The Devil Made Me Do It
"I spy, by and by, something…green."
Without lifting his eyes from the map he was scrutinizing, Sam answered, "A tree."
"Ah, but which one?" his brother asked from the driver's seat.
Sam sighed, his patience stretched to its limit. "All of them, Dean, okay? Now can you please let me figure this out?"
Unfazed, Dean said, "What's there to figure out?" His fingers beat a steady rhythm on the steering wheel. "We're in New Jersey, in the middle of the Pine Barrens."
"There aren't even any mile markers." Sam frowned at the map. "How are we supposed to figure out where we need to go?" He looked over at Dean. "I mean, we need a little more to go on than 'turn right at the big dead tree after the crossroads.'"
Dean grinned, remembering the all-too-eager waitress at the diner where they had stopped for lunch. Sam had smiled, and she had practically melted into a puddle on the floor. They did get quite a bit of information from her, but directions? Well, it had gotten them this far… "Hey, she was just trying to be helpful."
Sam blushed. "Yeah, well, next time you can ask for directions."
The Impala slowed to a stop. "Okay," Dean agreed.
Sam's eyes narrowed as he glanced up at his brother. That had been way too easy. Something was up. "What?"
Ducking his head, Dean peered out the window over Sam's shoulder.
Sam followed his gaze. "What?!"
Dean put the car in reverse and backed up slowly, bringing a dirt road into view. Nailed to a tree beside the road was a sign that read "Ernie's Rod and Gun Club." An arrow pointed the way into the woods.
Sam shot his brother a you're kidding me look. "No," he said flatly.
"You said I should ask for directions," Dean said with a shrug. He maneuvered the car off the main road.
"Yeah, but…a gun club?"
Dean grinned. "Watch and learn, little brother. Watch and learn."
The clubhouse was an old log cabin with no windows. None that Sam could see, anyway. He cringed inwardly as he followed Dean up the walk to the front door, a feeling of dread nestled in his stomach. Dean didn't seem bothered at all and, for a moment, Sam wondered if his feelings were simply nerves or something more.
Dean leaped over the three steps, directly onto the porch, and paused by the door, waiting for Sam. "You coming?"
Sam glanced behind at the expanse of trees that spread out in all directions. "Yeah," he answered finally, and stepped onto the porch.
The air inside the cabin hung heavy with smoke, and it took a moment for their eyes to adjust. To the right was a billiard table; that got a grin out of Dean. In the back right corner was a bar. To the left there was also a foosball table, a small living room set-up with a fireplace, and around that, what Sam could only describe as a trophy wall. Taxidermied wildlife covered the wall and a few shelves: fish, deer, bear, wildcats. There was even a tableau of a bobcat snarling at a snake.
A backhanded whack on his arm got his attention, and he turned to his brother, noting that Dean was looking at the same thing.
"Imagine what it would look like if we had one of those walls."
Sam grinned and followed Dean as he stepped farther into the room.
"Can I help you boys?" A large man in a quilted flannel shirt stepped from behind the bar.
Dean spoke before Sam could even open his mouth. "Yeah, we're, ah…" He gave a short, embarrassed laugh. "…we're kinda lost. Saw your sign. Thought maybe you could help us out."
"Where you headed?"
"Well, now, the truth is, we don't really know. See, my brother and I are here on vacation. You know, get away from it all. Do some fishing, some hunting…"
"You boys hunt?"
Dean pulled a face. "Oh, yeah. All the time."
Sam inconspicuously elbowed his brother. Dean was pouring it on a little thick.
The man's round face broke into a smile. "Well, then you're in the right place." He held out a hand. "Name's Ernie."
Dean shook the proffered hand. "Hi, Ernie. I'm Dean. This is my brother, Sam."
Sam accepted the hand as well. "Hi."
"Grab a seat, boys." Ernie hitched a thumb toward the bar. "Let's see if we can get you on the right track."
Dean looked back over his shoulder and waggled his eyebrows. And Sam felt his stomach sink a little lower. It was going to be a long night.
Two hours later, Sam was nursing his second beer and desperately trying to tune out his brother's voice. There were about fourteen guys in the place, and they were all crowded around the bar, listening to Dean spin tales of past hunts. And they were all true…except for what they hunted. Now it was bears and wildcats and alligators. It bothered him the way his brother was trivializing what they did. Dean wouldn't see it that way, though, so Sam just kept his mouth shut.
Head snapping up at the sound of his name, Sam focused on his brother. "What?"
Dean smiled, amused. "You with me there, Sam?" His smile faded a little when Sam didn't return it. "Ah, what was it we hunted in Nebraska?"
Sam glared at him. "I don't remember."
Dean got the hint. "Right. Well, must not have been that exciting." That got a round of laughs as he turned back to the group. "Anyway, enough about me. That's some trophy wall you got there." Dean glanced over his shoulder and nodded appreciatively. "Now, tell me about the ones that got away."
