The wind moaned and Sam moaned along with it, though he didn’t realize he was making a sound until he stopped. He opened his eyes. A flash of panic hit when he couldn’t see a damned anything and he struggled to sit upright, groggy and aching, his lips cracked dry.
He’d been dreaming and the remnants of it tangled like smoke in his hair. There were peaches and the fruit grew teeth like barbs that stuck in his skin and they wriggled and turned into burrowing worms and Jesus, this was messed up. Sam touched his lip with a quivering finger and it came back wet, the blood turned almost black in the pale light of encroaching dawn. His wristwatch started beeping, confirming the early hour, unbearably loud in the near-silence.
Cave, thirst, alone, Dean? He couldn’t finish a single thought before another crowded in.
He fumbled his alarm off and pulled himself up from the hard ground. His shirt stuck to the leaking blisters on his back; how he’d managed to avoid getting sun-poisoned was something of a small miracle. If not for his fevered skin, the cold in the cave would’ve sunk deep into his bones. As it was, he trembled numbly and went about the familiar process of breaking camp, ignoring the reawakened hunger pangs and tender skin. He kicked dirt onto the already-dead fire, stuck the paperback in his pocket again, and collected up his meager belongings. He missed brushing his teeth almost as much as the simple luxury of having water to spit.
Sam emerged from the cave’s mouth, noting a razor of weak pink on the edge of the land. The wind kicked up and he shivered harder, but he forced himself to focus on the fact that shivering was preferable to sweating under these circumstances. He took a moment to piss; the urine was still normal in color, not dark from the lack of fluids. That was something, at least.
He was putting himself back in his jeans, scanning the horizon, when his eyes caught on a pinprick of orange. Trailing from it was a tendril of dark cloud. It was still a far piece away, but to see it from this distance meant it was a good-sized fire. More importantly, it meant civilization. So he hadn’t been imagining things yesterday after all.
With a great draw of breath, Sam began walking toward it.
Those few hours of shut-eye, while hardly providing proper rest, did manage to improve his morale. He could appreciate how undeniably beautiful, surreal, the land was. Endless and uncluttered, it began in the ominous colors of night, surrendering those deep tones to lighter, more delicate pastels as Sam hiked on. The packed earth was merciless on the soles of his feet but at least it was stable and not shifting in tricky drifts, where a person could easily break an ankle. Staying vertical was challenging enough without the sand working against you. What were a few more blisters, anyway?
Periodically, he stopped, collected rocks and arranged large arrows on the ground in case someone else happened along this fateful way, or if a dust storm kicked up and Sam got turned around, the markers would help him regain his bearings. As much as it galled him to admit it, Dean had the far better sense of direction.
As the sun breached the horizon and the air warmed, Sam began to notice birds. At the orchard he’d hated seeing the things, damned harbingers of death. But here in the desert, where there were birds, there was water. The location of the birds seemed to correlate to the fire in the distance—still burning, still drawing closer—but still so very far away. The smoke became white as day filled the sky. Everything was starting to brighten and bleach. Sam resorted to pulling off his shirt and fashioning a sort of veil to keep the heat away from his head and the worst of his shoulders. He doggedly followed the beacon of smoke and the drift of large-winged birds circling overhead.
Occasional bouts of wooziness began flaring up after an hour, maybe three; he’d lost all judgment of time and the numbers on his watch swam too fast to read. Sam pinned it on the blood-boiling heat and lack of water. His hunger had dulled back to an ache, annoying but ignorable. He could not, however, pretend he wasn’t thirsty. No amount of pugnacious willpower would trump dehydration.
He wasn’t certain he was sweating any more, either. It was impossible to tell for all the grime that kicked up and caked on his skin, leeching away whatever sweat he might’ve been producing.
At several points his attention wandered, vision blurring against the harsh glare of pale sand and wind-shorn rock formations, and he stumbled to his knees, his palms searing against the ground. Was this what it felt like to be burned alive? Like mothers, like fiancées? Sam blinked the grime from his eyes and put a hand to his belly, found it hollow but whole. He hauled back up and kept walking, moving on auto-pilot, trudging, one foot dragging after the other until he was tumbling down again.
He was going to have to stop as soon as he found a wedge of shadow to rest in. Or sooner, if his legs kept giving out and if the whispers he heard on the wind started turning into phantom voices. It was like music, the wind, almost-birdsong that sporadically formed words because Sam was used to hearing things—beings—talking to him from nowhere. Desperately, he hoped it was birds, or maybe the papery flutter of wings. Sam wondered if this meant angels were watching out for him, not birds at all. Angels with holy water to slake his thirst. Or break his brain.
Stop it, don’t be stupid, Winchester, the angels are crazy. Every last fucking one. And so are you if you think anyone’s gonna look out for you in the middle of No Man’s Land. If your brother can’t find you, nobody can.
Sam laughed to himself and it sounded like a crow cawing. He could swear he saw a couch up there, ahead on the left thirty feet or so, behind a curtain of wavy heat. Bobby’s couch? Whatever it was, it was big enough to provide shade and someplace to hide from the remains of the day. He shambled forward, saw pillows, great dusky green pillows with dark polka dots; but when did Bobby’s couch turn green?
It isn’t green, you idjit.
“Bobby? No, not Bobby. Bobby’s dead.”
Snap to it, boy. My couch is red. Dark red like old blood—
“Not … wait. Not your couch?”
Bingo. Always knew college did ya some good.
Sam was inches from falling onto the supposed couch, reckless for its musty smell and the puff of dust that rose from the sagging cushions, when he stopped himself and reared back. Scraping a hand across his brow, he blinked and the mirage became an outcropping of rocks curled around an enormous bed of prickly pear cacti.
