He asked himself which would be worse for Dean: to be alone or to have a Sam who was a stranger taking up his place. He wondered if that other Sam could shatter glass and start fires with his mind and if so, when he came home, would he wake up in chains?
He wasn't on demon blood, he was reasonably certain, and that wasn't as reassuring as it should be. To try and understand what was happening to him he had to exhume and examine things he'd long since interred in one of his mind's dankest cellars. Those first weeks after Dean went to Hell, when he'd made his first conscious effort to use his powers against demons. His pathetic struggles and the sense that he was bashing his head against a wall for the sake of it and the bodies from demons he couldn't exorcise piling up in the fallow field out back of that rotting shell of a house.
When he finally turned the corner it had been an accident, he'd assumed at the time. Biting Ruby's shoulder during sex in retaliation for her nails raking his scalp, and afterwards, an argument that always followed sex like clockwork, this time because she wanted to go to Denny's for breakfast or something ridiculously domestic and inane, and he'd broken every pane of glass in the house without even trying. It had taken him a little while to connect the dots. It had taken him longer to realize that she had likely planned it all: the sex, the biting, the blood, the argument, the broken glass.
There was an empty terrarium left on the desk in the corner, maybe for raising frogs to the slaughter. A few microscopes and glass slides. He could steal the glass, practice on it later. There was a tremor in his hand and a dull ache in his head just thinking about it. Breaking more stuff to try and get it under control--there was a paradox in that. He didn't understand it and he didn't really believe he could control it unless he did.
Maybe Azazel or some other demon had done something differently to him here, something besides just bleeding into his infant mouth and stalking him from the shadows for the next twenty-two years. Maybe Hell had intervened sooner. Maybe that was why Dean was gone.
The boy with the floral tattoos on his arms was also helping prepare the infirmary; he had told Sam his name was Daniel and he'd been pre-med at Lone Mountain which was where he'd met Parker, the boy who'd been holding his hand. He was cheerful, talking to Rosa about movie night. He said he had a big surprise planned and she should get the word out. The man with his leg in a makeshift brace, his name was Bruce, and he was sitting up and talking with Rosa about what they should plant in their greenhouse vegetable garden: spaghetti squash, sugar pumpkin, sprouts. As soon as he had the brace off and was up to squatting he was going out to pick the green tomatoes and fry them. He was wearing a wedding ring around his neck, glinting in the sunlight. Sam glanced at it more than once.
Jess had been pre-med. She was going to be a doctor, of some kind. Compared to some of the pre-med kids he'd known, like Brady as he'd been before the demon, Jess had been vague about her future career. He'd wondered, sometimes, if becoming a doctor was truly what she wanted. Maybe it was what she thought she should want, the solid and brilliant career her parents had envisioned for her. They'd never discussed it openly. The closest he'd come to suggesting another option to her was joking about the fortune the paintings she'd given him would be worth one day when she was the next Georgia O'Keefe. He was aware that he might be projecting his family baggage onto her and that he might be inviting unwanted scrutiny onto himself if he knocked on that door.
It had scared him, those years of medical school and law school and his vague imaginings of the consuming careers that would come after, hours and hours spent apart from each other, and he had no model for how to maintain a functional relationship under those circumstances. He had no model for how to maintain a functional relationship, period. It had been that fear among the more romantic reasons, he could recognize now, that had started him shopping for engagement rings.
"Parker and I are getting married," Daniel said, another accidental echo of Sam's train of thought that made him startle, mouth dry. "Next week, here in the gym so everybody can be sure to make it. We decided we've had enough of waiting."
"What about going out to Point Reyes?" Rosa said with a strained smile. "What about your aunt? And Professor Gibson?"
"They'll understand, like they understood about everything else. Us being together, the way we're meant to be. We just can't put it off anymore," he said with a hardened, determined cheerfulness. "Can't live the rest of our lives holding out for some dream where everything's gonna come together perfectly. Carpe diem, right? Honestly, I just feel bad for Melody. We've been planning our weddings together since we were six. Guess when she gets hitched she'll just have to live the bridal mag dream for the both of us."
Something lurched and jarred in his chest. He looked up at a poster on the wall, a picture of a coral reef with a quote from the marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson. The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction. The wall it was pasted to was an unpleasant shade of green. There was another poster advertising the school's production of The Crucible, free admission, but all donations would go to construction of a new greenhouse.
Creak of the door swinging open and Sam jerked around, jittery and off-balance, saw a little girl with big swollen red eyes and a tower of red legos gripped in one tiny fist.
"What's up now, honey?" Rosa asked her.
"Sarah took the other blocks that I need to make my bridge."
