Season Three

Episode Twenty-Two: The Art of Dying

By Kittsbud & Tree

Part One

 

Kalispell, Montana

Sid Morrow pushed up from a seated position, groaning slightly as cramped muscles, aggravated by the chilling Montana evening air, protested the deep recline of the Adirondack chair. Whatever possessed him to sit in the hard damn thing escaped him now as he struggled to reach his feet, pushing off again against the armrests.

Successful on the second try, he took a half step and leaned against the wood railing, breathing heavily as he looked out along the tree-lined valley. The afternoon sunlight had descended behind the eastern ridge of the mountains an hour or so earlier and now soft shadows and the ebb of twilight were easing across the range.

The place was breathtakingly beautiful, or it would have been had Morrow been able to force himself to consider it. But the fact remained that he was bitter, a sourness deep down inside him that curdled every other emotion. He’d been holed up in the cabin for nearly two months, healing from the leftover wounds he acquired in Wisconsin and slowly seething as he thought back on the ordeal… and the Winchesters.

“Bastard family,” he grumbled angrily, slamming his palm down against the rough-hewn rail for added exclamation. “So help me, I’m gonna get that bastard John and both of his demonic whelps, and when I do…”

He was about to turn for the door to the cabin, seeking to find a fresh bottle of whiskey, when movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Instantly on alert, Morrow slowly backed toward the cabin entrance, his eyes cautiously scanning the edge of the forest.

When his hand bumped into the knob, the hunter twisted the handle and used his boot to nudge the door open. Without taking his eyes from the landscape, he reached inside the jamb and grabbed the rifle that had been propped against the interior wall.

Carefully, he raised the weapon to chest level, not quite taking aim but prepared to shoot from the hip if need be. Listening intently, he employed all his senses and his keen hunter’s instincts to detect any sounds or movement that might signify an approaching threat.

And then, just off to the southern edge of the woods, a flash of white shifted between the tall trunks of the Aspens.

Morrow startled, swinging up his rifle and loosing a single shot in the direction of the movement. The report of the rifle echoed between the two mountain ranges, and the hunter cringed as he realized he’d just potentially given away his hideaway. He felt even stupider when the massive brown bulk of a large buck dashed from the trees and darted back and forth in the clearing before being swallowed up in the relative security of the forest.

“Stupid! A little jumpy, hey Sid?” Morrow muttered, lowering his weapon and shaking his head. “What a damn dumbass thing to do.”

He huffed loudly and turned back toward the cabin, his foolishness replaced once more by resentment. None of this would be happening if it hadn’t been for the Winchesters. He could be sitting at a warm bar, enjoying the company of a loose woman instead of being stuck out here in no-man’s land, alone and miserable.

“Paranoid, bastard,” he mocked himself. “Been up here too long.”

His shoulder chose that moment to send a sharp spike of pain that cascaded down into his chest and he froze, reaching out to grasp the edge of the door as he steadied himself. Even after months of rest and healing, the bullet wounds to his body were stark reminders of his failed plan to take out his enemies. He’d been so close too, had John and his eldest within his clutches only to allow Sam - the worst of the three- to sneak up and rescue them.

Rubbing at the subsiding ache in his arm, the grizzled hunter proceeded over to the fireplace, determined to stoke up the flames and chase away the encroaching nighttime chill. Tossing a large log onto the dying flames, he then reached for the poker and stirred the coals back to life.

Morrow leaned the tool back against the hearth and then stepped back, enjoying the increased warmth as it soaked into his sore muscles and joints. He closed his eyes, his mind still seething from the thought of the Winchester clan as he struggled to let the tension seep from his body.

A sudden squeak of the floorboard behind him caught the hunter’s attention, but he shrewdly remained still. Sensing movement, Morrow’s eyes rose to the shotgun that hung just above the mantle, yet he remained motionless as his mind calculated his response.

“You’ll never make it to that gun,” a soft voice called out from the shadows.

Morrow chuckled nervously. “If you wanted to kill me, you would’ve done it by now. Besides, maybe I’ll get lucky.”

The stout hunter stiffened when the voice behind him “tsk’d” mockingly.

“Lucky? You’d better have a rabbit’s foot tucked underneath that flannel of yours and a couple of four-leaf clovers in your pockets, cause there isn’t enough luck in the world that would get you to that shotgun before I ripped your spine out.”

“Pissy bitch, huh?” Morrow snapped back. “So, what the hell do you want with me? I’m nobody special, just an old man trying to live peacefully up here out of everybody’s way.”

The woman laughed again and he heard her boots strike the hardwood floor as she took another step closer. Morrow held his position, hoping for and counting on the fact that the mysterious intruder would be sloppy and draw near enough for him to get his hands on her. He was certain, that in close quarters, his size and skills would enable him to take any female.

“Oh, I know who you are and you’re anything but a peaceful old man, now aren’t you… hunter? Even now, I’m betting that you’re calculating just how much closer I need to come so that you can try to get your paws on me. But trust me, I wouldn’t suggest you try,” the voice warned.

Morrow scowled. She was either really good or he’d let his skills get sloppy over the course of months he’d been sequestered away here. Holding his hands out to his sides, palms opened and face up, he forced a smile on his face and slowly turned to face his uninvited guest.

“Now was that so difficult?” the brunette asked, her head cocked slightly as her eyes scanned the hunter’s form.

He shrugged, offering his own lopsided smile back at her. That she was the most beautiful thing he’d seen in quite some time didn’t stop him from not trusting her. Sure, she was tall, slim and had doe-brown eyes that Morrow was certain he’d loved to get lost in, but there was an almost predatory quality to the way she held herself; erect, rigid, muscles tense in anticipation of action. Maybe she was another hunter; she certainly seemed to possess the skills. Still, he wasn’t opposed to a little hot action in the sack; after all, he liked a woman with a little fight in her.

“So what do you want with me?” he asked with a leer. I know what I’d like to do with you…

“Why don’t you tone down the testosterone there, big guy? You might want to listen to what I have to offer before you make a move that you’ll regret,” the woman advised.

