Cold air wafts, like the breath of a frightened creature, against Dean's jaw. He takes in a breath himself, and the air is chilly as it goes down, nearly bringing him to coughs. It's like swallowing knives.
His eyes stay wide open. He has to remain alert; he's surrounded, by things moving and things not, and there's no telling when one may become the other. Below him he thinks he can count on the ground staying solid; around him the vegetation gives him less to be sure of. It’s all dark tangles, leaves and branches and nettles, equally and uniformly black, and before his eyes it all seems to pulse and move. There's no telling whether the trees will come alive and snake angry arms around his throat to choke him. And the things that wait in the dark are certain to move sooner or later. It’s all a matter of when, and what strikes first.
He's in purgatory, and he's terrified.
Alone, facing down a horde of monsters lurking just out of view. This used to be where he felt most at home. Didn't matter what back-country forest or swamp, whether he knew how to kill the thing that was hunting him, he was in his element in a fight like this. The old Dean would pull out the knife that presses cold iron into his hip, brandish it, and shout, "Come at me!"
The old Dean has been gone a long time.
It's not that he's gone soft or cowardly. He'll still pull out that knife if the creatures move, if he senses the danger. But he's not about to make the first play like he would five years ago. Not alone, and not in this place. Maybe he's gotten smarter. Or maybe he's just made more mistakes.
A minute ago Cas was there. Talking to him, sounding relatively sane and focused, a shade of the old friend he thought more than once he'd lost. But Cas isn't here now. Like it or not, Dean's alone, and he's got to deal with this on his own.
First step: stay alive.
He slinks back, retreating to the edge of the clearing where he woke up, aware at every moment of the weapon at his side and the creatures that crouch in wait all around him. A single sharp or sudden movement could unleash hell upon him -- well, he thinks, sardonically, not quite hell. His plan is to back into the underbrush without being noticed, become a part of the landscape as best he can. As he sneaks, his gaze drifts over one of the pairs of red eyes that glow in the faraway darkness. He looks away as fast as he can, but now he can feel the creature's gaze locked on him, tracing his every movement.
"Nice kitty," he mumbles under his breath, though he has no idea if he's facing a cat or an elephant or an angry vampire. "Good kitty, don't bite."
His hand fumbles for the knife as he takes another step back. A twig snaps beneath his foot. The red eyes narrow.
"Shit," he hisses, keeping the sound low, and moves back with feet dragging along the soil to avoid making another conspicuous noise. One safe footfall toward the treeline. Another. He dares to turn.
That's when it comes.
The beast leaps from the trees, and he manages to duck it. Turning around, he sees it scrambling on its haunches, panting, craning its neck to look back at him with glowing eyes.
"God," Dean breathes. "What the hell are you?"
It could have once been a wolf, or a horse of some sort, but now it’s something altogether alien. Its skin hangs off its body in long, bloody flaps, its bones are skewed and broken, and the pulsing of its organs is visible through the few translucent layers of skin that are still attached. It's nearly inside-out, and it shouldn't be breathing - but still it breathes, and bleeds, and lunges at him again. This time Dean's too horrified to move away in time, and it pins him to the ground. The stench of rot fills his nostrils, and he chokes.
But the creature's claws are as broken as its body. They fracture around Dean’s skin, falling and loosening. Despite the piercing pain of one nail that’s sunk into his shoulder, Dean manages to wriggle free. He rolls across the ground, finds his feet again, and now draws out the knife. The edge of it glints silver in the dimness. The monster's eyes flash red in response.
It charges, and Dean drags the point along the animal's skin as he dodges. Another flap of fat and meat comes loose and hangs in a long strip from the creature's side. The stench that assaults Dean's nostrils is horrible. He coughs, chokes. The monster gets a second wind as he’s fighting for breathable air, and Dean's knife is knocked from his hand, spinning wildly off to the side in the single swipe of a dark, disjointed claw.
Dean gasps, lurches to the side to grab for the weapon, and the creature knocks him down again. Its weight settles over him, and this time he’s well and truly pinned down.
