The autumn air is still hot and humid, and the late morning sun is bright over the poppy fields. Red and green blur by as Castiel speeds down the wide dirt road on his motorcycle. He’s sweating in his heavy leather duster, but he supposes he’ll be glad he wore it should something happen that ends with him thrown from the bike and sliding across the dirt. Being hot is a small price to pay for keeping his skin firmly attached to his body in case of an accident.
He’s searching for a group of nomads in the area that has been interfering with the Baron’s transports. Three opium trucks have been robbed over the last month, the drivers and Clippers guarding the supply killed. Now, a shipment of cogs is several days late, and Raphael, the man Castiel’s Baron purchased replacement cogs from, says he knows nothing about it. Castiel’s job is to find the problem and take care of it. Whatever that means.
For now, he tries to enjoy the weather as much as he can, despite the fact that his uniform sticks to his back. The fields are beautiful, even after Castiel has passed the end of the Baron’s farmlands. This far out, he knows there are wildflowers dotting the verdant plains, though he can’t see them right now because of his speed. The trees are far enough from the road that they don’t seem to move as quickly as the tall grass, and those are what Castiel admires as he rides. He doesn’t know much about trees in general, but at this time of year, they are a beautiful mix of earthy colors. The red, gold, and orange leaves seem to shine even brighter under direct sunlight. It’s unfortunate that they will soon be falling from the branches that have been their homes for an entire season.
At least an hour has passed when Castiel sees something on the side of the road up ahead. It’s a large black transport truck, and even though he isn’t close enough to see the insignia yet, he’s sure it belongs to the baron. He sighs, slowing as he approaches it and looking around to make sure there is no ambush waiting for him. The back doors of the truck have been flung open, and he can see the inside is empty. He doesn’t see the bodies until he stops his bike and lowers the kickstand.
There are two Clippers and seven cogs laying face down in a neat row in the grass. Castiel glances around, taking in the surroundings one more time and making sure that he isn’t being watched. Flies gather around the corpses, crows and buzzards circle overhead. Castiel crouches beside the last cog in the row and rolls the body over. It’s a small child, a girl of eight or nine years at most. Dark, congealed blood covers the thick, tan cloth of her shirt. Castiel assumes it came from the wound in her neck. Her throat is sliced open viciously from ear to ear, and her dead eyes stare up at him.
It is far from the worst Castiel has seen in his many years as a Clipper, but seeing such a small child murdered for any reason never fails to affect him. No matter how bad things might be, no child deserved to die in this way. He sighs heavily and uses a hand to close the child’s eyes before moving on to examining the other bodies. It is clear the cogs were all executed in the same way as the little girl, but the bodies of the Clippers are much more damaged. There are jagged cuts and broken bones. Castiel can’t tell if they came from a struggle or if the nomads had, perhaps, subdued and tortured the Clippers for their own amusement. Not that it matters now. Either way, they are still dead.
Shaking his head, Castiel turns his attention back to the cogs. Why did the nomads kill them? Surely they would make a better profit from stealing them and reselling them. His eyes travel down the line of the chain the cogs are shackled to. There are seven bodies, but cogs are usually transported in groups of eight. He reaches out and picks the loose end of the chain up off the ground. As he suspected, there is one more shackle and it’s broken.
Nine men, women, and children dead for a single cog. It makes no sense.
Standing, Castiel reaches into one of the interior pockets lining his leather duster and pulls out a small cylinder. He gazes toward the treeline, extends the monocular telescope, and brings it up to his right eye. He scans the field and trees for any sign of which direction the nomads have gone. There is a column of smoke rising from the canopy of the forest some distance away. It’s likely the nomads are traveling on foot, so Castiel estimates they are ten, possibly fifteen miles from his location if they stopped to make camp.
Castiel stuffs the telescope back into his pocket after collapsing it and returns to his motorcycle. With his naked eye, he relocates the column of smoke, then lifts the kickstand with his heel and kicks the engine into rumbling life. There is no road leading in the direction he needs to go, so he simply rides through the field toward the woods, slowing when he reaches the tree line so he can weave between the trunks without falling.
It doesn’t take long for the smell of cooking meat to reach Castiel, and soon after that, he sees a clearing with a large fire in the center of it. Rolling to a stop, he turns the bike off and puts the kickstand down before dismounting to turn and survey the camp. There is a large wild hog spit-roasting over the fire and ten men, that Castiel can see, sitting on logs and chests around it. There is a chest much bigger than the others halfway through their semi-circle. It has heavy iron hinges and a padlock, and atop it sits a man that Castiel believes is the leader of this group of nomads. Even in his disheveled, dirty state, he has an air of power about him, and the others look to him as if waiting to see how he reacts to the presence of an intruder.
All of the men, except the leader, flinch when Castiel reaches for the sword strapped to his back, but he simply pulls it over his shoulder, still sheathed, and rests it against the side of his motorcycle. He is almost certain the missing cog is in the chest beneath the leader, but he is hoping to retrieve it without further bloodshed. The nomads watch Castiel, silent and wary as he approaches them.
“A transport of cogs was attacked on the southern road,” Castiel says without preamble. There is no use wasting time. “Everyone was killed. Do you know anything about that?”
The leader raises an eyebrow and looks back and forth between the men at his sides. “You boys see anything like that? I certainly haven’t.” He turns his gaze back to Castiel with a smirk.
It’s obviously a taunt and Castiel knows the nomad is lying. Rather than take the bait, Castiel simply nods and wanders closer. “My Baron will pay a handsome reward to anyone with information about the attack.”
“Well, look here, boys,” the leader says, laughing boisterously. “We got a real live clipper on our hands. Don’t you dogs usually travel in packs?”
Castiel smiles without mirth, then lets the impassive mask fall over his face again. These nomads are beneath him; he will not give him the satisfaction of his irritation. “What’s in the box?” he asks, gesturing toward the trunk beneath the leader.
“That ain’t none of your damned business, stranger,” the leader says, tapping against the front of the chest with two fingers. He glances over to one of the men to his left and nods. The man stands, wrapping his hand around the hilt of a machete that’s stuck in the ground. He twirls it in his hand and runs toward Castiel.
Castiel lets his arms hang at his sides with a sigh, all hope of avoiding further bloodshed lost. The nomad swings his blade as he rushes Castiel, but Castiel dodges it easily with a sidestep. The man’s movements are predictable; his whole body foreshadowing the direction of his swings. Castiel dodges each one, waiting for an opening. The blade whizzes by his face, so close he can feel the breeze that follows it. Castiel punches the nomad in his exposed side, feeling the crack of ribs under the hard strike. Before the nomad has a chance to move again, Castiel backhands him and blood sprays from the man’s mouth, staining Castiel’s face. He wraps his fingers tightly around his assailant’s wrist, spins him into a chokehold, and locks eyes with the nomad leader. As he steps forward, he jerks the man’s head to one side, snapping his neck cleanly, and lets the body fall to the ground.
In response, the other men stand and take up weapons, moving to surround Castiel. He doesn’t think; his mind becomes a blank slate as he raises his fists in front of him and takes a deep breath. It doesn’t matter what the men are doing right now, he focuses on them only when they begin to move. One of the nomads in front of Castiel charges and swings his weapon. He’s tall and fast, but Castiel is faster. He kicks the man in the chest, then the face, turning his attention to the next attack before the man even hits the ground.
Castiel’s body moves on instinct, the skills he has are so deeply ingrained that his foot connecting with the second attacker’s face doesn’t require any thought. It’s far too easy to incapacitate the nomads, even if Castiel knows the first few will rise and attack him again. The third man is downed by Castiel’s heel connecting with his jaw accompanied by a violent crack and a spray of blood.
Castiel blocks a hard strike from a stocky man. The hit is powerful enough to send the vibration of the impact through Castiel’s whole arm, but he ignores it and blocks a second strike. He feels the man’s ribs crack against his foot more than he hears it, then he knocks him aside with a matching blow to the head.
Without turning, Castiel thrusts his leg back and feels his boot connect. He looks over his shoulder to see another nomad fall back to the ground and slide through the dirt and leaves, slowing to a stop at their leader’s feet. The man still sits on the chest; he watches the scene unfold before him with a look of distaste. Castiel isn’t sure if it’s distaste for him or for how easily his men go down. There isn’t much time to think about it before Castiel is catching a punch and twisting the man attached to it into an armhold. He spins and swings the man like a weapon to knock back several men. Blood pours from between the nomad’s lips when Castiel throws him to the ground. Planting a boot on his shoulder, Castiel wrenches his arm from its socket with a sickening pop.