“You’re pretty sure of yourself. If you know who and what I am, then you know what I do for a living. If you think your threats are scaring me, bitch, you might want to think again,” Morrow retorted.

The brunette didn’t respond, she merely glared back at him, her deep brown eyes narrowing as she seemed to stare right through his very soul.

“We have something in common actually,” she continued after a moment. “And I think we can help each other.”

“In common? What could I possibly have in common with you?” he snarled back.

“The Winchesters…”

Morrow froze, any hint of the smile on his face immediately disappearing at the mention of his nemeses.

“What do the Winchesters mean to you?”

“We have a history, starting with John. Suffice it to say that they owe me big time, and I aim to collect.”

“You might have to stand in line,” Morrow hissed. “I have a personal score to settle with those sons of his. Those bastards are working for the very demon-scum they swore to hunt.”

The hunter didn’t miss the shiver that seemed to cascade over the brunette’s body following his comment, but he shrugged it off and continued.

“So what’s your beef with them? And how do you propose we work together?”

“I’ve got a way to take them all out in one fell swoop, and for good. But I gotta find them first,” she replied, casually moving around him toward the fireplace and slowly rubbing her hands together before the open flames.

“What’s in it for me?” he asked suggestively, moving up behind her.

She turned to face him, the firelight bouncing off her long tresses and illuminating her fine features. He absorbed the smile she offered, returning it with one of his own. She moved in closer, her long fingers reaching out to his chest and smoothing down the flannel of his shirt.

It was immediately electrifying and he leaned into her stroke.

“I’ll make it worth your while,” she offered in a husky tone.

Morrow grinned impishly, extending his own fat fingers to skim along the side of her face. She pulled away from his touch, denying him any further contact, teasing him with a seductive glint in her eye and taking in a deep breath that only served to jut her ample breasts into his face.

“Easy there, big boy. I need to see the goods before I remit payment…” she warned gently, following it with a quick dart of her tongue across full red lips.

“I’ll show you the goods,” Morrow slurred in reply, a lecherous grin spreading across his face.

She turned away from him, her hips swaying as she sauntered back toward the glow of the fireplace.

Morrow watched her move, his body responding to the sexual innuendo and the appealing form of the brunette. Hurriedly, he turned and walked over to the large desk in the corner of the cabin. He tugged on the chain dangling from the lamp, illuminating the scores of papers littering the top as well as the myriads of clippings and photos that were pinned to the nearby wall.

“I’ve been gathering intel on them through contacts I have in the hunting community. I don’t know where his boys are offhand, but I just received information on John’s location yesterday,” Morrow offered as he pulled open the center desk drawer.

Drawing out a folder, he flipped it open and spread out the contents. His gnarled hands pushed through the scraps, coming to rest on a few fresh photographs and a small map.

“Dumb bastard thinks he’s so smart, flying under the radar, but there are hunters out there that would sell out their own mothers for the right price. The word is out now that his boys are working for the enemy, there’ll be plenty of folks wanting to put a bullet in their brains.”

“What do you mean, working for the enemy?” the woman asked curiously, turning and striding over to the opposite side of the desk, her eyes sweeping over the contents.

“You don’t know? The oldest one, Dean, was possessed, working for that sonofabitch Haris. And the younger one, Sam, well he’s gotta be a near full-on demon himself. He has all these freaky powers or something. Word has it that he has Haris after him too, just itching to recruit him. Hell, he’s no different than the demons and creatures we hunt,” Morrow stated. “And John, he’s just too blind to admit the truth, too stubborn to see that his own flesh and blood are nothing more than demon pawns.”

The woman laughed loudly, her long tresses bouncing as she shook her head vigorously.

“Working for demons huh? Yeah, real great intel you have there,” she muttered sarcastically, all hint of seduction suddenly gone.

“Hey, I’ve seen it myself… first hand,” the hunter insisted.

The brunette shrugged. “Whatever! So, where are they?”

“Like I said, don’t know where his boys are, but a buddy of mine said John’s been poking around Stockton, California, chasing down demons,” Morrow stated.

The girl came around the end of the desk to stand at the hunter’s side. She continued to run her long fingers across the pictures and notes, her touch holding an almost sensual quality. She was close to him again, her body nonchalantly brushing up against his own and instantly rekindling the flutter in his groin.

He could smell her, the hint of honeysuckle in her hair, the smell of musk that seemed to ooze off of her. Closing his eyes, he pictured her naked, lying next to him atop the soft fabric of the sheets, a roaring fire gently illuminating her curves.

“Is Winchester still there?” she asked, breaking him from his distracted thoughts.

“Err… uh… yeah, yes, I’m pretty sure,” Morrow stammered.

“And do you know where exactly?”

“Yeah, my buddy said he was staying at the Comstock Inn. I got a picture of him just outside the place as recent as two days ago.”

The hunter moved quickly, pushing aside the top layer of papers until he came across the photograph he was seeking. He flipped it up and held it for the woman to see.

She turned, her face moving in even closer, peering down at the picture. “Hmm… well, that’s what I needed to know.”

He watched her with disbelief as she quickly spun away from him and headed toward the cabin door.

“Hey, wait, where you going? Don’t we have… er… plans to make?” he asked worriedly.

She turned back and smiled, her head cocked slightly to the left. “What? Were you expecting something else?” she asked suggestively, her eyebrows raised.

“Weelllll… I did share…” Morrow whined.

She took a step back towards him, her smile even more demure, her hips swinging lightly as she approached. “Aww… don’t worry, darlin’. You’ve been a big help and I did promise to repay you. You can rest easy knowing that your enemies will be taken care of.”

Morrow grinned broadly and stepped forward, closing the distance between them. He was directly in front of her once more, her hands reaching out and rubbing slowly down his chest and well past his belt before continuing back up to stroke the side of his neck.

“I don’t even know your name,” he murmured as she drew his face down to her mouth.

She pressed her lips next to his earlobe, her breath hot against his skin. He was melting under her touch, his body reacting to the promise of sex.

“My real name is Emma,” she purred into his ear. “But I go by Mia now,” “

The brunette pulled away abruptly, her hands still remaining gently at his neck. Their eyes met, but even in the darkness Morrow could see her irises glaze over black. He tried to pull away, but she held him firmly.