"You gotta talk to Ellie about that, let her work it out between you," Rosa said. "She's in charge today."
"Miss Ellie says I can't have all the red blocks for myself, but I need them! I can't make my bridge without them. It won't be right."
She had the uncompromising stare of a child who doesn't understand why the world should be absurd and difficult in the way that it is and Sam thought about Jack. Jack, left behind while Dean searched for him.
Maybe Dean would turn to Jack for help getting him back and Jack would master his ability to open doors between universes and when after they saved Sam they could save Mary and it would all work out for the best in the end.
He punctured this ballooning impossible fantasy quickly.
"You can't hang around here today, sweetheart," Rosa said. "It's gonna get real crowded later. And there's gonna be grown-up stuff happening. Doctor stuff."
He thought about the bodies he'd seen piling up on the streets and the number of orphans here that he'd counted and he wondered what point there was in being euphemistic about it.
"Okay," the girl said, sulky, scuffing at the floor with her pink daisy sneaker.
He was blinded by a a bloody light and he had time to think, oh, another vision, before he was engulfed in the smell of sawdust and mud and gunpowder and blood. He saw a mist of red and burning white eyes and raised open hands raised like a preacher's and a flash of Jess' golden hair and Jess crumpling against a wall. Black stormheads building and building, cascading down the mountain and over the valley, a lightning flash illuminating corpses in Army Surplus camo, corpses in civilian clothes. An inhumanly long-fingered hand wrapped around Jess' throat.
When he came to he was on his knees, one hand still gripping the counter, holding himself up from completely sliding to the floor. There was a faint taste of sawdust when he licked his lips, an acrid smell in his nose, and he breathed slow and deep, forcing clean air through his lungs. No one was touching him but he could feel their proximity, their anxious hovering, and he felt a little like a cornered animal. He looked around. The little girl was gone, the classroom door closed.
"Must be an adverse reaction--" Rosa was saying.
He retched weakly and pressed the heels of his hands to his watery eyes. It had been vivid and brief and clear, for a vision.
"In, out, slow, slow," Daniel was saying, and then one of his hands was gripping Sam's bicep and the other cradling the side of Sam's head while he inspected Sam's pupils. "You been taking anything besides the codeine?"
He shook his head, huffed out a short laugh that stuttered against his lips. His temples were weighted with a dragging, dull pain.
"It was a vision," he said, calm and deliberate. "I get them sometimes."
"You--what...You're not saying you're some kind of a prophet?"
"No, I'm no prophet. I just get visions sometimes when people are in danger and I can help them. I'm nothing special, I'm just psychic."
"What did you see?"
"The raid. I'm needed."
"Not in the shape you're in right now, you're not."
"These visions are only sent to me for a reason. So I can help people." He modulated his voice to a level and self-assured sincerity, the half-lie sliding easily off his tongue. He watched Rosa and Daniel struggle, Daniel raising clenched fingers to his mouth and then tugging on the small gold ring piercing his right earlobe, Rosa touching the cross tucked into the collar of her blouse. Bruce was the one to pick up the radio. He asked for a report and crackling static filled a tense few seconds and then came a hard whisper telling them they'd scoped the site and they'd gotten in position and exchanged fire. Some of the hostiles did seem to be using necromancy and wouldn't go down with a regular bullet. They had to get in close range, but they'd come prepared for that.
"Really not much more dangerous than cleaning out a nest of fangs," Bruce said.
"Vampires are predictable," Sam said. "Necromancers usually come with surprises."
Bruce nodded, mouth set in a grim line.
"Wouldn't be much point in a vision if it showed you stuff that was already happening and that you could do nothing about," Daniel said.
"Exactly," he said. "That's why I've gotta go now. I can still do something. I can..." save her, he didn't say.
Jess had been right about these people. They weren't fanatics, blinded by adherence to dogma. They were so desperately normal, still. They wanted to believe that things happened for a reason. They wanted to believe in a higher power, some greater good. The temptation to throw due caution to the wind and grasp after some proof of that was what he was dangling in front of them. He felt faintly sick about it, but he didn't have a choice. He couldn't ignore another vision, Jess in danger, and live with himself.
"Okay," Rosa said. "You can take my car. It's the 98' silver Subaru in the backlot. Here. This one's the key to the fence around the lot and this one's the car key."
"Thank you," he said.
"I'll get you your gun," Daniel said. "And see if we've got a spare machete lying around.