A sword swings at Castiel, and he catches the wrist behind it. A violent twist shatters the bones and the blade falls uselessly to the ground. Castiel uses the trunk of a nearby tree to push off and wrap his legs around the nomad’s neck. The man goes limp when Castiel twists and snaps the vertebrae between his thighs. Riding the fall of the body down until his feet touch the ground once more, he has to jump back almost immediately to avoid the thrust of a glaive. Castiel wraps both hands around the long pole and spins, planting his foot squarely in the chest of the nomad wielding it. The weapon jerks from the man’s hands when he falls backward, and in one fluid movement, Castiel dodges a machete and buries the blade of the glaive in the gut of the man swinging it. The tan shirt he wears darkens quickly with blood from both the wound and that which pours from the man’s mouth.
Castiel wastes no time dislodging his weapon from the dying nomad and using it to knock away an ax. He runs the attacker through, driving him back until he hits a tree and hangs there, held up by the blade of the glaive. Blood coats the weapon, dripping slowly down the shaft toward Castiel’s hands. He doesn’t have the chance to take back the blade before he’s blocking an attack from behind. Castiel backhands the man and throws a hard jab that connects with his nose, snapping his head back, then throws him to the ground with a hand at the back of his neck.
A foot swings at Castiel, and he can feel the wind that follows the powerful kick across his face as he dodges it. The same attacker throws two wide, consecutive punches and Castiel catches his wrists. He twists them harshly and can almost see the shattering of the bones in the nomad’s forearm.
While Castiel plants a kick in the man’s chest, another nomad attacks from behind. Castiel turns quickly and sweeps the legs from under him. Before the nomad can hit the forest floor, Castiel kicks him hard and he flies back into a tree. A loud crack echoes through the clearing as the impact breaks the nomad’s back.
Castiel blocks two strikes from the nomad he took the glaive from, then knocks him off his feet with an uppercut. A hard boot to the downed man’s face breaks his neck and his dead eyes stare into the distance. A foot descends from above, and Castiel catches it with both hands, twisting until the foot hangs nearly backward from the leg, then he spins the man to the ground and rolls him onto his stomach. Pulling both ankles, Castiel bends the man backward in half, a series of sickening pops filling the air as his back breaks.
Castiel isn't quite prepared for the kick that drives the air from his lungs and knocks him on his ass, but he recovers from his shock quickly. None of the others had managed to land a blow so far, and as he rises to his feet, Castiel lends the nomad leader more consideration than he did the man's minions. He's the last one standing, and it's apparent how he found himself in charge.
After he dodges Castiel’s first kick, he goes immediately on the offensive. Castiel has to block a flurry of punches and search for an opening to strike back. The nomad doesn’t give him one, instead knocking Castiel to the ground a second time with a hard kick. Castiel is on his feet again as quickly as he was the first time, blocking more kicks. He catches a punch, twists the nomad’s arm, and bends his wrist back. Pulling him by the bent hand, Castiel falls to a knee with one leg fully extended in front of him, bringing the nomad’s chin down squarely on the toe of his boot and ignoring the blood that pours over it when his jaw breaks.
Castiel grabs the man by his shoulders and flips over him, using the momentum to throw the nomad toward the fire. He flies into the pig that is roasting above it, and the long, sharply pointed stick that holds the animal above the flame bursts through his chest in a spray of blood.
Dusting his jacket off with his hands, Castiel looks around the clearing at the litter of bodies and the blood that stains the once-green grass. It’s quiet now; he can hear the birds chirping in the branches above. Smoke from the fire wafts through the air. It obscures everything around him and gives the forest an almost otherworldly quality.
He walks toward the trunk and reaches for a machete that fell to the ground during the fight. Beside the blade, something shimmers in the sunlight and draws Castiel’s attention. He picks up a gold coin and turns it over in his hand. On one side, an oil rig is stamped into the soft metal, on the other side, a snarling hound.
Tucking the coin into his pocket, Castiel returns his attention to the locked trunk. The leader of the nomads likely has a key to the large iron lock somewhere on his person, but Castiel has no desire to search for it. Instead, he swings the machete down on the lock, the force of the blow breaking it. It surprises him when he reaches down to try and open the chest and the top of it bursts open.
The man that stands in the now-broken trunk is young, maybe twenty years old, and clearly strong. He has startling green eyes and for a moment, Castiel can’t look away from them. He’s attractive, certainly a solid cog, but beyond that, Castiel can’t see anything special about him. The cog is dirty and disheveled, and his eyes are wide with fear. They stare at each other for a long moment, and then the cog runs. Castiel chuckles to himself and looks down at the ground, spotting a set of boleadoras. He picks them up by one end and spins them over his head a couple of times before throwing them.
They wrap neatly around the ankles of the cog, felling him like a tree, and he appears to be unconscious when Castiel approaches. Castiel picks the limp cog up and throws him over a shoulder to carry him back to the motorcycle.
Securing the unconscious cog to his motorcycle proves more difficult than the defeat of the ten nomads that had taken him, but Castiel manages to get him on the bike well enough to return to the remains of the Clippers and the other cogs. He is still out cold when Castiel parks the bike and searches the transport again. There is a shovel in the back, and Castiel pulls it out and starts digging.
The filthy nomads that he’d killed less than an hour ago are left to rot away in the elements, but these people deserve a burial, even if Castiel can’t give them a proper one. The sun is high in the sky now, and it beats down on Castiel, making him sweat profusely. He takes the duster off, no longer able to stand the heat while he works, the red cotton and leather vest leaving his arms exposed. It only helps slightly and he still pours sweat. Digging a mass grave is hard work and it doesn’t take long for Castiel’s muscles to start aching and burning, but he keeps going until the hole is deep enough for nine bodies.
He drags them one at a time into the grave and drops them unceremoniously in until the only one left is the little girl. The canteen hanging from his belt calls to him, so Castiel crouches next to the last corpse and takes a long drink of water. Behind him, he hears the cog he took back from the nomads groan and then go silent. There’s a shuffle of fabric as the man stands and Castiel knows he’s going to try to run again.
“There’s nowhere for you to go,” he says without turning around. The sound of movement behind him stops and Castiel imagines the cog is cursing internally. He stands and looks over his shoulder at the cog standing next to his motorcycle. “Why, when all these people died, did the nomads keep you alive?”
The cog grimaces and shrugs, and Castiel can see the ripple of muscle in his shoulders as he does. “Just lucky, I guess,” he says.
Castiel shakes his head and turns to face the young man. “Lying to me is a bad idea.”
“Some guy named Crowley paid those nomads to find me,” the cog said finally.
Walking over to him, Castiel offers his canteen and the man takes it and drinks. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” He hands the canteen back to Castiel. “What’s it matter to you, anyway?”
“These cogs belonged to my Baron.” Castiel points the body of the little girl. “That one’s yours.”
The cog sighs and takes a step toward the girl. He doesn’t seem affected by the violence that occurred, but Castiel can see in his eyes that he is upset by her death. “Her name was Emma. She deserved better than this,” he says softly as he picks up her body and cradles it against his chest. He lowers her into the grave and then turns to face Castiel again. “You know, you could just let me go.”
“I could,” Castiel says with a nod. “What’s your name?”
Castiel throws the shovel in his hand at Dean, who catches it reflexively. “You’ll be safer working the poppy fields for my Baron than you will out here. Now dig.”
Dean rolls his eyes but turns and starts digging, throwing shovelfuls of dirt over the bodies. “So, is this what you do? You just show up, kill people, and then leave?” Castiel doesn’t answer so Dean just keeps talking. Complaining mostly. “It’s too hot for this,” he says, already mopping sweat off his brow. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“If I tell you, will you shut up?” Castiel asks.
“No promises,” Dean says through gritted teeth as he shovels more dirt.
“Castiel? That’s kind of a mouthful, isn’t it?” Dean asks. He rests his hands on the top of the shovel and looks over his shoulder.
“Just dig,” Castiel replies. He smiles when Dean turns away. The man appears to be resilient, and Castiel is, frankly, entertained by him. He leans back against his motorcycle and takes another drink from the canteen while he watches Dean finish the grave.
The wind is hot against Dean’s face as the motorcycle speeds down the road. He clings to Castiel, arms wrapped around his waist because he’s never been on a bike before and the experience is mildly terrifying, especially the way Castiel rides. Dean tries to ignore his fear and looks out at his surroundings.
The poppy fields are bright and cheerful, red and green. Dean can’t deny they’re beautiful. They’re dotted with tan-clad cogs harvesting the bulbs and Clippers on horseback in their red vests making sure the cogs do their work and don’t try to run. They look well-fed and cared for, but even so, Dean understands they are nothing more than prisoners. The cogs are, for all intents and purposes, slaves, though the Barons cover this by saying they’re serving to pay off a debt of protection. It isn’t quite a lie, but it takes several generations to pay off a single debt before a cog can be free. Dean isn’t sure if it’s worth the protection granted by the Barons.
He still remembers the stories his father told about the land they came from, a place where everyone is free. In the Badlands even the Clippers aren’t free, though they’re allowed the illusion of liberty. Cogs and Clippers aren’t so different, in the end. Castiel doesn’t speak to him at all during the ride, probably because Dean wouldn’t be able to hear him over the rumble of the bike’s engine and the rush of the wind anyway.
