Dean Winchester awoke with a start, gasping as he sat bolt upright in his bed, scrabbling for his gun kept safe beneath his pillow. The covers fell about his waist exposing the cold sweat on his chest. The fleeting images faded quickly; glaring yellow eyes, bright fire, his father's face laughing, wrong, then an eerie red glow. Destruction.
He shook his head, trying to dislodge the vivid collage, staring a moment into the darkness. He began to shiver in the cold night air.
A discomforted whine sounded by his hip, pulling his attention back. He looked dispassionately down at the girl who had shared her body and his bed the previous night. Julie something? He couldn’t remember her last name. She was definitely part of the cooking staff— He shrugged dismissively. It wasn't really important and she knew the deal.
Without a backward glance he swung his bare legs out of the bed and hauled himself upright. Oblivious to his nudity in the frigid air, he strode from the bedroom to the living area and the shuttered window, cracking it open just enough to confirm his suspicions. The sky was that inky black-blue denoting the absolute dark of night. Heavy cloud cover hid even the moon. His skin prickled in the cold.
Without checking his wind up clock he couldn't be sure, and wasting candles or lighting the fire wasn't an option, but he figured it must be close to four thirty in the morning.
He gritted his teeth and swiped his palm over his unshaven jaw. Since he was up and awake he might as well check on the perimeter guards. They always appreciated knowing that they weren't the only ones conscious and alert at God awful hours, ensuring the safety of the camp.
He closed the shutter and, ignoring the goosebumps spreading across his skin, retrieved his scattered clothes. He snagged his shoulder holster from where he had left it on the chair, and heaped the girl's clothes in it’s place. He scowled at the rip in the thigh of his jeans, mirrored by a, still vivid, red scar on his leg. He would have to ask Ellen to arrange for someone to fix the tear for him, that or he could get another pair from their precious, and fast dwindling stores. He couldn't face wearing the hand made clothing the camp were slowly being forced to accept. His frown deepened when he thought of what they would have to do once their stash of boots and shoes ran dry. Then, he remembered his calculations, depressing as they were, and decided that boots were the least of their worries.
He shrugged, deciding to just wear the jeans, ripped as they were, until they disintegrated.
He stomped into the bedroom in search of his boots, and sat down heavily on the edge of the bed to lace them up, forgetting that a woman still lay there, sleeping. He winced briefly, hoping he hadn't woken her. He had neither the time nor the patience for morning-after small talk. He let out a breath when she didn't stir, pleased that he could do as normal, and assume she would let herself out once she awoke. He hoped that she would have the presence of mind not to mention it to him again.
Quietly, he finished lacing his boots, fastened his shoulder holster then swung a flannel on and shoved his jacket on over the top. He grabbed the gun that was propped in a rack by the entrance, sliding one knife into his sock, and another into the holster at his chest. He picked up his ammo and slung a shotgun across his back on it's strap.
He slipped silently out of the door into the pre-dawn, bitterly cold air of February in South Dakota.
The grass under his feet crunched as he stamped his way between the collection of shacks and huts the camp had sprouted over the years. He skirted the main house, Bobby's home before the croatoan virus turned eighty percent of the population into a rabid mass intent on spreading their sickness. The route he took was rarely used, allowing the incursion of green, rather than the slick, frozen and thawed mud paths the general populous took. Dean liked the longer route, the narrow ways between the permanent tents, and wooden dorms, via hidden out of the way places. It gave him space and time to think, to reflect. It allowed him a moment to hide from everyone demanding his time. It was a tiny rebellion, an escape.
As he squeezed between the corner of a wood pile and the back walls of two cabins, he broke through the outer ring of the main camp and into a wide stretch of unkempt grass land, sometimes used for grazing. He marched through the darkness until he hit the tree line of the rough woodland that had once sat in a wide arc at the furthest edge of Bobby's property; Singer's Salvage Yard, as once was. Now, it was the perimeter of a large portion of the camp, providing shelter, fuel and a smoke-screen to ward off the croats. Within the ring of woodland was another cleared space, well back from the outer wall of trees and just wide enough to prevent anything climbing the trees to scale the sixteen foot high metal fence. Watch towers punctuated the defence, set just above the height of the heavy canopy.