“That woulda left a mark.” Sam almost laughed but it wasn’t funny. In his own defense, it did manage to look like a big couch if you squinted really hard.
Sam’d had prickly pear jelly when he’d lived in Arizona all those years ago. Much of the plant was edible, and this one still bore a few sad fruit.
Inspired, he pawed into his pocket and pulled out the Swiss army knife, extending the largest blade. Sam used a rock to hammer back a section of spiked paddles before managing to cut free one purple bulb, speared on the end of the knife. He narrowed eyes at the thing which was likewise pincushioned with smaller barbs. Smash it, a voice chirped in his mind, but the fruit was only the size of a plum; there would be too much loss. He turned out his pockets onto the ground and poked through the items with his left hand, the precious fruit held high and away from the dirt.
Insight struck like the voice of God, if He even existed anymore. Sam snatched up his Bic lighter, crawled over to the shady side of the rocks opposite the cactus, and began roasting the outside of the fruit with flame. He didn’t care if it took the lighter’s whole damn store of fuel, he was going to get to the life-saving middle of the berry. Finally, he could strip off the outer skin without puncturing his fingers, and he cradled the leaking mess in his palm with the greatest care. He couldn’t spare a single drop of the bright pink juice, nor did he want it coated in sand. It was better than any peach and his lips came away stained and sticky. He cut another bulb free and repeated the process.
Sam absently remembered, from Plant Biology 101, the name of those annoying hair-like bristles that shed off and embedded into his skin. ‘Glochids.’ Exhausted and fingertips sore, he curled up in the scant shade of the rocks and fell, quite suddenly, asleep.
Movement, curling around his belly, tickled Sam awake. Sleep-muddled, Sam brushed at it before enough cognizance returned to remind him that when he’d fallen asleep, he’d been alone. Despite a sluggish hit of alarm, he still didn’t have the energy to snap to it, which proved to be a blessing in disguise. He sat up slowly and blinked as the rattlesnake, which had sidled up to Sam’s body heat, zig-zagged away across the cooling desert, its shadow dark and long in the hour of sunset.
He unballed his shirt, willfully ignoring how much it stunk, and put it back on. The blisters on his back split open yet again but he was numb to the pain. Almost didn’t care any more.
Sam lurched to his feet and looked towards the place he’d last seen the fire and smoke. It was still there but seemed fainter, ebbing. After a quick scan of the terrain, it remained his only possibility of human habitation. He clung to it like a drowning man.
He took a moment to shake out his socks, prod with resignation at his tender feet and empty his boots of pebbles, then resumed his pilgrimage to the beacon on the edge of the land.
Night fell fast and Sam wrapped arms around himself, rubbing away the gooseflesh. The moon was still full and enormous in the sky, lighting his way. Tonight, the desert was not as quiet. It felt alive. The wind pushed the sand restlessly and nightbird song followed in its wake, often sounding far too much like a woman’s cries for Sam’s comfort.
It didn’t help that he could hear his own heartbeat machine-gunning in his ears, and he was sure he was starting to run a fever.
Thanks, insult. Go ahead, add to my injury.
After the passage of an uncertain chunk of time, Sam was also pretty certain he was being followed. Something moved along the rises of hill, obscured by big dry tangles of weed and stone outcroppings. It wasn’t just a wayward rattlesnake, either. It was far bigger than a fox, and fast. Sam caught a flash of glowing eyes, then they were gone. Or maybe they hadn’t been there at all. He couldn’t trust his own compromised senses but he trusted his instincts. Wolf, maybe? But didn’t they almost always run in packs? It seemed to be a solitary creature, from what he could guess. Mountain lion? Hell, that was assuming a lot; he might not even be in the United States anymore. The stars looked familiar, but …
Sam drew out his pocketknife, snicked open the blade. It was still stained with cactus juice. He was in the broad wide open and when he tried to move towards cover, the shadows churled again. It was drawing closer, whatever it was, and the nightbirds had stopped singing. The wind shifted and Sam smelled something musky and sour. Distantly familiar.
“Shit, what are you,” he mumbled, whirling when movement darted past the corner of his vision. He swept aside his greasy hair and shook off the dizzying buzz of fear. “Come on, you son of a bitch, show yourself.”
The thing chuffed: part snarl, part chuckle.
Sam’s blade flashed in the moonlight and a wall of thick dirty fur charged over the bluff, immense enough to be a half-dozen wolves combined. It was black and Sam saw a long snout, jaws cracking open in a brazen show of tongue and teeth. He swiped the pocketknife at the beast’s face and only managed to hit a limb, but the blade stuck like a toothpick in the mass of muscle and hair. Made about as much impact, too.
Werewolf. Biggest fucking werewolf Sam had seen in his entire life. He just prayed it wasn’t the last thing he ever saw.
It bayed, and a fresh jolt of panic shot up Sam’s spine. He threw himself backwards as claws blew past his face, just barely nicking his cheekbone. His ass hit the ground hard, knocking the air clean out of his lungs.
The monster snapped its jowls and Sam flipped himself to his hands and knees, shoving off in a frantic sprint but the creature got a fistful of shirt. It stopped him cold. The collar of his t-shirt cut into his throat and the cloth started to rip. Sam gritted his teeth and strained, but he didn’t have nearly enough strength. He was being pulled in, felt the werewolf’s hot fetid breath, stinking of rotten meat, on the back of his neck. It exhaled, then slowly enclosed Sam’s entire left shoulder with its massive maw. Playing with its food.
