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--Day 138 A--

Ensconced in the middle of the couch under a blanket due to the fact that even this close to noon, the temperature now only barely reaches above freezing, Dean grimly continues his third re-read of the reports from Ichabod.

He began just after Amanda left at noon the previous day, and his mood, while not particularly cheerful, degenerated rapidly despite an impromptu trip to his shooting range that afternoon. Rage and grief resulted in the destruction of many, many, many targets until his right hand shook too badly to even hold a gun, fingers refusing to even close, and his left little better; for the first time, Castiel was forced to stop him before he did himself serious injury. Dean didn't even seem to notice as Castiel treating his blood-streaked palms, skin a mass of broken, oozing blisters between the bright swells of new ones growing beneath the developing calluses. Glancing at his still-bandaged hands, gauze wrapped up to his wrists, he looks away before Dean catches him; Dean may not have noticed the damage he'd done to his palms, but he never stopped looking at the half-healed outline of teeth just above the wrist until it was covered by the gauze, expression a mixture of blind rage and blank curiosity edged with uneasy fear.

Observation and carefully worded questions over the last four days have confirmed beyond any doubt that Dean doesn't remember anything from when he arrived on the second floor of the daycare to the moment Castiel entered the courtyard. After that is a blurred, inchoate mess that consists of snatches of his conversation with Castiel from his seat on Grant's dismembered body between spaces of uncertainty, becoming steadily more organized until the moment, crystal-clear despite being unspoken between them, that Dean told Castiel to shoot him.

His nights, however, are where he makes amends for what he can't do awake, punishing himself in endless, terror soaked nightmares that he can't remember in more than unformed impressions of revulsion and sickened pleasure taken in inflicting pain and his own endless horror. Private consultation with Amanda, who like Dean was raised to be a hunter from childhood, confirmed his own belief that if Dean's own mind, inured to horrors beyond anything most humans, even hunters, ever have to bear, felt it necessary to block it out, it was possible it had good reason to do it.

("I listened to the way he questioned everyone yesterday," she told him, glancing at the door every few minutes despite the fact that Joseph was keeping Dean occupied with very important business regarding his last trip to the border and wouldn't let him out of his sight until Amanda personally dropped by with a casual question to indicate it was safe for Dean to return home. "And I watched him while I was telling him about the daycare to see how he reacted. Cas, if there was something there to trigger, that should have done it. If he remembers on his own, that's one thing, but telling him the details to force it…"

"You're certain?"

"Nothing's certain in life, even death and taxes; it's always gonna be best guess now and hope for the best." Licking her lips, she met his eyes. "He knew Grant."

"I know--"

"You don't…" She looked away, taking a deep breath before looking at him again. "Grant was thirteen when his entire town was wiped out by Croat just before Kansas was zoned. His parents--they were picking up his baby sister from preschool on their way out of town when one of the teachers turned on her class, the one his sister was in." She paused, swallowing convulsively before continuing. "They got out, but not before--they were all infected and knew it. Grant was waiting in the car, though, he was still okay, so they told him they'd changed their minds, decided to lock up the house and wait it out.

"They took him home, locked him in their attic with all the food in the house and the bottled water they'd bought for when they left town, and told him they loved him and always would. They blocked all the windows and doors as best they could to protect him, used their truck to block the front door, and drove the car to the other side of town to kill themselves and her, just so he wouldn't have to hear the gunshots. It was only luck that Alison's group happened to check that town for livability and found him." She looked away, swallowing again. "He was in shock. Dolores had to put him on an IV, and Tony was force feeding him in a goddamn van for almost a week just to keep him alive before they found Ichabod."

In the infected zone, tragedy was the rule with painfully few exceptions, but its power somehow never seemed to lessen no matter how great the number. "I didn't know--"

"You couldn't," she interrupted, eyes suddenly filling with tears. "No one knew, not all of it, except Dolores, maybe. Grant never told them any more than what they could figure out for themselves--except Dean. And then he told me, because he wanted to know how old he had to be before he could start training for Chitaqua and be--be a hunter like Dean and help him save the world. So he could stop what happened to him--to all of them--from happening again."

Dean's amused anecdotes regarding Grant and Connie now have a different context. "Oh."

She wiped her eyes impatiently. "That demon would have killed Grant anyway, we both know that; the kind that goes in for human sacrifice make sure the meatsuit's fucked before they leave, voluntary or not. All Dean did was cut short what it would have made Grant do before it let him die. How Dean did it…." She shrugged helplessly. "Details. For now, if his mind thinks he shouldn't remember it, I'd say it knows better than we do what he can handle. Which I'm pretty sure you already figured out on your own."

"I wasn't sure I was being objective." He looked away, almost ashamed of admitting his own failure in his duty to Dean. He deserved the best, and Castiel's best will never do anything but fall far short.

"You aren't," she answered bluntly, closing a hand over his in unexpected reassurance. "You can't be; no one is, not when it comes to someone they love."

"It's my job to--"

"It's not your job to do everything," she interrupted, fingers squeezing his in emphasis. "It's your job to do what you can, know what and when you can't, and get help to get it done, and by the way, that's exactly what you just did. Congratulations on your leadership and your human skills," she added with a faint smile. "Even humans fuck up there, and I'm pretty sure that's one thing Dean's never learned himself."

Looking into the warm blue eyes, he realized he was smiling. "Thank you."

She smiled back. "Anytime.")

Ichabod's final count of casualties totaled sixty-nine: fifty-five adults and fourteen children (not including the seven adults who lived in Ichabod only to betray it). While tragic, the number is far lower than any town could have expected, a credit to Ichabod's strict protocols and experience, but Dean judges victory not in those who survived, but defeat in those who didn't. The names of the dead, like those of the team leaders that Dean didn't even known, are branded into his memory for all time, losses carried by a man for whom fault and responsibility are interchangeable at best.

Survival, however, always carries its own burdens, demanding payment for the privilege of living not limited to the grief for those that were lost. In a town that by necessity and choice required of its residents an intimacy unknown in even the smallest of towns before the Apocalypse, no one is exempt from paying it.

Sandar and Julio, the two members of patrol that were possessed when guarding the town center, are currently in Dolores' care, but despite few injuries, the psychological impact of possession always lingers, especially in those whose duty is to protect others from harm and were forced to cause it themselves.

Glen, Serafina, and Francisco, the only teachers to survive, were spared only the sight of the victims in the daycare, not the knowledge of what happened or how they died. Though the building was thoroughly cleaned and the damage repaired, reminders exist in the empty spaces in each classroom that was once a child, a teacher, an adolescent or adult on duty, in the parents who no longer appear to drop off their children each morning and pick them up in the evenings.

Three entire families lost their lives in the daycare that day; a mother and her two children; a father and his only daughter; and two women newly married the previous spring died on the first floor only moments after the human infiltrators succumbed to the Croatoan virus they'd deliberately allowed to infect them; the women's five year old son and two year old daughter were killed inches from the second floor stairs and safety. That may have been considered the kinder fate to some of those who survived and now lived the alternative.

Dwayne, six weeks from his third birthday and killed on the daycare's second floor before Dean's eyes, was the only child of his parents, who found Ichabod after fleeing the raiders who attacked their small town on the northern border of Kansas the year before. Del, only two days old when Castiel first visited Ichabod, was her mother's first and only child, born seven months after the death of her father in one of the last attacks on Ichabod before the barrier enclosed Kansas. Ten year old Jessica and her four year old brother Lian were found alive and uninjured in the locked kitchen pantry, their dead mother slumped across the doorway with a bloody butcher knife still clutched in one cold hand, the Croat she'd frantically half-butchered even as she died beside her; Dean was the one who put the bullets in its head that finally ended the weakened, mindless atrocities it was still committing to her dead body. Sandy, Una's five year old daughter, was among the last of the children to escape to the third floor as Una and her eldest son, fifteen year old Clark, blocked the stairs to protect them. Grant's birth parents may have been dead, but Dolores became as much his mother as the woman who bore him over the short years she'd had him, her contained grief no less for it being under such strict control as she continued in her duties to the town and the other survivors.

Ten grieving, bewildered children, brought to Ichabod as bait and now left alone in a town they barely know, live in a limbo of fear, loss, and uncertainty, victims of the most personal, most devastating kind of betrayal, the brutal violation of the trust invested in those given the gift and responsibility that comes with raising a child. If there's anything to be thankful for, it's their youth; only the oldest of them can even begin to grasp it, and Glenn and Serafina have worked tirelessly to shield them as best they could from what couldn't be hidden.

Amanda wasn't the only one who had the responsibility of ending the life of one of those infected; it was the duty of every leader in Ichabod to the people under their command. Manuel was the one to give Leanne, the only member of patrol who was infected, the shot that ended her life, and he and Teresa waited with her body and that of Hobby, who lost his life in the northern fields in defense of the town he loved. Tony took that duty for Jordan, a member of city services as well as a close, personal friend, who used his own body as a distraction in the northern fields to let the others escape in the few, too-long minutes before patrol arrived to protect them. Dry-eyed and tearless, Alison and Claudia stood witness with the other town leaders to the burning of the bodies from the moment the tinder caught until the ashes were placed within the town's cemetery under a layer of salt before they were covered in earth, a single large stone with the date of death above a painstakingly carved list of the names of those that died.

Like Dean, they don't see their success in those that survive, but failure in each and every death of those under their care.

(Some things couldn't be written, and even more shouldn't be, and not just for Dean's sake; those things were private, meant for no ears but those chosen to share it. In the bedroom that night, Amanda told him more, spilling words between sobbing breaths that described life in the wake of a tragedy that left no one untouched.

She volunteered for duty in the mortuary as one of the few who hadn't lost family by blood or choice and stood witness to the most intimate, most private moments of pain of those left behind; the agony of parents in silent vigil over their children, the children old enough to be allowed to do the same with and for their own parents and siblings, the extended families that gathered by each sheet-wrapped body, some having first waited out the short hours until the end with those infected from the other side of the fragile barrier of a pane of glass.

Cathy, Del's mother, had to be dragged screaming from the tiny bundle of her child's body, already half-unwrapped when they stopped her attempt to infect herself and is now being carefully watched and cared for by those in her building. The night before the bodies were burned, Connie evaded the watchers to see Grant one last time and had to be restrained by Amanda in her hysterical horror and grief at what was left of him until a shattered Dolores arrived to sedate her. Irrational from guilt and shock, Sandar escaped from the infirmary and broke into the mortuary to hold Leanne's sheet wrapped body in his arms under Manuel and Teresa's supervision the endless hours until he could carry it to the fire himself before he collapsed.

Amanda looked in vain for the faces of the four students she lost, feeling the shock of loss anew every time she couldn't find them. Her new students channeled their fierce grief channeled into learning everything she could teach them, burning out their pain in exhaustion on the training field each day, to honor the memory of those that they replaced. Jake and Peter were the two residents the demons possessed that he and Amanda killed; the grief-stricken families gave her without hesitation the absolution that she never would have asked them for, that couldn't and still can't give herself.)

Abruptly, Dean throws the report back on the coffee table, nearly knocking over a half-empty cup, coffee long grown cold. "This can't happen again."

From the other side, Castiel nods agreement to what they both know is true; this won't happen again. It will be a variety of different things, but apparently not quite yet.

"Surprised anyone could get through the barrier? It's getting weaker, Cas."

Jeffrey, six demons infecting over four hundred people with Croatoan for the attack on Ichabod, and that design in the courtyard that was purified by Teresa and Kamal. The laws of contamination should assure that anything left of the original was dissolved during the cleansing, breaking the tie with the children entirely if it existed at all. And yet….

This much has been confirmed, at least: when David and Melanie took the Croatoan body to an unoccupied portion of the border, there were results, though none of them quite know what to do with the information that the dead body burned to ash before their eyes when they finally decided just to throw it across and see what happened. Sometimes, Melanie said, still looking deeply unsettled, old school is best.