He had picked a new path through the long grass toward one of the towers, not too far from their secondary gate, the one that led to a swathe of farmland. It was their main source of grain, and the primary reason their camp survived and flourished, the beer they were able to produce from the grain always achieving a good price in barter for other goods and services they couldn't provide themselves with. It was also their greatest vulnerability, they couldn’t protect the whole of their lands with tall fences or regular patrols. There simply weren't enough people.
He passed under the canopy of pines, slapping his hand gratefully against the white painted sigil glowing weakly in the darkness, just discernible on the squat trunk of a tree. It matched another fifteen sigils, one for each compass point, protecting the camp from detection by those who would look, and from penetration by the lower orders of the supernatural. It was the last line of defence, sitting within their outer protections; fences, spells and patrolling men and women. Their last effort at concealment, a huge spell stretched to its limit to protect the camp.
As he strode between trees, letting his feet find the path his eyes could not see, he thought about the day ahead of him. He needed to send out a hunting party for food, Chuck had mentioned that they were running low on a number of things. Another group would have to go out for salt, a long and dangerous mission these days, since they had exhausted all the stores locally. He remembered that Ash had asked to go on the next reconnaissance mission to the nearest city too, in need of spare parts for what small electronics they still ran through the solar generator he had rigged up.
“Halt!” Came a voice, low and hoarse, spooked.
“It's me, Jase.” He answered, stalling his progress through the wood nonetheless, surprised to have made his destination already. He nodded in approval of the quick response, proving his men weren't just looking beyond woods and farmland for intruders, but keeping an eye on the interior too. He listened as a shuffling sounded, then the thumps of feet descending the wooden steps of the watchtower to the lower platform. “Dean?” asked Jase, “Couldn't sleep?”
“Something like that,” he answered gruffly. They both knew he ended up talking to the look-outs in the dead of night at least twice a week. “All quiet?”
“As the grave my friend,” the guard replied.
Dean grunted acknowledgement. “The patrol go through at two?”
Jase hummed his agreement, clearly aware that Dean couldn't see him in the tree covered dark. Dean heard him rub his hands together though, trying to warm his fingers in the cold air. “Good work Jase,” he said quietly. “Go on,” he continued, indicating that Jase should get back up into the relative warmth of the hideout up there, where a tiny stove was probably warming his feet as much as the strong ale he would need to keep the cold at bay as he scanned the vista, hand ready by the warning bell.
He strolled on along the perimeter, ducking under low hanging branches, and straying between the trees until he came to the next watchtower in the chain. He allowed himself to enjoy each crunch his boots made as frozen grass snapped where the tree cover allowed it to grow. This tower was only just hidden in the tree line before the pines gave way abruptly to clear ground, frozen mud treacherous with foot and hoof prints and the deep ruts of their carts. This was the main entrance to the compound, the main route to the unprotected farms and the one through which the patrols entered and left four times a day.
“Winchester!” called a friendly voice from above his head. The cover of night-blackened trees obscured everything, even as he stepped into a clearing beneath the tower. “Gerry?” Dean questioned, looking up in the darkness, unable to see the source of the voice. “It's me,” the man agreed.
“I thought Tiny was on tonight?” Dean knew he was supposed to have been. He was the one who wrote the timetables and rotas. And he didn't like them being changed.
“He was,” replied the burly ex-biker, just as the moon broke through the clouds, bathing everything silver. “He twisted his ankle on all that God forsaken mud on his way over, landed hard. Troy ran 'n got me ‘cause I ain't scheduled for patrol tomorrow. Tiny'll swap a shift back when he's up again.”
Dean nodded, knowing that Gerry could see him down on the ground, even though he still couldn't see a thing looking up with the moon bright above him, ruining his night vision. “All quiet?” he repeated his now familiar question.
“You know it. This time o' year, I think even the croats feel the cold.” Dean nodded again.
“Morning crew will be on the move in just over an hour I think,” Dean told Gerry, still on the wooden platform of the watch tower well above his head. “Keep up the good work ‘til then, then go grab an October in the canteen.”
He heard a chuckle, deep and throaty, “Don’t you worry about that Cap, wasn't planning on doin' anything but.”
Dean smiled at the man, fantasizing about grabbing a mug of the heavy October brewed, winter beer himself, strong and perfect warmed a little by the fire. Until he thought about that, he hadn't realized how cold he was in only a few thin layers, the moonlight highlighting the frozen, frost-hardened ground and the breath condensing in the air before him.
