No infringement is intended of copyright or other property interests in Supernatural and its characters held by Eric Kripke, Warner Brothers Television, and Wonderland Sound & Vision.
Paying The Price
Copyright 2007, Bardicvoice
It was the waiting that drove him nuts.
Really. Nothing had happened for a full week after the devil's gate had opened, and then after they'd dealt with the Sins, the next two weeks had been just as dead. Dead. Huh. No signs, no portents, no omens – just a succession of random towns, searching for oddball stories, finding nothing, spending time in libraries and obscure bookstores, reading newspapers, watching Sam surf the 'net, finding more nothing. The escaped demons and spirits were lying low, blending in. Waiting. Fraying his nerves.
And the books Sam insisted on plowing through made him squirm. Goethe. Calvin. Dante's Inferno. Stuff by Sartre and Camus and Kierkegaard and Joseph Campbell. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine, for crying out loud. And Shakespeare's Hamlet to lighten things up. Sam's obsession with Hell was grating on him. And when he complained about it, Sam rounded on him with a flash of temper. If you can be selfish, then so can I, he'd said. What makes you think I'd be willing to give up on you? He'd backed off and let a pretty waitress take him home, but that bought a scant handful of carefree hours, nothing more.
So it was with some relief that he spotted the weird news item about moving lights and strange noises in a two or three square block section on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio slated for demolition. It wasn't much to go on, but it gave them a destination, and by the time they'd gotten close, Sam had found some hints about disappearances or deaths of a couple of street people in the neighborhood. A letter to the editor in the local paper complaining about numerous rats in the vicinity and expressing the hope that the demolition would solve the problem also seemed to fit, even if none of it added up to a specific entity.
The place turned out to be a dead factory site, including a steel foundry that had died back in the 80's and some old warehouses that looked about ready to fall down on their own. A slow, daytime drive-through produced nothing but the sense that the broken or boarded-up windows really were blind and empty, and that all the street people had found better places to squat. There weren't even any rats around the dumpsters, and every diagnostic tool that Sam pointed out the window stayed dead silent and didn't so much as twitch a needle. The place was too empty, too still, and the look they exchanged needed no words to convey the shared knowledge that this recon had to take place at night.
They caught a few hours' sleep in a run-down motel with an airplane theme – you couldn't escape the Eddie Rickenbacker and Wright brothers influence anywhere, just look at the state license plates – and when they returned after dark, he left the Impala in the lot of a nearby business park that still had a surviving tenant or two. There hadn't even been an abandoned car on the condemned blocks' streets in the daylight, and the last thing they wanted to do was attract attention at night.
But the attention was there, all the same. While the place had been empty in the afternoon, myriad tiny red lights winked wherever their flashlight beams touched, reflecting from the eyes of more rats than he even wanted to think about. When Sam turned on the EMF, he shut it down almost as fast, startled by the needle leaping to the top of the scale and the audible whine cranking immediately up to max volume and staying there even as Sam swept the thing in a circle.
"What the hell are we dealing with? According to that thing, we're surrounded."
"We are. The rats, Dean. Look at the rats."
He swept his flashlight beam all the way around, and red glittered back at him from every direction. They were everywhere, but eerily enough, they didn't move; they just watched. He felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. There had to be hundreds of them.
"Well, that's not normal. And I don't know about you, but I don't have anything to stop that many, if they decide we look tasty." Shotgun in hand, he shifted a fraction so he could cover Sam's back, and more little red eyes blinked at him from the dark. "I hate rats."
A low chuckle made both of the boys spin. They hadn't even seen the old black man sitting on the curb by the dumpster, because the rags he wore disguised his shape and blended him into the concrete and the night.
"Them ain't jest rats, boys." His voice was sandpaper-rough with smoke and whiskey and trembled with suppressed hysteria. He gestured with a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. "Not no more. They ain't sure what they are, yet, but they'll figger it out soon or late, and then it'll be over. Best you get gone afore then, 'cause I cain't spread it out again."
"Spread it out?" Sam asked. "I don't understand."
"Don't you read your Bible, boy? Clarence knows, yes, Clarence knows." The man nodded sagely and tapped himself on the chest. "It didn't know I knew, so it wasn't ready when I cast it out." Maudlin sorrow laced his voice and he shook his head. "But I didn't know how to finish it, to send it to the river, so it's still in them rats."
