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Die Hard the Hunter

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Dean caught his reflection in a storefront window. The security grate sectioned him into pieces: a pale jaw, one dark eye, the brim of a knit cap, a square of overlarge puffy jacket, a collar popped up against the brutal February wind.

Behind him, a dark smear moved across the glass. Dean hadn't shaken his Shadow.

They weren’t supposed to attack people. Then again, they weren’t supposed to stalk people either, and this one had been following him since he’d left the Smith & Wesson an hour ago.

The Shadows had appeared out of nowhere a little over a year ago. One day, no one had ever heard of them. The next, they were everywhere: big, dark, masses that drifted like jellyfish without a current. Some people believed they were aliens. Others thought they were portents of doom. There had been talk of invasions and nuclear war. The panic had gone sky-high when Shadows were taped moving through walls.

But the Shadows didn't ask to be taken to any leaders. They didn't attack anyone. In fact, they never did anything. Ever. No biting, no talking, no mass extermination of the human race. They were attracted to motion, so they'd slowly trail cars, dogs, tumbleweeds. But they couldn't focus, and they never followed anything for very long. A few cults had sprung up to worship the damn things. Everyone else purchased leaf blowers to keep them out of their yards.

Dean? He didn't trust them. Things didn't pop out of nowhere for no reason. They were up to something.

This one seemed intent on doing something to him.

Dean ducked behind the back of a restaurant and found himself in a brick alleyway. A rusty Chevy S-10 was parked by the backdoor of the restaurant, right in front of a dumpster. Its bed was lined with a half-weighted tarp. One corner flapped in the wind. Glass bottles littered the ground.

He pivoted to face the mouth of the alley. His numb fingers reached for gun jammed in his pocket. He released the safety.

No one had ever killed a Shadow, but maybe the noise would scare it off.

The Shadow rounded the corner.

When Dean’s brother was eight, he’d bought one of those tacky 3-D illusion posters. It looked like some random pattern at first, but if you leaned in real close and then pulled back real slow, you’d see an image. A boat, according to Sammy. Dean hadn’t ever gotten the hang of the damn thing. His eyes would hurt, and something would jump out from the pattern, but he would lose it before he knew what he was seeing.

Looking at the Shadow felt like the moment right before he stopped seeing the 3-D, when his eyes were caught between seeing and not seeing. Only it was a thousand times worse. His brain kept trying to make sense of the Shadow and couldn’t, and it freaking hurt. Everything in him screamed that the Shadow was made outta some real bad hoodoo–that it was wrong in ways he didn't want to think about.

Dean spoke. “That's close enough. Follow me another step, and I shoot. You got that?”

The Shadow grew denser around the middle, like it was folding something around itself.

“That supposed to be a 'no'?”

No shit, Sherlock.

Dean almost dropped the gun.

The Shadow wasn’t talking.

Dean was talking for it in his own head, like a freaking schizo. He was losing his goddamned mind. Why else would he give the Shadow that voice? “Look, man. As much fun as this is, I have a standing appointment with some Magic Fingers. What do you want? To kill me? Then kill me! Don’t just stand there waiting for me to freeze to death!”

The Shadow huffed, as if to say, Dude!

This–this was nuts. Here Dean was, imagining Sam’s voice, when he hadn’t spoken to his brother in years. When, most days, he tried to forget that he’d ever had a brother.

“You know what? I think I've had enough bullshit for one night. ” Dean squeezed the trigger on an exhale.

Sound left the alley.

One minute, Dean heard wind howling and banging against the dumpsters. Then, nothing. No noise. Dean couldn’t even hear himself breathing. The sound had fucking broke, like the world had been reduced to a crappy old electronic.

The bullet entered the Shadow’s middle and made ripples. Did you really just shoot me?

Dean stepped back. He wasn’t stupid; he hadn’t cornered himself. But he didn’t think he could outrun the Shadow, either. Not when his legs were half-frozen, and he was up against something that wasn’t even human.

The Shadow slid toward Dean.

Dean fired again.

What the Hell? Can you stop shooting for, like, two seconds?

“Shut it, Sammy.”

Those words came out clear as a bell.

The Shadow froze. What did you just call me?

Something moved behind the Shadow. Dean couldn't make it out. He opened his mouth to shout for help–

A low whine caught the air.

Dean shook his head, trying to dislodge the buzz in his ears. “You think you can tone that down?”

Does it look like I’m the one doing this?