Castiel finally starts slowing down as they approach a vast gray wall. It’s the tallest thing Dean has ever seen; countless feet of dark stone and metal rise into the air, the drabness only broken by the dark red of the massive gate and the long red banners that hang on either side of it. On each of the pennants, a coiled snake is woven into the fabric, ready to strike anyone who dares roam closer than they belong. It is imposing, frightening, and Dean swallows roughly at the sight of it.
Even the gates are intimidating. Towering, painted steel rises so high above him when Castiel rolls to a stop, Dean can just barely see the Clippers standing on the wall above it. They creak slowly open and he shivers involuntarily, unsure that inside the wall is where he wants to be. It doesn’t matter, of course. Castiel hasn’t given him a choice. Dean supposes he should just be grateful to be alive, but his heart still rebels against the idea of being confined within the baron’s territory.
The scenery inside the gate is as beautiful as the poppy fields, perhaps even more so for the lack of people dotting the view. Neat groves of tall, leafy trees line the road. Dean doesn’t know what kind of trees they are, but they shield him from the sun and the temperature beneath their outstretched limbs drops almost immediately. He’s been sweating for hours, so he’s grateful for the change.
Castiel’s back flexes against Dean’s chest as he controls the motorcycle effortlessly, slowing down some now that they’re safe inside the wall. Perhaps he is also enjoying the shade of the grove. Dean doesn’t know; the man is difficult to read. It doesn’t take long for them to approach a second, smaller wall and gate. This one is built with white stone and the gates are clean and bright, gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. It’s pretty, but the reflection is almost blinding, so Dean averts his eyes until the gates swing open in front of them.
Bright green, immaculately trimmed grass stretches out before them. There are hundreds of men and women in black, sleeveless uniforms on the lawn practicing some form of martial arts. They move in perfect unison, following the commands of whoever is leading the exercise. Dean can’t understand their shouts, but they’re loud enough to hear over the motorcycle’s engine. It’s an impressive display, and Dean is entranced by it for a long moment while Castiel guides them between the columns of people.
Dean is so busy watching them that he doesn’t notice the mansion behind the tableau at first. It occupies his attention wholly when they get closer to it, though. He’s never seen anything so fancy. There are three sets of stairs, one that leads up to the main entrance into the house on the first floor and two that curve away from the main steps and up to a balcony on the second. Castiel stops the motorcycle in front of the house and nudges Dean with an elbow. He stops staring at the impossibly clean white paint and dismounts, standing next to Castiel when he gets off the bike as well.
“Welcome to The Fort,” Castiel says as he peels the gloves from his hands and stuffs them into one of his pockets. His piercing blue eyes pass over Dean momentarily then turn toward the ranks of men and women on the lawn.
“Regent present!” calls a voice behind them, startling Dean. He turns toward it and sees every single one of the fighters—Clippers, there’s nothing else they could be—salute Castiel with a fist over their hearts. Castiel nods once but says nothing, and they return to their drills.
“Let’s go,” Castiel commands, his eyes on Dean again. His face is, as it has been the entire time, completely unreadable, and Dean hates it.
He follows anyway because he doesn’t have a choice, but he’s nervous. He has no idea what to expect from this place or the people in it. Castiel walks quickly and without looking back to see if Dean is behind him as they make their way around the massive house and then away from it. There is no path to follow, only the footsteps of the man in front of him, and Dean stays close. Eventually, he hears loud, raucous shouting as they approach the edge of yet another wall. This time, they are atop it and looking down into a wide circular area full of young men and teen boys. Some of them gather around a ring where two boys are fighting. Others hit dummies made of wood and straw. Still more seem to wander aimlessly in the space between.
“What’s this?” Dean asks.
Castiel doesn’t look at him; he keeps watching the scene before them. “These are potential Colts. Clippers in training. Every young man—and some women—are offered the opportunity to join our ranks.”
Dean watches as one of the boys in the ring takes a hit so hard his head snaps to the side and he hits the dirt like a sack of potatoes. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Then you’ll spend the rest of your life working the fields.” Castiel turns his unfathomable gaze on Dean, and Dean fights not to squirm under the stare. It’s difficult. Dean has a feeling that Castiel can see all his thoughts and secrets, perhaps his very soul. “Come on, you’re going to meet the Baron.”
The Colts, as Castiel calls them, are filing through an archway and disappearing into an alcove. Dean trails a few steps behind Castiel down a stone staircase that seems to be part of the wall. It leads into the expanse of dirt they were looking down on moments ago, and they follow the Colts into a chapel like the ones the free farmers sometimes worship the old gods in. Stone benches line the walls on each side, and young men in gray vests line the benches.
Castiel leaves Dean among those young men, pushing past them to the front of the chapel where he stands next to an open archway. For the first time since he woke up leaning against the motorcycle, Dean really looks at Castiel. His dark hair is slicked back, but here and there, an errant curl falls, and Dean can tell that left alone, the hair would be wild and messy. The sun falls only on one side of his face, casting the other into shadowy contrast and making his already stern features seem even more harsh.
Dean pushes away the thought that Castiel’s face probably lights up a room when his features soften with a smile, as a tall blond man enters the alcove. He must be the Baron. Dean’s never seen clothes so fine or clean, at least not that he can remember. The man’s white shirt is as bright as his white house, and over it, he wears a deep red jacket. Dean wonders what it’s made of. The Baron looks out across the seated crowd with frigid, ice-blue eyes, and Dean shudders. There is nothing in those eyes that makes Dean feel safe or welcome here.
The Baron holds up a book. It’s old, the cover nearly crumbling beneath his fingers, and it bears a cross. “People once thought this was a holy book,” the Baron says. “They thought it came from a god who would save them. They thought it held all the answers.” He laughs and tosses the book aside, and the whole room watches with rapt attention as it falls the floor with a resounding thud. “Well, I’m here to tell you: there is no god in the Badlands. Just me, Lucifer, your Baron.”
Dean spares a glance at the others seated on the benches. They’re enraptured by the Baron’s speech so far. He hasn’t really even said anything yet, at least nothing that catches Dean’s attention. Certainly nothing that makes him want to fight for the Baron.
“God does not feed or clothe you. I do. Most of you are orphans; your parents spent their lives in service and when they died, the rest of their debt was left to you.” The Baron takes a step toward his audience, and Dean can see he feeds off their attention. “I’m offering a different path. The strongest among you will have the opportunity to train as one of my Clippers.”
A cheer goes up among the crowd and the Baron smiles. It makes Dean’s skin crawl. “Now, most people think Clippers are just cold, heartless killers, and they certainly are that. But my Clippers? They’re my family. And I am their family, their only family.” The Baron pauses, making eye contact with some of the boys. “I’m not asking you to be saints. You can fuck whoever you want, but make no mistake. A Clipper’s loyalty is to his Baron. That’s the first and most important rule. You follow it, and in return, you get the best of everything. Food, weapons, women, men.”
The young men around Dean laugh, but he is too nauseous to even pretend at joviality. He wants to leave, to go back outside the walls and take his chances with the nomads. Dean already has a family; he doesn’t need to be a part of the Baron’s.
“Castiel, come here,” the Baron commands, waving him over. Castiel steps forward to stand next to the Baron. “Take off the vest.”
“Yes, Baron.” Castiel faces away from the benches and shrugs off the red vest. It drops away to reveal his thickly muscled shoulders and back, and his tanned skin covered in black hash marks. There are more than Dean can count, starting in the center of Castiel’s back and spiraling outward. It sends a chill running down Dean’s spine.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” the Baron asks, looking back out at the boys. “Each mark is a life. A life taken without hesitation or remorse because Castiel kills for one reason, and only one reason. And what is that, Castiel?”
Castiel doesn’t move, doesn’t even turn his head to look at the Baron. His deep voice carries through the alcove even though he is facing away. “To protect your interests, Baron.”
“Very good.” The Baron claps a hand down onto Castiel’s shoulder. “To protect my interests, Baron, is right. Castiel is the most loyal, most feared Clipper in all of the Badlands. Four hundred and four lives, all taken for me.” He nods to Castiel and steps away as Castiel puts his vest back on. “Now, Castiel wasn’t always the man you see before you. I found him as a child, naked and shivering on the banks of Rabbit River. He was an orphan, just like you, and I took him in and made him what he is today. Maybe one of you will be the one to follow his footsteps. So, do you want to be part of my family?”
“Yes, Baron!” the boys around Dean cry. The excited energy in the room is overwhelming and Dean just wants to shrink down and disappear under one of the benches.
“Do you want the best of everything?”
“Are you ready to kill in my name?”
The boys rise to their feet, almost as one, except for Dean. “Yes, Baron!” They’re frenzied now, almost foaming at the mouth, and Dean doesn’t understand it. How can anyone be this excited about slaughtering people? He stays seated for as long as he can, until Castiel is pulling him from the bench and leading him back out into the sunlight.