Oh God, it's like looking up into the jaws of death with this thing over him, all snout and teeth and horrible red eyes. It stares, and a drop of drool falls from its tongue onto Dean's face. He spits it away, turning his head, but enough gets through his lips that he can taste it -- so bitter and vile he thinks it might burn through his face and kill him. He blinks up at the creature, and its eyes lock him into the gaze. It’s like a rod going right through his brain, piercing, penetrating, and Dean's seeing his own death, his own torture and sin and everything he's ever tried to not see, reflected there in this creature's eyes.
It's going to kill me, he thinks wildly. It's going to take me apart. I can't-- I can't--
Claws sink into the flesh of his arm. He hears himself scream.
Help! Someone, help!
The red eyes are filling his vision with blood. It’s in his mouth, too, metallic on his tongue, and he sputters, eyes closing in the desperation that comes a moment from defeat.
Cas, I need you!
Black spatters coat the laboratory like the meat of a Jackson Pollock painting. The stuff covers everything -- surfaces and windows and the slippery tiles of the floor -- the spread of it broken only where two sets of feet used to stand. Sam stares at the boot-sized prints where Dean was. There are no guts, no solid remnants of Dick Roman. And nothing of Dean, either. If the explosion claimed his life, Sam figures, there would be something left.
But all that's left in this room is death. Sam wants nothing more than to bolt, but he can't. There are things he has to do first.
The first is simple enough. He’s in a laboratory, which means there are chemicals, labeled in English (not some ancient Leviathan language, thank God), and gas valves aplenty. He opens them all the way. As the stench of gas builds up in the room, Sam busies himself finding the most volatile of the chemicals, setting them on Bunsen burners to heat up slowly. The smell's nearly choking him, and he hears the first pop of combustion as he hustles out of the building as fast as he knows how.
He isn't fast enough. The explosion rumbles behind him and mushrooms faster than he can run. The back of his shirt catches fire, and he launches himself out the door onto the pavement. His body bruises as he rolls over and over on the concrete, and by the time the flames on his shirt are extinguished, his back is seething and blistering with the heat. Scratched up, skin stinging, he rises up onto one knee and watches from a safe distance as SucroCorp goes up in flames, all its poison evaporating with it. Sam knows better than to think it will kill any of the Leviathans still in the building, but at least he's kept his promise to Kevin.
Kevin. Another loose end he has to tie up. What Crowley wants with him, where he's taken him... it's all a huge blank in Sam’s mind.
When the burn's pain has faded from unbearable into just piercing, Sam forces his way to his feet. He has one more job to do here, one thing he absolutely has to accomplish.
He makes for the shattered sign and navigates his way through the fragments of glass until he can open the front door of the Impala.
Grass crunches and splinters under the wheels as he eases the car into reverse, backs her out of the mess she's created. Meg left the engine running, and it seems to be intact, if overheated. No sign of Meg herself, and Sam couldn't care less, not right now. Meg's less than important. What's important is that he and the car get the hell out of there before law enforcement gets too interested in that fireball pouring plumes of smoke into the sky. So, fragments of glass and all, Sam eases the car back, then shifts her into drive to head out the way she came.
Once he's outrun any danger of being caught, Sam shifts, groaning, on the scraps of glass still protruding from the ripped-up seat and pulls out his phone. Crowley had said he was well and truly alone. But the world is a big place, and Sam's been all over it. He has people. And as much as he hates it, he will pull them into his fight when he needs to.
He dials Jody Mills' number.
Cas, I need you!
The words echo in his mind like they'll do something significant, but nothing happens. Dean fights to stay conscious. He has been torn apart once before, by the dogs of death and the stroke of midnight. This feels the same. As much as he can, he prepares himself to be ripped to shreds again. He grits his teeth in anticipation of the claw to the gut, the hungry teeth piercing his skin.
He can feel them coming, but they never land. No skin broken, no spurts of blood, no more pain. Just a loud thud that echoes in his skull. He dares to look up.
A thick tree branch has swung from the side and slammed the creature in the head. It hangs there a moment, stunned, then falls backward and lands in the brush, one of its legs bending beneath it with a nasty-sounding crunch. Dean scrambles to his feet and searches in the dirt for his knife. Only once he's found it does he look over at his savior.
Castiel's face is white, and his hands are shaking as they hold tight to the huge branch. When Dean's eyes meet his, he wavers. "I had no choice," he says, and in the dimness it's hard to see, but Dean thinks he might be on the verge of tears.
