Chapter 1: Disturbia
The eerie environment of Purgatory was starting to set Dean on edge, especially now that he was essentially alone. Oh, he knew that Castiel had to be somewhere nearby, but at the moment, Dean honestly wished that the angel, regardless of how messed up he might still be, was at his back. Dean could see the glint of red eyes in the shadows, and could hear ominous rustling in the underbrush nearby. Feeling increasingly uneasy, Dean did a mental check of all the weapons he had on him, keeping an eye on his surroundings as he did so. He had several knives on him, including one tucked into the small of his back, right near his handgun. He’d have to conserve his bullets, especially since he didn’t know how long he’d have to survive here in the perpetually gloomy environs of Purgatory.
Dean carefully withdrew a knife from its sheath, slipping his hand through the wrist-strap so he wouldn’t loose it as easily in a fight if it were to be knocked from his hand. A loud growl from his left drew Dean’s attention immediately, and he readied himself for a fight, drawing in a deep breath and taking up a relaxed fighting stance. There was the sound of heavy footfalls, and then a large black shape was bounding toward him, its deep set eyes burning a deep coal red. Dean braced himself to join in the fight, knife at the ready. The shadow creature lashed out with one heavily clawed fore-paw, making Dean jump back while slashing the knife at the creature. He managed to score a shallow hit on the creature; the silver-engraved blade left an angry wound across its chest that bled black ichor.
The two combatants circled one another, the creature letting out a constant low rumbling growl and Dean breathing harshly as adrenaline rushed through his veins. A rush of wings from behind Dean announced Castiel’s return, or at least, that’s what the hunter assumed. He stayed focused on his battle, trying to judge the best time to strike. The shadow beast took the initiative and closed the distance between itself and Dean, dashing forward and throwing up great clods of dirt and dark grass as it went.
“GET DOWN!” roared an unknown voice from behind Dean. The authoritative tones hit a chord in Dean’s brain that had been honed over years of Hunting with his dad, causing him to jerk to the side and then throw himself to the ground. He instinctively buried his face against his arm, and just in time, too. There was a brilliant flash of light and a roar of sound that left Dean’s ears ringing. Dean only registered the fact that Castiel had returned when he felt the angel put a hand on his shoulder and heard his low, gravelly voice speaking into his left ear.
“Dean, can you hear me?” Castiel asked gravely. Dean groaned softly in response and then rolled over, blinking up at his friend.
“Wha’ happened?” Dean mumbled as he waited for his hearing to return to normal.
“I’m not sure,” Castiel replied, looking over his shoulder at something Dean couldn’t see. Dean carefully pushed himself up to a sitting position to see what had happened to the creatures that had been ready to kill him. The clearing was devoid of any of the shadow creatures, but Castiel and Dean weren’t the only beings there. A group of five people stood nearby, all of whom where heavily armed. To Dean’s surprise, he could see that three of them had wings; one had dark blue wings like a blue jay, the second, and the only female of the three, had gray wings with black tips, and the third, a tall black-haired man who seemed to be the leader of the group, had dark red wings that were tucked neatly against his back. The remaining members of the group looked like normal humans, though Dean had long learned that appearances could be deceiving, especially in a place like this.
“The hell? Who’re they?”
“We’re the ones who saved your sorry asses,” the red-winged man replied as he strode forward, one hand on the pommel of the sheathed sword Dean hadn’t really taken notice of before.
“Devonal, be nice” the gray-winged woman snapped, looking annoyed. “We can’t stay here long; they’ll be back soon, and you know it.”
Devonal sighed and then shrugged. “Oh, all right, Meriel,” He turned his attention to Dean and Castiel, who were watching the group warily. “You two, come with us. We’ll explain more when we’re somewhere safe. Stay with the group; you don’t want to be caught by the shadow-kin when they decide to regroup.”
“Hold on,” Dean said, carefully getting to his feet with Castiel’s help. “We’re not going anywhere with you until we know who you guys are and what’s going on.”
“We don’t have much time to explain,” Meriel said. “If it helps, my name is Meriel, and, whether you believe it or not, we’re probably the only allies you’ll meet here.”
Castiel tilted his head briefly to one side, his brow furrowing a little before speaking. “You were an angel of the Lord?”
“Still am, brother of mine,” Meriel replied. “Well, technically, anyways. We’re stuck here until the Father decides to bring us back. There’s maybe two, two-hundred-and-fifty of us here at the moment.” She glanced at Dean. “Satisfied? Can we head out now?”
“Where are we going?” Dean asked as the group set off into the forest.
“To the Haven,” Devonal said shortly. “Quiet; we don’t want to attract any more attention than we already have, and it doesn’t help that your soul’s shining so brightly, kid.”
Devonal didn’t say any more on the subject, even though Dean tried to ask him several times what he had meant, and the ragtag group continued deeper into the forest; as they moved, Dean and Castiel found themselves firmly ensconced in the center of the group. Dean kept his knife handy, not wanting to disarm himself even though he was surrounded by heavily armed allies. He did, however, wipe the ichor off the knife with a convenient broad leaf he took off a plant in passing. They walked in silence for roughly fifteen minutes or so, if Dean was to be any judge, but given the gloomy atmosphere surrounding them and the fact that he couldn’t see the sky— if there was a sky in Purgatory —his calculations could be totally off and he wouldn’t even know. Still, his internal clock usually served him well, so for the moment, he would rely on it until he learned otherwise.
Dean sighed softly as he trudged through the underbrush, catching Castiel’s attention. The angel moved closer to him, edging close enough to brush his shoulder against Dean’s in a silent motion of solidarity. With a slight smile, Dean returned the gesture and kept walking. At least he didn’t have to go through this alone. It was a small comfort, but one he’d take nonetheless. Devonal led the group into a clearing that looked no different than the half-dozen others they’d passed through on their journey, save for the fact that it had a large boulder in the center.
The great stone was at least twice as tall as Dean, and entirely covered in Enochian symbols engraved right into the living rock. Devonal made his way forward and, after cutting his left hand with a silver dagger, placed his bloody palm against a particular symbol. It glowed brightly for a few seconds and then faded, as did the stark red palm-print. An archway appeared in the boulder, and Devonal stepped through it, disappearing down a smoothly paved pathway that wound downward and out of sight. With slight trepidation, Dean followed him, Castiel at his side. After the last member of the group passed through the archway, it disappeared as silently and quickly as it had appeared, sealing them inside.
Glass globes lined the arched stone walls, giving off a constant golden light that illuminated the path as it continued downwards in a gentle slope. Three times the party passed through portions of the hall that had Enochian runes engraved on the walls and floor; Castiel quietly explained to Dean that they were travel gates that shortened the distance needed to travel between one place and another, which made Dean wonder just how far they had traveled. Eventually, the path leveled out and then, after a few hundred yards, opened up onto a broad ledge in a vast cavern. Meriel stopped in front of the railing that separated her from a sharp drop to the cavern floor.
“Welcome,” she said, directing a grin at Dean and Castiel, “to the Haven.”
Chapter 2: A Haven in the Darkness
Dean couldn’t help but stare at the sight stretching out before him. The cavern looked like it could fit a small town inside it, and indeed, there was one down on the cavern floor below. Though there were no paved roads running through the collection of buildings below, there was an organized feel to the whole area. Most of the buildings were made of natural materials, mainly stone and wood, though there was an elegant tower near the center that had metal accents spiraling around its outside. It was also the largest building out of all of them; while the others were two stories high on average, the central tower stood a grand five stories tall, nearly reaching the roof of the cavern. The other buildings were laid out around the tower in near-concentric circles that expanded the farther away from the tower they got.
When Dean’s gaze continued to go upwards, he saw that the roof was not stone as he expected, but instead a starry night sky. After a moment of contemplation, Dean thought he could make out the Big Dipper amongst the faux-celestial bodies. The sight of the familiar constellation made Dean feel a sharp pang of melancholy and pain at the thought that he might not see those stars again for quite some time. Nor for that matter, would he be able to see Sam, which hurt even more. Castiel glanced up as well, a small smile briefly quirking the corners of his mouth up before he continued to follow Devonal and Meriel down the path. Dean walked alongside him, taking in everything around them as they walked.
There were at least six more tunnels and paths besides the one the returning group was on that Dean could see, something that he mentally noted in case this all went south. Of course, that assumed that the paths actually led somewhere better than here, but at the moment, he was willing to take the chance should anything happen. As they reached the cavern floor and made their way into the settlement, there were a few lights visible in the buildings around them. The streets were nearly deserted with only the occasional person passing by on late errands of their own.
As they went, members of the group peeled off until only Devonal and Meriel remained to escort Dean and Castiel through the streets. The four of them ended up at the central tower after five or so more minutes of walking. The tower had no entry doors; only simple archways led into the ground floor. The spacious atrium was nearly empty save for a broad staircase in the center of the room that led up to the second floor. A small desk stood to the right of the staircase, with an extremely bored-looking sparrow-brown-winged angel sitting behind it. He perked up when he heard the sound of the small group’s footsteps on the darkly tiled floor, his wings flaring a little as he straightened up on his stool.
“Hello, Lacael,” Meriel said with a grin as she stopped in front of the desk. “They’ve got you on night duty again? What, that’s the fourth time this week, isn’t it?”
Lacael sighed, wings twitching gently in his annoyance before he got them back under control. “Yes,” he replied. “Terciael is starting to get annoyed with the situation, and he’s not the only one.” He shook his head. “Anyways, what can I help you with?”
“We need to see the Director as soon as possible,” Devonal said. He tilted his head toward Dean and Castiel, who were standing quietly behind him. Lacael looked at the two newcomers, his bright green eyes widening when he focused on Dean.
“Huh. Yeah, uh, sure,” Lacael said with a nod. “He was up in the Observatory with Korai and Tesaviel the last I knew.”
“Thanks, Lacy. Have a good night.” Meriel grinned at her fellow angel’s look of annoyance at the nickname and then headed up the stairs, the others following along behind her. They traveled in silence until Meriel stopped in front of a pair of dark oaken doors on the top floor. A five-pointed star and crescent moon were engraved in gold and silver on the left and right doors respectively. Meriel grabbed one of the elegantly curved brass handles and then pulled open the moon door before heading into the room beyond. As the door opened, a set of voices escaped through the widening gap.
“Sir, please, you need to rest,” a man’s voice was saying. It was a deep, rich, and unctuous voice, one that seemed perfectly suited for reading audio-books or providing voice-overs for movie trailers. “There’s no need for you to wear yourself out trying to do everything. That’s what delegation is for.”
There was a soft snort and then a woman spoke, her voice holding a wry tone. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him for the past twenty-six years, Korai. He hasn’t listened to me any of the times I’ve talked to him about it, and I’m his mate.”
The speakers were hidden from view until Meriel and the others entered the Observatory proper, heading through a short hall before coming out into the main room. It was an open room the entire width of the tower, with a high domed roof arching overhead. In the exact center of the room, a massive metal globe spun ponderously in mid-air, held up by unseen supports. Three angels stood near the window on the far side of the room, all with their backs turned to the door, so the only thing that the four newcomers could see were their wings. The tallest of the trio had a pair of dusty green colored wings, while the shortest had ones that closely resembled those of a barn owl’s. The feathers were all caramel browns and golds, interspersed with black ticking along the lower thirds of the wings; occasionally a flash of white could be seen as they moved with the angel’s breathing.
The last angel had the most impressive wings, and not just in color. Contrary to all of the other angels Dean had seen in this place, this one had not just two, but four of them, and they were some of the largest he had seen. The hunter could just make out the back of the angel’s head through the gap in between the lazily tucked-in wings, and saw that they had hair that nearly matched the wheat-and-honey-golds of the feathers that brushed their back. The angel’s wings were tipped in white, and the longest feathers just barely brushed the plushly carpeted floor.
“Pardon the intrusion,” Devonal said, coming to a halt a respectable distance away from the group and sinking down on one knee as he spoke, “but we have important news to tell you, Director.”
Meriel copied Devonal’s actions, motioning for Dean and Castiel to do the same. Dean was hesitant about making himself vulnerable to a group of unknowns, angels though they may be— and even then, with everything he’d been through, he only truly trusted one angel, and that was Cas —but he knew that they needed all the allies they could get in order to get out of here, so down he went. The three angels at the window turned around at the sound of Devonal’s voice, stopping their quiet conversation immediately.
The Director’s eyes widened a bit at the sight of Dean and Castiel kneeling on the floor, one eyebrow quirking slightly before he bestowed upon them a large grin. In his bemusement, Dean noticed that the Director was barefoot, and barely held back a huff of disbelieving laughter at the sight.
“Well, well, well,” the Director said, stepping forward until he was directly in front of Dean and Castiel and entirely ignoring Devonal and Meriel. “I wasn’t expecting to see you two knuckleheads any time soon.”
Castiel looked up at his brother, a tired smile briefly flitting across his face before disappearing into the æther.
Chapter 3: Answering the Call
It took Sam a good forty-five minutes to get away from Sucrocorp after everything went down. Most of that time had been spent sabotaging the campus and setting up explosions that would hopefully severely cripple the production and shipping of the deadly additive. He couldn't do anything about the stuff that had already shipped, unfortunately, but he'd do his damnedest to make sure that no more went out into the world. Sam paused long enough to retrieve the Impala from the sign Meg had crashed it into, having used some cars he'd found (and hot-wired) in the parking lot as gasoline-fueled incendiary devices parked in the middle of the lobby. He had made sure to give himself some time to get away, but he knew his luck wouldn't hold out for much longer.
The Impala was running a little rough as Sam peeled out of the parking lot, but he ignored it in favor of making a quick getaway. He felt better once he was back on the highway, putting as much distance between himself and what had happened as he could. Sucrocorp was fifty miles in Sam's rearview mirror when his cellphone rang, startling him. Sam pulled off to the side of the road, killing the engine and then hurriedly snatching up the electronic device before answering it.
“Sam?! Oh thank God, you're okay!”
Sam blinked, startled. “Becky?” he spluttered. “What-- How did you get this number?”
“I found it in one of Chuck's unpublished manuscripts,” Becky told him, sounding far too cheery for the current situation. “He sent about six to me last week out of the blue. Said that they might be helpful soon. I was in the middle of reading when I saw that he had written me calling you into the story. Me, Sam.” Becky let out a soft squeal of joy that nevertheless made Sam's ear hurt.
“Becky, I need you to listen to me,” he said, keeping his voice firm. “Does the manuscript say where Dean and Cas are at the moment?”
There was a shuffling of paper on the other end of the line and then a pause. Sam was about to speak when Becky piped up, sounding uncharacteristically subdued.
“Oh. Oh, Sam, I'm sorry.”
“Becky, where are they?”
Becky drew in a deep breath and then let it out slowly; the action translated into a rush of static across the line. “Purgatory,” she said finally. “Oh, Sam, they're in Purgatory. Give me a second; maybe there's more to the story. Let me check through the other manuscripts, there are some here I haven't looked at yet.”
“Sure, Becky.” Sam sat quietly as he listened to Becky rustling around, his thoughts going a mile a second. Purgatory. It made sense, in a twisted way, but still: Purgatory. That was a whole new level of crap added onto the already heaping mountain that seemed to overhang almost every minute of the Winchesters' lives. Sam ran his free hand through his hair, trying to process everything that had happened over the past few hours. It took a few minutes, but eventually Becky came back on the line, sounding far more like her usually manically happy self than she had before.
“Okay, so, I found some things that are so totally awesome that you're going to explode with happiness,” she told him brightly. “The first, and the best, is that Dean and Castiel are okay.”
Sam let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and loosened his almost white-knuckle grip on the phone. “And the second?”
“The first isn't finished, Sam!” Becky told him chidingly. “Dean and Castiel have found these-- well, I guess you could call them freedom fighters of a sort but that's only part of what they do. I mean, it's so totally cool and--”
“Right, right, sorry. Long story short, they were rescued from some absolutely nasty baddies and then taken to this huge underground hideout called the Haven. There're a lot of good supernatural beings and angels there, including-- get this --Gabriel. He's like the Head Honcho of the entire operation, and they have a network of spies and satellite Havens for the people who can't fit in the main Haven.”
“So, Dean and Cas are okay, and they're with Gabriel. Wow. Um, okay. That's... Well, that's fantastic. What was the second 'totally awesome thing'?”
“Oh, right! I can't believe I almost forgot. You need to go to the Blue Moon Motel and Diner on U.S. Route Six. It's about a hundred miles north from where you're at. You should be able to get there in a couple of hours.”
“And what'll happen there?” Sam asked. When Becky replied, he could almost hear the grin in her voice.
“You'll find out when you get there. Goodbye, and good luck, Sam!”
With that, Becky hung up, leaving Sam to his own devices once more. Well, all right then. To the Blue Moon Motel and Diner it was.
The Blue Moon Motel and Diner was a well-kept collection of buildings near a truck stop off of Route Six. Sam pulled the Impala into a parking space, turned it off, and then went inside the diner. It was decorated like a classic 50's-style diner, complete with a clean-cut red-and-white color scheme. The diner was also entirely empty, save for a woman in a long dark blue coat sitting at the counter on one of the pedestal-style bar stools. She looked to be roughly Sam's own age, if not a few years younger. Sam took a seat at the counter a few stools away from the woman, who appeared to be working on a crossword puzzle in the newspaper she was reading. A waitress emerged from the kitchen, her bottle-blond hair held back in a loose ponytail.
“How can I help you, hon?” she asked Sam, grabbing a coffee mug and setting it down in front of him.
“Well, I'm not sure, to be honest. I think I may be supposed to be meeting someone here, but I'm not sure. Do the names Becky Rosen or Sam Winchester mean anything to you?”
The waitress thought it over for a minute and then shook her head. “No, sorry.”
Sam nodded. “It was worth a shot,” he muttered as the waitress poured coffee into his mug. “Thanks, anyways.”