Dean dropped his gun and doubled over, head cradled in his hands. A glass bottle rolled toward him, then exploded like a firecracker. He heard the pickup’s windows burst. Glass shards fell like rain, landing on his skin and in his hair. A large piece cut the back of his hand.

Dean didn’t have the right to wish for anything. Still, he hoped that Sammy was doing alright. That he knew his fuck-up of a big brother loved him.

The sound stopped. The pain ended.

Dean opened his eyes. He was covered in broken glass and curled up on the ground, the pavement like ice against his skin. His muscles quivered like gelatin. He couldn’t quit shaking.

The Shadow was gone.

#

Dean woke up with a headache and a dry mouth. Cheap motel sheets itched against his skin. He rolled out of bed, his whole body feeling like a bruise, and stumbled into the bathroom. He splashed cold water on his face and glanced at his reflection.

He looked blurry.

Dean frowned and wiped one hand across the mirror. His face still seemed wrong, like a picture from a camera that had gone just slightly out of focus. It had to be something weird with the glass. Except the objects behind him–the edge of a shower curtain, cracked wall tiles–looked just fine.

He grabbed his chin and turned his face to both sides, then touched his nose and cheekbones. They felt normal. He had that same curve at the tip of his nose, the same crease in his forehead. Was it his vision? Dean stepped back.

Moving away from the mirror just made it worse.

He glanced down at his hands. No. Fuck, no. They were out of focus and darker, somehow, like the light was skipping right over his skin.

This wasn’t right. People didn’t just go blurry overnight! What could do something like this? The Shadow? How? It hadn’t freaking touched him! Still, a man meets a Shadow one night, then wakes up looking like a bad Polaroid? That couldn’t be a coincidence.

He didn’t bother checking out; he just headed straight to his '67 Impala.

The cold hit Dean like a fist. Shivering, he threw his duffel in the passenger seat and shrugged on his coat. He turned on the ignition. Thankfully, his baby started up with a purr despite the cold. He patted her dashboard and turned on the heat. “That’s my girl. You never let me down, not even when I’m turning into some kind of freak.”

Last night, he imagined Sam's voice. Today, he'd started seeing things. Maybe he wasn’t really changing. Maybe he was just losing it. Dean backed out the Impala, then turned her out of the parking lot. The roads had been plowed and salted, but he had to drive the speed limit to avoid skidding on black ice.

Normally, driving soothed him. He’d just get in his baby and hit the gas and for a brief time, he’d forget everything but the open road stretched in front of him, the sweet hum of the Impala’s engine and whatever tune was rocking from her cassette deck. Now, Dean’s head throbbed. His body ached. He was too aware that he’d only gotten a couple hours of sleep. And to put the icing on top of one terrible cake, his hands looked out of focus against the smooth lines of the steering wheel.

Sammy.

Also, he kept thinking about Sam. Why did Dean's brain keep bouncing back to his little brother? He didn’t even know where he was. California, maybe? He’d probably gone on to law school, but that didn’t take five years, and he could’ve moved anywhere after that. There was no one Dean could ask. His parents were dead, and he'd burned just about every bridge he’d ever had, plus a few more besides.

Dean hadn’t deleted Sammy’s number from his phone, but he didn’t know if the number was still good. People’s phone numbers changed. Even if the number was still good, was it selfish to use it? Sam hated him.

This was stupid. Sam was fine. Dean had no reason to think any different, just a freaky-ass encounter with a Shadow and a weird itch in the back of his mind. That knowledge didn’t dislodge the worry chomping at his gut.

By the time he made it to Iowa, Dean just didn’t care. If Sam was in trouble, he needed to know. You didn’t abandon family, not even when they abandoned you first.

He pulled into a diner’s parking lot. The building was white and boxy with black piping and a sign announcing the best cherry pie in the state. Dean turned off the engine and fished his cell phone out of his jacket. He pressed three–it had been five years, and he still had Sammy on speed dial–and listened to the voicemail pick up. It was Sam’s voice, if tinny and oddly formal, and listening to it felt like clawing open an infected wound.

Dean waited for the beep. “Sammy, it’s Dean. Look, I know you don’t want to talk to me. You’re probably pissed that I’m still alive, and I get that, man. But Sammy, it's been a weird day, and I just...I need to know that you’re alright. Give me a call. Chew me out. Threaten to kill me again. Something.”