Castiel takes Dean over to where the Baron is standing, and the breath catches in his throat. Dean is scared. The Baron’s eyes are ice cold and sharp, intelligent, and there is a cruelty in them that no amount of Southern manners can hide.
“Baron, I have something you need to see,” Castiel says and holds out a gold coin.
The Baron takes it, squinting as he flips it over. “This is Crowley’s gold.”
Castiel nods and pulls Dean forward so he can no longer avoid the Baron. “He paid the nomads to find this cog. The Clippers guarding them and the rest of the cogs were executed.”
“You don’t look like much,” the Baron says with a raised eyebrow. “Why’s Crowley so interested in you?”
Dean swallows, forces himself to meet the Baron’s gaze. “I don’t know, sir.”
A long silence passes between them as the Baron simply stares at Dean. The gears are turning in his mind, Dean can see it. He leans in close and speaks softly. “Do you know what happens to people that lie to me, boy?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Get him in the pit; let’s see what he’s capable of.”
Castiel watches as another Clipper leads Dean away, and from the corner of his eye, he sees Lucifer’s son Jesse approaching. He’s a small, whiny, spoiled brat as far as Castiel is concerned. More often than not, Lucifer seems to feel the same way, but the boy’s mother dotes on him. He is dressed as well as his father, and Castiel can only see the limp his deformed foot causes because he knows it’s there. Jesse doesn’t look happy, and Castiel is sure he has something to complain to his father about.
“Father, why did you send Castiel without telling me?” Jesse asks without preamble. “I was handling the nomad problem.”
Lucifer scowls at his son. “As it turns out, nomads aren’t actually the problem.” He tosses the gold coin to Jesse. The kid turns it over between his fingers the same way his father had moments before. “Crowley’s paying them to do his dirty work.”
“Another Baron is moving against us.” Jesse looks up at his father and his concern is clear.
“Just because Ramiel supposedly handed power over to that bottom feeder doesn’t mean he’s a Baron,” Lucifer says, rolling his eyes.
Jesse sighs. “Call him whatever you want. We need his oil to process our poppy. Do you want to wait for him to choke us off?”
“Jesse, if we make a move on Crowley, we’ll be starting a war with the other five Barons,” Castiel interjects finally. At seventeen years old, Jesse should be well-versed in the politics of the Baronies, and the fact that he is even suggesting they take such an action is unbelievable.
Jesse glares at Castiel as if to remind him that no one asked for his opinion. “If we don’t strike, the rest of the Barons will see us as weak and come after us anyway.”
Lucifer raises one hand authoritatively and shakes his head. “We do not move on Crowley.”
Growling in frustration, Jesse turns on his heel and stomps away like a small child.
As Lucifer turns to Castiel, he shakes his head. He seems unperturbed by his son leaving the way he has. There are more pressing matters to attend to. “Castiel, I want you to keep an eye on that new cog. He’s hiding something. I want to know what it is.”
Saluting the Baron with a fist over his heart, Castiel responds, “yes, Baron.” He agrees with Lucifer; Dean is definitely hiding something. Crowley wants him for a reason, and Castiel is fairly certain Dean knows exactly what that reason is. There is more to the cog than meets the eye.
Rowena sits at the long oak table in the dining room, opening the mail that was delivered earlier that day. The silver letter opener slices through the thick wax seal easily, and she scans the letter as footsteps tap on the floor behind her.
“Michael sends his regrets,” she says without looking back. She’s lived in this house for enough years to recognize her husband’s footfalls. “He’s the third Baron to decline the invitation.” When Lucifer remains silent, Rowena turns to face him. “When we were married, none of the Barons would have dared decline attendance.”
“Rowena,” Lucifer says, his voice as condescending as always. “If handling the wedding plans is too much for you…”
She purses her lips and looks away. Moments like this one, Rowena wonders how she has survived being married to such a colossal ass for this long. “You’re a Baron, Lucifer. Free to take as many wives as you like, and I’m beyond being jealous about it. Marry your cog bride Lillith. I meant only to point out that the other Barons have lost respect for you.”
Lucifer shakes his head and walks past the table toward his office. “You and your son sing the same damn tune.”
“And what of Jesse?” Rowena asks as she follows Lucifer into his study. “You should be giving him more responsibility. He’s practically a grown man.”
“That boy is a fool.”
“That boy is your son and heir.” She hates it when Lucifer talks about their only child this way. There had been a time when Rowena was sure that Lucifer loved Jesse, but now he has only disdain for their son.
“Power is not inherited, Rowena.” Lucifer pinches the bridge of his nose between two fingers and furrows his brow. “It’s taken.”
“Perhaps you’d prefer he take your head.”
Lucifer scoffed. “I wish he would. I tried grooming him for years, but you and I both know his elevator doesn’t quite reach the top. He’s not cut out for it.”
Rowena’s hands close into fists at her sides, but she resists the urge to slap her husband across his smug face. “After everything our son has sacrificed for you, I will not let you abandon him again. Try harder, Lucifer. He is stronger and more capable than you think.” She can’t stand to look at Lucifer’s face anymore, so before he has a chance to respond, she turns on her heel and walks out of the room, letting the door slam shut behind her.
Dean walks back out into the waning late afternoon sunlight. The Clipper that took him into the Colts’ barracks had taken his clothes and provided him with one of the gray Colt uniforms. The pants are surprisingly soft and comfortable, but Dean has forgone the vest. It has the Baron’s emblem—the coiled snake from the banners hanging on the wall—emblazoned on the back, and wearing it feels too much like admitting ownership.
His heart pounds roughly against his ribs as Dean quietly steps into the pit, trying to avoid the others as much as he can. He doesn’t want to be there; he doesn’t relish the blood and violence the way the others seem to. The raucous energy that had built up during the Baron’s speech still runs rampant. It makes Dean’s skin tingle while he watches the Colts pound blood from each other with fists and feet.
“Hey, what’s this?” asks another Colt. He’s muscular with dark hair and a rodent-like face. He pulls at the amulet that hangs from Dean’s neck, snatching it hard enough to break the leather strap.
The amulet is a small thing shaped like a totem for one of the old gods. Dean isn’t really sure what exactly it is. He only knows that it is the last thing he has from his home. It belongs to him, and this mean-faced boy just stole it from him. “Give it back,” he growls, venom in his voice.
The thieving bastard laughs in Dean’s face. “No way. It’s mine now.” He swings it back and forth to taunt Dean.
Anger bubbles up in Dean, setting his blood to a feverish boil. He cannot let this asshole have the only thing he has left of his home, his family. “Give it back!” he shouts and swings as hard as he can.
The other Colt falls to the dirt when Dean’s fist connects harshly with his jaw. The moment of victory is, however, short lived, and Dean realizes his mistake. The guy is back up on his feet and sneering before Dean has even had the chance to recover from throwing the punch. He runs at Dean, tackling him. Dean’s back collides painfully with the hard ground, and the wind is knocked from his lungs. Dean scrambles to cover any part of him that might easily be lacerated by the impact of hard knuckles. Bracing himself against the agonizing pound of fists against his ribs, he prays to whoever is listening that he doesn’t start bleeding.
The blows stop suddenly, and the weight of the Colt on top of Dean is gone all at once. He opens his eyes to see Castiel hauling the thief back by the collar of his vest. Dean clambers to his feet, feeling his anger surge again, and he steps the other guy to demand the return of his necklace, only to be stopped by a large, firm hand on his chest and stern blue eyes.
“Back off,” Castiel orders. He doesn’t raise his voice, but his low, rumbling timbre still carries over the din in the pit.
“It’s mine!” Dean shouts, but he makes no effort to move past Castiel.
Unreadable, penetrating eyes examine Dean for a moment before turning toward the other Colt. Castiel holds out his hand. “Give it to me.”
The thief fumes silently as he hands the necklace over. Castiel holds it up and looks at the amulet. For the first time, Dean sees a crack in the impassive mask Castiel wears constantly. It only lasts for a second, but Dean is sure he sees surprise and recognition on the Regent’s face.
Castiel has seen the symbol before.
He looks at Dean, and Dean thinks he is going to return the necklace. Instead, Castiel tucks it into his pocket and walks away.
“This ain’t over.” The thief points a finger at Dean before he turns and walks away.
Dean stares after him, barely acknowledging it when someone else comes to stand at his side.
“Gotta watch out for guys like Cole,” the newcomer advises.
Glancing over at him, Dean doesn’t respond. The Colt is around Dean’s age, tall and thin, with the strangest haircut Dean thinks he’s ever seen. It’s short in the front, but in the back, a ponytail at the nape of his neck hangs halfway down his back.
“They want to be chosen as Colts so they start fights to show off for the Clippers.” He looks over at Dean. “I’m Ash.”
Ash just nods. “You watch my back, I’ll watch yours. Sound like a deal?”
Dean stares at him for a long moment. Ash seems decent enough, certainly better than that Cole guy, and it’s clear that Dean needs allies. “Yeah, alright,” he agrees and holds a hand out for Ash to shake.
