Out of the corner of his eye, Dean could see Sam grimacing. He chuckled, and flipped a wad of goop off the bolt. His little brother always liked to complain that darkspawn blood put off his appetite. Even though Sam was keeping his mouth shut this time, the way that his head tipped back and his nostrils flared suggested that the thought wasn't far from his mind.
"Your favorite thing to wake up to in the morning, huh?" Dean wiggled the bolt at Sam and was rewarded with a full-body flinch.
Still grinning, Dean went back to work, pulling out the quarrels one by one and tossing them into a spattered pile. Impala barked and wheeled in circles around them; she wanted to worry at the corpses, to gnaw and tear and make sure they were good and dead, but even she had the sense to leave darkspawn alone on the ground. While the magic of their creators had given the mabari an almost eerie intelligence, it hadn't made the dogs immune to the taint.
"Good girl," he told her absently, reaching out to pat her head and scratch her ears when she came up next to him. "You wanna move a little quicker there, Sammy?"
"It takes a while to fill bottles with blood when there isn't a heart to pump it, Dean," Sam scowled, not looking up from where he was playing hunt-the-vein for darkspawn blood. Why anyone wanted the stuff was beyond either of them, but the merchants paid well for it, and there wasn't any sense in wasting stuff that could be sold. Maker knew they couldn't rely on prying open rusted chests and crates in damp caves forever.
"Yeah, yeah." Sam might be happy with waiting like a stuffed goose for the axe, but hanging around after a kill always made Dean restless. Fresh corpses would attract other darkspawn soon enough. They'd only taken this passage because their father's map had said it would lead them through the mountain range instead of around it, and they didn't exactly have the luxury of time. The two of them had been lucky enough to avoid running into too many monsters so far, but they were already missing regular meals, let alone the other wonders of civilization.
One last squeak of a cork, and Sam was grabbing his bags. "That's the last one. Let's go."
"Finally. Let's get out of here." Hefting his half of the supplies, Dean circled around to take up point, knowing Impala would dutifully bring up the rear. The position was a familiar one. Growing up, it had always been important to make sure that Sammy -- gangly, bookish Sammy -- stayed safe. The fact that Sam now towered over Dean -- and wasn't that a trip, still surprising after half a year on the road -- hardly made a difference.
When Dean heard Sam groan behind him, he just grinned wider. "It shouldn't be too much farther to the last sighting."
"That's what you said half an hour ago."
"Yeah, well, half an hour is half an hour less walking we have to do, so let's get to it before we wait any longer."
Over his shoulder, he saw Sam swallow hard, and push to catch up.
Things hadn't really gotten any better since then.
The hunt this time was a good one, perfect for just starting off the spring: a blighted werewolf on the loose from its darkspawn brethren, or maybe just an unlucky wanderer out of the Brecilian Forest, where the most recent outbreaks were supposed to stem from. Fortunately enough, it had been reported solo; an entire pack of the demented things could have eaten their way through half a dozen farmsteads without slowing down.
The problem wasn't figuring out what the monster was, this time. The problem was deciding how they were going to deal with it. There wasn't much for them to go on when it came to information on werewolves, let alone tainted ones. All that was in Dad's journal was a note saying to look up Brother Genitivi, like half the other notes out there. If Dean ever met the good Brother, he'd either accuse him of making everything up, or buy him a round for every time Genitivi's gossip saved his life. Probably both.
For the time being, they were following recent sightings of the beast, using rumors to help guide them closer to their prey. The weather was good; the sun was returning at its own unhurried pace, thawing out a world that had been huddled down into the depths of Ferelden winter. It wasn't the first time they'd hunted a werewolf, but those kinds of beasts needed extra-careful handling -- no cure for a bite, so it was all long-range weapons and desperate escapes -- and they were already working with a handicap. Two handicaps, in fact. Sam's wrist was still on the mend, and neither one of them were fighting at their best while still being weighed down by the memory of the last time they'd seen their father.
Dean couldn't do a lick of good against both of those, so instead, he stuck to what he could handle. Impala was fast, but a werewolf would be faster, and have the advantage of reach. It had been human once; it would be canny. It would also be oozing with darkspawn taint.
So, as far as Dean could figure it, the answer was simple. They'd just have to hit the beast from a distance, hard and fast, before it could get in reach of them or anyone else -- and make sure the shot was a kill cleaner than Andraste's corsetry.
The more immediate concern was how well-equipped he and Sam were to deal with a fight of any kind. If funds were better, they wouldn't have to reuse weapons that were stained with 'spawn blood -- never safe to play with that, it was like kissing a desire demon and not expecting to swallow the excrement of its last victim -- but they had been running low ever since Orlais. Dwarves were too canny to be tricked into inscribing runes for something as insubstantial as a promise, and the Winchester money pouch was light enough.
The werewolf job would pay off well. It had to. There were only so many scams they could pull off, picking up the payments of tardy merchants and claiming they were simply errand-boys. If they didn't turn a decent bounty job soon, they'd have to resort to running close to black markets again, and Sam was still waking up shivering from the last time they brushed past the Coterie, and someone had whispered the right words about loose mages to the right templar ears. Dean and Sam had had to flee for weeks after that one, huddled in alleyway corners together, one hand clenched tight on a weapon and one hand clinging to each other.
Dean could have been fine on his own. The templars weren't coming for him. And he knew it wound Sam up sometimes to think about it, about how their family had spent so much time on the run, finding demons in every shadow and templars on their heels -- but Dean hadn't left him. Not yet.
Most of the time, frankly, he was worried about Sam leaving instead.
Word from the hunter boards had been that the blighted werewolf had been lurking around Gainn, a freehold in the northern Bannorn, west of Denerim, so that was where they were headed. He and Sam had settled on a long route, one that swung closer to Denerim and avoided the stretch of darkspawn-ravaged land around the wilds. Even if the darkspawn were gone from the blasted crater that had once been Lothering, Dean still didn't want to pass any closer than he had to. No telling what had seeped into the land with the darkspawn's influence. No telling what it might have woken up.
As he was sighting down the length of his crossbow, he heard the flame only seconds before he felt it: a ball of magic that had gone awry, skimming too close to his hair for comfort. Dean ducked out of its way with a yelp. "Maker, Sammy, watch where you're aiming those things! Pick a different side to practice, okay?"
Sam's only response was to blink at him blearily, body clearly still operating on the bare minimum of intelligence. Dean sighed. Neither of them were good at dealing with mornings, but Dean had had more practice forcing himself to function despite it. Besides, John Winchester had never been a fan of comfortable mornings. By now, the routine was too deeply ingrained for Dean to skip without feeling half-dressed for the rest of the day.
By the time Dean finished what was left of his warmup rounds, he was already ravenous. It was harder to pace himself when his supplies felt like they were feeding more than just two people; Dad had been a sparse eater, but Sam's stomach seemed endless. There wasn't always an inn nearby to look forward to, so their meals tended towards campfire fare, using whatever rations they could scramble together.
Tugging the last practice arrow from where it had lodged into a tree trunk, Dean rolled his shoulders back, assessing his brother's current state. Judging by his glazed look, Sam was likelier to end up tripping over a rock than being useful for actual motion.
"I'll go check the traps, see if they caught anything," he sighed, stowing the crossbow back into their packs. "Impala, stay."
The command woke up Sam up, if only temporarily, to squint at Dean through sleep-gritty eyes. "I'm not five years old anymore, Dean. I can take care of myself."
Dean snorted. "If you keep complaining," he threatened, "I'll have her sit on you."
Which they'd done all the way up to when the Blight had broken out, and while the rest of the continent had thrown up their hands about a few hundred thousand million extra darkspawn, Dean had had bigger concerns. The yellow-eyed bastard had managed to finally get himself summoned through the Fade, and then Dad had come back pale and terse and all, we're going to get your brother. Now, Dean, and the two of them had beaten the path all the way back to Ansburg -- //Ansburg// of all places -- to collect Sam, only to find that that was exactly where the yellow-eyed demon had gone too, off to the same damned Circle. Somehow, the thing's minions had gotten into the place. A dozen mages had been killed, two dozen templars had been gutted, and Sam's illicit girlfriend was a crispy smear on the ceiling, so the only thing to do was to get Sam the hell out of there no matter what.
Clearly the Circle couldn't do jack about actually protecting his little brother, so Dean had to do it himself.
Dad had gone missing during that disaster -- after telling Dean to take the Colt and Sam and run, just run for it, and don't look back, you hear me boy? -- and Dean had followed orders. After that, the Circle had been too much of a mess to return to, and templars had been everywhere; way too dangerous to bring Sam anywhere close, so all they could do was keep moving and hope to meet up with Dad again somewhere.
So now, it was just the two of them on the road, just by themselves, carrying the weight of their father's weapons and his memories along behind them. Impala was loyal, but she was getting middle-aged and rusty, stiff-legged when she hunted, and Dean hadn't checked lately about how long mabari hounds were supposed to live. He knew it couldn't be forever. He loved her anyway, especially when she sagged over Sam's lap and drooled and farted and Sam made faces; there were a lot of things unresolved between Dean and his father, but his father's dog was nothing but perfect.
Dean grinned to himself as he popped open a trap and hauled a stringy squirrel out, checking it automatically for signs of taint. This tasty piece of meat was way too good for Sam, he decided. Impala could get dibs.
Which meant they would have to waste precious time on that activity which Dean always dreaded: research.
Gainn itself was more impressive than the other villages they'd come through, meaning that it was actually intact and didn't look half-burned from brigands. Its farmsteads stretched out in awkward coils, winding around stubbly roads and ancient tree stumps, testament to lukewarm efforts to clear the land, only to relent to the pressures of a short growing year. Most of the fences were upright. It was downright luxurious, after a fashion.
Dean whistled as he and Sam trudged down the last few miles to the town square. A few of the farmers had seen them coming; one or two had even lifted a hand in cautious greeting, but no one had approached directly. Dean didn't take it too hard. Plenty of reason to be suspicious, after all. Just so long as there was a dry place to sleep, and the villagers didn't try to run them off on sight, then he could handle a little caution.
Luckily enough, Dean's tips usually came from the local taverns. Sam got to stomp off to whatever mage collective was lurking around, making secret code sign hanky-panky with rainbow glitter until they let him into their depressing basements and shared the latest rumors over moldering sacks of mushrooms. Taverns were easier. Better eye-candy, too.
They parted pretty quick once they managed to orient themselves to the town hall, using the greying bell-tower as a landmark. There wasn't much need for words; Impala stuck with Dean, of course, and Sam had already settled into his usual murky glower that he got whenever the issue of secret mages came up. Splitting early meant that Dean had to carry the extra gear bag, at least until he booked a room, but the prospect of getting to sit down for a few hours and drink was well worth the trouble.
There was only one tavern in town, so Dean figured Sam would know how to find him. Dean slid into the Spotted Hand -- giving the sign on the front a rather leery eye -- and gave a nod to the bartender. The catcalls and jeers in one corner were sure indicators of a card game in progress. It made Dean's fingers twitch: crummy local place like this, people probably wouldn't realize what a decent player was if he up and walked out with their life savings. But fleecing drunks at games of Wicked Grace, by unspoken agreement -- or rather, by Sam's reproachful stare whenever Dean's eyes lingered on a game -- was off limits. A settlement like this was far from the worst of the Blight, but there were other, ordinary problems to deal with, like planting and harvests and erratic weather. Ferelden wasn't an easy country to scrape a living out of. Easy winter or not, people were still living off last year's harvest, praying for the next: they already had bad luck in spades. The Winchesters didn't need to add on to it, at least not until they'd taken out whatever monster was making their lives a fresh kind of hell.
Resigning himself to good behavior for now, Dean settled down to his own table, kicking their gear underneath. The only people in the tavern so far looked like merchants or tradesmen. Judging by the light, Gainn's farmers would still be out in the fields for another few hours, so the dinner crowd would be the riper opportunity for pickings.
Patient enough for now -- they'd just arrived, and the villagers were probably still wondering if they were about to turn into either templars or abominations -- Dean kept half an eye on the game, marking out who looked like they'd be easiest to bait. Just when the crowd was starting to get thick, and the players were looking loose enough for him to start winning a few good coins, Sam finally stomped back in.
Habit meant Dean had took a seat where he could keep an eye on the door and watch for people trickling through, so he spotted Sam the moment his brother returned. Sam had that strained, closed-off look he always had after he came back from talking with the mages' collective, and Dean almost felt sorry for him.
