we'll have to come back, get them out. Burn the corpses. It's not just their world, it's ours, too. We can't leave it like this.’’

With a sick rage lodged in his gut, he turned away. ’’It's here.’’ He said it almost casually. ’’It's watching.’’ And it's waiting, he thought, as he moved up to take point on the path to the Pagan Stone.

The cold rolled in. It didn't matter that the cold was a lie, it still chilled the bones. Fox zipped up his hooded jacket, and kept the pace steady. He took Layla's hand to warm it in his.

’’It just wants to give us grief.’’

’’I know.’’

His mind tracked toward the sounds of rustling, of growling. Keeping pace, he thought. Knows where we're going, but not what we plan to do when we get there.

Thunder rumbled across a clear sky, and the rain pelted down from it to stab and pinch the skin like needles. Fox flipped up his hood as Layla did the same. Next roared the wind in frigid, sweeping gusts that bent trees and tore new leaves from their branches. He wrapped an arm around her waist for support, hunched his shoulders, and plowed through it.

Raindrops on roses, my ass, he thought, but kept his mind calm.

’’All right back there?’’ He'd already looked with his mind, but was reassured by the affirming shouts. ’’We're going to do a chain,’’ he told Layla. ’’Get behind me, get a good hold on my belt. Cal knows what to do. He'll hook to you, pass it back.’’

’’Sing something,’’ she shouted.

’’What?’’

’’Sing, something we all know the words to. Make a goddamn joyful noise.’’

He grinned through the teeth of the storm. ’’I'm in love with a brilliant woman.’’ Songs everyone knew, he thought as Layla got behind him, gripped his belt. That was easy.

He launched with Nirvana, calculating that none of the six could've gotten through high school without picking up the lyrics from ’’Smells Like Teen Spirit.’’ The chorus of Hello! rang out defiantly while the diamond-sharp rain slashed. He tossed in some Smashing Pumpkins, a little Springsteen (he was the Boss for a reason), swung into Pearl Jam, sweetened it up with Sheryl Crow.

For the next twenty minutes, they trudged, one combative step at a time through the lashing storm, singing Fox's version of Demon Rock.

It eased by degrees until it was no more than a chilly breeze stirring a weak drizzle. As one, they dropped onto the sodden ground to catch their breath and rest aching muscles.

’’Is that the best it's got?’’ Quinn's hands trembled as she passed around a thermos of coffee. ’’Because-’’

’’It's not,’’ Fox interrupted. ’’It's just playing with us. But damned if we didn't play right back. Wood's going to be wet. We may have some trouble starting a fire.’’ He met Cal's eyes as Cal unhooked Lump's leash from his belt.

’’I got that handled. We'd better get moving. I'll take point for a while.’’

The dog leaped onto the path. Huge and black, fangs gleaming, it snarled out threats. Even as Fox reached for his sheath, Cybil pushed to her feet. She drew a revolver from under her jacket, and coolly fired six shots.

The dog howled in pain and in fury;its blood smoked and sizzled on the ground. With one wild leap, it vanished into the swirling air.

’’That's for ruining my hair.’’ Cybil shook back the curling mess of it as she unzipped a pocket in her jacket for a box of ammo.

’’Nice.’’ On his feet as well, Gage held out a hand. He examined the revolver-a trim.22 with a polished pearl handle. Ordinarily, he'd have smirked at that sort of weapon, but she'd handled it like a pro.

’’Just something I picked up, through legal channels.’’ She took the gun back, competently reloaded.

’’Wow.’’ Fox hated guns-it was knee-jerk. But he had to admire the... pizzazz. ’’That's given the Big Evil Bastard something to think about.’’

She slid it into the holster under her jacket. ’’Well, it's no froe, but it has its merits.’’

The air warmed again, and the evening sun sparkled on young leaves as they hiked the rest of the way to the Pagan Stone.

It rose from the burned ground in a clearing that formed a near-perfect circle. What every test had deemed ordinary limestone speared up, then spread altarlike in the quieting light of the spring evening.

’’Fire first,’’ Cal decided, dragging off his pack. ’’Before we lose the light.’’ Opening the pack, he pulled out two Dura-Logs.

After the miserable journey there, Fox's laughter was like a balm. ’’Only you, Hawkins.’’

’’Be prepared. We start one of these, tent wood around it, the flames should dry out the wet wood. Should do the job.’’