Rowena stands in the trees, just out of sight of the pretty, young blonde wandering aimlessly in the garden. Lillith is everything Rowena isn’t. Young. Innocent. Malleable. She’s a house cog and has been since she was a child. Lucifer had barely waited for her eighteenth birthday to take her to his bed. Even Rowena has to admit she’s lovely. Pale skin and hair, eyes such a light blue that they’re almost white. But there is something about her that turns Rowena’s stomach and she can’t identify what it is.
She watches as Lucifer steps through the back door of the house and into the garden. He’s changed since they met, become someone that Rowena often feels she doesn’t recognize. But he is still her husband, the father of her only son, and the most powerful Baron in the Badlands. She won’t leave his side, no matter how many other wives he chooses to take.
“Lillith,” Lucifer calls, and his soon-to-be wife turns and flashes a brilliant smile. Rowena’s nose wrinkles in distaste as she watches him take Lillith in his arms and kiss her. The poor child really has no idea what she’s getting herself into.
Footsteps approach, snapping twigs as they do, but Rowena continues to watch Lucifer and Lillith walk arm-in-arm around the garden. She remembers when it was her on Lucifer’s arm walking the grounds of their home.
“It must be difficult for you to see them like that,” Jesse says, stopping next to Rowena with his eyes on Lillith.
Rowena glances over at her son and hardens her expression. The boy pays far more attention to Lillith than is proper and that isn’t lost on his mother. She wonders if Lucifer has chosen to take Lillith as his wife to punish their son. “As a Baron, your father is free to take as many wives as he pleases.”
Jesse shakes his head and levels a skeptical look at his mother. “You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt, Mother. I know it does.” His gaze lands on Lillith again.
“He needs me,” Rowena says, refusing to acknowledge aloud that Jesse is right; it’s painful to see her husband with another woman. “I have his head and his heart, and I always will. I gladly bequeath to her everything to the south.”
Jesse’s lips pinch into a thin line and his eyes narrow, but he says nothing. He stares out into the garden for a moment longer then turns on his heel and walks away. Rowena is left alone to pine for the husband that no longer loves her.
Castiel glances around before entering his cabin next to the barracks. He’s unlikely to be attacked here in The Fort, but it’s an old habit that’s saved his life on more than one occasion. Sitting on his cot, he pulls the necklace he took from the Colt that Dean attacked and looks at it. In the stand next to his bed, there’s a small red box that holds trinkets he’s collected over his life in the Badlands. He pulls it out and opens it. Inside, there is a medallion.
It hangs from a well-crafted silver chain, and etched upon its surface is the very same totemic symbol that Dean said belonged to him. Castiel’s brow furrows in confusion as he looks at them. He knows that he was born somewhere beyond the Badlands but he has no memory of that place. He has almost no memories of his life before the Baron found him. When he thinks back to that day, he only remembers Lucifer taking him away from a place that was bathed in blood.
If Castiel had a family before the Baron, they were certainly dead when Lucifer arrived.
He hears the thud of boots against wood behind him and quickly replaces his box in its drawer before turning around. Jesse is standing just inside his open door and, as usual, he has a sour expression on his face. The Baron’s son does not care for Castiel, even if the Regent had been the one to save him from nomads when he was a child.
“What did you take from that boy?” he asks. His attempt at a commanding tone is weak, but Castiel holds Dean’s necklace out for Jesse to see anyway. He all but snatches it from Castiel’s fingers, turning it over in his hand as he examines it. “Have you ever seen this before?”
“No,” Castiel lies easily with a shake of his head. Jesse’s eyes narrow suspiciously and he stares at Castiel for a long moment. He can tell Jesse doesn’t believe him, but it doesn’t really matter. The baron’s son doesn’t have the stones to say anything against him. He might be a grown man in years, but mentally he is still the broken child Castiel brought home all those years ago.
“You should reconsider your position,” Jesse advises. Castiel raises an eyebrow, inviting him to continue. “We need to do something about Crowley.”
Castiel sighs. “Your father has already made his decision.”
Jesse takes an aggressive step forward, and Castiel finds his hand automatically moving to rest on the pommel of the sword that hangs from his hip. “You and I both know you’re the one who made the decision. He just agreed with you. Like he always does. He is not himself lately, Castiel. We have to protect him.”
“I have always protected him.” Castiel grimaces; he doesn’t like being accused of not fulfilling his duty to Lucifer. Even so, there is a line he cannot cross because Jesse is the heir to the kingdom that is The Fort.
“By doing nothing, you’re digging his grave, Castiel,” Jesse says.
If it wouldn’t cost him his life, Castiel would hit the kid. It’s clear that he has no real interest in protecting his father, or, if he does, he’s simply too stupid to understand the consequences attacking Crowley would bring down on them. “We do not move on Crowley. Those are your father’s orders. There is no more to discuss on the matter.”
Jesse is angry, his jaw clenched and hands fisted at his sides. He shakes his head and scoffs, holding Dean’s necklace up in front of Castiel’s face. “I think I’ll hold onto this,” he says through gritted teeth before he stalks out of the cabin.
When he is certain Jesse has made his way back to the house, Castiel rubs a hand over his face and then walks to the garage. His motorcycle is near the door and he climbs on and starts it. The sun is setting and the heavy air is cooling against his skin as he rides from The Fort into town.
The streets are busy, even after dark. Half-dressed women and twinks hang out the windows of the Tik Tok Club, eager to draw in any one who is willing to pay for the use of their youthful bodies. Castiel ignores them; he’s never had any interest in the dollhouses or the whores that occupy them. Instead, he pulls the motorcycle to a stop outside a small storefront at the end of the main road. A wooden sign swings above him in the breeze. The word ‘Doctor’ is painted on it in neat white letters. Castiel dismounts and walks through the door, bells jingling as he pushes it open.
“It’ll never be the real thing,” Anna says kindly, bent over a mechanical arm she’s built for a free farmer that sits in her chair. “You’ll get used to it.” Castiel clears his throat, announcing his presence, and fear fills the man’s eyes when he looks over. Anna just smiles. “Don’t worry. He’s not here for you.”
A small smile passes over Castiel’s lips, and he makes his way to the back of the shop to wait for Anna to finish with her patient. The bells jingle again as the man leaves, and Anna comes into the back room with a smile. She pulls the tie from her hair, letting the long red locks fall straight down past her shoulders.
“Castiel,” she says, crossing the room to wrap him in her arms.
He returns the hug awkwardly, as he always does. No matter how many times he sees Anna, he is sure he’ll never get used to the open display of affection. He is far more familiar with fearful—sometimes even hateful—gazes, like the one Anna’s patient had turned on him.
“Are you here for your lesson?”
“That’s only part of why I’m here,” he replies. “I want to make sure you’re well.”
Anna’s smile fades but only for a moment. “Of course, I’m well. I picked a new book for you.” She moves away from him to a shelf with several books. Castiel glances around, as nervous as he always is when Anna is teaching him to read. If they are caught, it won’t be good for either of them. She pulls a thick tome off the shelf and holds it out to him. “The Little Prince.”
They sit at the end of Anna’s bed and Castiel opens the book. The language is more complex than he is used to, but he does his best to sound out the unfamiliar words. Sometimes, he stops to ask Anna what a word means, and she is happy to explain it to him.
Anna is nearly ten years younger than Castiel, and he remembers the day he rescued her from a dollhouse in another town. She was far too young for that life, and the men he’d clipped that day had been brutal. In the time since, she’d been adopted by Lucifer’s doctor. He taught her everything she knows about medicine, but her knack for mechanical limbs is something she comes by naturally. She and Castiel have grown closer over the years, and Castiel counts her as his only friend.
“I had been dish--hea--” Castiel breaks off, frustrated by his inability to pronounce the word properly.
“Disheartened,” Anna supplies softly. “It means he lost his confidence.”
Castiel shuts the book and grimaces. His head is beginning to ache. “I like Cat in the Hat better.”
Anna laughs, and Castiel can’t help the smile that tugs at the corner of his mouth. “Castiel, three months ago, you couldn’t read your own name. Now you’re getting picky?”
“I am… disheartened by the difficulty I am having with this book,” he replies. Placing the book on the bed next to him, Castiel rubs his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose in an attempt to stave off the pain in his head. When he looks back up at Anna, she’s staring off into the distance, her lips turned down in a small frown. “What’s wrong, Anna? You can tell me.”
She turns her gaze on him and smiles sadly. “I’m pregnant,” she says.
Castiel’s mind races. He’s excited for Anna but he’s afraid for her, too. “Is it Gadreel’s?”
“Does he know?” The calm in his voice belies his anxiety. His heart races in his chest.
Anna nods and smiles tearfully. “He wants to keep it. Have a son or daughter of his own.”
Castiel shakes his head. “Anna, you cannot keep this child.” He has to protect her.
“Is that your only solution for a problem?” she asks, angrily swiping tears from her cheeks. “Kill it?”