(Whatever that means. He's not certain any school in all of history recommended tossing Croatoans across state lines just to see what happened, but its effectiveness argues it definitely should have been.)

While he generally wouldn't extrapolate from so little information (or the words of a demon as incompetent as Jeffrey), at this point it's fairly obvious the barrier exists and is indeed the reason for the current hiatus in Kansas. Demons can somehow now cross it, however, because it's weakening. An experiment that confirmed absolutely nothing they didn't already know while providing nothing new, even the origin point of the power that fuels it (and for that matter, what powers it). It's not that he doesn't appreciate visual proof, but that's literally the only thing they didn't have before.

Amanda's report--with amendments and notes from Manuel as well as the others involved in the ongoing investigation--gave the current number of vehicles so far found at twenty-eight, including a retired school bus, two dilapidated minivans, and three vans. All those with plates were ones issued in Kansas, inspection stickers dating to three days before Kansas was declared infected. Searches of the interiors showed wear consistent with age and use, but far less bloodstains and far more intact upholstery than one might suspect from a vehicle that housed multiple Croatoans for any length of time. Only half of them had keys, the others showing signs of having been hotwired for use. The interior cabs as well as the trunks were otherwise immaculate; the minutia of trash, equipment, and personal items are absent, trunks empty even of a spare tire or tools and equipment generally found in vehicles in frequent use.

Castiel's familiarity with humans' relationship with their automobiles, both those in constant use and those left to rust, tells him these were deliberately stripped. If he were guessing (he's not, he's certain), that would include the missing license plates as well.

Ichabod's mechanical experts, Melody and Tyrone, are still in the process of examining the vehicles, but their initial findings are as confusing as the rest: many of the vehicles had engines that were barely serviceable, but some were brand new, as if taken from an empty dealership, and few showed signs of regular maintenance and very recent at that: oil changed within the last six months, sufficient brake and steering fluid, dashboards with signs of cleaning, engines repaired

The list of license plate numbers will be sent with Joseph on his next trip to the border, along with casual questions about any problems with people crossing either into or between the zones, but it's far more likely all of those infected were from somewhere within Kansas. It's not particularly limiting; the infected zone is dangerous, and acquisition would be both painfully easy and in some parts probably unremarked. People vanish every day from existing towns, and that doesn't include the migratory groups or the raiders who move restlessly between the infected states and whose exact numbers are unknown.

("Definitely not raiders," Amanda told them. "From what I've heard, they keep their vehicles in good repair and sometimes mount rockets on the roof, the better to hit and run. Ichabod didn't have much of a problem with them, but Mount Hope's practically on top of 96; they got hit regularly before the alliance with the other towns and still get a couple of outliers every few months."

"You're kidding," Dean said blankly. "You're not. Rockets?" Then, "You want an SUV with a rocket launcher on the roof, don't you?"

"I do, and so do you," she answered serenely. "Sheila's working on specs right now from all those military vehicles we stole--uh, repurposed since the military didn't need them anymore."

Dean looked at him helplessly, but Castiel couldn't deny that he would indeed like a rocket launcher mounted on the roof of his jeep. And a minigun as well, so as to kill Croats by the legion from the convenience of the driver's seat: who wouldn't want that?)

"Cas? You with me?"

Making an effort, he returns his attention to Dean; from his expression, he's been failing to get his attention for several minutes and it's done nothing to improve an already terrible mood. He almost misses the resigned inevitability of a future ice age without generators and megafauna bent on consumption of human flesh; Dean's bitterness fills each extended silence far more loudly than his anger. He supposes he should be grateful; it could have been absent, after all, and Dean as well, ended with the bullet he requested that Castiel place in his head.

"This--Cas, tell me it's a coincidence," Dean continues. "Nothing for months, then we go to Ichabod and suddenly they're under attack?"

"It wasn't our presence there that attracted them." That demon's surprise was genuine when it saw him, which is curious in itself, considering that the one that spoke to Manuel identified him as leader of Chitaqua. He doesn't think 'Cas' or 'Castiel' is that common a name on earth, much less Kansas, and he's definitely the only one in Chitaqua. "They wouldn't have risked that attack with so few demons if they'd suspected anyone from Chitaqua was present. Especially if they meant to accomplish a complete human sacrifice without interruption, which is probably why they needed so many Croats to provide a distraction."

A very sensible precaution, especially considering these were demons and 'sensible' generally isn't a characteristic they possess. With most forms of human sacrifice, any interruption, even the most benign, ends in failure at best, often killing those performing it in the process as well as the sacrifices in question. The rules are very strict, and those exclusively devoted to the acquisition of power are even more so, but all of them have three things in common: each human must satisfy the strictest interpretation of the criteria, the time to perform it is limited, and once it's begun, it must be completed all at once or it fails.

Using children isn't uncommon, no, but the criteria for inclusion is never that general, and their range of ages makes even the general suspect; ten years old, after all, is well past the traditional age of reason. The oldest of them has already entered puberty, and whether or not her body has achieved menarche, she wouldn't satisfy even the loosest interpretation of 'child' when it comes to stringent requirements of any form ritual magic.

"Six is a few?" Dean asks incredulously, interrupting his thoughts, then makes a face, possibly remembering he and Amanda killed three themselves with minimal effort. To be fair, however--he doesn't have to be, of course, but he can be generous--their combat skills were truly terrible. "Never mind, I withdraw the question. Look--"

"I need a day, perhaps two," he interrupts before having to work through whatever caustic commentary Dean happens to have at hand to deploy at his pleasure. "I need to go the church where the children were originally found two years ago and see if I can discover what happened there. If it was a human sacrifice, then perhaps--"

"You think they were trying again in Ichabod after failing the first time at that church with the same kids? Why? Dean snorts. "They couldn't have been that stupid. Why not use the people they infected for Croat duty instead of attacking a goddamn town to get those kids again?" Still scowling, he reaches for Amanda's report and skims to the relevant portion for this conversation and pausing, scowl fading. "Amanda asked good questions."

"She knew I'd want more information and since I wasn't there to get it, she did it for me." Amanda was succinct but thorough on the major points, and during quarantine, he supposes the distraction might have been welcome to everyone involved. "At least, more information than I already seem to have."

Dean doesn't look up. "What?"

"Fifteen children, ages two and a half weeks to ten years and four months, were found in a rural Roman Catholic church that housed thirty-five members of order of the Sisters of Mercy, one novice to the order, and a priest." Dean looks up, startled. "The only survivor other than the children was the novice, a young woman, aged twenty-four, who was completing her apostolic year in the novitiate and preparing for her first profession. The Sisters were crucified on the church walls by demons who possessed the priest and four lay members of the church and were engaged in ritual human sacrifice that was stopped by means as yet unknown, but it's possible that part is simply delayed and will appear at any moment. Give me time."

Dean slowly lowers the report. "How do you--"

"I don't know how I know any of that," he interrupts flatly. "Or why, until the attack on Ichabod, I didn't even know that I knew it."

There's more, of course; Amanda's report was startling not in content, but in how little he seemed to already know as he read it, more pieces appearing as from the ether and clicking into place with every word. The novice was near-catatonic and either unable or unwilling to tell them what happened or even her own name before she recovered enough to regain mobility and vanished from the infirmary one night despite the watchers who swore they'd been awake the entire night and never saw her leave until dawn broke to illuminate her empty bed. Alison wasn't able to describe her knife very thoroughly, as the novice refused to release it, but he didn't need it to know every detail of what she carried or why she wouldn't let it be taken from her hands, and he can easily guess why she was able to evade her watchers so easily. The problem is that particular knife shouldn't exist on this plane, not anymore.

"Infinite knowledge that you just didn't find it until--yeah, didn't think so." Dean glances at the report one more time before setting it aside, green eyes suddenly focusing on him with visible worry. "Cas? What's wrong?"

What's wrong. "I--" He can't find the words to explain; they all sound like lies. "I don't know how I--why--"

"Hey, hey, stop it. Come here." Obediently, Castiel gets to his feet to join Dean on the couch, almost immediately gaining half the blanket as well as Dean's entire attention. "You okay?"

Smoothing his hand over the soft wool, he tries to organize his thoughts to something approaching coherency. "I'm not sure where to start."

"Anywhere you want," Dean says promptly, inching closer--to keep his share of the blanket, he supposes--before turning sideways and bracing an arm on the back of the couch. "Just start and we'll go from there."

Strangely enough, that actually does help. "Human sacrifice has a distinct pattern and angels would recognize it in all its many, many obscene variations, but the design in the courtyard--I recognized it for what it was, but I didn't remember it being in existence until that moment. That's not possible unless it went into use after I Fell and the Host left or it would have been known to me from the moment of my creation."

Dean accepts the variability of infinite knowledge with a resigned nod. "So it's new?"

"Yes, and that's very rare and therefore troubling in itself," he explains. "For one, it's not easy to hide something like that from Time itself. For another, Hell doesn't encourage innovation. I'd expect a human practitioner of the darker aspects of ritual magic to come up with something new--they do that as a matter of course, a solution for boredom, I suppose, though generally they kill themselves in the process of failing at it since knowledge is always lacking--but a demon, no. The rack and eternal suffering tend to have a dulling effect on creativity, and what little they might still exhibit isn't encouraged by their masters, unless it results in new ways to inflict pain on the rack, of course."

"Can't risk demons getting above themselves, yeah." Dean studies him thoughtfully. "That's not the part that's bothering you, though."

"It bothers me, it's simply lost among the many other things about this that bother me more," he answers. "I didn't remember the church until I asked Amanda about Lily's vaccinations. When I saw the design in the courtyard, I recognized it, but not just the pattern of human sacrifice and not just that it was new to all of Creation. I also remembered it, the unique configuration of symbols that made it despite the fact that I have no memory of ever seeing it before that day."

Dean sucks in a breath in belated understanding of the distinction. "You don't forget anything."

"I can't forget anything," he corrects Dean. "I remember everything that's ever happened to me since I Fell, and nothing--and take this as a given, I do mean nothing in Creation--can affect infinite memory from when I was an angel. The only explanation that fits is that not only did it come into existence after I Fell, but I witnessed not just it's use in that church, but it's first use on earth in all of time and somehow--forgot about it. And this," he adds for emphasis, "isn't something I would have voluntarily attempted not to think about."

"Right, so let's start there." He cocks his head. "Who--or what--could fuck you’re your memory? And for that matter, why?"

"For the first--that is a more complex question than you might think." Dean's eyebrows jump. "From what Alison told Amanda, this occurred over two and a half years ago--though due to their own problems, the exact date is vague--and since I know it happened after I Fell, the Host would have already been gone. Even if they'd been here….if Lucifer, the most powerful archangel in existence, couldn't read my mind as I am now, I seriously doubt the Host could manage to erase any portion of it."

"Or care enough about earth to even try on the way out the door." Dean's mouth quirks briefly at his emphatic nod. "So next up…."

"My Father," not adding 'obviously' in the spirit of open and non-hostile communication. "However, in this case, there's another possible candidate: a god. However--"

"A god," Dean repeats blankly. "A god could fuck with your memory? Any god?"

He hesitates. "Not any god, no. But--"

"So this might have happened before they all--died, ran, were killed?"

"No, it definitely happened before then." The knife is fairly convincing proof of that much.

Dean starts to say something, then frowns. "You know, I never asked--how did you know about that, anyway? Them all dying or whatever?"

"Cosmic events tend to attract attention, and the gods vanishing from existence all at once qualifies without exception."

Dean snorts. "So a god might be able to fuck with your memory?"

"In my true form, or even in a vessel, it's possible, but only in the sense that anything is possible, but extraordinarily unlikely, and not just due to the amount of power that would take or the fact they probably wouldn't survive it. Call it a courtesy between infinite beings: generally, we're discouraged from anything less than outright warfare to the death, and it's fairly rare that there's any reason for confrontation. Different spheres of interest, you might say."

"And now?"

"If Lucifer couldn't read my mind, then they couldn't either," he answers. "And certainly not like this; they wouldn't even know how."

