A solid thump to the back of Dean's left boot caused his purposeful stride to falter and he stumbled a few steps forward, then came to a stop. Rolling his eyes at himself ’cause he should’ve known by now to expect as much, he turned around with his gloved hands on his hips.
The dirt pathway leading from the guard tower at the edge of Shepherd’s Bend was dimly lit with enchanted blue orbs of firelight in the dark of the night, and directly behind him, her black scales shining silver in them, was his dragon, Baby. She was seated with her tail curling around her, wings resting at her sides—only up to about Dean’s knee in height, she was large for her kind. Most dragons weren't taller than mid-calf on him. Her pale eyes were fixed on Dean, her adorable face tilted up, expectant.
“You’re annoying, y’know that?” he grumbled, eyes narrowed at her, hand dusting over the front of his armor. The sword and shield on his chestplate glowed bright blue at his touch, ready to be called forth.
Her head tilted, horns glimmering with reflected light. She ruffled her wings, and stared impatiently at him. Dragons were smarter than most animals, able to think and reason to some degree though they lacked the ability to respond verbally. Most were on par with a clever child’s intelligence, though Dean was fairly certain Baby was much more advanced than that. He often spoke to her as he would any human, and he got the feeling she understood most of it.
“I'm just going for a walk. It's been quiet around here for months. No sign of any soldiers from Stormridge, so quit worryin’,” he said, leaning forward, the soft tinkling of his chainmail adjusting as he reached out and ran his fingertips along her horns.
Baby stretched into the contact and let out a little huff, her eyelids drifting half closed, her gaze steady on his face.
“No, I'm not taking anyone with me.”
She looked flatly at him, clearly implying that was a stupid idea. It wasn't though; the peace between Dean's kingdom, Laurellia, and the northern kingdom of Stormridge might’ve been relatively new, but it was peace. It'd been that way for the last several months.
Shepherd's Bend was the closest village to the mountain range that separated Laurellia from Stormridge, on the only navigable pass, and for the first few months of the peace treaty, the area had been swarming with guards, but as the peace wore on most had been recalled. Dean and the guards under him remained, forming the garrison at Shepherd's Bend.
“I’m not gonna go waking the other guards ’cause I can't sleep, Baby,” he told her softly, stroking the scales on her forehead. “It's just a walk to clear my head. Y’know the sigil alarms would go off if anyone crossed the border.”
Finally, Baby's wings relaxed, and she sniffed at Dean's fingers, her breath warm even through the leather of his gloves in the slight chill of the early autumn air.
“You comin’ or are you gonna go curl up at Sam’s?” he asked, taking a few steps backward towards the woods and watching the perplexed, torn expression she made.
Baby was probably just as tired as he was after following him around all day, and she loved Sam almost as much as she loved Dean. With what Dean could only translate as the dragon equivalent of a weary sigh she took to the air and flew down the path ahead of him.
Chuckling to himself at the theatrics, Dean followed.
In the woods it was much darker, no firelight to guide them. Baby, of course, didn't need much light at all, her vision was far more adaptable than Dean's. Luckily the moon was bright overhead and even filtering through the canopy, the path was visible.
He couldn't see where Baby had gotten off to, but he trusted her to stick close. Aside from the rustle of wind through the turning leaves, the walk was quiet. Animals were mostly asleep at this time of night, and nothing he heard concerned him enough to leave the path and investigate.
Eventually he wore himself out, and he whistled to signal he was heading back. The return trip went slower with Dean waiting for Baby to outpace him. Unease rolled through his gut within moments.
He stopped walking and listened for any sign of her, heart thumping hard, hand straying toward his chestplate. Creeping back further into the woods as silently as he could, Dean was on full alert. His ears strained for any sounds that were out of place, his eyes roved over the shadows lining the path.
A cool breeze sent a chill down his spine and ruffled his hair, and then to his left the distinct sound of hooves—cavalry—his mind instantly leapt to. No. It was a single horse, he quickly realized. His breath rushed out of him in a slow release.
Stepping quietly toward where the sound had originated, Dean peered deeper into the shadows. It wasn't a horse at all—there in a beam of white moonlight facing away from him was a pegasus so black it almost bled seamlessly into the night, it's massive wings dipping down low beside it.
Stunned, Dean stood there gaping. Spotting a pegasus was rare in Laurellia. He'd never heard of one this far north. Hell, he'd never even seen one in person, he'd only seen sketches in some of Sam's books.
“Woah,” he breathed, unable to contain his wonderment.
The pegasus twitched its ear, going stockstill for a moment. Then between one blink and the next it was gone and Dean was staring at an empty clearing. How did something that big move that fast? How had Dean missed it taking off?
A clicking noise from behind him finally tugged Dean's attention away from the shaft of moonlight. Had he imagined that whole thing? He was exhausted.
“Hey, I'm not the one who wandered off. What’d you get up to?” he asked Baby, shaking it off and turning to face her.
She wrinkled up her snout a little and started trotting toward home. Probably as good of an answer as he was likely to get.
