The camp had gotten a generator in working order while Sam was unconscious and had gotten the lights switched back on. They had taped plastic sheeting over the broken windows and had spray painted at least the most basic anti-demonic and anti-witchcraft sigils on the sheeting. Sam had gotten access to their small collection of encyclopedias of arcane signs and symbols--coffee table curiosity books, glossy and sterile, without that buzzing Sam felt against his fingertips when he turned the pages of an authentic grimoire--and had gone outside with Parker to paint additional warding on sidewalks and fence posts and on tree stumps. Parker had a knack for this sort of thing just like he had a knack for advanced Molotov cocktails and for keeping almost eerily cool under pressure. He was so young, Sam kept noticing, but then everyone seemed to him to be so young lately.
He told Parker that just as soon as he and Jess could find a working vehicle with a full tank they would be on their way.
"What else have you got going on, besides the precog thing?" Parker asked. He didn't look hostile or suspicious, going off the half of his face that Sam could see under the oversized sunglasses he was wearing and the wavy hair falling across his brow. He sounded like he was tallying up another resource. Considering this community's experiences with necromancers and magic, Sam couldn't count on many others seeing it the same way.
"Nothin', really," he said. "These visions just happen to me sometimes."
"People 'round here shouldn't have been so closed-minded about it--magic," Parker said, idly twirling his paintbrush so that drops of wet acrylic splattered on the sidewalk. He looked away to the horizon, the sun burning brassy orange behind distant smoggy clouds, the light gilding the crests of his blonde hair, hair that was almost as long as Sam's had been--as it still was--as it would be when he went home. "What they did isn't so different from what we're doing. They forced a divide in the community and people turned on each other. This didn't have to happen."
Necromancy and deals with bloodthirsty gods were quite another order from what they were doing, which was simple stenography, but Sam didn't tell him so.
"You should stay with us," Parker said. "I know that you came here for a reason--and you've already done so much, helped us pull through the worst fight we've ever had. We should stick together, all of us, while we still can."
"It wouldn't go the way you think," he said. "I'm sorry, but I'm not what you think I am." He hadn't meant to say that last part, knew he should not have said it. His mind was fuzzy from the broiling heat or addled from the visions that had been hitting him so hard lately or from having another consciousness trapped inside it. Just thinking about it made his focus splinter, pain like broken glass behind his temples.
Parker sighed and shook his head, a bitterness simmering in the set of his jaw and purse of his mouth. It was the kind of bitterness that would eventually boil over the pot, Sam thought, though he barely knew Parker anymore than Parker knew him.
"You might think that, but...It's the end of the world, pal. There's a lot of people who aren't what anybody thought they were. I can guarantee you're not as special as you think." He flashed a crooked, brittle grin at Sam and started painting an Assyrian sigil on a telephone pole, dripping paint staining his thumb indigo. "But I hope you find it, whatever you're looking for."
"Thanks," Sam said.
"Just don't tell anybody what I said about the magic," Parker said, pursed lips twisting in a sour imitation smile. "They've enough to be freaking out over as it is. Even Daniel wouldn't understand, really. You really lucked out with your girl."
"Yeah," he said. Licked his dry lips, swallowed. "But the magic you're talkin' about...necromancy is its own breed. It can't be harnessed for good. It violates peoples' souls by ripping them away from...from where they're supposed to be. It enslaves them. And the hole it punches in the natural order...just look around you. This is the least of the collateral damage."
"You think there's such a thing as a natural order anymore?" Parker asked, voice suddenly dropping deeper, sounding older. "Seems to me the whole world's collectively kicked that hornet's nest."
"Then forget about the cosmic laws and think about how you treat other people."
"I do," Parker said. "I think about them all the time. Other people, they think about their families, their friends, their tribes, and that's gotten funneled down to fewer people every damn year. But I think about everyone. I can't stop thinking about them. I'm stuck like a satellite up in orbit watching the big picture 24/7 and I can't shut it off. It's always been like that, even before we were living in end times. Maybe it comes from being psychic."
"Yeah," he said. "Just in the sense that I can do what any cold-reading charlatan can fake. I'm sure I couldn't hold a candle to you. I've never burned a man alive with nothing but my mind. How does that fit into your natural order, by the way?"