"So what've we got?" Without waiting, Dean slid over his own mug to Sam and motioned for a fresh one for himself; Sam sniffed suspiciously at the contents before taking a sip. Predictably, he grimaced, before reaching into his bag to pull out the rough map of the area he'd sketched out this morning. With a flick of his hand, Sam spread it out on the table, setting leather weights on the corners to hold it in place.
"As far as anyone can tell, it's running solo. It's only been sighted close to the river, south and west of the town -- here, here, and here." Sam pointed to each spot marked out on the map in chalky blue.
"Victims?" Dean squinted at the map, hoping the colors and lines would magically resolve themselves into a convenient pattern. No such luck.
Sam tapped the map again, drawing Dean's attention to the red marks. "Mostly livestock. One farmhand, though he was alive when they found him -- he died of infection a couple of weeks ago. Didn't turn, though, so he was a lucky one. Sounds like it's been sticking close to those farms in particular. If there's going to be another killing, it'll be there."
Time was, Dean thought reflectively, Sam would have delivered that spiel with flashing eyes and barely-checked indignation at the unfairness of it all. Sam had always been the bleeding heart for people -- still was, as far as Dean could figure -- but he was getting tougher, better at shoving that sentimentality aside to get the job done.
Truth was, even if Dean had spent more than half his life wishing Sam would quit falling for every sob story tossed his way, it felt like a loss.
"That settles it, then." He rolled his shoulders back, feeling an absent-minded pride at the twinge of hard-worked muscle. "We'll head out there tomorrow, take a look around. Set a few traps and try to catch this thing before it gets anyone else."
The corners of Sam's lips twitched down, the look he sent Dean just short of incredulous. "You're kidding, right? We haven't even talked to anyone who's seen the thing."
"You've been talking enough for both of us." Sam's expression shifted from exasperated to murderous, and Dean fought back a grin, holding his hands up placatingly. So easy. "Look, it's a werewolf. It's got the taint. We've dealt with all that before, what's the big deal about both at once?"
Their inn room was safe enough, or as safe as Dean could make it: checking the walls and floorboards, paying extra for a door that actually closed, and even then, he looked under both cots. Just in case. He brought the crossbow out sometimes, carefully, only when they were absolutely certain that nothing else was around -- and that even if darkspawn came burrowing out from the ground they were sitting on, there were still at least three different ways to fight back or escape. The weapon didn't look like much. Dean could recognize some of the symbols etched into the Colt's stock, but even Sam couldn't read all of them, and he said the Colt probably came from the Tevinter Imperium. Before the Colt, Dean would have said the idea of an all-metal crossbow was a ridiculous one, but whatever magic was bound into the Colt also made her weigh only as much as any other crossbow. She looked like a sculpture, a toy, even though all her normal bolts came out trailing sparks and practically screaming with magic -- and the special ones, the ones forged by Colt himself, those burst out like liquid silver.
The Colt was made for hunting demons, but either Samuel Colt figured he was going to be around long enough to make more ammo, or he didn't believe in making something so powerful into a target for demons for miles around. When Dad had shoved it into Dean's hands, there had only been had a single bolt left. Only one meant that they had to save it for the yellow-eyed demon. No excuses. No mistakes.
While Sam flipped through his books and made faces at all the pictures, Dean focused on the crossbow, making sure all the parts that he understood were cleanly sliding. Enchantments or not, the Colt was still a weapon, and Dean knew weapons like he knew his own breathing. Before he put it away, though, he lingered, touching it, making sure to use the oilcloth to cancel out each smudged fingerprint. He'd never admit why. Not without looking creepy, but handling the weapon made him feel closer to Dad. The Colt was something important to Dad, one of two things that had mattered to him: Sam and the Colt. Just those two.
Well, and one more thing -- but that was what they were hunting. After Dad had been taken, Dean had heard about a gathering that the yellow-eyed demon had been setting up, some kind of mage collection fit to rival an entire Circle. Sam had been going to pieces ever since they'd caught rumor of it, and that had decided the matter right then for Dean. He hadn't waited; he'd taken Impala out with him every night for every lead, until finally the two of them caught up with the blood mages on the road, had pegged the lead guy from surprise and then took out the rest of the gang, as methodical as plugging a row of apples off a tree. Roadside banditry: a Winchester classic. No need to wait for the demon to get prepared for whatever showdown it'd been planning.
The crazy part was that Dean couldn't shake the feeling of something being thrown off-course ever since then, like the demon hadn't anticipated this twist of events. Maybe it had never counted on Impala being tough enough to take part in the hunt, or for its blood mage tools to get hijacked en route. For all Dean knows, it was part of the demon's plan to get his puppets killed; the thing might have been some kind of frame job to implicate the Winchesters as the real maleficarum. Dean seriously couldn't tell.
But ever since losing its clutch of pet kid Circle mages, the demon had apparently gone to ground. Dean knew it was only a matter of time before it comes back up again. He knew, and he would be ready.
Dad had traded himself as a distraction and given over the Colt and Sam to Dean's care, and that fact still hurt whenever Dean thought about it. If he'd been tougher, maybe he could have helped enough. Maybe Dad could have been with them now.
All Dean could do was keep Sam and the Colt safe. He wouldn't let it come down to what Dad had warned against. He wouldn't let Sammy become something that Dean would have to kill.
A few minutes' reconnaissance confirmed what Dean had suspected, which was that neither of them were going to be able to shoot for shit. Closer to the village, the ground was littered with the stumps of trees that had been felled and used for village lumber, Further in, the untouched trees huddled together mutinously. Their progress slowed to a crawl as they picked their way around lichen-covered trunks, hampered by their supply packs. At least they'd been able to store the bulkiest gear back in the tavern, but they still couldn't travel light. Dean wasn't going to trust the Colt to some backwater inn, and traps were going to be necessary, which meant having to carry all that crap on their backs while they found the right place to set up.
Impala, predictably, was already in love with the territory, bounding over half-collapsed trees and rocky outcrops like a pup. Dean was less thrilled. The chances of them getting a kill shot in the middle of these woods were about as high as Dean convincing Sam to settle down with a nice busty milkmaid in one of the better-protected banns, have a farm and cottage -- oh, and stop using magic while he was at it, too.
He cursed as Sam let a branch snap back and nearly take out his eye. "Hey! Aim for the mark, not your brother."
"Sorry," Sam grunted back, not sounding sincere in the slightest.
"Well, watch it," Dean huffed. "Just because you've got your own damned walking stick -- ow!"
The sun had already crept over the edge of the trees by the time they managed to find a clearing good enough to set up camp in. Having branches interlocked overhead would keep the worst of the rain off, if it came, and it was big enough to fit two men and a full-grown Mabari. Dean surveyed the space, sniffed the air, and then unceremoniously dumped his packs.
While Sam crouched down to start digging out a fire pit, Dean sorted through their trap kit. He pulled things out of meticulously marked pouches, running his fingers over a glittering lure before putting it away. As much as he liked the shine, something like a werewolf couldn't be drawn by the flash of false gold; the things hunted more by scent than by sight. The claw traps were a no too. In general, they were handy to have around, except that their prey was bipedal this time and closer to a human's weight than a bear's. That kind of similarity always made Dean nervous whenever he was carrying enough gear and hiking through too much mud; he'd stepped hard on bear triggers before without springing the teeth, but a werewolf-weighted trap just seemed like an unnecessary risk.
Snares would be less destructive, but less likely to keep the werewolf in place. Clouds might work; a misdirection cloud trap might just save their asses if it meant the difference between a claw and a bite. Grease could be on their side, but it also might keep them from a safe retreat. After enough poking and prodding, Dean settled on a range of shock chemicals -- no need to burn down the forest -- snares, and powders. The rest would be up to how well he and Sam could hold up in combat.
Sam put up a few protective glyphs, ones that wouldn't last for the entire night, but were good enough when combined with a regular watch. Even if they were magic, Dean still liked knowing they were there. Wards were warmth, wards were safety, and wards made the shape of their bed-downs. Any hunter worth their salt knew the double-edged lesson from the start: the best protections were mages, but they were also what could lead demons straight inside.
Sam would be smarter than that, though. Sam had to be smarter.
The first night was quiet, filled with the occasional snuffle of animals too small to be a threat. Dean and Sam relocated camp the day afterwards, staying on the move to keep their scents from soaking too much into their surroundings. They checked for evidence of kills, for spoor and damaged bark, for clumps of fur that were coarse and flaking. The woods stayed normal enough: no darkspawn, no random murder victims, and most importantly, no blightwolf.
By the third day, Dean was getting irritated by the lack of a target. It wasn't like they needed the thing to waddle right up to them and flop down; he just needed an idea of the territory it was staying in so that he could set up the traps properly. It wasn't any good to find the perfect cul-de-sac if their mark was hanging out over an hour away. On the other hand, if it was too canny, then it was probably just hiding out in hopes that Dean and Sam would pass through.
"Think we're going to have to leave a deer out," he suggested after another hour spent squinting at the trees.
If Sam frowned any harder, his mouth was going to fall right off his face. "Not like we can force it to show up if it's being cautious, Dean."
"Yeah, well, no animal I know gets that scared when it's hungry."
"If it's out here, we should have seen some sign of it by now. It probably knows we're here, and it's staying away. A deer won't cut it, Dean."
"Patience, Sammy, is the first virtue of a true hunter." Dean waggled the dagger he was sharpening at Sam, tutting under his breath. "Patience and respect for an appetite. It's like I never taught you anything."
The look Sam shot him was worth it, pure poison in little brother form. "It's not like you set a good example. I don't remember much of you or Dad being -- whatever."
Just like that, Sam's mouth had snapped shut. Dad wasn't something they talked about yet. Even Dean felt the tension winding him up, erasing all the good feelings he was trying to assemble about the hunt, and replacing the with the uncertainty of the future.
"Fine," he spat, fed up suddenly with all Sam's wailing. "You want to try another idea, you go and do it. Bet you're the expert, after all. Reading all those books in that Circle probably taught you about real hunts."
Sam started to say something; then he stopped, clamped his teeth shut, nostrils flaring with the force of every bitter word he refused to throw back in a return volley. He stood up, grabbed his staff, and stalked off into the woods.
Dean was righteously pissed for all of two seconds more, until Impala nudged his leg and whined again. Dammit. Sure, Sam was a mage -- but Dean had the fire for protection, and yeah, the blightwolf wasn't exactly showing up in front of them, which meant that it was out in the woods. Somewhere.
Impala mouthed his hand, and Dean could feel the not-so-gentle pressure of a tooth. "Yeah, okay," he admitted, shifting his fingers to ruffle her behind the ears. "Go keep an eye on Serah Prissy-Pants, will ya girl?"
She bounded eagerly once towards the edge of the firelight, and then lingered, looking back at him expectantly. He waved her off impatiently, making scoffing tchs! between his teeth until she finally relented, and moved on. The night settled in around him as he fed the fire in small doses, not wanting to use up all their wood, but not wanting to have to lug a ton of branches with them either.
When Sam didn't return right away, Dean tried to count up how many hours he'd give him before hitting the bedroll. He hadn't planned on staying awake the whole night for watch, and it was getting close to what would be Sam's half of the shift. He scooted closer to the nearest tree, wedging himself up against it for support while he let a doze take over, letting his senses fall into the half-muffled trance that would snap him out at the first sign of weirdness.
The night passed fine like that, easy and routine, until Dean found himself sitting rigidly upright, with no idea of why.
Everything was quiet. Way too quiet, and there was a reason it was called quiet as death: when there was something big enough, dangerous enough, to silence everything from the boldest of crows to the stubbornest badgers, then that thing was going to come and try to kill you too, if you didn't hide.
Dean's skin prickled uncomfortably as he tried to remember exactly when the noise of living creatures died away. It had happened sometime when he was napping, slow enough not to get him on immediate alert -- and he had no idea where his brother was.
"Sam?" He called. The woods absorbed all sound; nothing echoed back. "Sammy?"
Moonlight trickled down serenely overhead.
In an instant, Dean's hunter instincts went full-blown so fast that they almost choked the air off in his throat, he clenched up so quick. His hands were grabbing for his crossbow; his hips felt the reassuring weight of his daggers as he pushed himself up to his feet -- and then several hundred pounds of fur and claw came pounding out of the woods, powerful enough to spring directly over the fire for his throat.
