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Hobo and Karma

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Lebanon, Kansas -  2014

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Was it a Hell-spawned parasite, a curse, or a Fire Elemental?

Whatever its provenance, the Mark of Cain was destroying Dean Winchester.

The nightmares, panic attacks, and migraines had been escalating, as was Dean’s stress from trying to control the Mark’s influence on his thoughts and actions during waking hours.

The relentless battle to retain his humanity had been weakening the Hunter, leaving him susceptible to the most dangerous of emotions: despair.

He had tried to distract the Mark by throwing himself into cases, but it was decided that he was too dangerous on a hunt.

He buried himself in research, but every book and every contact in the Hunter, Adept, and Monster communities led to a dead end. Even Crowley claimed he knew nothing, but as events would prove, he knew something.

Dean’s adventures in channeling Martha Stewart and the Iron Chef contestants had peaked during the incident with Sam in the cooking store with the knives. (See Collateral Damage) Team Free Will could no longer ignore how the Mark was spreading its influence. Dean still cooked for his family, but the Mark was no longer distracted.

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The Angel Castiel had made a phone call and was waiting for a response.

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Meanwhile, brother Sam and best friend Cas were struggling to offer Dean comfort. They both were punch drunk from taking turns every night gently waking the inflicted Hunter out of suffocating dreams of destruction.

They would hand Dean juice and pain pills, wipe his face and hands with a wet washcloth scented with soothing herbs (lavender, linden, sweet woodruff, and chamomile), perch next to him on the memory foam, place an anchoring hand on his arm, reassure him, watch his face, and wait for him to slip back into a less troubled sleep.

Dean stopped pretending that he wasn’t grateful, but a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice in the middle of the night wasn’t enough.

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The Men of Letters knew their stuff; there was no building in North America better warded than the Bunker. But they hadn’t had to contend with the power of the Mark of Cain. Eventually, something was going to get through the barriers.

Castiel could feel the pull of Dean’s infected soul as it signaled to supernatural predators. It reminded Cas of the fluttering of an injured fledgling fallen to earth, drawing the attention of the things with claws and fangs that stalk along hedges and among the tangled roots of great trees.

A flood of attackers, pundits predicted, would inflame the Mark beyond Dean’s ability to control it; the aftermath of a supernatural showdown would trigger Cain’s prophecies. Dean would become a killing machine and inherit the mantle from the Father of Murder. And he would kill the two people he loved the best.

All three heroes were skating on the razor’s edge.

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The city of Lebanon, Kansas, the community that had been chosen decades before by the Men of Letters to be a buffer between the Bunker and an oblivious civilian world, was mostly made up of skilled Talismen and those most rare of birds: retired Hunters.

However, if you check an online Census Bureau report you would be puzzled. Officially, Lebanon is a tiny community with one church and a ubiquitous Heartland grain elevator next to rail tracks, and a few hundred people who lived in town and serviced the surrounding farms. To this day, if you drive by, you would see a gas station, the church, the worn-looking elevator, and a few streets lined with weathered clapboard houses, which looked liked they had not been painted in decades.

Unless you needed to gas up, you would keep driving.

The town would appear shrouded in in genteel, rural poverty. Empty storefronts and too many for-sale signs outside of boarded up homes. Like a dying, Dust Bowl-era revenant.

If you are an out-of-state visitor passing by, it always will seem as if the streets into town never lead into town. Sure, you can drive through the middle of the city. Maybe, even stop and stretch your legs. But, wherever you are, it will seem as if the real Lebanon is beyond the next block or over through the next stand of trees.

And, for a Kansas town in the heart of dry wheat and cattle country, there are a lot of trees. More like Wisconsin–embraced by the Great Lakes and drenched with rain and snow throughout the year. Kind of like an oasis. Or a mirage.

But if you are someone who knows–a local or a member of a Hunter family–somehow the dead ends aren’t there anymore, and an invisible curtain parts and opens. You will figure, correctly, that several thousand people live here, in pretty houses with a thriving Main Street. And lots and lots of trees.

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Scholars of Winchester Lore later will surmise that the influence of the Cain and Abel lineage parallels the relationship between the Archangels Lucifer and Michael. Made it inevitable that John and Mary would make their home in Lawrence, Kansas, where the brothers were born, not far from Lebanon.

Doctoral theses have been written about how Kansas was the Supernatural epicenter of the American Civil War, of divided families and brother against brother.

Maybe, in retrospect, it wasn’t such a good idea that Lebanon, which the Men of Letters chose in part because it is near the geographical center of the contiguous 48 American states, was where Dean settled in to fight the Mark. Too much potential multi-dimensional energy, like a tightly wound spring awaiting release.

Not a coincidence that the long-silent ghosts of Bleeding Kansas and Quantrill's Raiders, the perpetrators and victims of formal battles and midnight raids and massacres, were rising in the region as a result of the Mark’s powerful influence. They were fueling an American version of the Wild Hunt, seen and heard with increasing frequency in the region. Skeletons dressed in blue and gray rags, riding the ghosts of horses native to American soil–phantom Morgans and mustangs and Saddlebreds and Quarter Horses–surrounded by packs of red-eyed coonhounds, steeple-chasing across the backs of storm clouds rushing over prairies and farmland.

The havoc they wreaked when they touched the ground was blamed on squall lines and wind shears and, of course, tornadoes.

Except most meteorological events don’t speak in tongues.

Fortunately, you didn’t need to be a Hunter, a Man-, Woman-, or Entity-of-Letters, or a Talismen to know what to do to protect your loved ones, livestock, and property. The warnings have been handed down through the generations, regardless of where your people originally came from.

Consequently, during the period of the Mark’s rising power, farmers and ranchers were locking up their livestock in barns warded with hex signs painted on every wall and above every window and door. Told tourists it was part of the culture of the Heartland.

Before the end of each week, feed stores and gas stations would be running out of their inventories of 50-pound bags of rock salt. Gun stores were selling silver ammo under the counter.

As in the old days, iron horse shoes were being nailed over windows and doors throughout Kansas and Nebraska, up to and beyond the Platte River. Many people didn’t know why exactly it was necessary, but they didn’t need to be told it was the smart thing to do.

Finally, triggered by that phone call from Castiel, the local Talismen Elders–Lebanon, Kansas Chapter–stepped in.

The Elders huddled at an impromptu meet-up at the Lebanon City Café and proposed the recruitment of special Guardians. Two of them. Bred and trained, they said, to protect humans like Dean, both from the worse effects of enchantments like the Mark, particularly the migraines and the nightmares, and from the increasing numbers of opportunistic unfriendlies in the vicinity of the Bunker. Could slow the drain of Castiel’s dissipating Grace. Reduce the residual impact on Sam.

And support Team Free Will's quest for information regarding Castiel’s failing Grace and the Mark. Easier to focus on productive research if you aren't in a constant state of exhaustion and terror.

Dean was too tired to argue. A call was made to an international number. Two weeks, the elders said, maybe three.