Dean leans forward. "What do you mean 'like this'?"

This is more difficult to explain. "I can't forget anything, but you have to understand what that means. Think of it as someone writing on a blank sheet of paper and then erasing a portion; that portion would be blank, but you'd still notice where the words were on the page. Even if--in theory--a god could remove those memories, they couldn't remove the space that those memories occupied any more than you can on a sheet of paper. I would notice a blank space where something should be, and there isn't one." Not looking at Dean, he forces himself to continue. "If I actively participated, however, that would be different. Because my memories are now formed organically and in linear time, they're stored sequentially, past to present. All I'd need to do is take them out of the sequence so they wouldn't appear in my past."

"And the blank spot?"

"There wouldn't be one, because the memories still exist; to find them now, I'd need to know exactly where to look, the absolute last moment before they were removed as well as the absolute first moment after, and then look between those two points or I'll miss it."

"And when you say 'exact'…."

"Even if those two points were in the same minute, in linear time it would take me centuries of interrupted time to examine each and every point of time within sixty seconds to find the absolute beginning and end, and even then, I'd need to find both points at the exact same time or I'd still miss it." Honesty forces him to add, "Dean, I couldn't manage doing that for ten minutes. Imagine examining your life in slow motion, and 'slow' being an insufficient descriptor of the progress by several orders of magnitude."

"Holy shit," Dean says, looking horrified. "Talk about boring--"

"Whoever said you can't die from boredom, they're lying, and if I do that, I can prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt." Shaking himself, he returns to the original subject. "Gods--and for that matter, angels--exist out of time, but more importantly, they don't understand human memory, much less how it's stored in linear time. I certainly didn't until I was subject to it, which is why I'm the only one who would even know what to do, much less how to do it." He looks at Dean. "However, I don't have Grace, and to do this, I'd need power that I could use. A god could supply that, provided they were willing to do it, and I was willing to let them."

Dean's sheer lack of surprise is almost as reassuring as it is baffling "Weirdly enough," he offers, seeing Castiel's bewilderment, "I kind of saw that coming. Keep going."

"A god who let me use their power--and who I'd accept it from, even under duress--narrows down the possibilities dramatically," he continues, reluctantly filing it away as yet another example of the ineffableness that is Dean Winchester, which are now greater than the largest number humanity has found a word to describe. "And there's only one whose most distinctive weapon was a knife that could kill demons and couldn't be removed from its bearer except by their own will."

"The one the novice had with her," Dean says in satisfaction. "Yeah, I was wondering why the hell they couldn’t get it away from her. So that knife--"

"It was the weapon of choice of her acolytes as well, who were, in case this sounds familiar, exclusively women who vowed themselves to her in divine service."

"Service--humility, poverty, feed the poor, help the helpless--"

"--and slaughtering demons with the knives they carried, as well as anything supernatural that threatened humanity. Mostly the latter, however." Dean's mouth drops open. "Her cult was an exclusively militant one: very small but extremely dangerous. They had a very high rate of success in their area of influence."

"A cult," Dean says slowly, like Castiel just offered him a wrapped gift holding everything he ever wanted, including an endless supply of bacon cheeseburgers and pie, "of knife-wielding women who kill demons for fun and their goddess? Where the fuck was that in history class?"

"Perhaps you slept through it during sophomore year?" he offers wryly. "Her cult died out before the fall of Babylon, and in case you slept through this as well, at that point in history written records were rare, and literacy even more so."

"You knew her, though. Got a name for me?"

"She doesn't have one."

Dean closes his eyes briefly, looking pained. "Of course she doesn't. Too easy, right?"

"At least, not one I know anymore," he continues, which makes Dean sigh his resignation to the universe making his life more difficult than it should be. "When her cult died, she destroyed her temples and disavowed her known names as well as her true one, effectively erasing her existence on this plane unless she took another one first, which is apparently exactly what she did. What it is, however, I doubt anyone knew but her. Privilege of a god: even angels aren't permitted to access the full knowledge of their former names without their consent, which is one of the reasons that Gabriel was so successful in hiding what he was after he became Loki."

Dean's interest sharpens. "Can't get a lot of worshippers like that."

"She wouldn't have done all of that if she still wanted them," he answers. "I don't know why she disavowed her true name, but it probably proved very useful when Lucifer began his purge. It's very hard to find a god in time and space without a name and no active worshippers, especially when the only point of reference is a very short period of time--by divine standards, in any case--millennia ago. As Lucifer probably discovered, hopefully much to his frustration, as he deals very badly with that."

"All things on this plane have names, yeah, I remember." Dean cocks his head. "You didn't just know her, did you? What was she--friend, friendly ally, chaotic neutral--"

"My very first instructor in hunting in a human body on earth." He bites back a smile at Dean's surprise. "Or rather, of two of my vessels, who housed me during my assignments on earth then."

Dean glances outside, eyeing the sun an hour short of its zenith, then sheds his blanket of misery--both metaphorical and literal--like an ill-fitting skin, stretching absently. "Joe's got nothing to do until Ana gets back to him about how to blow up that warehouse or his next border run, so he can watch the camp while we're gone. We leave now, we can probably make it a couple of hours before dusk, but just in case--"

"You want to come." He's not sure why he's surprised. What happened in that church in the past not only caused the attack on Ichabod, but could be a precursor of something yet to come. "I'll speak to Joseph," he says, standing up belatedly. "Do you want me to--"

"Cas, you're not doing this on your own, and--look, you want someone else, too fucking bad, it's me or you're not going." He watches Dean's expression abruptly change, belligerence becoming--he has no idea. "Uh, if this is about--look, I get we really haven't talked about--you know, what happened."

Castiel stares at him for a moment and decides not to even try; at his best, it could take days to decipher that, and he'd like to arrive at the church today. "Dean, the number of things that have happened that we haven't talked about is legion. Even if we only count from this morning--"

"When we were--" Dean's face goes through various contortions, all of which resemble pain. "In Ichabod. I told you to shoot me, you--you didn't like that," that would be one word for it, he supposes blankly, but only if there were no other words in all of existence, in which case he would have invented all of them then and there, "and things were said….whatever. Look, just take as a given, I get that was you were upset."

Castiel nods, trying to decide the number of syllables for the word he's inventing at this very moment, because 'understatement' has the same relevance when applied to this conversation as 'didn't like' describes to his reaction to Dean's demand that he shoot him and 'upset' his feelings at the time. It may very well require an entirely new language, or in lieu of that, a very carefully controlled punch to Dean's face; it could go either way.

"Yes," he agrees when he realizes that Dean's actually waiting for his answer. "I was."

Dean starts to relax, like someone having successfully navigated a minefield without certainty they would emerge unscathed: the idea of two punches in succession grows almost unbearably attractive. It's not as if the camp doesn't have an icemaker should the freezer not contain sufficient ice to deal with the copious swelling.

"Not a problem," Dean tells him, emanating reassurance and sincerity like a cologne experiment gone hideously wrong. "Just forget it, okay? I don't want this to be weird."

Weird. That word again.

"Would it be--weird," he asks, staring into Dean's eyes, "if I was engaged in a fit of hyperbole that day or if I were being both literal and breathtakingly honest?" The utter horror that stares back at him is almost as good as three punches followed by an ice bath and a diet exclusively devoted to oatmeal without sugar and canned lima beans. "Whichever is less so, you tell me."

Dean visibly swallows before saying, "You get Joe, I get armed, and we don't talk about it ever again, how's that?"

"Good. Remain in the cabin until I return," he adds on his way to the door. "I'm checking you thoroughly before we leave, so make sure you're fully armed, which includes carrying sufficient ammunition. This is a test, and if you fail, I'll be arming you myself every time you leave this camp for the foreseeable future."

"You can't--"

"Yes I can." Pausing halfway out the door, he has the satisfaction of watching Dean's mouth snap shut. "But please, if you have any doubts, feel absolutely free to make me prove it."

"Why," asks Dean, two hours and twenty-two minutes later, "do you always have to drive?"

There's a sense of honest bewilderment in his voice. It's almost surreal. "It's my jeep."

"Could have taken mine."

Yes, they could have, which has been pointed out at least eight times since they left the garage, each time in response to Castiel's answer to his question on why Castiel had to drive. That means that they've had the same conversation an average of every seventeen and three quarters minutes, and the last four he's fairly sure have consisted of exactly the same words.

"We took mine," he answers--now five times using the exact same words, maybe he should set a goal--and Dean returns to pondering the unsolvable mystery of why Castiel prefers to drive, expressing the winter of his discontent to the passing scenery.

He double checked the route on the latest updates to the maps from the patrol before they left, so very soon, a clean stretch of highway will appear, the pleasures of which even Dean can't deny but will inevitably hasten the next reiteration of why Castiel is driving and he isn't (possibly requiring him to recalculate a new average, that's something to look forward to, he supposes). The reason why he likes to drive should be blindingly obvious by now, or their average speed during their drives together should have suggested at very least.

Deciding the scenery isn't that interesting after all--overgrown fields, the occasional rusting car, some terrible road maintenance, sometimes a small abandoned town--and possibly feeling it's not yet time to reiterate the topic of why Castiel drives so soon, Dean returns his attention to Castiel to ask, "Why did those demons go after a convent of nuns and kids in the first place? Virginity get you a higher octane sacrifice or something?"

"That's assuming--wrongly--that only virgin women take orders; in case this wasn't obvious, that's often the exception, not the rule. Chasity is a requirement of service, but certainly doesn't extend to the time before they took orders." Uneasily, he starts to wonder just how often Dean slept during history class. "In any case, a virginity requirement is generally a drawback when it comes to any ritual magic, especially human sacrifice in pursuit of gaining power Those that do require it are rarely used unless it's the only option, and even more rarely are they successful. What defines 'virginity' can be subject to a surprising amount of interpretation and can vary by culture due to the differences in terminology as well as period of time. The corruption of presumed purity via sexual congress, willing or not, is most often simply a revolting perk."

Dean grimaces. "I really didn't need to know that."

"I'd prefer not to know it either, but I don't have a choice," he answers truthfully. "As sexual purity is, for some less unthinkable rituals, a very strictly define requirement, the inverse would be preferred for human sacrifice. In this case, it was probably their presumed vulnerability. A group of cloistered women, part of an order emphasizing service and humility would seem--"

"Easy pickings." Dean's sour expression deepens. "Son of a bitch."

"They weren't as easy as that, if what little Alison learned from the young woman and traders was accurate. The surviving woman was a novice to the Sisters of Mercy, an order founded on service with an emphasis on helping women and children. This particular convent, however, apparently took that in a unique direction in fulfilling their calling after Lucifer was freed from the Cage; they became hunters, and their service included finding and rescuing families as well as orphaned children, and they went into the world armed to do it. I'm going to guess that they made life very inconvenient for demons here."

"Sounds familiar," Dean says, looking at him speculatively. "Huh. You think that's why your goddess may have been there? That doesn't make sense. They weren't hers, so why would she care?"

"In this case, it wouldn't have mattered if they were hers," he tells Dean's skeptical expression. "You could say as a god that was her--purpose. If she'd known about an attack on a convent--or any enclave of women given to divine service--it would have attracted her attention, especially ones founded to help women and who fought demons as part of the terms of their service, no matter when it happened in time or what god they served."

"I'm not seeing it." Dean's cynicism radiates almost visibly from the other side of the cabin. "We're nothing to them but food, sometimes literally. They don't even see us."

Castiel thinks of what Alison told him: life lived in quantum. A very intelligent and insightful observation, especially from a woman who disclaimed any knowledge of angels. Amanda's report wasn't clear on the reason why the town investigated that particular church, though he suspects it was probably been as a result of either Alison's clairvoyance or possibly Teresa's bond with the earth, either of which would explain Alison's reticence. Their relationship would make Alison personally ambivalent regarding disclosures that might threaten Teresa's life, even to trusted allies who she knew were already aware of Teresa's abilities, and the same would be true of Teresa regarding Alison.