’’Isn't he cute?’’ Quinn demanded, wrapping her arms around Cal for a cheerful snuggle. ’’Seriously.’’

They gathered stones and branches, stripped off wet jackets to hang on the poles Fox fashioned in hopes the fire would dry them. They roasted Quinn's contribution of turkey dogs on sharpened sticks, passed out Cybil's brie and Layla's sliced apples and ate like the starving.

As darkness settled, Fox broke out the Little Debbies while Cal checked the flashlights. ’’Go ahead,’’ he told Quinn as she gave the snack cakes a wistful look. ’’Indulge.’’

’’They go straight to my ass. If we live, I have to fit into my absolutely spectacular wedding dress.’’ She took one, broke it prudently in half. ’’I think we're going to live, and half a Little Debbie doesn't count.’’

’’You're going to look amazing.’’ Layla smiled at her. ’’And the shoes we found? So exactly right. Plus, Cybil and I aren't going to look shabby. I love the dresses we found. The idea of the plum with the orchid's just-’’

’’I feel an irresistible urge to talk about baseball,’’ Fox said, and got an elbow jab from Layla.

Conversation trailed off until there was only the crackle of wood, the lonely hoot of an owl. So they sat in silence as the fat moon glowed like a white torch in a star-struck sky. Fox pushed to his feet to gather trash. Busy hands packed away food or added wood to the fire.

At a signal from Cybil, the women unpacked what Layla thought of as the ritual bag. A small copper bowl, a bag of sea salt, fresh herbs, candles, springwater.

As instructed, Fox poured the salt in a wide circle around the Pagan Stone.

’’Well.’’ Cybil stepped back, studied the arrangement of supplies on the stone. ’’I don't know how much of this is visual aids, but all my research recommended these elements. The salt's for protection against evil, a kind of barrier. We're to stand inside the circle Fox made. There are six white candles. Each of us lights one, in turn. But first, the springwater goes into the bowl, then the herbs, then the three pieces of stone-in turn. Q?’’

’’I printed out six copies of the words we need to say.’’ Quinn took the file out of her pack. ’’We do that one at a time, around the circle, as each one of us draws his or her own blood with Cal's knife.’’

’’Over the bowl,’’ Cybil reminded her.

’’Yeah, over the bowl. When the last one's done that, we join hands, and repeat the words together six times.’’

’’It should be seven,’’ Layla said. ’’I know there are six of us, but seven is the key number. Maybe the seventh is for the guardian, or symbolizes the innocent, the sacrifice. I don't know, but it should be seven times.’’

’’And seven candles,’’ Fox realized. ’’A seventh candle we all light. Shit, why didn't we think of this?’’

’’A little late now.’’ Gage shrugged. ’’We got six, we go with six.’’

’’We can do seven.’’ Cal held out a hand to Layla. ’’Can I borrow your froe?’’

’’Wait. I got you.’’ Fox pulled out his knife. ’’This'll work better. Let me see.’’ He picked up one of the thick, white columns. ’’Beeswax-good. I spent a lot of time working with beeswax and wicks growing up.’’ After he'd laid it on its side, he glanced at Cybil. ’’Any reason for the dimensions of these? The height?’’

’’No, but my sources said six.’’ She looked at Layla, nodded. ’’Screw the sources. Make us another candle.’’

He set to work. The wax was going to do a number on his blade, he thought, but all things being right in the world, he'd be able to clean and sharpen it when he got home. It took time, enough that he wondered why the hell Cybil hadn't picked up a half dozen tapers. But he cut off three inches, then took Layla's tool to dig a well for the wick.

’’Not my best work,’’ he decided, ’’but it'll burn.’’

’’We light it last.’’ Layla scanned the other faces. ’’Light it together.’’ She had to take a breath to keep her voice steady. ’’It's almost time.’’

’’We need the stones,’’ Cybil began, ’’and the ritual Boy Scout knife,’’ she added with a faint smile.

The boy came out of the woods, executing cheerful handsprings. The claws on his hands, his feet, dug grooves in the ground, and the grooves welled with blood.

’’You should know we've used salt before.’’ Gage drew his Luger from the small of his back. ’’Didn't do squat.’’ His brows lifted as the boy's hand brushed the salt. It squealed in pain, leaped back. ’’Must be a different brand.’’ Even as Gage aimed, the boy hissed and vanished.

’’We need to start.’’ With a steady hand, Cybil poured the water into the bowl, then sprinkled the herbs. ’’Now the stones. Cal, Fox, Gage.’’