Sam froze. He heard a choked sound come from his throat. The fangs pressed until skin popped. The choke became a guttural scream and the crushing pain made Sam’s knees give. He was being held aloft by the spears of tooth in his shoulder; his chest warmed with the spill of his own blood. As the dark closed in and Sam hung, helpless, in the werewolf’s mouth, there was a sharp boom, a big twitch. And then nothing.
Dean and Lom skulked through the dark town like stray cats. They kept to the shadows and moved without speaking. Lom lead the way, promising he had a place for them to hide and since Dean didn’t know the town, he reluctantly deferred to the piano man’s resources. It was disconcerting following someone who wasn’t his brother and Lom sure as hell wasn’t Sam: the man was scrambly and awkward but at least he knew the lay of the land. His spectacles glinted, weird flashes like some of the monsters they hunted, and it kept making Dean’s heart jump.
They dodged every horse and passer-by or, failing that, forced a casual stroll to the next pool of shadows. The unpaved streets felt conspicuously busy. It could’ve been Dean’s painful hope to remain unnoticed, but probably the bloodbath at the jail was drawing more folks than might normally be out this time of night.
Christ, stay inside, you fools, Dean couldn’t help but pray.
Lom paused at the corner of a big two-storey building. It was piecemealed together from a bunch of other buildings, the wood siding a puzzle of a dozen different textures, and some of windows were sheeted in red-colored glass. He picked up a pebble from the street and plunked it at a particular window—not a red one but a pane just adjacent.
“Trudy!” he hissed, throwing a second stone. Dean winced and kept an eye out for nosy neighbors. Or werewolves, whichever came first.
A small outline appeared in the window, moving closer to expose a petite, dark-haired woman, barely more than a girl. Her expression turned bothered and she waved a hand. Lom nodded and tugged Dean around the corner to a door he hadn’t even noticed before. Light footfalls came from inside before the door cracked open.
Okay, so maybe she wasn’t as young as Dean had first guessed, with her wry lips and sun-weathered skin. She wore some sort of corset around her middle that pinched in at the waist and boosted her tits up into the thin fabric of a blouse, pointedly advertising her profession. She had a mess of brunette curls and dark eyes that stung like hornets.
“Well. If you’re here for a fuck, Columbus, you’re not getting it for free.” This time. Dean recognized the flash of angry affection directed at Lom. Knew it well; such a look had been aimed at Dean on more than a few occasions throughout his life, from various women he’d … known.
Lom shuffled from foot to foot. “I am sorry, Trudy. But can we—”
“Who is this ‘we’?” Her glare narrowed and shot to Dean’s battered face.
“Dean Winchester, ma’am.” Dean attempted his patented ‘lady killer’ smile but it fell dead in the water and hurt like hell.
“Is that supposed to mean one damn to me? You come here, belly to the brush, on the coattails of this bastard and expect niceties?”
“Uh, excuse me?”
Showing his empty palms, Lom pressed forward and rescued Dean from further barbs. “Trudy, we’ve just come from the jail and I have had a most appalling evening. Please. If you could let us in for an hour, maybe two …”
“The jail?” Her pissiness eased a touch. “I caught sight of the blaze all the way from my window. What ruination have you gotten yourself into, Lom?”
Dean cleared his throat.
Lom fidgeted. “If you’ll let us in, I can tell you one hell of a story and had I not lived it, I’d have feared I dreamt it. On my mother’s grave, I swear to you.”
“You’d best not be bringing your fucking mother into this. Nor the grave.” The whore huffed and stepped aside, eyeing them both as they passed.
The foyer opened directly onto an ill-lit staircase and she lead the way up, the wood complaining under their collective weight. Dean faltered on the narrow steps. He was exhausted and he knew once he sat down, he wasn’t getting up again unless forced. They traveled a short hallway that was lit by smudged kerosene sconces, closed doors lining either side like a shitty hotel—which wasn’t far from the truth if that hotel included a particular type of room service. Sounds issued from the passing doors that validated any suspicion Dean might’ve had about the place.
She ushered the men into her boudoir, with its moth-eaten lace curtains and unmade bed and cloying stink of lavender, latching the door behind. Lom immediately sank onto the bed and removed his glasses, swiping a hand across his brow. His face was the same color as the dingy sheets. Dean made the hygienic decision to sit in a chair by the window, easing down and looking out into the streets below. There were too damned many dark corners and sheltered porches. If something wanted to lose itself in shadow, it could. Easily.
Their hostess pulled a bottle from a drawer and blew dust from a trio of shot glasses. “You drink, Mr. Winchester?”
“God, yes,” Dean said.
Lom wiped his palms on his trousers and exhaled. “I do appreciate this, Trudy. More than you—”
She shoved a drink into his hand. “Don’t thank me, just start talkin’.”
Normally, Dean disapproved of enlightening the masses. No one wanted to believe in monsters. No one wanted to fear the unrecognizable things that teemed after sundown and flickered past the corner of your eye and lived—if they were alive at all—by a different set of rules known only to the nightmares themselves. The moment that Sammy, with his big heathery eyes and smart mouth, had cornered Dean about Dad’s journal and all the inconsistencies in what he saw between their lives and those of the rest of the world, Dean’s heart had sunk into his belly. It might be there still. Innocence: banished by the wit of an eight-year-old too smart for his own good.
Dean simply gave Lom a nod.