Turned out, they'd confiscated the Colt he'd had on him while he was unconscious and shut it up in a locker and hadn't told him about it. He wondered how much that was a sign of particular distrust on their part. He thought about Parker, watching him warily over Daniel's shoulder. Maybe they had suspected something. They'd been stupid, then, to just take his gun and let him wander around the building. If they suspected what he could do, burn a man alive with a half-conscious thought, it had been insanely dangerous.
Daniel got him a machete from the armory too.
"Congratulations on the wedding," he said to Daniel who blinked at him, big soft eyes, confused and anxious but hopeful.
"Congrats on the vision thing, hope it works out for you," he said with a brittle half-smile, tugging on his earring again.
"Me too," he said.
He was driving east, inland, then south along the highway through a stretch of scrub and toyon bushes and manzanita and then through oaks and hills again. It was late in the day and still the sun blazed down on him with a burning heat. He searched the glovebox for sunglasses, didn't find any. He looked at his hands, at someone else's hands gripping the wheel of someone else's car. It was a state of being both foreign and familiar. He took his right hand off the wheel, held it out flat, flexed the fingers, clenched it into a fist. Coordinated enough. He had it under control, the physical problem at least.
By the time he turned down the road where the mill lay dead ahead, it was nearly dusk, but the sun clung tenaciously in the sky.
He got out of the Subaru. Above, the sky darkened, turned an ominous dark grey; the sun slanted sideways against it, everything more vivid under the contrast. The Jeeps parked outside, some of their windshields pock-marked with bullet holes. Bodies in camo on the ground; he counted three, picked off by rifle fire.
The mill's front door had been blown off its hinges and he entered through a still choking thick cloud of pipe bomb smoke. Pulled his jacket up to cover his nose, stooped low to the ground and edged in sideways with his back to the wall. He had to move a couple yards before the air cleared and his eyes stopped watering enough that he could make out his surroundings. The mill was just as big on the inside. Longer than it was wide, support beams made of corrugated steel. The ceiling arced over his head, coming to a point thirty, thirty-five feet up. There was a cat-walk built into the walls, one staircase leading up to it. Sawmills and conveyors and lumber carts were pushed together to form barriers, but the pallets of lumber had been cleared out to make room for a campsite. The kind of camp in an abandoned industrial building typical of monster nests. There were a few tents for privacy but stacks of luggage and camp stoves and radios and a generator were out in the open. He glanced down, saw shoes and bottles and and trash. His throat constricted as he spotted a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex and a few broken Breyer horses and a box of legos. There were children here, taking cover he knew not where. He came across a woman in a yellow sun dress with a tangle of dirty blonde hair half-hiding her face, her abdomen soaked in blood from a gut wound, lying just outside a tent that a bullet had ripped through. A few more feet and there was a man in a wife beater that showed off his jungle of tattoos with his head chopped off. Erratic pops of gunfire. He crouched down and on the other side of the tent he saw a man stagger past him, a man with tattoos and a blood spattered face and two bullet holes in his chest that he was walking off. He raised his machete defensively, but the man just staggered on by without turning his head. Best as he could tell, there were only a few members of the militia left taking cover, returning fire, behind machinery or up on the catwalk. He had to find Jess. He slunk into the shadows under the catwalk, crept along the wall.
Halfway down the length of the building he found her. Jess was crumpled against the wall with one arm wrapped around her rib cage, her blood-streaked hair hiding her face, two men looming over her, and one of them was raising his gun and over the roaring in his ears he could just hear her shout "Impetus Bestiarum." The man dropped his gun and turned from Jess and leapt at the throat of his fellow, who returned the attack with equal dumb animal ferocity. They snarled and clawed and bit at each other and Sam caught glimpses of the bloody tear marks streaking under their eyes and then he saw Jess collecting the gun from the ground and standing up, flicking her hair back from her face, jaw clenched and mouth pressed flat, eyes glittering eerily in the half-light. She raised the gun and she shot both men in the back. Only then did she see him, standing there, staring. She lowered the gun a few inches, a deep line appearing between her brows, a scrape on her scalp dripping blood down her cheek and through her hair, more blood brightly flecking the grey hoodie and brown jacket and the strap of the canvas bag she was wearing.
"Baby, what're you doing here?" she asked him.
Sam was paralyzed for another dangerous moment, trying to reconcile what he'd just seen, his mind superimposing the images of two women who he couldn't have imagined more different from each other, one golden and kind and normal and one red and terrible and strange, using the same magic, the same cruel power that robbed men of their will and morals and lives.
