The altar was a large, imposing thing. A stone slab lain over four stone posts, in the middle of a five pointed star in a circle carved into the bare earth. Sam saw crude symbols carved into the slab itself, and feathers and crescents around the legs of the altar – crow’s feathers and crescent moons, he remembered the woman saying. The symbols of their god and goddess, respectively.
There had been an old woman, Sam remembered. She had told him something – something so important, but he couldn’t remember. She was gone. Everything was gone, but the altar and the pentagram, and the evergreen trees far beyond it.
Where was he? Wasn’t there something he was supposed to do?
The drums were suddenly distracting. Where had they come from? They had always been there, he thought. Steady beats, deep like thunder, beating in time with his heart.
There was something he had to do.
Sam grit his teeth. He was a hunter. A hunter. He should know this.
He walked up to the altar in a daze, finding more symbols carved into the top of it. In the middle, he found a knife. It was straight and thin, made simply of silver and polished to gleam like a gemstone.
Athame. The word whispered through the circle.
He reached for it. There was something to do with the athame. The old woman had told him something about it. Why couldn’t he remember?
One week ago
Sam was devastated when he rolled into town, a shell of a man behind the wheel of the Impala. Dick Roman was gone, back in Purgatory with the other Leviathans. But so was Dean, and Castiel with him.
Sam was alone. No Dean. No Bobby. No Cas, or Ellen or Jo or even the Campbell’s, terrible family though they were. Dad, Jess, even Brady and the others from Stanford. All of them were gone; dead or out of reach.
He sat there, in the parking lot of a shitty motel, silently staring up at the neon signs. He wondered, briefly, if he should even bother. Why should he waste someone else’s money to get a room? Why bother taking time hustling pool or running scams, hunting down monsters and always running? Why go on with any of it? He had a trunk full of weapons, he could easily make sure he didn’t have to do it anymore; didn’t have to face it all alone –
He cut off that thought before it could fully develop. Dean had come back from Hell. They’d come back from Heaven together. Dammit, Dean hadn’t even died this time. There was no body. He was just gone. Gone but alive.
Sam would bring him back. Him and Cas, if he could, but he’d at least get Dean.
He took a deep breath and got out of the car, quickly checking his wallet for the name on his card. He would get a room here, rest a day or two, and then make a plan.
The need for food eventually drove him out of the motel room the next day. There was apparently a diner about a quarter mile down the road, so he decided to get a meal there, and another to go for dinner. If he was lucky, it would last him through lunch the next day, too, and he wouldn’t have to go out again.
He was stopped abruptly just as he got to the sidewalk, when a hand suddenly rested itself on his arm.
He was turned around with his hand on Ruby’s knife before he could consciously process it.
“Sorry.” A small blonde woman, maybe twenty-five, splayed her empty hands, showing him she was unarmed. She glanced down at the knife. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. Are you Sam Winchester?”
He raised one eyebrow. “Why?”
“We – my friend told me I would find you here. I think you can help us.”
“Your friend?” Sam asked skeptically, keeping one hand on his blade.
She nodded, hesitant. “I – um...” She took another breath, straightening up as though to fortify her resolve. “My name is Kristen. One of my – my friends is in trouble. She’s been possessed.”
Sam nodded. He had caught that self-correction, and he was wary, but if demons were involved…
“And you think I can help you?” he asked carefully.
She nodded. “Deena, another friend, told us you were coming. She – she saw it in a dream. Said that you could help, and gave your description.” She smiled tentatively. “You’re kinda hard to miss.”
“So you knew I’d be here, at this motel, and you were waiting for me?” Sam asked.
She blushed. “Well, maybe not here,” she confessed, half shrugging her shoulders. “We’ve maybe set up shop at every motel in town.”
“Right,” Sam said. He took a flask out of his pocket. It was so habitual to carry it with him, like Ruby’s knife, he had automatically put it there on his way out. He was glad – everything about this scene reminded him of when Ruby came to him after the Hellhounds took Dean. “I’m sorry about this,” he said, unscrewing the cap. Then he splashed it on her face, waiting for a reaction.
The only one he got was exasperated confusion. “What was that?” she asked, nervousness traded for annoyance.
He smiled sheepishly. “Holy water,” he told her honestly. “I – uh – I wanted to make sure you weren’t a demon.”
She rolled her eyes. “If I were a demon, would I be asking you to help me with this?” she asked.
“You obviously haven’t met the demons I have,” Sam muttered. “How did you know I would be here?”
“I told you, Deena had a dream.”
“Of course. Premonitions in dreams,” Sam said. Because that never led to any trouble.
“Well, maybe not so much a dream, as a vision?” Kristen said, her voice thinning out as she raised its pitch questioningly toward the end.
“Alright,” Sam sighed. “I’m hungry. How about you come to the diner with me, and tell me what all this is really about.”
She looked at him hopefully and nodded.
“Only the truth, though,” he warned, giving her a stern look he usually reserved for Dean.
“Of course,” she said, looking suitably cowed.
She followed him to the diner, sitting across from him and ordering her own sandwich before she started to talk. Sam just waited silently, not really up for any of this, but recognizing duty when it called.