He shut his phone and closed his eyes. He could use a cup of joe, but he didn’t know how other people would react to seeing him like this. He wasn’t a monster; he didn’t think the village would come after him with pitchforks. Then again, he didn’t know this town. It might be the kind of place where a couple piercings earned you a beating, and Dean looked a hell of a lot weirder than your average punk.

Fuck it. Dean was tired and hungry, and he could take care of himself. He opened up his car door and stepped outside.

A bell on the diner’s door rang as he opened it. It was a generic-looking place with black booths lined up against the walls. A metal bar with stools stretched in front of what had once been an old-fashioned soda fountain. Now, there was just your normal soda dispenser–the diner favored Pepsi products–and a window revealing a small square of kitchen. Dean glimpsed a surly looking dude scrambling eggs.

A couple truckers were sitting in the booths. A middle-aged waitress in a blue skirt and hair net was setting a plate of hash browns in front of a sallow guy in a red flannel shirt. She looked up when the bell rang. Dean bit his lip and waited for a scream or a hairy eyeball. Something.

The waitress shook her head and turned back to Hashbrowns.

Dean blinked. Hadn’t she noticed? He brought his hand to his face and flexed his fingers. The creases and veins in his hand fuzzed out and bled into one another. The diner had plenty of light, but it refused to diffuse across his skin. It was official: He had Shadow VD. Maybe the waitress was half-blind?

Dean slid into a booth. He smiled as the waitress approached.

She walked by him without so much as a nod. Jesus. Freak or no, you don’t ignore a paying customer! Dean waited until she emerged from the kitchen, carrying a plain white mug and a coffee pot in the same hand, then gave her a wave. She walked over to his booth.

As someone who had spent his whole life on the road, Dean knew waitresses. He’d pegged this one as your standard Midwestern matron–friendly, inclined to mother, could be charmed for an extra large slice of pie. Those types greeted you with a smile, not stony indifference.

Dean pushed down a tinge of worry. He was good at figuring people out, but he wasn’t a mind reader. He had messed up, that’s all. This lady fell into the surly, no-nonsense, I’ve-been-doing-this-too-long-to-take-your-bullshit camp, and she wouldn’t acknowledge Dean until she was damn well ready.

At least it seemed like she was ready now. Dean glanced at her name tag and smiled. “Hello, Irene.”

She grabbed the ketchup from his table and carried it over to Hashbrowns.

“Hey!” Dean watched as the waitress poured one of the truckers a refill. “Have I gone freaking invisible?”

C’mon! He knew that people ignored what they didn’t want to see, but this was frigging ridiculous. When Irene passed his booth on the way back to the kitchen, Dean reached out and grabbed her arm.

She yelped and drew back, one hand falling to her chest. “My lord, boy. You scared me halfway to Hades!”

Dean peered into her face. It was square with a firm, thin mouth, but the expression was friendly. “You didn’t see me sitting here?”

“Give me a break, sugar. You couldn’t have been there more than a moment.” Irene’s eyes–brown, deep-set, lined with crows' feet–darted to the side.

It was something people did when they were lying, but Dean didn’t think that was it. Irene looked less like she was making up stories and more like she didn’t want to look at him.

“Uh, sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. You think I can get some of the coffee? Maybe a slice of that famous cherry pie?”

“Sure thing, hon.” Irene seemed fascinated by a patch of air to the left of Dean’s ear. “You want that pie with Reddi Whip?”

“Sounds awesome.”

Irene nodded, eyes vacant, and headed back to the kitchen.

Dean rubbed his temples. It had to have been the frigging Shadow. It had pulled some sort of trick, and now Dean was half-invisible to waitresses. God, he hoped it this wasn’t going to happen with every woman from now on. He’d suspected that Shadows were evil sons of bitches, but he hadn’t taken them for cockblocks.

Dean watched as Irene finally came back out of the kitchen, then frowned when he realized her hands were empty. “C’mon! What’s it take to get some pie around here?”

“She has already forgotten you.”

Dean looked up to see a man walking toward his booth. He didn’t look like he belonged in a diner in the middle of bumfuck Iowa. For one thing, he probably didn’t drive a rig. He was wearing a black suit and a long beige trench coat. A cheap-looking, navy tie hung around his neck, the knot too loose at his throat. His hair stuck up at odd angles.