“That’s not what this is about,” Castiel replies. “Clippers aren’t allowed to have families, Anna. You know that. They will kill you. And Gadreel.”
“Not if we get out of the Badlands.” Anna moves closer to him and takes one of his hands in both of hers. “I’ve heard stories, Castiel.”
“There is nothing beyond the Badlands.” Castiel sighs. He’s lying; he knows there is something beyond the Badlands, but he doesn’t know what. It could be much worse beyond the borders. He ignores the part of him that wants him to believe it could be so much better.
“I’ve heard stories,” Anna repeats. Her eyes are wide and pleading, but Castiel can’t give her what she wants.
“They’re just stories, Anna. There’s nothing out there. Lucifer has hunted down and killed everyone that’s tried to escape.”
“I would rather die than raise my child in the Badlands.”
It’s clear that Castiel is not going to change her mind, but there is something else he can do. He’ll pay a visit to the barracks later. “I have to go,” he says tightly, letting Anna’s hands fall away as he stands. He doesn’t look back—he can’t—as he walks away. Breezing through the door, he barely hears the bell on his way out, and he sags against the jamb for a moment after it slams shut behind him.
Castiel struggles to catch his breath and calm his racing heart as he walks over to his motorcycle and pulls a small silver flask out of one of the saddlebags. He unscrews the lid and takes a long pull of the liquor inside. It burns as he swallows it and heats his belly, but it does the trick of tamping down the anxiety he feels about Anna’s news. And the guilt he is already feeling about what he has to do. The flask goes into his pocket and Castiel makes his way to the front door of another shop.
There is no bell here, but the young, dark-skinned man that runs the shop looks up when Castiel walks in anyway. His eyes are green but not like Dean’s; they’re clearer, lighter. His shoulders aren’t as broad as Castiel’s but his lithe form is packed with muscle. He is a skilled fighter, aware of his surroundings at all times and ready to defend himself at a moment’s notice. He would have made an excellent Clipper, but his father had chosen a different path for him.
“How many are you here for today?” Max asks with a smirk.
Castiel is in the ink shop often. Too often. He sighs and peels off his jacket and vest, tossing them to the side. “Ten,” he answers as he crosses the room. Straddling the chair, he leans forward against it to give Max access to what little bare skin is left on his back.
The tattoo gun buzzes noisily, and after a moment, Castiel feels the sting of the needle near his hip. Max laughs as he works. “Man, you clip anyone else, I’ll have to start inking your dick.”
“Maybe it’s time I stopped counting,” Castiel says, more to himself than Max, but the needle stills for a moment, its vibration going silent. He thinks about Anna and her comment about killing to solve problems. It’s almost an echo of Dean’s words earlier in the day, and they stick in his mind.
“You know, I remember when you were excited to come in for new ink, Castiel.” Max starts the tattoo gun again and continues adding to the spiral of souls.
Castiel chuckles, careful not to move and ruin his latest tattoo. “Don’t take it personally, Max.”
“I don’t,” he replies over the hum. “I’ve just seen it before, that’s all.” The vibration stops again and Castiel hears the metallic clink of the gun being set down on Max’s tray. The cold bite of antiseptic follows. “Killing that many people takes a toll on a man, Castiel. Even you.”
Without responding, Castiel gets up and redresses, reaching into his coat pocket for a gold coin with Lucifer’s snake stamped on one side and a poppy on the other. He flicks it with a thumb, sending it flipping through the air into Max’s waiting hand and then turns to leave.
“Be seeing you,” Max says as the door swings shut behind Castiel.
Sheets of rain fall from the black sky onto the deserted road. Even the harlots have gone inside in the face of the weather. Shutters are closed and lights have been put out. It’s eerie and odd; Castiel has never seen the town this dark. He steps out onto the road, the puddle beneath his boot splashing as the street is suddenly illuminated by a pair of headlights.
It’s far too quiet, and Castiel can almost smell trouble in the air. In a quick, smooth motion, he frees his twin swords from their scabbards, comforted by the way the ridges of Lucifer’s symbol in the leather feel against his palms. These swords are what Castiel lives and dies by. He treats them well, keeping the tapered blades sharpened and clean. They have taken over four hundred lives and will take many more before Castiel’s time in the Badlands is over.
It’s hard to see through the sheeting rain, but Castiel doesn’t need to see his enemies to know they’re there. He takes a slow, deep breath and keeps his weapons up and ready for the attack he knows is coming. The drops of water against the already soaked ground are loud, almost deafening, but it’s not enough to drown out the four pairs of feet as they splash through the gathered puddles.
Castiel raises his swords, crossing them over his head to block the downward strikes. They come simultaneously and the clash of weapons rings, echoing off the walls of the town around them. The impact reverberates painfully through his arms, but Castiel ignores it and thrusts upward. His attackers stumble back.
It doesn’t take long for them to regain themselves and advance on him. He blocks and parries their swords expertly. These men are not nomads. They wear black pants and brimmed hats, deep blue vests over long-sleeved black shirts. They work together as a team, keeping Castiel surrounded and on the defensive.
Castiel bends his knees and leans back to dodge the blades that slice toward his throat. He can hear the metal ringing as they pass centimeters above his face. All the while, his own swords are swinging, blocking attacks and making them. He has to separate them, put enough distance between the enemy Clippers that he can take them out one by one. He plants his feet and then spins, letting his blades do the work of widening the circle.
It’s not much, but there’s enough room between his attackers that Castiel can turn his attention to one man. The Clipper swings his sword, but Castiel easily knocks away the blow with one of his own. He puts his body weight into a spin to knock the man off-balance. Following through with a backward thrust, Castiel buries his sword in his attacker’s gut. He pulls it back and glances down at the stream of reddened water that collects in the fuller and drips from the point to bloody the puddle at his feet.
Another Clipper comes at Castiel with a roar and a heavy swing. He parries the blow with his still blood-covered sword and uses the enemy’s momentum against him, twisting until their backs are touching and raising his leg high to deliver a devastating kick to the back of the other man’s head. Castiel moves away from the splash of water created by the body hitting the road and faces down the two attackers that are still on their feet.
These two move as one, and Castiel is grateful that he has two swords. He loses ground to their twin strikes and the way they spin back-to-back and seamlessly switch places to attack him anew. Their blades sing against his, and Castiel knocks them away, jumping and planting one heel in each of their chests, pushing hard against them to flip backward and land on his feet as they fall to the ground.
A grunt of effort beside Castiel catches his attention. The man he knocked down with a blow to the head is on his feet again and rushing Castiel. He can’t tell how the man planned to swing his sword, so rather than wait to find out, Castiel runs toward the gleaming headlights and leaps onto the hood of the black car. He makes it onto the roof before turning just in time to block a sword swing. Hooking his foot around the man’s ankle, Castiel drops him to his back and stabs down, through the soft flesh of the man’s stomach until he hears the metallic screech of his sword cutting through the roof of the car.
Castiel quickly pulls his blade back and kicks the body hard to send it flying into the next attacker. He jumps down, swinging both swords at the last man. With surprising strength, the Clipper blocks Castiel’s blows and shoves him back, and he slides across the hood of the car, landing on his feet on the other side. Castiel moves so his back is against the vehicle’s door when his attacker rounds the car. With both hands on the hilt, the Clipper swings at Castiel, but it’s not the blade that comes at him as he expects. When the pommel hits his cheek, his head snaps to the side and his face slams against the window.
Even in the downpour, the blood that sprays from Castiel’s nose and mouth on impact sticks to the glass. The pain doesn’t knock him down; he turns back to his attacker immediately, reaching forward and grabbing the man by the face. His fingers dig harshly into the hollows just below the Clipper’s cheekbones and with a grunt of effort, he spins them and slams his enemy’s back against the car before pinning him to the car door with a sword through his abdomen.
Castiel barely has a moment to breathe before he hears the battle cry of another man. Pulling his blade free as he backs away from the car, Castiel looks up to see another Clipper jumping to the ground from one of the dollhouse’s balconies. He lands on his feet and uses both swords to attack immediately with a grace the others didn’t possess, The blows come hard and fast, and they jar Castiel’s arms each time he blocks one.
An unexpected strike slices through the fabric of Castiel’s pants, cutting into his thigh, and he spins away in an attempt to put some distance between them. His attacker pursues him relentlessly, and Castiel finds himself having to constantly duck and dodge the swing of the Clipper’s swords. His eyes dart around, looking for any way to create enough space to go on the offensive. With the rain slicking every surface, he wraps his hand around a post and slides, spinning quickly around it and rising to his feet. His attackers swipes low and Castiel jumps over the blade to run almost sideways across the doors of the car before pushing off to land on his feet. The Clipper is still right on top of him, and Castiel defends himself by crossing his blades in front of him to catch the swinging swords between them. With a flick of his wrists, he knocks the blades away in opposite directions, creating enough of an opening to plant his foot in the Clipper’s chest and shove.