Teresa would have done her best to isolate the contamination of the earth at the church even if she couldn't break the bindings then. Even as strong as she is, a human sacrifice would be dangerous for her to attempt to cleanse alone, and she would have weighed the corruption of the earth against her duty to the people of Ichabod and the earth there. It makes him wonder if that was, at least in part, among her reasons for sharing her knowledge with Neeraja and Sudha, even given the difficulties far greater than simple translation.

Bruja blanca, white witch, is a general term describing any witch who followed the path of good, but Teresa came from a very specific tradition encompassing not simply doing good, but seeking out evil and destroying it; as Dean had pointed out, her job description and his had many similarities.

Dean's, however, didn't come with the strict, merciless training that began in early childhood and continued throughout apprenticeship, unforgiving of weakness and uncertainty, tested and tempered and shaped to bear the responsibilities of the power they would wield and pay the price it would exact without hesitation. The ability to enslave the very earth isn't one that can be entrusted to anyone who would ever imagine doing it, and that was only one of the things Teresa could do; to share even a little of her knowledge with anyone not raised from birth in her traditions would be dangerous enough, but outsiders who embraced them with whole hearts and minds would always be accepted. Neeraja and Sudha are neither of those things, and her choice to teach them any part of what she did was one of faith and desperate hope; hope that it would be enough to save them all, and faith that whatever qualities had made her choose them would be proven true when they were tested.


Frowning, he returns his attention to the subject at hand. "It's not as simple as that."

Dean's expression tells him what he thinks of that as an argument; the problem is, he's not wrong, and his experiences may be subjective, but they aren't unique. It's also an opinion that he's begun to share; what he accepted without question as an angel on the nature of the divine and its rights on this plane has undergone a revision, and possibly one far less forgiving than even Dean could be. Unlike Dean or any human, the unfathomable isn't a mystery to him, and the longer he lives on this world, the more he thinks the protections inherent to humanity have depended far too much on good intentions and good faith. Knowing the rules would help them a great deal, he reflects idly; that would probably be the reason they've always been denied that knowledge.

"Gods have a bond with their worshippers," he says, testing the idea. "It's not one sided, it can't be, any more than an object dropped can defy gravity. There's a price that comes with accepting worship, and it must be paid."

"Never noticed it slowing them down fucking with us."

"Humans possess free will; gods, like angels, don't. They only have purpose, and that purpose defines them." Dean blinks, looking at him in dawning surprise and something like approval, but why, he's not sure. "A god requires worship--it's why they exist--but to accept it is as binding a contract as any a human makes with a demon, and the terms are far less forgiving."

Dean nods, still smiling faintly. "Huh."

"There is no negotiation; the terms were set before Time began, and those terms are unbreakable." He doesn't fight the smile now; Dean will appreciate this. "Even Gabriel found that out the hard way. He enjoyed being a trickster, yes, but that was simply good fortune. Once he presented himself as Loki and took human worship in that form, he was bound to it as long as his worshippers existed on this earth. And that's only one of the terms."

Dean's grin takes on an edge of pleased malice, and he finds himself thinks of his own counterpart again, this time with a sense of unreality; he had to have known what it would mean to try and claim Creation itself and accept the worship of all humanity. The limitations of an angel are nothing to those that bind a god; even dimly, he must have guessed how much he would lose.

"It's a contract in that sense, but it's strict and unambiguous in interpretation, and the penalty for consciously breaking it is far, far worse," he continues, shoving thoughts of that Castiel away. "Either way, the penalty is identical." Dean cocks his head, curious. "An eternity in Hell would be a far kinder fate for a god who breaks faith with their followers than that. They'd kill themselves to avoid it."

Dean straightens, startled. "That why some of them did it here? Instead of fighting for their worshippers or running away, they killed themselves?"

"Lucifer was the first archangel of Heaven with all of Hell under his command. They couldn't hope to defeat him." He pauses, considering his answer carefully. "Taking service with Lucifer would not, specifically, break their contract--an oversight I still have yet to understand--but to some of them, I think--they could have fought yes, but defeat in battle has its own rules."

"Spoils of war," Dean says, expression hardening. "He'd get their worshippers?"

"It's possible, even if an angel, technically speaking, shouldn't be able to claim them. Kali, for one, wouldn't have taken the risk; she'd burn her own temples to the ground and destroy her name and self to be certain he couldn't touch them once she was gone." Dean's skepticism increases. "The bond with worshippers includes love, however it may be defined, however it might be twisted, and love is neither kind nor merciful. But they could be those things for those followers; out of love, they might have chosen their own destruction rather than take service with Lucifer or fight him and risk what would happen to their worshippers when they lost. It would be the one way, perhaps the only way, to free their followers from any possibility of becoming slaves and unwitting agents of humanity's annihilation."

"So your goddess--who doesn't have worshippers or a name and hasn't even been around in almost forever--you think she got involved in this because those women were doing her purpose?" Dean asks doubtfully.

"That knife guarantees her presence; more importantly, the novice couldn't have wielded it unless she was acting as avatar or vessel of her divinity on earth. What I don't know is how they could possibly have elicited her attention at all, especially considering her absence from this entire plane. They were Christian nuns; while the Roman Catholic church does keep track of gods," he pauses for Dean's shock; eliciting that has become a very enjoyable habit, "her cult wasn't even in existence any longer when Rome was founded, much less the Church. If there are records of her anywhere in existence, I don't know about them, and without knowing her name, she wouldn't have heard them."

"You're a record, kind of," Dean points out. "No, I get it; no name she recognizes now, so wouldn't help even if there were records. Okay, so this is what we have: a nameless pagan goddess showing up to smite the fuck out of some demons who were killing women whose divine service included killing demons, and she used a random novice to do it." Catching Castiel's expression, he sighs. "Next you're going to tell me it's not random."

"It's random, as much as someone fit to be an angelic vessel." Dean sighs noisily. "Which means it's not random at all. The line of descent would have to be from one of those worshippers who bore children while in her service. She didn't choose maidens, only women, but they didn't interact with men, often for very, very good reasons, not least of which was the reason why they were no longer maidens."

Dean blows out a breath, looking grim. "So not many?"

"There were some, of course; she had no objection to her worshippers marrying or bearing offspring, but they were a very small cult. In that much, a portion of the current population would qualify, but there's also this; this woman survived being an avatar of a goddess, and relatively intact if what Alison remembers is accurate."

"Even archangels can't manage to pull that off," Dean observes caustically. "Or just don't want to?"

"I don't know," he admits under the weight of Dean's judgment. "The only thing that is required of us is to gain consent."

"So archangels are bigger dicks than I thought." Sitting back, Dean turns his gaze to the passing scenery, but the feeling doesn't lessen. "I didn't even know that was possible. They don't have to, so they don't fucking bother."

Castiel makes a conscious effort to loosen his hold on the steering wheel.

"When given the choice, gods will almost always choose someone that can hold them without permanent damage," he says. "They make an effort to assure there's at least one person living at any given time who qualifies in that respect. It's not a break of faith to choose otherwise, but in memory, I can't think of one who did so when not under extreme duress."

"Because that's love: not destroying them, just taking over their bodies and their lives," Dean snorts. "So what would this goddess need for her perfect vessel?"

"A non-virgin woman of unbroken female descent from one of her worshippers."

Dean whistles softly. "So that's really specific. Why?"

"She was--when her cult was founded, she was only one aspect of a much more powerful goddess." Dean's expression goes from surprised to bewildered to interested in turn. "For lack of a better term, she--separated herself and became an fully independent entity instead of merely a facet of the whole."

"Gods can do that?" Dean asks curiously. "That happen a lot?"

"All the time; that's one of the ways the number of gods increase. They simply don't often succeed." Dean nods slowly, mind filing that away as he does everything else he learns for later follow-up. "She was effectively a new god on earth, and like all the gods, she had to start from the beginning and establish the foundation of the bloodlines from those who chose to worship her. There were restrictions, and she never gained enough power from worship to expand the scope of potential vessels."

"Are there any left?"

"When I Fell, there were six women living who qualified, and two women and three children who could potentially do so," he answers immediately.

Dean's eyebrows jump. "Small cult, few kids, but eleven potential avatars?'

"An advantage of being a potential vessel for a god--or for that matter, an angel--is that as long as they exist--and she did still exist--potential divinity does somewhat skew the odds of survival to bear appropriate issue in their favor." He grins at Dean's expression. "Angels and gods can also make humans lucky, you might say."

"No shit. How do you know that, anyway?" Dean demands, waving a hand as he opens his mouth. "No, I get it, infinite knowledge, but usually it takes you time to find shit like that now. Spend a lot of time searching your memory lately? When?"

"Oh." He wonders if this is what 'uncomfortable' feels like. "It's different when it's knowledge I actively--sought for myself."

Dean sits back. "You tracked her bloodlines? All this time?"

"I also followed the those that would produce potential vessels I could use," he counters. "Keeping track of the various bloodlines on earth might be considered the closest thing to a hobby in the Host and among the gods; everyone did it. Those families with the potential to bear archangelic vessels were very popular subjects, as were those who were fit for use by the more powerful gods. Not to mention," he adds temptingly in the face of Dean's interest, "their habit of procreating with their followers, which considerably shortened the process of acquiring acceptable vessels. Zeus's propensity to impregnate anything that qualified as living with a lack of particularity on how or in what form should be explanation enough. His potential vessels can be found in most of the animal kingdom, if you're curious."

"Like squirrels? Seriously, how--" Dean makes a visible effort and stops himself before focusing on Castiel speculatively. "Right, this was your Friday night in Heaven, sounds great. But your goddess has been off the radar for a while, and you said she wasn't very powerful in the first place."

"Oh, she was powerful," Castiel corrects him. "As an aspect of a god, upon separation, she was all that they were when they were first created. When I say separated, it might be more accurate to say 'rebelled'."

Inexplicably, Dean starts to smile. "Your buddy was a rebel goddess? You don't say."

"She was successful in her rebellion--again, translation is somewhat wanting in this case--so she lost nothing. As far as personal power is concerned, she was a perfect--much younger, for value of 'younger' when it comes to infinity--replica of the goddess she separated from. She simply didn't supplement it from gaining a large following to offer worship, which is a different kind of limitation."

"Were you watching to see if she came back?"

Cas focuses on the stretch of road before them; potholes do terrible things to the undercarriage. "She gave up not just her followers but her own name; gods don't come back from that." From the corner of his eye, he sees Dean's eyes narrow curiously. "Two of my vessels served in her temple and bore female issue after entering her service, and three of the women and one of the children who could act as her avatar were among their descendants. One of them I was considering as a vessel before I chose Jimmy, and she was extremely attractive. I often wondered if you would have responded better if I'd come to you in a female vessel instead of male."

Dean smirks at him, frustratingly undistracted. "You're allowed to say it's personal and you don't want to talk about it." The smirk widens annoyingly. "And admit it's personal and not about freaky angel hobbies."

"It wasn't personal," he answers shortly. "I was just a soldier in the Host, Dean, not an archangel; to us, there was no concept of personal. My contact with her through my vessels made her of interest, but that was true for any contact the Host had with the gods."

"Like Gaius in the Grove," Dean answers, sitting back and turning his gaze to the windshield. "That was just a mission, nothing personal."

"That was different. His mother summoned me by name, and Anael was insistent…." He knows from the faint uptick at the corner of Dean's mouth that he lost something, though what, he's not sure. "What do you want me to say? You remember how I was when we met; as I was then, I was always. I didn't think like that."

Dean crosses his arms. "So you're saying I changed you?" Before he can answer, he adds, "Frustration. You told me once before you met me, you had no--what do you call it, 'concept' of that."

"Yes. I'm feeling it right now, in fact."

"You never felt it before or just didn't know what it was called?" Dean challenges. "Sound of one hand clapping, Cas; think about it. So," he adds, turning to face the windshield and bracing a foot on the immaculately maintained dashboard as if entirely unaware how long it takes to remove scuff marks without damaging the vinyl, "how much longer until we get there?"