The next two nights followed the same pattern; Dean had trouble sleeping and wandered into the woods to wear himself out. Both nights he caught glimpses of the pegasus. He wondered if it was letting him see it, ’cause he hadn't heard anyone else in the village talking about a mysterious pegasus wandering in the woods.
It wasn't until the third night that the pieces came together for Dean.
So far he'd only caught glimpses, and never head on. Until now. Until he was staring at glowing blue eyes and wracking his brain for any recollection of lore that mentioned glowing vibrant blue eyes among the features of a pegasus.
He might not have been as obsessed with them as Sam was, but Dean made it a habit to pay attention to his brother's interests, and when he was nine that was all Sam had read about. Not once that Dean could remember had his books ever listed glowing blue eyes.
There was only one creature Dean knew of that had them: shadowlights. His nose wrinkled, and his fists balled up at his sides. What the hell was a shadowlight doing in this realm?
Untrustworthy, shape shifting liars was what they were. They almost never crossed over from their realm into this one, but there was definitely a shadowlight directly on the other side of the river from him. Dean's stomach churned, anger prickling heat along the back of his neck, disgust curling his lip.
There was no way that a shadowlight on the border of Stormridge was coincidental. It was too unusual—too bizarre—to be random happenstance. Was Stormridge employing a shadowlight spy against them? It made a weird sort of sense; a shadowlight could easily travel from Stormridge into Laurellia without setting off alarms, but why in the hell would a shadowlight work for Stormridge?
Maybe there was a binding spell or something? If Dean had been lucky enough to have been born with magic he might’ve been able to capture the creature right then and there. Unfortunately for him, Sam had gotten all the magical talent in their family.
This time when the creature disappeared, Dean saw it for what it was—it didn't take off between one blink and the next. It simply vanished. A coil of dread wound through Dean's gut. He needed to talk to Sam first thing in the morning.
Dark wavy hair, big glowing blue eyes. A boy with a gap-tooth grin. “Is that all?” The boy—the shadowlight’s voice echoed.
The image skipped. Dean reached out, his small hand shaking with hopefulness.
The boy smiled at him. “Take it. I promise it'll be okay.”
Dean's tiny fingers closed around the cool glass of the potion bottle.
Darkness shrouded everything around him, screams and shouts and the foul dirty stench of death permeated the air. Dean's muscles ached, his arms and thighs were burning, his ribs were sore from the heavy hit that had just landed on his armor. He was lucky he wasn't dead already—only it didn't feel lucky at all.
“Tiring out already, boy?” his massive opponent taunted, and Dean hated that he was right.
His boot slipped in a bloody patch of grass. Sprawled on the ground, eyes shutting tightly, he waited for the killing blow he heard whistling through the air—
Sweat-drenched and trembling, Dean bolted upright on a guttural gasp. His fingers flew to the neck of his linen shirt and tugged as though it was the thing choking him rather than fear. Heaving lungfuls of air rushed past his lips while he blinked sightlessly at his room.
A sudden dip in the bed drew Dean's attention and a second later Baby nudged her face against his, her wings curling around him. It was ridiculous… and soothing, and exactly what he needed to get his breathing under control.
“I should probably thank Sam someday,” Dean mumbled a few long moments later, fingers rubbing under Baby's chin. “For begging me so much to keep you. I guess you're alright.”
She huffed at him, then nudged the side of his face before she jumped off the bed, and pointedly glanced at the latched window. With a groan, Dean peeled himself from his bed, and let her out.
The sun was barely risen, weak orange light glowing on the cobblestones between long shadows. Only a few people were wandering the street below Dean's window. The morning air was crisp, but Dean left the window cracked for Baby as he wandered into his washroom.
He'd had Sam's help designing this room when it'd become apparent Shepherd's Bend would be long term enough that he required his own housing. It wasn't big, but they'd made the most of it.
The chamber pot was enchanted, like the rest in the village, to dispose of waste with a hand waved over the sigil on the wall above it, and the tub to his left filled with heated water transported from the hot spring caves through another enchanted sigil.
The tub was easily Dean's favorite part of the entire house. After months at a time spent grimy and disgusting during the war when resources were scarce and rest was a luxury, Dean loved the guarantee of a warm bath each day.
Today, though, he rushed through cleaning, drying off, and dressing. Quickly, he tugged on his off-white linen underwear, then his brown woolen pants, tying the front flap and waist. Stockings were next, and brown riding boots after that, he pulled them up to his knees and looped the button closures up his calves, securing them.
Once he'd finished, he slipped into his brown leather tunic, a cotton shirt, and topped those with his chainmail and plated skirt. It was routine by now, getting on his chestplate, backplate, and pauldrons, steel gleaming in the morning sun that filled his room.
Downstairs his leather gloves and bracers were waiting on the table where he’d left them last night. He'd have to put them on after breakfast. Sighing, he tiredly scrubbed his hand over his jaw.
The brightside was part of the enchantment on Dean’s armor meant it didn't weigh nearly as much as it ought to. Still, sometimes Dean envied the fact that all his brother had to worry about getting ready in the morning was his long, perfectly styled hair.
Plus the whole having magic thing—he envied that too.