He strode forward a little, meeting the vertical bars of the perimeter fence, and following them until he broke the tree cover and replaced the crunch of frozen leaves with the staccato beat of his boots hitting frozen and refrozen mud, solid as stone and twice as slippery.
Once he cleared the deep dark of the trees, he pushed his face up to the bars, all but un-scaleable, and eyed the wide road entering the camp, fields spanning either side, fallow and bare in the frost. He could just make out the shifting shadow of, what he thoroughly hoped, was a patrol, and not a group of croats. Their formation too tight, gait too even for that, but there was always a risk. He let out a breath after a few moments, when Gerry didn't put up an alarm. His shoulders relaxed and he turned from the fence, idly wiping the rust from his hand to his thigh, wincing as his icy fingers touched his bared skin through the tear.
Slowly and carefully, he picked his way through the rutted, solid roadway, aiming for the Canteen and HQ.
“Mornin' Princess.” Bobby groused as he walked into the lounge of what once was his home, and now did duty as Camp Salvage's Headquarters and Council room.
The room was warm, and Dean's hands warmer, clutched around a chipped mug filled with steaming ale. His elbows were propped on the table that now filled the space where once old overstuffed couches and piles of books had stood.
“Old man,” he acknowledged, getting a clip to the back of his head for his troubles as the man passed by. Dean smiled, Bobby was one of the few who had absolutely no qualms about treating him the same way he always had, there was no hero worship, no fear, no misplaced respect. Dean clung to every insult, every eye roll and every 'idjit.'
“You sleep?” Bobby asked, his voice still rough. It was just past six, and Dean was on his second mug of warming ale, the previous days reports, forms and acquisition sheets spread on the table before him. Pulpy sheets of homemade paper, or small, reused, ratty stained pieces making up everything the Camp needed to tell him.
Dean made a non-committal noise in his throat before shrugging and shaking his head. “Not much. Checked in with Gerry and Jase, then poked my head in over at Medical. Tiny's laid up for a week or more. Grabbed a drink and started work on reassigning the rotas. Sorting through Chuck's crap now. Then Ellen's got the Spring season to start planning, not much there I need to know. Just waiting on Hammer to finish warming up before he comes in with the overnight reports.”
He ran through his paperwork tasks, the both of them knowing that he was just killing time before the overnights came in. There were a small network of crude mail boxes across the area, fixed high to trees. The three friendly camps they were closest to were able to share reports of the whole area, to communicate news of croats, bad weather, Lucifer— The standard stuff. He grimaced at what his life had become.
The patrols took reports with them from HQ before heading out and dropped them, the later patrol picking up the reports left by the other camp's teams and bringing them in first thing, along with the reports of each team's individual information, too. It was, technically, Bobby's job to read the reports, then to pass the information to Dean, but Dean usually took the task upon himself, letting Bobby concentrate on the intelligence gathering from across a much wider area.
It worked, and those reports shaped Dean's days, telling him where groups of demons were moving, or whether croats were closing in again. A large laminated map of the area they could cover in three days on horseback covered a wall, their precious dry erase markers used to plot the dangers as they moved through their territory.
Bobby just grunted and sat himself opposite Dean at the table, swiping a handful of the acquisition sheets that Chuck used to keep an eye on their stores of 'old world' items, as they had all begun to think of them. Things that they couldn't manufacture, but that they either wanted or needed, nonetheless. Chuck had put in a request for a team to be sent out to look for sanitary and baby-related supplies, as well as his request for meat. “Amy getting near her time?” Bobby questioned, slight surprise in his tone.
Dean nodded. Time had moved quickly and the announcement that they needed to start gathering diapers and onesies had made him raise his eyebrows too. Amy was the first mother-to-be in the camp, in the whole eight years they had been stuck in this dreadful new world, and The Savage's, as the people of their camp were known in the vicinity, were certainly many things. Made up of a hard group of people who had close knit links to those who lived and loved at the Roadhouse Bar. Drinkers, yes, but bikers too. And Hunters. A handful of scrappy vagrants and an even smaller number of 'good' supernatural creatures. They were hard, competent, knowledgeable and adaptable. The partners of those with more practical skills learned farming and nursing, teaching and building. But the one thing they had never had to teach themselves as a camp was how to deliver a baby. Bess Myers, a second generation werewolf, had volunteered to take up that mantle, and Dean had sent a large team to the nearest city with a teaching hospital, taking all equipment and books they could find on the matter. It had been a three week round trip for them, but worth it. “How's Bess' readin' coming along?” Dean looked up at Bobby and half shrugged.