Castiel lands on his back but kicks up onto his feet quickly. His opponent is on his feet as well, but now there’s enough space between them that Castiel has time to draw a breath and focus. It is he who begins the next attack, thrusting one blade forward as he swings the other. The Clipper parries every strike expertly. He’s fast, and he knocks one of Castiel’s swords out of his hand. It clatters against the ground and settles in a puddle next to the car.
Wrapping both hands around the hilt of his remaining sword, Castiel blocks two strikes then reaches out to grab the Clipper’s wrist. He tries to knock the man off balance but finds himself being spun and shoved through a tall, shuttered window. The wood splinters around Castiel, flying in every direction as he wrestles with his assailant, tumbling and spinning through the local tavern until he is thrown back out through another window.
Glass crunches underneath Castiel’s back, and he is grateful for the thick leather of his long jacket. The Clipper flies at Castiel from the broken window with both swords. He blocks the blades with his own, and with the assistance of a foot in the man’s solar plexus, Castiel flips him over his head and rolls to his feet. The man stands, blood dripping from the corner of his mouth, and charges. Castiel spins out of the way, and their swords clash again.
Castiel sees the Clipper’s feet push off the ground and instinctively, he drops and slides underneath the man spinning through the air. There’s a glint of metal in front of him, and Castiel uses the tip of the sword he still possesses to flick his other one up into the air, reaching out to catch it in his free hand. He swings it as he turns and the Clipper stops in his tracks, sword falling to the ground. His hand goes to his throat, and a moment later, blood coats his fingers as it seeps through them and soaks into the blue fabric of his vest along with the rain. The Clipper drops to his knees, then falls forward as Castiel stands.
The rain beats down on Castiel, washing his swords clean of blood. He takes a moment to catch his breath and returns them to their scabbards, listening to the tinny sound of the water against the roof of the Packard. The bodies of all but one of the men who attacked Castiel are hidden in the shadows, but the puddles illuminated by the headlights are tinged pink.
The driver door of the car opens, and a tall, slim man steps out under an umbrella. He opens the rear door and a shorter, stockier man joins him, taking hold of the curved handle.
“Be a darling, Ketch, and wait in the car,” the man says. He waits for the driver to return to his seat in the vehicle before sauntering over to where Castiel stands, bathed in the glow of headlights. He’s wearing an expensive suit, all black, and even in the muck of the rain, his shoes gleam. “You are as good as they say, Castiel.”
“I should kill you where you stand, Crowley,” Castiel spits. The man has caused him nothing but trouble.
Crowley simply smirks. “We both know you can’t do that. I’m a Baron.” He stares at Castiel for a long moment. “Well, now that I’ve got your attention, there’s a young man in The Fort. He wears a pendant that looks like this.” Crowley holds up a card with a picture of the totem on it. “Bring him to me.”
Shaking his head, Castiel says, “That’s not going to happen.”
The Baron sighs and looks Castiel straight in the eyes. “You believe you kill for Lucifer out of loyalty, but that’s not really why you do it. You know where to find me when you change your mind.”
With that Crowley turns and walks back to the car, handing the umbrella off to his driver as the man gets out to open the door for him.
The barracks are crowded and hot. It smells like the blood and sweat of the young men that occupy it. Dean feels claustrophobic and overwhelmed. He just wants to get away, but there’s nowhere for him to go now. If he tries to leave The Fort, he’ll be clipped. So, he grabs a mostly clean towel off the rack against the wall and pads over the cold stone toward the showers.
There are other boys in the corridor, still wet from bathing and heading back in the direction of the bunks, but they don’t acknowledge Dean. He doesn’t care; he isn’t interested in making friends with these people. It still unnerves him that they all seemed so eager during the Baron’s speech earlier. Hanging the towel over his shoulder, Dean ducks to pass through the low archway that leads into the bathroom.
Dean hears footsteps and turns just in time to see Cole barrel into him before he’s crushed against the hard wall. The towel falls from his shoulder and rests on the floor at his feet as Cole rears back to throw a punch that connects solidly with Dean’s jaw. It makes his teeth ache and his head spin. When his back hits the floor, knocking the wind from his lungs and sending a cloud of dust up around him, Dean realizes it wasn’t his head spinning that had turned the world upside down. Cole had thrown him to the ground.
“You and I got unfinished business,” Cole says, pacing and waiting for Dean to stand. “You embarrassed me in front of the Regent.”
Dean rises, tasting copper in his mouth, and reaches up with one hand. Brushing it against the corner of his lower lip, Dean’s finger pulls back wet and red. His heart races in his chest and he takes a step back. There isn’t enough time to get out, to get away from people.
It’s happening again.
Dean can see the terror on his own face in the mirror behind Cole. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but he can’t prevent the black that pours in at the corners of his eyes and floods to encompass his pupils.
Then his face is blank. The fear he felt a moment before is gone. Dean feels nothing.
Without a thought, he drops to the floor, palms down, and dodges the high kick Cole swings at him. He pushes himself up into the air and spins. Dean kicks Cole in the ribs, sending him flying back as Dean lands on his feet. The mirror shatters around Cole, and he falls to the floor with a groan.
Pieces of broken glass fly in every direction, scattering in slow motion as Dean watches. He can see his own reflections and Cole’s. A single shard soars toward him, and in it, Dean catches a glimpse of Castiel behind him. He plucks the shard from the air with his thumb and forefinger and sends it soaring back in Cole’s direction.
Cole’s hand flies to his face with a scream, and he falls to his knees. Blood pours over his hand and between his fingers from the glass embedded deep in his eye.
Dean blinks and manages to turn woozily toward Castiel and falling to the ground, unconscious.
Dean’s head aches when he wakes. The room he’s in is bathed in soft light coming from a lantern on the table next to the bed. Castiel is in a chair next to it, watching Dean with an unreadable expression. There is a bruise on his face, and a cut on his cheek.
“What happened in that bathroom?” Castiel asks without giving Dean the chance to say a word. Dean swings his legs over the side of the bed to sit up. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Dean eyes him warily and keeps his mouth shut, unsure if he can trust the Regent. “What did I do?” he asks. He remembers the transformation but nothing between that and waking up there.
“You don’t remember? You almost killed that Colt.” Castiel pauses and his eyes bore into Dean. “That’s why Crowley is looking for you, isn’t it?”
Dean wishes he was someone else, someone who didn’t have this curse or the guilt that comes with it.
“You know, if I tell Lucifer what I saw in there, he’ll turn you into something you don’t want to be.” Silence hangs between them as Dean tries to stare Castiel down in the hopes that he’ll drop it. Castiel shakes his head. “I need the truth, Dean.”
Dean’s mouth is dry and his tongue feels thick. He swallows harshly, trying to moisten it. There is something in the Regent’s eyes—some unknown emotion—that makes Dean feel like he can trust Castiel, at least with this. “I don’t know, okay? I don’t know what it is. It happens when I bleed,” he explains. “It’s been like this ever since I was a kid. Like, something takes over and when I wake up, someone’s hurt. Or worse.”
Castiel doesn’t react to what Dean has said, at least not that Dean can see. He waits and wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake. Maybe Castiel is going to kill him, or imprison him because he’s a danger to everyone in The Fort. Castiel says nothing.
“It was my fault we had to leave home,” Dean says to fill the silence. “My dad heard there was some healer that could fix me, but when we went to find him, they killed my dad. My brother and I were separated. I’ve been looking for him ever since.”
Castiel opens a drawer in the bedside table and pulls out a box. His hand disappears into it and returns holding a medallion. The picture impressed on it is the same as Dean’s amulet. He’s surprised to see it.
“That’s from Eden,” he says dumbly.
“Eden?” Castiel asks, his head tilting to one side and his brow furrowing. He looks like a lost puppy in his confusion.
“It’s beyond the Badlands. I was born there.” Dean reaches for the medallion, but Castiel pulls it away from his hand before he touches it. “Where’d you get that?”
Castiel ignores his question. “Do you remember how to get there?”
“No,” Dean replies with a shake of his head. “It was a long time ago. Look, can I just have my amulet back? It’s the only thing I got to remember my brother by.”
Tucking his medallion safely back into its box, Castiel says, “The Baron’s son took it. I’m sorry.”
Dean’s expression twists angrily. “Well, I’m getting it back.” He stands, but Castiel is already on his feet, blocking his path.
“Don’t be stupid,” he says and shoves Dean hard enough that he ends up back on his ass on the bed. “You’re going to go back to the barracks and keep your head down. Am I clear?”
Dean stares up at him for a long moment, considering challenging his order, but Castiel raises an eyebrow like he knows exactly what Dean is thinking. “Yeah, whatever, man,” Dean says instead.
Castiel takes a step back and Dean rises, heading for the door. He already has a plan to get his amulet back, no matter what Castiel has to say about it.