Dean twisted fast, hoping the beast would hit the tree and get stunned; unfortunately, all he got for the effort was a faceful of bark chips and a set of claws raking for his eyes. He backpedaled, bringing up the crossbow underhanded in a shot for center mass. The string twanged; the bolt buried itself in a roll of fur, eliciting a strangled growl, but little else.
Dean dropped the crossbow -- no time to reload -- and grabbed for his daggers.
This wasn't good. It definitely wasn't good; he'd trapped around the camp, duh, but Sam's glyphs had long-expired, and Dean had been expecting his brother to be there to fill in the holes. Now that the creature had exposed itself, he could see that they'd found their quarry after all: a werewolf, scabbed over and oozing like no living creature should be while still mobile. Darkspawn taint had flayed the flesh away from its muzzle, exposing blackened bones to the air. Where a nose should have been was only a slit, burbling with each of the creature's whuffing snorts. Its ebony fur was matted and spiked with filth. It looked like a demented, giant porcupine -- but one with a pair of very aware, very alert eyes that were fixed on Dean, teeth bared in a grinning leer.
"Come on, bitch-tits," Dean panted, bringing up both his daggers in oblique angles. Trying to parry would be stupid; the thing was so much more massive, it'd swat his weapons away like twigs. His best chance would be to sting it into a frenzy, and then trip it into the fire somehow, pin it down there, somehow. Somehow.
The front claws came for him again, keeping him on the retreat; trying to dodge and keep to the firelight was a definite disadvantage, as it left him trying to backpedal in a circle, stomping on their gear. He took a bad rake across his forearm, glancing off his bracers and almost snagging in the lacings. The bag with his trap supplies was on the opposite side of the fire now, and Dean tried to keep it in view as he maneuvered, entirely on the defensive now as he tried to recover some space.
Then the war-howl of a mabari sliced through the air, and even despite his training, Dean froze, because if Impala was back, then Sam was there -- thank the Maker, and not killed by the blightwolf out in the field somewhere, and Dean hadn't even let himself think about that option until now. The cold possibility of it hit his gut; then a punch followed up, Dean's armor barely keeping the blightwolf's claws from disemboweling him. He stumbled, his attention split between Impala and the monster, and then he went pinwheeling down, boots tangled up in one of their bedrolls, eyesight blinded into spots from the nearby fire.
The next thing Dean was aware of was Sam's voice distantly calling his name, and white-hot pain lancing up his leg.
Terrifying was a far more appropriate word.
He smashed through the brambles, trying to keep up with the mabari, and cursing the idiocy that had compelled them to split up from Dean in the first place. He burst through the last flimsy screen of bushes to find his brother sprawled on his back, both daggers up to keep the blighted werewolf -- because of course it was the werewolf, only Winchester luck would have them run into the monster they were chasing when they weren't ready for it -- and its gnashing teeth away from his throat. It wasn't a fight he was winning. The armor on his upper thigh was gone, and a dark stain was spreading over what was left of the cloth padding, shredded in waves like a frothy red cloud.
Then, as if sensing the new threat about to shift the balance, the werewolf growled and backhanded Dean into a tree.
Sam didn't stop to think: instead, he reached inside his mind and yanked on his magic, sending flames snapping off his fingers with none of the grace of his usual spells. Without the addition of his staff to focus it, the shot went wild, veering to the left and singeing a hole in the tree trunk above Dean's head. Evidently, spontaneous miniature explosions were not among the things that the werewolf had expected to encounter today, and it backed away with a low whine of confusion when the stench of scorched wood assaulted its nose.
Sam's hands ached, promising him grief for the pure power he'd dragged out of himself, but he kept the fire ignited on his fingertips anyway. This time, he raised the staff in warning as he stepped closer. The magefire burning along the resin-heavy wood was bright enough to edge the werewolf's fur with gold when its heavy, misshapen head swung around to look at Sam with glittering, too-knowing eyes.
Sam met its gaze head-on. His lips curled, and he snarled, "Get away from my brother."
The strangest part was that the werewolf actually seemed to hesitate at Sam's voice. Its fleshless muzzle snapped once in his direction, and then it was backing away from them both, swaying from side to side before it finally bolted into the trees.
It might have been a bluff and the werewolf would come back for them the moment Sam's guard was down, but he didn't care. His knees hit the blood-muddied dirt with an audible squelch when he dropped down, and his fingers shook so badly as they scrambled for his brother's pulse -- please don't be dead, don't be stupid enough to be dead -- that it took him too long to realize the heartbeat he was feeling was his own. He must have been pressing too hard, because after a moment, Dean stirred sluggishly, and batted at Sam's hand.
"You trying to kill me, or just make me wish the wolf finished the job?" The accusation was fuzzy with pain, but Dean seemed strong enough to not die in the next few seconds, which was better than half of Sam's initial fears. He grabbed for their packs, searching for the quickest bandages -- stopgap measures, much like the weak healing spells he snapped off, cursing himself for not paying better attention back at the Circle.
Sam didn't have a clear memory of how he managed to drag them both back to town, stumbling through the forest with his brother's weight half-slung over his shoulder. Some of the details were striking in their clarity, like the sharp smell of pine sap in his nose and the sound of Impala whining as she ran anxious circles around his legs. The rest of it was lost in a haze of muddy green and brown and blood.
But when Sam finally reached came to Dean's leg, his mouth turned dry; with the blood cleaned away, all that was left was a mess of jagged incisions that looked terrifying like the shape of an animal's mouth, as far as Sam could figure it. The blighted werewolf had been huge. The span of cuts on Dean's leg could easily be the result of a quick snap of its jaws. The whole thing looked like a dog bite, on a larger scale, and that meant infection.
Dean snorted when Sam voiced his concern, and tried to jerk his leg back. "Just claws, Sam, you think I'm that much of a novice?"
Sam firmed his jaw and continued to try and dab tincture into the wounds. "We've got to get you some better medical care," he muttered, trying futilely to ignore the mounting sense of guilt for ignoring his training. "They've got a Chantry here in town, a little one. We'll have to risk it."
"No." Dean's hand snapped out and pinned the cloth down like a butterfly, wings wet against his leg. "Look, you want to spook the town into thinking I'll turn? They already know we went out looking for the thing and that I came back in seriously bad shape. No," he repeated, sinking back against his pillow. "We play it cool. Just a couple of scrapes from some stray darkspawn, that's all this was. Got it?"
The wounds, of course, were the least of Sam's worries. Despite Dean's complaining, the look in his brother's eyes said he knew it too. Regular infection, in the long run, wasn't the problem: there were poultices to draw that out, and what Sam couldn't manage to do between generous applications of elfroot and his rudimentary healing magic skills, they could pay a real healer to take a look at.
What he was remembering, and what he knew Dean was thinking about too, was the neat list scrawled down in Dad's journal, detailing the progression of a werewolf's curse. There was no way to assess the real damage until the fever set in, and then Dean changed.
No way to find out, until then, if Sam had saved his brother only to have to put him down.
After Sam had daubed grimly at the wound for long enough, Dean finally reached the limits of his patience. "Welp, nothing we can do about it now, Sammy," he insisted, and yanked the blanket over his leg, covering it up completely. Under the bed, Impala whuffed in canine disapproval. "Might as well let me fix up my armor while you go make yourself useful downstairs. Maybe someone's heard something new while we've been out."
Sam stood back, a dull, old anger settled low into his stomach. He could still remember another time when things had gone awry: the way his hands shook as he smoothed healing salve over Dean's latest injury, trembling in anger instead of fear. He'd been angry at his brother for a different reason, for throwing himself in harm's way to protect him like he was five years old instead of twelve; angry at their father, because where was he anyway, now that his sons needed him most? When it had come down to Dean getting hurt, and Sam not being able to do a thing?
What had startled him back then was the feeling of clumsy fingers reaching for his face, patting his cheeks. Hey, Sammy, Dean had slurred, drunk enough to numb the pain but apparently not so drunk he couldn't see the tears welling in his brother's eyes -- tears that made Sam's vision swim, even after he dashed them away. M'fine. S'not your fault. Shoulda been faster, that's all.
Sam's head had snapped up, then. Years later, he could still remember his vicious satisfaction when Dean had started in surprise.
Shut up, Dean. The cold fury in voice wasn't something he had recognized, and by the way Dean's brow had wrinkled, Sam could tell he didn't either. Before Dean could ask, Sam had pressed down on the the arm he was wrapping in bandages, savage enough to make Dean yelp in alarm and protest that Sam was clearly trying to kill him.
Just shut up, okay?
Now, looking at the same situation played out again in different shades, Sam wondered if that day was when he first knew he'd wanted to leave.
The next morning, Dean was still a snoring lump. Impala had taken up position along his ribcage, tucked into him like a furry rock, so Sam resolved to figure out something while he had the opportunity of no distractions. Just for good measure, he searched around town, spying on the tiny Chantry and wondering if it dealt in the same potions and remedies of its larger counterparts. As much as it creeped him out to buy from a Tranquil, that was how the Chantry usually sold most of their wares, so he'd have to cope with it one way or the other.
Thankfully enough -- maybe -- he didn't catch sight of one of the empty-minded mages, only a few sisters tending to the regular business of accepting visitors and telling them all about the evils of magic. He hesitated anyway, just in case one of them might be willing to sell a few potions. In the end, his courage refused to let him approach, warning him a hundred times over of just how risky it was for an escaped Circle mage to tempt fate. Even if Ansburg's records were in chaos after the yellow-eyed demon's attack, Sam couldn't be sure when his name would be relocated from the presumed dead to the rogue list. No need to run the risk of an unlucky accident with a visiting templar.
Chalking it up to nerves, Sam swung back to their tavern room in the afternoon, hauling up a platter with a hunk of bread and cheese, a pitcher of water in the other hand. "Dean?" he called out as he nudged the door open, half-expecting to find his brother already stuffing himself with lunch. "Did you get your sorry ass out of bed yet?"
The answer, apparently, was no.
At first, Sam tried to rationalize it as Dean just being lazy enough to go back to sleep afterwards, but it didn't look like he'd changed position much from the last time Sam had seen him, and nothing about the room had been disturbed -- Dean's boots were in the same place, and the air had the slight mustiness of not being stirred. Even Impala was in the same place, though she lifted her head and looked at Sam accusingly, ears laid back hard against her skull. Frowning, Sam shoved the food onto the nearest table and grabbed for his brother's shoulder, a sick feeling of dread in his stomach at the possibility of finding the flesh cold.
What he got was Dean stirring lazily, rudimentary twitches of protest. "Hey, a little space?" His brother waved a hand; Sam could see him regretting it instantly as the motion jolted nerves that really weren't up to much more than curling up and whimpering.
"Let me check the wound again," Sam insisted. He pulled on the blankets, hard, and tried not to flinch at the clumsy defenses that Dean put up. He got as far as laying his hands on Dean's leg, but just as he was trying to get in a good position to examine the wound, Dean gave him a hard shove.
"I feel fine, Sam." Dean rolled his eyes, twisting his leg in an effort to get it out of Sam's grip; the effort was pathetic, but Sam's strength wasn't in the best of shape either, so Dean managed to slip it out anyway. He saw Dean realize it the same time he did, pausing in surprise, before gathering himself enough to bluster onwards. "It's just a scratch. If I was infected by the taint, I think I'd be feeling a lot crappier right now."
"It's not the taint I'm worried about, and you know it," Sam shot back, testy enough to make Dean raise his eyebrows.
"Uh, no, I don't. Mind-reading isn't exactly a skill I've got. If it was, I wouldn't have to actually talk to our contacts, like a normal person. Do me a favor, take Impala out. She's gonna need some air. And a tree," he added with a grunt, scrunching himself down in the bed like changing topics could change reality.
Sam grit his teeth. Dean knew about the risks of becoming a werewolf, and refusing to discuss the situation was the same kind of pettiness that pissed Sam off back when they were kids. Shutting up about something didn't make it go away. Or rather, it did: it sent Sam away off to the Circle for years, and in the end nothing was solved, nothing at all. They were back to square one, just on a different day and with a different monster to hunt.