"Another hour at most," he answers uneasily, trying not to look at Dean's boot drag across the vinyl a full inch before stopping again. "You can't clap with one hand."

"And if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?" Dean smiles in satisfaction. "Tell me what you come up with. I always wondered about that myself."

From the outside, the church itself looks untouched, but that might be relative, since it's also the only building left standing.

There were five others at one time, if the crumbling remains of the foundations half-buried in dry, dusty earth are any indication, making a square around what was once perhaps a walled garden or courtyard. The convent itself, of course; the priest's home, depending on how literal the rules of the order or how they strictly they kept them; a guest house, possibly, though there's no way to be certain; and a surprise in a small country parish, the remains of what he thinks might have once been a small school and attached dormitory for its students. Despite the passage of time and decay, their original architecture is noticeably more modern and utilitarian, as if added quickly and without attempting to match the other buildings. Preparing for the future, perhaps from the moment Lucifer was freed from his cage: the mystery is how on earth they could have known short of clairvoyance. The Host certainly didn't bother to offer them divine revelation on ongoing events, considering how little even the Host was permitted to know.

Looking at the once-neat grounds, he wishes he could have met the priest assigned to this parish. He would have been the one who authorized and encouraged this radical departure from the traditional duties of the Sisters of Mercy for this convent as well as possibly the construction of that school Preparation, defense, education, gaining training and weapons for the women to fulfill their calling, and sending them into the world with his blessing and support. A man with this kind of mind should have had the attention of the Host from the moment of his birth, the women here cared for and offered strength and support in their work.

They weren't; a single convent, a single man, in a small parish in rural Kansas were far too small for the Host to care enough to even see.

"Cas?" Dean shuts the door and circles the jeep, coming to his side on the edge of the road, eyes flickering over the crumbling remains and focusing on the presumed school "Dude, a Catholic school out here?"

"Zachariah much preferred the period before the Enlightenment," he hears himself say. "Knowledge was why you were throw out of the garden--metaphorically speaking--but that also made it your birthright to acquire, and that was always discouraged. It was far easier to manipulate those whose faith was untouched by knowledge; they don't ask why, and if they do, they accept answers no matter how inane without question."

Dean looks at him quizzically. "Not a surprise, knowing Zack."

"Father Francis was a Jesuit; they believe in education, in the spread of knowledge, and this convent benefited from that. These women were warriors of the Lord," he answers bitterly. "Here, in this place, they fought for five years against demons after Lucifer rose, and we never saw them. I was training hunters in Georgia, and I didn't even--"


"Infinite knowledge," he spits out. "All I had to do was look, and I didn't. It was--they were too small. It wasn't important enough for me to even bother."

"Maybe," Dean says quietly, hand coming to rest on his shoulder, "you had enough to do back then, even if you were still an angel."

"That's not an excuse."

Dean studies him for a long moment before his mouth twitches, curving in a faint smile. "You really don't do anything half-way, do you? Called that one." Shaking his head at Castiel's mystified expression, he squeezes his shoulder before tilting his head toward the grounds. "Let's check it out so we can get to the church while we still have light."

The sight of the bare, dry earth is disquieting, but the first step is disorienting, a different world entirely, the corruption spreading so deeply it's an abscess in the earth itself, rotten and putrid and oozing filth.


Castiel thinks, shocked: I didn't realize I could still feel that.

Dean catches him the moment before his legs collapse beneath him, steadying him against his own body until the vertigo passes enough for him to find his balance. Watching him sharply, Dean reluctantly steps back at his nod, but one hand lingers determinedly on his back as the green eyes search his face.

"You sure you're okay?" There's a sharpness in his voice that demands honesty, and the implication anything less than a definite yes means they return to the jeep without hesitation.

Taking another breath to be sure, he nods. "Yes. It was--a surprise, that's all."

Dean frowns and starts to say something before abruptly turning face the church and grounds, lips tightening as his hand dropping automatically to his gun as if he's fighting himself not to draw it. There's nothing here that qualifies as a threat that would respond to gunfire, but he's learned that instinct rarely succumbs to logic without argument.

"It wasn't surprise." As Dean swings to face him, he belatedly realizes that Dean had no reason to expect him to have any reaction to stepping off the road in the first place, much less catch him before he even fell. "Try again. Tell me what that was."

He starts to answer and stops himself, distracted by the memory of the two days he watched Dean as his body burned out Croatoan. He didn't lie to him in the bathroom; forty-eight hours is his limit on how long he can go without sleep with only prescription stimulants before speed is required. However that was because while he couldn't recognize his own need for sleep until exhaustion made it impossible to do otherwise, he could recognize the signs of mental degradation, and they kept it at bay.

That's changed, and those two nights made that painfully obvious. He doesn't need them simply to think; now he needs them to stay awake.

The biological urge for sleep, like hunger and thirst, has always been difficult for him to interpret, but until this moment, he assumed that Dean's insistence on strict adherence to a schedule was the reason he now ate and slept at regular intervals and why he needed prescription sedatives less often. In retrospect, that was remarkably stupid; habit may be powerful, but it's not that powerful, and for that matter, while he's tentatively begun to explore the idea of enjoying food, feeling hunger is still something he has yet to experience.

If 'falling asleep' can be defined as a sense of drifting that culminates in abruptly becoming aware he's cold, stiff, and drooling onto the couch cushion by Dean's hip despite the fact that his last memory was leaning against said cushion reading only seconds ago and yet hours have passed--and thankfully, while Dean was blinking at him sleepily, he didn't seem to notice the grotesque wet patch before Castiel quickly covered it with his dropped book--then he thinks that yes, he's officially experienced the human sensation of sleepiness.

That's new, and he doesn't think he can at this point legitimately pretend habit is another word for 'magic'.

"How does it feel to you?" he asks before he can stop himself.

"Me?" Dean hesitates, but the tension in his body is too obvious to be denied, and to Castiel's mild surprise, he doesn't even try. "I don't know. Weird, I guess."

Dean's concept of 'weird' is both wide in range and narrow in scope; it's all in the inflection, and Castiel's still learning how to interpret it. "Dean--"

"Wrong." Dean's expression changes, eyes distant. "Like it's dead, but it can't die, not really. Even wants to be."

He nods, mouth dry; that would describe it very adequately. "Corruption. At this stage, for the earth, it's like living death; it's being consumed until it's almost starved but kept living just enough to be an ongoing source of feeding."

"Sounds about right. And one more thing." The green eyes meet his. "It feels like I really don't want you anywhere near it. That enough for now or can we get this over with so we can leave?"

He can't be certain, of course, but if he were guessing, Dean doesn't want to talk about this anymore. "Of course."

"Good." Sliding his rifle into easy shooting on sight position, he jerks his head toward the ruined buildings. "Let's check the grounds first."

The first circuit of the grounds gives them an overview of the scope of the destruction and at least some idea of the sequence of events. The convent itself was burned first and done thoroughly, leaving nothing but blackened and cracked foundation half-buried in the ground; the school and attached dormitory, on the other hand, were done last, and interestingly, not nearly as completely. Despite the amount of time that's passed, it's clear that while the fire damaged the structure, its final collapse was due to decay of the unburned wood.

Dean's tension is noticeably increased by the time they finish the second circuit, but he pauses at the edge of the cemetery behind the church with a frown. Eyes flickering over the twisted remains of the wrought iron fence, he passes over the various headstones without interest before returning to the fence. Then, shoulders straightening, he looks at Castiel in a silent but unmistakable question.

Obediently, Castiel steps over the twisted remains of the fence and feels the difference immediately; the consecration of the cemetery wasn't broken despite the fact that the church and grounds were and very thoroughly. The omission is unusual; demons are very attracted to sanctified places for the purposes of destroying them, which he assumes is what passes for a hobby among them.

Looking up, he sees Dean looking at him, expression unreadable but unmistakably more relaxed. Apparently talking about it is anathema, but not testing it.

"Consecrated separately from the church grounds and unbroken," he confirms, looking down at the neat line of dead grass on this side of the fence edging the bare earth on the other: the difference between early winter somnolence and corruption, bloating itself on the earth's richness until only the faintest spark remains, content to leave it alive just enough feed from it into perpetuity. After all, if it killed it, there'd be nothing left for it to consume, and that's all it knew how to do. "If they'd survived, they would have done it before they left. Just for completion's sake."

Dean's in front of him the moment he steps back over, but he's prepared this time for the vertigo, but nothing can prepare him for how it feels to stand on a living corpse that only wants to die.

"And we have the answer no one really wanted on what demons do on Friday nights," Dean says grimly, turning away to look at the church, but the hand on Castiel's back lingers. "Okay, you ready?"

The answer is no, he's not, but that's irrelevant; this is something they need to know.

"Yes." Dean didn't need to say: we don’t have to do this now. You don't have to do this to yourself. This isn't a test, and if it was, survival is all you have to do to pass. It's a test, it's always a test, but it's easier to pass when he's not alone. "I am."

The listing doors creak open at a touch, the heavy wood, while subject to the vagaries of the weather, surprisingly intact. Which is more than can be said for the interior; even with Alison's verbatim description of the church in Amanda's report, he wasn't prepared to see the reality.

Dean sucks in a breath, coming to a stop just inside the door. "Holy shit."

The description was unsparing and thorough, yet somehow, it still fell far, far short of what they're seeing now..

The walls are all still intact, peeling dingy paint in strips like shed skin between wide swathes stained yellow-brown from water damage and exposure and blackened streaks and stains of old blood in hideously distinctive patterns. Frayed streamers of tattered, grey-red fabric from the carpet cling to what remains of the aisle between the decaying remains of the few intact pews at the back of the church, and near the altar that, though subject to exposure, is also intact; those are the only things that still are.

The splintered, blackened remains of what were once pews, clotted with fluttering yellow-edge pages from ruined hymnals, the twisted remains of tarnished candlesticks dotted with the remains of wax, torn strips of the formal vestments of a priest performing mass, the cracked vinyl covers of shredded Bibles and slivers of stained glass from the empty windows, crumble together in haphazard piles around a circle of clean, bare wooden floor in the center of the church, its perimeter outlined in charred black.

Dean's shoulder brushes against his, a single point of reassurance in a place not simply stripped of what it was meant to be, but re-purposed to be everything it stood against. Taking a deep breath, he forces himself to dismiss the sacrilege committed for the most obscene of purposes and examine it like the hunter he chose to become.

"Right," Dean says, voice startling loud in the lifeless silence. "Left or right?"

"I'll take left," Castiel decides after accepting both will be equally horrific and he wants neither one.

"Good, that's where I'm going, too." Shifting his rifle automatically--he's noticeably improved with his weapons--Dean jerks his head for Castiel to follow him before starting toward the wall and the first set of bloodstains surrounding the empty holes where a woman sworn to service to the Lord was crucified.

They came back for the bodies after taking the children to Ichabod, Amanda's report stated. After Dolores examined them, each body was carefully cleaned as best they could and each woman was photographed, along with as complete a written description of each woman, her clothing, her hair, birthmarks and old scars, anything that might--one impossible day--help identify her to her family or friends.

Afterward, their bodies were carefully wrapped in clean sheets, the town's only Catholic (albeit somewhat lapsed) reading the prayer for the dead before their bodies were consigned to the fire with the entire town present to bear witness. They didn't have the legal names for any of them; what the children remembered were those that they took when they joined the order. The ashes were placed in the town cemetery, covered with salt and buried in consecrated ground, each name carved into the stone that marks the place they were laid to rest. Teresa and their few religious leaders hoped that would be enough to keep them safe from whatever happened in the church.

"The priest was possessed," Castiel says into the uneasy silence as they come to a pause before the altar after passing the eighteen places where a woman was nailed to die, with another wall and seventeen more to go. "He must be how they gained access to the church and the convent."

"Yeah, there weren't any men among the bodies," Dean says, balancing the rifle against his shoulder, fingers sliding restlessly along the strap. "I remember that part from Amanda's report. Just women, and the kids."