Dean felt his chest compress. What was this dude, a Fed? Where had he even come from? Dean hadn’t seen him when he’d walked in, and he hadn’t heard the bell on the door ring. He must’ve been taking one long-ass shit to have been in the bathroom this whole time.

The man’s gaze locked on Dean. “You’re Dean Winchester.”

Suddenly, it was hard to swallow. There was something alien about the dude. Something almost as scary as those goddamn Shadows. “Nah, man. You got the wrong guy. The name’s Jack Bruce.”

“You called your brother, Sam Winchester, and left a message in which you identified yourself as Dean.”

What the Hell? How could this guy know that? Sammy couldn’t have known that Dean was gonna call, and even if he had, Dean’s message had lasted, what, thirty seconds? There was no way that call could have been traced.

“Dude, you’re creeping me out. I’m just passing through on my way to my sister’s wedding.” Dean stood up and slid out of the booth, his hand moving to the gun concealed beneath his shirt.

The man’s eyes didn’t follow Dean’s hands. Dean had run into plenty of cops, and reaching for your gun tended to piss them the Hell off. No way was this guy law enforcement.

So, what the fuck was he?

The man narrowed his eyes, which looked normal and blue but still seemed weird. “I know you remember your brother.”

Dean edged toward the door. “If I knew this Sam kid, I think I’d remember him. You don’t just forget your own brother.”

“Perhaps not, in normal circumstances. These are not normal circumstances.”

Dean grinned like a crazy person. “You’re not kidding.”

The bell above the door rang. Dean looked toward the door, keeping Not a Fed in his peripheral vision.

A chick walked into the diner. She was smoking, if a bit pale: thin, with long, dark brown hair and a black leather jacket. Some kind of hippie pendant necklace hung between her breasts, while dark jeans and killer boots added miles to legs that had already won the genetic lottery.

Dean gave them an appreciative leer, but then he got a good look at her face and it stopped him cold. Her features were nice enough, but there was something raw and ugly shifting beneath the surface.

She raised her eyebrows. “Looks like you got started without me, boys.”

Started what, exactly? He’d never seen any of these people before in his life!

The trench-coated man cleared his throat, which didn't help his voice any. “Meg. You have no business here.”

Meg smiled. “And that’s where you’re wrong, hot stuff. Your kind getting banished from the face of the Earth? Let’s just say it’s getting us all kinds of excited downstairs.”

The man raised his chin. “We have not been banished.”

Meg slid her thumbs through the loops on her jeans. “You so sure about that?” When the man didn’t respond, she shrugged. “Fine. Let’s conduct an experiment. How about I kill everyone in this joint, and we’ll see if any of your friends stop me. Whaddya say, Clarence?”

“Hey, honey.” Irene’s voice carried from the back of the diner. “I’m afraid you’re gonna have to order something if you want to stay in here.”

“Oh, look. A volunteer.” Meg lifted one hand, splaying out her fingers before closing them into a fist. She jerked her wrist to the left, and Dean heard the unmistakable crack of breaking bone. He spun around and saw Irene’s body crumple to the floor.

Holy shit! Had this Meg chick just snapped Irene’s neck with the power of her mind?

Someone screamed, the sound tapering into a desperate, liquid gurgle. It took a second for Dean to realize where it was coming from. Blood streamed from one of the truckers’ nostrils and mouth. It dripped from his beard and soaked into layers of cotton and flannel. He choked and slumped forward, his body seizing.

Sallow guy stood up and scuttled back, only to have his neck spin 180 degrees on his shoulders. His face froze in almost comic expression of horror, like a bad actor in a B movie, but his body smacked into the floor with a terrible, wet, real sound.

Dean heard a scream from the kitchen and remembered the cook he’d seen earlier. Fuck, Meg had killed four people in–what?–fifteen seconds? With her brain?

Dean pulled out his gun and trained it on Meg. “What the Hell are you?”

She blinked, and her eyes were solid black. “Oooh. I guess that means Clarence hasn’t explained jack-shit. Typical. Angels just love to rock the mystery angle. Now, we demons may have a reputation for lying, but at least we don’t pussyfoot around bad news.”

Clarence straightened his already rigid posture. “I was not pussyfooting.”

Meg winked at him. “Big talk for such a limp little angel.”

“C’mon! You can’t expect me to believe you're a demon!” Dean's hands shook around his gun. His sense of reality was taking a beating, but he wasn’t ready to believe in freaking angels and demons.