Sam drew in a sudden breath. "The Gospel of Luke," he said. "Demons were cast out of a man into a herd of swine, and they drowned themselves in a lake."
"Just one demon here, boy," the man said. "But by the grace o' God, it's in little bits, in lots o' rats." He laughed. "It didn't know I knew. But I saw it take Abe, rest his soul, and I knew. Knew it would kill anyone it could touch. Knew what I had to do, what my gramma showed me once. I prayed to cast it out into animals, but the rats was all there was, and Abe – it was too late for Abe."
"So let me get this straight: you somehow split up a demon into a bunch of rats?" He felt an insane urge to laugh, and wrestled it down by main force. "Great: now all we need is the Pied Piper. Sam, you got any ideas?"
"Nothing for that. I can't … I don't know how to exorcise a demon from multiple hosts. I think they'd all have to be in range of the …" he started to say, spell, but a look at Clarence made him edit the word on its way out of his mouth, "… prayer, and if we're missing some, it probably wouldn't take at all. Let me think."
"Don't think too long, boy," Clarence advised. "I ain't sure how long it'll stay in them rats, and if it comes together again, I ain't got the strength to do for it, even assumin' I could do anythin', now it knows 'bout me. Ain't seen nothin' like this since before you were born, no sir, an' I don't know all I uster know back then, neither."
"If we could get them all together," Sam mused, clearly thinking out loud. "Maybe – use a summoning to bring the pieces together, and then an exorcism ...?"
"Doesn't a summoning require a name?" he asked, and Sam grimaced.
"Usually. But maybe if we catch a couple of the rats and use them as the focus, just alter the spell to speak to bringing the rest of that self together ... might be able to do it even without a name. But we might need to provide a host, something to hold it if it comes out of the rats." Sam looked faintly sick for a moment, and then turned to the elderly man who still sat watching them, rocking with his bottle. "Clarence – it is Clarence, right?" The man nodded, and Sam took a breath. "What happened with Abe, Clarence? And when?"
"Never thought no one would believe me." The man looked at them narrowly with rheumy eyes, and then nodded at Sam. "Never saw me no white conjure-men before, neither, but I kin see it on you: you're marked, boy. You been touched. You both been touched. Like me." He shook his head.
"Me an' Abe, we had us a crib in that warehouse. Been lyin' low for a week or so, ever since somethin' came huntin' an' Ella disappeared. Then Jacob. When Jacob came sundown tonight, it wasn't him; it was that thing, wearin' him. It touched Abe and flowed in like smoke, black smoke, and Jacob just fell down dead, stinking dead for days. Soon's it started inta Abe, I started prayin' – turn it aside, turn it away. Spat on it for salt, sprinkled bourbon for spirit, said my gramma's words, threw a stick from the fire. It broke all to pieces and went every which way, inta the rats. Abe wasn't hardly burned at all, but he just fell down dead as Jacob. Heart just give out, maybe. I left him." Even in the darkness, tears glistened on the old man's cheeks. "Cain't go back there. It's not respectful, just leavin' 'em that way, but I cain't go back there."
He saw his own grim thoughts mirrored in Sam's eyes – salt 'n' burn – before Sam turned back to the old man. His brother's voice was gentle.
"It's okay, Clarence. We'll take care of them, I promise. You just stay clear, okay? We've got it now."
The old man looked at them, just looked, and then nodded.
"You boys be careful. It's broke now, maybe, confused-like, but there's no tellin' what'll happen next."
"Tell me about it," he said sourly, and glanced at Sam. "We're gonna need more stuff from the trunk."
It took a full hour to set things up. When they'd returned from the Impala, lugging salt, gas, candles, herbs, incense, chalk, a brazier, and a cage improvised from baling wire, Clarence was nowhere to be seen, but the rats were still everywhere. Trapping a couple of rats was easier than he'd hoped: the things seemed stupefied and moved sluggishly, barely trying to run or bite when he grabbed them and dumped them in the cage, twisting the last wire ends closed. Of course, Sam left catching the rats to him.
In a corner of the warehouse, a cavernous building with an open-girdered ceiling lost in the darkness far above their heads, they found the crushed collection of cardboard boxes and newspapers that had served as bedding for Clarence and Abe. They also found Abe, and what was left of Jacob. Both men had been white, although it was hard to tell about Jacob; the body was already putrid and decomposing as if it had been dead for days. He thought of Meg, still walking around after a seven-story fall, and swallowed his gorge against the thought as much as the smell. Abe just looked dead, a hard-used man who looked seventy-plus even though he probably hadn't been much over fifty, if that. The bodies had fallen together, with Abe lying across Jacob's legs.