The piano player set his spectacles back on his nose, fiddled with the wire arms until they tucked properly behind his ears, and took a gulp of whiskey. “You know those nights, Trudy, when we’d hear something moan north of town, from the badlands, over the foothills? And it’d send a chill up your spine but you’d just say ‘Oh, a goose walked over my grave,’ and we figured it was only a coyote cryin’, or the Ute trying to spook folks away from the mines?” Lom stared at his drink and Trudy shifted, impatient. “It’s nothing that easy. The tall tales, the ghost stories the old timers tell, well, they are not … tales. On this evening and before my very eyes, I have seen men become … become beasts as I’ve never witnessed before. Never so much as imagined.” Lom’s hands were shaking.
Trudy curled her lip in clear disbelief, shot a glance to Dean.
“Hey, don’t give me that poop-face. It is what it is, sister,” he chuckled humorlessly.
“You two take me for a fool?” She jabbed a finger in no one’s direction, in particular. Just jabbed.
Lom stood, arms flung wide—a gesture Sam often made and it stung to see—spilling rot-gut on the sheets and adding to the stains. “Do you take me for a superstitious redneck? Why would I risk looking like a danged sap, telling you this? I saw Lukasz Kluj change. His bones broke and he became furred over the whole of his body and I do not know what he is now, but he is most assuredly not human. No. Not in any sense we claim.” Lom’s cheeks rushed with color, sweat staining the pits of his shirt even though the night had gotten brisk and the wind was picking up. Felt like something waiting to happen. Some kind of horrible expectancy …
“Sit down before you have a brain fit,” Trudy scowled but her voice held an edge of doubt. “Lukasz?”
“Yes. And Billy Harper, Tanner Bales and that youngster that used to hang along with them until Mr. Winchester saw to his timely dispatch.”
“Humph. No great loss.”
“Yes, but now, it’s so so much worse. There are others ...”
“I always knew Harper was a prick. Do you know he gave me the cl—”
Dean jumped in at that point. “So, yeah, we’re talking werewolves here.”
“And why, exactly, do you think I need to be a part of this stupidity?” she snapped right back.
“Because you do not want these fuckers running around your town, either eating folks or making adorable new werewolves out of the survivors. And—” Dean took a wince-inducing swallow from his glass “—I have a brother out there somewhere. Gotta find him.”
Trudy pinched her mouth into an unyielding line and poured herself another shot. She crossed the room to the window, both Dean and Lom following her movements with their eyes as though she held the key to their entire survival. She probably didn’t, but Dean’s options were tight and at this point; he couldn’t afford to let any stone go unturned. His head was swimming and his belly was empty and he needed one damned thing to break in his direction.
“You are so full of shit,” she mumbled.
Dean grinned, hearing the give in her voice. “And your whiskey sucks.”
Trudy threw back the drink defiantly. “Fine. What do you jackasses need?”
That night, Trudy brought them up smoked meat, cheese and rock-hard biscuits, and Dean had never appreciated a meal as much as he did in that moment. They ate at the small table, finished her whiskey, and talked in hushed voices about ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties. Lom listened with rapt attention; he’d borne witness to the truth and it was rocking his tiny world. He didn’t crumble, though. It took a certain steel, or desperation or idiocy, to venture this far out West, and Mongrel was not a town for the delicate flower. Trudy threw a pile of blankets on the floor for Dean and allowed Lom to share her bed.
She made quite certain to latch the windows and lock the door tight.
Despite his worry for Sam, Dean dropped into unconsciousness and slept the sleep of the dead. He didn’t stir until anemic dawn leaked through the curtains and a rooster or five began crowing. He lay there aching for a while, too stiff to budge with more than slow, stilted movements. The floor was cold but the blankets, thick and warm. Trudy was already awake and returning to the room; she looked somehow less intimidating by the light of morning. Tinier, plainer. She stood over Dean and dropped a clean shirt onto his chest.
“There’s water in the basin if you feel like washin’. I highly suggest it.” Then she wandered to the bed and unceremoniously roused Lom by twisting his nipple. Dean counted his blessings.
The trio took breakfast at a small public kitchen, since the Sweetwater was still a disaster from the previous day’s ‘celebration’ and according to Trudy, Harper wasn’t welcomed at this particular eatery. As Dean sat at the table, inhaling the aroma of eggs and sourdough and fried venison, as he sipped the powerfully strong coffee and picked grounds off his tongue, he didn’t miss the backnote of vinegar one bit. The Leviathans weren’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. It was the second best meal he’d eaten in as many months.
Lom sawed at his meat with a dull knife. “I’m a tad … overwhelmed, I confess. I can likely get you a gun but those—” he dropped his voice to a stage whisper, “—those beasts would not be brought down by a bullet, I fear.”
Ah, but then there was the pesky werewolf problem. “Get me a shotgun and I’ll show you how to make silver buckshot. Ain’t hard,” Dean said between mouthfuls. “Good thing we’re right by a mine, hmm? Don’t think we’ll have time to pour bullets but if we can get the dogs down and squirming with the buckshot, we can take off their heads and then set their hairy asses on fire.”
Trudy snorted. “My, but you make it sound so easy.”
“You’re right; it’s not. These bitches are bigger than I’ve seen before. And I don’t know how full the moon has to be to trigger their little costume change. Hell, they might not even shift tonight but we can’t take that chance.”
“I can figure out where Harper’s gotten to,” she told them. “Bales ought to be right on Harper’s backside. Lukasz has a wag-tail at The Calico Cat and she’ll talk for a bottle of cheap corn liquor. Who else at the jail got a fur coat last night?”
“O’Grady. Reese. The others, I don’t know,” Lom said. “Not certain any of them made it free of the fire, though.”
They ate in silence for a few minutes until Lom wagged his fork, a considering look on his face. “You know who might know a thing or two?”