“She's doing okay. Pretty confidant. They reckon Amy has about five weeks to go I think,” he stated, before being interrupted by his brother, Sam, walking through the door. He placed a fresh mug of ale, this time thin and watery, in front of Dean, and a steaming mug of the strong stuff in front of Bobby. He sipped at his own mug as he sat, long legs stretching out under the table.
Dean pulled a face at the diluted, ‘small’ beer, but drank anyway. Water was no longer safe to drink unless boiled and filtered. The majority of their drinking water was used to make their beer, the recycled ingredients making the thinner, weaker small beer he sipped at slowly. They had come to the conclusion early on that if they were going to have to store liquid to drink, it may as well taste of something, other than tepid, stale water. It didn't mean that the small beer was especially nice though.
“Hammer's on his way.” Sam stated, rubbing his hand through his long hair, swiping it off his forehead. Dean grunted through his mouthful, swallowed and started piling the morning's work into a neat stack, making room for the overnights.
Dean opened his mouth to ask if Sam was expecting anything in the reports, but a crackling hissing noise broke the silence from the office side of the building. Bobby hummed a noise of disapproval before levering himself to his feet and stalking through the double doors to his private domain, closing them behind himself. Dean and Sam looked at each other uneasily, listening to the low murmur of Bobby's voice as he answered the radio.
“Call come in?” a sudden voice asked, making the brothers crane their necks to look at the doorway where Ellen stood, a huge tray in her arms, covered in bowls of scrambled eggs. “Ellen,” Dean greeted warmly, while Sam got up and took the tray from her, placing it on the table. Ash—mullet and torn flannels disguising his genius well—walked in from behind her, and dropped spoons on the wooden surface, before grabbing a bowl and digging in without waiting a moment. “Yeah, just now,” he continued, in answer to her question.
Ellen was a strong, hard woman. Robbed of her husband, she had stepped up to the mark, raising their daughter, Jo, and running the Roadhouse as a hub for Hunters, not something for the weak of heart, or the weak of arm. She nodded, graying auburn hair swaying about her shoulders, and sat down, pulling a mug off the tray too, and digging into her own breakfast. Richard and Justin, the two hard, burly bikers from the Roadhouse who helped pull their diverse team into a true camp, finally walked in and sat at the table like there was no question they belonged there, pulling their own breakfasts toward them. Soon, the whole team that founded and led Camp Salvage and the Savages, barring Bobby, were seated and eating heartily.
Just as Dean pushed his empty bowl away, Hammer walked in and stood nervously at the edge of the room, offering a short nod to Richard and Justin. Despite being a trusted member of the patrol team, boasting the Camp tattoo, and being a six foot three, heavy set and well muscled ex-biker, the man had never gotten over his reverence of Dean and others of their core team, even the other bikers. The day the Devil broke the world and the supernatural suddenly became an everyday occurrence, Hammer's world view was shaken to it's core, he understood that all his muscle and 'hard man' persona meant shit when it came to victims of the croatoan virus.
“The overnights, sir,” his coarse voice stated as he dropped the creased and damp papers on the table next to Dean. He rolled his eyes in response, but so Hammer couldn't see. He appreciated the man too much to make him feel bad, but Dean hated the way Hammer and many of the others treated him. He was just a man, like any other in the camp, working hard to keep them all alive.
“Thanks Hammer. Anything else to report? Snow? Rabbits? Lucifer?” He tried to lighten the mood a little, but Hammer, as ever, remained solemn. “No, sir,” he answered shaking his head. Dean sighed, as he watched Bobby re-enter the room. “Great, you can go grab some food and get to sleep, buddy.” He told the great hulking man who stood staring at his still frost tipped boots.
Once Hammer had vacated the building, Dean started flicking through the reports. Nothing stood out in the first few pages. Ellen fussed about Bobby, pushing his eggs toward him and placing another warm mug of ale in his hand. Dean only looked up when Bobby cleared his throat.
The man's expression was bleak.