Sam caught his breath, dry throat constricting, a slash going through the Aquarian star of the sigil he had just completed, ruining it, and he glanced down to see a splatter of red drops on his forearm and on the parched browning grass, looking indistinguishable from blood. "It's not something I meant to do...I--I can't control it completely. That's one reason I can't stay."
Parker dropped his chin and shrugged his shoulders, almost apologetic. "Sorry, I wasn't meaning to bring it up." And he didn't mention it up again, he switched to talking to Sam about his and Jess' options for transport, and it was almost as if the conversation had never happened.
Getting a car turned out to be not as big a concern as getting fuel. He and Jess ended up siphoning diesel out of the dirt bikes and into another Chevy with off-road tires. Rosa and Daniel were as generous with food and medical supplies as they could possibly afford to be and they and Daniel's sister hugged Jess and him while Parker hung back, watching, knowing God knows what about him. An I-Pod, still plugged into the Chevy's stereo, started playing Crosby, Stills & Nash's Southern Cross. Jess, behind the wheel for the first leg, seemed in better spirits. He didn't tell her anything of what Parker had told him, not wanting to worry her.
They drove five hours in one hard haul from Diablo down I-5 and then a back roads detour to the energy fields outside Bakersfield. There they finally parked behind the concrete outbuildings of an abandoned pumping station, blockaded on the other side by a grasshopper rig which in the shadows did look almost like some monstrous insectoid. He could see gas flares burning in the distance, a faint orange glow reaching them, illuminating the wreckage which was their reason for stopping. An army caravan had ground to a halt here; the corpses were fresh, the stench of them overwhelming even with the night time chill. He only needed to look at them to know that they were probably only a day or two old. They had passed another caravan skirting Fresno; it had been climbing in the direction of Diablo. The caravan hadn't stopped and the Humvees hadn't slowed, rattling the chassis of their Chevy and leaving it quickly in their dust, but the marine on the turret at the end had followed them with the machine gun mounted on the Humvee and waved, a brisk unsmiling wave that looked more like a cautionary hand sign.
There were six vehicles left, most of them toppled over into the shallow ditch beside the grasshopper rig, the rig casting a long spectral black shadow over them. One of the Humvees was burnt, parts of its metal chassis scattered across the field beside the other vehicles like it had exploded.
They stopped to scavenge, primarily for fuel to siphon but also for food and ammo, a decision which was insanely dangerous and somehow didn't feel that way. It was his vision, Sam realized after a little while. The visions had given him a road map to follow and the subconscious sense that he was destined to follow it and that nothing could prevent him from reaching his intended destination, whatever that was. Once he realized it was happening, he couldn't help thinking about what had happened the last time he'd let himself believe in the visions he was receiving, believe they were coming to him for a purpose, that it could mean something good. He thought briefly about what Dean would think about these visions and Sam's decision to adhere to them blindly and then struggled exhaustingly for a while not to think about that anymore.
Sam searched through the armored truck for ammunition while Jess searched the other vehicles. She yelled for him in excitement when she found there were MREs in the supply truck, a couple dozen high protein meals that looked like they were still good. She pulled the crates out, struggling under their significant weight. She was strong, but each crate looked like it held about thirty MREs and Sam knew that they were far heavier than they looked. She and Sam hefted them into the Chevy's trunk and each pulled one out. Sam cut open a tube of peanut butter before squeezing some of it into his mouth. His dry throat felt like it was gummed shut and he poured water down it, water that had a rusty taste that almost reminded him of blood.
There was a rustling in the distance, two vehicles out, he thought. Sam dropped the tube of peanut butter and picked up his rifle. Adrenaline was already speeding through him and he felt a light shake in his hands as he moved towards the sound, his rifle raised and ready to fire, his machete in a make-shift holster slung over his back.
He found the ensign hiding in the last Humvee, laid up against the side. Another kid who looked about Jack's age, maybe a year or two older. Greeley was written on his uniform, the name printed on a strip of fabric above the pocket. There was blood all over it and Sam didn't need to touch him to know that he'd sustained serious chest wounds along with what looked like a broken leg.
"Help me," he pleaded, one hand cupping a wound in his gut, small but pulsing out big bubbles of blood. Sam could see the bleeds starting in his eyes, the first symptom of infection, his cornea distended into the white of his eye surrounded by a ring of red. Croatoan, probably, but there were other infections that showed the same symptoms, and some that could be cured...