Meg grinned and blew a long breath across her knuckles. “I’m not Tinkerbell. I don’t need you to believe in me to keep kicking ass. Now, Dean-o, how about we blow this popsicle joint? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“What? So you can kill me like you just killed all these people?” Dean had done some stupid shit in his life, but he wasn’t stupid enough to run off with some psycho chick!

“Hey, I was just making a point. If angel-boy here could have stopped me, he would have. Someone’s been a naughty boy, and now his daddy’s gone and taken away all his juice.”

“You’re wrong,” Clarence said.

“Am I? Because even if you decided to let me kill those people, we both know your buddies wouldn’t want my mitts all over this fine specimen.” Meg jabbed her thumb toward Dean. “But since any attempt at rescue would burn those cute, beady eyes right out of his skull, they seem to be holding back. Lucky me.”

Dean gave up on trying to understand. “Look, lady, I don’t what the Hell you’re talking about, but I think you've got the wrong idea. I’m not anything, y’know, special. I’m just a guy.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I must want the other blurry guy with knowledge of things that other humans don’t remember.”

She walked toward Dean, and he didn't want to–he didn't want the jail time if this got traced back–but he had to shoot her. He tried to–except suddenly he couldn't get his fingers to move.

Meg drew close and wrapped her fingers around the barrel of his gun, bringing the tip to her stomach. Her spare hand rose to tap his temple. “Don’t worry that sweet little skull of yours. I’m not here to hurt you. I’ll even tell you the score. You know, as a professional courtesy. Try getting that much from your little angel buddy.”

“She’s an abomination, Dean. Do not trust her.” Clarence’s frown deepened.

What was his game? Something told Dean that the dude was just as dangerous as Meg. So, why hadn’t he made a move? Was he waiting for something? If he were an angel–and no way was Dean buying that one–wasn’t he supposed to be, y’know, good? Like, the kind of thing that would stop a demon from murdering innocent people?

“Save the dirty talk for the bedroom, sweetheart,” Meg told Clarence. She refocused on Dean. “You wanna know why Heaven and Hell are getting all hot and bothered over some petty crook whose own daddy gave up on him? Whose brother hated him for getting his girlfriend all burnt to Hell?”

“My perky nipples?” Dean never told anyone any of that shit, and there was no way this bitch had access to his files. Were demons in law enforcement? It would explain a lot. Green River, for example.

Meg rose on her tiptoes and brushed her lips against Dean’s ear. Her skin felt warm and soft and normal. “You shouldn’t exist. You’re like a two-headed puppy, and everyone’s lining up to see the freak show.”

Dean drew back. “I shouldn’t exist? What the fuck is that supposed to mean? People aren’t meant to look this good?”

“Your brother has been erased from existence,” Clarence said. “Yet, you remember him. It has...drawn interest.”

Hold up. Sam had been frigging erased!?

Dean felt sick. Hollow.

Ever since their father had shoved a tiny, red-faced baby into Dean’s arms and told him to run like Hell out of their burning house, Sammy had been Dean’s responsibility. He’d fed him. Watched over him. Kept him out of trouble. Dean had gotten himself in trouble fighting off bullies and stealing other people’s Christmas presents, just so Sammy could keep being a kid awhile longer.

The need to protect his brother was a part of Dean. Even when he’d been up to his eyeballs in debt to all the wrong people, he’d kept Sam out of it. Sammy came first. Sammy always came first.

Now, some angel was telling him that Sam had been erased? What did that mean? Murdered. What else could ‘erased from existence’ mean? God, if their dad had still been around...Hell, Dean didn’t know what John Winchester would have done. He could almost hear his dad’s voice, asking why the fuck Dean hadn’t been there.

Dean’s tongue felt thick and dry. “Why? Sammy never put a toe out of line his whole goddamn life. He was a good kid. He was–”

“Yeah, I’m sure Sammy-boy was a real saint.” Meg fingered the pendant hanging from her necklace. “Your brother wasn’t killed. He was erased. Smudged out. Smeared. It looks like someone started the job with you, too, blur boy. It just didn’t take. Happen to know why that is?”

Your brother wasn’t killed.

Dean hated himself for the relief that coursed through him, because it wasn’t real. When weird people with superpowers told you that your brother had been erased from existence, they weren’t talking identity theft.

“What do you mean, ‘erased?’ Is he invisible now or something?” Dean asked.

“He’s not invisible,” Clarence said. “His absence is visible to the human eye.”

The fuck?