He looked at Sam.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?"
"We draw the circle around them," Sam agreed. "Put the rats on top. If the summoning draws the demon out of the rats, it should go into one of them."
"Better them than us." He fingered the charm under his shirt, one of the two Bobby had given them after Sam had been possessed. None of them had really been that concerned about possession, up until Dad. Demons had always been so rare, three or four tops for the whole hunter community in a year, and they'd all thought they'd known how to deny them a foothold – avoid fear and anger, the weaknesses that could let them in, forewarned is forearmed, all that shit. And then Dad. Yellow eyes in his father's face, pain and rage and grief and loss and Sam – he forced the thought away. They were protected now. It wouldn't happen again.
He kicked trash out of the way as Sam knelt with the chalk and started drawing on the floor, making the circle bigger than usual to contain the bodies and accommodate the expected influx of rats. After all the practice they'd gotten lately, Sam didn't even need to look at the book any more to get the symbols into the right spots. Hell, he probably didn't need to read the exorcism either, but he always would, just to be absolutely certain not to make a mistake. Dad had drilled caution into them until it was second nature. He consulted the diagram, and started setting out the candles at the cardinal points and spirit doors. By the time Sam had completed the drawing, he'd set up the brazier, loaded the herbs and charcoal, and used a match to light the candles and incense, laying the matchbook ready to hand for the point in the ritual when Sam would need to light the brazier. Taking inventory of their preparation, his eyes crossed Sam's, doing the same thing, and Sam nodded and knelt beside the brazier and the open book.
"Here goes nothing," Sam said, took a deep breath, and started intoning the Latin of the summoning spell.
With Sam's voice in his ears, he shifted his grip on the shotgun, and he looked away as Sam brought the knife blade up to his hand. He'd seen too much of his brother's blood already to be able to stomach deliberately shedding more. Sam's voice wavered with the pain of the cut, but he kept up the chant as he dripped blood into the bowl and then set it alight.
And the rats came.
They seemed to pour in out of the night, pooling around and on the bodies. He made himself a wall to keep them off of Sam, swearing and fighting the urge to kick when they scampered over his feet. Once they crossed the line of the circle, they couldn't get back out, falling over themselves as they ran up against the invisible barrier of protection. As the flood began to slow he started to relax ... until he saw the last few rats hesitating before the line of chalk, and the milling rats inside the circle suddenly stop moving to stare at the ones outside.
"Shit!" In two quick strides, he crossed in front of Sam, swinging the butt of the shotgun like a broom to scoop rats into the air and toss them onto the pile. He moved as fast as he could, but he wasn't fast enough; even as he swept up more, he saw the last of the ones outside rolling onto their sides and squirming on the ground, rubbing chalk into their fur as they worked their way across the circle, breaking the integrity and power of the pattern even as motes of black smoke began to erupt from all the rats' bodies and swirl into the air above the circle. Behind him, he heard Sam's voice shift into the familiar syllables of the rituale Romanum, the exorcism incantation – but the demon wasn't confined any longer. They'd run out of time.
The smoke suddenly enveloped him, blinding him, but it withdrew as swiftly as it had struck in a frustrated roar of wind, and he blessed Bobby's foresight and the charm under his shirt. The smoke dove down onto the dead men and vanished, sucked up into a body, and he moved without any conscious thought to attack the dead man standing up, aware of Sam's voice shouting the prayer behind him, desperate to keep the thing occupied and away from Sam, to buy his brother time.
Time itself seemed to stretch. Even knowing that the salt shot wouldn't work, he pulled the trigger, emptying both barrels into the dead man's face to stagger the body in front of him, trusting that the salt's purity would at least sting the demon, and maybe blind it. He followed up with quick blows, using the gun's stock rather than his fists to harden the hits, but when he saw the thing's arm start to rise, beginning the familiar casting away motion he remembered all too well as accompanying a surge of telekinesis, he dropped the gun and grappled with the body instead, tackling it to the ground and rolling with it, hanging on for all he was worth. The thing pummeled him brutally, trying to break free, and he felt ribs crack and give under the inhuman strength of it. But he hung on, he hung on – and then he was lifted up and smashed backward into a wall, once, twice, three times, and he heard the crack and felt his arms fall, and everything went black.