"The nuns were hunters, and a direct confrontation would have been unwise. Father Francis was very old, and the other men were laymen who were attached to the church in some way and assisted Father Francis and the Sisters in their calling. They needed a less dangerous method of gaining access here."

"So they used men the nuns knew and trusted," Dean says in disgust. "They weren't stupid; they wouldn't have let a stranger anywhere near them, especially when they weren't armed, not if they were hunters. Son of a bitch, the fuckers must have loved that part."

"From what Alison gathered from the other towns and some traders, Father Francis was instrumental in helping the Sisters acquire weapons and some basic instruction, though she didn't know how or from who. He also joined them in daily practice despite his advanced age."

Dean's mouth quirking faintly. "My kind of priest."

"Then you'll appreciate how well he was able to manipulate his superiors--including his bishop--to overlook what they were doing here before Kansas was zoned as infected." Dean's smile widens. "When he was given--very much under the table, or so Alison gathered from some of those who worshipped here--advanced warning of Kansas's coming status and orders to leave--"

"They stayed," Dean finishes softly. "Of course they did. Saving people, hunting things: fuck leaving, they were just getting started."

"The nuns discarded their habits entirely for more practical attire and were armed even during mass," he continues, looking at Dean. "Which was apparently very memorable to the very few alive who used to occasionally attend mass here."

"Nothing like a nun with a gun to get your attention," Dean agrees, fingers sliding restlessly the length of the strap of his rifle, fingertips brushing the holster of the gun at his hip. "If we'd known about them, we could have--" He stops short, a fleeting expression of surprise crossing his face. "I mean you--him, back then, maybe he could have--"

They didn't know, but sins of omission and sins of commission are only different in action, not intention; they should have tried to find out. "If even a rumor had reached us, we would have been here to help."

Dean's mouth tightens grimly. "He surveyed the entire goddamn state and he missed them? How--never mind." Shaking his head, he tips his head toward the other wall and the seventeen blood-marked spots awaiting them. "Let's get the other side and the gallery upstairs before we check out the main event."

It says something--though what, he's not certain--that as little as he wants to examine the other wall, it's still more than he wants to examine that clean, black-ringed circle. "I agree."

Well after they left Chitaqua, it occurred to Castiel they should have acquired Chuck's camera before they left to document the condition of the church so they could examine those as well for anything they might have missed. As it turns out, it wouldn't have mattered if he'd thought to acquire it or not; even if he'd been holding it in his hands, nothing could have made him actually use it.

(Or as Dean put it, surveying the church floor from the gallery: "Perks of leadership; we make someone else to do it."

"I'm very glad I accepted your job offer," he told Dean, and meant every word.)

He means it even more now, standing only feet away from the reason thirty-five women and five men died two and a half years ago, and four days ago that almost killed the fifteen children that survived.

There's no sign of the actual pattern any longer, replaced by a ring of blackened wood, charred almost through the church floor. One and a half feet from the outer circle to the inner, the same as the one drawn in Ichabod's courtyard. Unlike that one, however, the outer circle here is roughly fifteen feet in diameter, the inner twelve: large enough, he supposes, to hold fifteen children in the center, though with very little room to spare.

Stepping into the inner circle--the hardwood dusty but otherwise untouched--he turns in a slow circle before crouching to study the char more closely. After he Fell, before the gods died, soon after Ichabod was founded: that should be enough to give him something approaching a date, but no matter how often he searches his memory, there's nothing to find. Even the corruption of the earth--something that can be objectively studied and quantified, the rate of decay measurable--is useless; Teresa possibly was able to stop it if not cleanse it, but even before that, it's--

Impulsively, he opens his sense of time and barely shuts it back down before the migraine starts, but not before dropping to the floor with a strangled gasp.

Not strangled enough, if the sudden appearance of Dean crouching in front of him is any indication, hand on his handgun. "Cas? You okay?"

"I'm fine," he says, and regrets it when he hears his voice crack on the second word. Resigned, he waits for his vision to stop swimming, but it's not as if he needs to see to know Dean's dangerously still and is most likely glaring at him. "Dean--"

"You didn't do the--seeing all things shit again, did you?" he demands, one hand roughly tilting his head up, the better to glare directly into his eyes as well as check for bleeding. "Tell me you didn't--"

"No. Just time," he interrupts, adding at Dean's mystified expression. "I was checking for a time differentiation, and there is one. At some point, this church was removed from linear time."

Dean blinks at him before looking around warily as his shoulder dips alarmingly, as if it might be in danger of sliding into his hand despite the fact there's nothing to shoot. "Uh, we're--not out of time now, right?"

"No, I couldn’t see Time where it doesn't exist," he answers reasonably, which inexplicably makes Dean's eyes narrow. "It's just--off." Dean blinks at him in a silent request for clarification. "I don’t know how to explain."

"Try," Dean says grimly, fingers tightening on his jaw as if Castiel might pull away and he'd like to keep the bone as a souvenir.

The television analogy unfortunately won’t work here. "It was taken out of time at one point in linear time and replaced at some point in the future. It's future, not ours. Well, it would be the past now, of course, but then…." Looking at Dean's increasingly frustrated expression, he has a moment of inspiration. "Like you were, but only in Time, not place."

"Right, so how long--" Dean sits back on his heels, looking into the middle distance before focusing on Castiel again. "You said 'some point', not what point. You don't know how much it's off? Why? You knew with me."

One day, he's going to tell Dean that he's only pretending to believe him when he pretends he's not as intelligent as he actually is. Depressingly, now isn't the time. "No. Before you ask," he continues as Dean starts to open his mouth, "yes, there are many possibilities for why, including the fact that I have no idea how I can still do that or how it works in this form, but no, I can't narrow them down without more information, including speaking to Alison and Teresa personally about what happened when they found the children. Or I could--"

"No," Dean interrupts flatly.

"I didn't even tell you what--"

"Don't care." The glare returns with a vengeance. "No seeing Time, no seeing all things, no anything you can't do with five plain old human senses and no bleeding from your ears, got it? We'll do this the old fashioned way." Dean's fingers tighten on his jaw. "Got it? I wanna hear the words, Cas."

Staring into Dean's eyes, he summons his most earnest expression, one guaranteed to convey both unmistakable sincerity and fuck you at once. "Yes, sir."

"I'll hold you to it," Dean says pleasantly before straightening and starting toward the back of the church. "Would hate to accidentally concuss you with my rifle," he adds over his shoulder, "but I won't be sorry for it. Just for the record."

Dean's method in the church is much like the one he used on the grounds; the first circuit to establish familiarity before a slower second one, pausing at the walls to study each set of blood stains with the experienced eyes of a hunter and searching not for what they can recognize, but for any discrepancies. The variations on human sacrifice are numerous, but crucifixion, like rape, is always preferred when other forms of torture are inconvenient or when time is not of the essence; he supposes doing both in a church while at least one wore the body of a priest and the victims were nuns is what passes for ironic humor among demons.

Stopping at the altar again on his second circuit, Dean stares up at the remains of the cross on the wall above it with a fixed expression. Still inside the circle, Castiel frowns, focusing on the wall, and sees the blackened smears of blood on either side of the cross, the spacing of the holes matching those that line either side of the church: that makes thirty-six, but only thirty-five bodies were taken back to Ichabod. Thirty-five bodies, fifteen children, and one young woman, whose injuries didn't include those associated with crucifixion


"She was up there," Dean interrupts without turning around. "The novice. That's where they put her. Half the nuns were dead, the rest were almost there, the kids were already in that goddamn circle…and she was still fighting to get down to save 'em."

Swallowing, he paces the length of the aisle to join Dean at the altar, mentally scanning Amanda's report again; it didn't mention where each body they removed was located, and it would've mentioned if one of them was above the altar itself. Following Dean's gaze to the remains of the altar, he pauses, studying it more carefully; despite the dark wood, the blood stains on it are obvious, a spray fanning upward from near the base and sprinkling the floor as well before trailing off at the very top. Looking down, the floor before the altar is stained with the unmistakable signs of coagulated blood, smeared but each one consistent with the center of the average female foot from the heel to just short of the ball.

Abruptly, Dean turns, looking down at the tattered remains of the carpet, focusing first on the area just in front of the altar before startling toward the center of the church again, eyes tracking the remains of the remaining carpet and then bare wood. Following, Castiel sees the fading bloodstains that still mark it as Dean stops short, staring at an unstained area of the floor a foot short of the outer circle.

"She stopped there." He tears his gaze away to look at Castiel with the eyes of a stranger. "Tore herself off the wall--that she was nailed to--and walked on two surprisingly unbroken feet all the way here while pulling a goddamn knife out of thin air. She said yes to your fucking goddess because she wanted to save the kids and didn't care what she gave up to do it."

Even that long-ago day in Dean's cabin when Dean asked him what he was, he didn't look at him like that, as if he was-- "I don't remember."

"That makes one of us."

Turning away, Dean gives the circle a wide berth on his way to the back of the church. Taking a deep breath, Castiel forces himself to move, stepping into the circle and crouching as if to study the char again, though all it tells him is fire was involved at some point; the design itself was burned away entirely. It's an excellent excuse, however, to pretend not to hear Dean as he approaches, footsteps echoingly loud in the silence before coming to a stop directly behind him.

After an eternity--or thirty endless seconds--Dean sighs. "Jesus, this place--you done yet? It's char, nothing to see here." Then, with an attempt at annoyance, "For the five regular old human senses, anyway."

"I'm not human," he answers flatly before pushing himself up off the floor and making himself turn around. "However--"

"Look, this place…" Dean turns to look back at the open doors briefly, expression unreadable. "Something about it--you being here, it's getting to me, okay?"

Disarmed, he nods tiredly. "It's unsettling, yes, but--"

"I don't mean--it's not..." Dean scowls, eyes drifting toward the doors again before snapping back to Castiel. "I don't know what I mean, but let's wrap this up before I knock you out and drag your ass out of here, okay?"

That's--unambiguous. "The circle isn't active. At least, not now."

Dean's eyes narrow. "That's not the same as 'gone'."

"I was trying to ease into the subject," he admits.

"A for effort," Dean says, not quite rolling his eyes. "Now tell me what that means."

"The corruption of the earth isn't expanding, but it's not healing itself, either," he starts. "Even if Teresa decided against trying to purify it after they found the church, her presence would have been enough to elicit some kind of response, but as it was then, it is now. This is--it's as if the corruption is in stasis. If I were guessing--which is exactly what I'm doing--that's because while the circle was destroyed here, it still exists, just not now."

"You even know what you mean?" Dean looks at the blackened outer ring, shaking his head. "So what your goddess did wasn't enough? Divine fucking fire? You can't even see it anymore."

"I'm not sure--"

"It killed the demons pretty thoroughly," he adds in surprise as he scans the area around the circle again. "Not even ash left--not that we'd be able to see it in this mess--"

"They didn't die in the fire," he interrupts. "I don't need to remember what happened to know that. She didn't need a full manifestation complete with avatar to kill them; she could do that with a thought without leaving the comfort of non-corporeal existence. This was an execution, and to observe all the formalities, she had to be on this plane to do it."

Dean closes his eyes briefly. "I'm gonna regret asking this, but…."

"It's what I'd do, if I had Grace and the permission of the Host when I was among their number," he answers. "Or even after I rebelled and simply had Grace and this kind of motivation."

"Anytime now, Cas."

"There are no human remains of those possessed by the demons, even ash," he explains indicating the entire church. "She broke the binding between soul and body on this plane to free the souls but not the demons before moving them out of time with the demon still inside. The physical body can't survive that without protection, as I explained before, but she only needed it to contain them until they were beyond any possibility of escape."

"And then? She killed them there--wherever that is--instead of here. What's the difference?"