“Sure thing. If you need anything, just holler. I'll be back in the kitchen.” The waitress topped up the other woman's coffee and then left, going back through the swinging door that led into the kitchen. Once the waitress was gone, Sam settled back and sipped at his coffee. It was actually pretty good, if not a little old. He drank his coffee in silence, staring off into space as he did so.
“So, I take it you're Sam Winchester, then?” a voice asked from his left. Sam turned at the sound to see the only other patron in the diner looking at him, her blue-gray eyes reminding the hunter of Castiel's almost, though they weren't as vibrant. She smiled at his instinctual look of distrust and shrugged.
“You don't look much like Becky,” she continued on. “I'm Lee, by the way; Lee Harper. I'm a friend of Becky's, if it helps any. She told me to come here and meet, and I quote, 'a gorgeous tall guy with great eyes and an even better ass. Oh, and his name's Sam'. I can't speak for the state of your ass, but you fit the rest of the description, as well as the fact that you know Becky. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.”
“No, no, I'm Sam. It's nice to meet you, I guess,” Sam said dazedly. “Do you know what's going on here?”
“Not really, but when Becky is reduced to incoherent babbling and the constant repetition of the word 'epic', I've learned that it's probably prudent to check out whatever has her excited, if nothing else to make sure she doesn't get hurt,” Lee said with an expression that spoke volumes about her experiences with Becky's enthusiasm.
“Yeah, the last few times we met, she was definitely a giant ball of energy,” Sam replied, laughing softly. “Did she say if she was going to be here?”
Lee shook her head. “No, but with Becky, it's usually more along the lines of 'when', not 'if'. I've already got a room rented-- she said this could take a while --so it might be prudent for you to do the same. Assuming, of course, that you don't just live nearby.”
“No, I don't. I take it you don't either?”
“Nope. Becky called me a couple days ago, told me that she needed me to come here as soon as I could,” Lee said after taking a sip of her coffee. “I'm based in Boise, but thankfully I'm self-employed, so I can take off some time if I need to. What about you?”
“Basically the same, but I'm out of Kansas,” Sam told her. Well, a half-lie was better than nothing. He sighed softly and then drained the last of his coffee. “I guess I might as well get a room like you said,” he continued on. “I could use a shower and some sleep anyways. See you later, I suppose.”
Sam put a few dollars on the counter for the coffee and then headed over to the motel lobby, which could be accessed via a short hallway at the back of the diner. There was a bored-looking man at the reception desk who barely looked at Sam as he took the credit card Sam handed him and then checked him in. Sam was handed a card-key for Room 17, which he took gratefully. The room was comfortably furnished with a single queen-sized bed, a small kitchenette, and an attached bathroom. Sam lost no time in getting his duffel bag from the trunk of the Impala and then getting into the shower, thankful for the chance to wash away the remnants of the day's battles.
Once he was clean, Sam put on some fresh clothes, laid salt lines at the threshold and windowsill, and then lay down on the bed, intending to only relax for a few minutes before exploring the motel a little more. His intentions were dashed, however, when he succumbed to slumber, the siren call of the soft mattress beneath him overpowering his will to stay awake.
Chapter 4: Small Beginnings
Sam was awoken a few hours later by an enthusiastic series of knocks on his door. He jolted awake, one hand reaching for the nearest weapon before he came back to himself and realized where he was. Sam padded over to the door, gun held loosely in one hand, and checked out the peephole. When he saw who it was waiting for him, he sighed, tucked the gun into the back of his waistband, and, once the sidearm was concealed under his shirt, opened the door. He only got a few seconds worth of time to brace himself before Becky launched herself bodily at him. She actually managed to rock him back a few steps with the force of her hug; Sam noticed with slight annoyance that she had scuffed the salt line across the threshold. No matter. He could always fix that later.
Lee stood in the doorway, watching the proceedings with an amused expression fixed firmly on her face. “Becky, sweetheart, let the man breathe,” she drawled after a few seconds. “We kind of need him in one piece, y'know.”
“Right, right, sorry.” Becky released Sam, who drew in a deep breath gratefully.
“Becky, what's going on here?” he asked, wanting to get to the heart of the matter as soon as possible.
“I'll explain on the way,” Becky said, grabbing hold of Sam's wrist and starting to pull him towards the door. Lee stopped the two of them there, holding out a hand to make Becky come to a halt.
“Let him get his stuff first, Beck,” she said firmly. “Otherwise he'll be locked out of his room at the very least.”
Becky frowned but released Sam, who gave Lee a thankful look before he grabbed his coat, keys, and wallet from the various flat surfaces he'd put them on when he'd first come into the room. Sam shrugged his coat on and then closed the door behind him as Becky led the way, Lee ambling along by her side. The three of them made their way back to the diner, where Sam was pleasantly surprised to see Sheriff Mills, Garth, and, last but not least, Missouri Mosely, all of whom were sitting at several tables that had been pushed together. There were a few other people there as well that Sam didn't recognize, but he figured that if Becky had invited them, they were hunters also; they certainly carried themselves with the habitual wariness of hunters, at the very least.
Sam sat down in the seat Garth pulled out for him, giving the others a pleased but confused smile. Becky took a seat across the table from Sam, while Lee dropped into one of the last chairs at the far end next to one of the men Sam didn't recognize. There were nine of them in all, with four men and five women arranged around the conjoined tables. Becky looked around at all of them with a bright smile and then reached down to retrieve a satchel bag from under the table.
“Okay, so I'm sure you guys want to know why you're here, right?” she began, opening the bag and pulling out slightly rumpled sheaves of paper from within.
“That would be nice,” Jody said dryly. Becky nodded as she started to hand out papers to everyone.
“Well, to begin with, you're all hunters,” Becky said, “and not of the deer or bear kind. You've probably heard of one another by reputation if not by name, so feel free to introduce yourselves while I do this. I'm Becky Rosen, by the way.”
“Jody Mills,” Jody said after a moment's pause. Encouraged by this, the others began introducing themselves, with Lee following after Jody.
There was a soft murmuring from a few of the hunters at Garth's name; while he wasn't as well-known as the Winchesters, the Harvelles, or Bobby, he was still pretty good at what he did. One of the hunters Sam didn't recognize introduced himself next.
“I'm Quentin Jones,” he said, a clipped New England accent flavoring his words.
The last woman, a svelte redhead smiled tightly before saying, “Sasha Beringer. I'd rather not be here, but then again, there's not much choice, given the circumstances.” She turned to the man across from her. “What about you?”
“I'm Jake Cooper,” he said, “and I'm right there with you, Sasha, but I guess we'll just have to work together regardless.”
Jake then looked at Sam. “And who are you?”
Sam sighed and then shrugged. “My name's Sam,” he said. “Sam W--”
Before he could finish speaking, there was the sound of harsh wingbeats, which heralded the arrival of yet another person Sam wasn't expecting to see-- Inias. The lanky angel was in bad shape; his clothes were all torn up and hanging off of him in rags. He was bleeding from the head and had various other wounds scattered around his body. He swayed on his feet and then collapsed to the floor with a groan.
To Sam's surprise, it was Lee who first reacted to Inias's appearance: she gasped sharply, one hand flying up to cover her mouth before she pushed back her chair and got quickly to her feet.
“Who's that?” Quentin asked in confusion, watching as Lee scrambled towards Inias, nearly knocking over her chair in her haste.
“That's my big brother,” Lee said breathlessly, going to her knees next to Inias, not caring how harshly her knees came into contact with the hard checkered floor. Inias looked dizzily up at her, a bleary smile forming when he focused on her face.
“Hi, Pidge,” he murmured fondly. Lee returned his smile with a tight one of her own.
“Heya, Goose,” Lee replied, her voice wavering a little as she spoke. “What the hell happened to you?”
Inias coughed wetly. “Leviathans,” he said with a grimace. “They didn't get close enough to kill me, but they did rough me up quite a bit before I managed to get away.” He started to cough again, blood flecking his lips. Lee's eyes widened in panic and then laid her hands on Inias's chest, ignoring the blood entirely as she tried to get the healing process kick-started. Blood started to vanish from Inias's skin as his wounds slowly began to close, leaving faint healthy pink flesh in its wake.
“Hey, Lee?” Becky asked timidly. “Maybe it'd be better if you did this somewhere a little more private?”
“Hmm?” Lee looked up from her healing, a distant look in her eyes. “Oh, I suppose. Can I use--”
“Do whatever you need, Lee,” Becky told her friend. Lee nodded and then disappeared in a rush of wings, taking Inias along with her. The only evidence that anything had happened was a small pool of blood that marked the spot where Inias had collapsed. The assembled hunters sat there in silence for a little while, and then Sasha spoke up, asking the question almost everyone was wondering.
“What the hell just happened?”
“Angels,” Sam replied in bemused surprise. “Well, that changes everything.”
“Because,” Sam explained quietly, “it means we actually have a better chance of getting through this alive.”
Chapter 5: Echoes of the Stars
There will be times during this chapter when audio links will be provided. Please open one audio link at a time in a new tab (press play for the first one; the others will play automatically), tab back to the story, and then read until the next audio link. This is to provide added ambiance to the story; you may feel free to skip the audio links, but it is highly recommended that you do not in order to get the intended full effects. Thank you.
Dean wasn't sure how long he and Castiel had been in Purgatory, but it felt like it had been half a week at least. Once they'd explained their situation to Gabriel (who, much to Dean's surprise, had wholeheartedly embraced the role of Director when it had been offered to him), the archangel had arranged for the two inadvertent travelers to be provided living quarters. It turned out that sleeping and eating were still necessary in Purgatory, even for the supernatural beings who dwelt there. One of the auxiliary Havens was devoted to farming crops and raising the closest thing to livestock available in this realm. The odd food and artificial day/night cycles had taken some getting used to, but Dean had learned over the years how to be as adaptable as was necessary.
Gabriel had all but commandeered Castiel after he and Dean had arrived, and the hunter hadn't really seen his friend outside of meal times and the occasional passings in the halls of the Hub, which was what the central tower was called by the residents of the Haven. Dean primarily stuck to the Hub, as he didn't want to get lost in the labyrinthine tunnels that surrounded the Haven. There was a moderately sized library on the third floor of the Hub; all of the books within were hand -written and -bound. Dean knew that Sam would have loved to see it, especially the section on the denizens of Purgatory itself. There were also personal chronicles of some of the angels who had been here the longest, which made for fascinating reading.
Dean was sitting in the Observatory near one of the windows late one afternoon, watching the people below going about their various businesses. Occasionally someone would fly by, wings shining in the light of the 'sun'. A small plate of what looked like sliced pears-- but which actually tasted like strawberries --sat on the padded window seat near Dean; he would occasionally eat a slice or two as he watched. The sound of someone clearing their throat behind him made Dean turn his attention away from the window, a slice of almost-pear dripping sticky juices down his hand. It was Tesaviel, the owl-winged angel who had been there when Dean and Castiel had been taken to see Gabriel. She smiled at Dean in greeting.
“Hello, Dean Winchester,” she said. Her voice was a mid-range alto that held an indefinable lilting accent.
“You can just call me Dean,” Dean said with wry amusement. Tesaviel nodded and then glanced out the window, one hand idly running through the underfeathers of a wing. Dean had noticed that most of the angels tended to fiddle with their wings much like a human would their hair or a piece of jewelry when thinking. He waited politely for a little while until his curiosity got the better of him.
“Can I help you with something?” he asked. Tesaviel blinked in surprise, her hand falling back to her side as she focused her attention on Dean.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, I'm sorry,” she said. “I've been told that you were asking about why you haven't been allowed on any of our patrols at the moment.”
“You deal with that sort of thing?”
Tesaviel shrugged; the movement was enhanced considerably with the rise and fall of her wings as well as her shoulders. “With more of the administrative side, but yes, essentially,” she told him, and then smiled wryly. “Even in Purgatory, there's a need for organization and paperwork. Luckily, that was one of my primary duties in Heaven-- logistics --so I don't mind all that much. Anyways, to answer your question, I'd like to show you something, but I'll need you to come with me in order to do so.”
Dean nodded. “Sure,” he said. “It's not like I've got anything better to do.”
“Good.” Tesaviel waited until Dean finished with his snack and then vanished the plate with a small gesture. She produced a cloth handkerchief from a pocket for Dean to wipe his fingers on before turning on her heel and leading the way out of the Observatory. Dean followed the petite brunette angel down to ground level and then out of the Hub. They made their way through the settlement, Tesaviel occasionally greeting people as they passed; if they weren't too busy, most of those greeted returned the salutation readily. Tesaviel led Dean out of the settlement and down a tunnel which was only wide enough for two people to pass one another shoulder-to-shoulder. Smaller versions of the glass globes that served as path lights illuminated the way down the winding tunnel, which descended below the floor of the cavern for a hundred yards or so before terminating at an archway. Unlike many of the other archways in the Haven, this one had a heavy iron door covering it.
Tesaviel pulled the door open and gestured for Dean to go into the room beyond. He did so with a little trepidation, as it looked rather dark and gloomy. A low-burning brazier sat in the center of the room, throwing off a small amount of light as the embers within it smoldered and sparked occasionally. The curving walls, as far as Dean could see, were made of what looked to be obsidian. They were a deep, glossy black, and reflected only the bare minimum of light cast by the brazier. The room got substantially darker when Tesaviel closed the door behind her, locking it with a heavy bar across the center.
“Where are we?” Dean asked, his eyes slowly adjusting to the dim light.
“Roughly translated from the Enochian, we are currently in the Heart of Echoes,” Tesaviel replied. “Or, as Gabriel calls it, 'that creepy-ass cousin of the Chamber of Secrets.'” She paused. “I'm not entirely sure what he is referring to, but I'm told it is from a series of books on Earth.”
Dean laughed a little at that, but privately, he agreed with Gabriel. The chamber was decidedly disconcerting, and Dean hoped that they wouldn't be staying there for very long. Tesaviel stepped up to the brazier and motioned for Dean to do the same on the other side. The low light cast odd shadows on her face, hiding certain features and highlighting others.
“The Heart of Echoes,” Tesaviel began, her voice echoing from the walls, “is a place where things not normally visible can be seen, and things inaudible to heard. I know it sounds odd, and rather nonsensical, but it will become more apparent when an example is provided.” She gestured at the brazier. “A drop of blood in the fire is all I will ask of you.”
“This is supposed to tell me why I can't go on patrols?” Dean asked suspiciously, eyes narrowing slightly.
“For now, yes.”
Dean thought for a moment, considering his options. A single drop of blood wasn't too much to ask, to be honest, and since it'd be falling into the fire and burning away, there wasn't much chance for any blood magic to be performed with it. After a moment's pause, he nodded, and, as he wasn't sure if Tesaviel had seen him, replied verbally as well.
“All right,” he said. “What do I have to do?”
“Give me your hand, and I'll do the rest.”
Dean held out his left hand, and Tesaviel took it with her own. Her right hand held a short silver knife, which she used to prick Dean's index finger. She squeezed the area around the wound until one dark drop of blood welled up and then fell onto the fire, which hissed and spat before almost fading away entirely. A low-level hum started up, as did a soft glow that seemed to come from the walls. The glow condensed and brightened in the center of the room, right over the brazier, and then exploded outwards, leaving trails of white on Dean's vision. The room was plunged into darkness again, but only briefly; when Dean's sight adjusted once more, he drew in a sharp breath.
Shining points of light surrounded the two of them, hanging in the inky blackness like small jewels. Dean felt like he was standing in space, with only the reassuring pressure of the floor under his feet reminding him that he wasn't. As he looked around him in awe, the soft strumming of a guitar began, soon joined by a second one picking out a peaceful melody. His eyes slid shut as the melody wove through the air, filling the room with its sound. He could almost picture long, lazy days of driving down the back roads and highways of the country with Sam and Cas, nothing ahead of them but asphalt and an unhurried destination. There were soft melancholy notes interwoven in the melody, but they added to it rather than detracted from it.
Dean was barely aware of the song ending, but soon another began. This one was different from the first, far more introspective and mature, if such a thing was possible with music. It still had a melancholy air about it, but the measured piano and violins played off of one another so well that it was still quite subtle. The song ended on a quietly hopeful and triumphant note that made Dean think that maybe not all was lost and that things could get better in time. He opened his eyes at the song's end, his breath caught in his chest a little.
“Wow,” was all he could say, blinking in the returned light of the brazier. The stars had faded away into nothingness once more, leaving only the low glow of the embers as a source of illumination.
“Indeed.” Tesaviel looked at him with an inscrutable expression. “Do you see now why you can't go on patrol right now?”
Tesaviel sighed softly. “What you just saw and heard was a physical representation of your soul. Human souls are almost invariably bright and alluring, especially to beings attuned to them. The more powerful denizens of Purgatory are among those, but even the lesser beings here can still detect it. Considering that you are still alive, your soul is even more attractive. However, given the fact that you are so well suited to fighting the various creatures who inhabit the above-world, the Council asked that I aid you in making a pendant much like the one we angels use to dim our Graces when we go above-ground.”
“So you had to do all this when you came here?” Dean asked, waving a hand at the brazier. Tesaviel nodded.
“Yes,” she replied, and then looked at him speculatively. “I'm guessing you want to see what that looked like?”
Dean smirked. “I showed you mine; why not show me yours?”
Tesaviel smiled a little, shaking her head in amusement. “Very well, but I'll need to do something first.” She reached out and gently tapped one of Dean's temples before repeating the process on the other side.
“What did you just do?” Dean asked suspiciously, eyes narrowing. He had felt a warm tingling around his eyes and ears after the angel had touched him.
“I made sure you won't go blind or deaf,” Tesaviel said dryly. “I thought you might appreciate that.”
“Oh. Um, okay. Now what?”
Tesaviel merely cut her hand with the silver knife she had cleaned off and let a drop of blood fall onto the coals. The fire faded away more quickly than it had for Dean, the ball of light coalescing over the brazier once more before bursting violently apart. Where Dean's soul had looked like a star field, Tesaviel's Grace was like an entire galaxy. The soft, breathy notes of what sounded like a French horn started up from somewhere, backed by slow strings. The melody was ethereal and spoke of far off places unknown to man. Just underneath the music, Dean could hear a multitude of people singing in concert.