“There anything in them reports there about an angel on the move?” he asked with false innocence in his tone.
The room had already been quiet. Now it was silent. The air vibrated with sudden tension, the normality of the daily morning meeting suddenly shattered.
“An angel,” Dean stated, flat and uninflected. All eyes were on Bobby.
The older man leaned back in his chair, arms folding across his diminished gut. “An angel,” he agreed.
“We haven't heard of an angel, except Lucifer, since Michael died,” Sam said, disbelief clear in his voice, but not sufficient to hide his excitement.
Dean looked down, that disbelief, mixed with fear rather than excitement, echoed in his heart, if not his expression. He riffled through the reports to see if there were any mentions of an angel. “Nothin'.”
“That figures,” Bobby continued, “he's over up on Route 23, moving in toward Marshall, according to Rufus.” Everyone at the table, including Justin and Rich, perked up slightly at the mention of the old Hunter. He was off grid, living alone. How he survived the croats, demons and rest of the supernatural creatures still at large, no one knew, but it was always good to hear from him, to know that he was alive and kicking.
“Making a bit of noise with some croats,” Bobby finished, nodding his head. Dean didn't react, though, only looking back at the overnights in his hand, mud spattered and frost damp. Everyone sat in silence until he was finished scanning the papers properly. It was his job to protect the camp, and he wouldn't send a team to check out a potential angel sighting until he was certain he wasn't leaving the camp, their people and their land, unprotected.
“Okay, we’ll be good here for a while,” Dean grunted, eyeing each of the founders in turn, Bobby on intelligence, Ellen on camp affairs and beer production, Ash on power and technology, Sam on everything knowledge and Men Of Letters based, including teaching and training, Rich, surprisingly, head of farming and Justin heading up the patrol and guard teams.
“Sammy?” Dean continued. “Go round up Chuck and arrange supplies, make sure we got all the holy oil in there, okay?” He glanced at Bobby next while thinking that they should really promote Chuck to the Council. He was officially Ellen's second in command, but with him controlling supplies, it wasn't fair to keep him from the planning. “Bobby, you know what to do. Ash? Can you find Randy? I need horses mounted. Ellen, food, water and beer please. Justin, go grab a cart and meet me at the armoury. I'm going to go get the troops rounded up.”
With that he slapped his left hand on the table, camp tattoo vivid, and pushed himself upright. He strode from the room with purpose and a small buzz of excitement in his gut, tempered by a whisper of fear. They had yet to meet an angel that had proved good, that had helped, had saved lives.
An angel. First sighting in almost eight God damned years. They needed answers, and no pathetic hint of fear was going to stop him from getting information. They needed help. Without angelic help, they were fighting a losing battle just to survive, let alone take down the Devil and end this miserable excuse for an apocalypse.
Outside, the sun was just rising, the light more than enough to see by, if gray and bleak.
“Tommy! Helen! Baz! Kat! Sophie! Kyle! Dan!” He yelled, knowing their quarters were close by, and if they weren't in the canteen, across the frozen stretch of mud, they would hear his yell in the yard from their huts.
He waited a few moments, glaring into the distance idly until the hunters and fighters appeared. “You, Kat, Soph, Tom. With me,” he pointed at the three who were fully dressed, “the rest of you get dressed and find the teams, let the lieutenants know. We're moving out in thirty, okay?”
He didn't get answers, just nods, but it was more than enough. He turned and marched across the mud, picking a path through the cart tracks to the armoury, Kat, Sophie and Tom following behind in silence.
The armoury was just another wooden hut, rough hewn and built in a rush when the croats started multiplying in huge numbers. It was abandoned to municipal use after warmer, more comfortable quarters were built. The only discernible difference was that a guard stood outside at all times, mostly to prevent the children from getting inside and causing havoc. It was never locked. They needed unhindered access twenty-four hours a day.
Thirty-seven minutes later, a team led by Dean, Sam as second-in-command, and with about thirty strong and able hunters and fighters, rode out. Their horses were laden down with weapons, both supernatural and mundane, and enough food and water to last two days. A thrumming tension filled the air, as it always did when a team left unexpectedly. Children and partners silently lined the route to wave them off, stoic expressions hiding their fear that they'd never see their loved ones again, or whether their leader, the one they feared, would have to shoot yet another victim of infection in front of them all. He shuddered at the memories, and focused on the route Bobby had shown him, ignoring the worried faces as he trotted past. Pounding hooves beat the ground as they left the camp, breath from man and beast clouding the air.