Thunder boomed, and with a flash of lightning, bloody rain gushed from the sky. The burned ground drank it, and steamed.

’’It's holding.’’ Layla looked up. ’’It's not coming inside the circle.’’

Fox held the stone inside his fist. He'd carried it with him like hope for nearly twenty-one years. And with that hope, he slipped it into the water after Cal's. Outside the circle, the world went mad. The ground shook, and blood swam across it to lap and burn at the barrier of salt.

It's eating it away, Fox thought, burning and eating away the barrier. He set his candle to flame, passed the lighter to Layla.

In the light of six candles, they laid hand over hand, fired the seventh.

’’Hurry,’’ Fox ordered. ’’It's coming back, and it's pissed.’’

Cal held his hand over the bowl, drew the knife across his palm as he read the words. As did Quinn, then Fox.

’’My blood, their blood. Our blood, its blood. One into three, three into one. Dark with the light. We make this sacrifice, we take this oath.’’

Screams, ululations neither human nor animal rolled through the dark. Tethered to the base of the stone, Lump lifted his big head to howl.

Layla took the knife, hissing against the quick pain as she read the words. Then her mind flew to Fox's while Gage took his turn. The cold! It's nearly through!

As the ground quivered underfoot, he clasped her bloodied hand with his.

The wind tore in. He couldn't hear the others, not with his ears or his mind, but shouted the words, prayed they were with him. On the Pagan Stone, the seven candles burned with unwavering flame, and in the bowl, reddened water bubbled. The ground heaved, ramming him into the table of the stone with enough force to knock his breath away. Something like claws raked at his back. He felt himself spinning, impossibly. In desperation, his mind reached out for Layla's. Then the blast of light and heat flung him blindly into the black.

He crawled, dragging himself over the ground toward the faint echo of her. He yanked his knife free, pulled himself over the bucking ground.

She crawled toward him, and the worst of his fears broke away when he found her hand. When their fingers linked, the light burst again with a sound terrible as a scream. Fire engulfed the Pagan Stone, sheathed it as leather sheathed a blade. In a deafening roar the flame geysered up toward the cold, watching moon. And it flew to ring the clearing in a writhing curtain of fire. In its savage light, Fox saw the others, sprawled on, kneeling on the ground.

All of them, all of them trapped inside a circling wall of flame while in its center, the Pagan Stone spewed more.

Together, he thought as the vicious heat slicked his skin with sweat. Live or die, it would be together. With his hand locked on Layla's, he pulled them both across the clearing. Then her arm was around him, and they were pulling each other. Cal gripped his forearm, dragged him forward. He met Gage's eyes. With the air burning, they once again clasped hands.

Together, Fox thought, as the deadly walls of fire edged closer. ’’For the innocent,’’ Fox gasped out against the smoke coating his throat. The fire, blinding bright, ate across the ground. There was nowhere to go and, he knew, only moments left. He pressed his cheek to Layla's. ’’What we did, we did for the innocent, for each other, and f*king A, we'd do it again.’’

Cal managed an exhausted laugh, brought Quinn's hand to his lips. ’’F*king A.’’

’’F*king A,’’ Gage agreed. ’’Might as well go out with a bang.’’ He jerked Cybil against him, covered her mouth with his.

’’Well, hell, we might as well try to get through it.’’ Fox blinked his stinging eyes. ’’No point in just sitting here getting toasted when we could... It's dying back.’’

’’Busy here.’’ Gage lifted his head, scanned the clearing. His smile was both grim and satisfied. ’’I'm a hell of a good kisser.’’

’’Idiot.’’ Cybil shoved him back, pushed up to her knees. Flames retreated toward the stone, began to slide up it. ’’It didn't kill us.’’

’’Whatever we did must've been right.’’ With dazzled eyes, Layla stared as the fire poured itself back into the bowl, shimmered gold. ’’I think what we did here, especially, finding each other, staying together.’’

’’We didn't run.’’ Quinn rubbed her filthy cheek against Cal's shoulder. ’’Any sensible person would have, but we didn't run. I'm not sure we could have.’’

’’I heard you,’’ Layla said to Fox. ’’Live or die, it was going to be together.’’

’’We swore an oath. Me, Cal, Gage when we were ten. The six of us tonight. We swore an oath. The fire's out.’’ He managed to gain his feet. ’’I guess we'd better go take a look.’’ When he turned to the stone, he was struck speechless.