And suddenly Sam realized what his brother was doing. As the men in the group exchanged uncertain glances, Sam smiled into his beer and waited. There was only one thing they could say that could possibly top Dean's stories. He didn't have to wait long.
"You ever heard of the Jersey Devil?"
Dean scoffed good-naturedly. "Oh, come on, Pete. If you're gonna spin a tale, the least you could do is make it believable."
The very air in the cabin quickly changed. The men sobered, shifting in their places. Some of them went back to playing pool or watching TV, like the subject was just too much. Dean glanced at the faces around him, and Sam sat on the edge of his chair, primed, just in case.
Dean offered a nervous smile. "What? You're not telling me you—. That's just a myth, right?"
Ernie set another beer bottle in front of Dean, adding to the already impressive collection. "Most folk think so," he said.
Dean studied him a moment. "But you don't."
"Son, I've lived here all my life, seen a lot of strange things…"
"You've seen it?"
It was Ernie's turn to study Dean, then Sam, trying to figure them out. "Maybe. I'm not sure. But I heard it. We all have."
"You've heard it?" Sam leaned forward, unable to keep out of the conversation any longer.
"How do you know it was…it?" Dean asked.
"It screams." This from Pete, who seemed to have turned a shade paler. "Like a woman being murdered. Makes your blood run cold."
"It's a sound you never forget," Ernie added, and there were nods of agreement around the bar.
Dean spared a moment to exchange a quick look with Sam. Then he was back in the game. "So, how come this thing isn't decorating your wall?"
"You can't kill it," said a man to Dean's right.
"What, just because it's some kind of legend?"
"No," Ernie clarified, "because it can't be killed."
Dean gave a short, scoffing laugh and lifted his beer. "We could kill it." He nodded back at Sam before taking a long drink.
There was tense silence, once again putting Sam on edge. Then the room filled with raucous laughter. Someone pounded Dean on the back, practically making him spew beer across the bar. Sam couldn't help but smile, and not just from the release of tension.
Ernie finally collected himself enough to say, "Son, I think you've had too much to drink."
"Seriously," Dean insisted after wiping the back of his arm across his mouth. "I'm one hell of a shot. And Sam here is almost as good."
Sam didn't miss the "almost," and couldn't quite keep his eyebrows from climbing a notch.
One of the men slapped his hand down on the bar. When he pulled it away, there was a twenty-dollar bill in its place. "Put your money where your mouth is, boy."
"Now, Charlie," Ernie admonished half-heartedly, pronouncing the name "Cha-lee."
Sam smelled a hustle. Little did they realize who was hustling whom.
Dean slipped from the bar stool and would have kept right on going to the floor if someone hadn't grabbed him. Sam jumped to his feet, not entirely certain how much of this was acting. Dean had consumed an awful lot of beer. But feint or not, it had the right affect: more bills were added to the bar.
Sam wanted desperately to get to his brother, but there was no way to reach him. Dean was now surrounded again, and the crowd was moving him toward a side door and out into the night.
"He as good as he says he is?"
Sam turned his head, surprised to find Ernie still behind the bar. He returned his gaze to the retreating crowd and, after a moment, he nodded. "Yes, he is…usually."
Ernie tossed his own bet into the pile before gathering up the money and stuffing it into his pocket. "That's just what I wanted to hear." He headed outside.
Sam stood in the empty clubhouse—even the guys who had been playing pool and watching TV had gone—and listened to the shouts and laughter that drifted back in through the open door. He really hoped Dean knew what he was doing.
With a sigh, he headed out after his brother.
By the time Sam met up with the crowd, Dean already had a shotgun in his hands. It was dark now, but the floodlights on the back of the cabin illuminated the red dot targets attached to posts about ninety feet away. A turkey shoot.
Pete and several others emerged from another door at the back of the cabin, each carrying more shotguns. They handed them out and took their places. Someone handed Dean four shells, twelve-gauge, and moved down the line to divvy up the rest.
Sam made his way to his brother's side. "You sure you want to do this?"
"Piece of cake," Dean told him, loading his shotgun.
Sam gave a cynical laugh. "When you're sober."
"Details, details," he responded, and primed the weapon.
"All right, now," Ernie called so all eight competitors could hear. "Four shots. Best out of four. Fire one round, and we'll replace the targets." He looked at Dean. "You're up, son."
Sam stepped back, heard his brother call, "Clear!" then the first round was fired. The game had begun.
Sam was content to simply stand back and watch his brother in action, but somewhere along the way he was designated "runner." He didn't relish the thought of crossing the paths of seven strangers armed with shotguns, but one look at Dean quelled his fears. Despite having overindulged, Dean was alert and aware, and he offered Sam a nod of assurance. It didn't take long to hang up the new targets, and when he returned, Ernie handed him the next batch. Dean called off the next round.
By the end of the fourth round, it was obvious to Sam that even inebriated, Dean was the indisputable winner. He had nailed the bull's-eye every time. Sam couldn't help a small smile of pride. He would never admit it to Dean, but his brother truly was the better marksman, probably as good as their dad, if not better.