“Come on, Falcon.” Dean murmured under his breath, patting his horse's neck. He hated horses, huge, skittish and terrifying, but necessary, and despite his latent fear of him, he did love his gray gelding. Love, yes, but was still prone to treating him like his Baby, his old Chevy Impala that he missed on a daily basis. Gas, though, had run all but dry years ago. They had a small emergency stash on site and they kept their small fleet of well hidden trucks ready to go, in case they needed to evacuate at speed for whatever reason. But, otherwise, Falcon and the other horses were their entire means of transportation.
Louder, he repeated “Come on,” and spurred Falcon into a canter, knowing his men would follow. He relished the clean, cold air rushing past him as he led his men toward uncertainty and danger, and, he hoped vainly, a solution to all their problems.
Dean slowed the team to a walk as they approached the outskirts of the ruined town. Most roads were in bad shape after almost eight years of weather damage and no upkeep, but near habitations the roads were much worse. Potholes were the least of the issues, as demons and croats had torn up anything they could, for reasons they kept to themselves. If an angel or Lucifer himself had passed through, they were lucky if a single building remained standing. They had discovered towns where the asphalt was nothing more than a black smear, scarred and filled with twisted metal and melted pipes. Buildings nothing more than rubble, razed entirely to the ground.
Marshall hadn't been torn up too much, but the evidence of the croatoan virus was everywhere. Skeletons lay bleached and bare along the side of the road, even this far from the center of the town. Dean eyed them emotionlessly. He remembered when the flesh still mouldered on the bone, spreading the stench of death for miles around. No one had been left to care for the dead, the virus taking the living, and leaving them where they dropped from rabid exhaustion or starvation. This was better. Much better.
Sam, on Ghost, his large black mare, trotted up to Dean's side. “Dean?”
Dean shrugged minutely, eyeing the first few buildings on the spartan road. “This is where Bobby said we needed to be, right?” he asked, knowing he was correct, but the calm silence making him doubt himself a moment.
Sam shrugged. “He said that Rufus knew that the angel was moving South on this road, and that our probable journey time meant that we would meet it about here. Assuming it kept moving. We've been riding nearly five hours now. So, maybe we should dismount and make our way on foot through the town?”
Dean scowled. Running missions in towns and cities created a dilemma when it came to the croatoan virus. The need for protection meant that the larger the group, the safer. Yet, the more people, the more likely they were to attract croats. Often, he ran covert missions alone, without telling anyone, simply to get the deed done. But here they needed the numbers if they were going to capture themselves an angel.
“Let's ride in a little further. I'll head a scouting team, see if we can find this son of a bitch. Then we'll pull in the rest of the team.” Dean thought it a good compromise between running in all guns blazing and attracting them some croats, and the more cautious approach he knew Sam would have preferred.
Sam pulled a face but nodded, making Dean smile at his correct assumption. Sam never had the chance to get to the initiation stage of the Men Of Letters, the organization that their Grandfather had belonged to. On missions he still deferred to the hunter that he and his brother had been raised to be. But Dean understood what had irritated his brother. That stolen chance at becoming a Man of Letters, a man of learning, was still ingrained in him, and as such Sam led that aspect of the camp. Sam would want to talk with the angel, negotiate if need be, and he knew Dean would fight more readily than he would. But Dean thought he understood angels better than his brother, or at least had a better memory, and a less forgiving nature. It was only common sense to scout and bring the team in. They couldn't assume the angel would be willing to talk, especially when no other ever had.
“Send out a team on a patrol, Okay? Three and a runner’ll do,” he told Sam before turning away. “Marcus? With me. Tory, Marie, Helen. We'll scout ahead. Guns out, eyes and ears open.”
With that he kicked Falcon into a trot, allowing the remainder of the party to save their horses and follow at a walk, Sam stepping in to lead.
As they came to a halt and dismounted, hidden well behind an almost intact house, Dean was already on edge. The place was too quiet. They may not be in the hot zone, but it wasn’t unusual to see one or two croats wandering aimlessly, or to even find a handful of houses barricaded up and inhabited. Here, there was nothing, just the bitter wind whistling along empty streets and through rattling branches, blowing the leaves across the frost covered asphalt.