"He's gonna go rabid," Jess whispered, canting her head to look at him while stepping back from the ensign. She dressed her face in sympathy, looking at the ensign, and said, "It's gonna be okay. We're gonna go for the first-aid box and we're gonna get you patched up, just don't move." Sam understood what his part to play was. He was supposed to put this man down while Jess distracted him from what was coming.
But then his mind dropped out, plummeting towards the city now below him, and he saw Los Angeles had become like a gutted corpse on a funeral pyre, smoldering, the black smoke rising in little churning tornadoes from the empty buildings. He felt himself moving, twisting and shifting, inside and outside of the visible world; he was trying to escape the viciously constricting pain he felt and he was trying to get a better look at what he was seeing. The heat was unbearable, the sky a sickly swirl of black and orange, but finally, finally, a highway sign materialized out of the desert haze--Black Canyon Road, running through the Mojave, a wide mesa, a circle of waist-high standing stones like a far less impressive Stonehenge. He was woken from the vision by a shot so loud Sam could feel the echo of it ringing in his ears. He looked for the ensign and saw that he wasn't in the place he'd been in last. He looked at Jess and saw her sliding off the roof of the Humvee, scuffed and bruised but not bleeding. Ensign Greeley was dead, draped on his back across the hood of the Humvee, the blown-out back of his skull dripping blood and brain matter and shards of bone down the vehicle's hubcaps. He looked down at himself and saw blood dripping black on the pavement. He put a hand to his forehead and felt a cut running along his hairline. He looked at his forearm and saw a rip in his sleeve and a bite mark. He could smell a great deal of blood on the warm night time breeze and he shivered. It took a moment for his mind to clear enough that he could remember that he was immune.
"Croatoan?" he asked, just to be sure.
"Yeah," she said, and shrugged out of her blue denim over shirt and pulled her plaited hair back from her neck so he could see she was fine, she hadn't been bitten. A possibility he hadn't for a second entertained and didn't think he could've done a damn thing about if he had.
"Why is this the first time we're running across Croats?"
"The barricades," she said. "Not just the army barricades, there's gods and witches putting up magical barriers against them too. Though they won't hold forever."
"Can they continue north? Is there nothing stopping them from reaching--"
"The army will have set up another barricade between here and the next population center and they won't let us cross back." Her voice was hard, her eyes glinting, reflecting the glow of a distant flare. "There's nothing we can do that they can't. Now listen to me, what did you see?"
He told her, struggling to focus and to quiet the voice telling him that the people who'd sheltered them were going to die because he'd abandoned them. Then they got back in their Chevy and drove, stopping again to spend the rest of the night in Baker, in a white ranch house off I-55, with blue trim and a swing on the front porch and flowerbeds under every window, the flowers withered husks. He was awake and alone for four hours, keeping watch. In the deep of the night he formed the thought, I miss my brother, but the thought sounded like a foreign voice, hoarser than his own, a whisper echoing in the back of his skull. A tremor raced through him and he nearly dropped the travel mug he was holding. He set it down on the sideboard and he looked down and there was something wrong with his hand. He held it up to the moonlight and he saw a pool of blood glistening crimson in his palm. It wasn't real. He curled his hand into a fist, digging nails into gun-handling calluses, and told himself it could be a memory of many things. He thought of demon blood and felt a stab of longing; ingesting blood had a structure to it and a relative predictability, he knew where it came from and what he could do with it and that he could eventually purge himself of it. He could even miss the idea of being an addict, that most human and constant of problems. At least he could if he let himself think about it too much, which he wasn't going to...Then he heard blood, dripping, felt it splash on his hand. He looked at Jess, sleeping on the sofa, moonlight limning the smooth crescent of her cheekbone, the scarred half of her face nestled into the pillow, breath fluttering the lacy trim on the pillowcase. He raised his hand to his upper lip, touched his philtrum, and when he held his fingers up to the moonlight again he saw blood that he was almost certain had to be real.