Dean needed to check in on Sammy and see what the Hell was going on. He didn’t know where Sam was...but Bobby Singer would! Jesus. Dean should have thought of him earlier.

Dean hadn’t spoken to him in years, but Bobby’d know about Sam. Bobby was a paranoid conspiracy theorist who eavesdropped on police scanners and thought that Sarah Palin was an alien plant, but he kept up on things. He’d probably compiled tons of info on the Shadows. Plus, Bobby knew Sam. Even if he didn’t know exactly where Sam was, he’d have a way to find out.

Bobby might shoot out Dean’s kneecaps, but Dean didn’t need those to ask questions.

“As much fun as this has been, I gotta go see a guy about a car.” Dean tensed, eyes darting between Meg and Clarence, as he prepared to break for the door. He knew it was a stupid move; he wasn’t going anywhere Meg didn’t want him to go. He just hoped that she hadn’t been lying when she’d said that she wasn’t going to ice him.

“Leaving is inadvisable,” Clarence said.

Dean tightened his grip on his handgun, trying to decide whether or not this so-called angel was threatening him. “And why’s that?”

Clarence didn’t move his eyes; he turned his whole head to redirect his light-beam stare from Dean to Meg. “The building is surrounded by hellhounds.”

As if on cue, Dean heard angry growling coming from outside, the snap of a jaw, a canine yelp.

The horror that struck Dean was instinctive and total. Because yeah, those weren’t freaking Yorkies. They sounded big. Huge. Jumbo grizzly-sized.

Meg rolled back her shoulders and slinked toward the door. “You expected me to face down an angel, even one like you, without back-up? Sorry, Clarence, but my daddy raised me smarter than that. Now, if you don’t mind, I think it’s about time Dean and I got going. You know how it is: demons to see, people to do.”

Dean ignored her words, because actions spoke louder, and hers were screaming to high–uh, yeah. Shit. She was going to open the door and let the hellhounds inside.

Dean didn’t want the hellhounds inside.

“You will not take Dean Winchester.” Clarence pulled a short sword from underneath his trench coat, because Dean was in Highlander.

Meg reached the door. She stroked her fingers over the knob, smiling as something scratched the wood on the other side. “Hmmm, let me think about it. Here I am, with a dozen hellhounds. You have a sword and no way to call in back-up without destroying the object of our mutual treasure hunt. So, tell me, why exactly would I give up, now?”

“Because I am not out of juice.”

Clarence freaking zapped across the room.

One second, he was standing across from Dean. The next found him holding Meg. He pressed his sword against her back and palmed her forehead. Which, yeah. Not the best way to gank the bitch, if her laughter was any indication.

“You can’t kill me, can you Clarence? Don’t tell me you haven’t earned your wings.”

Dean wasn’t known for his brains, but even he wasn’t stupid enough to stick around and see how this one played out. He sprinted toward the kitchen door, and then pushed through. The short order cook’s body was splayed out in the middle of the floor, the handle of a cleaver rising from a bloody mess of flesh and apron in the middle of his chest. His eyes–dead, glassed over–stared straight through Dean.

Dean stepped over the corpse and headed toward the steel door with an exit sign. Except...fuck. The Impala was parked on the other side of the building. He’d have to outrun giant, evil dogs to get there, and Dean doubted Hell bred them fat and lazy.

Dean glanced around the room. Two metal strips were on the wall above what looked like a prep station. They held up about a dozen cheap chef’s knives, along with a couple can openers and serrated steak knives. Dean couldn’t see a knife doing much good, but he wasn’t gonna count on getting a chance to reload his gun, and a crappy blade had to be better than going unarmed.

His eyes fell on a couple packages of Steak-umms thawing on the counter. Maybe he could chuck a couple pieces at the dogs and hope they wanted beef more than they wanted him? It worked in the movies.

Which meant that it was probably fake Hollywood bullshit.

He heard glass break in the other room, followed by growls and the scratch-slide of clawed animals running too fast on tile. There was a terrified whine, like that of a kicked puppy, and then Clarence’s voice boomed through the air. “Use salt, Dean!”

Salt? Salt? What was he supposed to do, see if the hellhounds shriveled like slugs? Dean scanned the room. There was a canister of Morton’s on one of the counters and probably some more in the cabinets, unless the low-sodium craze had reached middle America’s diners, in which case, fuck it, Dean didn’t want to live anymore.

The kitchen door swung open, revealing...nothing.