Thwarted, Sam released his hold on the covers, and wheeled back towards the table where their dad's journal was spread out, surrounded by Dean's scratchy notes and Sam's coherent penmanship. "We're missing something obvious," he muttered, knowing he was stating the obvious and hating it anyway. "Why is this thing not going wild through the farms? It should be attacking more of these villagers head-on. Werewolves are aggressive enough -- the taint has to be making it worse. What's holding it back?"
"What ever holds anything back, Sammy?" Dean mumbled, but by the time Sam glanced over, wondering if his brother was honestly asking or was planning to answer the riddle himself, Dean's breathing was already easing out into sleep.
"Not a word," he croaked, squinting blearily while Sam dragged him into a mostly-upright position away from the stomach-churning smell of what was left of last night's dinner. His skin felt hot under Sam's fingers, but Sam wasn't sure if it was just paranoia or the start of a fever that wasn't even close to breaking.
"Are you running a fever?" he accused Dean quietly. "Let me look at the bite."
"It's not a bite, Sammy," Dean slurred, swatting grimly at Impala as she whined and tried to lick his face. "If anything's getting me sick, it's staying in place for too long. Look, you get anything out of your super-secret connections yet? Can't you guys conjure up some doggie tracking signal?"
Sam snorted. "You know that's not how magic works." He hooked his hands under his brother's arms, intending to haul him back onto the rickety cot. Dean waved him off, flailing hard enough that one shoulder was in serious danger of hitting Sam in the face.
"Dean!" He dropped his hands, exasperated, to catch Dean's wrist.
"Sam!" Dean mimicked, sprawling on his back against the worn floorboards. "Man, no wonder mages are so uptight. All that power, and nothing useful to do with it." He squinted down his body mournfully. "Shoulda tapped the son of a bitch when you had a shot. How much blood do you need to make a phylactery, anyway? Does it have to be blood, or, uh, could it be any other bodily fluid?"
The rambling was so baffling that it cut Sam's panic short. "What?"
Dean twisted around, hacking and coughing at the floor until he managed to work up a wad of spit. "I mean, look at this!" he slurred, making a clumsy wave at the spatter. "Leaving behind 'nuff of a mess that someone could make a mage out of me. What if you had to, like, pee in a jar? Think we could get Impala to do that, find her whenever she's lost? Not that you get lost, baby," he added, as the mabari huffed a slimy breath into his ear. "I take it all back, you're the greatest. So good. So pretty."
Mirth crawled up Sam's throat; he shook his head, his mouth fighting to frown and smile simultaneously. "Okay, as much as I'm enjoying watching you humiliate yourself, that's enough, Dean. Let's get you back into bed."
Once Dean's murmurs quieted down to the uneven, restless whistle that meant he was asleep again -- or close enough -- Sam sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. When he traced a finger down Dad's notes, they read the same as they had the previous night: sweating, vomiting, high fever, and then a matter of days before the victim turned.
If Dean was becoming a werewolf -- no.
If Dean ended up being the one to turn into a monster, Sam didn't know what he'd do.
Somehow, Sam had managed to forget how terrible a patient Dean actually was. It really shouldn't have been a surprise. As a child, Dean had his fair share of scrapes, collected in a variety of misdemeanors or in expeditions with their dad. Sam had vivid memories of the summer Dean had spent laid up with a broken ankle, twitchy with all the restless energy of a young teenager, and most of them consisted of his brother resorting to flicking snot-balls at him from across a campfire.
Of course, Dean appeared to have a lack of convenient projectiles close at hand right now, but the look on his face suggested he wasn't above improvising if he had to. Sam gave up feeding as a lost cause. Staying in the same room was clearly going to drive him insane, so Sam took the only sensible option left: he bolted.
The problem with checking out a village like Gainn for mysterious losses was that war had hit everywhere bad. It seemed like there wasn't a family who hadn't sacrificed a member to recruitment somewhere along the line recently -- and once those people were on the road in the service of one lord or another, Maker knew they could end up anywhere. Becoming a werewolf probably transformed even the biggest weakling into a powerhouse, so it wasn't like they could eliminate based on that either. By the end of the afternoon, Sam had more names than he knew what to do with, a persistent headache lodged somewhere behind his left eye, and enough mud caked on his boots that Dean could probably scrape it off and build a farm on it.
He took a break just after noon, propping himself up on a low roadside fence that ran in a dwindling stonework trail towards the eastern farmsteads. If he went after every lead, he'd be asking questions for weeks -- and if Dean was infected, they didn't have that kind of time. Killing the werewolf that bit him before he turned wouldn't cure anything, but Sam was willing to try.
He was still mired in thoughts that were uncomfortably in the realm of blood magic when he heard the creak of wagonwheels slowing to a halt, and the snorting of horses. "You still in town, boy?"
A quick glance up showed a haycart and a few of Gainn's farmers peering inquisitively down; Sam remembered talking with them in the tavern earlier. "Just wondering where the werewolf's going to come from next, sers," he replied, plastering on a rueful grin.
"I'm betting Keane's place," the driver muttered. "Bad luck for Keane, losing his brother and now this. He doesn't let her stay at someone else's farm for a while, that's just asking for disaster. Who'd let his own family risk getting bit?"
An answering grunt. "Can't blame him for not wanting to shock his wife. Inna's health hasn't been the same since Conor went away."
One of the farmers kicked out a boot suddenly, shoving his heel against the side of the wagon; the next sentence was nearly obscured by the sound of groaning wood. "Since Keane pushed him out, you mean."
"It was Conor's choice to go and you know it -- "
"Conor?" Sam interjected, trying to get hold of the conversation again. The name was on his list, but he hadn't managed to contact the family directly.
The driver shook his head, gathering the reins in a callous-ridden fist. "Ignore the gossip, ser. You want your beast, you try checking with Keane. Do us all some good. Get it off his and Inna's land."
With a crack of the reins, the haycart finally moved off, leaving Sam squinting against the trail of dust it left behind and wondering if there was something unspoken in that conversation that he'd just missed.
Once she was out of sight, Sam turned his head, giving his brother a look while he folded his arms. He shouldn't have been surprised that even while Dean had been lying down sick for days, he'd still managed to lure a girl up to his room, but it was the principle of the thing.
"Aw, Sam, come on." The sound of Dean's head thumping back into the pillow was drowned out by the slam of the door as Sam yanked it shut. "If a guy can't get a hot girl to take care of him when he's sick, when can he?"
"You're supposed to be resting." When Dean leaned forward, grinning, Sam held up a hand. "And before you say it, just being in bed doesn't count."
Dean flopped back against the headboard with crossed arms, evidently put out at having his part of the script pre-empted. He didn't seem to be any more or less undressed than when Sam had left the room earlier. Rather than give Dean time to think about whatever argument he was about to make for why getting tavern maids into his pants was going to help him along to the road to recovery, Sam cut him off by filling him in on what he'd learned -- or more accurately, what he hadn't, the farmer's words leaving too much to guesswork and speculation. Once he was finished, Dean's face was a lot grimmer, the pallor of his skin making him look sickly even in the warmth of the lantern's light.
"Sounds like the best lead we've got, right now." Dean shook his head, sweat beading on his brow. "All right. Let's go talk to Keane."
Not all of that was particularly useful. None of that told Sam and Dean what might be the best way to approach Keane about the rumors on his brother.
The fields had been empty when Sam and Dean arrived in Gainn, the temperature still too cold to risk an early planting; now they were dotted with people who seemed pitifully dwarfed by the land they were trying to tame. He watched the villagers hunched over in the fields, trying to scrape a living out of the unforgiving earth, and wondered what it was like to feel so connected to a place that you would shed you sweat and blood to keep it.
The people in the fields were mostly women and children, with a conspicuous lack of the young men Sam would have expected in a village of this size. He frowned, watching a boy who couldn't have been more than twelve struggle to hitch a plow to a pair of recalcitrant oxen. Sam had attributed the deficit to catching Gainn at the wrong time of day, but now that he was looking for it, he could spot the absent villagers as clearly as though they'd hung out signs. Not casualties of the blightwolf, but a more subtle predator: civil war. It might have been a surprise to find out that a village this far north would have any care for the feuding of the Bannorn's lords, but the idea of glory in battle still had its appeal to those who'd never had a chance to taste it.
Sam couldn't imagine it. What was it like, to have a place to stay? To want to stay? To have a village that you never had to leave except for off-seasons of trading -- to always know it was waiting for you to come back, welcoming you home no matter who and what you were? The Circle had been home, after a fashion, but Sam had never forgotten that it could be a prison at the same time.
He shook the half-dazed trance away. There was no point in dwelling on what-ifs. Dean might have grown up to be a farmer's son, if things had turned out differently. For Sam, that had never been an option.
Farming looked like it was the last thing on Dean's mind, right now. If anything, Dean seemed like he was contemplating getting intimately acquainted with the ground, hanging off a fence post as though it was the only thing keeping him upright. Once or twice, when he lingered too long, Impala nudged at his legs as though she was chivvying a stray lamb along. Sam had debated about the wisdom of bringing her along -- a war hound wasn't something people forgot easily, and in territories outside of Ferelden, could mark them as easily as a brand on their face -- but he figured that in a place this small, it didn't matter. So few things were newsworthy around these parts that every villager knew what they looked like on sight.
In the end, Sam had relented to Dean coming along with the vague idea that it was going to be easier to convince Dean to stay in bed, once they'd been out for a few hours and Dean realized how badly his stamina was shot.
Yeah, Sam hadn't thought that would actually work.
The weather, at least, was mercifully balmy. Sometime between their arrival and his brother being mauled by a blighted werewolf, spring had finally caught up to Gainn. The village was surrounded by fields that spread out from its edges all higgledy-piggledy, as though children at play had fallen down in a haphazard circle. If Sam taken the time to bend the ear of the local bar's patrons, he might have been able to tease out this freehold's history, mapped out the complex web of alliances and intermarriages that meant this family owned that plot of land, but it was those families who had to tend it. In the end, everything would go to whatever arl or lord the village owed its fealty to.
If the mage underground's intelligence was reliable, the man they were looking for was a young one. That, at least, would make Keane easy enough to pick out.
A series of stilted inquiries led them from one tilled field to another, most of the villagers too busy or too harried by their children to be able to do more than nod them onwards. Sam could feel their eyes tracking them as they left, and he hoped it wasn't with resentment. He already had half-formed list of names he would have to see about helping later; even if the only payment some of them could offer was a handful of potatoes and a word of thanks, it felt wrong to leave them where they were.
Eventually, he worked his way out to the furthest farms southwest, until the line of the forest started to thicken the horizon and leave blots of shadow in the distance. A single figure was hunched over in a pasture, prodding at an unearthed rock the size of an Orlesian cheesewheel. Dean promptly turned around and leaned against the fence with a sigh, so Sam rolled his eyes and called out the first question. "Are you Keane?"
The man slowly unbent, his motions cricked like an elder. His gaze rose first, pinning Sam with an unexpectedly brilliant glare: the pale blue of the man's stare was a shock, set against the deeply tanned face framed with dark hair. Keane couldn't much older than Dean, maybe, but he wore his years more clearly, fine lines spreading out from the corners of his mouth and skin that had seen the sun day in and day out for more than twenty years. He was shorter than Dean, too, built more stockily, and once he was facing them head-on Sam could see why he'd been moving so strangely: the sleeve of his shirt was neatly folded, pinned over the stump of what had once been his left arm.
Sam did his best to keep his attention from lingering, but Keane must have seen it anyway, because the neutral line of his mouth grew noticeably more crooked. "Anything I can do for you, sers?"
"Just, ah, heard the rumors." Sam tried to pull off a casual shrug, but left it half-nervous; if he came across like a curious teenager, so be it. All their more confident efforts hadn't paid off. "That a beast's been seen around here."
The reaction was more defensive than he expected. Keane's eyes hardened. "You're hunters, aren't you?"
Sam was used to not flinching at the word; he'd learned young that not everyone used it the way Uncle Bobby and Dad did, with the subtle emphasis that gave it another layer of meaning. "Just a couple of trappers looking for work as we're passing through, ser," he said, as politely as he could manage. "We saw the notice put up on the Chanter's Board in Winiver, thought we'd come and see if this was something we could pull off too."
Keane didn't look entirely convinced, but the stiff line of his back loosened a little, the expression on his face wary instead of hard. He shrugged off the stalks of hay that were clinging to his tunic, catching one at the last minute and sliding it between his teeth. "Well, hunters of any kind won't find much luck here. This... this werewolf, it's canny. Keep on moving, that's my advice. You'll find easier prey elsewhere. We'll -- we'll sort it out ourselves."