Dean arched his brows in question over the rim of a coffee mug.
“The White Witch.”
This got an immediate, and not wholly positive, reaction from Trudy. “Don’t be a starin’ fool, Columbus McCallum.”
Lom shrugged, shrinking back in his chair.
“Whoa, wait, who?” Dean demanded.
“The White Witch.” Lom kept half an eye on Trudy like she might smack him for repeating the name. He continued even when her expression thinned with warning. “I think she lives about a day’s travel out of town. I see her every now and again, riding in on her big black horse to visit the mercantile. Keeps to herself mostly, but once in a while she visits folks. Folks who’re in a bad way. Sometimes she helps.”
Trudy grumbled under her breath, “And sometimes … she don’t.”
“What happens when she doesn’t help?” Dean had to know.
Lom and Trudy exchanged loaded glances; Lom swiped at his mouth with a napkin before speaking.
“This spring past, old Flora Meeks started talking to her husband again. Now, this wouldn’t have caused a stir if the mister Meeks hadn’t already been deceased for nigh upon a month. We just assumed it was the years making her infirm but when the doc went out to check on her one Sunday evening—bring her a liniment to ease her arthritis—he said he saw something. Spooked him clean out of his wits and he wouldn’t go back nor talk about it. The Witch rode in the next day, went to Mrs. Meeks’s home and paid her a visit.” Lom leaned forward conspiratorially. “By Wednesday, the widow was dead. No one’s saying it was the Witch, but no ones saying it wasn’t, either. They ended up burning the Meeks homestead because people kept hearing conversations when there shouldn’t have been a one, the place being empty and all.”
Dean nodded. Sounded like a fairly routine haunting, which of course wasn’t the least bit routine to the people of Mongrel. It did, however, pique his curiosity something fierce. “Why do they call her the White Witch, anyway?”
“Her hair, it’s white as salt.”
Interesting, but not important. “No, man, why do they call her a witch?”
“Anyone who hobnobs with the Paiute the way she does has earned the name,” Trudy stated with dour certainty.
Lom fretted like he had something else to say but he kept his mouth shut.
“All righty then.” Maybe once they were out from under Trudy’s stink-eye, Lom would spill it. Dean wadded his napkin, threw it on an empty plate, and rolled up the sleeves of his borrowed shirt. “Where do we find this White Witch?”
No one knew for certain where the witch lived; she seemed to turn up at random intervals—unless you knew what you were looking for. Dean suspected if he had the luxury of the internet, he could coordinate her appearance with strange goings-on. Or Sam could, at any rate, but since he had access to neither a computer or his brother, he and Lom began at the last home she’d visited two weeks ago. A nice family, from all outward signs. Rev. Chivington had come from back east with his wife and daughter in an attempt to bring old-time religion to the miners and savages. Good luck, there, Dean had thought derisively. Rev. Chivington seemed to be widely tolerated, though, so perhaps his particular brand of hellfire and brimstone was strongly tempered with common sense and patience. They lived in a modest house behind an unnamed chapel, and someone had attempted to plant flowers around the short stone walk. The siding was whitewashed, a double-swing hung from chains on the small porch, and honest-to-God, there was a fruit pie cooling in the window.
Trudy wasn’t with them—she had ‘business’ to address—so the men brushed the dust off their shoulders and rapped on the Chivingtons’ door. The missus answered with a wary smile and Lom removed his hat, respectfully.
“Mrs. Chivington?” Dean smiled in return, showing just the right amount of tooth. “My name is Dean Winchester. I … I need your help, ma’am.”
Being a preacher’s wife, she was programmed to never turn away a soul in need; Dean was well aware of this. He opened his expression wide and worked the sort of softness in his eyes he’d seen Sammy milk a million times.
“How can I help you, gentlemen?” She didn’t seem surprised that Dean knew her name. She was, after all, the town preacher’s wife.
“Ma’am, I’m looking for the White Witch; I heard she—”
Mrs. Chivington’s expression flipped so quickly, Dean almost felt the breeze of its passing. “I don’t know what you heard, Mr. Winchester, but I am not in a position to discuss her.”
The door started to close but Dean pressed a palm to it and the preacher’s wife turned not just displeased, but cold enough to freeze Hell. He heard Lom behind him, drawing in breath.
He had to think fast, abandoning the puppy dog eyes which he sucked at, anyways. “Lady, I know you’ve seen things you can’t explain and this White Witch is in the middle of it but, God, I need your help. Her help. I don’t think you’re crazy; sometimes really shitty—I mean awful—things happen to good people and look, I believe what you’ve seen. I’ve seen stuff too.”
She kept pressing the door as her eyes flickered up to Dean.
“Mrs. Chivington. I’ve seen things too. And I need her help to find my brother before something real bad finds him. Come on, please.” The naked truth very seldom worked in Dean’s favor, but this was the second time in as many days that it actually did. If Dean didn’t know better, he’d swear it was a sign of the Apocalypse.
The woman sighed weightily, her shoulders drooping, and she released her grip on the door. “Come in.”
When Dean stepped inside, Lom on his heels, he saw a strange little girl staring at them from a hallway. Maybe ten years old. Man, it was so easy for little girls to get strange. Lilith was proof.
Mrs. Chivington set a soft hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Emmeline, can you check on the hens? Get some eggs?”
The girl didn’t nod but picked up a basket from the floor, dragged her still-strange gaze over Dean, and headed out the back door of the tiny house.
“Have a seat, gentlemen.” The woman didn’t exactly sound cordial as she tucked a few escaped wisps back into her severe braid, but she had agreed to speak to them and for that, Dean was grateful.