It makes his heart lurch, but there's no time for worry. Not with the wounded creature letting out a loud cry and the underbrush rustling as others raise their heads, red eyes glowing to life and eventually fixing on Castiel. Dean clutches his knife. "Cas, move!"
He slices forward as the first leaps through the treeline and charges them. It's ugly in a different way, horns and leather where the other was fur and claws, but it, too, looks like it's spent a century in a blender. Skin and guts and sinew trail everywhere and leave a slick black trail across the cleaning.
Dean goes for its eyes, and he swears he can hear a hissing noise as his knife lands in the center of the creature's pupil. The eye shorts and blinks, then winks out, and, stung, the creature butts at Dean, leveling its horns at him and swiping wildly. Dean's caught on the blunt side of one and tossed like a rag doll across the clearing. Castiel shouts. He presses his hand to the creature's hide, and it sizzles, like the eye did when Dean stabbed it. The creature staggers off in pain. Grabbing up his tree branch again, Castiel stands like a goalkeeper, legs spread, trying to cover the space between the monster and Dean as best he can.
"Cas!" The name wrenches from Dean's mouth before he can stop it, and as soon as he's scrambled up to stand with Castiel, knife at the ready, another two creatures burst forward from the forest. One flies, and it caws brokenly as it beats tattered wings and hovers above them. Another looks like an oversized worm, sliding along with a gaping wide mouth and endless layers of blubber that have been torn in places until the fat bubbles forth from its skin.
Three creatures, the fourth slowly recuperating from its blow and starting to growl as it shakily gets up, and there's only the two of them. Dean glances at Castiel. His face has ceased its trembling and is back to the battle mask Dean remembers from the early days when they fought side by side. It's comforting. "Cas, tell me you have some angel mojo that can send these guys packing."
Castiel's eyes dart toward his. "I wish I did."
Dean feels like crying. He laughs instead. "Well. It's been nice knowing you."
He brandishes his knife. The creatures move in.
A low noise begins far in the depths of the forest and spreads to the edge. The creatures look to the sky and join in. It's the sound of a million creatures, lowing and braying, each calling out a message that Dean can't comprehend. All of purgatory is howling.
And then, they retreat. They pad and slither and fly back to the woods, leaving Dean and Castiel standing alone and confused. Dean's eyes linger on the obscene flaps of skin trailing behind them. It takes him a minute to figure out what else has changed, but Castiel's upturned face clues him in. Light is filling the sky -- not brightness, not sunshine, but light.
Dean lowers his knife. "What the--"
"They rest," Castiel says.
"Rest?" Dean's grip tightens on the knife's handle. He doesn't believe it for a second. "I thought the whole point was they never stop tearing each other apart."
"Think back to hell, Dean," Castiel says. "When you were on the rack. You were torn apart, and then what?"
"And then... my body would heal itself," Dean says. He looks down at the nicks and lacerations on his arms. Already they are fading. "So what, this is naptime?"
"No telling how long it will last," Castiel says. "But if we want to find a way out, now's the time to do it."
"There's a way out?"
Castiel shakes his head. "I don't know. Maybe not. Every instance of a door opening has been from the other side."
"So we're screwed." Dean's heart sinks.
"Not necessarily. Your brother may be able to free us."
"What, Sam? He doesn't even know where we are."
"Indeed." The graveness on Castiel's face chills Dean to the bone. "We can only hope he finds out."
"I have no idea where they are. No clue. For all I know, Crowley took them to Hell."
Sam tangles his hair around his fingers and pulls, as though the pain will sharpen his thought process. Across the room, Jody stares at him, arms crossed. "You keep wearing a hole in my floor, you're gonna end up down under, too," she says.
This stops his pacing, and Sam looks over at her. A hint of a smile touches her lips, and her eyebrows are arched. The expression softens under his gaze. "Look, Sam, I get it. You want to find your brother. I'm happy to help you, but the first thing you have to do is stop panicking and think."
Sam takes a deep breath. It doesn't help much. "This isn't just a missing persons case," he says. "He disappeared. One minute there, he and Cas stabbing Dick Roman. Then a big explosion and... nothing. No bodies, no clues, just black goo everywhere. Where the hell do I even start figuring out what happened to them?"