'Glory to the Highest,' they proclaimed in voices like resounding bells and chimes, 'glory and all blessings to the Most High, He who loves all!'
The voices continued on even as the music faded momentarily. The voices died down almost to a whisper as the melody segued into a far more heart-wrenching key, with the notes of a plaintive violin filling the room. The music spoke of great loss and sadness, and Dean had to surreptitiously brush tears away from his cheeks, glad of the fact that Tesaviel wasn't really focusing on him at the moment. She was instead staring off into space, her thoughts obviously miles-- or perhaps dimensions --away. The music slowly died away, as did the lights. Dean kept quiet, not wanting to disturb Tesaviel's thought-processes. The angel eventually snapped herself out of her trance-like state, her wings shuffling as she refocused on Dean.
“My apologies,” she said, her gaze still a little distant. “It's been a while since I've heard my Grace-song aloud.”
“It's okay,” Dean told her. “Now, about that pendant?”
“Right.” Tesaviel coughed softly and then gestured at the brazier. “Simply pick up one of these embers.”
“Sorry, what?” Dean stared at her, flabbergasted. “You're kidding, right?”
“No, I'm not.” Tesaviel frowned at him, head tilting to one side briefly before her expression cleared. “Oh, right, burning. Don't worry; if you do get hurt, I'll heal you straight away. However, it's highly unlikely.”
“Says the angel to the very mortal human,” Dean said dryly. He looked down at the dimly glowing coals, his face scrunching up in discomfort. “God, this is going to suck.”
He drew in a deep breath and then reached into the brazier, choosing a ember at random. Dean snatched the coal up, his eyes involuntarily closing as he braced himself for the expected searing pain of a burn. It never came; instead, there was an unexpected cool hardness beneath Dean's fingers. He opened his eyes to see that the coal had been encased in a diamond-hard crystalline coating; the coal still glowed a dim red within its clear casing. A small half-loop had formed at the top of the pendant, and through that opening was threaded a dark metal chain that looped back on itself without the aid of a clasp. The chain was long enough for Dean to slip it over his head, but not so long that it would be hanging out from under Dean's shirt.
“Whoa. That was-- Dude, I was not expecting that,” Dean said, very impressed indeed. Tesaviel laughed softly and then nodded.
“Not many people do,” she told him with a smile. “Now, what do you say we go rejoin the others for our evening meal? We've been down here longer than it seems.”
Now that Dean thought about it, he was starting to get pretty hungry. Those almost-pears seemed like ages ago. “Sounds good,” he said, slipping the chain over his head and then tucking the amulet down his shirt. It was small enough that it didn't really show all that much through the fabric of his shirt. Tesaviel removed the bar from the door and then pulled the door open, letting in the golden glow of the lights outside. It took a little while for their vision to adjust to the change in light, but once they were ready, Tesaviel and Dean made their way back to the settlement.
They were having dinner in the small suite of rooms that Gabriel and Tesaviel had in the Hub near the library. Castiel was already there when Tesaviel and Dean arrived, but Gabriel was nowhere to be seen. The food was waiting on the table, keeping warm with small heating charms that had been placed on the serving plates for the dishes that needed it. Castiel looked up from the book he'd been reading, a pleased smile forming when he saw who it was.
“Hello,” he said. “Gabriel will be back momentarily; Korai had some business that needed Gabriel's personal touch.”
“Which means he has to deal with some idiot trying to 'make the system better.' I wonder who it is this time,” Tesaviel said with a sigh and an expressive roll of her eyes. She sat down in a chair across from Castiel, her wings neatly folding over the low back. All furniture within angelic dwellings was built like that, with wings in mind, but Gabriel had helpfully provided some chairs more suited for human physiologies for Dean and Castiel to use.
Dean sat down as well, sinking into the seat next to Castiel. “Do we have to wait for him?” Dean asked. “'Cause if we do, we're going to be here for a while.”
“Go ahead and eat,” Tesaviel told him, taking some not-quite-chicken and a few leafy greens that looked like cabbage and tasted like spinach. Dean and Castiel did the same, Castiel marking his place in his book before tucking in. Gabriel came in ten minutes later, looking rather ruffled. His wings were held tightly against his back, a sure sign of his annoyance.
“Dad save me from the idiots who think that just because they've got wings, they're better than everyone else,” he snarled, shutting the front door forcefully behind him. He threw himself into the chair to Tesaviel's right, a thunderous expression on his face. Tesaviel merely placed a few of Gabriel's favorite foods on his plate and then returned to her own meal, knowing that Gabriel would soon calm down. Dean noted, however, that Tesaviel extended one wing just enough to brush against the back of Gabriel's, providing a quiet show of emotional support.
“Perhaps you can take Mordecai's offer of becoming your assistant into consideration,” Castiel suggested. “He did seem rather eager to prove himself to you, brother, especially for a kitsune.”
Gabriel grunted as he cut into his meat, but it was more of a considering sound than a negative one. The four of them fell into silence once more, focusing on their food more than conversation. As the meal progressed, Gabriel seemed to calm down; his wings, at the very least, had settled into a more relaxed position by the end of the meal. Once everyone was finished and the food had been cleared away, the four of them stayed at the table and talked about what they had done over the day.
Castiel was interested to hear about Dean's experience in the Heart of Echoes, and the hunter was more than willing to show his friend what had come out of it. Castiel examined the encased ember with immense interest, turning it over and over in his hands before carefully handing it back to Dean. The hunter put it back on, slipping the pendant back under his shirt.
“You know,” Gabriel said when Dean mentioned wanting to search for a way out of Purgatory now that he would be able to go on patrols thanks to the amulet, “you could always see if the Eldest know anything. If there's a way out, they probably are aware of it.”
“The angels who had the misfortune to die first out of all of us,” Tesaviel said solemnly. “Rekasiel, the Architect, is one of the Eldest, and she may know the best way. After all, she built the Haven, so it stands to reason that she might have an idea of what to do. We could set out tomorrow if you like, but it will take a few days to get there, even with traveling runes, as the Eldest live in one of the far auxiliary Havens.”
“Well, I guess we'll just have to put our walking boots on,” Dean said firmly. Gabriel smirked at that and then nodded.
“Great. You get to fill out all the paperwork, then.”
Laughter broke out around the small table, filling the room. Even as he laughed, Dean felt like he was finally working towards a tangible goal. It felt good to be actually doing something rather than sitting around on his ass, a situation Dean had never felt comfortable in. He was a man of action through and through, and had been ever since he'd been given charge of Sam that fateful fiery night. He wasn't about to stop now.
Chapter 6: On the Road Again
The small party left the Haven after lunch the next day, once all the logistics had been figured out and Castiel had received his own Grace-shielding amulet. Dean and Castiel were a necessary part of the group, and were joined by Gabriel, Tesaviel, Meriel, and a skinwalker named Ryan, who was one of the Haven's best hunters and trackers. He had died at the hands of a hunter, but hadn't let that stop him from making quick friends with the two newcomers regardless. Ryan was affable and easy going, but could be serious when needed. Each member of the party had been given packs with enough supplies to last them until they got to the auxiliary Haven.
Gabriel led the way while they were still underground in the tunnels, his booted footsteps sure as they went. The travelers stayed in the tunnels for several hours until they emerged from a portal-rock into the gloom-ridden forest that seemed to make up the entirety of the above-ground portion of Purgatory. Dean kept a wary hand on the butt of his gun as he stepped out onto the leaf-mold strewn ground, senses going on high alert. All of the angels had longswords hanging from their waists, while Ryan was outfitted with a series of knives secreted on his person and a short sword strapped to his back. Dean had knives as well, but at the moment his gun was the weapon he had closest at hand.
Castiel walked alongside Dean, dressed in the comfortable clothing that had been provided to both him and Dean at the Haven. He looked far more at ease in the dark near-cotton shirt and linen pants than he had ever in the hospital scrubs he'd been in for the past few months. His trenchcoat had been freshly laundered before leaving the Haven, and it swept almost theatrically above the ground as Castiel strode along. Dean glanced over at his friend and had to hide a smile; it felt good to see Cas looking more like the serious-minded warrior Dean had come to know and respect over the years rather than a confused, lost puppy in a floppy trenchcoat. Purgatory seemed to have had a cleansing effect on Castiel's mental state; ever since he and Dean had arrived, the hunter had noticed a clarity come over the angel that hadn't been present since Castiel had taken in Sam's hallucinations and pain. Dean had privately mused that being around his angelic brethren had helped Cas's mental state as well, but kept it to himself. He didn't need the smug air that he was relatively sure Gabriel would assume if Dean advanced that theory.
Said archangel was talking in quiet undertones to Meriel, who was looking grim as she listened and occasionally responded to Gabriel's inquiries. Tesaviel was paired with Ryan, and the two of them were walking along in companionable silence. Occasionally, Ryan would change to his canine form-- a sharp-eared and -nosed brindle coyote --and scout ahead, his sensitive nose working overtime to search out the safest path. The small party traveled for several miles in the gloom, keeping an eye and ear out for any would-be attackers. It remained quiet, with only the occasional far-off screech or roar echoing in the distance.
The silence, however, did not last very long. The growls and screeches started to grow nearer, and rustling in the low bushes and trees surrounding the rough path the travelers were on. Gabriel held up a hand in a signal for the others to stop, the other one coming to rest on the rounded pommel of his sword. He listened to the oncoming sounds for a few seconds and then drew his blade, prompting the others to do the same. Dean readied his gun; the weapon had been enchanted by one of the mage-smiths housed in the Haven to never jam or run out of bullets. Dean hadn't been sure about letting his only non-bladed weapon be messed with, but he'd been assured that it was one of the only ways to always be prepared on patrols, as he didn't have much skill with a long-blade.
A low growl from Gabriel's right had the archangel tightening his grip on his sword, muscles tensing in preparation for combat. The rustling in the bushes increased and then a large black shape launched itself at Gabriel, who swung his blade in a smooth arc at it. The edge of the blade bit into the side of the shadow creature, drawing both black ichor and a sharp squeal from the boar-shaped beast. Dean didn't get much longer to see Gabriel fight, as more inky-black creatures emerged from the trees and bushes, intent on tearing the travelers to pieces. Dean shot at a wolf-like creature several times, and then switched to a blade once the combat got too close to use the gun effectively.
He lost himself in the fight, only peripherally aware of the others until he found himself battling back-to-back with Castiel. “You doin' okay, Cas?” Dean asked as there was a brief lull in the battle.
“Yes, Dean,” Castiel replied tersely, his attention laser-focused on the creatures attacking him. He lunged at one that looked like a cross between an emu and a velociraptor, his blade slicing into its neck and through feather-covered skin, muscle, and sinew before he pulled it back, leaving the monster mortally wounded. A thought came to Dean in that moment, even as he struck down a monster of his own.
“Can these things actually die?” he asked the nearest Purgatory native, who happened to be Meriel.
“As far as we know,” she replied, darting forward and driving back a small pack of shadow beasts with her blade and a flare of light, “but since we can't exactly track their numbers, we're not sure.”
“So this might be entirely pointless, then?”
“Not pointless,” Ryan said, panting a bit as he fought. “It's-- Hey, Gabriel, watch out!”
Dean turned to see a particularly large shadow beast launching itself at Gabriel, vicious-looking claws extended in preparation to rend the archangel's flesh. There was a harsh cry of anger and then Tesaviel was bringing her sword to bear on the shadow beast, wings flared back and upwards as she drove her blade down on the beast's back. It fell out of the air and landed on the ground with a harsh thump, bouncing a few times before coming to rest. Gabriel quickly cut off its head while Tesaviel jerked her blade out of the beast's body, the sickly sound of rending flesh accompanying the motion.
The beast seemed to be the leader of the attacking group, as the battle soon petered out, leaving the six warriors to catch their breaths and tend their wounds. All of them were covered in black ichor and feeling sore and worn out; Dean couldn't remember the last time he'd been this exhausted after a battle. Well, okay, that poltergeist in Amistad had been pretty bad. He'd slept for twelve hours or so afterwards, according to Sam, and had nearly punched his brother in the face for daring to wake him from the much needed slumber.
Gabriel was busy cleaning off the ichor off his blade when Dean looked around, with Tesaviel doing the same nearby. Meriel was healing Ryan's wounds, making sure that the skinwalker was able to continue traveling. Castiel finished wiping down his sword and then turned to look at Dean.
“We should keep moving,” he said, sheathing his blade and straightening out his coat. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah,” Dean replied with a nod and then frowned a little. “I wish we could just fly there.”
“I thought you hated flying.”
“I do,” Dean said with a grimace, “but it would be better than having to fight off these sons of bitches.”
“Yeah, sorry, Deano,” Gabriel told him, “but the Eldests' Haven is hard to spot from the air, not to mention it's a bitch to get airborne given how close the branches of the trees are here.”
Dean sighed and then nodded. As much as he hated to admit it, Gabriel was right. “Yeah, okay. Let's get out of here.”
They continued on their way, heading deeper into the shadowy environs of Purgatory.
Three days later, the six travelers had stopped to make camp and rest for a few hours. They were almost to the auxiliary Haven, which everyone was grateful for. All of them were tired of traveling. On his part, Dean was tired, hungry, and cold. Falling bodily into Purgatory hadn't been one of his best ideas, to be honest, but then again, when had he ever had many good ideas? At least Cas was there-- or he was, but now he'd gone off again, presumably to check the camp perimeter or something --so there was a small amount of familiarity Dean could work with, not to mention the presence of Gabriel. He shivered in the crook of the tree he'd climbed up into in an attempt to get away from the ground where the largest shadow creatures lived, and tried to huddle into his jacket some more. The other members of their party were stuck up in trees as well, though the angels seemed to be more comfortable in their aerial perches than Dean was. His thoughts drifted to Sam as he tried to get comfortable, something that seemed to be happening more and more these days.
It'd strike him while he was walking-- and they'd been doing a lot of that the past few days, interspersed with fighting off random attacks from the shadow beasts --that Sam was all alone, and Dean would wonder if his brother was safe and sound back on Earth. He hoped so. He also hoped that Sam wasn't still alone. In Dean's experience, any time Sam got left alone for too long, something went wrong.
The sounds of wings fluttering nearby broke Dean's train of thought and alerted him to Castiel's reappearance on the broad limb next to him.
“Everything okay, Cas?” Dean asked, straightening up a little from his huddled posture to look at the angel. Castiel nodded and then frowned at Dean.
“Here,” he said, shrugging off his coat and then handing it to Dean. “You need this more than I do.”
Dean blinked and then smiled lopsidedly. “Thanks, Cas,” he replied as he slid the trenchcoat around his shoulders. It was a little narrow in the shoulders for him, but the warmth it gave him was more than welcome. Castiel nodded and then turned his attention to the ground below, going almost completely still save for the gentle rise and fall of his chest and back.
“You should sleep,” Castiel murmured, his gaze momentarily flicking up to Dean before returning to the ground, “while you have the chance, anyways. We still have a long way to go.”
“Yeah, I guess. Night, Cas.”
“Good night, Dean.”
Dean settled back against the broad trunk of the tree and closed his eyes, the familiar scent of Castiel's coat helping him relax enough to drop off to sleep. It wasn't perfect, but it would do.
Chapter 7: The Calm Before the Oncoming Storm
Inias floated in an sea of darkness, his entire vessel suspended effortlessly by the inky void surrounding him. He wasn't sure if he had died or not; if he had, he was seriously disappointed by the afterlife given to him by his Father. He also wasn't sure how long he'd been here, as his usually impeccable sense of time had fallen by the wayside. With nothing better to do, Inias amused himself by trying out various ways of moving. He was flexing his wings, trying to see if he could get any forward momentum going-- though he wasn't sure how he'd be able to track his progress, given the lack of visual landmarks --when a far-off point of light caught Inias's attention. It slowly grew closer to him, bringing a warmth with it that the angel hadn't even noticed was absent from the area around him. As the light grew nearer, Inias could see that the light was in face in the shape of a small bird.
It was mercury silver and ethereal, trailing wisps of vapor from the tips of its fluttering wings as it moved. Inias reached out to the pigeon with one hand, and it landed delicately on his fingers, idly preening its gaseous wing feathers before looking up at him. The bird was cool to the touch and seemed almost weightless; there was only the faintest suggestion of pressure to indicate that it was there. It tilted its head inquisitively to one side and then cooed at him, the soft sound low and comforting. Inias lifted his hand until he could look the bird in the eye. Its glow illuminated his face, throwing it into sharp relief.
“Hello, little one,” Inias murmured, a gentle smile curving his lips upwards. “It's been a while since I've seen something like you. I don't suppose there are many in Heaven who would remember how to make anything similar.”
The bird cooed again and then shuffled a little on its perch before rubbing its head briefly against Inias's cheek. It then launched itself into the air, circling around Inias several times before soaring away. Inias mourned the loss of his all too brief companion as the area around him returned to its prior state. Said state didn't last very long, though, as the Grace-sending (the proper name for the little bird, though the term hadn't been used in millenia, not since the baptism at Galilee) returned, accompanied by a small flock of its fellows. The flock surrounded Inias and flooded the area around him with light and warmth. The original Grace-sending landed on top of Inias's head and settled in with a smug air.
Inias couldn't help but to laugh, particularly so when the little bird chirped authoritatively at the others from its perch. The rest of the flock got into orderly concentric circles stacked around Inias, arranging themselves so that they had but a fingertip's worth of space between their wings and that of their brethren. The flock began to move around Inias, the top ring going clockwise while the one below it moved counter-clockwise; the rest of the rings did the same, alternating the direction of their movement in accordance to the rings above them. An ethereal melody began to form as the rings of Grace-sendings spun ever faster, surrounding and filling the air around them. Inias's eyes slid shut as he took in the wordless song, letting the chords and progressions fill his ears and mind.