The hitch in Keane's voice was what Sam latched onto: both the pause, and the tired overtone in the man's voice, as if he'd said that exact phrase more than once before, and with as little hope. He fished for another angle. The gossip had mentioned that Keane was married -- married, and acting strangely about a potential risk to his family. "So your wife, has she seen anything too?"
"My wife -- " Pain flashed across Keane's face, so fleetingly that anyone who wasn't a hunter might not have noticed it. "She has her own ideas. But she's a very private person. I don't know that she would tell you anything."
"We don't know what we're dealing with, so we could use all the help we can get." Sam spared a quick glance towards Dean, hoping for either support or a faint sign of life, but Dean had slid into a squat and was staring fixedly at the ground. "It's just a bigger kind of wolf, right? How much help do you need?"
Sam was normally good at this part of the job, especially with Dean to back him up. Given the choice between speaking to the earnest, open-faced young man or his gruffer, no-good excuse of a traveling partner, most people had no trouble deciding which of them they'd rather talk to. It was amazing what folk would confess with someone prowling among their things, pretending to casually search items and mutter incomprehensible but presumably dark portents, though that was a tactic that usually got them kicked out half the time, too. But Keane didn't need Dean posturing and acting like a templar sniffing out an apostate to be nervous enough to let something slip. He was already telling Sam more than he knew by the way he turned his head, teeth worrying at the hay and then his lip.
The man was clearly reluctant to explain the situation -- but whatever it was, it had gotten bad enough that Keane was at the point of considering accepting a stranger's help. Whatever his reasons were for keeping to himself, Sam didn't think it was a misplaced streak of independence, or stubborn pride. Whatever had isolated Keane from the rest of the village, whatever kept him clinging determinedly to a farmstead any other sane farmer would have given up for lost, it was what they needed to know.
Abruptly, Keane stopped, looking past Sam's shoulder. "Is something wrong with your friend?"
There was a particular reason Sam knew Dean's insistence on coming along wouldn't work out. Pretending to be a farmhand looking for work worked out considerably less well when you looked like death warmed over. "He's fine," he sighed, grudgingly offering up the lie Dean would put up if he were in any state to defend himself. "Just bad food in his gut. My brother may be an idiot, but he's tough. I'd probably better get him to lie down before he ends up putting his head into a cowpat."
Keane was silent, chewing something over silently; Sam waited for any indication that he should either push or retreat. The farmer's patience was implacable. At his side, the flap of his sleeve twitched in the wind: a ghost whisper of a gesture that might once have had flesh to fill it.
"Brother, eh? Hfn," Keane said at last, plucking the mashed-up stalk of hay out of his mouth and flicking it aside. "Inna doesn't like leaving the house these days," he grated out at last, like the words physically pained him. "But I'll see what I can do. Come back tomorrow."
"Thank you," Sam said, softly, and meant it.
The agreement he'd come to with Keane was that he'd work on the fields for the day while Keane spoke with her, tried to talk her around to the idea. Dean had been tired enough this morning to not pretend to be all right, which was worrying in its own right, but he shooed Sam out of the inn room with the promise that if he didn't get out there and get the job done, the next thing Dean was going to do was barf on him. Sam figured that meant Dean could take care of himself for a few hours, or at least make a good go at pretending he could.
The work was mindless, but backbreaking enough to keep him entirely occupied. When Sam finally looked up at midday, shirt already soaked through with sweat even in the crisp breeze, he didn't have enough energy left to spare for being surprised at the woman standing at the fence.
Inna didn't even come up to Sam's shoulder, and the birdlike fragility of her bones was an odd contrast to the full swell of her belly. Sam could see why Keane had been so reluctant to have her come to the fields, for all that he badly needed help. His wife was heavily pregnant, and looked like she would be better off embroidering in an arl's hold instead of coaxing out a livelihood in a place like Gainn. Her wheat-gold hair fell from a messy bun that look like it had been done up some time ago and then allowed to unravel over the days. The neglect didn't seem to extend to the rest of her -- though her nails were bitten to the quick, her hands were clean, and her clothes had seen better times but were neatly repaired.
"I've lunch ready." Her voice was so soft he wouldn't have heard the words unless he'd been listening for them. "I'll bring it out to you, if you're hungry. "
Sam straightened up, rubbing the back of his arm along his forehead: an effort that probably smeared more dirt over his skin than mop up the sweat. "Lunch would really be great. Really. Thank you."
Inna nodded, disappearing back into the farmhouse, and Sam looked around for a place out of the sun. There wasn't much around, but when Inna returned, she raised a hand, beckoning him towards the barn as she pushed the door open. She had a basket tucked under her arm, and when Sam followed, he saw her methodically take food out of it and lay it out on a crooked wooden table: homemade bread from roughly milled grain, hard crumbly cheese and fresh butter, and a few apples that were on the small side, but had good color and lacked spots.
As she leaned over, something slipped free of her dress, swinging back and forth. A tooth of some kind, a thong wrapped tight around it to form a pendant for a necklace. She straightened, and Sam thought he saw a flash of alarm when she saw him looking.
"There you are," she said. "Don't worry about cleaning up, I'll see to it once you're out in the fields again."
"Thank you, serah," Sam answered politely, and before she could turn away, he seized the opportunity, tilting his head forward and hoping he didn't seem over-earnest. "That's a nice necklace you have. Did your husband give it to you?"
She stopped cold, and Sam thought he saw a flicker of anger cross her face before it settled back into placid calm. "No. It was a gift from his brother."
Conor. The brother whose name was known, but very little else. The rumors from the townsfolk had pointed to some kind of possible discord in the family -- but on whose side, Sam hadn't been able to figure out. The very lack of information pointed to suspicion.
"My brother and I," he began delicately, hoping for the same opportunity that he'd found advantage with in Keane, "we're looking to try and catch this werewolf that's been in the area. I know it's been seen around here. Would you be willing to help us find it?"
"No." The answer was swift, made with only a second spared for deliberation. Inna jerked her chin once in a forceful twitch that sent the wisps of her hair ghosting around her throat. But her brow furrowed, and her eyes dropped towards the ground, avoiding Sam altogether in favor of the dirt. "We don't have room for guests."
"I understand why you wouldn't want a pair of strangers to sleep in your home," Sam said soothingly. "We can camp out in the woods near here. But me and my brother -- we'd like your permission to do so first. We just want to help."
For once, the trick of a kind tone did nothing to Inna's solemn expression, erasing none of the defensive tension in her shoulders. They stood there in mute standoff, both frozen into statues.
How long they would have stayed there like that, Sam didn't know, but the crunch of dirt betrayed the company that came to join them. With slow, patient steps, Keane lumbered down the path from the fields, stopping when he saw the open door to the barn. He took one look at the tableau, and then came to a halt at a distance from them both, neither defending his wife, nor approaching Sam.
Inna's gaze darted up towards her husband, as swift as a sparrow wheeling away from a hawk. "They're looking for the wolf," she uttered quietly, a vicious lash of bitterness that made no sense for being offended. "They want to stay."
Whatever the cause, Keane seemed to understand. His mouth pinched itself into sharp corners as he regarded Sam, but it lacked a glare that might have identified hostility. "Give them the barn, Inna," he said at last, heavily. "Least we could do after them helping us today."
The thing was running solo, which was a good piece of luck for their side; Sam and Dean had never fought blighted werewolves, and regular werewolves were dangerous enough. The curse that produced it could have come from the Brecilian Forest, or it could have been bitten by an outcast, to have ranged this far north. Those facts were basic, but good enough to start from.
Werewolf lore, or what little there was of it, said nothing about ever seeing a victim successfully cured. The Dalish, who spent the most time in the Brecilian Forest, might have known some trick, but even hunters found little welcome with the elves, as their father's sparse notes attested to -- and John Winchester had a talent for squeezing into places where he was unwelcome, which his own nature usually guaranteed. Still, he'd always told them to remember that the Dalish were were good for trading with, when they could be convinced not to shoot you on sight. As a bonus, none of the wandering tribes cared enough to wonder why the Winchesters couldn't barter their trinkets at a human market.
Dean didn't like the elves too much, but Sam thought that had probably more to do with the fact that they categorically refused to sell him any weapons than because Dean was harboring any xenophobic tendencies.
Sam liked the Dalish for his own reasons: namely, that they kept to themselves and had a keen understanding of what it was like living on the fringes of human society. Like mages, they were tolerated nuisances whose usefulness was only grudgingly acknowledged, and always suspect. The elves treated their mages differently, too, but from what Sam understood, making deals with demons was as much a taboo for them as it was anywhere else in Ferelden. If there was a cure among Dalish lore, it wasn't to be found within their magic.
"So basically, what we know about this blightwolf -- "
"This blighted werewolf," Sam corrected Dean acidly. If Dean was determined to keep pretending that everything was fine, as though he weren't sweating with fever and twisting deliriously while his body fought off the infection, then Sam could play that game too. "We've been over this a thousand times, Dean. A blightwolf is a wolf that's been contaminated. A blighted werewolf is a werewolf that's been tainted. They're completely different things."
"They have fangs, they have claws, and you don't want either kind to bite you, so where's the confusion?" Dean snapped, temper and illness finally getting the better of him, and Sam felt a small, peevish sense of victory that he was immediately guilty about afterwards. Well, not too guilty; Dean hadn't shut up yet.
"If it had been just a wolf," Sam started, then fell silent, uncertain of what to say, or of how he wanted to complete that thought. He could feel the weight of Dean's stare on him even in the dim light, but maybe even his brother could sense that this wasn't something to joke about, even if it wasn't necessarily something he wanted to hear. Sam wasn't sure it was something he wanted to say either, but now that the thought was there he couldn't stop worrying at it, like a loose tooth.
"What, just a wolf?"
The sarcasm in Dean's voice was heavy, suffocatingly so, but Sam pushed ahead anyway. "Would it make a difference?" he said at last. "If it hadn't been a human first, or an elf -- "
"It's getting late, Sammy. Can't we talk about this touchy-feely shit tomorrow?"
"Dean," Sam said, pitching his voice low and hurt in the way he knew would never fail to catch his brother's attention. It was a dirty trick to pull when Dean wasn't at full capacity, but if Sam didn't ask now, he'd never get an honest answer.
He waited as Dean opened his eyes and stared at the rafters of the barn, visibly resigning himself to not getting any sleep until they'd both hammered out the whole of Sam's issue.
"What's wrong with you? Doesn't matter if it was human or an elf or even a dwarf, not anymore. You never made a stink when we've had to kill ghouls who've turned from taint, and what do you think they were once, huh? This werewolf's just another hunt. Just another monster, that's all."
"Well, yeah like abominations," Dean retorted. "You see a blood mage, smartest thing to do is take 'em out before they change. It just makes sense, Sammy!"
Sam felt the conversation twist out of his control, so angry at the confidence in Dean's voice that he responded on instinct without thinking. "Yeah," he spat dryly. "You know, we're getting almost as good at killing mages on sight as templars are."
"No, we're better," Dean spouted. "Look, if this is -- if this is some kind of stupid comparison between abominations and werewolves, none of that shit matters! They're totally different from what you are, and you know it!"
It was such an untrue thing to say that Sam's head snapped back for a moment, mouth agape. Dean had been a stubborn son of a bitch for as long as he could remember, but that? That just crossed the line from selective hearing to willfully blind. Sam had been different the moment he was born, written as surely in his bones as the sun rose and set; no amount of their dad's vehement refusal to recognize it, or Dean's efforts to act like it changed nothing would make anything different.
The fastest way to become an abomination was to start thinking you weren't one. That you were immune. That you were different.
"Oh yeah?" Sam could hear his voice rising, and knew Dean could too. His brother had spent too many years watching Sam and their father spoiling for a fight not to. "And just what makes me so different? How do you know I'm not going to end up like them?"
"Because you're my --" Dean started, and Sam had had enough.
"Don't say it's because I'm your brother!"
Sam's neck was starting to hurt from the strain of twisting his head around to meet Dean's glare. He couldn't even remember either of them getting up, or when he'd closed the distance between their bedrolls. It was obvious that Dean couldn't tell which argument he was actually having, and the lack of understanding hurt -- after all these years, Sam's brother was the same willfully ignorant ass he'd ever been.