“You… you’re a …”

“Yeah, that’s right…” she finished for him as her nails tore into the side of his throat.

Morrow tried to cry out, to scream in defiance, but the blood was already pouring out of his slashed carotids, his larynx silenced as she ripped the trachea from his neck.

She stepped back, releasing her grasp and watching emotionlessly as his body dropped to the hardwood floor, the blood pooling out around the hunter.

Kneeling down beside his still-jerking body, she casually wiped the offending ref fluid from her hands onto Morrow’s shirt.

“I’m a demon,” she spat down at him. “Pity you weren’t a good enough hunter to figure that out.”


Stockton, California


John Winchester rose up from a long-held squatting position, wanting to stretch to his full six foot plus height but hampered by the low ceiling of the storage container. Droplets of sweat beaded at his forehead and stung his eyes as they trailed down his face. He swiped the back of his hand across his brow, careful not to lose sight of the body in front of him as he did so. His hand came away sticky and John realized that it wasn’t just perspiration that coated his scalp.

The heat inside was stifling, any chance at fresh air lost to the tightly closed hatch. Adding to the warmth were the two kerosene lanterns, strategically placed so that they easily illuminated the entire space, but also throwing off enough ambient heat to turn the container into an over-sized oven.

John peered closely at the form before him. Sweating profusely, the young man looked haggard, nearly dead. But the seasoned hunter knew better. Bruises marred smooth skin and blood trickled from the corners of the blond’s mouth, evidence that neither of them had come out of the initial scrap unscathed.

“You’re gonna die hunter!” Black eyes glared out from the limply raised head, blonde hair plastered to a face that bore a natural tan and a youthful complexion.

John didn’t react to the threat. Instead he stared back, matching the angry glower with a nearly sympathetic gaze.

The young man was not much older than Sam and had it not been for the long, sun-bleached locks, the kid would have been a dead ringer in stature for his youngest. But there the similarity ended. Where Sam was a bookworm, always trying to figure out the how and why of the world, this kid was a surfer, a free-spirit unbound by societal constraints, content to find freedom atop the waves.

John chuckled silently, the image of either Sam or Dean hanging out at the beach, clad in board shorts or a wetsuit, and ready to hit the surf seemed incongruous with what his sons had become. But he quickly pushed that thought aside as the pleading blue eyes of the young man appeared again.

He sighed. Maybe there wasn’t any difference then? Certainly Sam and Dean lived outside of the norms. After all, despite his current participation in the “family business”, Sam had definitely shown his free-spirit when he’d abandoned his father and brother to try for a taste of life beyond hunting. His youngest had certainly always known what he wanted out of life.

But wasn’t that why he was here… now? Wasn’t he trying to prevent the bleak ending that the future seemed to hold for his sons?

…they were never yours at all…

John shivered; an icy hand seemed to pierce his flesh and firmly grab his heart and lungs, stealing away his breath for a split second. The feeling passed quickly enough, even though the memory of Lucifer’s comment still echoed in his head just as it had nearly every day for the past year.

He turned back to the ferocious face of the demon-possessed surfer. If looks could kill, he was sure he would have been reduced to a boneless pile of steaming flesh by the evil-spawned hatred pouring off the young man. John wasn’t fazed, he knew there was no love lost between himself and the denizens of Hell, and equally certain that after everything demons had cost him, he didn’t give a damn either.

“Why were you following the girl?” John demanded, his attention focused once more on the task at hand.

“What girl?”

John advanced, his fists clenched at his side. “You damn well know which girl. Krista Fieser, the little redhead that works at the IHOP. You’ve been watching her, following her, nearly every day since I got here.”

“So, maybe I have a thing for redheads and pancakes,” the possessed man replied sarcastically.

“Yeah, and I enjoy Broadway musicals and sushi,” John snapped in return. “Let’s cut the crap What the hell do you sonsofabitches want with her?”

“Nothing!” the demon snarled.

“Bull! I know who she is…”

“Then you know what she is…”

“So why are you trailing her? Haris is gone, who are you working for?” John asked.

The blond laughed, shaking his head from side to side. “Jeez Winchester, figured you were smarter than that.”

“Lucifer? He has you watching the girl?”

“Not just her,” the demon taunted.

John paused as he considered the implication of what the demon said. He knew there were others like Krista Fieser, like Matt Teller, like Sam… He’d been compiling a list of their names, tracking down the others from cursed families like his own, hoping to find out why his own son seemed to be on Hell’s short list.

“What does Lucifer want with her?” the veteran hunter demanded.

Black eyes stared back at him, silently mocking the elder Winchester. Furious at the unresponsiveness, John stepped closer and grabbed the young man by a handful of t-shirt. Yanking him forward, the hunter’s face was mere inches away from the demon’s.

“WHAT DOES LUCIFER WANT WITH HER?” John shouted, his own eyes wide with anger.

“Go to hell,” the creature spat back.

John loosed his grip and backed off slightly. “You first!”

Retrieving a smaller version of his leather-bound journal, he automatically flipped it open to the section he needed.

“Exorcizo te, immundissime spiritus, omnis incursio adversarii, omnis legio….”

The young man before him began to twitch, his lanky body struggling against the thick ropes holding him secured to the chair. He hissed and spat, his eyes flashing back and forth between blue and black as John continued the Latin rite.

“You… can’t… save… them…” the man’s strained voice cracked as the demon fought against the exorcism.

“Tell me what he wants with them… what does he want with my son?” John yelled again.

Another laugh echoed within the tight confines of the metal shed. Perspiration combined with blood and ran in small rivulets down the surfer’s face. Yet the dark eyes showed no sign of relenting.

“You think this is just about your sons? I’d heard you were an egotistical bastard,” the hellspawn jeered.

“Audi ergo, et time, satana, inimice fidei, hostus generis humani…”

The blond writhed more vigorously as blood began to seep from the wounds created by his thrashing against the bindings. John didn’t yield. Spurred by the demon’s taunts, his mind still haunted by the insinuations against his sons, he continued the ritual.