The next morning they entered the Mojave National Preserve. Jess kept asking him "Does this look familiar, does this, does this," pointing towards a shimmer in the distance, mountains rising high out of the thin line of the land, even before they'd reached the unpaved Black Canyon road, and he wondered how much of their lives were like this here, his visions making them drive in circles of endless frustration and confusion. He wondered what it had been like when they'd had Dean with them, for however long that had lasted, his brain sliding weirdly around the thought. The inferior-to-the-Impala-in-all-ways Chevy struggled and suffered on the abrasive, eroded, pot-holed roads, and he listed back against the seats, legs and spinal column cramped and shoulders hunched. This car had A/C in excellent condition and still the sweltering heat sank in through the cracks. They passed a tubular aluminum motorhome that had burned until it was crumpled and blackened and cracked, with a campsite grill and a fire circle and some lawn chairs sitting outside. There were no bodies he could see, which could mean either that they'd burned trapped inside their only shelter or they'd escaped somehow.
Not far after that, Sam was staring almost vacantly at the horizon when the silhouette of upright stones atop a mesa caught his eye. He told Jess, "I've seen this place," and the words came out hoarse but with more conviction than he felt. They got out of the car and sweat trickled into new places and his spine cracked aloud. The air smelled clean, dry and empty. They climbed the mesa and walked into the circle of standing stones, six stones standing at six points, equidistant, like the points on the Aquarian star, and nothing happened. Sam laid his hand on one of the stones, feeling the warmth baked into the stone and a buzzing that reminded him of a grimoire, and Jess said,"Hoping you'll get whisked away into the arms of a highlander?" and he smiled, for a second, remembering how she'd talked him into reading Outlander shortly after they'd moved in together, when their books had had to start sharing shelf space. Jess got some herbs out of her bag and lit them on fire and said a short Latin chant, the most basic incantation for revealing things unseen. A haze rose up in front of his eyes and for several seconds he thought it was another vision of things to come, but no, he saw memories flickering like a shower of embers, the faces of Mary and of a woman who looked like Mary but wasn't Mary, Dean in many iterations, so many iterations that he couldn't be sure which he had seen before and which he hadn't, Jess and the other Jess, and a thousand background faces spinning like constellations on a planetarium ceiling, many sporting yellow eyes of different tints and expressions, warm sunshine and cold fire, merriment and cruelty and sadness and confusion, thousands of eyes like angel eyes or insect eyes all belonging to the same mighty face and that face was the face of the heavens. The clouds cleared and he pinched his nose and used his thumb to scrub away the blood that was trickling again. Jess had her hands pressed over her ears and her eyes screwed shut and her jaw clenched, but no nose bleed. He tapped her on the shoulder and got her sidearm pointed in his face before she swung it past his head to aim at someone over his shoulder, her eyes round and halfway wild.
He looked around, heart beating hard. They were standing in the middle of a camp--something like a carnival composed mostly of red and white striped tents, steam organ notes whistling discordantly over the howling of blood in his eardrums. A conical water tower made of cedar planks and steel hoops and stilts and another aluminum camper with a generator hooked up to it. Yuccas, Joshua Trees, and cholla cacti dotting the rocky plains, stretching to a jagged horizon. The sun was low and huge in the brilliantly blue sky.
People came out of their tents to see them and within scarcely a minute they had drawn a crowd of around fifty beings. Some could pass as human, but the exceptions made up more than half the crowd. There were selkies and a kelpie, so far from their native cold rivers. There were dryads and naiads and a few species of yōkai and the xiezhi, which looked like a unicorn-goat, the tubular whintosser with its swiveling joints and its three equidistant sets of legs, the little gnome duende standing beside the seven foot tall kapre, who was smoking a cigar along with the tikbalang, who was also smoking a cigar, a difficult feat with its horse's head. The adlet, a Canadian human hybrid with dog legs and a large visor on his head and sunglasses and a pale chest that had been horribly sunburned, reddened skin cracked and peeling. Reactions to their sudden appearance were mixed. A few applauded while others stamped their hooves or waved. The tikbalang and the kapre just smoked their cigars and stared in a surly manner that was intimidating but not necessarily hostile. Others turned to their neighbors and hissed urgent questions. Most looked some kind of confused. He recognized their eyes, with their many rare jewel colors, from his vision. Jess was putting her back against his. They were surrounded. Sam was mesmerized. He would have loved to be able to take photographs, to have some documentation of this encounter should he ever make it back to the bunker library again.