She took a step forward. Sam jerked back, some involuntary flight response, stepping out from under the shadow of the catwalk over their heads and almost taking a bullet to the foot. He ducked behind a column and out of the corner of his eye saw Jess do the same. Sam took the risk first and peeked his head around for a look. Caught a flash of someone moving on the catwalk across the room, before the man’s head vanished from sight behind one of the roof's metal trusses. Sam bolted, half-sliding across the smooth concrete floor with Jess' cover and retaliatory gunfire popping in his eardrums. He went straight for the stairs on his side of the catwalk, winging around the edge and racing up to the second floor. The whole thing rattled and banged with his footfalls as he ran, keeping low in case the shooter didn’t take the distraction of Jess trying to put a round in his chest.
Sam saw him from a distance once he’d crossed the stretch of catwalk wrapping around the front of the building. The shooter was on one knee, taking aim for Jess’ head.
He spun toward Sam, too slow. He was trying to roll over and raise his shotgun while Sam only had to swing the machete in a downwards arc and it was over.
He was young, maybe late teens and he didn't have the tattoos and he had gone down easy, too easy. Maybe he didn't have any necromantic protection on him, like the woman who'd died from taking a stray bullet to the gut. The realization filled Sam with a confused dread, and he remembered that there were kids somewhere in the building. He had to rescue them. He had to protect Jess. He had to stop this, all of it.
There was a ringing report of gunfire from the first floor and Sam turned around, grabbing the railing. "Jess!”
"I’m fine!” Jess shouted. Sam looked down and saw the crumpled body of another man dead on the ground at Jess' feet, this one biker-leather-wearing and grizzled and tattooed.
Sam tucked the machete up under his arm and jumped the railing, landing on one of the conveyor belts and sliding off onto a pallet beside the foreman's corner office. The codeine was wearing off, the throbbing in his shoulder and his temples only blurred at the edges by adrenaline. Jess joined him, grim and quiet, unzipping the duffle that was strapped across her chest. She started reloading in silence while Sam took a look around, half-wondering if she was packing more hex bags. She touched his arm and he looked down and saw she was holding out a palm-full of bullets to him. "They're the same stuff that was in the dart gun, they'll work on the 'roided up necros. Just don't waste them on anyone who isn't inked up like a deadhead. The rest will die like normal."
He acknowledged her with a tight nod and clamped down on his scattered thoughts. He couldn't afford questions right now. He emptied the chamber of his gun, re-loaded with her bullets.
She turned and started running down a short hall to a back exit. He followed her.
"Something's about to go down," Jess said, pushing through the door to a loading yard and crossing to a hole in its chainlink fence and taking off running across the scrubland. "Saw a big guy who was yelling orders take off this way...He had a hostage and he must have something planned. He wouldn't just check out when his team was winning."
There was a shack on the low edge of the slope of scrubland, a place built out of lumber scraps and leftover nails. It was the kind of place people throw together after the church they grew up in fell victim to fire or flood. There was no cross to mark it, no path to its door, but the walls were whitewashed clean, and it shined bright despite the shadow of the building storm clouds, oily black and silvery smoke piling up and up, blotting out the view of Diablo, dropping like a portcullis walling up a medieval fortification.
They crossed the threshold, guns drawn. There was a man on his knees, his back to them. The power he was radiating smacked into them like a wall, pain screaming up Sam's left arm as it was jerked back at an unnatural angle, his hand spasming, dropping his gun before he could fire. Beyond the kneeling man he saw an altar where one of the militia men was draped upside down, throat slashed to the spinal column, blood streaming down, coalescing and snaking along the floor, slithering into a circle. The man rose from his knees and turned around, his face anointed with stripes of blood, his eyes shining white. Not the cold marble white of the demons Sam had known, not like Lilith or Alastair, thank God, but with an electric shimmer, almost like tiny headlamps. White light so bright it seared the corners of his eyes was rising from the circle of blood on the floor, and it was all horribly familiar, down to the presence of a woman just behind his shoulder.
Quietly, a figure emerged from thin air, standing unnaturally still in the center of the circle. He was an improbably large man, half a foot taller than Sam, his skin a rich shade of brown, a massive pair of bull's horns protruding from his bald scalp, a grimly handsome face sporting an oily curly black beard, hooded black eyes looking down on them. His bare chest and arms were tattooed with hieroglyphs in an intricate pattern that Sam thought might be some kind of astrological chart, in a style that his followers had only facilely imitated with their pentagrams and necklaces of tiny hands.
The necromancer bowed to him with a preacher's florid gesticulation. He said something in what was probably intended to be Akkadian. Sam caught the name Hadad, a Mesoptomanian god of the weather.
"That's not even close to the right pronunciation," Hadad said, his grumble like thunder. "I've been listening to you butcher the tongue of your betters for two years. I've been patient. And look! Now what have you done?"