His entire life had been spent in pursuit of the yellow-eyed demon, culminating over a year ago when Dean had finally put the bastard down for good. He’d thought it was all over then, at the time thinking he’d saved Sam only at the expense of his eldest’s sacrifice. Yet even the utter relief he felt when Dean miraculously returned to life there on the cold Wyoming dirt was short-lived when he recalled Lucifer’s final words.

Since then, he’d spent most of his time researching and chasing down any lead that remotely related to his boys. There’d been the nineteen-year-old working in the grocery store in Memphis, a gold medallion hanging from his neck for all the world to see. If the boy knew anything about his Guardianship, it wasn’t apparent; but then, neither had Dean really. If anything, John was shocked he’d found the kid at all, especially after all the rocks he’d dug under back before Wyoming.

And his search hadn’t been confined to seeking the elusive Guardians either. John also followed up on any report of kids with “special” abilities; like Sam. He’d checked on the ones he knew about, starting with Matt Teller and most recently, the former priest, Kyle Williams, seeing how they were doing, or rather maybe “what” they were doing. He’d only caught wind of Krista Fieser after a report of her involvement in thwarting a recent robbery at her place of employment.

It wasn’t the fact that the petite redhead had stood up to an armed bandit, what caught his attention was that she’d supposedly been shot in the process, only to be miraculously “fine” by the time the paramedics arrived, not a mark on her other than a red blotch staining her apron.

She was one of them, he knew it. Although he had no idea how she’d managed to escape Eli’s round-up, he didn’t know, but John was certain he was going to find out the truth, no matter how many demons he had to work his way through to do it. He might have lost Mary, but no way was he coming close to losing his sons ever again.

John continued on with the exorcism, the words slipping off his tongue so automatically even though his thoughts were elsewhere. He ignored the screeching of the demon-possessed man before him, the blood that ran freely from torn fingernails as the kid’s hands dug into the wooden armrests.

“…origo avaritiae, casua discodiae, excitator dolorum; quid stas et resistis cum scias.”

“He wants them…”

The weak voice rose above the Latin, desperation apparent in both the tone and the eyes.

“What? What does he want them for?” John demanded, his patience pressed thin.

“I dunno, its need to know only and I’m not high enough up the food chain to sit at the big dinner table. But I do know that the Boss has big plans for humanity. Seems he’s tired of being exiled down in the Pit, wants to reign topside for a bit,” the demon explained.

“Yeah, so? No newsflash there. What does that have to do with Sam and Dean?”

“They’re a threat, a big one. There’s checks and balances in everything, the Big Guy Upstairs made sure of that. Haven’t you ever wondered why Haris wanted all those kids to begin with? And why he was so desperate to get that amulet off your son?”

“It was part of Solomon’s sword. He was afraid of it,” the hunter replied.

“Not alone, it was what it represented in the larger picture,” the demon continued.

“And what’s that?”

“Lucifer knows. He saw what happened to Haris and he knows what might happen if the Guardians all banded together; or worse, if all the special kids from those cursed families managed to put their freakish talents to use.”

“So he wants them all out of his way?”

“Wow! And to think we figured Sam for the bright one…”

John scowled at the jibe. “So your boss wants my sons, all the rest of them, dead?”

“Dead, alive, he doesn’t really care, so long as they stay out of the way of his master plan. Of course, dead is less risky in the long run…”

The blond’s demon-possessed face curled up in a smirk, his black eyes sparkling as though the threat brought some sort of satisfaction to its evil mind. John merely turned away. He’d heard enough, it was just a different verse of the same old song. Something always seemed to want him or his family dead, that was nothing new, and even the prospect of their latest enemy being nothing other than Hell’s Prince really did little to faze the haggard hunter.

Thumbing over to the next page, John resumed his oration. “Recede ergo in nomine Patris et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…”

“NO! WAIT… you promised…”

“I did? … da locum Spiritus Sancto, per hoc signum sanctae Crucis Jesu Christi Domini nostri…

The young man screamed, a thick black fog poured from his open mouth and rose upward as John finished the ritual. The dark cloud slammed into the ceiling of the container, spreading out against the painted sigil before dissipating into the humid air.

As the commotion faded, John closed the small notebook and laid it on top of a nearby crate. Pulling a large knife from the sheath at this hip, he slowly moved toward the silent young man, cautiously watching as small droplets of blood plopped to the floor.

Carefully slipping the edge of the blade beneath the ropes at the man’s wrist, John quickly cut the bindings, catching the lanky surfer before his body fell to the ground. He lowered the unconscious victim to the floor, cutting away the remaining pieces of rope before rising to retrieve some clean bandages.

Stepping out into the cool evening air, he stopped and turned his face up to the full glowing moon. Sucking in a deep breath, John tried to slow the pounding of his heart, certain that it was loud enough that anyone nearby would be able to hear it.

When he opened his eyes again, he looked down at the drying blood that covered his hands. Some of it was his, but most belonged to the innocent kid lying just a few feet away. Reaching the truck, he pulled an oversized tackle box from behind the bench seat and a half empty jug of water from the passenger’s side floorboards.

It took several minutes for him to clean up and bandage the minor wounds that adorned the tanned flesh of the young man. He did it methodically, forcing himself not to make any more haphazard comparisons to his own sons. But his mind was still chewing through what the demon had told him.

He’d never really considered the implications of all the remaining Guardians coming together, never really caring about any of it beyond how it affected Dean. But he had to admit, reflecting on it now, he could easily understand the potential threat not just to any demon, but maybe even to Lucifer himself.

John huffed in disgust. He wished he would have checked into Shadrack Mann and the whole deal with Dean’s amulet back when the strange old man had first approached him. Would he have done anything differently? Would he have kept Dean away, never to take on the peculiar responsibility? Would it have changed anything at all?

And what about Sam? Was there really anything he could have done to have prevented putting his youngest in Hell’s crosshairs? There was still so much about the cursed families that he was in the dark about. Just as with Dean, he couldn’t help wondering whether there was any way he could have kept Sam from taking on the strange powers.

