He doesn’t even remember how Sam talked him into this madness, what desperate part they both tapped into that would lead to this. It’s the fear of hell that’s nipping on their heels—literal for him, maybe, but figurative for Sam all the same.
He closes his eyes obediently as a woman who calls herself the Curator dabs a smear of oil paint to each lid, then traces a streak down his lips. One on each hand like stigmata, then a final cool touch to the skin above his heart.
"Be careful," Sam urges as the Curator withdraws her hand. Then warmth beats down on his face, and the change startles him into opening his eyes.
There is a hole in the sky, far away and vanishing fast, a dark wound in the atmosphere. Through it he can see Sam, looming huge over the landscape, and if there are additional warnings Dean can’t make them out. Then he is alone on a sunlit hillside, safe and warm and whole and utterly alone.
Pictures are worth a thousand words or a million steps, and by the time he reaches the lake that glistens like a jewel in the hand of the valley, he is tired and sore and overheated. Apple trees dangle fruit that falls off into his palm, but when he bites through the skin, the inside is oil-slick and tasteless. He spits, and streaks of cream and russet-red splatter the ground and leave trails down his chin.
Instead he decides to sleep, finding a nook between the roots of a tree. Shade works where nourishment did not, and he dozes off. When he wakes, the sun is still high. In fact, if he had to guess, he'd put it at the exact same position it was earlier. He wanders off around the perimeter of the water, looking for nothing in particular. He's hungry, though it's not dire, and he wonders if game would be edible. But it seems as though he is the only living thing—there are no fish flashing beneath the surface of the water, no birds, no insects.
When he makes it halfway around the lake, he stops to rest beneath another tree. The soles of his feet are numb, the tingling in them giving way to nothing, and Dean frowns as he tries to flex his toes. So far, this isn't proving to be one of their better plans.
He takes a moment to look out at the water, where the sun is reflecting bright and blinding. But for the first time, he notices a dark speck far out onto the still water. He squints and thinks he can make out the shape of masts and sails. In fact, the longer he looks, the closer it seems. It doesn't seem to be growing closer to the shore, but rather his vision feels like it's focusing in, fish-eye style, until he can see ropes and riggings and—
Without warning he pitches forward and finds himself sprawled on the deck, lashed by rain and deafened by the shrieks of the distressed wood. The sky has turned dark and stormy, and waves toss him around like a toy. A great swell of salt water rushes up over the prow, slamming into him and knocking his breath away. For a moment the world has no up or down, then he slides across the deck and into air again. The water stings his eyes and makes his mouth taste foul, like he has been doused in something chemical.
He clings to whatever he can find and rides the waves, sometimes wrapped around a mast, sometimes tangled in rope. Inevitably a wave will knock him loose, and he has to scrabble for purchase again. His fingers are freezing, and he can't feel his legs below the ankle. This is his undoing—he loses his balance as the deck rolls beneath him, and a great wall of water picks him up and carries him over the side. Through the murk he catches on last view of the ship, distorted, before the dark closes over him. He loses the last of his air and expects death.
Instead he bubbles to the surface and finds himself in mere inches of a thick, viscous liquid the color of an angry sea. One look around tells him he's found surrealism, because he seems to be in a land of bizarre shapes, where everything melts into everything else. His clothes ooze down his skin and make dark puddles behind every footstep. It's not as if there is a concrete location now; there are only segments of color, blood-red and steel-blue and white and black. There are people here, finally, but he wishes he were alone. Their faces are disfigured or non-existent, suggestions of features or gross exaggerations. From their mouths or their shadows come whimpers or laughter or forgotten languages. The women speak with men's voices and the men sound like children. Some reach out for him, their spindly fingers or fused hands grasping for his arms and legs. When he tries to escape, the pink of his calves leave sticky blotches in their graps, dribbles of oil and acrylic. He stumbles and falls into an abyss, a chasm that has opened up from the dark of his blue jeans.
He falls through a scene from the rapture, and far above the son of God is hiding among the clouds. Dean tumbles down past the souls of the risen and into the lake of fire, and a demon with a goblin’s face lunges out of the flames at him to drag him farther in.
All around him anguished sinners sink into the fiery muck, pulled with chains and hundreds of other hands, and Dean feels himself following. He's in to his knees, and the more he struggles, the further down he goes, until fire licks at his thighs and the hands are coming for him too.
Hope is lost, hell beckons. He should’ve known he couldn’t escape.
Dean, someone calls, and his name cuts through the madness like a knife. Demons fall apart into their individual brushstrokes and sink into the mire around him. The tortured souls part like a new Red Sea.
Dean, the voice says again, and he wades through the swirling ground after it like a parched man follows the smell of water. A burning bush blocks his path, the leaves rustling with I AM, and for a moment he is afraid. But he hears his name again, calling him out of the promise of hell, and he pushes the branches aside with his hands. Something begins to burn him, the glory of God or the wrath of a monster thwarted, and then he is through.