The melody spoke of home to him; home and hope and peace and absolute love. It filled the angel's heart and mind and Grace so entirely that he thought he might burst from the overabundance of emotions. The music blazed through and around him, banishing the darkness and replacing it with light. A warmth spread through Inias's entire being, bathing every cell in his vessel so thoroughly that his breath was stolen away. The melody reached a crashing crescendo and then stopped abruptly, sending Inias's mind reeling. He strained his ears to hear any echoes of the song, but instead of the brilliant strains, Inias could make out the soft sounds of someone breathing slowly and regularly nearby.
Inias slowly opened his eyes to find himself staring up at a ceiling that was yellowed by spidery water stains. There was a soft snuffle and a gentle movement to his left that caused Inias to carefully turn his head towards their source. Lee was sitting in a chair next to Inias's bed, slumped against the edge of the mattress with her head resting awkwardly in the cradle of her arms. She held Inias's closest hand in both of her own, her fingers wrapped gently around Inias's hand and pressing lightly into his palm. Inias couldn't help but smile at the sight.
“She's been like that for the past four hours. I was going to try and wake her if either of you didn't do anything soon.”
Inias turned his head to see Becky sitting in a chair in a corner of the room, her legs drawn awkwardly up against her chest. She was barefoot and looked about as good as Inias felt. Inias gave Becky a weak smile and then returned his attention to Lee. He reached across himself, gently prised Lee's hands apart, and then sett them on the mattress. Lee stirred at the motion; she lifted her head and blinked blearily at Inias before focusing entirely on him. The two angels were so focused on one another that they didn't even notice Becky putting her shoes on and then slipping quietly out of the room.
“Inias,” she breathed, smiling wearily at her brother. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, thanks to you,” Inias replied, returning Lee's smile. “It's been a while, Alinarael.”
Lee's smile turned bittersweet. “It's been a long while since anyone's called me that,” she said quietly. “Then again, it's also been a while since I've spoken with any of our family for a substantial length of time.”
“That's to their detriment, then,” Inias told her firmly, placing a hand over one of Lee's. Lee nodded and then sighed.
“You caused quite a bit of fuss, turning up like you did,” she informed Inias. “I had to wipe the memory of the waitress when you were finally stable. Thank Dad the others kept her from telling anyone about your flashy entrance.”
“Sorry about that,” Inias said, sounding mildly sheepish, “but I was more focused on escaping the Leviathans and finding a safe place to heal than worrying about potential witnesses.” He paused for a moment. “Thank you, by the way, for healing me. I wasn't sure I would survive.”
Lee frowned a little at her brother's words. “Why wouldn't I have healed you?” she asked, confused. “You're my brother; of course I'm going to heal you. Idiotic goose.”
“Silly pigeon,” Inias retorted, a fond grin on his face. He carefully sat up, Lee moving to help him when he struggled to get properly upright.
“Well, now that you're actually conscious, I can do a bit of more intensive healing on you,” she said. Inias arched an eyebrow at this.
“'More intensive?' Alinarael, you just performed a near-total Grace mending. What more do you think you can do?”
“This.” Lee reached out and touched Inias on the forehead with two gentle fingers. Inias blinked and then sighed softly in relief when he realized that the bone-deep ache that had permeated his vessel had disappeared entirely. He could breathe regularly now, and his heartbeat had settled into normality as well. Inias blinked and then smiled.
“Thank you again, sister,” he said softly. Now that his attention wasn't focused on his various aches and pains, he realized that he was entirely unclothed under the blankets, save for his underwear. “I don't suppose you know what happened to my clothes?”
Lee chuckled. “They were pretty torn up when you flew in, and to be honest, they weren't fit for the rag bin once I got finished healing the worst of your wounds. Not to worry, though,” she said when she saw Inias's expression, “some of the others went to the nearest clothing store and picked up a few things for you after we checked your sizes. I mean, the outfit's not exactly a suit like you had, but it'll work for your needs.”
Inias shrugged. “I think I'll be all right with whatever you give me.”
“I should hope so,” Lee said dryly. “Anyways, your clothes are over there”--- she pointed at a neatly folded stack of clothes sitting on top of the low bureau across the room ---“so when you're feeling up to it, we should probably go and meet up with the others.”
“That woman who was in here before--”
“I suppose. Anyways, she said that you had been healing me for the past four hours. Given that it was evening when I arrived-- or at least, that's what it seemed like; I wasn't really paying attention --wouldn't they be asleep by now?”
“I suspect most of them are, but I'm sure that some of them are still awake. Becky still is, at least; that much I do know,” Lee told Inias, getting to her feet and stretching the kinks out of her back. “Look, why don't you get dressed and then we can go see who is still up and about.”
Inias nodded and then pushed back the blankets. Lee turned her back out of deference to her brother's privacy, one of the many habits picked up from two millenia of interacting with humanity. Inias got out of bed and then crossed the room to where his clothes were, getting dressed quickly and efficiently. He had been provided with a light blue dress shirt and plain black slacks, as well as black dress socks and shoes. Inias finished buttoning up his shirt and then looked up to see Lee still waiting with her back turned to him. Inias grinned and then quietly padded across the floor until he was right behind her. Lee didn't turn around at Inias's approach, and only acknowledged his presence when he wrapped his arms around her waist in a tight hug.
“Inias!” Lee yelped, jumping a little in place. Inias didn't let go but merely held onto her, chin nestled on top of Lee's head. Lee sighed and then relaxed into the hug, leaning back against her brother's chest. They stood there quietly, simply reveling in one another's presences. The two of them had been particularly close when they had both still been in Heaven; they had trained and fought side-by-side before Lee had been assigned to watch over a particular bloodline throughout the centuries that was known to play an important role in the Apocalypse. Inias had been created before Lee, and had been tasked in training her and several other angels of her generation before he had been assigned to Castiel's garrison. The two of them had grown close during their time together; after several centuries, their wing-based nicknames had become as regularly used as their true names.
Inias let Lee go after about a minute, stepping away from her as he did so. “Should we go and talk with the others, then?”
“Yeah,” Lee replied, and then paused. “It might be better to walk to the diner, though. Just in case.”
Inias nodded and then the two of them left, locking the room behind them after magically cleaning everything within said room. They walked quietly to the diner, never straying more than a step or two away from one another. Their shoulders brushed as they went, and the two angels stayed close to one another even as they entered the diner. It was almost deserted, with only a few people still hanging around. There were three truckers sitting at the bar, each more focused on their coffee and food rather than their fellow patrons. Sam, Becky, and Jody were sitting in a round booth in a far corner, keeping their voices low as they conversed.
Becky was the first one to look up as the two angel approached, smiling brightly when she saw Inias's restored state. “You're okay!” she said happily, getting to her feet. Lee stepped in front of Inias just in time to intercept Becky's enthusiastic greeting.
“Beck, hon, let's not glomp the newly healed angel, okay?” Lee said, keeping her voice down. “I've only just got him back up and working; he still needs some time to recover.”
Becky blinked in mild consternation and then nodded. “Yeah, okay. Um, do either of you want anything to eat?”
“I don't--” Inias began as Lee led him to the table, but his sister shook her head.
“Maybe some fries or something,” she told Becky. “Nothing real heavy right now.”
“Cool. I'll go find the waitress.” Becky wandered off to the front counter, allowing the two angels to take their seats at the table. Lee rolled her eyes fondly at her friend's actions and then turned to Sam and Jody.
“Sorry about leaving you so abruptly earlier,” she apologized.
“Don't worry about it,” Jody replied. “So, you two are angels. Wasn't expecting that.”
“Yes, well, I wasn't expecting to let people know until it was absolutely necessary,” Lee said dryly, appreciating the Sheriff's to-the-point manner. “Out of curiosity, how did the others react?”
“Well, Quentin and Jake weren't particularly keen on sticking around, but Missouri and Sam managed to bring them around,” Becky said, dropping into the booth beside Jody. “The others seemed pretty okay with it; Helen said that having as many allies as possible in the fight was a good thing, especially ones as powerful as you two.”
“We'll do the best we can,” Inias said, “but the main enemy-- the Leviathans --they're angel-killers. We are going to have to be very careful around them.”
Sam nodded. “Yeah, but according to Crowley”--- and here Sam scowled in annoyance at the demon-king's actions --- “the Leviathans will be easier to deal with now that Dick Roman's gone. Let's hope he wasn't lying.”
“He's a demon; it's probably a--” Jody began, but stopped when the waitress dropped off a basket of freshly made French fries on the table. The Sheriff only resumed the conversation when the waitress moved away. “Anyways. He hasn't exactly proved to be entirely trustworthy in the past; we should probably take his 'advice' with several heaping tablespoons of salt.”
“Yeah, probably,” Sam said, leaning back against the squeaky vinyl-covered seat. Lee snagged a few of the fries and then held one out to Inias.
“Fry?” she asked before munching on one of her own. Inias regarded the proffered snack curiously and then looked up at Lee.
“You eat food, Alinarael? You do know it's not necessary, right?” he asked. Lee shrugged.
“Yes, well, it helps to blend in with the locals,” she said once she'd finished her food. “You might want to try doing the same, especially if you're going to be hanging around for long. You are going to stay, right?”
“For as long as I can,” Inias replied, taking the fry from Lee with a small smile. He examined the salty fried strip of potato and then, with a shrug, ate it. He contemplated the mix of flavors as he chewed and then nodded.
“Not bad,” he said with satisfaction. Lee grinned at his reaction.
“Wait 'til you try steak,” she told him, amused. Sam chuckled softly and then took a few sips of his water. He sat there in silence, merely drinking in the peaceful atmosphere of the diner and the presence of friendly companions, until a thought struck him when he glanced at Inias, who was now happily eating the fries, occasionally dipping them in the ketchup Becky had provided him.
“Inias, where were you when you were attacked? Was it anywhere nearby?”
Inias broke off his conversation with Becky at Sam's question, a ketchup-tipped fry halfway to his mouth. He lowered his hand as he shook his head. “No. I believe I was somewhere near...” He paused, frowning for a second before continuing on. “Tillamook, Oregon. Yes, that sounds about right. There were four of the Leviathans fighting me; I managed to incapacitate two of them, but the other two-- Well, you saw what they did. I had to abandon the fight if I wanted to stay alive much longer.”
“Hey, you took care of two of the bastards; I think you can be forgiven for wanting to keep breathing,” Jody said firmly. She sighed and then ran a hand through her hair. “God, I need to sleep. Look, why don't we pick this up in the morning when we're all rested and together?”
“We'll keep watch,” Lee assured the others, sliding out of the booth and getting smoothly to her feet. Inias followed her example, snagging the last few fries from the basket and eating them. Lee idly handed her brother a napkin to use before the two of them made a swift exit, leaving by the door, as the truckers were still in the diner. Once outside and out of sight of the front windows, the two angels disappeared into the night, flying up to the roof of the motel and beginning to lay down some basic protection wards. Most of the wards were temporary and would fade in a few days; neither angel wanted to leave behind too much evidence of their location for potential enemies to use.
Once the wards were in place, Inias and Lee settled in on the roof of the diner, watching the stars wheel overhead in a companionable silence. They were ready to take on whatever might come their way, but for now-- well, for now, they planned on enjoying whatever moments of peace and quiet they could get; it would be much needed in the coming days ahead.
Chapter 8: The Most Dangerous Thing
The next morning, the small group of hunters and angels gathered in the untouched room that Lee had paid for when she had arrived the previous day; it was rather crowded with ten people in the small room, but they all managed to squeeze in regardless. Once everyone had arrived-- Sasha still munching on a chocolate-glazed donut she'd gotten at the diner --Becky looked around at the assembled group and then smiled.
“Okay, so, did everyone read through the stuff I gave you last night?” she asked. Her face fell when she saw the general blank looks shared amongst the group. “Aw, come on, guys, I gave those to you for a reason!”
“I looked through it, but it didn't say anything about what happens after we first met in the diner,” Sam said. “Sorry, Becky.”
Becky sighed dramatically, sitting down in one of the few free chairs available. “That's okay,” she said, waving a hand in an idle gesture. “It was to provide backstory more than anything, I guess.”
“You said you had six of those things, though,” Sam continued on. “What happened to them?”
Becky grimaced. “Um, I was only able to get the first two opened?” she said. “The others were password-protected. It was kinda weird, actually; they needed answers to questions I didn't know. I guess we'll find out what they are as we go along.”
“Is anyone going to explain what's going on?” Sasha asked dryly. “You know, fill the rest of us in and everything?”
“Her ex-boyfriend is a prophet,” Sam explained succinctly. “It's kind of a long story, but he chronicles what happens to my brother and me. We haven't heard anything from him in a while, actually.” He turned to Becky once more. “Did Chuck say why he sent those manuscripts to you? Knowing him, he'd probably be able to see our phone numbers if he needed to contact Dean or me.”
Becky shrugged. “Nope,” she said. “He just said they might help in the long run. He sent them via e-mail, so all I've got is an e-mail address and six word documents, four of which I can't actually open yet.”
“Well, now that that's cleared up, can you explain why we've got two angels here?” Quentin asked, pointing at Inias and Lee, who were standing next to Garth and Missouri. “Or at least, two beings who say that they're angels?”
“Oh, they're angels all right,” Missouri said. “Trust me on this one.”
“How would you know?”
“Because I'm not goin' to lie about people who've offered to help us, that's why.”
Lee sighed and then stepped away from the wall she had been leaning against. “Would it help if I could prove it?” she asked.
“Well, then, I'd have to change my tune, now wouldn't I?” Quentin countered, crossing his arms over his chest. Lee shrugged, only the rolling motion didn't stop at her shoulders. There was the sudden rumble of thunder overhead, and the lights flickered and dimmed as the shadows of two elegant wings unfurled against the nearest wall, stretching at least fifteen feet wide, if not larger. At that moment, Sam thought Lee looked sharp and dangerous, not at all like the affable and easy-going woman he'd gotten to know over the past eighteen hours. The shadows faded as the lights returned to normal, and silence reigned as the hunters who had never encountered an angel before stared at Lee in shock.
Lee stifled her urge to roll her eyes and looked at Quentin, one eyebrow arched. “Now do you believe me?”
Quentin nodded mutely; Lee smiled tersely at him before turning her attention to Becky. “So, now what?” she inquired. “Now that you've got what's probably the largest concentration of hunters in North America at the moment, what's the plan from here?”
Becky shrugged. “I don't know. I mean, I'm not exactly a hunter; I only followed the directions Chuck gave me.”
“True,” Sam said, looking thoughtful, “but you did manage to get all of us here. Given that most hunters tend to work alone on most things, getting six of us together in one place voluntarily is a pretty big achievement. Someone with that ability is really useful, and with Bobby--” He paused and then shook his head. “Well, with Bobby gone, we're going to need someone to step into his role.”
“Wait, Singer's dead?” Jake asked, looking startled. “When? How?”
“About a month ago, and Leviathans,” Jody said, speaking up for the first time. “Sam's right, though; we need to organize ourselves, especially since we've got a common enemy in the Leviathans. Now, I'm not saying you need to stop hunting the other evils that have decided to make this world their home, but the Leviathans are the main problem at the moment.”
“Agreed,” Garth said. “We need someone to be our official contact for our covers, and maybe some sort of database for all the lore we've come across over the years. Having a way to track Levis would be useful, too, not to mention a place to crash or meet up if necessary, since the Roadhouse isn't around and Bobby's out of the picture.”
Becky pondered this for a moment and then nodded. “Yeah, I could do that,” she said after a moment. “I don't know if I have enough space for people to stay over in my apartment, though. It's not very big.”
Lee shifted a little in place at Becky's words, enough for one of her shoulders to brush against her brother's. Inias glanced over at her while the others began throwing out different possibilities of places that might work and totally ignoring the two angels in the process.
“Something wrong, sister?” he asked in murmured Enochian. Lee shrugged half-heartedly, trying to make the motion look like she was simply adjusting her coat.
“No,” she replied quietly in the same language, “not at all.”
“Really? Then why are you fidgeting so much? You always were a terrible liar, Alinarael,” Inias said with fond amusement. Lee sighed softly.
“Oh, very well. I might have somewhere in Nebraska that they can go to if needed.”
“So why not offer them the use of it if it's already prepared?”
“Because it's my sanctuary and home, Inias,” Lee said shortly. “It has been for the past one hundred and fifty years; before that, my charges lived in Europe. None of them have ever been in one of my homes before, not even Becky.”
“Maybe it's time, then,” Inias suggested softly. “If it helps them survive longer, so much the better for everyone involved.”
Lee frowned at this but then let out a slow stream of air. “Fine, but you're helping me move this lot there if they don't want to drive,” she told him, and then turned to the others, who were still talking. She cleared her throat and, once she'd managed to get most everyone's attention, spoke to them in English.
“I've got a place you can use if you like,” she announced. “It's in Nebraska, so relatively close by. I've got about twenty acres of land that are as well-warded as I can make them without it being obvious to others. You're welcome to use it as a central base if you want; it's wired for wi-fi and satellite, so you've got the internet and all that.”
“Cool!” Becky enthused. “Can we go there now?”
“I'll give you the address if you want to drive there yourselves, but Inias and I are willing to transport you, your vehicles, and your belongings there ourselves if you'd prefer.”
“No offense, but I'd rather drive,” Quentin said.
“Same here,” Jake chimed in. There was a general consensus amongst the others that they felt more comfortable driving to the farm themselves, though Sam and Becky were willing to take the angels up on their offer; Sam mostly didn't want any further harm to come to the Impala, and Becky-- well, Becky wasn't one to pass up something she hastily dubbed 'totally epic'. Once Lee had given out the address to the farm, those not traveling via angelic flight filed out of the motel room, with Missouri surprising both angels by giving them quick hugs before she left.
Sam and Becky got their belongings packed up quickly and then put into their respective cars before Inias and Lee joined them in the parking lot. Lee noticed Sam's melancholy glance at the Impala's heavily dented front end and looked at him, her head tilting to one side in brief curiosity.