A cursed family and a Guardian family; maybe Lucifer’s taunt held a modicum of truth after all. Sam and Dean never really were his, their destiny sealed from the minute he and Mary first met: nature’s way or even the “Man Upstairs” desperate attempt to keep things in balance. Maybe there was nothing he could do to protect his boys from whatever fate held in store.

“No!” John shouted defiantly aloud. He wouldn’t admit that, couldn’t… absolutely refused to with every red blood cell currently coursing through his veins.

The sudden sound of his voice caused the young man to stir before him. Bloodshot blue eyes peeked from between rapidly blinking lids, struggling to focus in the dimly lit container.

“What… where?” the blond stammered out weakly, his hand reaching out to clutch John’s shirt.

“It’s okay… just relax. You’re going to be alright,” he promised.

“What happened to me? Where am I? Please… please don’t hurt me…” the young man begged, his eyes wide with panic.

“It’s all right, son. I’m not going to hurt you,” John assured him, gently holding a shoulder as he offered the tepid bottle of water.

The kid drank greedily, water splashing from his mouth and trickling down the side of his chin as it mixed with the drying blood.

“More… please….”

John nodded and eased the bruised body back down to the floor.

“I’ll be right back,” he grunted, rising back up to his feet.

With a pronounced sigh, the hunter moved to the door to the container. He pushed it open and made a quick scan right and left before leaving the relative safety of the metal box.

The truck was parked only a few feet away, but John knew that it never hurt to be cautious. It was impossible to know if the demon possessing the surfer had been working alone, and if it hadn’t, then it was highly likely that he may have been followed despite his great care to obscure his trail.

For the past several days, he’d felt as though eyes had been watching him. In fact, ever since he’d arrived in Stockton, he couldn’t suppress the sensation that someone had been following him, holding to the shadows, just out of eyeshot.

It was disconcerting, and he hated the feeling and the implication of weakness. But John knew that the hair on the back of his neck didn’t lie, knew equally that those sorts of feelings were not to be taken lightly if he wanted to survive. Experience had taught him that valuable lesson several times over, and so John embraced his paranoia as just another of his well-honed hunter’s skills.

When the coast seemed cleared, he moved toward the black GMC, his eyes warily watching his surroundings. He grimaced when the passenger’s side door opened with a loud screech of worn hinges. It briefly reminded him of the Impala and a flash of Sam and Dean whisked through his mind.

Assured that the noise hadn’t attracted any unwanted attention, John stretched inside and pulled two more bottles of water from underneath the seat. Tucking them underneath his left armpit, the weary hunter was about to turn back when the breeze suddenly stilled.

Still bent inside the truck cab, he froze, his movements becoming slower, more methodical as he nonchalantly reached for the glove compartment.

“There’s nothing in there that will help you,” a female voice called out from behind him.

He knew the voice; would go to his grave remembering the tone and timbre as it had launched vile threats at him.

“You!” he snarled, standing up straight and turning slowly to face the newcomer.

“Aw, Johnny… I get the distinct impression you’re not happy to see me,” Mia snarked in reply. “I’m surprised really… I didn’t think I’d sneak up on you so easily, the great hunter that you are and all.”

John shrugged, “Yeah, I’m shocked too. Don’t know how I missed your stench. What sewer did you crawl out of this time?”

The brunette chuckled and shook her head. “Always with the comedy. You really took up the wrong profession I think. You and Dean could have gone on the road together.”

“What do you want, Mia?” he asked, masking his concern with irritation.

“Wow, right down to business with you isn’t it? No time for pleasantries,” she taunted.

“The only thing pleasant in dealing with you, Mia, would be to see your lifeless body beneath my boots.”

The woman laughed once more, but her eyes narrowed betraying her next actions to the wary hunter.

She lifted her hand, pointing a crimson-tipped index finger at John’s chest. He tried to lift the weapon he’d managed to pull from the glovebox, but her demonic power was already launching him backwards into the side of the truck.

His back slammed into the black metal, the open edge of the door jamming into his spine with an explosion of pain. John struggled to move, his eyes going wide as he watched the hybrid demon approach with a slow saunter.

“Save your energy,” she advised him as she drew near.

“Go to hell,” John grunted back as he fought against the invisible force holding him pinned against the truck.

“Oh, I have every intention of it, John…” she sneered as she drew closer.

He tried to pull away from her contact, but his body would not respond. Instead, all he could do was cringe, his flesh crawling as she stretched up onto her tiptoes and put her mouth next to his ear. Mia lingered there without speaking for a prolonged moment, and the hunter flinched as her lips skimmed the side of his neck.

“Tasty…” she purred. “Like a more refined version of Dean. Pity, you and I never got to spend the type of quality time that he and I did.”

“I should have killed you when I had the chance,” John growled.

“As if you could have. I seem to remember leaving the three of you bleeding and licking your wounds back in Texas,” she reminded him.

“I seem to remember you running for your life,” he retorted.

She smiled, canting her head slightly with a shrug. “Yeah… well, see the last time I went about it all wrong, I tried to separate your boys, I tried to bait you in. But you were too smart… too cautious or calloused… to rush headlong into save your sons. But now, I’m smarter and I know which bait works best. See, I know Dean… he’d do anything to save his family and then there’s Sam… he’d do anything to save Dean. Like dominoes… one by one… you’re all going to fall.”

“You won’t get them!”

John shook with anger, every muscle in his body contracting as he fought to free himself from Mia’s trap. He ceased abruptly as the soft warble of a ringtone emanated from his pocket. His eyes betrayed him as he glanced down following the noise.

Mia snuggled up against his chest, her hands seeking out the cellular, her fingers sneaking into the front pocket of his jeans and freely roaming within the worn denim. John sucked in a breath and bit into his lower lip as she fumbled against his groin.

She smiled into his face, emitting a soft titter that for all its girlishness still held a sadistic, evil quality. She pulled out the cell phone… finally… her eyes sneaking a peek at the display.

“Ooohh, its Dean. Should I answer? I imagine he’d love to hear from me,” she taunted.

“Whatever you’re going to do, Mia… just get it over with. I’m tired of your games,” John hissed.

She took a playful nibble on his earlobe and her breath assaulted the whiskered side of his face. The cell rang twice more before John’s voicemail picked it up.