They left the horses tied to the fence of a deserted property, clear to the team following, but hidden enough, and continued on foot. Dean led. Marcus, a leather clad ex-biker, nearly as wide as he was tall, followed behind, turning on his heel every few steps, while Tory and Marie had the center, watching their flanks. Helen brought up the rear, most of her attention behind them, gun at the ready.
“Holy shit,” Marcus whispered after fifteen minutes of tense silence as they crept along the road. They had just approached a cross street, but Dean couldn't see anything to justify Marcus's words. “Left,” the man said hoarsely. Dean looked and saw. A pile of bones. Ribs and long bones, pelvises and vertebrae, stacked haphazardly by the side of the road. A mound about thigh high and twice as wide, blackened, frozen flesh still clung to the bleached bone in places. Dean was not proud that his gorge did not rise at the sight.
It was a warning. A stark one.
He scanned the rest of the area knowing what to expect, he still cringed when he found it. Opposite the heaped skeletons, marking the other side of the road was the second pile. Scattered, either by gravity, wildlife or inquisitive and hungry croats, no longer in the tidy heap they would have once been, were the skulls.
“Stop,” he said, quiet and firm, listening as their footsteps come to a halt behind him. He needed a moment to process. The kind of warning the bones represented was fairly clear. Do not enter. This is what will greet you. But, he wasn't the kind of leader to bow quietly out at the first sign of trouble. They had an angel to find.
He jerked his head toward the pile of long bones and ribs, and started edging that way, a line of bare trees separating them from the new road they followed, further into the town.
“Think there's a camp inside?” Marie asked from behind Dean.
He shrugged. “Hard to tell. Those bones are old, but the people who put them there could still be here. I think we can assume they ain't friendly though.” He flexed his left hand, a reminder of who they were and what they stood for inked into his skin. Glad they had never resorted to such means to protect their own.
They walked further into the town, buildings, intact and ruined, increasing as they progressed. They remained tense and silent as they saw barricades, ripped and shredded, and doors swinging eerily, showing the interiors of recently vacated homes. After five minutes, every sense alert for anything, Dean raised his hand to halt his squad. Indistinct noises finally reached his ears, breaking the unnatural silence of the town. With a few flicks of his wrist he ordered his men to spread out, keeping well hidden. “Tory,” he hissed, plucking at her sleeve as she passed, “with me.”
Placing their feet carefully to avoid the sound of crunching, frozen grass, he and Tory inched forward, leaving the rest of the team behind. Keeping the meager screen of the bare trees to their right, they continued along their path, following the road, following the recent destruction, following the sound.
The road opened up, revealing a wide T-intersection.
The asphalt was not empty.
“Good God,” huffed out Tory, and Dean saw her fingers twitch on the trigger of the gun she was carrying, held low.
“Easy,” he murmured, not wanting an accidental shot fired because of nerves. They needed their position to remain secret a little longer.
Slowly, Dean sank into a crouch, lowering one knee to the cold and wet ground. He tried hard not to let his fear and disbelief show.
There, in the center of the T-shaped junction, were the smouldering remains of a circle of holy oil, the stink just touching their nostrils. Alongside the scorched circle stood a herd of vacant eyed men and women, many baring scratches and bite marks, but otherwise looking well fed and healthy.
Inside the circle lay a crumpled and broken body, too still, wide burnt looking marks blackening the road's surface in twin arcs from it's shoulders. Angel's wings.
To the other side of the circle lay a small pile of the rabid looking, skeletal corpses of recently killed croats.
Next to the angel's corpse in the holy oil circle, a tall, dark haired man was just standing from a crouch, an exultant grin splitting his face.
As Dean watched, he turned to the blank faced crowd, still grinning and began talking emphatically, waving his arms wide, his audience following his every word.
Not one of them looked scared or worried. With recently extinguished holy oil, dead croats and a murdered angel, Dean couldn't believe their disinterest, their complete lack of fear.
“What the fuck?” he asked quietly under his breath, wondering what insanity they had uncovered, what new impossibility he would have to deal with. He looked up at Tory, whose face mirrored the utter confusion he felt. “We need Sammy and the others,” he stated.
He listened as her swift footsteps retreated behind him, glaring at the dark haired man. Was he, too, an angel?
Only an angel could kill an angel after all.