As he stalks toward the barracks, Dean mutters curses under his breath about the son of a bitch that took his amulet. He has no right, Baron’s kid or not, to take what rightfully belongs to Dean. It can’t be that difficult to get into the house. He just needs to figure out which room belongs to the Baron’s son.
Dean’s going to get that amulet back.
When he walks into the barracks, most of the others are already in their bunks, their chests steadily rising and falling in their sleep, but Ash is up. He is sitting on Dean’s bunk, presumably waiting for him to return.
“Where the hell have you been?” he asked quietly. “And what the fuck happened in that bathroom?”
“I need my boots.” Dean ignores his friend’s questions. He needs to get into that house before anyone can talk him out of it. “The Baron’s son has my amulet and I want it back.” Reaching under his bed, he pulls out the soft leather boots that were given to him with the rest of the uniform. He shoves a foot into one and starts lacing it up.
Ash grabs his shoulder and hisses into his ear, “You outta your damn mind? It ain’t worth the risk.”
Dean turns and looks him in the eye as he puts the other boot on. Maybe he is crazy. “It is to me.”
After a long moment of staring at Dean, Ash sighs. “Fine. Look, my sister Jo’s a house cook. Jesse’s room is on the second floor, first door on the right.”
His boots tied, Dean stands up. “Got it. Thanks, man.”
“Don’t let that kid catch you,” Ash warns Dean quietly as he walks out the door of the barracks.
Sneaking across the grounds of The Fort toward the mansion is easy. Dean spent most of his teenage years hiding out and stealing food to survive. He watches the Clippers guarding the house, waits for them to move, and counts so he knows how long he has to get inside without being seen. The cycle of movement happens a second time, and Dean runs, staying as low to the ground as he can. He counts.
The door isn’t as heavy as he expects it to be. Dean makes it into the house and shuts the door softly behind him. It’s quiet. The house servants must be asleep. The stairs are right in front of him, so Dean takes them two at a time and ducks quietly into Jesse’s room. It is, thankfully, empty. Of people, anyway.
It’s hard to see well in the dark room, but Dean knows better than to turn a light on. He searches the top of a dresser for his amulet but finds nothing. It’s already been too long, but he continues rifling through drawers and boxes until he comes to the table next to Jesse’s bed. Pulling the drawer open, he sees a small box. It’s the only thing in there. He opens it and smiles, taking his amulet and putting it in his pocket.
Dean replaces the box, slides the drawer shut, and turns to leave, but a curse escapes him as he finds himself suddenly face to face with the room’s owner. Jesse reaches out and grabs Dean by the wrist, twisting his arm hard enough to make him cry out. Dean’s never wanted to hurt someone before, but in this moment, he wants to knock Jesse’s teeth out.
“You little thief,” the Baron’s son snarls as he reaches into Dean’s pocket to take the amulet back.
A small redheaded woman comes through the door, her eyes on the pair of men. “Jesse? What on earth is going on here?”
Jesse holds up the amulet and smirks. “I caught this little shit red-handed, Mother.”
The woman’s eyes are on the necklace, her expression tight with worry. “Where did you get this?”
“It’s mine,” Dean growls. Jesse pins him to the wall with a forearm to the throat. It’s just enough pressure to make speaking painful, but Dean doesn’t care. “Give it back.”
Jesse laughs. “I think I’ll throw him in the cage. We can execute him in front of the new cogs in the morning, make an example out of him. Benjamin!”
A tall, burly man in the red uniform of a Clipper comes into the room. “Yes, sir.”
“Take this cog out back and lock him up,” Jesse orders, shoving Dean at the Clipper.
Dean stumbles. The only reason he doesn’t fall to his knees on the floor is that Benjamin catches him by the arm and hauls him up. His eyes dart back and forth while he follows the Clipper through the halls and out of the house. Maybe he can make a run for it. A stone building that reminds Dean of the barracks stands only a few yards from the back door. It’s smaller but has the same open archways leading into it.
Benjamin whistles a tune as he leads Dean into the small prison. In the center stands a cage. It’s large enough for at least twenty people but there is no one inside. As the Clipper pulls it open, it creaks loudly and the sound reverberates off the stone walls. It makes Dean’s ears ache.
There’s no escaping this, he realizes. Panic grips him and holds him in place, frozen just outside the open door of the cell.
“Sorry, kid,” Benjamin says, grabbing Dean by the arm and forcing him inside.
This time there is no one to catch him as he stumbles, and Dean falls to the dirt. He doesn’t bother rising again, there’s nowhere for him to go anyway. The Clipper is gone when Dean looks up.
It’s all over.
Dean will never see Sam again. He’ll never make it back home. For a moment, when Castiel had shown him the medallion, there had been a glimmer of hope. Why does the Regent have a medallion from Eden? Dean’s first thought is that he killed someone and took it from their body, but Castiel doesn’t strike him as the type to keep a trophy like that. The Clipper is confusing and difficult to get a solid read on.
He seems to have kept Dean’s secret. But Why? Maybe if Dean had actually listened to Castiel and stayed in the barracks he would have a chance to find out.
What the hell had he been thinking?
Dean had let his emotions get the better of him. What good had that ever done him? Hanging his head between his knees, Dean cries. He doesn’t know for how long. It doesn’t matter.
“I told you to stay in the barracks.” Castiel’s voice startles Dean, but he doesn’t look up.
“Why didn’t you listen to me?” Castiel asks. He sounds angry, disappointed. It’s the first indication that he feels anything at all.
Dean looks up at him. “Who gave you that medallion, Castiel?”
The Regent’s head tilts to one side, brow furrowing in the same confused expression Dean saw earlier that day. “It doesn’t matter,” he replies.
“You kept it for a reason.” Dean stands as the gears turn and something clicks in his mind. Crossing the space of his cage, he approaches Castiel. He wraps his fingers around the bars and leans forward. “You’re hoping Eden’s out there, aren’t you?”
Castiel’s jaw clenches, the muscles in his neck flexing, and his eyes narrow. “You are going to die in the morning. You understand that, don’t you?”
Looking away so that Castiel can’t see him tear up, Dean says, “Can you do me a favor, Castiel?” His voice shakes and he clears his throat before continuing. “Can you find my brother and tell him I love him?”
“Dean, I...” Castiel sighs. “There’s no way I can promise that.”
“Yeah,” Dean replies, plastering a fake smile on his face as he turns back toward Castiel. “Course not.”
Castiel stares at Dean for a long moment then turns to walk away. He only makes it a few steps before he stops and draws his sword. “Find him and tell him yourself,” he says, turning back to the cage and swinging his blade.
Dean flinches back as it connects with the large, rusty padlock on the door and breaks it. “What are you doing?”
Castiel rolls his eyes and pulls the door open. “What does it look like? I’m saving your ass.”
There isn’t time to question him further. Dean follows Castiel as he moves quickly and quietly through the shadows. They near the treeline and Castiel stops to crouch down in front of a large metal grate.
“This is your way out,” he says, lifting the grate with a grunt of effort. He sets it to the side and looks over his shoulder at Dean who is crouched next to him.
“Why are you doing this?” Dean asks with a shake of his head, hesitant to move until he’s received an answer.
“I’m giving you the choice I never had.” Castiel reaches into his jacket and pulls out a long stick, which he snaps in half over his knee. It glows green and Castiel drops it down the hole. “The tunnel will bring you out to the poppy fields.”
“What do I do then?”
“You run. If they catch you, they will kill you.”
Dean nods and sits at the edge of the hole, letting his legs dangle into it. “Thank you.” The two small words aren’t enough to express the gratitude that wells in his chest, but Dean can’t think of anything more to say. He takes a deep breath and pushes forward to drop into the tunnel. When he looks up at Castiel, the green light of the glowstick illuminates the Regent’s face just enough for Dean to see an encouraging nod as he replaces the grate..
Dean picks up his sole light source and looks around until he finds an opening in the tunnel. And then he runs. He doesn’t think, he just follows the tunnel to its end, climbs the ladder, and looks back at the outside wall of The Fort.
There are Clippers patrolling, but none of them are looking Dean’s way. He doesn’t even bother closing the exit behind him. He runs for the trees.
Dean keeps running. He goes as far as his legs will carry him, almost collapsing next to a stream. The sun is just starting to rise as he catches his breath and shovels handfuls of the clear, cold water into his mouth. When he’s had his fill, he sits back on his heels and looks out across the running water.
In front of him are countless stone posts, evenly spaced and bearing long blue banners with the image of a snarling hound woven onto them in white.
Jesse tosses and turns in his bed, unable to sleep. He’s still thinking about that presumptuous cog. Something isn’t right. His mother had gone white with shock when she saw the amulet. She knows something.
Light from the hall spills into the room as the door swings open silently and disappears again as it clicks shut. Jesse rolls to face the door and smiles when he sees Lillith.
The first rays of the sun lightening the sky come through his window and shine softly on her long blonde hair. She smiles at him as she unties her robe and lets it slide over her shoulders and down her arms to pool on the floor around her feet, revealing only bare, milky skin beneath it.