“We can fix that for you when we get to the house,” she told the tall hunter, who gave her a surprised look.
“You've got parts for the car?” Sam asked, surprised. Lee shook her head.
“No,” she replied, setting one hand on the Impala's hood, “but from what I can tell, it's mainly cosmetic damage, something that will be easy enough to fix once we're away from prying eyes.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, I'm ready to go whenever you are.” Sam looked over at Becky. “What about you?”
“Good,” Inias said, putting one hand on Becky's car and laying the other on the young woman's shoulder. “Shall we?”
“Yes.” Lee reached out and pressed two fingers against Sam's forehead. With a rush of wings, the two angels transported the humans and their vehicles to the farm that had served as Lee's home for the past century and a half. They landed in the middle of a large dirt yard, the mid-morning sun shining down on them. A rambling two-story farmhouse stood in front of them; it was painted a dusty blue with neat white trim. Several outbuildings, including a large barn painted the traditional red-and-white, ringed the yard. A large chicken coop stood next to the barn, and several chickens were scratching around the yard, pecking here and there at the dirt in an effort to find bugs to eat.
Sam looked around, noticing that the cars weren't anywhere to be seen. He frowned, not wanting to lose the Impala. No matter where Dean was, Sam was sure as hell that, when the elder Winchester returned, he'd want his Baby around, even if she wasn't working. He could always fix her if it came to that. Becky caught Sam's look of confusion and tapped Inias on the hand where he was still holding on to her shoulder.
“Where are our cars?” she asked. Inias shrugged as he removed his hand from Becky's shoulder and then looked at Lee.
“Hmm? Oh, they're in that building,” Lee replied, pointing at a squat building to the right of the barn. “Your belongings are in two of the bedrooms on the second floor.” She frowned slightly as she suddenly stared off into the distance, her gaze going unfocused. “I'll be right back; something's up with the wards,” she told them, and then disappeared into thin air with a rush of feathers. Sam and Becky looked at Inias, who shrugged.
“I don't sense anything wrong,” he said, “but Alinarael is far more attuned to the wards of this place than I ever will be. Why don't we go inside while she figures out what's going on?”
Becky grinned widely and then hurried into the house, scattering a few bantams as she went. Inias and Sam followed after her at a more sedate pace, skirting around the chickens; several of the hens eyed the two of them warily before turning back to their pecking. The inside of the house was decorated very simply, with warm colors primarily dominating in the rooms on the main floor. Knickknacks from around the world were displayed in elegantly hand-carved curio cabinets scattered around the various rooms in the main level.
There was an open-plan kitchen/dining room towards the back of the house; the kitchen had dark granite counter tops, a large gas stove in an isolated counter island in the center of the room, and stained oak cabinetry. An oval dining table with enough space to fit ten people comfortably around it was the centerpiece of the dining area; the wood that peeked out from under a pristine white tablecloth matched the cabinetry.
Lee returned as Inias was investigating the moderately sized library, manifesting in the center of the room-- Sam had gone upstairs to check out his bedroom and to see what Becky was doing --and looking mildly annoyed. Inias turned his attention from the first edition of Great Expectations he'd been examining when Lee appeared, setting the book carefully back in its place.
“Is everything all right?” he asked. Lee nodded absently.
“Yeah,” she replied, idly running a hand through her hair. “I needed to restrengthen some of the runes on the northwest ward-stone. It was about time to do it anyways, I just wasn't expecting to have to do it with guests around.”
“Don't worry about it,” Inias said. “Sam and Becky are upstairs. How long do you think it will take for the others to get here?”
“Somewhere around five hours or so if they drive straight, more with rest stops. They should get here just in time for an early dinner. I'll have to go out to get food, though, since I don't usually keep fresh supplies around, and--”
Lee broke off when Becky hurried into the library, a broad grin on her face. The blonde hugged her friend tightly.
“Your house is awesome, Lee!” Becky enthused. Lee carefully returned Becky's hug, habitually reining in her preternatural strength so she wouldn't harm her friend.
“Thanks, Beck,” Lee replied, releasing Becky with a small smile. “I'm glad you like it. It can be your home as well if you want; I know you've been talking about moving from your apartment for a while now.”
Becky blinked and then looked like she was about to burst into tears. “Really?” she breathed, her eyes bright.
“Yeah,” Lee said with a slight shrug. “I mean, it's just me here, and if we're going to be using this as a base, it'd make more sense to have you permanently here rather than moving back and forth. Besides, if I'm going to be off on hunts-- and ten to one, I probably will --I'll need someone to look after everything here. I'd rather it be someone I know than someone I've just met.”
“I'd love to,” Becky said, her smile returning in megawatt force. “I'll have to talk with my landlord, but I think he'll be okay with me moving out relatively soon.”
“Then it's settled,” Lee said firmly. “Good. Okay, so, let's figure out where we can put the phone lines. Come on; you're the one who's going to be using it the most, so you get to choose.”
Lee and Becky left the library, Inias staying behind to peruse the books some more. The two women chatted as they walked, laughter following after them. Inias settled in a chair with a book, content in waiting until he was needed. That was a life of a soldier, after all: short periods of intense battle followed by long periods of waiting. And Inias? Well, he was very good at waiting. It was a necessary skill to have when one was an angel of the Lord.
The rest of the group showed up in fits and starts over the next five hours, with Garth arriving last. Becky was helping Lee and Sam finish up the large batch of spaghetti and meat sauce that would serve as that night's dinner; Sam was just pulling out the last loaf of garlic bread when Garth took his seat at the table, dropping into a chair between Missouri and Quentin. Sam took one of the free seats after putting the bread on a tray, while Becky set a large bowl of spaghetti down in the center of the table. Lee put the spaghetti sauce down on a hot pad and then sat down in the last empty chair.
Sam looked around at the gathered hunters and couldn't help but smile to himself. An almost foreign feeling began to grow in his chest at the sight; it was hope, he realized after a moment. And hope-- well, hope was one of the most dangerous things a human being could possess, especially in a fight against the forces of darkness. Sam sat back and let the quiet chatter of his companions wash over him, finally feeling like the world was getting back on the right track.
Chapter 9: The Architect
Tendrils of fog curled across the path as the travelers made their way through a particularly dense part of the forest, blurring the way ahead and shrouding it in gray mist. It had been dead silent for the past mile or so; even the almost-ever present cacophony of animalistic growls and screeches had died away. The near-silence was starting to grate on Dean, and he could feel himself growing more and more tense with every passing moment. A crumbling stone archway loomed suddenly out of the fog, marking a break in an equally decrepit stone wall that stood ten feet tall at its highest point. Dean felt an uneasy shiver run down his spine as Gabriel led the group through the arch; stones rattled away into the darkness as they came into contact with boots.
They entered what looked like an old graveyard, complete with burial vaults and small tombs; Dean had been in more than enough of those over the years to recognize them at a glance. The low shapes of piles of rubble and broken statues littered the area, making the going slow and treacherous. The sextet picked their way through the rubble-strewn ground in fits and starts, with Ryan occasionally shifting to coyote form and searching out the safest route for the others to take.
Eventually, Gabriel stopped in a circular clearing that sat a good half-mile into the walled-off area. An odd form of ivy grew there, covering the various structures that formed the border of the clearing. Tesaviel helped Gabriel clear the ivy off one of the largest structures, revealing the now-familiar Enochian symbols that marked the entrance to a Haven. The symbols here were worn and nearly faded; it looked like it had been decades, if not centuries, since anyone had refreshed them. Tesaviel cut her left hand and then pressed it against the entrance rune, leaving blood behind. The bloody mark faded slowly, being replaced by an archway that shimmered sluggishly into being.
Gabriel went first, the others following quickly behind him in case the doorway decided to suddenly close halfway through. Castiel was the last one into the dimly lit tunnel; the gateway closed behind him far quicker than it had opened. The light globes that illuminated the path were dim; some had cracked and gone out completely. There was only one set of distance runes to pass through before the travelers reached the main chamber of the Haven.
It was roughly hewn out of the living rock, unlike the main Haven, whose walls had been magically smoothed. A ring of twenty statues stood in the center of the chamber; all of them represented angels dressed in either flowing robes or practical armor. Those in armor stared stoically ahead while those in robes had peacefully contemplative expressions on their faces. A waist-high pedestal stood in the exact center of the ring of angels, with a perfectly spherical orb of glass suspended freely in the air over it. A shallow depression marred the top of the pedestal; it was the exact size and shape to fit the curve of the orb hanging above it. Meriel stepped forward, and, after putting her pack on the ground and extracting a small earthenware jar, poured a measure of herb-laced holy oil into the hollow before lighting it with a long match.
The oil caught alight instantly, sending a flare of flame up before settling into a steady blaze; the herbs contained within the oil let out a sweet smell as they burned. The flame lit up the glass orb, turning it a brilliant gold color. Dean was startled a few seconds later when ghostly representations of each of the statues appeared in front of their respective carved images before all but one winked out. Gabriel stepped forward and approached the remaining projection, a female in robes and with a scholarly air about her. The archangel bowed formally to her, the larger pair of his wings flaring out to either side while the smaller pair stayed loosely tucked against his back.
“Greetings, Archangel Gabriel,” the semi-translucent woman said, returning Gabriel's bow with one of her own. “How may I help you?”
“We have a problem that we hope you can help us solve, Elder Rekasiel,” Gabriel replied as he straightened up. “The Father tasked you to watch over this place and to make Havens for the innocent souls here. Due to an unfortunate incident involving the leader of the Leviathans, two beings entered this realm while still alive. We came to see if there was any way to return them to Earth safe and sound.”
The image of Rekasiel turned to look at Dean and Castiel, both of whom stepped forward after a moment's hesitation. Castiel sketched a short bow, nudging Dean gently in the side in an effort to make the hunter emulate his actions. Dean did so grudgingly, readjusting the set of his jacket as he stood straight once more. Rekasiel examined the two of them for several long moments before she nodded.
“There is a way, but only you--” and here she pointed at Dean “--may undertake the trials that unlock the path home.”
Rekasiel merely smiled at Dean's sharp outburst. “To undergo the Four Trials, the one attempting them must have an anchor in this realm, one whom they trust completely with their life and soul. Both of you possess the needed strength of trust in one another, true, but if you wish to have the best chance to succeed, your angel has to be your anchor. The presence of his brethren will bolster his ability to tie you to reality, which is an advantage most attempting the trials do not have. Only a very few have made it out of this realm through the Gate of Souls; the rest escaped due to an outside ritual pulling them out; I can only assume that this is how the Leviathans made it to Earth.”
Dean took in all of this, mind racing. It made sense in a way, but he still felt confused. Admittedly, he hadn't stopped feeling at least mildly confused the entire time he'd been in Purgatory, so it was nothing new. He ran a hand over his face and then sighed.
“You said something about trials,” he said eventually. “What sort of trials?”
“Ones that will test your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” Rekasiel told him solemnly. “They will not kill you, but you will be tested sorely. The trials are not for the weak of will. You will be given time to prepare, but you may only bring with you what you can carry on your person. Will you undertake the trials, now that you know this?”
“Both Cas and I will get to go home?”
“Yes, if you are successful.”
Dean looked at Castiel, who held Dean's gaze and then nodded firmly. Dean turned his attention back to Rekasiel, his posture straightening unconsciously as he provided his answer.
Rekasiel took them through a winding tunnel that had been initially hidden from view when the travelers had first entered the Haven, her ghostly form gliding serenely at the front of the group. She shimmered with a slight iridescence whenever she passed a light orb. They stopped in a cave that opened out onto the surface; a chill breeze blew in through the entrance, ruffling the feathers in the angels' wings and making Dean turn his collar up against the cold. Rekasiel stopped just before the entrance of the cave, briefly looking out before turning to the others.
“Through there,” Rekasiel said, one slender arm extending to point at a tall archway standing on a stepped platform some twenty feet away, “is the entrance to your trials. When you are ready, approach the archway, state your name and that of your anchor, and then wait until the gem set into the keystone flashes three times. Within the trials, there are four pieces of the key to the Gate of Souls; they will be very obvious as to what they are. Now, your anchor must stay within the grounds of this Haven-- the boundaries are marked by the stone walls along the border.”
She looked at Gabriel and the other Purgatory residents. “You are welcome to send supplies to your brother, as well as keep him company here. Quarters will be provided for those of you who wish to stay.”
“Thank you,” Gabriel said, and then looked at Castiel. “Are you going to be okay with this, Castiel? You haven't said much on the matter.”
“I'll be fine, Gabriel,” Castiel replied. “I'm willing to undergo some discomfort if it means being able to return to where we belong.” He paused momentarily. “I would like to see the provided quarters, though.”
“Of course,” Rekasiel said. “Dean Winchester, you should take this time to prepare your resources. Gabriel, you will be provided a transport link between our Havens to allow fast and efficient transport of supplies and personnel.”
“That's very helpful. Thank you again.”
Rekasiel nodded and then motioned for Castiel to follow her. Ryan accompanied them at a subtle motion from Gabriel, leaving his pack behind. Dean took his pack off and started to sort through it, trying to figure out what he would need to keep and what he could leave behind. Meriel, Gabriel, and Tesaviel did the same, picking through the pooled supplies and setting aside those that would best aid Dean in his trials.
The others returned ten minutes late while Gabriel and Tesaviel were putting the finishing touches on Dean's pack; Meriel and Dean were eating a quick meal and chatting quietly. Rekasiel stopped in front of Dean and looked down at him. The hunter got to his feet, stretching out the kinks in his muscles before settling into an easy stance.
“Is everything okay?” he asked, noting Rekasiel's expression.
“A word of warning before you enter the trials, Dean Winchester,” Rekasiel said, holding up a hand. “Time does not flow at the same rate within the trials as it does here, much like how the flow of time between Earth and Purgatory is not concurrent.”
“No, it isn't,” Gabriel said, wings shifting idly as he spoke. “How long has it been since I died back in the real world?”
“Just about three years,” Dean told him, “give or take a few months.”
“It's been twenty-six years since I got here,” the archangel continued on. “As far as we can tell, it's roughly about a one-to-eight ratio between Earth and Purgatory in regards to units of time. So, one year Earth-side is eight years Purgatory, etc, etc.”
Dean did a quick bit of conversion in his head and let out a disbelieving huff. “So, what, it's only been a day or two for Sam? Well, damn, that bites.”
“It's encouraging, though,” Castiel interjected, “that not much time will have passed on Earth and you can return to your work without too much interruption.”
“You mean our work. Sam and I aren't going to want you out of the picture, Cas, especially not now; not with everything that's happened recently.”
Castiel inclined his head slightly to the side with a small but pleased smile. “Of course. My mistake. I won't make it again.”
“Damn right you won't,” Dean affirmed, and then turned back to Rekasiel. “How bad is the time difference?”
“I am not sure,” the shade admitted. “It seems to vary for each person. I apologize that I cannot tell you much more than that.”
“We'll keep an eye out for you, Dean,” Gabriel promised. “I don't think Castiel's going to want to move far, and I sure as hell am not going to leave him alone here, even with the shelter provided.”
Dean gave the archangel a grateful smile. “Thanks,” he said. Gabriel nodded.
“Of course.” He gave Dean a look that told the hunter all he needed to know: it was the fiercely protective look of a big brother prepared to look after his younger sibling with all of the resources at his disposal. Dean recognized that look; he knew he'd worn it more than should probably be healthy in regards to Sam.
“Here, Dean; your gear is ready,” Tesaviel said, picking up the pack and handing it to Dean. He put it on, adjusting the straps to better settle the weight across his shoulders. It was heavier than it had been originally, but not so heavy as to be detrimental. Most of the weight belonged to the food and water he was carrying, as no one knew if Dean would be able to get edible supplies within the trials.
Dean took in a deep breath, letting it out slowly in an effort to steady himself. He let his eyes slide shut momentarily and then, after a moment's pause, opened them once again, his gaze clearer than it had been before. He turned his attention to the archway just visible outside the cave, resolution settling into his very bones. He could do this, he knew he could. Well. He hoped he could.
“Okay, right,” he said, squaring his shoulders. “Let's get going. I want to get this over as quickly as possible.”
“I wish you all the luck in the world, Dean Winchester,” Rekasiel said solemnly. “I am sure that you will be successful in your endeavors.”
“Thanks,” Dean said. He looked at Castiel. “You ready, Cas?”
“Yes.” Castiel fell into step next to Dean, his pace unhurried and measured. The two of them exited the cave, Rekasiel following along until she reached the threshold of the cave's entrance. She seemed to be bound to the caves, and couldn't go past the sharp line where stone abruptly turned to dirt. Dean ascended the short flight of steps up the platform, stopped in front of the empty archway, and then spoke both his and Castiel's names, making sure to specify that Castiel was his anchor. The large green gem set into the keystone of the arch flashed three times when it registered what Dean had said. The hunter felt a sharp tug behind his breastbone, and, judging by the surprised noise Castiel made, something similar had happened to him as well.
A shimmering curtain of light formed in the archway, glowing the same lime green shade as the gem in the keystone. Dean looked at Castiel one last time, taking in the angel's face before smiling lopsidedly at his friend.
“See you on the other side, Cas.”
“Good luck, Dean.”
Dean nodded and then turned to look at the curtain. He drew in a deep breath and then stepped forwards, disappearing from view. Castiel sighed and then returned to the others, hoping that all would go well. Unfortunately, only time would tell. It was all up to Dean now.
Chapter 10: Trials, Part One: Everything You Ever
A lazy, comfortable warmth surrounded Dean as he slowly regained consciousness, and he was loathe to open his eyes and confront whatever waited for him. He absently registered a warm weight curled against his chest, and, out of curiosity, slowly opened his eyes to find out what it was. Dean blinked sleepily and focused on the small child who was curled against him. She looked to be about four years old and had wavy dark brown hair that was mussed from sleep. Her pajamas had shooting stars and crescent moons on them; fuzzy pink socks completed the ensemble. Dean blinked, a vague moment of confusion washing over him, before reality snapped back. This was Eleanor, his daughter, one of the bright lights in his life.