“So,” she said at last. “First of all, I guess you’d figure it out sooner or later. My, um, my friends – they’re actually my coven members.”
“You’re witches,” Sam said quickly, straightening his back automatically, and wishing he had checked for hex bags.
“Pagans,” she corrected him. “Neopagans, if you must, but please don’t. Our traditions are older than the Christians’. The religion comes first for us, the magick second.”
“Religion?” Sam asked.
She sighed. “You know, pagans? Most people think we’re kinda New Agey? Goddess worshippers – we believe in dual male and female deities? Wiccans are the big thing now, but there’s, like, a million paths?” Her look clearly said, You know about demons, but you don’t know this?
Sam had heard of them before of course, but they weren’t the kind of witches with real power to throw around, at least not in his experience. They shouldn’t have known he was coming, not unless one of them have made a deal with a demon for her powers, and in that case they wouldn’t need an exorcism. He nodded slowly.
“Anyway, we’re kinda – we have power, but we tend to keep it under wraps. Like I said, one of our members was possessed. Something nasty got her, and we can’t break it out. We have her contained, but she’s just –”
The girl broke off, shuddering.
“And you want me to exorcise the demon? How do you even know I can do that?” Sam asked.
“I told you. Deena prayed. She meditated. The goddess gave her a vision, and it was of you.” She shrugged, as if that should explain everything.
He should just go chant at the girl; if they already had her contained, the exorcism would be easy. But that would mean going back to the job, and Sam wasn’t sure he could. Not yet. Not until he had his brother back. He shook his head. “I don’t do that stuff anymore.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What? But you have to! We need you to! This is my friend – Chelsea – she’s being possessed. By something bad. Like, seriously evil. And you can help her. Doesn’t that mean you have a responsibility to?”
“Listen,” Sam said seriously, putting one hand out placating. He knew there was no way he could really let this poor girl down. Especially not when she was begging like that. “I’ll help you, ok? I can get rid of the demon, send it to Hell. But after that, I’m gone. You’ve never met me.”
She frowned, suddenly staring as if she was trying to look through him. “Why?”
Sam pursed his lips. This girl didn’t really need to hear his problems, but he couldn’t help himself. If he was going to help her, the least she could do was listen to him bitch over their meal.
“I lost someone. Recently,” he told her. “My brother, and a friend..”
“They died?” she asked. “I’m so –”
“They’re not dead,” he interrupted sharply, unable to hear her condolences – unable even consider the possibility that they were. He gave her an apologetic looks before continuing more softly. “Just lost. I’m trying to get them back.”
“Where are they?” she asked.
He sighed, drawing out the moment. “I don’t know for sure, but I think they’re in Purgatory,” he said at last, half expecting her to call him crazy and walk out.
Instead, she nodded. “Beyond our realm,” she said knowingly.
Sam looked up, confusion clear on his face. “How could you –?”
“We may be able to help you, too,” Kristen told him, a smile creeping onto her face. “If you could teach the coven how to exorcise a demon, we might have a ritual to call back your brother.”
Sam wavered at the edge of the altar, staring down at the athame.
A chant picked up, an octave above the drums, pressing into his mind. He paused, his hand over the hilt of the blade, trying to make out the words. They were in an odd language, though. One he didn’t recognize, never mind understand.
Life from blood, given freely. The old woman’s words echoed faintly in the clearing, carrying over the chant.
His blood. But there was something wrong with his. It was tainted. Wrong. She couldn’t possibly mean his blood.
The chant pressed harder, a physical force against his skin, taking strength from the deep tattoo of the drums. It was urging him on.
Not wrong. Perfect. Although he couldn’t understand the words of the ancient language, he could infer the meaning behind them. There was something special about his blood – something that had nothing to do with the demons that had polluted it.
Dean. His blood was bound to Dean’s. It would bring his brother back to him.
Sam picked up the athame, fingering the warm leather of the hilt.
Life from blood, given freely.
He was ready for this, eager even. His brother would be proud, knowing he had brought him back, and he hadn’t even needed to deal with demons to do it.
Sam pressed the blade against the back of his opposite arm, holding it over the altar.
The chanting was louder now, coming to a crescendo against his mind. There was promise in it – promise of life, and something more.
He only needed a few drops, she said. Nothing like the old rituals. No sacrifices, not anymore.
Life from blood, given freely.
He pulled the blade down quickly, setting his jaw against a hiss when he felt the pain. Blood trickled down his arm, onto the symbols of the altar. Red blood pooled in one of the feathers, coloring it in flame.
Like a phoenix, he thought.
Three days ago
“You’re lucky it’s winter,” Miriam, the high priestess of the coven told Sam, her voice rough with age but her body still strong as she guided him through her living room and into the kitchen. She took out two glasses and some ice, filling them with sweet tea. He took his and sat down without a word.
He had been here before, earlier this week, but only to exorcise the demon from the poor girl who had been kept down in the basement, restrained so she wouldn’t hurt herself or others. He had been impressed by the devil’s trap the coven had used, and thought maybe they might know a thing or two about real magic.