"The goal of a formal execution isn't death, it's justice." Dean sucks in a breath, eyes widening in understanding. "She hunted them down one by one and killed them there. She's still hunting them and then killing them there. Long after she died by Lucifer's hand, she will be killing them anew. As Gabriel did to you, she does to them in a discrete pocket of time built to that purpose, but the loop never stops with death before starting anew and they never forget what came before. It hasn't stopped and will never stop, without a moment's rest or freedom from fear or pain."

"Kind of like you did to that guy in Michigan?" Castiel nods; there are similarities, yes. "How long?"

"Forever," he answers softly, meeting Dean's eyes and seeing the flare of satisfaction that matches his own. Of all people, Dean may be the only one who would understand. "Until the end of reality itself."

"If reality wasn't trying to end now," Dean says finally, breaking the comfortable silence, "that'd almost be enough." Flickering a glance at the walls, his face darkens. "Almost. So tell me more about what they were doing before they got fucked by a goddess."

Castiel calls up the memory of the completed circle in Ichabod, tracing the design over the burn line. Almost effortlessly, a polished wooden floor stretches out below his feet as pews are ripped up and tossed aside to make more space, carpet stripped away by eager hands. Blurred, indistinct figures work together to draw the circle with slow, patient strokes, the individual sigils flowing from the stark white paint--paint, not chalk, another difference from what happened in Ichabod--this time starting at the north--the direction of the altar--and moving counterclockwise to the east, the symbols entered confidently with experienced hands. Until they reach the east--

"--and stopped," he says tonelessly, vaguely aware he's been talking but unable to remember when he started or why. "They entertained themselves with raping them while waiting for it to dry--they had to wait, because the nuns were protected against possession. That's why they used paint; they couldn't risk a single smear, and the nuns would find a way to break it no matter how badly they were injured if they used chalk."

As if from a distance, he feels Dean's hand on his shoulder, fingers reassuringly tight. "Keep going."

"They…." For a moment, he has a multiple visions of ghostly feet crossing in and out from what feels like a dozen perspectives, stumbling or dragged, digging their bare feet into the wood, scratching at it with broken fingernails as they passed; some were carried, bound and still fighting, too dangerous to risk forcing them walk despite being uncertain it would still count if it wasn't done under their own power. Low, malicious laughter interspersed with pain-soaked, enraged screams echoe through the church for hours--days--as they were raped and tortured, whatever the demons could imagine without risking a too-early death that would make all their work useless, giving the sacrifice more power, before one by one each woman was nailed to the walls of the church.

Hours--days--a week, perhaps: it doesn't matter. It felt like forever.

Finally, a single vision dominates, clear and hard, edged with rage and fear so strong it burned away physical pain; each half-conscious child (they didn't have time to hurt them, too. It took days to find them, she didn't hide them well enough, her fault, she should have learned more before she….) was carried inside the circle and placed within the inner circle before the last quarter--the closing sequence--was drawn, in chalk this time, because--

Mouth dry, he looks at the wall above the altar. "--once closed, it was done. That only brought it into existence; once it existed, it didn't matter if the lines were erased. I was too late."

Even divine fire couldn't destroy it, they realized: nothing could, it was new, and how they created it was unique. All that could be done was--

"….Cas?!" There are hands on his shoulders, squeezing with the strength of desperation, and he focuses on Dean's voice, then his face, green eyes wide and dark in a face washed of color. Blinking, he realizes they're both on their knees. "Cas, talk to me!"

Licking his lips, he tries to speak, but for some reason, he can't form words; how strange.

"Cas, you got to three and I'm dragging you out of here," Dean snarls, cupping his face with shaking hands. "You tracking yet? One, fuck it, we're leaving--"

"It…" He swallows at the thready sound of his voice, barely a breath, and forces himself to focus. "They had to forget it."

Dean stills. "What?"

"It couldn't be destroyed, because once it was completed, it didn't just exist here," he says as the blurred details slowly click into place. "That's how they did it. They weren't sure it would work, but it was worth the risk to find out, and it did." He closes his eyes, realizing he's shaking: has been, possibly for some time. "When I saw it, I knew it was the first time it had ever been attempted."

"It was new, yeah."

"Yes, but not just that." Dean nods encouragingly and slowly, painfully, he retrieves knowledge he wasn't even aware he had. "All but one segment was completed before they began to make them enter it. They used--"

"Paint," Dean interrupts. "So the nuns couldn't fuck with it, yeah."

So he was talking that entire time: good to know. "They put the children inside and closed it immediately; they were almost out of time before their absence was noticed, I think…." She must have ripped that part from their minds, but the jumble of unorganized images is impossible to organize, bring into focus. "I'm sorry, I can't--"

"You got nothing to be sorry for," Dean tells him fiercely, giving him a shake. "Don’t even start. Now deep breath--what else? Why were they dragging the nuns into it if they were just gonna hang them on the goddamn wall?"

One deep breath doesn't help; several, however, do. "Something new. When it was complete, everyone who was within it and everyone who had passed through it before were bound to it, and it was bound into them. Once the circle was closed, it burned itself into their memories, and that's where it still exists in everyone who entered the circle before it was closed. All of their minds hold it, and the only way to destroy it there--"

"--is to kill them, which would also complete the sacrifice, son of a bitch." Castiel nods tiredly, a faint throb starting in his temples from the effort of locating knowledge without the memory of acquiring it to give him guidance. "Wait--everyone within it and everyone who was in it and left before it was closed?" He nods again. "You mean all someone has to do is walk through it before it closed and they're part of it?"

"That marks them enough for the circle to be lodged in their memories upon completion. He swallows, fighting down nausea. "I don't even remember being here, but I apparently learned a great deal."

"The nuns and the novice watched the whole goddamn thing live and in person," Dean says quietly, squeezing his shoulder again. "What they knew, I guess your goddess got from them, and she must have given it all to you to help her figure out what this was before she fucked with your head." He pauses, glancing toward the altar briefly. "How were they going to do it without the novice, though? They had to know she wasn't in Ichabod; were they gonna go look for her next or something?"

"The novice wouldn't be part of it, even if she'd entered the circle before it closed," he answers, relieved beyond words to be on sure ground. "Being the avatar of a goddess does have some advantages; this only binds a human, not a divine being. It was burned out of her the moment she became a vessel."

"I'll give you that one." Dean cocks his head, eyes distant. "Okay, let me see if I got this. Those kids were still in the circle when your goddess started smiting; they were already marked as sacrifices by that. The nuns were in it before it was closed and taken out, so they were marked when the circle was completed and the hanging them on the fucking wall was just entertainment and more pain equals more power, am I right so far?" He nods at Dean's glance. "So that circle they were drawing in the town square during the attack, it wasn't big enough to put anyone in, which makes sense now; they didn't need it to be big. The kids didn't remember what happened in the church, much less the circle, so they had to draw it again so they'd remember it."

"They had to redraw the circle either way to give it form on earth, but to connect it to the original, the children had to see it as well as remember it. Once the connection was made, it's as if it had never been erased, with all the original properties--and chosen sacrifices--of the original." An arrested look on Dean's face tells him he recognized that much. "You only notice it when its worst form is seen, as I told you. Though no one's ever used it like this before."

"Contamination." Dean sighs in disgust. "Okay, let's go back. How much has to be complete for it to start marking the sacrifices? Ballpark?"

"At least over half, I would assume, but….." Dean nods grimly; there's no way to know for sure without testing it themselves. "From what I could read of it, the final segment of symbols are the closing sequence, and must be done all at once to complete closure. When we have time, I'll reproduce it to study it closer--"

"Uh," Dean looks alarmed. "You think that's a good idea?"

"No, but it's not dangerous," he answers, mouth quirking faintly. "The other reason new innovations in human sacrifice aren't common is humanity's lack of knowledge on the meaning of all the symbols, much less formalities of their design. Whoever created this one not only knew those, they also knew conventions that haven't been used on earth for a very long time. This one has restrictions specifically excluding anyone not born human from using them, a variation of those I carved on your ribs as well as Sam's. Like you, it's invisible to a god or an angel not in corporeal form and looking directly at it."

"Anti-angel and anti-god?" Dean sits back, startled. "That's really old shit. So that hasn't been used in--"

"A very long time," he agrees. "The most ancient rituals created on earth often featured such measures, but for obvious reasons, that innovation wasn't popular, and among the gods and the Host, it was agreed that knowledge shouldn't pass to future generations. Those rituals were buried as deeply as possible in human history along with the knowledge of what they meant."

Dean reaches for his chest, palm flattening over his ribs almost unconsciously. "You didn't tell me that when you started carving up my ribs. That was forbidden?"

"Dean, I'd just rebelled against the Host, been killed by archangels, and resurrected without explanation," he answers, grinning helplessly at Dean's quiet laugh. "Ask me how much I cared about archaic restrictions."

"Not much."

"I taught Bobby as much as he wished to learn--which, as you can guess, was everything--but the majority of it has value only in defense. I think I still have the notebook he used for his notes, if you wish to see it."

"I kind of do," Dean admits, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck before shaking himself. "Until you get a chance to draw your own copy, can you tell me anything else?"

His smile fades. "The final closure has to be done all at once, which is one of the few hard limitations I can see in the design. It can't enter their memories and exist there until it exists in this form first."

"Not really a limitation if we're talking--" he looks around the circle, eyes narrowing, "--fifty, sixty feet around? Last segment is--"

"One quarter of the whole."

"Eleven, twelve feet, that's nothing, a couple of minutes…." Dean breaks off, looking at him, then at the circle again. "The one in Ichabod was smaller. How long was the closure?"

"A quarter of the whole."

Dean stills. "And if it was bigger…?"

"A quarter--"

"--of the whole, I really don't like where this is going. You're sure about that?"

"Yes. The closing sequence is of a different pattern than the whole. Think of it as a binary door; it's closed or open, but nothing between. It's a compromise; instead of having to do the whole at once, they only have to do a quarter at once. Not a bad trade-off, in a horrific sort of way."

Getting to his feet, Dean turns in a slow circle to take in the circle again. "The one in Ichabod had three or four sets in the exact same sequence before the closure…." He looks at Castiel. "How many on this one?"

He pulls up the memory of the completed circle again, ignoring the instinctive revulsion. "Ten, with more space between the symbols, though not much; they were more experienced with drawing ritual circles. I can't tell the significance of that on a glance, however."

"Shit." Dean closes his eyes. "It's a repeater. You can keep repeating the same goddamn symbols over and over again to get it bigger as long as each set is complete." He spears Castiel with a look that begs for contradiction. "Including the closing ones?"

"I'm not sure," he prevaricates, but that's not an answer. "However, it's either that, or the number is the same, but each one is simply very large. It's very new, and since the sacrifice was never completed, only the creator would be able to tell us what he designed it to do, and only the first time it was completed successfully would he know if it actually worked."

"Let me get this straight," Dean says with fragile calm. "At half-done, it's ready for business and you don't even have to stay in it to be marked. Once it's closed, everyone's part of it, even if all they did was walk through it without knowing it. Even if it's erased--by divine fucking fire--everyone who was marked can be hunted down one at a time, draw that thing again so they can see it, use their memory of the original to make the new one become the old one, and kill them then. And there's no limit on size?" He nods reluctantly. "All the fucking benefits of human sacrifice, none of the inconvenience of having to do it all or nothing."

He nods again, feeling impossibly tired. "That would be it, yes."

"Right." Taking a deep breath, Dean scans the church before extending a hand. "Okay, we're getting out of here."

He takes Dean's hand and is surprised how much he needs it, stumbling briefly. "Dean--"

"No arguments," Dean interrupts, hand shifting to his upper arm and pulling him unresistingly to the door. "We're going home. Anything else you need to know, it can wait--"

"We still have a problem, and it won't wait." Making an effort, he stops short and is almost pulled off balance by Dean's momentum. "Dean. It doesn't exist now, but it does still exist. The children remember it now, even if they didn't before. If it's drawn again in their presence and they see it--"

"It's back, fuck." Dean closes his eyes. "Even if we got all the demons this time, no way they're the only ones that heard about it."