Dean smiled fondly at the dozing form of his little girl and then reached up and began to gently run his fingers through Eleanor's fine hair. She stirred under his touch, dark green eyes blinking muzzily up at him as she woke. Dean chuckled softly at Eleanor's sleepy smile.
“Hey, there, Ellie-bean,” he said. “Did you sleep okay?”
Ellie nodded, snuggling closer to her father. “Mmhmm,” she murmured, sighing happily. “Mommy said I could stay here until you woke up.”
“Did she now?”
“Well, I'm up now. Did Mommy say what would happen after I woke up?” Dean asked. Eleanor shook her head. Dean smiled slyly, his hand dropping to the bed in a deceptively casual manner. “Well, I'm sure I can think of something,” he said, and then started tickling Ellie, drawing startled shrieks of laughter from his daughter.
“Daddy!” Ellie gasped, giggling happily. She twisted out of Dean's reach and then jumped off the bed, still laughing as she ran out of the bedroom, leaving the door open behind her. Dean laughed softly to himself and then got out of bed, padding out into the hallway after Ellie. He wore pajama pants and an old t-shirt, his standard sleepwear these days. Dean could hear voices coming from the kitchen, cluing him into the location of the rest of his family. He made his way there, listening to the soft lilt of Lisa's voice, the answering quiet tenor of Ben, and the sweet soprano of Ellie.
Dean paused in the doorway, leaning briefly against the frame as he watched his family sitting at the table and eating breakfast. The quietly domestic scene made Dean smile to himself, a feeling of contentment uncurling in his chest. Lisa looked over at her husband and smiled at him.
“Are you going to join us?” she asked, pausing in the middle of putting butter on her toast. Dean pushed away from the door frame and then joined the others at the table. He was reaching for the orange juice when he was assaulted by a sharp pain in his head and a series of images that flashed by so quickly-- //Lucky Charms pouring into a bowl/a breakfast sandwich on the road/Sam bitching about the lack of proper food during a hunt/ Cas watching blankly across the booth as Dean eats slightly rubbery scrambled eggs in one diner of the many he's been in across the years.// --that Dean was barely able to keep up with them.
Dean hissed sharply in surprise and pain, pressing the heels of his hands against his forehead as his elbows hit and then slid off the table. He barely registered the exclamations of alarm from his family as he tried to figure out what the hell had just happened to him. The pain receded slowly, leaving a dull throb in its wake. Dean came back to reality to find that he had somehow managed to get to the floor, and that his head was pillowed on Ben's lap. Lisa was on the phone with Emergency Services, her voice shaking as she spoke with the operator on the other end. Ellie was watching with wide, teary eyes, not sure what was going on or what to do.
Dean blinked up at Ben, images flickering across his mind once again, this time of a younger version of his son, though these images-- //Ben at his eighth birthday party, flirting with girls/ Ben-- but not Ben, something wearing his image --going up in flames/ Cas wiping Ben and Lisa's memories of Dean's presence in their lives/“I just wanted to say that I'm sorry... I'm glad your life can get back to normal now.”// --were not what he should have been seeing when remembering the younger days of his son's life. Something was seriously wrong here, and Dean needed to find out what that was before things got worse. The only problem was, he wasn't sure how to even start.
The ambulance arrived ten minutes or so after Lisa called 911; Dean was still laying almost motionless on the kitchen floor, though Lisa had taken Ben's place as Dean's pillow. Ben was comforting Ellie, idly petting her hair as they watched the EMTs assess Dean's condition. He was soon put in the ambulance and taken to the nearest medical facility, which turned out to be Our Lady of Perpetual Hope General Hospital. For Dean, the ride over was a blur, with most of his attention focused on trying to sort out the constant stream of images passing through his mind.
He barely paid attention as the doctors evaluated him, took blood, put in an IV, and then put him into a quiet private room for the time being. The images slowed down once Dean was alone, coming in drips and dribbles as time passed. A nurse came into the room after a while and put something in Dean's IV that made him feel extremely sleepy. He nodded off almost instantly, eyes feeling like lead weights as they slid shut. His family was in the room when he struggled awake an unknown amount of time later; Lisa was talking with a doctor who was dressed in a long white coat and scrubs. Ben and Ellie were sitting quietly in a corner, with Ben helping Ellie color in one of the many coloring books the young girl possessed.
Dean was surprised to see his younger brother standing awkwardly near Ben and Ellie; he hadn't known Adam was in town. The last he knew, the youngest Winchester was still off at medical school. Dean looked around to see if Sam was anywhere nearby, but the tall, lanky form of his other brother was nowhere to be seen. Odd. Sam was usually one of the first people outside of Dean's immediate household to respond to family emergencies when it came to either of his brothers. Dean sighed and lay back on his bed as he was once again assaulted with a rapid-fire viewing of images, this time ones concerning Adam. All of them were dark and full of pain, something Dean sure as hell didn't like. He could feel his heartbeat picking up, and in response, the machines attached to his IV kicked in and doled out another dose of sedatives and pain medication. Dean drifted off just as the doctor broke off his conversation with Lisa, the world going fuzzy and then dark once more.
When Dean woke up again, the room was empty and the lights had been dimmed in order to mimic evening. He blinked, one hand coming up to wipe away the gunk from the corners of his eyes. He'd barely registered where he was when he heard a soft knock on the door before it opened, admitting an older man dressed in scrubs. Dean braced himself for the possible onslaught of memories that the nurse may bring, but nothing happened. Dean relaxed, letting out his breath slowly. The nurse looked over at him and smiled, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes crinkling briefly before smoothing out again.
“Hello, Mr. Winchester,” the nurse said, his voice a soothing bass with a bit of a smoky burr to it. “I'm Eli, your night nurse. How are you feeling?”
Dean considered his options and then shrugged the best he could while half-prone. “Okay, I guess,” he replied, rubbing at the back of his neck with his IV-less hand. “Though I'm still confused as hell as to what's going on.”
Eli smiled slightly at this and then nodded almost imperceptibly. “I probably shouldn't say anything, but so are the doctors, to be honest,” he said with a shrug.
“Well, I won't tell them you said anything,” Dean told Eli with a conspiratorial tone. The nurse laughed softly.
“Thanks,” Eli said. “Do you feel up to talking about what happened to you? It might help the doctors figure out what's wrong faster.”
Dean sighed, running his free hand over his face. “It's... weird,” he said, hesitating a little as he spoke. “It's like I'm seeing flashes of someone else's life just about every time I look at someone, but it's my life at the same time.” He grimaced. “That didn't make much sense, did it?”
Eli considered Dean's words for a moment and then shrugged. “I've heard worse,” he said, and then got a thoughtful look on his face. “How real do the memories feel?”
“What I mean is, do the memories or whatever it is that you're seeing feel like they've actually happened or is there a bit of unreality to them?”
Dean looked quizzically at Eli, his brow furrowed in confusion as he tried to process the question. “Well,” he said after a minute or so of contemplation, “they feel about as real as being here does, if that makes any sense.”
Eli sighed, his fingers idly drumming against the small table that stood next to Dean's bed. “I can't help you if you don't want me to,” he muttered mostly to himself, and then shook his head. “Right, okay. So, Dean, it boils down to this: is this life everything you want, or is it everything you need? Because believe me, there's a hell of a difference between the two.”
“I...” Dean stopped speaking, his thoughts racing. Both sets of memories-- experiences, or whatever they were --felt equally valid to him, though if he were to be honest with himself (and right now, he really didn't want to be), the darker, heavier memories that had started to flood his mind that day seemed to be the true ones. He groaned softly at the realization and then looked over at Eli with a pained expression. The nurse was waiting patiently for Dean to come to a decision, hands folded neatly in front of him.
“It's not a bad thing to want a family and a comfortable, stable life, Dean,” Eli said softly, his voice kind, “but unfortunately, sometimes what we want isn't what we need, or even what's the best for us in the long run. I can't say which is the best for you, though. You have to make that decision for yourself. You can stay here and forget about your other life, or you can keep going through the trials; it's your choice. I can only advise you in what you think is best.”
Dean's heart ached at Eli's words. Now that he heard the words, Dean knew which life was true and which was the false one. It didn't make the choice any easier, though.
“Before I make any decisions, can you answer a question for me?” he asked.
“I'll do my best.”
“Is Sam here? Does he exist in this reality?”
Eli looked grim as he shook his head. “No,” he replied, “only Adam. I'm sorry. In this world, in this life, Sam doesn't exist.”
“Then I want to go home,” Dean said firmly, pushing himself up into a sitting position. “I'm not leaving Sam alone, not when I know I can get back to him.”
Eli looked at Dean, and for the first time, Dean noticed that the other man had eyes that seemed to be far older than they should have any right to be. They were a deep brown, the color of freshly overturned earth glistening in the sun. “So be it,” Eli said, inclining his head in a brief nod. “If that's your choice, Dean Winchester, then you will need this to continue on your way.” He put his hand in one of his pockets and drew out a piece of metal. It was a quarter of a disc, and was made from what looked like tarnished silver. Eli held it out to Dean, who took it carefully.
It was cool to the touch, and had intricate etchings carved into its surface that Dean couldn't puzzle out the meaning of. He clutched it tight in his hand and then looked up at Eli. To his surprise, however, the other man had disappeared into thin air, taking all of the trappings of the hospital with him and leaving Dean sitting in an empty room. Dean was dressed once more in the clothing he had been wearing when he first entered the trials, his pack sitting on the bed next to him. Dean looked down at the metal in his hand and then carefully put it into his jacket, tucking it into one of the innermost pockets just in case. He carefully got to his feet, his fatigue dropping away from him as he stood. He put the pack on and then looked at the door. It was the only way out of the room, so Dean figured that was where he needed to go.
He crossed the room, opened the door, and then stepped through, the hospital room melting away behind him. Dean emerged into a stone passageway, the scents of long-laid dust and stale air assaulting his nose and making him sneeze violently. He turned briefly to look at the room he had just left, but saw nothing but a blank stone wall behind him. Right. Time to move forward, then. He turned back around and started walking, hoping that he was heading the right direction-- towards Sam, Cas, and home.
Chapter 11: Trials, Part Two: This Hollow Earth
The dusty silence of the stone maze Dean found himself in was a stark contrast to the sterile busyness of the hospital. Dean marked his path as he went with chalk arrows on the walls, not wanting to double back on himself. He felt a little like Theseus in the Labyrinth, but without a magical ball of string to lead him out and a gorgeous princess waiting for him at the end. Dean chuckled softly to himself, wondering what Sam would say if he knew that he was being compared to the lovely Medea. It probably would have involved one of the younger Winchester's more epic bitch-faces, to be honest, the thought of which made Dean smile as he continued to walk. Speaking of the Labyrinth, Dean sincerely hoped that there weren't going to be any minotaurs or other similar nasties in this place. He eyed the dust laying thick on the floor, searching for any tracks or disturbances. He didn't see any, but that didn't mean nothing was here. After all, there was always the possibility of flying monsters. The gloomy cavern the maze was in was more than large enough to harbor potential aerial threats.
Dean wandered the maze for several hours, trying to work his way to the center the best he could. It might also help if he could find some higher ground, but that would probably necessitate climbing walls. He eyed said walls and found them sorely lacking in hand- or footholds, given their surprisingly good state of repair. Trailing one hand over the surface of the nearest wall (it was gritty to the touch and cool), Dean took a right at a junction and, after several hundred meters, found himself in an area where four different passageways joined. A large statue stood in the center of the junction. It was of an exquisitely detailed winged sphinx, which had been carved in a regal sitting position, with its head held proudly up as it stared into the distance. Its tail was curled around its forepaws and a serene smile graced its face.
Dean looked contemplatively up at the sphinx, taking in the skill needed to craft such a work of art. He reached out and, as if in a trance, placed his hand on an inscription that had been carved into the large plinth the statue rested on. The runes flared an actinic blue before they settled into a steady glow. Dean scrambled back as an ominous cracking rumble came from the sphinx, readying his weapon. The exterior of said carved being began to flake off, with cracks spidering across the rocky surface. With a low, deep groan and a mighty shake, the sphinx rumbled to life, vibrant colors returning to its body as the rock sloughed away. Dean pressed back against the nearest wall, gun pointed directly at the sphinx. She looked at him with kohl-rimmed ruby-red eyes, blinking serenely at the human in front of her.
“Greetings, traveler,” she said, her melodious voice lightly flavored with an Egyptian accent, “and welcome to the Trial of the Mind. I am Akila, Guardian of this Trial. You have already encountered the Guardian of the Trial of the Heart.”
“Wait, you mean Eli?” Dean asked, lowering his gun after putting the safety back on.
Akila inclined her head regally in affirmation and then laid down on the plinth, tucking her front paws neatly under herself. “Are you ready to undertake the trial?”
Dean sighed and then put away his gun. “Do I have any time to eat anything? It's been a while since I've eaten, unless dream-food counts, which I doubt it does.”
“Whenever you are willing to begin, simply speak to me,” Akila said. “You may take as much time as you like.”
“Thanks.” Dean settled himself on the floor, taking some of the food-- jerky and water, as well as some dried fruit, all of which would provide much needed energy relatively quickly –from his pack and began eating, making sure not to eat too fast or too much, as he didn't want to add sickness to his list of things to worry about during these trials. He took about ten minutes to eat, finishing up by wrapping some dried pear-apples in a clean handkerchief before stowing them in one of his jacket pockets for easy access later in case he got hungry. Dean idly wiped his hands off on his pants as he stood up and then looked at Akila.
“All right, what do I have to do for this trial?”
Akila smiled at him with a sharp-toothed grin and then rose to her full height, stretching languorously in place before straightening her posture. “Come with me,” she said, padding away down a long pathway to the north of the clearing. Dean followed after her, continuing to occasionally leave marks on the walls to mark the path. It might have been a little paranoid, but Dean wasn't willing to take any chances, especially not in a place like this. Akila led him through the twisting passageways of the labyrinth, her velveted footfalls surprisingly light and silent against the stone floor. They traveled for an hour or so, heading further and further into the bowels of the maze until Akila stopped next to a roughly hewn stone hut that was pressed up against one of the far walls.
“In there is the second half of your trial,” the sphinx told Dean, gesturing elegantly at the wooden door of the hut. “I cannot accompany you within, unfortunately; I will see you again if you are successful in completing the trial.”
“Thanks,” Dean said with a slight smile. He looked at the hut contemplatively. “Will I need my gear in there, or should I leave it with you?”
“Take it with you,” Akila replied, settling back on her haunches. “It may prove useful.” She paused and then dipped her head. “I will see you later, Dean Winchester. May the gods be with you.” With that, Akila stepped back a few paces and then launched herself into the air, the strong beats of her wings sending up gusts of wind and dust. She was gone before Dean could ask how she knew his name. After a few quick sneezes in response to the flying dust, Dean shook his head to clear his senses and then approached the hut. He pushed the door open with one hand; the wood creaked as the hinges protested the movement, but eventually gave way to Dean's gentle but insistent pressure.
The inside of the hut was dark and gloomy, and smelled strongly of mildew and decay. Dean wrinkled his nose in disgust at the odor, trying to breathe shallowly in through his mouth in order to avoid inhaling the odoriferous smell more than necessary. He looked around, his eyes slowly adjusting to the low light levels. The door swung shut behind him, closing with a sense of finality to the sound. Once the door had closed, a series of lights similar to the ones used in the Havens activated, illuminating the room Dean had entered. A tunnel carved into the living rock at the back of the room curved away out of sight, a trail of light globes showing the way to go. Otherwise, the inside of the hut was empty, though there was less dust and debris here than in the maze outside.
With only one way forward, Dean entered the tunnel, following it as it wound its way upwards, which was a nice change from all the deep underground tunnels the hunter had been in recently. He was honestly starting to miss the sunshine and fresh air, something he'd never thought he'd really ever have to worry about again after Castiel pulled him from Hell. The tunnel meandered through the rock without seeming to have any immediate destination; Dean snacked a little on some of his fruit as he walked, his mind blissfully clear of any thoughts of needless worries. He was keeping an eye out for danger, of course, but he had an odd feeling that he wouldn't be under any immediate physical threats in this trial, given its particular nature.
Dean's musings were cut short when the way forward ended abruptly, the tunnel opening out into a large cavern. A deep gorge cut through the middle of the cavern, with the far side just barely visible. The sound of water echoed up from far below; it was a dull rumble that Dean was just able to hear. A short basalt obelisk jutted up from the ground near the gorge's edge, and Dean could see words carved into the nearest of its smooth sides. His curiosity piqued, Dean made his way over to the obelisk. Once he was close enough to it, Dean was able to make out the words carved into the stone. The lettering was sharp and angular, reminding him of Norse runes. The words were thankfully in English, though Dean suspected that, regardless of whatever language the words had originally been carved in, they would be legible to whomever was reading them. Dean circled around the obelisk, trying to see if there were any other words he couldn't see. There weren't, so he made his way back to the inscription and crouched down in order to read it. The words were as follows:
Man walks over, man walks under;
In times of war he burns asunder.
The answer is that which you need to progress
And continue the path to the end of your quest.
Dean read the inscription several times over, mouthing the words to himself as he went. He sat back on his heels, idly running a hand over his face and then through his hair. A riddle. Huh. This sort of thing was usually Sam's department, but since Sam wasn't here, it fell to Dean to solve it. He mused over the inscription for a few more minutes, sitting down and then staring blankly out across the gorge. After a while, Dean blinked rapidly a few times as he realized what the answer to the riddle was, a grin forming on his face.
“A bridge,” he said, breaking the silence that had accompanied him since he'd entered the second half of the trial. “You can walk over it, you walk under it, and you can burn one, both metaphorically and literally. That's the answer.” He paused. “Great. Now that I know that, what do I--?”