Dean blinked at the empty space. He’d been expecting some hound of the Baskervilles deal, with glowing red eyes and a dripping maw filled with fangs. Maybe hellhounds were too freaking dumb to walk through an open door when they saw one?

He stepped toward the counter, only to hear a low growl coming from the doorway. Was the hellhound standing at some weird angle where it could see Dean, but he couldn’t see it?

He could still hear noise coming from the dining room. Dogs, mostly, but also Meg laughing or making these breathy little grunts. He didn’t want to think too hard about what was going on in there, but maybe Clarence was keeping the hellhounds distracted...

Then, shit, the cook’s corpse moved.

Its far hand slid two inches across the floor, moving toward its torso. Small pink bubbles frothed from its mouth as its bloody chest depressed, like a heavy weight had settled there.

No. Just no. Angels, demons and hellhounds were one thing, but Dean wasn't ready to deal with zombies. He’d never be ready to deal with zombies.

The body’s chest moved again. Twin red blobs the size of dinner plates formed on the floor between Dean and the corpse. Well, two big blobs with smaller blobs in front and to the sides of them. Dean wasn’t an expert or anything, but he’d been around plenty of blood. Blood flowed, splattered, gushed or seeped through bandages; it didn’t just appear.

Humid air puffed against Dean’s legs, and he smelled something damp and putrid.

“You've got to be kidding me.”

The blobs were paw prints.

Paw prints from an invisible dog the size of a Volkswagen.

“Uh, hey, doggie,” Dean said. “Yeah, that’s a good boy. You’re a vicious thing, ain’t ya? Bet Michael Vick would get a load outta you...”

The hellhound snarled, its invisible teeth gnashing together.

Dean took a step back toward the exit, his boots slipping on the linoleum. He held up his hands, but kept firm grips on his gun and knife. One bite from this thing would probably chomp him in two.

“Not a Vick fan? Hey, I can’t blame you. It takes a total dick to kill a bunch of dogs.”

The hellhound growled. New prints appeared on the floor as it approached Dean, each mark fainter than the last. It made a deep, angry noise, and the paw prints grew wider, like it was bracing itself for a pounce.

Dean knew a one-chance scenario when he saw it. He brought the gun down and aimed a bullet between and above the nearest set of paw prints.

There was a high-pitched, animal scream. The hellhound slipped and scrambled, its claws tearing strips from the linoleum.

Shit.

For all Dean knew, he’d shot it in the ear or something.

He fired again.

Something slammed into Dean’s chest, propelling him into the door. Sharp claws dug into his shoulders. Dean jabbed forward with the knife, driving it somewhere into the air above his head.

Hot breath moved across his face, and Dean felt something warm soak into his shirt. The hellhound twitched and made a wet, muffled noise. Its chest rattled. Then, nothing.

It was dead.

“Guess this makes me a total dick.”

The hellhound’s body was huge and heavy, but it didn’t quite have him pinned. Dean kicked around, ignoring the pain in his shoulders as he tried to shove the thing off his chest. He did not want to be trapped when the other hellhounds arrived at the prom! Another hard push, and Dean was able to pull his legs free. He sat against the door for a long second, breathing hard.

Clarence walked into the kitchen. Blood streamed from a hairline cut on one side of his face, and his trench coat and sword were splattered red. He looked at Dean’s feet, where an invisible dog was lying dead in a puddle of its own blood. “You should not have ignored my instructions. Hellhounds cannot pass over salt.”

Dean glared at him, wondering what the Hell that was supposed to mean. “Thanks for the tip.”

“You’re welcome.”

Sarcasm was clearly lost on the dude.

“Meg?” Dean rose to his feet and gave his shoulders a quick roll.

He was bleeding where the hellhound had nailed him, but the damage didn’t feel too bad. No sliced arteries or muscles or anything, though he was gonna be a walking bruise in a couple of hours.

Clarence tilted his head to one side. “I failed to kill the demon, but she has retreated. I believe that she is waiting outside with her remaining hellhounds.”

“Remaining?”

“I killed seven and fatally wounded two,” Clarence said, like it was freaking nothing. “A hellhound never loses a scent; it will not be safe for you until they are destroyed.”

Dean raised an eyebrow. “We kill the hellhounds, and I’m safe?”

Clarence shifted his weight. “You will be safe from these hellhounds.”

“Oh,” Dean said. “Awesome.”

###