Eventually, the sounds of the rest of the world filtered back in: the lowing of some animal out to pasture, the creak of wood as the wind stirred and the barn shivered in response. Sam refused to be the one to look away first.
"Fine." Dean dropped his gaze, and Sam felt a vicious stab of satisfaction tear through him.
Of course it was a lie. Nothing was fine. Things hadn't been fine for a long time, and no matter how Sam tried to turn around and around in his life, looking at the world from a hundred different angles of hope, it still felt like a trap.
The air in the barn was clogged with the smell of hay, both clean and moldering, and all of it threatening to choke his already ravaged throat. He buried his head in his blankets, and inhaled slow, dredging breaths filtered through the wool. Dimly, he was aware of Sam moving around and making snide commentary. There was a brief period where Sam was absent, and then he was back again with a bowl of hot gruel to shove at Dean's face. But all of Dean's limbs seemed too heavy to move, and he was already hot enough; he didn't need to eat anything warm. In fact, he didn't want to eat anything at all. Every part of him was aching, wound into tiny knots that throbbed even when he was lying perfectly still, refusing to flinch.
The gashes on his leg felt like they had congealed into a single swollen boil, entrenching itself in his body. His skin was sticky with sweat and pus, and he kept pressing his hand against the area because his own palm felt cooler than his leg. It was itchy, but too painful to scratch, so Dean kept trying to rub up against his blankets, which only smeared the reek of it everywhere.
He decided, vaguely, that he was dying. It seemed like the okay thing to do at that point.
"I'm going to get a healer." Sam's voice.
"Don't, they'll think I'm a werewolf too," Dean protested blearily. "Stay on the job."
But Sam didn't say anything else, and Dean settled into the smug satisfaction of being listened to -- he was the big brother, ha ha, he could get away with things like that -- before he eventually realized that he was alone in the barn. Sam had already left.
"Ssmmmm?" His brother's name came out in a mumble. Dean licked his lips, realized that they were cracked, and suddenly wished that Sam had had the decency to leave a bowl of water instead of the gruel. He tried to flop his body over onto his side, but the effort felt impossible. The meal was probably still warm, but maybe if he blew on it enough times, it might cool down and work wonders on his throat.
He inched slowly towards the bowl, slug-like, moving his muscles by sections rather than actually trying a coordinated effort. When he tried to get enough leverage to lift his head enough to dip his mouth into the bowl -- seriously, a brilliant idea, it had to be one of his better ones -- he knocked it over with his cheek, and tipped it onto his face.
Thankfully enough, the contents weren't steaming; a good thing, considering that Dean didn't have the energy to leap up and clean himself off. He lay there instead, considering his options. The edge of the wooden bowl rested gently on his nose. He could smell a limpid effort at pepper.
If this was the final stages of becoming a werewolf, then turning eight feet tall and furry really sucked. Maybe this is why werewolves went crazy. They were all still feverish on the inside, never getting better, just flailing around with paws too big for their bodies.
Maybe Dean was lucky, though. If he stayed this weak, then he wouldn't be a problem to Sam if he did turn.
A splotch of gruel dripped off the rim of the bowl and onto his nostril.
After a while, Dean gave up trying to find a solution to his predicament, and let his face sit in the remains of his breakfast, the sludge slowly cooling to skin temperature.
The discomfort didn't vanish entirely -- the throbbing lingered, and his skin was still oversensitive -- but Dean found himself rising out of the agony, gathering himself out of the rubble of a fever-scattered brain. He recovered slowly, carefully stringing together impulses of motion, and relying only on the movements that hurt the least.
The first thing he thought was, It's cold.
The second thing he thought was, It's really, really cold.
His breath fogged out in front of his face, crystallizing in the stubble around his mouth. The barn was gone. He was out in the forest, surrounded by a winter that must have invaded Gainn in a late cold snap. The awareness that he was being watched prickled the back of Dean's neck; he turned, snow crunching underfoot, but there was nothing in the shadows but more shadow. He knew better than to think that meant he was alone, so he braced the weight of the Colt with both hands, cocked it, and listened. The snow, which filled the air like a fine powder of fog, only seemed to grow heavier, catching in his lashes and his hair until he shook it off.
The world seemed oddly muted, so when the snap of wood came, it was like hearing it from a mountain away. Dean whirled, bringing the Colt up sharply, only to nearly jab it point-first into his brother's chest.
"Maker, Sammy," Dean sighed explosively, yanking the Colt back sharply and taking a step away. "Give a guy some warning, would you? I could've shot you."
"Sorry," Sam said, and his voice had the same muffled quality of the sound in the rest of the place, but Dean thought he didn't seem very regretful about it. While Dean was in full winter gear himself, plain and utilitarian, Sam was standing there wearing -- what the hell was he wearing? It looked like armor, but no other armor Dean had ever seen his brother use, with a wickedly spiked gauntlet on one arm and a fat fur ruff tickling Sam's chin. Dean had heard descriptions of the style before, mostly from Uncle Bobby. Kirkwall, he thought, but couldn't remember if there was rank involved, or what that kind of equipment would be doing across the Waking Sea.
"It doesn't matter," he said aloud, both to Sam's apology and to his own doubts. He couldn't help the frown as he lowered the crossbow, however. "What are you doing out here?"
Sam cocked his head, smile bright and utterly out of place in the dark wood. "Here to help you, remember?"
The werewolf. Right. They must still be hunting.
Dean resisted the urge to rub at his temples, where a steady pressure was building. "All right. Have you at least found the mark yet?"
"You could say that," Sam replied, and before Dean had the chance to ask why Sam's voice was so weirdly smug, the fur on his brother's armor rippled. Dean stumbled backwards, hands fumbling for the Colt as Sam's smile stretched impossibly wider, and wider, until Dean's face ached in sympathy. It didn't seem to hurt Sam, who tipped his head back as his jaw split, dropping open to fit the teeth that were sprouting from his gums like tiny knives. He was panting now, great clouds of most fogging the air in front of him and tongue lolling out; he dropped to his knees in the snow, armor dropping to the ground in pieces as his back arched and he bayed pealing notes into the winter wind.
Like a darkspawn exploding from ingested shrapnel, Sam's skin split and tore, fur bursting out in every direction until a monstrous wolf stared back at Dean, unnaturally human eyes staring at him out of a face covered in fur the color of his brother's hair.
"Aren't you feeling better yet, Dean?" the creature asked, and that was the worst part, hearing Sam's voice come out undistorted, completely relaxed, like they were having this conversation over beer back in a tavern somewhere. "It's taken long enough, seriously. Haven't you finished changing by now?"
"Dad's waiting for us to join him," Sam said.
"You'd better hurry up, stop dragging your feet," Sam said.
"What's with you, Dean?" Sam said, and Dean lifted the Colt in shaking hands, aiming it at the source of his brother's voice, lining up the sights with the horrendously jagged maw of teeth -- and pulled the trigger.
Dean yelped involuntarily as the water stung like a thousand hot needles, even though he could recognize the cause: salt, good and clean, helping to kill the infection. There was a stack of fouled rags piling up in a second bowl, yellowed with pus. Crazy as it was, the sight made him feel better; he knew what a regiment of hot water, saline washes, and warm compresses meant. As long as there weren't leather straps and a bonesaw involved, then he was on the way to a mend.
He groaned anyway as Inna peeled away another rag, only to replace it with a freshly hot one, welding the fabric in a damp seal against his skin.
"So Dean's not," Sam started awkwardly, shifting on his feet, because seriously, how did you say things like, am I going to have to start investing in a lot more jokes about my brother's hairy palms. Sam tried anyway. "I mean, he's not in any danger after all?"
Inna sighed, and clucked her tongue. "Just a bad enough set of cuts, and this one never got itself looked at proper. Still trouble, but won't be the death of him yet. Would have thought two travelers like you boys would have had the sense to recognize a regular infection for what it was, before it spread this far."
"I knew," Dean slurred. "Knew it wasn't nothin' important."
Sam shot him a quick glare. And yeah, Dean figured, they probably should have just seen it for what it was. Now that he was looking at it straight-on, he was about ready to kick himself. They'd both been so caught up in looking for hints, being afraid of anything that looked out of the ordinary, and Dean had just kept trying to hide it so Sam wouldn't worry as it just festered and festered worse.
But sometimes a nasty wound was just exactly that. Not a curse. Not a doom. If he and Sam hadn't been working themselves into a tizzy over each tiny detail, they would have recognized the whole thing as insignificant from the start.
They were the ones who'd imagined a scratch into a plague.
Dean sweated up a storm for another full day before the worst of the fever finally broke, leaving him spectacularly dehydrated. The balance shifted sometime in the quiet hours of the morning, when he woke up to clammy, overheated skin. Cautiously, he tested his muscle coordination; when he managed to get himself sitting upright without inducing the urge to roll over and throw up a lung, he decided that probably meant he was as recovered as he was going to get.
Dean told himself that the churning in his gut had nothing to do with the harsh, tense lines of Sam's back and everything to do with the last, phantom feeling of his stomach trying to turn itself inside out.
Inna deemed them both incompetent enough to require her watchful eye every few hours; with a farmer's practical lack of personal modesty, she regularly swabbed Dean down as if he were a newborn calf. She only relinquished the duty to Sam once Dean had recovered enough strength to cling to his blankets, and even then, she'd threatened to strip all their gear from them if she saw either slacking off on proper care.
"Put two brothers in a room together, and they don't have enough brains for one," she'd tsked when Dean, and then Sam had protested. The taut line of her mouth had brooked no mercy. "I swear, the things you do to each other -- "
"What sort of things?" Sam had asked, quick to chase down the same strange hints that had hovered over the farmstead since their arrival, but Inna had gathered her towels and retreated back to the farmhouse, into the closed lines of her home.
Alone together, Dean and Sam discussed the situation while Sam grimly handed over hot towels to Dean and Dean cleaned the wound. A regular infection, Inna had called it, but those were pretty gross too. He'd spent enough time lying flat over the years to know that you couldn't ignore them after a certain point, not if you wanted to keep all your limbs intact. It was a rare hunter who had enough potions to use them freely instead of apply preventative care; an even rarer one that had a Spirit Healer on tap.
Water curled down from his kneecap, tickling the hairs on his leg. If he overworked the area, he'd just end up irritating the cut even more, so Dean took a break and wadded up the towel. "Maybe we should stop trying to figure out the whys behind this thing and just do what we have to, Sam. Huh? Doesn't matter why the blightwolf came here, we still have to kill it. I mean, finding out this thing's... motivations -- if it has any beyond, 'yum yum tasty meat' -- isn't going to make it become human again. There's only one way this thing's gonna end."
Sam checked the level of clean water in the bowl, wrinkling his nose. "Then hurry up and get better," he retorted. "Until you're back on the hunt, researching isn't going to hurt our situation either."
Too weak to protest -- and too grateful that the whole ordeal was starting to finally mend, or at least Dean's portion of agony -- Dean sighed. "Okay. Yeah. I'll get right on that sleeping bit," he pointed out snippily. "You can start figuring out the best places around here to lay an ambush. We make friends with the farmers, and whether or not they know anything, we still won't have wasted any days. How's that sound?"
His reward was an exasperated shake of Sam's head, but then his brother dragged over the supply packs, and started laying out vials of trap chemicals for inventory. When Dean tried to reach out and pick one up, Sam scowled and dragged the leather carry-strip just out of reach. Smirking, Dean let his arm fall, and then gave in to closing his eyes.
The two of them waited this time, patient as two trappers on a snare, until Inna finally came out to the barn early one dawn, and delivered her final verdict on Dean's health. "Suppose we should invite you boys in for a proper meal at last," she intoned, swiping a cloth at the red, puckering flesh of what would be a new scar for Dean's leg. "You've been doing more than enough work for both you and your brother, Ser Samuel. Not decent of us to treat you like a pair of overnight beggars out here. Breakfast in an hour. I'll set extra plates."
After so many days spent hobbling around, falling down, and mostly horizontal, it was a relief for Dean to sit down for a solid meal at a table, without being propped up while someone held a cup to his lips. Surprisingly, the inside of Inna and Keane's home was not the reclusive hermit-nest that Dean had imagined, from all the way the exterior stayed locked down and colorless. Though the air was musty from the prolonged armor of closed windows and doors, Inna finally drew them back, propping open the front door with a stone and folding the shutters. The rooms were cozy and clean, with the mending done several times over rather than let things fray. There were three chairs for the table, while the fourth side faced the stove; a stool got dragged up to a corner instead, and Sam took that, leaving the better perches for Dean and the farmers.