A low rumble and the sticky feeling of magic being cast nearby-- the Winchesters had encountered magic-users far too often in their lives and were intimately familiar with how large works of magic turned the air sticky and humid, like a Southern summer's afternoon --alerted Dean to the formation of an elegantly arched stone bridge that spanned the entirety of the gorge. He got to his feet, brushed off the dust that had collected on his clothing, and then carefully made his way up onto the bridge. He moved slowly, as there weren't any handrails; at one point near the apex of the bridge, Dean had to go on hands and knees, given how narrow the stone path was. He resisted looking down as much as possible, keeping his gaze on the stone beneath him. Dean breathed a sigh of relief when he reached the other side, pausing for a few moments to regain his bearings before getting to his feet and dusting himself off once more.
The path continued slowly spiraling upwards, entering yet another tunnel that, at several key points, had travel runes carved into its walls and floor. Dean was just starting to wonder what other trials he might face when he entered a second cave-- more like a rocky chamber, to be honest --- and halted, any further progress stopped as he had run into a dead end. There was no indication of what he should do next, nor any overt sign of the next trial. Dean sighed softly and then stepped fully into the chamber. With a rumble and scrape of rock against rock, a door Dean had previously not noticed shut, closing off the tunnel behind him. He was glad that the chamber was still lit by the light globes; otherwise, it would not have gone well. As much as Dean was comfortable in the dark, he did not like being trapped in dark rooms without any form of egress.
A square stone table stood in the center of the room, sharply defined by one large light globe directly overhead. As soon as Dean reached the table, all of the light globes save for the one right above him snapped out, leaving him in a stark pool of golden illumination. The top of the table had a vase standing on its exact center; it was the approximate size and shape of a standard Mason Jar. A button was next to the hollow, with an inscribed plaque above it reading, Fill the container as completely as possible using the materials provided to you. If you fail, the test will begin again until you achieve your goal. Should you choose to turn back, simply state so in a clear voice and you will be returned to the beginning of the Trial. Press the button to begin your test.
“Huh,” Dean murmured, and then, with a shrug, pushed the button. Five small open-mouth earthenware jars appeared around the perimeter of the circle of light, each filled with a different substance. One held water; another held rough gravel; a third held fine sand; a fourth held small pebbles; and the last held smooth, flat rocks that looked perfect for skipping across the glassy surface of a placid pond. Dean's first thought was to simply fill the vase with sand and then water, but that idea was soon thrown out when he realized that there wasn't enough of any of the provided materials to do so, let alone just the sand and water. It looked like he'd have to use everything given to him, then.
He began to mull over his options, absently tapping his fingers against the rough stone surface of the table as he thought. Dean actually felt a little more confident about this test than he had about the riddle; at least here he could use his mechanical and spatial reasoning skills that had been honed by years of taking care of the Impala (and other assorted vehicles), not to mention the training that had been drilled into him by his father over the years. It would make the most sense to go from biggest to smallest, saving the water for last, so that's what Dean did, starting with the smooth, flat rocks. The gravel was next, followed by the pebbles, the sand, and finally the water.
As Dean poured the last few drops of water into the vase, filling it just to the brim, an archway appeared in the far wall, with two light globes snapping on and revealing its location. After he set down the jar the water had been in and then picking up his pack-- he had set it on the floor next to the table to allow him greater range of movement –Dean walked over to the archway and then stepped through. He blinked in surprise when he found himself not in yet another tunnel, as he had expected, but out on a windswept plain that was bathed in the pale light of early morning. He turned around, trying to see if he had come out of a cave or something, but the rocky vista through which he had been traveling had disappeared entirely; all he could see behind him was even more grassy expanse.
The sound of great wings flapping nearby made Dean whirl around and pull his gun, his eyes narrowing against the light coming from the sky. The large form of Akila came into view, making Dean relax ever so slightly. The sphinx landed with a heavy thump a dozen or so feet away from Dean, back-winging rapidly as she neared the ground. Dean lowered his gun and then walked over to Akila, nodding amiably to her in greeting.
“Ah, Dean Winchester, you made it through the tests,” Akila said, taking a seat on the ground and looking approvingly at Dean. “I am glad that you were victorious.”
“Yeah,” Dean said with a shrug. “So am I. So, what's next?”
“Now you must undergo the Trial of the Soul,” Akila told him. “I would be lying if I told you it will be as simple as traversing the breadth of this land, so I will not. It will test you greatly; this may be the most important Trial of all.” She stared off into the distance for a few solemn moments and then shook her head. “My apologies. I owe you your victory token.” She took off the ornate usekh collar that she wore and then carefully removed a piece of metal from it, using her nimble claws to prise it from its fixings. Akila fiddled with it for a moment more and then laid it on the ground in front of Dean. He bent down and picked it up, noting that it was the same size and shape as the quarter-disc that Eli had given him, though in gold rather than silver. Dean put it in the same pocket as the other quarter-disc and then looked up. By the time he had done so, however, Akila had vanished into thin air, leaving Dean standing alone on the windswept plain.
With a look up at the sky and the sun's position therein, Dean faced west and started walking, figuring that it was as good a direction as any. A light breeze ruffled his hair as he walked, bringing with it mysterious scents that tantalized the senses and teased of wild flowers and hidden secrets. Dean just hoped that those secrets wouldn't kill him.
Chapter 12: Trials, Part Three: Tame the Ghosts in My Head
Dean wasn't sure how long he had been walking, even with the sun overhead to mark the passage of time. It felt like a few hours, but it was probably longer, given the occasional rest breaks Dean forced himself to take when his muscles protested the continual movement. He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve as he went, leaving streaks of dust in its wake. Dean was pausing for another rest break, sipping carefully at the water from one of his canteens-- the others had given him theirs, but Dean didn't want to waste such a precious resource –when he spotted what looked like a statue in the far distance. It was human-shaped, but Dean couldn't make out its exact features from this far away. He finished his water and then continued on, pushing past the dull aching in his calves and thighs.
He got a surprise when he finally reached the statue. Dean stopped dead, words utterly failing him. The statue was an exact replica of himself; a little too exact, in Dean's opinion, given that it was nude. As he looked closer, Dean could see that there were fine cracks spidering all across the surface of the statue.
“What the hell?” he breathed. At the sound of his voice, a shimmering gold light surrounded the statue. When it faded, the statue blinked and then looked at Dean, who took several hasty steps back.
“Hello, Dean,” the statue said with a voice like sandpaper over stone. “Two out of four Trials completed. Not bad.”
“Thanks?” Dean replied, still off balance. “Are you the Guardian or whatever of this Trial?”
The statue inclined its head in response, and Dean had to hide a shiver at that; stone should not be that flexible. “I am,” the statue said. “For the sake of saving time and confusion, you may call me Preston.”
“'Preston'? Not a name I'd expect from a talking statue,” Dean drawled. “Why do you look like me, and why the hell are you buck-ass naked?”
Preston looked down at himself momentarily and then shrugged. “The better to show you the state of yourself, I suspect. It changes with every supplicant. Are you ready to begin the Trial?”
“Might as well get it over as quickly as possible and not drag it out,” Dean said. Preston reached out and touched two gentle fingers to Dean's forehead in an achingly familiar gesture. The world as Dean knew it went pitch black; all of his senses were screaming at him with sudden disorientation.
“Don't panic,” Preston said from somewhere nearby.
“How the hell am I supposed to do that when I can't see anything?!” Dean snapped sharply.
“Relax. Now, Dean, I want you to listen to me and answer any questions I have as truthfully as possible. Can you do that for me?” Preston asked.
“Sure, why not?”
“Good. First question: what is your full name?”
“Dean Jacob Winchester,” Dean said.
“Very well. Dean Jacob Winchester: you are here to find a way out of Purgatory. Very few beings who have undertaken these Trials have succeeded in completing them. Should you be successful, what is your first act outside of that realm?”
“I'm going to find my brother, Sam,” Dean said immediately. “My anchor, Castiel, is coming back to Earth as well.”
“Let's talk about your brother. What is he to you besides your blood?” Preston inquired, sounding interested.
Dean sighed softly. Where did he start? “Sam... Sammy is everything to me. He's the only family I've got left. I practically raised the kid.” He smiled bittersweetly into the darkness. “I think I might have been more of a dad to him than our own father. I've gone to Hell for him. We share a heaven. I'm not sure I can really say much more than that, beside the fact that he's my whole heart.”
As Dean spoke, a ghostly image of Sam appeared out of the darkness, solidifying in front of him. A lopsided smile graced the image's face, and Dean's heart ached to see the familiar visage of his brother so close and yet so far away.
“You say that your brother is everything to you. Are you everything to him? What lengths would he go to in order to save you? Would he sacrifice himself as completely as you did for him?” Preston asked, his raspy voice solemn.
“He already has,” Dean said quietly. “He's given too damn much. We all have, to be honest.”
“And what do you think he is doing right now while you are here in Purgatory?”
Dean shrugged, not knowing or caring if Preston could see the motion. “Assuming he's still kicking, living his life, I hope,” he said. “It's what we promised to do if we lost one another. I tried it for a year, but it... it didn't really work out. Hell, Sam's probably living the apple pie life as we speak.”
“Would you like to see for yourself?”
Dean blinked. He hadn't been expecting the chance to see Sam until after the trials were over and he and Cas were back where they belonged.. “I-- Sure. Why not?”
“Very well. You may not like what you see, though.”
“Whatever you've got to show me, I can take it,” Dean said firmly.
The ghostly figure of Sam blurred and faded into a thin sheen of fog before forming into something that resembled a projector screen. Nothing happened for a few seconds, and then an image slowly appeared on the screen. It was in color, and showed Sam and a woman Dean didn't recognize. The two of them were sitting on a couch, both reading books. The woman had her feet propped up on an armrest of the couch, her back resting against Sam's right shoulder. They looked comfortable around each other; Sam would occasionally stop reading and speak to the dark-haired woman, though Dean couldn't hear what it was his brother had said, as Sam had spoken too quietly for whatever ethereal microphone was picking the conversation up to register.
The woman laughed at Sam's words, the sound light and happy. Sam grinned at the woman's reaction, his entire face lighting up with the easy, relaxed expression. Dean's heart ached again, but it was a bittersweet pain. Bitter in that he wasn't the cause of Sam's mirth, but happy in that Sam had finally found someone he could truly be himself with.
“When are the others coming?” Sam asked. The woman shrugged.
“They should be here soon,” she said, closing her book. “Adam's upstairs sleeping still, but I'll wake him up when everyone else gets here.”
“Good,” Sam said. “I thought the storm earlier might bother him.”
“It did, but I eventually got him to settle down.” The woman sighed softly. “It's going to take some time before he's able to sleep through the thunder.” She shook her head. “One step at a time, I guess.”
“You'll manage it. I've got faith in you.”
“No problem. So, what's the plan for dinner?”
“Well, I was thinking about...”
The image faded out slowly, taking the sound with it and leaving only the thin screen of fog behind. Dean smiled softly to himself, letting out a soft huff of fond laughter. “Good for you, Sammy,” he murmured.
“You seem pleased for your brother,” Preston observed.
“Well, yeah,” Dean said. “You saw how happy he looked. I'm not going to get pissed just because he found someone who's able to make him laugh like that. It's been years since that's happened, so I'm not going to begrudge the guy a little happiness.”
Preston made a soft noise of consideration. “Sam isn't your only brother, though, is he?” he asked.
“No,” Dean said, his mood turning pensive immediately, “but Adam... Adam's still trapped in the Cage. There's nothing I can really do for him, even if I wanted to.”
“Really? You couldn't ask Death for another favor, or your friend Castiel to get him for you? They saved Sam for you; what's one more?”
Dean tensed, one fist clenching at his side. “Death doesn't owe me anything, and Cas... Cas has done more than enough for us. Look at what happened to him the last time he helped us: he took Sam's crazy in and paid the price for it. I'm not about to impose on him even more.”
“So, you care for Adam?”
“Of course I do!” Dean said emphatically. “I'd do damn near anything to get him free, but I don't have any way to do anything, so I can't.”
“And if you could?”
“I'd do it in a heartbeat. Why are we talking about Adam and Sam, anyways? Isn't this trial supposed to be about me or something?”
“Ah, but a man is not simply defined by who he is,” Preston said. “He is also defined by those who he affects. In your case, your family, blood or not, are the people who define you. Your father molded you into the man you are today; your mother gave you a heart for people; Sam constantly acts as your anchor in a constantly shifting world; Adam, brief as your time with him was, showed you that you and Sam weren't the only ones sharing the blood of John Winchester; Robert Singer acted like a surrogate uncle and father when your own father was unable to. Shall I go on?” Preston asked. “I haven't even begun to describe how your relationship with that angel of yours has changed you, and so much for the better, too. So you see, the definition of a man extends far beyond just his name. Tell me, Dean Winchester: how would you say the people who you love so fiercely and have died for define you?”
“Brother.” That one was easy, at least, and one of the most important. “Son. Hunter. Friend. Protector. Warrior.” Dean paused, wracking his brains for anything else. “Um, I'm not sure what else. To be honest, I'd probably be better able to tell you how people who don't like me view me.”
“Then do so.”
“Criminal. Murderer. Thief. Desecrator. Reject. Torturer. Monster. Abomination. Liar. Take your pick, I'm sure there's more,” Dean said with a scowl.
“This isn't the Weighing of Souls, Dean,” Preston told him. “Ammit will not devour your heart should you prove to not be worthy; Osiris will not stand as judge, jury, and executioner. Back in the Haven of the angels, you were taken to a dark chamber. Do you remember that?”
“Yeah,” Dean said, one hand going up to fiddle with the amulet he still wore, “of course.”
“Then you remember being shown what your soul looked and sounded like?”
Dean nodded. “Yeah. It was surprisingly bright, actually. Not what I expected, to be honest, especially not after all the crap I've been through.”
“Exactly,” Preston said emphatically. “Your soul may be tarnished, but it still shines like a beacon. Why do you think the angels were so enthusiastic about having you become Michael's true vessel? As you saw, there were others suitable for the task, but they ignored that fact until it was the only option they had. You were the Righteous Man, and that title was not simply because you gave your life for another. Many people have done that over the course of history, and often for the same reason-- love –but they didn't always have the strong ties that you do to your brother. You yourself said that you share a heaven, and that rarely happens between siblings. You are a leader, Dean, yet another reason why you were so desirable for Michael to have as his vessel.
“However, both you and Sam overcame the forced destiny that the forces of Heaven planned for you, and in a spectacular way too that saved literally billions of lives. You have shaped the world around you, and for the better, even if your actions remain in the shadows. Sometimes, the strongest forces are those that cannot be seen. Gravity, for example, or the wind. You are a good man, Dean, and one strong enough to make it through what lies ahead.”
Dean felt a cool touch to the center of his forehead and then the darkness slowly receded. Dean found himself standing at the base of a mountain. He craned his head, looking up at the craggy rock jutting up above him.
“You have successfully endured the Trial of the Soul and have been found worthy, Dean Jacob Winchester,” Preston said from behind him. Dean turned around to find that the now-unblemished stone man was holding out a quarter disc made of brass. Dean took the cool metal from Preston's hand with a surprised expression.
“That was it? But all I did was talk about myself!”
Preston inclined his head. “True,” he said, “but you recognized your faults and took possession of them. In line with that, you did not let those faults rule you, nor your accomplishments. You have your vices and your virtues, and you know them well. That is a mark of someone who is worthy to continue on. Now, your next trial ends at the top of that mountain; the Keeper awaits you there. May luck favor you, Dean.”
With that, Preston turned on his heel and walked away, moving at a fast enough pace that he soon disappeared into the distance, the grassy plain swallowing him up. Dean put the token in the pocket with its fellows and then turned back to look up at the mountain once again. A rough path started nearby, so Dean made his way toward it and began his trek up the mountain.
Chapter 13: Trials, Part Four: Odysseus Climbing
Dean paused to wipe the sweat from his eyes, stopping halfway up a steep scree-covered slope to catch his breath. He leaned back against a small boulder, seeking a little shelter from the harsh sun overhead. Dean took a small drink from one of his last containers of water, clearing the dust and grit from his mouth. He sighed and then tilted his head up to see how much climbing he had left. He figured he was at least two-thirds of the way up the mountain, but thanks to the heat haze and dust in the air, the remaining distance was annoyingly vague.
Dean stayed where he was for five more minutes and then resumed his climb, scrambling up the loose gravel and dirt. He lost his grip several times, sliding back meters at a time. The hunter didn't give up though, gritting his teeth and pushing through the failures, soreness, and pain. His hands were torn raw and bleeding by the time he made it to the top. Dean paid little mind to them, already searching for the next section of the path.
His only way forward was a narrow ledge that followed the curve of the mountain. Dean winced at the thought of having to traverse that, his fear of heights rushing forward. The amulet he wore hung heavy on his neck, the fine silver chain a constant presence. Dean took hold of the amulet, gripping it through his shirt. Right. He could do this; Sam and Cas were counting on him, after all.
With a deep breath to steady himself, Dean edged out onto the narrow path, keeping his gaze fixed resolutely on the path and not on the open air a few scant inches to his left. He managed to reach the halfway point without faltering, but a patch of loose dirt and gravel slipped under his boot, sending him hard down to one knee. Dean swore sharply, the bright pain in his knee quickly eclipsed by the sharp wave of vertigo that passed over him. He leaned against the solid rock wall to his right, his eyes screwed shut as he took in several deep, steadying breaths, letting them out slowly as he regained his sense of balance.
Once he felt confident that he wouldn't trip and fall to his death thanks to being unbalanced, Dean opened his eyes and carefully rose to his full height, going slowly over the loose gravel and dirt. He breathed a sigh of relief when he reached the end of the path and found himself on more solid ground. The path sloped upwards, twisting in and back on itself as it switchbacked up the mountain. Dean forged on, keeping an eye out for any pitfalls or loose dirt as he went. He traveled for two hours more, slowly making his way up the long and winding path.