The candles were gone, as was the bowl. The Pagan Stone stood in the moonlight, unmarred. In its center the bloodstone lay, whole.

’’Jesus Christ.’’ Cybil choked the words out. ’’It worked. I can't believe it worked.’’

’’Your eyes.’’ Fox whipped around to Cal, waved a hand in front of his face. ’’How's the vision?’’

’’Cut it out.’’ Cal slapped the hand aside. ’’It's fine. It's just fine, good enough to see three's back into one. Nice job, Cybil.’’

They walked toward it, and much as they had during the ritual, formed a circle around the stone on the stone.

’’Okay, well.’’ Quinn moistened her lips. ’’Somebody's got to pick it up-meaning one of the guys because it's theirs.’’

Before he could lift his hand to point at Cal, both Cal and Gage pointed at Fox. ’’Damn it.’’ He rubbed his hands on his jeans, rolled his shoulders, reached out.

His head fell back, his body convulsed. And as Layla grabbed him, he laughed like a loon. ’’Just kidding.’’

’’Goddamn it, Fox!’’

’’A little levity, that's all.’’ He scooped the stone into his hand. ’’It's warm. Maybe from the scary magic fire, or maybe it just is. Is it glowing? Are the red splotches glowing?’’

’’They are now,’’ Layla murmured.

’’It... it doesn't understand this. It doesn't know this. I can't see...’’ Fox swayed, the world rocked around him. Then Layla gripped his hand, and it steadied again. ’’I'm holding its death.’’

Nudging by Gage, Cybil edged closer. ’’How, Fox? How is that stone its death?’’

’’I don't know. It holds all of us now. You know, from what we did. Our blood is what fused it. And this is part of what can-will-end it. We have the power to do that. We had it all along.’’

’’But it was in pieces,’’ Layla finished. ’’Until now. Until us-all of us.’’

’’We did what we came to do.’’ Reaching out, Quinn brushed her fingertips over the stone. ’’And we lived. Now we have a new weapon.’’

’’Which we don't know how to use,’’ Gage pointed out.

’’Let's just get it home, find the safest place to keep it.’’ Cal looked around the clearing. ’’I hope nobody had anything important in their pack, because they're incinerated. Coolers, too.’’

’’There go my Nutter Butters.’’ Fox took Layla's hand, kissed the wounded palm. ’’Wanna take a walk in the moonlight?’’

’’I'd love to.’’ Could there be a better time, she thought. Could there be a more perfect time? ’’Good thing I left my purse at Cal's. Which reminds me. Cal, I've got the keys in there, but I'd like to hang on to them if it's okay with you and your father.’’

’’No problem.’’

’’What keys?’’ Fox asked as he rubbed some soot off her face.

’’To the shop on Main Street. I needed them so Quinn and Cybil could look it over with me. It's all fine for you to look at the space with carpenter eyes, or lawyer eyes, whichever, but if I'm going to open a boutique for women, I wanted women's eyes.’’

’’You're-what?’’

’’But I am going to need you, and hopefully your father, to go through it with me. And I'm going to charm your father into an I'm-in-love-with-your-son discount. Hopefully a deep discount because of deep love.’’ Fussily, she brushed at the dirt coating his shirt. ’’And the fact that even with the loan-and I'm counting on you to put in a really good word for me at the bank-I'm going to be on a very tight budget.’’

’’You said you didn't want it.’’

’’I said I didn't know what I wanted. Now I do.’’ Clear, green, amused, her eyes met his. ’’Did I forget to mention it?’’

’’Yeah, pretty much altogether.’’

’’Well.’’ She gave him a shoulder bump. ’’I've had a lot on my mind lately.’’

’’Layla.’’

’’I want my own.’’ She tipped her head to his shoulder as they walked. ’’I'm ready to go after what I want. After all, Jesus, if not now, when? By the way, consider this my twoweeks'notice.’’

He stopped, took her face in his hands as the others trudged and limped by them. ’’Are you sure?’’

’’I'm going to be too busy supervising the remodeling, buying stock, fighting demons to manage your office. You'll just have to deal with it.’’

He touched his lips to her forehead, her cheeks, her mouth, then grinned at her. ’’Okay.’’

Exhausted, content, he walked with her behind the others on a path spattered with moonlight. They'd made magic tonight, he thought. They'd chosen their path, and found their way.

The rest was just details.


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