Despite being overwhelmingly pregnant, Inna made some of the best pancakes that Dean had ever tasted. She let them help in digging out supplies and mix the batter, but insisted on being the one to fry them into perfect golden discs of bliss, all fluffy and delicious. After the first few bites, Dean wasn't protesting being regulated to the table, complete with a dish of honey and a second dish of butter to slather over the cakes. He dug into both in equal measure, feeling his appetite finally start to recover with all the force of a summer storm.
He finished his plate, and then -- when Sam hadn't sat down, too busy rinsing out a bowl -- promptly forked into his brother's breakfast as well, delighting in Sam's affronted yelp.
Watching them both dig in seemed to ease something in Inna's mood, bringing color back into what was otherwise a waxen expression. She finally eased up on the stove once the last drips of batter had been fried up into cake. The knuckles of both hands pressed into the small of her back were the only sign of her weariness; her face was as stoic as ever.
"It's good that you have an appetite, Ser Dean." Her voice was unexpectedly wry. "Shouldn't have kept such a thing from your brother for so long," she chastised him gently. "Not that --" She pressed her lips together suddenly, and, just like that, seemed to turn inwards again.
Sam caught the flicker of emotion on her face just as quickly, and pounced. "You've had a lot of trouble with brothers before?" he asked -- deliberately following up from the first hint, Dean figured, since Inna was as skittish as a mouse.
She looked about to say nothing, then finally, "Are you sure you'll be taking down the creature? Put it out of its misery?"
"Most people would be worried about themselves," Sam pointed out.
Time to be blunt, Dean figured. Sam's form of subtlety would leave them dancing around all morning. "We think it maybe came from this village. That the reason it came here was revenge."
"The most primitive instincts," Sam continued, picking up the new direction as easily as if he were catching a rope midfight, voice falling into the steady cadence of someone settling into a lecture. "Hunger, territory, rage. That's what the werewolf is running on now. Whatever brought it all the way up from the Brecilian Forest to here couldn't have been two of those three, or else it would have stayed down south. There's something that it must sense, deep down inside. If we figure out what it is, we can try to predict where the werewolf will attack next -- and how we might catch it off guard."
"Is it true?"
The question did not come from Inna this time, but from another throat, rough and male. They turned around and saw Keane there, coming in through the door with a bucket of fresh water in his remaining hand. His arm jerked, a half-aborted gesture that might have had meaning with a left arm to explain it; instead, a glitter of liquid trickled over the edge of the bucket, dripping onto the floor. Keane ignored it. "The werewolf, it's still got its mind?"
"Keane," Inna said swiftly, her face tight. "It can't. It can't possibly, you heard what they said -- "
Keane ignored her, stalking directly towards Sam before veering off at the last minute, turning on his heel and setting down the bucket near the hearth. He sat down heavily in the nearest chair, letting the wood creak. "You can't keep denying it, Inna, not anymore. It's Conor," he uttered at last. "Isn't it."
Sam jumped on the name faster than Dean could blink. "Conor," he repeated. Both the farmers looked at him. "He's your brother, right? Did he get conscripted?"
Keane was up on his feet in a flash, so quick that Dean tensed up for a punch -- but the farmer only stalked to the kitchen window, where he stood gripping the sill as if he could reshape the stone with his touch.
It was Inna who gave them answers this time, offering furtive, worried glances to her husband's back. "I know what the rest of the village says. But Conor wanted to go. Keane and I kept telling him it was an accident, what happened to Keane's arm. Conor felt that serving in the army might make up for it -- that it'd do enough to provide for all three of us. That he'd serve there, get some honor in the doing of it, and come back home with enough pay to keep us warm for years. Stupid of him," she said softly, and repeated it, shaking her head with a quiet, bitter grace. "Stupid man. We both wanted him to stay. He just -- he just wouldn't let himself."
"Wouldn't, or couldn't?" Sam asked, and Dean didn't understand the question one bit, but Inna only shook her head again and said nothing.
Keane's grip on the windowsill turned into a fist, slammed against the frame in a dull thump. "I know who it is, Inna! Wishful thinking won't change the facts!"
"Let it be, Keane," Inna repeated quietly. She cupped a hand over her belly, rubbing small, tidy circles into her dress. "We've heard no word from the army. Conor might still be alive with them. He might come home any day now. You give up on him like this, how can we ever hope to see him? No one can prove this beast is Conor." Her fingers stopped fussing, tightening into the fabric until it wadded between her knuckles, but her voice was steady and measured. "Not for sure."
"No one can prove that it's not." Keane shot back, without looking back at them, and Inna said nothing in answer, hands simply falling still as she watched her husband with steady eyes. It was weird, Dean thought, looking between husband and wife, how the balance had shifted. Now it was Inna, thin and golden, who seemed to radiate quiet strength, while Keane seemed diminished, the shadows haunting his eyes and the slump of his shoulders making him seem years older than he was.
The moments ticked by, slow as molasses poured over snow, before Keane took a breath and turned away from the window, resting his hand palm down on the table's surface.
"So how are you planning on stopping him?" The question came harshly, like it pained him to ask it, but there was a determination in his gaze that hadn't been there before.
Him. Keane was fixed on his decision, that much was obvious. Dean could already see the wheels turning in his brother's head; he answered quickly, preempting any last-minute philosophical discussion that might get them talking about the morality of killing someone who'd transformed, or some crap like that. "It's already spooked by me and Sam once. It'll be tough getting it to come after us again. We'll have to give it something that's worth enough for it to risk itself."
"Then bring me." Keane's chin lifted, a tick in his jaw working as he set it stubbornly, like he expected some kind of protest. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean saw Inna go pale and draw a hand to her mouth, rising to her feet as she hurried out of the room, but Sam was already speaking before he could ask about it.
"Why should we?" Dean couldn't place the sharpness in his brother's tone, or explain the reason he was staring at Keane as closely as if he expected Keane's head to fall off and the wolf to emerge.
Keane bristled at some perceived insult anyway, retorting hotly, "Either the beast is Conor changed, or it wants the village for some other reason, but I can help. I lost my arm, not my head, and there's still no one else in this damn village who knows these woods better than I do. And if there's a chance that it is Conor -- " His voice broke for the first time, struggling with the words as if each one was a freshly-sharpened knife against his tongue. "I want to be there. I want to see it for myself."
Dean started to nod along -- and then caught himself, scowling at the impracticality of what the farmer was suggesting. Even though the suggestion was good, the reason behind it wasn't. "I don't get it. Wouldn't you want to think of this thing as anyone but Conor?"
It was like trying to imagine himself killing Sam if he became an abomination, but one able to keep his mind -- enough to be recognizable, not enough to be human. He couldn't imagine it, even if he knew how to do it. The trick was to try and get them just before the moment of transformation, his father had explained. That was when it was best to strike, when it was still caught with all a human's vulnerabilities and none of an abomination's power. Dean had done it to more blood mages than he could count, but imagining Sam doing the same? Impossible.
Keane was already answering, though, his eyes focusing on everywhere but Sam and Dean. "Every day we look out into those fields and wonder when he's coming home. If he's coming home. If he doesn't want to." He swallowed. "Inna's a good woman. It'll hurt her to think of him dead, but it'll hurt more to keep her wondering. And as for me --"
He paused then, hesitating, before he managed to choke the rest of his sentence out. "If it's my brother, at least I can give him some peace."
Now prepared with a solid lay of the land, Dean combed the kill zone from top to bottom, evaluating each cluster of trees. Normally, that'd be bad luck, since getting his scent smeared all over the place would only alert the more skittish beasts. But this time, he made sure to keep Keane with him, following in line with each step. If the blightwolf had stuck around Gainn this long -- whether because it knew Keane, or simply wanted to eat him -- then having the farmer's trail intermingled with Dean's definitely couldn't hurt.
The brush was hard to maneuver through, which Dean was counting on: if the blightwolf did show up, then it would clear their path for them, plowing through the brambles and unable to avoid the snarelines that would be mingled with the branches. For their arsenal, Dean had been able to prime five shrapnel traps and three shocks. As much as he'd like to use fire, burning down the entire forest by accident wouldn't win him any points either; with a sigh of regret, he packed those vials away, leaving them stashed in a pouch that he'd use as a hand-explosive if he had to, if it came down to it.
Treacherous ground's an archer's friend. He could still hear Dad's voice in his head as he picked out the five primary points around their camp spot, and began to measure out the best angles for the shrapnel to fly. All that metal wouldn't do any good if it got swallowed by the brambles, after all. The longer it takes your target to close distance to you, the longer you have to live.
"Got it, Dad," Dean muttered automatically under his breath, and then swallowed hard when he remembered that there would be no reply.
He loaded up two crossbows, stashing one in reserve in case he'd need a follow-up shot without having the time to redraw. The longbow was a comfortable fallback option, and he checked the string on it too. As comfortable as he was with his daggers, one close-range experience with the blightwolf had been more than enough; he'd live just fine without another opportunity to get cozy with the thing. Sometimes, the best stories came from knock-down, drag-out fights with your target. In this case, Dean would be happy just making it out alive without becoming another casualty.
They reconvened after Dean set his snares, debating and second-guessing his positions at the last second. Impala had stuck with Sam, her ears pricked high but otherwise at ease. All four of them huddled down in the makeshift camp that Sam had dug out, clearing the rudiments of a firepit and laying out the bedrolls. If the blightwolf refused to show itself, they would have to use their equipment for real, waiting out the days until it decided to get antsy. With the way things had been going, Dean wouldn't have been surprised if it decided to leave Gainn altogether just when he and Sam had started making progress; the thing was being contrary enough as it was.
That concern was on Sam's mind as well, because he kept frowning at the map they'd drawn up of the traps. "When do you think it'll show?" he whispered, taking advantage of the momentary privacy while Keane gathered up kindling from the nearest brush. The man had been quiet, keeping his own thoughts firmly reined in, save to point out which direction was which whenever Dean got turned around.
Dean prodded a finger at the fork of two massive oaks: the one spot he hadn't liked because there hadn't been a good way to set up any shrapnel. "Way you keep talking, maybe never," he said, and then corrected his own fatalism. "Soon enough. Tomorrow, we can start looking for some rabbit, maybe. It's a walk to the stream from here, but we'll figure something out."
"Don't give me only ration duty." Sam's fingers curled around his staff, tight and irritated. "Just because I can't use all my skills while Keane's here, that doesn't make me useless."
Exhaling slowly, Dean considered his brother. It wouldn't have been the first time Sam had had to hide his magic on a job; the risks were too high for being chased down by villagers who were more paranoid than grateful. Even among some hunters, there were those who loathed any sign of magic. And it was true: with Keane along, they didn't gain a fighter, but lost one by hampering Sam's capabilities. "Don't worry, Sammy," he insisted. "You'll get your chance to shine. You still know how to use a dagger, right?"
Sam rolled his eyes. "Like that's going to be any good against a werewolf?"
"That's the spirit." Grinning, Dean slapped his brother's shoulder. "You know where the traps are. Just move properly and remember to block with that walking stick of yours, and they'll do the work for you."
They took shifts during the night, rotating with Impala and Keane for the third watch. Preparing the campsite had frightened off most of the active wildlife, but the smaller creatures had already trickled back in, punctuating the darkness with chirps and snorts as Dean stared out into the darkness, willing the blightwolf to appear. As glad as Dean was to hear them -- they must not have disturbed the area that much -- the noises also left him discouraged. If the blightwolf were around, the silence would have been their first warning of it. It was Keane who looked the most displeased when Dean woke him for his shift, his one hand gripped tight around the haft of the axe he'd brought. Dean wanted to tell him the axe wouldn't do much good to protect him from anything if the wolf decided to get serious, but he'd seen what Keane could do to firewood with the thing, and kept his mouth shut.
The sun trickled through eventually, changing night into dawn. By the time midmorning rolled around, Dean was starting to fall back to the practicalities of a long stakeout. If the traps were out for too long, they'd have to be refreshed; they had three days to a week at most before they'd have to return to the farmstead and prepare for a fresh round. A second attempt would have to be held in a different area altogether, but with Keane's support, they could at least keep trying.