"Yes, you have. Master, we never would have summoned you if it wasn't an emergency. We were attacked in our own home--"
"You started a petty turf war when you robbed your neighbors after spoiling your own resources. Like all humans, you then had to drag your gods into it. You thought I'd be pleased with this senseless butchery? The occasional small sacrifice, and I was generous. But this..."
"I brought you back from the dead!" His voice was nearing shrill, more panicked than angry. "You were nothing but a goddamn relic! I fucking killed for you and fed you and defended you while you were weak!"
"Who asked you to? You brought me back to this cesspit to fix what others broke. The cycle I was once a part of has been hopelessly corrupted by you and your filthy machinery and your greed. Bah! More greed. You want to leech off my power so that you can continue robbing your neighbors, you small minded thug. You aren't grateful for my blessings! You know nothing of the natural order. It's past time you learned your lesson."
A high wind was screaming against the windows and whistling between the church's bare boards, lightning licking the air, bright enough to banish every shadow and make Sam's eyes screw half-shut against his volition.
The necromancer raised his arms, whether in petition or because he was trying to fight the god with his borrowed power Sam couldn't be sure. But the force that had been holding him back weakened.
Sam dropped to his knees, scrambled for his gun. He collected it and shot the man between the shoulder blades. He went down, the spray of blood and the arc of his fall captured by another lightning flash.
"Necromancer's dirty tricks," Hadad said. "Everybody's using them these days." He looked at Sam, his eyes cut into disdainful slits and his lips curled in a sneer. "What have we here? A stranger in a strange land, as your people now say."
"We didn't mean to bother you," Sam said. "They really did attack us first."
"Even so, you continued the fight. Humans! You never know when enough is enough."
"Oh, we've had enough," Sam said. "Believe me, we'd be happy to just--."
"I believe you have, traveler. This isn't your world and this isn't your fight. Leave, if you can find your way back. But the others still need to be taught a lesson, all of them."
Sam opened his mouth to to continue the argument, cut off by Jess, who must've been creeping cat-silent between the pews while all eyes were briefly off her, racing across his eye line. Jess was rushing the god, drawing a stake from her duffle which was stained dark red with bull's blood. Reckless, he thought again, the word landing with a hard beat of panic. Crazy suicidal recklessness, the kind he had learned to clock as separate from the usual line of on-the-job recklessness, through years of watching Dean. Hadad spun and caught her by the throat and the arm wielding the stake, easily. Sam was slammed across the church and into a pew, which cracked against his back, a crack loud as bone and a wrenching pain that shuddered along every knob of his spine and shocked the air out of his lungs.
It didn't take him long to collect himself, his wits and his will. He'd known since the jump that this was what he'd have to do, even if he couldn't look at it head-on.
Sam stretched the power at his fingertips out into a web, relaxing into the feeling as the interweaving strands began flaring into a net of sorts, a net designed to encompass and trap the straining, quivery mass of black, electric sludge that was a demon, barely giving it seconds to realize what was happening before he wrapped it up completely, severing all ties to its host body. The god wasn't like that, closer in substance to an angel's cold burning grace but more diffuse and complex and more enmeshed in the world around him, part of a web that was so much bigger than what Sam could cast. Sam gave up overcoming him and settled for chipping at the wall that had slammed him down and his vice-grip on Jess. He gave the god a psychic shove and heard a heavy stumble and a grunt and the crash of a body dropping to the floor while he rolled over, got his left hand under him, pushed himself onto his knees and grabbed the edge of the bench and pulled himself to his feet. Hadad had dropped Jess, she had rolled onto her hands and knees and was gasping for breath. The god was touching the blood oozing from the hole in his side, just above his left hipbone, where Jess had stabbed him. He looked over his shoulder at Sam, lightning crackling in the smooth black mirror of his eyes.
"I've had enough of this world," he said. "I just want to rest."
He vanished, possibly to crawl in a hole somewhere and die. But no, they probably weren't so lucky. Sam climbed shakily onto his feet, vice-grip of pain clutching his back and both shoulders and squeezing against his temples. He gulped in air, thick and muggy and electric. He staggered to Jess and squatted, grabbing her upper arm and pulling her up onto her feet. Her throat and cheekbone were bruised red and purple. The wind was still howling, rising in volume. They had to take shelter and this church wasn't gonna cover it. He pulled her towards the doorway where he tried to take a step outside and learned that he couldn't without the wind ripping his unsteady legs out from under him. He dragged the door shut and latched it, for however long that would hold. Dropped to his knees, Jess in his arms, her hair whipping into his face, stinging. They closed their eyes and waited for silence.