Once he was downstairs in the kitchen Dean cut himself a slice of bread, buttered it, and stuffed it in his mouth, finishing it in fast bites and washing it down with some water. If he didn't waste time eating a heartier breakfast he’d get out of his house fast enough to speak with Sam before he was needed at the guard tower.
After wiping his hands clean on a dish rag, Dean pulled on his leather gloves and fastened his bracers, the dimpled stylized steel covered his arms from wrists to elbows, a decorative band of braided metal around the edge, matching those on the rest of his plated armor.
Another benefit to wearing his armor, aside from its practical use, since it wasn't seeing much of that lately, was that he looked damn good in it. Dean smirked to himself. Getting laid had always come easy for him, but the armor certainly tended to speed things along. Woman, man, didn't matter—Dean turned heads, and he liked it.
For the most part he kept things casual. During the war he hadn't wanted any long term connections; he hated the idea of leaving someone behind if he died. He just wasn't worth that kind of pain.
Now? Now he was too restless to imagine settling down with anyone. Too on edge most days waiting for the other shoe to drop. So he enjoyed himself with whoever was obliging, attractive, and came without strings attached. Things could've been worse.
Heading out into the street, Dean locked the door behind himself. The upstairs window was still unlatched for Baby if she wanted back in, though odds were good he'd find her at Sam's or she'd catch up with him at the guard tower.
“Morning, Captain Winchester!” A little blond boy called out, holding his mother's hand, and waving frantically with his other, hero worship all over his face.
A smile broke out on Dean's lips. “Morning.”
One little word and the kid grinned ear to ear, his mother smiling gratefully at Dean. Giving her a polite nod, he continued on his way to Sam's. Here and there a few people greeted him as he went. Most of them Dean knew by name; Shepherd's Bend was a small enough village, and the longer Dean was stationed there, the more he came to know its occupants.
Sam's front door was unlocked, the wooden sign above it proclaimed Winchester Potions & Enchantments in bold black lettering.
The downstairs portion of Sam’s place was split into two large rooms; the front was his store, where he sold items he'd enchanted, and potions he'd brewed to the public. The back was where he did his research and prepared the items he sold.
Upstairs, and only accessible from in back, was Sam's living quarters. They were pretty similar to Dean's, except it was all crammed into one floor at Sam's, and he had one less bedroom than Dean.
The front door creaked a little as Dean opened it, the bell hanging above chiming to signal a customer's arrival. Shelves as tall as Dean lined the walls, filled to the brim with everything from necklaces and armor to bottles of varying size and color. The floor was a rich brown wood that matched the shelves, and at the back of the room, near the door to the research area, was a locked desk where Sam kept his account records and silver coins.
“That you Dean?” Sam called from the back, followed by a clatter and a swear.
He chuckled to himself. “Yeah, it’s me!”
He wandered around looking at the new items Sam had in stock while he waited for him to come out—he’d learned the hard way that he shouldn’t be allowed in an area that contained Sam’s work. Winding up with sparkly orange hair for two weeks was the kind of thing he only needed to go through once.
“What’s wrong?” Sam asked, coming into the room and joining Dean by the display.
“I… the last few nights I couldn’t sleep so I took some walks in the woods,” Dean started and Sam raised an eyebrow, leaning his hip against a shelf and crossing his arms. “I saw a shadowlight.”
Both of Sam’s eyebrows climbed his forehead, eyes widening. “Are you sure? I mean, I’ve only ever read myths about them. Most people don’t even believe they’re real how do you know—”
“’Cause I know,” Dean insisted, voice harsher than he meant it to be. He knew. “It was disguised as a pegasus, but it’s been out in those woods every night for the last three nights. Don’t you think that’s suspicious, Sam? What if Stormridge is working with it?”
Dean crossed his own arms. “Look, I don’t really need you to believe me. I just need you to come up with something to trap a shadowlight. Can you do that?”
Looking conflicted, Sam ran an hand through his hair and sighed with defeat. “Maybe? I can look at the lore and come up with something that might work, but like I said everything’s based on myth. No one’s even seen one in centuries.”
Dean didn’t bother correcting him. Someone had. He had; and it wasn’t the first time. “Can you have it ready for me tonight?”
Shaking his head ruefully, Sam shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll do my best, I guess. You better hope that whatever I make works—or that this thing isn’t actually a shadowlight… the myths aren’t exactly glowing with praise about their forgiving nature.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t just let it keep wandering around out there doing who knows what. I’ll be by to pick it up after I’m done with my shift,” Dean said, heading for the door. He glanced over his shoulder as he walked outside. “Thanks, Sammy.”
“Yeah, whatever, jerk,” he heard Sam reply as the door closed behind him.
Maybe this was a stupid plan, but it was the best Dean had. Sam was right though—shadowlights were dangerous when they weren’t pissed. If whatever Sam magicked up didn’t work? Dean was probably toast.
Sam would be expecting Dean to take back-up tonight, but he wasn’t about to risk the rest of the guard, and besides, he’d barely managed to convince Sam. No chance was he gonna look like an idiot in front of his soldiers.
Nope, one way or another Dean was going into those woods alone tonight. Grimly, he squared his shoulders and headed for the tower.