They all broke down to their morning business; no reason to just sit around staring at the leaves. Sam dug out the shaving kit, Keane excused himself to handle business behind a tree, and Dean decided to be circumspect and take stock of their rations.
"Hey, Keane," he called out, squinting at a hunk of meat that he swore hadn't looked quite so green the day before. "You said rabbit or deer's more common for this area?"
Beside him, Impala suddenly whuffed.
Immediately, Dean went on alert. Sam was already moving, heading towards Keane's tree; neither of them had any reason to take chances, not when the fight revolved around dominating the territory. Dean's palms skimmed the grips of his daggers, feeling the reassuring bulk of them waiting in their sheathes. He reached for the first crossbow lined up on the ground, took his stance, and steadied his breathing. The woods were silent, now. His ears ached with the lack of noise.
He didn't have long to wait.
With a roar that left Dean's head ringing, the blightwolf poured out of the forest. Its lanky stride ate up the distance in seconds, legs pistoning through the underbrush; it ripped through the woods with no care for stealth, choosing the shortest route between itself and Dean, and using every ounce of its rabid energy to get there. Dean held himself and his crossbow steady, staring the wolf down as he counted down the paces in his head, threetwoone--
The first shock trap exploded in its face.
Dean sent an arrow flying even as he was blinking away spots from the sudden burst of light, aiming for where he could hear the blightwolf howling in fury, lashing out at the sodden earth and wood around it. Electricity sizzled over its body, forcing it to contort in place as it tried to master its own pain and frazzled nerves, clawed paws curled over its muzzle in a vain, human-like attempt to protect itself.
The second crossbow came easily to hand. Dean fired that bolt too, only pausing to measure his success once he had both quarrels in the air. The first bolt went wide, more from chance than poor aim; the blightwolf was so busy flailing that the arrow missed it simply due to its erratic spasms. The second found its mark, punching deep into the monster's flank. As it sank into flesh, the blightwolf howled in fury, its heavy, inhuman head swinging around as it charged blindly forward.
Dean twisted around the nearest tree, counting on it to momentarily block him from sight as he worked to winch back the crossbow for a second round. "Come on, you bastard!" he shouted, hoping that his reply wouldn't be immediate; the downside of crossbows were how slow they were to reload, but so long as the blightwolf stayed at range, their firing power couldn't be denied.
Sam and Keane were taking up the slack for him, making themselves visible in a sideways dash while Dean rearmed. Sam took point, limbs and larger bulk making him the better choice for such an obvious assault, but the look on Keane's face as he flanked his brother left Dean little doubt that he'd be able to use the axe he was holding out if he had to. Impala knew her job; she darted back and forth, playing an active target between the blightwolf and the two men, providing a distraction in case the monster charged.
The noise was upsetting the monster, who was clearly having more trouble working off the effects of the trap that had led it to be blindsided. Wire twanged as a shrapnel trap fired; the position was oblique, and the sudden mist of metal scraps studded itself into the blightwolf's hide, eliciting another yowl of pain. Dean couldn't see it, so he poked his head around to pinpoint the blightwolf's location, and frowned when it was closer than he liked. He wrenched the bolt into place, but left the crossbow armed, switching instead to the longbow so he could pepper the air with regular arrows. No reason to potentially waste a loaded bolt if the blightwolf was moving too erratically to get a good bead.
The longbow tactic worked; the two arrows that Dean loosed in succession pulled the blightwolf's attention away from trying to claw the metal out of its skin, turning to figure out what was stinging it instead. It snarled when it caught Dean's scent drifting downwind, and crashed forward, its weight cracking branches underfoot like dry, brittle bones.
Dean was off and running before it could catch up, circling around to try and set every single trap possible between him and it so the thing would get tagged whenever it tried to advance. They'd set only eight traps, but he'd memorized where they all were very carefully before they'd begun, knowing exactly which ones were where, and which ones it would be best to lead the wolf into. Another burst of electricity rose up as the blightwolf lumbered forward; this one scorched the monster's flank, and as it whirled, it was confused by Sam and Keane shouting behind it. It spun again, snarled again, before hunkering down in stubborn hatred as it tried to shake
The beast was close to a shrapnel trap, so close that Dean weighed the risks between exposing himself for a long run, and playing it safe. The fallen log near its leg was the tell-tale marker; he'd rigged a chunk of shrapnel right along the broken edge, but in order to get the wolf to trigger it, he'd have to move fast.
He chose the risk anyway, breaking free of cover and jogging to the side in hopes of luring the creature over the trigger. But the blightwolf had decided that its current prey wasn't worth the pain. Fed up with being caught every time it went for Dean, it changed targets at last, fixating on the small group of Sam and Keane. Impala barked and feinted, splitting apart from the men in an attempt to lure the creature away, but it fixated on its new targets with a low, bubbling growl.
Sam and Impala moved swiftly, both of them finding a clear enough path through the trees that they scrambled easily along the curling rise of the hill -- but Keane was not so deft on his feet. His boot twisted on a root; unable to recover his balance as quickly without an arm free, and weighed down by the axe, he lurched forward with a cry and went down to one knee.
Dean cursed, stopping in place despite the lack of cover, and drew his longbow to full. The arrow skimmed the leaves and smacked into the monster's thigh, studding the ragged fur like a strand of newly-grown hair. The blightwolf whirled, snapping in Dean's direction, and then ignored him, flinging itself after Impala when the mabari darted recklessly close enough to taunt.
It crossed the trap zone at an angle, launching itself over the fallen log in an avalanche of rippling muscle. At first Dean thought that it cleared the trap altogether; then, one of its paws dipped low, just low enough to catch the grey line that snaked above the wood.
With a snick, the cord's trigger jerked free of its latch.
The trap exploded, the wire whipping free, detonating the shrapnel in an early misfire. Another trap down; this one would miss the blightwolf entirely. Not the end of the world, not yet. There were other traps still left waiting.
But Dean's luck was wrong. Horribly wrong -- because while Sam and Dean were far enough away from the trap, and Impala was protected by the trees, Keane was on the wrong side of the log. Off-balance already, the farmer was trapped in the narrow corridor of brush. With only one hand able to support his weight, he would be unable to untangle himself in time to dodge.
He pulled upwards anyway -- so slow, too slow, vulnerable to any incoming attack -- and Dean shouted with the desperation of a man expecting only death.
The blightwolf reversed its lunge.
Its head whipped around, spotting the helpless farmer, and then one of its paws lashed out. It caught the nearest tree, splintering the trunk as it planted its weight and sprang backwards, ignoring Sam and Impala altogether in favor of easier prey. Its massive body extended in a lean arc of killing muscle, long talons outstretched, aimed like a living javelin through the air.
The bristling wall of shrapnel took it square-on.
Concussive force smashed the blightwolf forward like a doll, limbs splayed. Keane, shielded from the explosion by the monster's bulk, managed to hit the ground in time; the blightwolf missed Keane by the narrowest of margins, twisting gracelessly as it sailed overhead. The crunch of its body hitting a tree caused branches to shudder, the bark to split. When it slid to the ground, it didn't get back up again.
Dean didn't waste any time in marveling at their good fortune; he was up and drawing a bead on the blightwolf before he even thought to take a breath. The point of his arrow sat square on the body, waiting for it to rise and fight. When nothing happened, Dean loosed the string anyway. Waiting for a kill shot was pointless; if the wolf was alive, then he needed to fix that fact immediately. If it was dead, its pelt wouldn't be hurt by another extra hole.
To his credit, the arrow buried itself deep in the blightwolf's flank, causing the creature to jerk with a fresh howl. Dean switched the longbow to his left hand, scooped up the reloaded crossbow with his right, and approached carefully, just waiting for the thing to get back on its feet.
The blightwolf stayed curled up on the ground, twitching and spasming into a tiny ball as fluids leaked from the dozens of gaping wounds. The reek of its punctured, diseased flesh was like an invading army of stench into Dean's nose; its blood was viscous with darkspawn taint, thick and foul. Its fur glistened with metal, as if it had been launched through a Chantry window, with every slice of glass left clinging to its body like a lover.
It didn't attack as Sam and Dean came closer, keeping their distance in case it decided to tried to rally. As they approached, its one visible eye rolled towards them; the sclera had been stained a deep yellow, the color of dehydrated piss, and the iris was a filthy pit of black. It blinked.
Dean didn't; he fired the crossbow bolt squarely for the thing's lungs. Half of him expected the quarrel to lodge somewhere ineffective anyway -- who knew how dense the creature's ribcage was now -- but the proximity gave the crossbow the extra kick it needed to plow through layers of muscle, wedging itself into a spot that caused the blightwolf to contort in one last, anguished screech.
Dean arched an eyebrow, already in the process of meticulously reloading the crossbow. Thankfully, the blightwolf stopped moving before he had to try shooting it in the skull. Remembering the days of fever he'd suffered, he considered pulling the trigger anyway.
"I think it's good now, Dean," he heard beside him. Glancing over, he saw Sam standing with his lips pressed tightly together, both hands on his staff. "Keane, I think it's safe enough to come over."
Werewolves didn't turn human again after they were killed, so Dad's journal had said -- and, by the look of it, blighted werewolves didn't either. The fur remained shredded; the face was a skeletal ruin. Dean stood over the body and prodded it with one boot, staying far away from the parted jaws.
Then, to break the silence, he finally asked Keane, "You recognize him?"
In other circumstances, that kind of question might have been the most jerkass thing Dean could has asked. In this one, it might still have counted. But Keane grimly studied the corpse, running his eyes over it from top to bottom, as if he could slice off the outer shell like a muddy coat and see the human beneath.
"As much as I can," he said at last, and maybe that was good enough for all of them.
So, like it or not, the next steps for a hunter involved gathering a decent assembly of safe body parts, meeting some discreet contacts, and then smiling as proper payment changed hands. Didn't do any hunter any good to get noticed by the Chantry by answering too many jobs, so it was either change location or get a decent go-between -- typically the local hunter, if there was any -- and then back on the road.
As Keane grimly watched from the sidelines, Dean and Sam hacked at the blightwolf -- blighted werewolf, whatever -- and then cleared away enough brush to safely set a fire. They didn't have the hours it would take to do a proper cremation, but as long as the area was decently sterilized, they wouldn't have to worry about the taint infecting too much, with luck.
There was no good way to preserve the trophies, unfortunately. Dean rolled out the salt bag and poured out enough to pack the body parts in -- claws, fangs, ears, the usual -- and then found the spare oilcloth for padding. Even though salt wouldn't cure the taint, it would soak up any of the fluid that might try to leak out, and discoloration of the white grains would help them spot any problem areas. Sam was no help at all; he just kept staring down at was left of the wolf, scrunching up his face at the ichor and the smell.
Dean laughed, and got down to business, torching the remains.
Inna was there when they exited the forest, a lone figure standing tall in the bare, half-tilled fields. Without a word, Keane went to her. The farmer didn't look back to Sam and Dean as he strode forward, his eyes fixed solely upon his wife.
Dean nudged Sam, still upbeat with the fresh rush of a kill. "You think it was really that guy's brother?"
Sam hesitated, then shrugged, though his mouth twisted down as he spoke, less indifferent to what he was saying than he wanted to pretend. "I'm not sure. I think he's willing to accept that it was. Maybe he and Inna need that kind of closure, to get on with their lives."
After waiting for another minute with no change in Sam's pursed lips, Dean gave up on hoping for a punchline. "Hey," he shrugged, refusing to let his mood go sour because of someone else's introspection. "Victory, eh?"
But Sam was still watching the shapes across the field: the silhouettes of Inna and Keane walking slowly back to their homes, bodies illuminated into golden lines from the setting sun. Inna's head, down. Keane's hand, not reaching out to touch her. The flap of Keane's empty sleeve.
Dean didn't know what to say to break Sam's thoughts, how to scatter them away from whatever invisible message he was building out of the scraps of other people's lives. He wasn't sure if this job would haunt his brother, or for how long; sometimes, it felt like he never could figure out what Sam would hold onto next. He never could, even before Sam went to the Circle, and came back with a growing mass of disquiet underneath his skin.
Dean didn't know. He probably would never know. That was Sam, that was his brother, and even if Dean didn't understand completely, he still would fight to the death to defend him. And they had one arrow left for the Colt, only one -- but they had one more bounty dead and waiting to be cashed in to the Chantry board, and one more day spent living, against all the odds the Maker had stored up against them.
Maybe someday, that one arrow would be enough.