God, his head hurt. His back, his right hip and half his ribs weren't any too happy, either, but mostly it was his head. Inside and out. And then Sam's frantic voice choked off.
The demon. Sam.
He forced his eyes open and staggered to his feet, his left arm hanging limp and the other curled protectively around his stabbing ribs, but he didn't notice any of it.
Sam was pinned on his back. The thing was kneeling on his outflung arms. And then, quick as thought, it grabbed his head in both hands and snapped, and Sam went horribly, sickeningly, silently, bonelessly limp.
The scream ripped his throat raw and turned his vision tunnel red. He lurched forward, but the thing turned even as he moved and suddenly he was flying, hurled casually backward to slam up against the wall, pinned there like a bug. In his mind, he struggled with all he had, but nothing moved. Nothing moved. Sam didn't move.
He couldn't even scream.
He couldn't breathe, and for a flashing instant he felt relief. If he couldn't breathe, he'd die, and once he died, it wouldn't matter any more, none of it. It was past time he died.
But air found his lungs, expanding his ribs with agony that argued he was still alive, and he gasped with it, with pain too great to bear that still wouldn't grant him the release of unconsciousness or death. All his world was pain, lying still on the floor, and still he breathed.
The demon in Abe's dead body stood up, blocking his view of Sam, looking down at itself, lifting a rag-clad arm and turning the filthy, gnarled, broken-nailed hand in front of its shot-ruined face. It made a moue of disgust.
"This will never do," it said, and looked startled and foolishly dismayed by the rusty, grating sound of the dead man's voice. It looked down consideringly at Sam's body. "That would be better."
"Don't you touch him!" His own snarling voice surprised him, running on automatic, and the demon cocked its head as it turned to regard him.
"Why ever not?" it asked, and smiled with rotted teeth. The slow seduction in the expression made it all the more gross, an old dead man's face aping the coquettish pout of a flirting young woman. "It wouldn't be the first time, you know."
Black eyes in Sam's face, venom speaking in Sam's voice, loss and pain and grief and rage ...
"Meg," he said flatly, feeling emptiness dropping into place, and his skin crawled as that smile slowly spread again.
"Why not? You remember when I told you I'd learned a few new tricks? Here's another one." The dead hand gestured and the whole body seemed to shimmer, flickering between black and light, warping in bruise colors until he closed his eyes to keep from throwing up from disorientation. When he opened them, old dead Abe was gone, replaced by the pert blonde image of the demon who'd featured in more than one nightmare that he'd never admitted to his brother. She flowed up against him, running her hands up his body, digging cruelly into his cracked ribs, biting his lip, and he gasped and tried to jerk his head away, managing only the smallest of moves. She laughed.
"I've waited for this for so long. After all you did to me – now it's my turn."
He should have been afraid. In his head, he knew that he should have been terrified. But instead, there was nothing, nothing at all. Just draining emptiness. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Not any more. There wasn't even pain. Just – nothing. He felt his lip quirk, and met her eyes.
"So what are you waiting for? Go ahead. Torture me. Kill me. It's what you want, isn't it? Send me to Hell, the same way I sent you?"
"Dean." She shook her head pityingly. "Dean. Haven't you figured it out yet? Each person makes his or her own Hell, and this?" Her fingers gripped his jaw like a vise and forced his unwilling head around until his burning eyes rested on Sam's sprawled body. "This is yours. You're already dead. You're already here."
He wanted to scream, but fought himself to silence, to disbelief. Pinned up against the wall, he couldn't move, not a muscle. Her fingers stroked his cheek.
"It's true, you know. How many times have you seen Sam die? Think about it. How many times have you watched yourself fail him? How many times have we already had this little conversation? You're just doing it to yourself, you know, over and over again, and you'll keep doing it until the end of time. Don't you get it? That's what Hell is: the very worst thing you can possibly imagine, in infinite variation, for eternity." She turned his head back again to meet her black, black eyes, and a wolfish smile tugged at her lips. "Dreaming or awake, it doesn't matter. It's all real. Oh, it tastes so good, all that self-loathing and despair, and we've only just begun." She licked his bloody lip and kissed him hungrily then, and when he kept his mouth closed and tried to turn away, she squeezed her fingers brutally into the corners of his jaw to force his mouth open so her tongue could invade. She pulled back before he could try to bite, still squeezing, and shook his head. "Naughty, naughty. Let's start again, shall we?"