"No pasa nada, tio, he told us you'd come," said the duende in a gravelly voice, blowing a smoke ring.
"He got a name?" Jess asked, lowering the gun to her midsection, which was still about on the level of the duende's neck.
"We call him Tommy," the duende said. "Cause we're friends." His flinty squint and the way he chomped the end of his cigar implied that he might never be on such terms with them.
"We're hoping he can help us," Sam said. "We'll pay you back in any way we can, if you'll just..."
"We've got everything we need," the adlet said through cracked lips and a flash of fangs, the sunburns on his torso looking painful enough that Sam wished they'd brought some sunblock and some chapstick to trade with. The fur on his legs was a husky's snow and ash pelt, a double coat for insulation against a Canadian winter.
"Tommy says come along, he wants to talk," the duende said, jabbing his cigar over his shoulder.
Sam exchanged a moment of silent communication with Jess, after which she agreed to holster her gun and walk mutely after the duende.
The duende led them through the crowd, which parted to a respectful distance of three feet back, to a striped tent where an old woman was sitting under an awning of red velvet, a stack of tarot card set before her and a whistle of calliope music seeming to announce them as they approached. She looked a delicate little old lady, with Slavic features and with long braids that had been dyed indigo and violet alongside their natural silver. Behind deep brown eyes he could see her power shimmering like a heat mirage, golden, aflame, prismatic.
"Thomas wants to see you alone," she told Sam in a voice clear and youthful as a silver bell. "But I wanted to see you first. He told us about you, about where you come from. And he told me what you really are. I've never met another of your kind before..." Her deck of cards was being strummed and shuffled by almost inhumanly deft fingers, spiderous pale fingers, beringed in silver and opals, dealing the cards, the first card, the Hermit (reversed), the Chariot (upright), the Queen of Swords (upright), the Magician (reversed), the Tower (upright). The music thrummed and hummed and pulsed, in keys and with intonations Sam's thoroughly-American-inducted-with-a sideline-in-Norwegian-metal ear couldn't quite place.
"Who are you reading for?" Sam asked her.
"For Thomas Huntsman," she said. "He's the one who'll decide your fates."
"Then we should speak to him together," Jess said.
"He doesn't trust easy, Thomas," the card-reader said. "But he believes in the fates and the fates say it has to be the Hermit before the Chariot."
Jess looked like she was restraining herself from rolling her eyes by a hair's-breadth.
"He means your boy no harm, guapa," the duende said. "Let's keep straight who pulled their piece on whom, hmm?"
Sam faced her, realizing in that moment, with what felt like a flash of uncharacteristically strong intuition, that he had no desire for her to be privy to this coming meeting either. Jess turned her head and raised her eyes to meet his slowly, with a tussle of contradictory feelings pulling her features into an offkilter frown. She saw the resolution in his gaze and her frown deepened, the ridges of her scars rippled, a strand of solid gold hair swung across her left eye and settled against the bridge of her nose. Her freckles were the color of amber and her eyes mirrored the sky.
"I don't know if this is gonna be..."
"But in case I don't make it back, then I'm sorry I interrupted your lives like this and I..."
She rose onto her boot toes and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He breathed in the sweaty unwashed road smell of her hair as he lowered his face into the crook of her shoulder and tried to remember what it had smelled like when he would embrace her the first time around, but couldn't. No more than he could say goodbye to her, a real goodbye, because she was still a phantom to him, another echo of the woman to whom he would never be able to say it.
The duende cleared his throat, coughing out a perfect mushroom cloud. "Day's gettin' long, tio."
He followed the duende beyond the camp's borders, walking away from Jess without looking back.
The duende showed him the way through grasses and wildflowers, lupine and dandelions and brittelbrush, that carpeted the desert with soft yellow and violet color, until they came to a narrow track between boulders. He felt the same tingling as when he'd touched the stones but it wasn't just in his fingertips now, it was crawling over his skin, prickling and zinging along his nerves, spine and hands and temples. The duende stopped at a certain point. Sam continued walking straight between the boulders and then between the Joshua trees until he came across an iron hatch in the ground. The Aquarian star, seal of the Men of Letters. He pulled it open easily by its ring handle and looked down at the dark drop, the blazing sunlight only faintly gilding the first narrow rungs of the ladder. Feet first, he descended.