He sat on the edge of a wooden chair, leaning on his knees, choosing his words carefully for a change. “I’ve had a fair amount of experience with things that go bump in the night,” he said frankly. “I need to know if this White Witch is the real thing, if she deals with the sort of … business … that I hope she does. What did she do for your family?”
The woman clenched her hands in her lap, spoke in a lowered voice. “A fortnight ago, Emmeline returned from the chapel and she was not … right. I feared she’d caught a fever, something that made her hysterical and say things no child should say. She’s a good girl, my Emmie. But she was using coarse, unbecoming language and spoke of fighting and wanton acts. The reverend and I were not blessed with a large family; she is our only child and she kept asking about siblings she did not have. I thought, perhaps, she was imagining tales of the War with the South; we try to keep her sheltered from the horror of it but she’s a bright girl. She reads. It became so dreadful, I was forced to lock her into her room at night because she took to wandering at all hours. Mr. Winchester, I caught her trying to play faro at the Sweetwater! But not even a locked door could confine her. I prayed and I prayed … this was not our daughter.”
“Did Emmeline look different? Funny eyes? Did you find—” Dean rubbed his thumb and forefinger together “—yellow powder on the window sills?”
“That’s exactly what the Witch asked. No, I did not.”
“So, the Witch came?”
“Yes. She told us our daughter was … was possessed.” The preacher’s wife could barely choke out the word. “Inhabited. She insisted upon privacy so we could not know what she actually did, though the reverend was strongly opposed. All I know is I was scrubbing blood off the walls when she was finished. But she returned Emmeline to us.”
“I’m glad it worked for you.” Because it could’ve gone bad in so many ways, so very quickly. “Mrs. Chivington, I really need the Witch’s help, too. How did you get word to her?”
“That’s just it; I did not. She simply showed up. I hear that’s the way it is with her.”
“That’s just … great.”
“I am sorry. I wish I could be of more help but superstition being what it is out here, it’s far better for us to just go on with our lives and not involve ourselves with the Witch again. I appreciate what she did, but I do not know how she did it. And that frightens me.”
The back door slammed and strange, little Emmeline walked in, a dozen speckled brown eggs nestled in the bottom of her basket. “Sassafras is laying again.”
Mrs. Chivington’s face grew tender and she opened her arms for her daughter to curl to her chest. “That’s lovely. Emmie, this is Mr. Winchester and his friend. They were just leaving.”
Lom had been sitting silently and now he stood. Dean reluctantly followed suit.
“You’re one too,” Emmeline said, resting on her mother’s shoulder.
“What’s that, sweetie?”
“Mr. Winchester. He’s one too.”
Dean canted his head, a little voice in the back of his brain ranting, I knew it I knew it I knew it. “One what?”
Emmeline smiled. “A vessel.”
“Uh …” Okay, that wasn’t what he was expecting.
“And I know where the Witch is. I like her.”
Lom’s brows nearly hit his hairline over his glasses.
Mrs. Chivington’s hands fluttered over her daughter’s hair. “Did she tell you?”
Emmeline shook her head. “I saw her house. She has a black horse. It’s out by the three striped rocks.” And then she pointed northerly.
“Emmeline, it’s not nice to tell tales—”
“I’m not, Mother.”
Lom leaned forward and whispered into Dean’s ear, “I know where that is.”
“It’s fine, Mrs. Chivington. You’ve been awesome.” Dean waggled his finger at Emmeline.” And you’ve been awesome.”
“I know.” Emmeline grinned again—it was almost a smirk—and Dean felt an uncomfortable creep of familiarity.
Sam swam up from the dark, struggling past a suffocating grogginess and swell of pain that radiated from his left shoulder outwards. The hurt was so obstinate he hardly noticed the way his skull wanted to split open and spill out its fragile, aching brain.
His confusion was systematic, pressing in from all sides. It went from the tips of his bare feet—where the hell were his boots?—to the odd-smelling pillow under his head. Smelled like grass and mustiness, not dust. As John Winchester’s son, he was accustomed to circumstances that fringed the edges of normal. For the past seven-ish years, he was used to having no fixed address, a car for a bedroom, salt under his fingernails one day and blood the next, the stink of decay or fast food or gun oil in his nose, and waking up in a different state every morning. It was dependable in its instability, Dean being the thread that held it all together. Now he had none of it, no bearing on anything that resembled their screwed-up brand of normal.
Once again, he didn’t know where he was or why. Last thing he remembered was miles of baking desert, an endless sky, smoke in the distance, a missing brother. Somehow, he’d gotten inside. There was no humming of a home’s normal functions, no ambient sounds of a TV in the background, just the wind battering against the building. The walls were made of log, from what he could gather, though his vision went swimmy any farther than a yard past his nose. His shoulder was tight with a bandage, red seeping through white, and he couldn’t even think of moving without instigating misery. But Sam was nothing if not intractable, or “fucking stubborn” as he’d been told a hundred times before. He struggled upright, quivering, shirtless. The fraying quilt that had been laid across his middle was barely long enough to cover his shins, but it was all that sat between him and the naked air. Daylight burned in through curtains made of thin material, the kind used for cheap shirts.
He tried to swing his legs over the bed even though he barely had the strength to sit, let alone shift directions. He managed to move his right foot before stopping dead, snared in metal and cuffed to a rough-hewn bedpost. Squinting down at an iron manacle around his bare ankle, he tugged at the chain once in a token effort at escape before giving up, inching back down onto the bed and stifling a groan. He was still far too hot and dry, and he was pretty damned sure he should’ve been sweating but he wasn’t. Fine. Not going anywhere. Just another page in the book of how much his life sucked. Nothing new.