He watched as Mia glanced back at the now-silent phone. Her fingers clenched around it, the plastic and electronics suddenly exploding outward as Mia crushed it within her hand. She looked back up at him, her hazelnut irises giving over to the obsidian of her pupils.

“Oh, John, the game is only beginning. I’ve captured the king, and the knights won’t be far behind. Before long, the queen will be the only piece left on the board!”

Bend, Oregon

Dean flipped the cellular closed with a grunt and tossed it across the room where it bounced twice on the lumpy mattress before coming to rest on the garish green bedspread.

“I don’t know why he even carries a damn cell, not like he ever uses the goddamn thing,” Dean grumbled, stalking back to the edge of the window and pushing aside the curtain to peer outside.

“Don’t take it out on the phone, Dean,” Sam advised, his eyes peeking up from underneath the long tendrils of brown hair. “You of all people should know how Dad is.”

Absently, he heard Sam groan. From the corner of his eye, he watched as his brother looked up from the laptop, stretched and extended his arms up and behind his head before reaching to massage knots born of too many hours hunched over the computer from the back of his neck. Dean listened to the movement, but continued staring blankly out the window into the rainy, darkening night.

He was bored, having spent the better part of the day inside, watching Sam pour over every conceivable website dealing with angels, feathers or anything even remotely hinting at the two. Never mind that they had just managed to escape from a mountain of collapsing rock or an open Hellgate flooded with demons, Sam was obsessed with that damn feather, spending every waking minute digging through every resource both electronically or in print at nearly every library between California and here.

“Why don’t you give it a rest, Sammy?” he suggested, instantly regretting the poor choice in words when his brother erupted with a hostile reply.

“Hey, don’t bitch at me!” Sam yelled angrily. “I’m just working here, trying to dig up anything more about that friggin’ feather. If you’re gonna be pissed at Dad, fine… but don’t take it out on me…”

“Sam…”

“I mean it, Dean. Funny, when I complain about how the old man doesn’t respond, about how all he ever seems to do is avoid us, you’re the first one to defend him…

“Sammy, that’s not…”

“But when you’re pissed off at him, when you need him and he’s not there, it’s all okay for you to rant…”

“I didn’t mean…”

“I’m so sick of you always sticking up for him… it never changes… not with him, not with you…”

Dean moved closer, his hands out in front of him open-palmed as he tried to explain and soothe his suddenly upset sibling. Behind the small table, Sam rose abruptly, his hands pushing off against the arms of the chair and causing it to fly backward where it crashed into the wall. He stalked out from around the makeshift desk, approaching Dean with wide eyes.

“…tell me to give it a rest…” Sam continued. “Why don’t you save that advice for yourself…?”

The elder Winchester recoiled slightly as Sam stopped right before him. With barely a hands-breath between their chests, he braced himself, certain his brother was about to hit him.

“SAM!” he shouted, hoping to distract the taller man from his vehement tirade before fists started flying.

“WHAT?” Sam yelled back and Dean didn’t miss the rigid musculature of his brother’s arms as biceps seemed to stretch the fabric of the thin t-shirt in direct proportion to how tight his brother was wound.

“Relax, I didn’t mean it …” Dean began, but his next words were cut off as Sam’s palms slammed into his chest.

He stumbled backward, trying to catch himself as his hands flailed out grabbing nothing but empty air. He landed hard on his hip, feeling the resulting concussion spread up his spine and jar his teeth. Sitting there, he looked up at his brother, trying desperately to mask the suspicion from manifesting on his face.

Dean had seen what Sam had done in the caverns; in fact, over the past couple of years he’d had a front row seat to the Sam Winchester Superpower Show. And while repetition might breed familiarity, it did nothing to ease the pesky voices in the back of Dean’s head.

He wasn’t frightened, not that he’d ever admit, not of Sam, more like he was just concerned, worried that somehow he was losing his brother over to the likes of Gudrun… or worse. It wasn’t that Dean was afraid of what Sam could do, he’d certainly seen his fair share of “strange” in his life; it was more that he just didn’t understand it, and that bothered him… being out of control, not having answers.

“Dean…” Sam’s voice broke through the older man’s inner turmoil and he looked up, focusing first on the look of regret that covered his brother’s face and then down to the hand, extended outward.

“I got it,” Dean grumbled back, swatting away the proffered hand and pushing up from the floor.

He was tired, and undeniably angry now, neither of which made him reasonable. Add in the nagging thoughts about his brother and the little business of having the world come to an end, and who could blame him really?

“Dean, I’m sorry…” Sam offered again, his head dropping low, his eyes obscured by hair that needed cut since before Paw Paw.

“It’s okay, Sam. We’ve both had a lot on our minds,” Dean replied as he moved to the side of the bed and flopped down, bouncing nearly as much as the cell phone had moments before.

He looked beyond his brother, avoiding any eye contact, content to fuel his anger just a little longer and knowing that if he caught sight of Sam’s sorrowful look, he’d have no choice but to cave. It had always been that way.

“You just gonna blow me off now? We need to talk…” Sam stated, moving over to drop down on the edge of the second bedside.

“Nothing to talk about…” Unless you count bleeding angel feathers, hordes of demons pouring out of Hell, and oh, Lucifer wanting our asses in a sling. And jeez, don’t let me forget about baby brothers that can reap demons…

Sam swallowed audibly; loud enough that Dean could hear it despite feigning a sudden interest in the laces on his boots. As he untied them and yanked off first the right and then the left, he heard his brother’s soft exhale of air. He recognized that particular respiratory pattern, knew it was a telltale sign of Sam preparing to “talk.”

Tossing his boots to the floor at the bottom of the bed, he scooted back up and grabbed for the remote.

Just let me get the T.V. on, fill the room with mindless noise and Sam can go back to his research and we can pretend that nothing happened…

“You staying in tonight?” Sam asked above the din of a Budweiser commercial.

“Yep.”

He heard Sam sigh again following his reply. That’s a lot of sighing, never good… Dean mused absently as he changed the channel.

His brother rose from the bed and for a moment Dean thought that perhaps Sam was going to head back to the laptop and grant him a reprieve from dealing with what had just occurred. Instead, the younger man swirled back around and faced him, emotional turmoil clearly displayed on his face.

