Disclaimer: The TV show Supernatural and all characters therein are owned by assorted Americans, not me. This fiction is purely for the enjoyment of readers; no money is being made. All Original Characters remain the property of Catherine D. Stewart and may not be used without the express permission of the authoress.

Summary: The boys suffer a 'catastrophe'…

Rating: 'T'/15. After writing The Scent of You I needed to go to a 'lighter', cheerier place. I'm not promising hysteria and belly-laughs, but this hopefully may provide moments of amusement. Set post-Something Wicked but before Provenance No Warnings as such, except the odd fruity phrase and some initially graphic descriptions. It is a little grim at first, but go with it. Oh, and special information for the benefit of Rachel F., I may not be as fast at updating this as with previous stories, but I will get there in the end...


Chapter 1

There was something wrong with Dean.

It wasn't a divine revelation with a herald angelic chorus of trumpets; it wasn't even one of those 'sudden bolt-upright in bed at 3:00a.m. epiphany' kind of deals. It was just a gradual realisation that Dean was 'off his game'. Not up to his usual operating level; under the weather.

But then again, Sam could relate. Some Hunts they left behind with a deep feeling of satisfaction and worthwhile effort, like killing that Shtriga; some Hunts haunted them still, such as Sammy blasting his brother with a shotgun at the Roosevelt Asylum, or the Bender family, more monstrous than anything because they had been just people. Some Hunts added frustration and anger to their already stacked-too-high-to-the-point-of-toppling-over emotional baggage.

This one fell firmly into the last category. The town of Westlake…Arkansas?...Sam had forgotten, and the rinky-dink town was almost literally in spitting distance of four State lines, jammed in the 'corner' where Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee briefly shared map-space. After a while the ever-changing but endlessly identical places all blurred into one Any Town, USA, and as long as it had: gas station, diner, laundrette (not necessarily in that order) the brothers were okay. Even a town having a motel – make that cheap motel – in the vicinity could be classed as an 'optional extra' since the Impala's trunk had a tent and sleeping bags for emergency/no money situations, plus the brothers weren't exactly unused to sleeping in the car itself if necessity dictated.

Whatever; the town of Westlake was being terrorised by a supernatural nasty, something closely related to a 'Ghoul', but possibly not specifically a Ghoul – apparently these things could have sub-species. Who knew? For a heady half-hour Sam had found himself working on an internal manuscript, sort of a Supernatural Wikipedia of Malevolent Entities: Kingdom: Evil; Phylum: Demoniac; Class: Absolutely none; Order: Chaotic; Family: Mystical; Genus: Badass; Species: Disgusting; Sub-species: Skanky.

But like the demon of Flight 2485 that had 'moved with the times' and brought down planes to ratchet up the body count instead of going after individuals, the 'Ghoulish' had hit on a way to disguise its depredations. Instead of being an upfront Ghoul and attacking people and eating them, it had 'infected' a local animal; the animal killed the human, and the Ghoul fed without having to break a sweat, like the 'fast-paced business executive' whose secretary actually did all the work but he got the salary. The local sheriff/hunters/park service shot the hapless animal and the Ghoul remained safely undetected to kill at will. Considering the average Ghoul had the IQ of wet lettuce and a brain slightly smaller than a walnut, it was a worryingly bright idea.

Indeed, had Dean's homemade-from-a-broken-Walkman EMF, shoved in his holdall on the back seat, not suddenly wailed like a cat with its tail trodden on – making Sam jerk awake with a jump and Dean swerve the Impala – as they drove with soporific weariness from Nowhere, Kentucky to Anonymous, Missouri they would never have known there was anything untoward.

They'd scouted around Westlake and once they'd been sure of what they were dealing with, had gone into the town posing as exactly what they were – hunters. Of course their IDs said 'Animal Control Specialists - The National Parks Service'. However, the job was both distressing and depressing. Again showing an unusual level of reasoning, the Ghoul had tried to occupy the two Hunters by infecting animals and sending them after the brothers while it moved deep into the local forest.

Sam's research had regrettably shown that unfortunately, once an animal was 'infected' by the Ghoul, there was no reversal; the only option was to kill the beast and salt and burn its bones so the Ghoul creature had no loophole back into the world. Dean and Sam had grown up mostly in tents perpetually 'camping' with Dad. They had only ever hunted for food, not sport, and other than that killed animals only in self-defence, such as when Dean had been fifteen and a starving cougar suffering mouth abscesses from a run in with a porcupine had homed in on ten-year-old Sam as an easy meal.

In the past four days Sam and Dean had been forced to shoot dead a black bear and her half-grown cub, a full grown male elk, a stag that tried to gore them to death with its antlers, two cougars, a lynx, a wolf, three foxes, five owls, a breeding pair of hawks and even a dozen chipmunks that that had launched themselves at the brothers from tree branches attempting to tear their throats out. Strangely it was the chipmunks that had upset both Sam and Dean the most; they'd fired their guns so fast the casings were too hot to touch and the clearing was littered with pathetic furry forms covered in blood and none larger than a cat. The poor creatures had had no chance to resist the Ghoul's power and the brothers had no choice but destroy them once infected.

Sam's rage against the abomination had reached volcanic proportions and he knew Dean was similarly affected as they were forced to destroy beautiful creatures that had done nothing except be unfortunate enough to live in the area the Ghoul had chosen as its new feeding ground. The only barely bright spot was that the Ghoul thing seemed only able to infect mammalian life, sparing the brothers from any replays of the massed bug attacks in Oasis Plains, such as swarms of killer bees, hordes of snakes or armies of poisonous spiders.