Sam had to satisfy himself with a stationary inspection of the room, now that some of the wooziness was ebbing. The room itself was snug, barely space enough for the bed and one small dresser, lit by strong sunlight coming in a single window. Dried herbs rustled in the breeze, strung from the roof beams, window frame, and tied across the headboard. Meadowsweet, yarrow, wormwood, some little white flower Sam couldn’t recall but it looked familiar, monkshood, sage, marigold …
There were no electrical outlets, no alarm clock on the dresser, not so much as a single light bulb suspended from the ceiling. The mattress was lumpy and uneven under his backside but at least it wasn’t the ground. He thought he saw scratches in the notched logs at the corners and where they broke to make the window, but he couldn’t be sure. Could’ve been spider webs just as easily. Everything wore a thin sheen of dust, himself included, though it seemed like someone had taken the trouble to smear off most of the blood and filth. He still didn’t smell like a rose; maybe that was the cause for all the herbs. Natural air-fresheners. Not that he cared all that much; personal grooming wasn’t a priority. He just stunk, was all. The whole situation stunk, and his head was pounding like a jackhammer and he wouldn’t mind dying, in truth. Just for a few minutes.
Sam’s eyes were starting to drift closed again when he heard the secretive hush of voices—outside, beyond the window. His lids pulled apart and he strained to lift his head, to see the people whispering. They were just out of range, a male and a female standing close to the cabin by the front door, and they spoke in a language Sam didn’t recognize. This was no small feat; Sam knew bits and pieces of a great many languages, some long dead, but the words, the cadence, made no sense. The front door opened and closed with a creak and a slam and within seconds, Sam caught sight of a mounted rider cutting away from the house. The shape became a distant speck as the horse ran, kicking up clouds, yet Sam was still able to see long hair on the man, and the horse was spotted in big chunks of cream and chestnut.
He dropped his head back onto the pillow and waited, listening to the other person navigate the tiny building. Heavy footsteps for a woman, booted probably. He was certain he heard the slosh of water and God damn, he was thirsty. He tried to call out but the only thing that escaped was a short hack and a whimper when pain shot through his chest. The bootsteps came closer until a woman appeared in the bedroom doorway. As suspected, she was carrying a bucket that dripped when she moved, and a basket with a dishtowel over the top. She wore trousers, a man’s shirt and broad-brimmed hat, and a kerchief around her neck. She watched him with tough, unyielding eyes over reddened cheeks; her skin was too fair to tolerate much of the weather. She took several steps into the room and poured water from the bucket into a large bowl on the dresser. Sam’s lips parted desperately, in spite of himself. He felt like a trout on a dry bank, so close to the river he could feel it in the air.
She set the basket on the floor, unknotted her bandana and sopped it into the bowl, squeezing the cloth lightly before approaching the bed. She wordlessly wrung out some small bit of water onto Sam’s lips before touching the bandana to his forehead.
“You’re feverish,” she noted in English, though there might’ve been a hint of a brogue. She pulled off her hat and dropped it onto a bedpost. Her hair, caught in a disheveled braid, was an extraordinary shade of almost-white that Sam could tell wasn’t a bleach job; her eyebrows were the same curious color, eyelashes too.
His words came out a little easier after wetted. “Where’m I?”
“My bed,” she told him with a hitch of her brow.
“No, I meant—” Sam sucked in breath when she tugged at the bandage. She didn’t seem inclined to conversation, her mouth pressed into a stern line, so he temporarily gave up the quest for answers as she slid the soiled gauze from around his shoulder. She prodded gingerly at the wound, causing a hellacious throb.
“You’re healing fast,” she said, and for reasons known only to herself, didn’t sound pleased.
“How … God, ouch … how long have I been out?”
She stopped poking and drew a watch on a chain from her pocket. “Eleven hours and a quarter. Or thereabouts.” She stuffed the pocketwatch away again and began assembling the things necessary for a re-bandaging. “I don’t suppose I need to tell you this’ll hurt. Powerfully.”
“My brother …”
“Did you find another man? Not quite as tall as me, brown hair cut short?”
“I fear I haven’t.” She shook her head and began dressing the wound.
“Wait. Let me see,” Sam begged. She hesitated, sliding him a cautionary glance. “Please. I want to see how bad it is.”
After another moment of indecision, she took a hand mirror from the dresser and angled it in front of Sam. A dart of reflected sunlight shot around the room. He inched up to assess the damage, blinking away bright spots of pain, and saw she was right. It looked brutal, and the size of the bite alone made Sam nauseous. Dried blood crusted his skin, the opening of each pencil-sized puncture capped by a scab. His entire shoulder was one great, blue-black bruise, already creeping to dirty yellow at the perimeter. This should’ve needed stitches, a good baker’s dozen of them.
Dribs of memory drifted back. The feral stink of something big and wild. A mass of darkness moving with predatory grace. An unearthly howl.
“Got your eyeful? You’re lucky he didn’t scuff up your warpaint, here.” She set the mirror aside whether Sam was satisfied or not, and tapped lightly at the tattoo inked over his heart.
“He? Not ‘he’. It.” Sam watched her gaze as it flicked away from his chest to the basket of medical supplies. When she’d said “he”, she’d meant it. Wasn’t just a slip of the tongue.
Her hands moved adroitly over his damage, applied a salve that smelled something like licorice and damp earth, and wound fresh cloth around the area. By the time she was finished, Sam was trembling from trying to lift that side of his body. His upper torso felt like the no-nonsense end of a battering ram.