“The winter solstice is this week,” she continued. “Yule.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “That’s all about perception,” she replied. “To you, it’s about the birth of a god a few millennia ago. To us, Yule is a time of rebirth every year – a time when our god is reborn after his Samhain death.”
“And you think that could help us bring back Dean?” Sam asked.
She nodded. “That’s the idea. If there was ever a time to bring one back from the land of the dead, it would be Yule. Or Samhain, though I don’t know if that would work for one still living.”
“How do we know we won’t bring others back, too? I’m sure you’ve seen at least a little of it on the news, the kind of violence these things are prone to. How can we make sure it’s just Dean and Cas?”
She pursed her lips. “The spell requires blood,” she said slowly. “‘Life from blood, freely given,’ our book says. Your blood will make sure the spell focuses on your brother. I’m not sure we can bring this Cas along, though.”
Sam raised his eyebrow. “How much blood?” he asked warily.
“Just a few drops,” she assured him. “This is 2014, witches don’t exactly perform ritualistic sacrifices anymore. Maybe in books and movies, but not in the real world.”
You’d be surprised, Sam thought, but prudently kept it to himself.
Sam turned and looked around, not entirely sure what was supposed to happen. This was supposed to bring Dean back, but there was no telling how.
Light flashed behind him, burning grotesque shadows into his vision for a brief moment. A crack soon joined it, the altar itself straining under the pressure of the magic. Sam felt something old and beautiful, edged with laughter, sorrow and spite flash through his consciousness, joining him to the alter like a streak of lightening. Sam turned around.
“Honey, I’m home!” The Trickster stared down at him from his seat on the stone slab. The grin he gave Sam was a caricature of innocence. “Miss me?”
“Fuck,” Sam said, looking him over. The spell was broken, the veil lifted, and the coven seemed to materialize around the circle. They still seemed far away though, as though they were chanting behind a glass wall.
Gabriel was the very image of a pagan god: naked from the waist up, his normally combed back hair wild. He was more toned than Sam remembered, pecs and shoulders hard and built, though he still had a bit of paunch around his stomach. His face, arms and chest were painted in odd, dark runes which Sam couldn’t identify. Definitely not Enochian, though.
The only thing the archangel wore was a length of leather wrapped around his waist. Sam noticed crow’s feathers braided into it: a symbol of the god the pagans worshipped.
The god the pagans worshipped, Sam realized. Of course. The crow. The Trickster.
“Where’s Dean?” Sam asked, suspicious. If Gabriel had hijacked the power to bring Dean back, what had happened to his brother? Was he still in Purgatory? Would that have killed him? Sam stepped into Gabriel’s personal space, using every inch of his imposing frame to try to intimidate the demigod. “This spell was for Dean! Where is he?!”
“Whoa, hold your horses, Sasquatch!” Gabriel said, putting up his hands in supplication. Sam felt a rush of calm from the archangel, then curiosity. The emotions retreated quickly, as though Gabriel was tamping them down. “I don’t know anything about where Dean is. I was quietly minding my own business in the land of dead angels before you called me back.”
“I didn’t call you anywhere,” Sam told him, not backing down.
“Oh, you did,” Gabriel told him knowingly. “You just didn’t know it.”
“They gave me the spell,” Sam said, motioning toward the coven beyond the circle. “They told me it would bring my brother back.”
Gabriel looked over to them, understanding dawning on his face. “You know what? I bet they thought it would,” he said, almost apologetically.
“Then what happened?” Sam asked.
“Insurance policy. Duh,” Gabriel said leaning back on his elbows to look up at the sky. “Their god – i.e., me for this particular coven, cause they focus on the Trickster – was dead. They did a resurrection spell on Yule. The day their god is symbolically resurrected every year.” He looked over at Sam. “Aren’t you supposed to be the smart one?”
“But you’re not actually a god,” Sam said, trying to process that. “You’re an angel.”
“Wrong again!” Gabriel crowed. “I am an archangel. But I am also a demigod. Didn’t you figure that out yet?”
“How?” Sam asked. He looked over Gabriel again. “And really, you think you could put some clothes on?”
Gabriel rolled his eyes and ignored that last part. “That is not something you want me to explain. Your little brain couldn’t handle it. No offence. I’m not sure if my brain handles it sometimes.” He paused, sitting up, then told Sam, “That’s actually not true at all. I was just trying to make you feel better.”
Gabriel jumped down from the altar, seemingly unable to contain his energy.
“Alright, you know what, I’m out of here,” Sam said. He turned to stalk out of the circle, then thought the better of it. He pivoted back toward the archangel, wishing he had his angel blade on him, to show Gabriel he meant business if nothing else. “You. You’re lucky I don’t kill you after this. This was my one chance to get them back. Stay away from me.”
He spared Miriam an apologetic glance, but she wasn’t watching him. The entire coven was transfixed on Gabriel: their god made flesh. Sam rolled his eyes and headed toward the Impala, parked nearby. He needed a new plan. He needed a new life.
He just wished he knew where to start.