"You start right there. With the facts."
Jody's gaze is unflinching, and it calms him. He lowers his hands, forces his fingers to relax. "Are you sure it's OK for me to be here? I'm still a fugitive." He looks nervously out the window, as though the FBI might pull up any minute and lock him away.
"Of course it's OK. Tell you the truth, it's nice to have a guest. This place is too big for just me. Can't believe I haven't moved yet." Her eyes flicker upward to the family photo atop the fireplace, and she gives a soft chuckle. "Then again, it's been a while since I thought I could just run away from it all. You and Bobby cured me of that notion."
"I'm sorry," Sam offers. "I know it doesn't mean much, but I really--"
"It means a lot." Her eyes aren't quite teary, but the sadness in them is palpable. A twinge of guilt twists the fibers of his heart.
And then another twinge, in another place. Jody starts. "Sam? You OK?"
He laughs. "Yeah. I think I have some glass in my--"
"Oh, sweet Jesus. Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't I figure it out? Come on, upstairs."
"Jody. I appreciate it, but the glass isn't in... a friendly place." He winces again, and this time she can see from the twitching of his muscles just where it's embedded.
She blows air through her lips. "Please. You think I haven't seen a man's ass before? You want to get infected or something? Upstairs, Winchester. Now."
He has the distinct feeling that if he doesn't cooperate, she'll pick him up and carry him there, size be damned. This is going to be truly awkward.
"So you're absolutely sure there's nothing you can do to get us out of here?"
It's the third time Dean's asked, but he keeps hoping Cas will think of something. Never mind that Cas hasn't thought of anything in the past half-hour. The definition of insanity, he thinks, and chuckles. And here he'd thought he was the sane one.
"If I were somewhere else, if I could gather the requisite components to re-enact the spell," Castiel says. "But there's no telling if it would even work from this side. If it did, I suspect the denizens of Purgatory would long since have invaded our world. I suspect the door only unlocks from the outside."
"That's the point of building a jail," Dean agrees. He slumps against the face of a mound of rocks, a cliff of sorts. It slopes on the other side to a hill, and weird dark tangles of something like grass dot the top. It's high ground, and it's probably the best place to watch for the moment the creatures start to stir again. He hoists himself up over the edge of it, stands up, and looks around.
Castiel follows him. "My Father knew what he was doing." He half-chuckles. "At least, he did in the beginning."
"I'm long past hoping for divine intervention," Dean says. Up here on the hilltop, there's a single tree, gnarling branches and dark leaves. He picks one of the leaves and stares down at it. It's not like any leaf he's ever seen, not made of fibers and pulp the way normal leaves are. It moves inside, as though it's liquid packed into a mold, dark pools running back and forth and swirling within the solid shape of it. He twists the leaf between his thumb and forefinger and it breaks down, leaves inky smudges on his skin.
"So what's our next move?" he says, wiping the black stuff off on the tree bark with a grunt.
"I can't tell you that," Castiel says evenly.
"Well, we can't just sit here waiting for those things to kill us. Think, Cas. You have to have heard something about purgatory when you were up in heaven. What do you know?"
He glances at Castiel and takes a sharp breath in. Castiel's eyes have unfocused, and he's half-smiling in that bewildered way that tells Dean he's checked out of reality again. "I wonder how many leaves are on this tree?" he says.
Dean snaps a finger. "Focus."
"Eleven, twelve.. seventeen." Castiel's voice fades in and out as he counts. Dean watches him with increasing ire. He clears his throat, balls up a fist and lands it on the tree trunk. The leaves shiver. Castiel frowns at him. "You made me lose count. I'll have to start again."
"Cut the crap and focus. You have to help me find a way out of here before we get killed."
"I seriously doubt that will happen."
"Oh, well, I feel so much better then," Dean snaps. "You know what your doubt is worth right now? A hill of crap, that's what. Are you just here to count leaves?"
Big eyes meet his, then narrow. "Dean," Castiel says, "I'm just here."
"What, that's it? End of sentence?" Dean rolls his eyes. "Then what the hell is the point of you?"
Castiel stares at him a minute. His mouth opens, then shuts again.
Dean realizes what he's done too late. He tries to take a step, to smooth things over, but it's too late. Cas is gone.