“Don’t do this, Dean. Not now… I got… we’ve got… enough problems to deal with that we don’t need to be at each other’s throats,” Sam pleaded as he began pacing. “First there’s this whole end of the world thing, demons coming at us like we’re the main course on the menu, and then there’s that freaky feather…”

Dean tried to stop the grimace when Sam mentioned the word “freak,” but he knew he hadn’t been able to mask the involuntary reaction when his brother suddenly stopped speaking. His mind scrambled frantically for the words to either deflect his obvious slip or to explain, but he wasn’t fast enough.

“That’s it isn’t it?” Sam continued, his frenetic pacing increasing as he ran his hand through his hair, grabbing the strands and tugging them upward. “It’s what you saw me do back there in the caves… with Gudrun…”

“No, Sammy…”

“You’re a horrible liar, Dean. I could see it on your face then as well as now. It freaked you out…”
“Not true…”

“The hell it isn’t.”

“Sam, you’re making something out of nothing,” Dean insisted.

“I am? I remember what you said back in Texas, Dean. I know how much it scares you when it comes to the things I can do. You’re transparent where it concerns stuff like that,” Sam threw back at him. “Just like you are with Dad.”

“We’re not going there again are we? Cause I’d prefer just to lay here on the bed instead of the floor,” Dean snarked, trying desperately to lighten the tone.

“Dean, I tried to say I was sorry about that. It’s just that all this stuff feels like it’s piling up on me. All the crap that’s happened lately and there’s nothing but more questions, never any answers. And now, what happened with me back in the caves, dude… I’m worried…” the young man confessed.

Dean watched his brother stop as he came to the motel room window. Sam stood there, not moving, not speaking, not even pushing the curtain aside to stare blankly outside as Dean had earlier. The elder hunter groaned silently, internally hating to see his brother this way. Broken bodies he could deal with, stitches he could place, fractures he could splint, but fixing the emotional stuff was well beyond his means of handling. Still, this was Sam, his brother, his charge, his ultimate reason for sucking in the next breath; no way could he sit there and remain silent.

“There’s nothing to be worried about, Sammy,” Dean began, snapping off the television and plunging the room into stark silence. “Look, dude, what happened back in Cali, it’s no big deal…”

“Yeah right…”

“I swear. You’re my brother, I trust you. Hell… your psychic crap has saved my bacon more than once lately. I just…”

Dean paused, cautiously choosing what he was about to say next.

“Just what, Dean?” Sam asked, turning back to face him.

“I’m just afraid for you, Sammy,” Dean admitted. “You had Haris after you before because he wanted your powers, and even though he’s gone, I’m just afraid of what else is out there. Maybe something worse, maybe something I can’t stop this time. Maybe something you can’t stop…”

Maybe Lucifer… maybe Mia…

“Dean, there’s always something gunning for us…”

The older sibling shook his head. “I’m not talking about run of the mill demon trash, Sam. What if…”

Sam laughed, a hearty chortle that rose up from deep inside. Dean looked up at his brother, a look of confusion pinching his eyebrows together.

“You’re finding all this funny now? Dude, have you been smoking something while I wasn’t looking?”

“It’s hilarious, Dean. We’re hilarious… or pathetic,” Sam answered cryptically.

“Yeah, ok, you’re making complete sense,” Dean muttered.

“I’m serious. Look at us, I’m afraid of this weirdo mojo of mine getting you killed and you’re worried about keeping me alive. And do you know what the best part is?”

“No, but I’m sure you’re gonna tell me.”

Sam continued to chuckle. “Dude, we have the Big Bad himself looking to burn the world down to ashes, we might not live long enough for any of this to make a damn difference. Game over… ”

“Well, aren’t you the eternal optimist,” Dean joked with his own snicker.

“You have to admit, it puts things in perspective. Hell, Dean, have you considered how many times in just the past few months, we’ve been up against either Lucifer himself or some of his troops? Whatever happened to a good ole’-fashioned salt and burn? When’s the last time we put a black dog or a ghost down? Lately, it’s just been one demon after another.”

“Hey, that’s not true, have you already forgotten all the whacked-out spirits of serial killers lately? Oh, and how about all the fun we had with that pack of chupas down in West Texas?” Dean suggested.

“Yeah, and then there’s reincarnated Egyptian gods…” Sam lightheartedly added.

“Tattoo artists dabbling in black magic…”

“Kikituks…”

“Boo Hags…”

“Demon half-breeds…” Sam offered.

Dean went silent, the easy-going game suddenly coming to an abrupt halt. His smiled immediately faded as memories of the sadistic brunette flashed through his mind.

“Dean… I didn’t mean to bring up Mia…”

“S’all right, Sam,” the older man replied, waving off his brother.

“You know I don’t blame you for any of what happened,” Sam said softly.

“You don’t have to…” I blame myself enough for both of us…

The room became silent again, a heaviness settling back between the brothers like a suffocating wet tarp.

“Dean?”

“Just leave it, okay Sammy?” Dean begged, his voice little more than a whisper as he stood abruptly.

Mia was his problem, her continued existence a direct result of his poor judgment. Granted, he hadn’t created the bitch, but he was certainly responsible for the fact that she still roamed free and perpetrated her brutality on innocent victims. Like Erin… he reminded himself.

Seeking the sanctuary of the bathroom, Dean was halfway across the room when his cellphone began to play his current ringtone. He paused, glancing back to the bed where the device still lay. He quickly rushed to grab it, thinking, hoping, that just maybe it was their dad actually returning his earlier call.

Picking up the phone, Dean stole a look at the displayed number, a dejected sigh escaping him when he saw the return number for Bobby instead of his dad’s cellular.

“Hey Bobby,” he greeted.

“Hey, Dean,” Bobby returned. “How you and Sam doin’?”

“Ah, you know… just livin’ the life. What’s going on? Everything okay? You okay?”

He heard Bobby chuckle. “Settle down, son. I’m fine. I just wanted to give you boys a little head’s up on some intel that’s floating around the hunter network.”

“We have a network?” Dean joked.