"They're still in danger, and not only because they're still bound," he agrees. "Everyone who saw even a portion of the design in the courtyard now has the memory of it. It can't hurt them, since they weren't part of that sacrifice, but any demon can read it from their minds and no demon who saw it wouldn't know what it was as well as exactly what it can do."

"Fuck. We gotta get to Ichabod." Pulling away, Castiel crouches and reaches into his boot, feeling the edge of the knife sheathe for the small lump beneath it. "Cas what are you--"

Pulling out the keys, he straightens and presents them to Dean; it's almost worth not driving to see the expression on his face. "That's why you couldn't find them."

Dean's eyes narrow before flickering down to his boot in unmistakable speculation.

"I'd like to see you try," he adds, tipping his head toward the door. "Let's go."

They're almost a quarter of the way to Ichabod when Dean finally says, "What if we're wrong?"

Turning from his contemplation of the badly degraded road, Castiel frowns. "About…?"

"What if other demons know about this already? If they're using it--"

"They aren't."

Dean jerks his gaze from the road. "How the hell would you know--"

"My fallen Brethren would purge their territory at a hint of something like this being spread among their followers," he answers. "A human sacrifice that may only be limited by the physical size of the initial circle, and once closed, marks the sacrifices in a way almost impossible to remove, and who can then be hunted down and killed at their leisure? The first time it was successfully completed on earth, there would be no way to hide it from them, and if there'd been a purge in Hell of that magnitude, we would know about it."

"Forgot about that," Dean bites out, fingers tightening on the steering wheel. "Torturing demons for fun and profit at Chitaqua, why not get the gossip while you're at it?"


Dean's the first to look away, but it doesn't give the satisfaction that it should. Several miles pass in echoing silence before Dean finally breaks it.

"Cas, how many people were part of this one? Nuns and the kids, that was it?"

"Assuming Alison was accurate on the number of women's bodies they took from the church, fifty, including the children they rescued."

Dean frowns out the windshield, but he doubts its due to the execrable condition of the road. "And how much power would that give a run of the mill demon these days?"

"Not enough to challenge an angel in Hell," which makes Dean start, "nor the most powerful and oldest demons, but sufficient to claim territory in Hell from less powerful ones. Possibly even enough to carve out territory of their own and force the submission of lesser demons to gain sufficient followers to protect it. However, the first time it's completed in its entirely, Hell would notice that much power acquired that quickly and wonder why. They'd have one, perhaps two more opportunities to use it before they were tracked down from the contamination of using death and pain for power, especially in these numbers."

Dean nods, swerving reflexively to avoid a pothole the size of a small car. "You were right; the church was a test drive to see if it worked. Probably why they did it at that convent; out in the middle of nowhere, not much of a congregation showing up every day, limited numbers, no chance of interruption--who could call the entire goddess showing up thing--"

"I could be wrong."

"Dude, I learned not to bet against you the hard way," Dean says, tossing him a smile. "The only thing I couldn't figure out is why they didn't start a new one instead of taking the time to go after the kids in Ichabod, but…." He pauses. "Formal execution, that sounds like the kind of thing you don't make mistakes doing. Like letting one of them get away."

"No." That much he doesn't need to remember to know. "Even if one of them wasn't at the church at that moment or tried to escape, performing a human sacrifice doesn't just contaminate the earth, but those who did it. There's nowhere they could hide that she couldn't follow them, and she would've found them."

"What about the creator? If he wasn't there…." Dean snorts, shaking his head. "No way he shared that before trying it himself. Or ever."

"Unless the other demons killed him before attempting it at the church, yes, but I doubt he told them enough for them to risk that. What does that have to do with…." For once, following Dean's train of thought is almost effortless. "So how did those demons in Ichabod four days ago know about it at all?"

"The original group sure as fuck didn't share with the class before they died," Dean agrees. "Doesn't mean they didn't drop hints, though; threat of a purge just means it spread slower. How long has it been in Hell since then?"

"Roughly three hundred years, maybe as much as four hundred, depending on when this happened," he answers, looking at Dean curiously. "You think they were following a rumor in Hell?"

Dean snorts. "You got a better explanation for risking going into Ichabod to get those kids three to four hundred years later? They weren't guessing, Cas; they were sure enough to send four hundred something Croats and six demons to make sure they could finish it."

"There's always the possibility that a demon, for no particular reason, recently went to the remains of a destroyed Kansas church and worked out enough to become uncharacteristically curious and made an impossibly stunning intuitive leap to draw the correct conclusion." Dean gives him a disbelieving look. "I didn't say I believed it."

"Or they came here following that rumor," Dean says, slowing to search the darkness outside for the turn-off. "Church would be enough to tell them it was true, but not enough to actually do it. Question is, how the hell did they get the symbol if the kids' memories were wiped? Everyone else was dead."

"The novice survived," Castiel answers quietly. "And so did I."

Dean starts to answer then abruptly seems to change his mind. "Yeah, might as well just ask. Cas," he says, voice stripped of expression, "did you trade an unspeakable ritual for a human sacrifice to a demon for drugs?" He cocks his head, looking thoughtful. "That's how you been getting your scripts? That explains a lot."

"Of course not, the border guards are perfect happy to…." He narrows his eyes as one corner of Dean's mouth twitches upward. "That wasn't funny."

"It really was. I think we can safely exclude the avatar of a goddamn goddess and a Fallen angel from trading this, considering that if you can't remember it, I doubt she can either. If she's still alive, anyway."

"That's probably the reason I don't remember," he admits, and Dean's faint smirk vanishes. "As you said earlier, I'm a living record. My brethren in Hell have no knowledge of its existence, so that rules out any surviving demon, and I assure you, none would have survived that night. If she guessed--or I told her what it could do--that would have been a very good reason for her to want my memory altered. As the likely alternative was killing me, that would be one very good reason I'd agree to do it."

Dean jerks his startled gaze back the road just in time to note a very inconveniently placed boulder that looks like its origin was the Red Hills, though what it's doing here is anyone's guess. Swerving onto the shoulder with a muffled curse, he waits until they're back on the road before looking at him incredulously. "Your goddess-buddy would have killed you just because you saw it?"

"Hell's ruled by corrupted angels," he explains. "The last angels in all existence, in fact. She wouldn't trust a Fallen angel to resist them for long, or perhaps even want to. They are--technically--still my Brothers."

"Bullshit. They got no claim to you," Dean says softly, but the ripple of anger in his voice is unmistakable. "And she didn't know you very well if she thought you'd do that. Dude, you need better friends, just saying."

"That was a long time ago," he answers, unsettled and warmed at the same time. "I think you might say I've upgraded since then."

Dean grins at him, and for a moment, Castiel almost forgets what they found at the church tonight.

"There aren't any secrets in Hell," Dean says suddenly, returning to the original subject. "Three hundred years: someone knew about this all this time, so why now and not anytime in the last couple of years?"

"This isn't just a secret," he says slowly, not sure how Dean will react to this part. "Demons began as human, and even Hell can't burn out the part of you that will be ruled by no one but yourselves. Humans aren't meant to be ruled by angels, even as demons, and obedience is enforced by fear and pain, loyalty bought and sold to the highest bidder, which is the only way angels can control the population of Hell, which considerably outnumbers them."

"It's worked until now."

"It's worked," he answers deliberately, "because the rulers of Hell are angels who kept their Grace when they followed Lucifer to Hell; unlike demons, for whom it takes time to gather power in Hell and it can be easily lost, theirs is effectively unlimited. However, angels haven't broken a human soul on the rack since they first acquired enough followers to do it for them."

"Demons are better at torture, thanks for the reminder," Dean says glumly, easing onto the edge of the road to avoid the large area of missing asphalt in the shape of a hexagon. Looking out the passenger side window, Castiel wonders if a ruler was used at some point; those are very straight edges for someone ripping up asphalt freehand. "What does that have to do with--"

"In return for their service, those first demons were given power, and those that have survived have continued to acquire it since. Angels may rule Hell, but those demons effectively run it for them, and they assure no other demon ever gains enough power to challenge them even if they were to band together, which granted is unlikely, but why take the risk. Something like this, however…."

"Cause some problems for the status quo for demons, yeah."

"Not problems, and not just for those demons," he says softly, getting Dean's undivided attention. "We're in an Apocalypse, and there are few secrets in Hell, including that Lucifer wants to wipe humanity out. No bodies for demons on this plane, all existence confined to Hell, and that's only if Lucifer doesn't purge Hell as well. They have to suspect that much, and the rulers of Hell would be stupid enough to threaten that to assure such loyalty as Hell defines it, because despite their power, fear and pain are the only things they know how to use. Dean, this isn't a problem; this is revolution."

Dean catches his breath.

"It takes millennia for a demon to gain power, and only the most ruthless ever gain enough to have territory. None of them, however, can hope to challenge the oldest demons, those who were given power by my Brothers and run Hell for its rulers." Castiel licks his lips. "Not until now."

"A demon could get enough power from this to take out the most powerful demons?" Dean searches his face before abruptly stopping the jeep in the middle of the road, turning in the seat. "What?"

"Not with fifty sacrifices, no. But once they knew how much could be acquired from fifty, it would be a matter of math to decide how many deaths would be needed so they could. A single sacrificial circle that can be of any size, take any number of sacrifices, and once it's closed, the deaths could be accomplished over days, weeks, even months…."

"Draw it around a town in the infected zone," Dean says tonelessly. "One demon could do it and have all the time they needed to kill everyone afterward no matter how many there were."

"And no one in Hell would know about it until it was completed," he says. "Which would give everyone just enough time to try to run. Except my Brethren, of course, but they might surprise me by showing some amount of intelligence and doing just that."

Dean stares at him. "They could get enough power to kill an angel in Hell?"

"Yes, but--"

"Which would leave the rest to get together and go after whoever did it, so what would be the point--"

"That would only be a problem if you killed them." He looks at Dean. "So don't. They're far more useful still alive."

Dean stares at him. "What?"

"The power from the sacrifice would eventually run out, but the Grace of my Brethren in Hell replenishes itself," he answers. "Why kill them when you could break them and force their submission to your will; then you'd have at your command the Grace of an angel as well as all that they rule in Hell."

Dean licks his lips, eyes never leaving his face. "How--"

"I told you; demons began as humans, and obedience is enforced with fear and pain; it's the only way to control them. Angels in Hell, however, are still angels; they were created to obey. Demons have had millennia to re-create the tortures of the rack in their own image; what it is now is beyond what it was when it began."

"Hell's first tortures were how angels were disciplined in Heaven." Dean swallows, eyes dark. "For disobedience."

"You can only suppress the instincts of an angel for so long. They were made to serve humanity, and demons are, in some ways, even more attractive; they were remade in the image of angels. A demon who could break them would get their willing submission; they'd obey not because of pain or fear, but--"


Looking at Dean, he nods; if there was ever a demon that Hell would willingly kneel for, it would have been Alistair's apprentice. "We do respond well to being forced to kneel and obey," he says more lightly. "You of all people should know that."

After a long moment, Dean smiles faintly. "Dude, I'm trying here, but this coming from the guy who told Lucifer to fuck himself to his face…."

"I have no objection to kneeling, you understand," he says idly. "In certain contexts, at least."

Dean snorts before putting the jeep in drive and starting down the road again. Stopping at a crossroad--or rather, a road crossed with what may or may not be a cattle trail--Dean carefully eases past the oversized tumbleweed formed of barbed wire and what seems to be kitchen appliances.

"Would Lucifer?" Dean asks softly, staring out the windshield intently. "Could a demon break him?"

"He's still an angel," he answers, equally soft. "What it would take to do it would be interesting, but ultimately academic. He'd kill himself first, and in any case, it would be both quicker and far easier to simply kill or Cage him."

There's a brief hesitation before Dean nods. "Right." Peering out the windshield, he starts to smile, and Castiel, following his gaze, sees the faint sprinkle of lights in the distance. "Well, you ready?"

"Not yet," he answers quietly. He's never ready, but it doesn't matter. "When we get there, I will be."