There is solid ground now, and the leaves of the greenery are cool and soft to the touch. He pushes though, the twigs catching and scratching at his bare flesh. Something pulls at his legs unnaturally, and when he looks down he discovers that they are not his own. Goat’s legs sprout from his hips, covered in a shaggy dark hair and ending in sharply cloven hooves. In a panic, he shakes them, as though the motion can bring back the familiar. His mind conjures up images of the devil, and he wonders if he escaped the descent human or demon.
Dean, the voice sings again, distinctly female now and very close. He stumbles forward, the knowledge of his deformity making him clumsier than before. Then there is a break in the foliage, and he stumbles out into the soft light of a grove.
A women in reclining there, her body stretched nude beside a spring, and she is calling his name. Her breasts are small and firm, her thighs thick but pleasantly shaped. She is an ideal of a bygone era, when plumpness equaled beauty to generations of masters.
“Oh thank god,” she says, her expression shielded behind softly lidded eyes, “you’re okay.”
Her voice is so close and so real that it sends a wave of relief through him. She talks like she’s from the twenty-first century, and for the first time he doesn’t feel alone.
He stumbles closer on foreign feet and can see that up close she is no goddess. Tattoos maim her cream-colored skin, strange angular marks and old protective symbols. Her dark-brown hair tumbles loosely and fashionably around her shoulders, and behind her beatific expression her hazel eyes miss nothing.
“We have to get out of here,” she says, making no move to get up. “It wants you bad.”
The bushes rustle as if in reply, and Dean swings around to see that they are closer, encroaching in on the little sanctuary.
“What’s going on?” he asks, desperate to know what he’s up against. His gut feels cold and he finds that he's afraid.
“No time,” the bather says. “Look at you, you’re more satyr than man already. Get into the pool.”
“Go now,” she spits, and he takes a trembling step into the shallow water. But shallow is a lie, and he finds himself rushing down unexpectedly, and his gasp of surprise causes his mouth to fill with water. He’s sinking like a stone, farther and farther down, until the surface looks like a tiny patch of light an impossible distance above. He can’t breathe, the darkness is closing in around him, and he realizes that he’s been tricked at last, that he followed orders for the sake of hearing a friendly voice—
“Dean? Dean, I’ve got you,” Sam says, his breath hot on Dean’s neck.
A surprising but immensely welcome lungful of air follows, and when his vision stops swimming, Dean realizes he’s on a tastefully carpeted floor, fully clothed, cradled against Sam as his heart thuds crazily in his chest. He pats his legs and is satisfied to feel sensation; inside his boots, he curls his toes.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Sam is murmuring. "I didn't know."
Dean doesn't need to ask what he didn't know, because he's just lived through it. Before them is a painting of a goddess and a peeping satyr, and the goddess has flowing brown hair. But as he watches, she seems to change, morph, and suddenly from the painting a hand emerges, pulling against the air as if swimming, and Sam drops him to reach for it. Dean watches agape as Sam pulls from the painting a woman, slim and clothed but obviously the goddess, and when she’s emerged fully he recognizes her as Sarah Blake, the art gallery owner’s daughter from New York.
“Is he okay?” she asks, smoothing down her clothes.
“Dean?” Sam adds, turned to look.
“I’m okay,” he confirms, because grand scheme? He is. And nobody cares about the little things at a time like this.
It turns out that after her adventure with Sam and Dean and the death of her father (unrelated circumstances, she swear), Sarah had turned his business from art to artifacts, of the magical variety. “Still a dealer, if you will,” she says, "Buying's pretty much the same—it's the selling that's different."
"We know someone else who, uh, specializes like you do," Dean mentions as she herds them toward the door, a little disquieted that they've drawn someone else in. "Dangerous business."
"I don't sample the merchandise," she replies, but the smile she gives him doesn't reach her eyes. He remembers suddenly the tattoos and scars marring the creamy white flesh of the goddess, old protection spells and a poorly-healed dimple that looked like something nasty had been dug out. Who taught her? he wonders, and realizes she may have done it alone, a young woman who knows evil exists but not how to protect herself from it. She seems to have picked it up fast, though, and he's not sure how to feel about that. She knew enough to be the reference Sam was sent to unexpectedly, to find him in the gallery, to slip inside after him. But he also remembers how he became less and less him the longer he was inside, and how when he found the goddess, there was almost nothing there that looked like Sarah Blake.
“This is for last time,” she tells Sam when they're standing in her doorway, using a hand on his elbow to keep him an arm's length away. Dean wonders where the sweet girl they first met had gone, and he wonders how much is their fault. Something else to think about in eternity, he guesses. "Goodbye," she says, and brokers no argument.
"We'll keep trying," Sam swears over the roof of the car down on the street, but Dean's eyes are locked on Sarah in the doorway. She pulls a charm out from beneath her shirt, her lips moving. As he watches, she kisses it.
Suddenly he can't remember what he was doing at all. He shakes his head to clear it, then nods. "All right," he agrees. "All right."