“Well, some of us do. Some of us actually play nice with the other boys and girls,” the older man returned.

“Hey! I play nice, just ask anyone…” Dean refuted, looking back at his brother for support. “So, what did you call about? Hunter intel? Please tell me that this year’s convention is being held at the Playboy Mansion.”

He heard Bobby’s irritated huff on the other end of the receiver and he smiled. He could picture the disgruntled frown crossing the hunter’s face, the roll of the eyes as Bobby suffered through his antics. But Dean likewise knew that despite his old friend’s gruffness, the salvage yard owner was smiling inwardly.

“No, you dumbass. Would you just shut up and listen for once. I just found out that your old buddy, Sid Morrow, was found dead.

Dean paused, his eyes going wide as the news sunk in.

“Dean… what is it?” Sam asked, drawing closer.

“Morrow? Dead? How? When?” the elder sibling asked, leaning over so that his brother could tilt his ear toward the phone and hear the conversation.

“Day before yesterday. Friends of his found his body up at some cabin he’d been holed up in since Wisconsin. Word is… he was torn to shreds,” Bobby informed them.

“Well, good riddance, I say. One less asshole out there we have to look over our shoulder for,” Dean groused.

“What killed him, Bobby? Does anyone know?” Sam interjected.

“Hey Sam! Nope, Morrows boys aren’t talking, but word has it that it weren’t no animal. Morrow bought it inside his cabin and the lunar cycle isn’t right for a werewolf,” Bobby replied.

“Yeah, but maybe it was something else. Not like Morrow didn’t make enemies on either side of the supernatural line,” the younger hunter observed.

“Well, I say who gives a damn? Whoever or whatever did it, I owe them a cold beer,” Dean added in.

“There’s more, boys,” Bobby continued. “Morrow aint the only hunter to wind up sliced and diced lately.”

“Oh?” both brothers exclaimed in unison.

“Half a dozen or so that I know about. Hunters, all over the U.S., each one of them torn apart like some critter got to them. I’ll email you what I’ve dug up so far.”

“There any connection?” Dean asked, becoming more serious.

“Other than being hunters? No. Far as I can tell, they each had their specialty, they all mostly ran in different circles. You know how hunters are,” Bobby replied.

“What do you think?” Sam asked.

“Hell, I dunno. Lots of demons roaming around out there lately. More than ever. Might just all be a part of Lucifer’s endgame. Look, boys, I just wanted to warn you to watch your backs. Don’t trust any strangers, keep an eye out for anyone, or anything, suspicious,” the sagacious hunter cautioned.

“Yeah, just like always…” Dean muttered.

“Just be careful, you two. You got a tendency to attract trouble like a crap attracts flies.”

Sam chuckled and said his goodbyes, immediately heading back toward the laptop. Dean watched him and when he thought his brother’s attention was back on the computer, he shifted away slightly, turning so that his back was to Sam.

“Bobby,” he spoke quietly, “Have you heard from our dad?”

The long pause while Dean waited for Bobby’s response did little to set the elder Winchester at ease.

“No, son. I haven’t. But you know your daddy, not like he’s the poster child for reaching out and touching someone.”

“Yeah…” Dean admitted sullenly.

“Don’t you worry, I’m sure your daddy’s fine. No news is good news, right?” Bobby suggested. “Look, you know I’ll keep my ear out for him. I hear anything, you’ll be the first to know, okay? Now, you two just make sure to keep yourselves safe or I’ll kick your asses personally.”

Dean snorted. “Bring it on, old man. Seriously, we’ll be careful… and Bobby… thanks!”

He ended the call but stood there with his back turned a minute longer. Sucking in a deep breath, Dean jammed the cell into his pocket. He paced back over to the window, his ears picking up the tap-tapping of Sam’s fingers on the keyboard.

Pushing aside the curtain, he watched as the rain outside fell in sheets, the trees across the parking lot swaying gently in the cold breeze. He gazed out blankly, his mind going back weeks before to the job in Tahlequah.

“The hunters out west surely didn’t make it as exciting as you Winchesters do. It was all about the screaming and the begging. It could really drive a person nuts.”

“Why did you kill them?”

“Shits and giggles, mostly. And the fact that I knew how connected the hunting community was. I knew it wouldn’t take long for the message to get back to you. I wanted you to know I was still out there.”

Mia’s words sounded hauntingly in his mind, the image of her standing in the motel room as she flaunted her deeds still vivid.

Was she the culprit here again? Was this more of her brutal handiwork? What was the point? She’d already revealed that she was alive and kicking, why kill more hunters, especially someone like Morrow?

Dean rubbed the back of his neck, the tension of the evening suddenly returning with a vengeance. He considered mentioning his suspicions to Sam, but he couldn’t bear to bring up her name to his brother, guilt still consuming him over what she’d nearly done, over what he’d allowed her to do.

“Wow, this doesn’t look good,” Sam announced, breaking the silence. “Nearly a dozen hunters, all found dead, like some big animal got to them.”

“Yeah, blame it on Yogi,” Dean huffed.

“According to what Bobby put together, in most of these cases there was no sign of forced entry and nothing seemed to be missing.”

“But we know better don’t we?”

“Demons, not like they need a key to get in,” Sam added. “Sid might be the latest, but some of these go back for a couple of months.”

“Morrow was an ass, Sam! He got what he deserved,” Dean snarled.

“I’m not really arguing that, but we gotta know what we’re up against, Dean. If this is Lucifer’s handiwork, we need all the info we can get.”

Dean sighed and let the curtain fall back. “We could be in Montana by morning,” he conceded.

“Nah, let’s leave first thing. We should get a good night’s sleep. I’ve a feeling we’re gonna need it,” the younger man advised, flipping down the lid to the laptop and rising.

Dean nodded, but remained standing there.

“Yeah, a good night’s sleep…” he agreed quietly. But as he dropped down on the sagging mattress and began flipping idly through the channels, he knew full-well that even if he managed to drift off, his slumber would be marred by the recurring nightmare of his brother laying bloody and broken in the dirt and the visage of a brunette, laughing sadistically as she killed them all one by one.

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The Winchester Chronicles

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