The path dead-ended at a sheer wall that went up forty feet and then terminated in a flat edge. Dean looked up, breathing out a curse of disbelief. How the hell was he supposed to get up that? As he studied the rock face, he noticed crude hand holds that had been carved out of the living rock. It made a rough vertical path upwards. Dean sighed and then used his knife to tear off strips of his shirt to use as makeshift bandages for his hands. He wrapped his hands up, using his teeth to tie the knots. Once he was sure he was ready, Dean began to climb, going slowly to keep the chances of slipping to a minimum. His movements were measured and his grip as tight as possible given his injuries.
It took Dean an hour to inch his way up the wall, and when he finally reached the top and hauled himself up onto the wind-swept top of the mountain, he rolled over on his back and caught his breath, his eyes slipping shut momentarily as his breathing returned to normal. His hands were numb and the makeshift bandages were tinged heavily with red. Dean lay there for several minutes, but the sound of approaching footsteps made him open his eyes and reach for his gun as he slowly sat up.
“There is no need for weapons.” Dean turned his head to see an elderly woman dressed in dark green silk robes approaching him; she had a gnarled staff in her left hand that reached a good foot above her head. The staff had an emerald the size of Dean's fist set into its top, and the gem seemed to glow with an internal light.
“Are you the last Guardian?”
The woman nodded in response to Dean's question. “I am,” she said. “My name is Tabitha. You've come a long way for the final piece of the key home.”
Dean smiled wryly. “Yeah, I have,” he responded, “and I have the evidence to prove it.” He held up his hands to show off the stained bandages. Tabitha didn't comment; instead, she carefully reached out and took hold of one of Dean's hands, placing the last quarter-disc onto his palm. It was made of beaten copper, and looked like it would fit perfectly with the others.
“What, exactly, am I supposed to do with these, anyways?” Dean asked, carefully putting the quarter-disc in the same pocket as the others.
“Place them in the receptacle in front of the arch that you used to begin the trials,” Tabitha told him. “The Guardian of the Path will show you.”
“You mean Rekasiel?”
Tabitha nodded. “Yes. Now, in order to return to the Haven of the Eldest, you simply need to step through that Gate.” She pointed at a stone arch that mirrored the one back in Purgatory, though this one had a large amber-hued gem set into its keystone rather than a green one.
“Any special phrase?”
Tabitha shook her head. “No. Merely approach it. The matching Gate on the other side will activate, signaling your Anchor of your imminent arrival.”
“Will it hurt him in any way?” Dean asked, remembering the sharp tug he'd felt in his chest when the Gate of the Souls in Purgatory had activated.
“No. The gem will flash and the portal will form. That is all.”
Dean slowly got to his feet, Tabitha reaching out and taking hold of one of his forearms in a surprisingly strong grip to help him up. Dean found his footing, though it was shaky for several long moments. Tabitha escorted him to the arch, her staff making heavy thumps every time it made contact with the hard ground. The Gate activated as they drew near, the amber gem flashing three times in rapid succession. A pale gold curtain of light formed in the archway, and Dean could have sworn he heard it humming.
“Congratulations,” Tabitha said with a serene smile. “You have completed all four Trials. You may return to the world you have left. May He who watches over all bless you in all your endeavors.”
“Thanks,” Dean replied. He looked over at the Gate, took a deep breath, and then walked into the curtain of light.
Dean stumbled through the Gate of Souls in the Elders' Haven, his exhaustion getting the better of him and making his knees give out. He sank down to the ground, a surprised grunt escaping him when he felt a pair of strong arms catch him and then gently lower him the rest of the way down.
“Welcome back, Dean. I've been waiting for you, my friend.”
Dean opened his eyes, unaware that he'd even closed them, and turned his head to see Castiel kneeling behind him, a welcoming smile on his face.
“Hey, Cas. How long have I been gone?”
“One year, ten months, and thirteen days,” Castiel replied promptly, his voice rumbling against Dean's back. “We have been away from Earth for two years Purgatory-time in total.”
“So, that's what, three months Earth-time?” Dean asked wearily, going to rub a hand over his face and then abruptly remembering that his hands were injured.
Castiel nodded. “Yes. Are you able to get up? Rekasiel has gone to go tell the others you're here.”
“Might as well try,” he said.
“All right. Up we go.” Castiel started lifting Dean, who got his legs underneath him and then pushed to his feet. Dean turned when he was fully on his feet, giving Castiel a triumphant grin.
“I did it,” he said as they made their way back to the main cavern. “I got the key home.”
“Well done, Dean.” Rekasiel came down the tunnel, Gabriel and Tesaviel hurrying along behind her. Tesaviel immediately went over to Dean and laid two fingers on his forehead, sending a wave of healing Grace through him. His aches and pains evaporated, and Dean breathed a sigh of relief, his posture straightening up a little.
“Thanks,” he said. Tesaviel nodded.
“Don't worry about it,” she replied. Dean began to remove his makeshift bandages from his hands, noting that Tesaviel had removed the blood from his newly-healed skin as well. He looked over at Castiel.
“How soon do you want to leave, Cas?” he asked. Castiel shrugged.
“I don't know. Whenever you're ready, I suppose,” he said.
Dean nodded and then looked over at Rekasiel. “Where do I put the pieces of the key?”
“In the pedestal next to the Gate,” the shade told him. “Place them in the order you received them, going clockwise from the top left.”
“All right.” Dean glanced over at Gabriel and Tesaviel, an idea coming to him. “Hey, Rekasiel, can angels go through the Trials?”
“Yes, of course; just about anyone can,” Rekasiel replied, “though I have yet to see one complete them.”
“Good.” Dean looked squarely at Gabriel and Tesaviel. “Think we'll see you guys on the other side?”
Gabriel shrugged. “I don't know; we've got a lot of work to do here still,” he said. “It might take a while.”
“Well, if you guys come back while Sam and I are still kickin', look us up. Just leave the tricks out of it, okay, man?”
Gabriel nodded and then held out his hand. “You guys take care of one another, okay? I don't want to see you two down here again any time soon. You got it?”
“Yeah, we got it,” Dean said with a grin, shaking Gabriel's hand firmly. “You take care of yourself as well. Don't let the assholes get you down.” He paused as he let go of Gabriel's hand. “And thanks for keepin' an eye on Cas while I was gone.”
“Of course,” Tesaviel said. “He's family. Too many of our kind seem to have forgotten what that means. It's the least we could do for you.”
Dean smiled. “Thanks. Oh, and before I forget...” He took off his pack and then set it down on the floor in front of Gabriel. “This is yours.”
“I'd say keep it, but I don't think you'll need it,” Gabriel said, taking the pack. “Say hi to Sam for me when you get back.”
“Will do.” Dean looked back at Castiel. “Ready?”
“One moment.” Castiel stepped forward and embraced both Tesaviel and Gabriel, both of whom gladly returned the hugs; Tesaviel pressed a gentle kiss on Castiel's forehead before releasing him.
“Stay safe, brother,” she said. Castiel nodded.
“I'll do my best.”
“You'd better,” Gabriel said firmly.
Castiel smiled indulgently. “Goodbye, Gabriel, Tesaviel.” He looked at Rekasiel. “Goodbye, Rekasiel.”
“Fare well, Castiel.” Rekasiel inclined her head in farewell. “And you, Dean.”
Dean nodded and then took a deep breath. “Right, okay. We're going to head out, then,” he said. “Cas?”
The two of them turned toward the Gate and then approached it, heading over to the waist-high pedestal that stood to the left of the Gate. Dean took out the quarter-discs from his pocket and then carefully set them into the indentations on top of the pedestal, starting with the silver one Eli had given him and then ending with the copper one Tabitha had presented him. The second that the final quarter-disc was put into place, the Gate activated once more, this time coming to life with a brilliant blue-white flare that settled back into the arch, the end result looking like standing water that would ripple occasionally.
Castiel glanced back one more time before he stepped through the arch, disappearing from sight. Dean followed after him, bracing himself for whatever lay on the other side.
Chapter 14: Tell the World I'm Coming Home
This is it, guys: the last chapter of 'Uncharted Territories'. It took a while, but we finally made it. Thanks for sticking around and reading it; I'm already working on the next story in this 'verse.
Castiel and Dean emerged from Purgatory in the middle of a pasture. It was hot and muggy; the last few strains of twilight painted the sky in dusky purples and grays. The stars were starting to appear, scattered across the sky overhead, and a hunter’s moon hung low and golden on the horizon as it began its climb upwards. A cow whuffled sleepily at the two travelers in vague bovine curiosity before deciding that neither of them were threats and then went back to sleep. Dean looked over at Castiel, who was fighting a smile, and then grinned at him, his posture relaxed and happy.
“Well, we’re back,” he said with a laugh. “In the middle of a frickin’ cow field, but we made it, Cas.”
“That we did,” Castiel replied. “I’ll go see where the nearest road is; there might be signs to tell us where was are, exactly.”
“You can’t tell?”
Castiel shrugged, glancing briefly up at the sky. “Somewhere in Nebraska, I think,” he said. “Other than that, I’m not sure.”
“I think Bessie and me will be fine here until you get back,” Dean joked.
Castiel nodded. “I’ll be back shortly,” he said, and then disappeared in a rush of wings. True to his word, the angel came back within a minute, reappearing right next to Dean.
“I couldn’t find any signs,” Castiel began, “but I found something better.”
“Which would be what?” Dean asked.
“There’s a farm about three miles away that’s heavily protected by Enochian warding,” Castiel told him. “There’s an angelic presence there.”
“Really? What the hell would angels want out in the middle of Nowhere, Nebraska?”
“I don’t know, but I suggest we find out.”
Dean winced. “We’re going to have to zap there, aren’t we?”
“It would be the quickest way,” Castiel pointed out. “Unless you really want to walk three miles of country road in the dark.”
Dean sighed. “No, no, you’re right,” he said slowly. “God, I hate doing this.”
“I know.” Castiel reached out and put a hand on Dean’s shoulder. They moved in a blink of an eye, the landscape changing around them in an instant. They were standing on a well-maintained dirt road, facing a two-story farmhouse that sat in the distance.
“There are ward-stones at each point of the compass, which helps to sustain the wards without needing a blood sacrifice,” Castiel said, his hand dropping to his side. “We’re just outside the border. Once we cross it, they’ll know we’re here.”
“If they don’t already,” a dry voice said from behind them. Castiel and Dean turned, surprised. Inias stood there, wearing his usual black slacks and dress shirt.
“Inias!” Castiel said, looking surprised. “You’re alive! How? We didn’t see you after you took Kevin away, and he said that the angels who were with him were killed by Leviathan.”
“By a bit of luck and some quick thinking,” Inias replied. “It’s good to see you, Castiel.” He gave Castiel a bright smile. He looked over at Dean and nodded. “And you, Dean. Come on, you two; it’s cooler inside. Besides, there are some people there who will want to see you once they know you’re here.”
He gestured towards the farmhouse. Dean and Castiel followed after him, shoes making soft thuds on the dirt path. “I’m afraid you’ve caught us at an off time,” Inias said as he led them to the house. “Everyone save for myself and a few others are out on jobs.”
“There are others who live here?”
Inias nodded in response to Castiel’s question. “Not everyone lives here,” he said as he headed up the porch stairs, “but the network of hunters who use it as a safe haven is slowly but surely growing as the news spreads.”
“So, what, it’s like the Roadhouse 2.0?” Dean asked as they entered the house. Inias shrugged.
“Sort of,” he said. “We’re not a bar, though.”
Dean noticed that almost all of the furniture inside was made from wood, and hand-carved at that. The pieces used for seating were well-cushioned, and the hunter spotted blankets draped over the backs of the couch and two over-stuffed armchairs in the living room to the immediate left of the entryway. A clatter of shoes on the nearby stairs caught everyone’s attention, and Dean was surprised to see Becky Rosen coming down, a hands-free headset on one eat and a computer tablet held in her hands. She was talking to someone on the other end of the phone, not looking up until she was almost at the bottom of the stairs.
“—I don’t know, Travis,” she was saying, “sounds like you’ve got a garden variety poltergeist on your hands. Should be an easy salt ‘n’ burn, from—”
She looked up, her eyes widening at the sight of Castiel and Dean standing there. “Trav, I’m going to have to let you go. If you need anything else, just call, okay? Good luck.”
Becky reached up and pressed a button on the side of her headset, ending the call. She looked over at Inias curiously, one eyebrow arching.
“They’re fine,” Inias reassured her. “It’s really them.”
“Dude, you didn’t even check us,” Dean protested. “How do you know for sure?”
“The wards wouldn’t have allowed you through if you were an unwanted supernatural being or if you intended anyone harm here,” Inias explained.
“I still want you to test us,” Dean insisted.
“All right,” Inias said. “Wait here.” He disappeared in a rush of feathers, coming back several seconds later with two vials of holy water, a silver knife, and a weak solution of borax in water, held conveniently in a spray bottle.
“Hands,” he said, giving Becky the holy water to hold onto. He tested them with the borax solution first, spraying a light mist on the back of their hands. When that did nothing, he had them turn over their hands and drew the blade over their palms hard enough to draw blood. The holy water shots were next, and once Dean and Castiel had downed them, Inias reached out and healed Dean’s hand with a brief touch.
“Satisfied?” he asked.
Dean shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “Now, who else is—”
“Inias! Lee and the others are comin’ in hot! Get ready!”
Dean barely had time to register where the strangely familiar voice was coming from before both Inias and Becky were heading upstairs at a dead run, leaving Dean and Castiel to wonder what was going on. After a quick exchanged glance, the two travelers headed upstairs as well. What greeted them was a scene of barely controlled chaos. Two people were manhandling a third into a room at the direction of the woman Dean had seen during his Trial of Soul. The rest of the group were being taken care of by Inias and Becky.
Dean and Castiel dove into the fray with barely a second thought, with Dean helping Becky bandage the less urgent wounds while Castiel aided Inias with healing the more pressing wounds. Years of patching up himself and Sam helped Dean in his work, deft hands cleaning and bandaging bleeding wounds. The chaos settled down once most of the people were taken care of, and Dean drew in a breath of relief.
He emerged from the bathroom after washing his hands to come face-to-face with Sam. A brilliant smile blossomed across the younger Winchester’s face before he pulled his brother into a tight hug. Dean returned the hug with gusto, smiling brightly into Sam’s shoulder. He stepped back, looking up at Sam. Sam looked as healthy and hale as Dean had ever seen: his eyes were clear and bright and full of joy as he grinned back at Dean.
“When did you get back?” he asked.
“A half hour or so ago,” Dean replied. “I think we may have given a cow nightmares.”
Sam laughed, the amused sound easy and flowing. “Well, hopefully it’ll be all right,” he said. “Where’s Cas?”
Dean looked around to find Castiel in conversation with Inias; both angels seemed deeply invested in what they were talking about. Sam followed Dean’s line of sight and then nodded.
“Be right back,” he said before heading over to where Castiel and Inias were. He tapped Castiel on the shoulder, and when the angel turned around, smiled broadly at him in greeting. Castiel returned the smile with one of his own; Sam clapped him on the shoulder in lieu of a hug, not sure how Castiel would react to an embrace.
“All right, everyone who can, please move out of the hall,” Becky announced, raising her voice over the low babble of the small crowd. “There are leftovers in the fridge, as well as fresh ingredients if you want to make something from scratch. You know where the open rooms are, so feel free to crash if you want.”
There was a general murmur of agreement and then the crowd dispersed, leaving Castiel, Dean, Sam, and Inias in the hall; Becky returned to her study-cum-command center after saying goodbye to the others.
“So,” Castiel began, “this place— you said it was a haven for hunters?”
Sam nodded. “It’s a safehouse as well as neutral ground,” he replied. “No physical fights except for sparring is allowed. Lee’s thrown out several people on their asses for scrapping in the kitchen. It was temporary, but effective.”
“I’ve never seen that many hunters in one place besides the Roadhouse,” Dean mused. “Whatever you’re doin’ here, it must be working. I recognized most of those people. They don’t play well with others, normally. What were you hunting that needed six people to take care of it?”
“One of the largest nests of wendigos I’ve ever heard of,” Sam said. “Five of the frickin’ things, all holed up in the Catskills. There were actually eight of us out there; Devin is the one getting intensive care right now.” He jerked a thumb at the closed door. “They’re taking care of him right now; it’s probably going to be a while, so we should leave them to it and head downstairs. You guys hungry? I think it was casserole night, but I’ve been on the road for the past week and a half, so I could be wrong.”
“Quiche night, actually,” Inias supplied as they headed downstairs, “assuming there’s still some left by the time we get there.”
There were only three people in the kitchen when the Winchesters and the two angels reached it; two men and one woman. One of the men was waiting near the microwave, while the others had already retrieved their food and were eating. Dean couldn’t help the amused grin that broke out when he saw the surprised look on Sam’s face when Castiel got a plate of food for himself out of habit, even though he didn’t have to eat anymore. Once everyone had gotten food (if they so chose, Inias declined, having already eaten earlier), the four of them went into the living room, wanting a place to talk privately with one another.
Sam settled in one of the overstuffed armchairs after closing the far door on the other side of the room. Inias closed the other door before sitting down next to Castiel on the couch, with Dean on Castiel’s other side.
“So,” Sam said, setting his plate on a nearby side table. “Purgatory.”
“Yeah,” Dean confirmed. “How’d you guess?”
Castiel’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Are you sure? He hasn’t contacted you since before Lucifer and Michael were trapped in the Cage.”
Sam shrugged. “He didn’t contact me,” he said. “That honor went to Becky, actually. She’s the one who got all of us together in the first place.”
“I dropped in unintentionally,” Inias said with a wry smile. Sam chuckled softly.
“Yeah, well, it turned out all right in the end,” he said. “So, you guys want to tell us about Purgatory?”
Dean looked over at Castiel, who shrugged and then began talking.
“To begin with, Purgatory is a wild forest, shrouded in near perpetual fog and twilight…”