She didn’t speak throughout it all and began gathering up her things, hardly even blinking when Sam cleared his throat for attention.
Maybe she grunted, tucking the basket between the wall and dresser.
“Hey. What bit me?”
This time she distinctly huffed air through her nose but didn’t reply.
“What. Bit. Me.”
She dipped a small tin cup into the basin and set it, dripping, on Sam’s belly, away from her clean handiwork. “Drink, then sleep,” was all she said. And Sam found he didn’t have the energy to disobey. The fact she didn’t answer was answer enough.
The third time Sam yanked on the manacle, the footboard splintered with a brittle crack, like a popsicle stick. It sounded absurdly loud in the quiet cabin, though dusk was bringing with it the chirrup of crickets. The woman had been out when he’d woken up just a bit ago. She’d left an apple and another cup of water on the edge of the dresser, within reach; she’d seemed to know that Sam would awaken ravenous. He made short work of the apple, eating right down to the core in a single minute, gulped the water, and then realized he was feeling pretty damned good for what he’d just been through. He tested his left shoulder, found it stiff and achy but tolerable. A hollered hello got no answer. He didn’t feel overt threat from the situation—she had probably saved his life twice over already—so he didn’t see the need to stay chained to the bed. It really wasn’t as sexy as it sounded.
He’d leaned forward and pulled on his trapped ankle with both hands. Once, twice. He’d felt the bedpost give and a last stern, dizzying tug sent splinters flying. He was free.
Free, but sans clothes. Now that the sun was vanishing, the familiar chill of the dry desert air was settling throughout the room. Sam tested his stability, swaying only briefly as he settled the quilt over his shoulders. He didn’t spot his clothes, but then the single window wasn’t providing much light anymore. A quick search of the dresser revealed not just women’s clothing, but men’s as well. The woman must’ve had a husband at some point, maybe still did. Sam found a pair of well-worn pants and slipped them on. Too short, of course, but fit well enough in the waist once fastened. The first shirt he set hands on was a long-sleeved thermal, hand-sewn with a few buttons at the neck. Perfectly serviceable.
He padded into the main room of the home, the wooden floor gritty and cold underfoot. One glance sealed the suspicion that he’d somehow landed in Once Upon a Time in the West, same general ballpark as when he and Dean had been blipped to Sunrise, Wyoming to confiscate a pinch of phoenix ash. The big question was: why? ‘How’ wasn’t nearly such a concern; there was more than one way to skin a cat or send a person pinballing through time, as improbable as it sounded to anyone but a Winchester. However, experience had taught Sam that the reasoning for such a forced trip usually involved an entity far more powerful than him, and often times dangerously driven.
Sam found a box of wooden matches and he lit an oil lamp, warm light flooding the small space. The place was thoroughly rustic but from what Sam could remember of history, rather well-appointed for the period. The walls were lined with tools and weapons—knives, axes, all manner of pointed things—as well as shelves for dishes and books. The skulls of antlered creatures filled every bit of empty wall space and Sam had to admit he didn’t recognize all of them. That one was a prong-horned antelope but … over there to the right? A single, central horn? Seriously?
A bowl of apples sat amongst dry goods in the corner of the room that served as a kitchen, and Sam helped himself to another piece of fruit as he explored. The place was crammed with stuff, like Rufus’ cabin, and when he noticed the salt lines on the windowsills, it reminded him a lot of Rufus’ cabin. Didn’t come as a huge surprise. In fact, it made him feel a whole lot better. This woman would be someone he could work with, someone he wouldn’t have to lie to or misdirect. Or, hell, even protect. She could likely hold her own, from the looks of things. And better yet, she’d never heard of Sam Winchester. She wouldn’t know his baggage. She wouldn’t judge.
Sam poked around the books, flicked his finger over a feathered dreamcatcher that dangled from the edge of a shelf. He squinted at the labels on jars and vials, an apothecary of macabre ingredients. He found a small séance mat, made of tough smooth leather and embossed with sigils, set out as though recently used. It had bones and blood and oily residue on it, but nasty spell components notwithstanding, something else about the thing gave Sam pause. One of the sigils, drawn in chalk, looked too familiar and served no purpose in a ghostly summons. It was Enochian. Sam carded through his memory for the word, the name, but it wouldn’t come.
There was a sharp thump on the door, the latch rattling. Reflexively, Sam snatched the closest weapon from the wall—a sickle—and sunk back into the shadows at the cabin’s edge. The door opened with a swift kick. A human figure stood there outlined in fading sunlight, wisps of fair hair backlit brightly, the shape of a rifle in one hand and a pair of chicken-sized animals in the other, caught by their feet and hanging limp. As soon as she stepped through the threshold, she saw Sam. The birds hit the floor and the rifle leveled at him in almost a single motion.
“How’d you get loose?” she snapped.
Sam immediately dropped the blade and lifted his hands, palms outward. Sickle vs. gun, the gun wins. “Okay okay, sorry. I … I think I broke your bed? Maybe?” He widened his eyes and slapped on a tenuous smile.
“Step away.” The rifle jerked, directing Sam to move towards the center of the room.
Which he did without hesitation. “Don’t shoot me. Please. I know you’re a hunter—”
“What gave me away? The grouse or the gun?”
“No, no. A hunter hunter. Like, um, wendigo. Thunderbirds.” Sam paused. “Shape-shifters.”
The gun lowered slightly and she stepped into the faint glow of the oil lamp. “Well, isn’t this just somethin’.”
Sam kept his hands up and would remain doing so until instructed otherwise; she had the boomstick. “I am too. A hunter.”
She stared at him and her eyes flickered with something pained. “Not anymore.”