She slammed his head back into the wall, and everything went black.
God, his head hurt. His back, his right hip and half his ribs weren't any too happy, either, but mostly it was his head. Inside and out. And Sam's frantic voice wasn't helping.
"Dean, look at me. Open your eyes, Dean. Dean!"
Strong, urgent hands turned him, framed his face. There was light – bright, way too bright – and he tried to duck away, but fingers grabbed his head and a thumb held his eyelid open while the light stabbed into it. He batted an arm in clumsy protest.
"Hold still, Dean. Just hold still and let me look." The thumb and the light tortured one eye and then the other, and then he heard Sam exhale shakily but with unmistakable relief, and the hand along the side of his face slid down to his shoulder in comfort instead of restraint.
"You're going to be okay, Dean. God, the way you hit that wall, you scared the crap out of me. I thought you'd be dead. Concussed, at least. You've been out cold for a good five minutes. But your eyes look okay. How's the rest of you?"
He tried to shift and felt Sam's hands immediately supporting him as a dozen more stabbing pains screamed for attention. He inhaled against the pain and held still for a moment, sweating it out, and they all subsided to bearable aches.
"Been better. Been worse. Bruises, I think. Ribs. What happened?"
"Don't you remember?"
Now that the flashlight wasn't drilling holes into his pupils, his vision was adjusting to the dim candlelight, enough to show him the concern on Sam's face. He winced as the headache redoubled, and squinted to look past Sam. A basement. They were in a basement. Two human bodies and a hundred-some dead rats lay crumpled in the smudged ruin of the protective circle where they'd drawn the ...
"The demon!" Adrenaline flooded through him and he rolled to his feet … well, he tried to roll to his feet, but Sam caught his shoulders and stopped him, reawakening every throbbing pain.
"Easy, tiger." Sam smiled, and relief laughed in his voice. "I got it. It's gone. You made one hell of a distraction."
"So. The plan worked." He put a hand to the throbbing back of his head, and grimaced when it came away bloody. Scalp wounds always bled like a mother.
"The plan worked," Sam agreed. "Can you get up? Even in this neighborhood, fire's going to attract attention. We need to move."
"Gimme a hand." Between the two of them, he made it vertical, and if he swayed a bit, Sam carefully didn't comment on it. He watched Sam swiftly police the basement, collecting their guns and the journal into a tidy pile, while he leaned against the wall and forced himself to breathe.
Sam was fine. Sam was alive, Sam was fine. It was a dream, that's all. He had months yet before the price became due.
Months before Hell.
Sam shook salt and gas onto Jacob's rotted corpse, Abe's fresh body, and the pile of rats, running a line of fuel to the accumulated junk that had made up the dead man's bed. Their eyes met for a moment in shared regret – another one we couldn't save – before Sam struck and dropped the match and the hungry fire flared up, burning blue where it ate salt. With any luck, the whole building would go, and that would be the end of it.
Sam tucked flashlights and the book into his pockets, picked up the guns, and positioned himself automatically on his injured right side, lending him support on the shaky journey out to the Impala. Things got a bit hazy on the walk, and he cursed himself for having parked the car so far away. Putting one foot in front of the other without falling down took pretty much everything he had. Sam picked the keys from his pocket while they walked and took the driver's side himself, casting covert glances across as he shifted in the passenger seat, trying to find a comfortable position, and finally gave up to just slump back against the seat, gingerly hugging his aching ribs, too sore and weary even to care about getting blood on the upholstery. He dryly considered that there was a reason he'd made the car's seats and carpeting black, saving the sweet cream leather only for the door panels and the dashboard.
"Stay awake, Dean. Just until we get back to the motel. I'll check your eyes again and we'll get you patched up, and then you can sleep, if your pupils are good. But don't fall asleep now. Not yet."
To die. To sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream … Aye, there's the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come must give us pause. He didn't have to be a reader to know that set of lines, even if he maybe didn't have all the words. He shuddered with a chill that swept up from his gut and prickled along his arms.
"No fear of that, Sammy," he muttered. "Don't wanna sleep."
He'd thought he still had eleven months to Hell. Now – now, he wasn't so sure.