In Westlake, local representatives of The National Park Service, a body not known for its brilliance in conservation and ecological matters, was already muttering about 'some sort of cross-species virus' and 'cull'. Even worse, the longer the situation went on the more ammunition it gave to the scrap-the-national-park-and-concrete-everything brigade, who were drooling at the thought of all those development dollars and blind to everything bar the image of a mega-mall that floated in front of their eyes.

That had led to Sam's realisation that Dean was…sick. Not the psychologically warped 'sicko' insult that they yelled at each other when they were having a furious argument, but sick as in 'ill'; though it certainly wasn't an ER type illness…nothing like when Dean had been electrocuted, thank you Lord.

From what Sam could see it was sort of a low-level persistent 'not well', like having a really bad cold for a week and being left with a cough that lingered for two months. Dean's face was pale and drawn; his eyes 'heavy' and dull. Dean customarily slept on his side/stomach, his fingertips never more than an inch from the wickedly sharp hunting-knife he always kept under the pillow, but for the past few days Sam had woken in the night and looked across at the other bed in the motel room to see Dean on his back, fitfully dozing and restless.

Dean, who could not function unless given the opportunity to mainline caffeine and eat a breakfast that consisted preferably of red meat and eggs but at least one or the other, and who needed to be handled with the caution of someone approaching a caged and very angry tiger before he achieved this, had been sitting in the local diner as docilely as a drugged lamb rejecting anything more than OJ...and a bran muffin, something that in Dean's lexicon was like the antichrist of food.

It was something outside Sam's experience. Growing up as they had on their perpetual road trip with John Winchester near destitute much of the time, the two boys had led vastly more active lives than almost any modern-day American child and indeed adults other than those serving in the U.S. Military. Growing up bathing in rivers and climbing trees and eating food bereft of pesticides, preservatives, additives, artificial sugars, fats, salt and 'convenience processing' had made them far healthier than most of their peer group, at least amongst white Americans. That wasn't to say they hadn't been ill as children – Sam vividly remembered them both going down with measles – but many common complaints seemed to pass them by as their immune systems were a lot more alert and robust to annihilate germ invaders.

What's more, the lingering was Sam's problem, not Dean's. As he grew up, Sam had realised that people had two different types of immune system. When a person became ill, the lucky ones, like Dean, were bedridden in agony for about two or three days and were utterly pitiful in the sweats and the hacking and the puking and the limp-as-a-newborn-kitten. But around day three to four they would throw back the covers, take a breath and go in search of coffee, ham, eggs, bacon, hash browns and the full works.

The other people were the unfortunate ones like Sam, where they were not ill enough to be bedridden and skip school or work but not really well enough to be there either. For three to four weeks they endured various combinations of stuffy noses, sinusitis, raw throats, 24/7 Metallica gigs inside their tortured skull, shivering fits, hot flushes, sore/gritty eyes, aching bones, perpetual queasiness, zero appetite and body-wracking coughs – never severe enough to take their feet out from under them, but never minor enough to feel anything other than totally wretched.

If given a choice, Sam would have traded three weeks of feeling miserably wretched for three days of just-shoot-me-now; the point was, Dean had always fallen into the latter category, which was why this wan visage was so perturbing.

More importantly, it meant that Dean was off his game for this Hunt. Sam had seen his brother totally in the zone even when badly 'dinged' – the Shtriga had thrown him across a room into a closet yet less than twenty seconds later Dean had been on his feet and focussed enough to save Sam's life by shooting the thing. Sam knew how hurt Dean had been - he had bound up Dean's cracked ribs and rubbed ointment on his bruised back when they got to their next motel once Michael and his mother had left for the hospital by the simple expedient of threatening Dean with further physical violence if he did not sit down, shut up and submit to Sam's First Aid ministrations, and both of them had known Dean couldn't have taken Sam in the state he was in.

But Dean was slower than normal, even perilously close to sluggish. Sam had noted that he had killed an unprecedented ten of the 'rabid' chipmunks to Dean's three. That was a particularly worrisome thing in view of the fact that they were now closing in on the Ghoul.

Animals did not have intelligence, but they possessed abundant survival instincts; on 26th December 2004, nearly a quarter-of-a-million humans had perished in the Asian Tsunami, whereas the animal deaths had totalled something like less-than-one-percent of that figure because God's lesser creatures were hightailing it for the hills within twenty seconds of the tsunami being triggered.

Likewise, when the Ghoul had moved in, any animal that could had moved out, as far from the thing's sphere of influence as they could manage. The Ghoul therefore had a finite supply of pawns to throw in the path of the Hunters, and its stock had been rapidly decimated. Sam and Dean were ninety-nine percent certain they had triangulated the location of the cave where the Ghoul was holed up in the local woods.

But for the first time in…ever…Sam didn't have confidence that Dean had his back. Not that Dean was unwilling – such an idea was inconceivable – but in his present below par state he lacked that finely honed edge that set him apart and indeed above other Hunters, including as Sam readily acknowledged, both himself and their father.

Dean was a Hunter in the way that Mozart had been a composer, or Michelangelo an artist. John Winchester was almost as good, and Sam no slouch, but both knew that if it had been an Olympic event, Dean would have taken the Gold every time; John would have been solid silver. For all his psychic whammy and telekinesis 'edge', Sam knew he himself would easily take the Bronze but never achieve beyond that, and it didn't bother him, but in his present condition, Dean wouldn't even make the qualifying heats.

And Sam found that he was viewing what should have been a simple Ghoul search-and-destroy with a similar level of fear to when he and Dean had been imprisoned in that warehouse by Meg Masters, sick with the knowledge that they were being used to lure their father into a murderous trap.

Continued in Chapter 2…

© 2006, Catherine D. Stewart