It didn't take Ernie much scrutiny to come to the same conclusion as Sam. He announced the victor, pounding Dean firmly on the back. Although there were some groans of disappointment, most of the reactions were positive.
Even more animated than before, the group headed back toward the lodge. Ernie lagged behind and, with the efficiency of a man who had been doing so for a long time, counted the wad of money he had stuffed into his pocket. He took the house cut and then handed the rest to Dean. "Where'd you learn to shoot like that, son?" he asked.
"My dad," Dean answered as he folded the bills without counting them and tucked the roll into his pocket. "He taught me everything I know about weapons." He smiled. "Marines."
Ernie nodded his approval and clapped Dean on the shoulder. "Come on inside, have another beer. On the house."
"Thanks, but, uh…" Dean snorted a laugh. "I think I'd better pass." At the proprietor's frown of disappointment, he added, "But I could sure use a good night's sleep. Know any place we could stay?"
Twenty minutes later, Sam was guiding his brother out the front door—five minutes for directions, fifteen minutes of handshakes, good-byes, and promises of a rematch.
"You get those directions?" Dean asked as they reached the Impala.
"Good." Dean tossed him the keys. "Think you'd better drive, bro."
Sam made the catch one-handed and grinned. "Dude, you expect to hunt this thing tomorrow?"
The passenger door opened with a creak. "Nope. I plan to sleep tomorrow while you do the research." Dean flashed Sam a grin before lowering himself into the car.
Sam shook his head as he slid behind the wheel. Dean was already snugged down in the seat, arms folded across his chest, eyes closed.
Sam's face broke into a devilish grin. That's what you think, big brother.
Despite his thoughts of mischief the night before, Sam padded around the motel room, showered, and dressed without waking his gently snoring brother.
Ernie hadn't steered them wrong. The motel was nice, for being out in the middle of nowhere. Sam had to admit, he had not looked forward to this trip at all. When he thought of New Jersey, he thought more of the north, just outside New York, where it was cities and power plants and refineries. Not this. This was nearly a million acres of oaks, cedars and pines, rivers and lakes. It was beautiful, a tranquil background for what was lurking in the dark.
Not that he was completely sure what that was yet. Dean had come across several unexplained deaths and disappearances in the area, enough to convince Sam it was worth looking into. But was it supernatural? The locals certainly seemed to believe in the Jersey Devil.
Sam made a pot of coffee while the computer booted, then had time to pour himself a cup while he waited for the internet connection to complete. Dial-up. Geez. No wireless connection out here. Heck, the cell phones didn't even work. He lowered himself into the chair at the table below the room's solitary window and sipped the hot brew, wondering absently why the aroma hadn't drawn Dean from his sleep.
The connection finally completed, and Sam set his coffee aside and went to work.
It felt like someone was squeezing his head. A moan escaped his lips before he could stop it, and that set off a jackhammer inside his skull. Dean wrapped his pillow around his head, but not before he caught the scent of brewed coffee. Normally, he would have enjoyed the smell, but right now it was making his already queasy stomach churn. He groaned, and this time he didn't care.
"Hey," he heard Sam's way-too-cheerful voice say. "It's about time you woke up."
"Who said I was awake?" he managed to croak.
His brother laughed. "Come on. Information and coffee."
Dean burrowed deeper into the bedclothes. The mere thought of putting anything in his stomach was enough to make him want to hurl. Something whacked his foot, which he belatedly realized was sticking out of the covers at the base of the bed.
"Dean, you should have something. It'll help."
Dean uncurled and rolled onto his back with a sigh. When he finally managed to pry his eyes open and focus, he saw Sam standing at the base of the bed, an amused smile on his face. "You're enjoying this way too much," he accused.
"Hey, man, you're the one who decided to drink twelve beers last night."
"I didn't decide. It just happened. And it was thirteen."
Sam paused in filling a cup with coffee. "You kept count?"
Slowly pushing himself up to sitting, Dean grinned. "I know my limits."
Sam offered him coffee along with the cynical look. "Right. Well, thirteen seems to be a popular number around here."
"Whatcha got?" Dean swung his legs off the side of the bed, then regretted moving so fast. He sat still for a moment, blinking away the vertigo. Luckily, it didn't seem that Sam had noticed as he headed back to the computer.
"Thirteenth child," he said, lowering himself into the chair. "A Mrs. Leeds found out she was pregnant with her thirteenth child and screamed, 'I hope it's a devil.' She got her wish. At least, that's one of the stories. There's also one that says a young girl fell in love with a British soldier during the Revolutionary War, so the people of Leeds Point cursed her, and another about a Mrs. Shrouds who said if she ever had another child, she hoped it was a devil. But there is a name in common. Leeds. Some stories say it was Mrs. Leeds who gave birth to the Jersey Devil in Estelville, New Jersey. Some say it was Mrs. Shrouds in Leeds Point. Either way, it's a start."
Dean sipped his coffee and winced, then frowned at his brother. "You put sugar in this?"
"Just drink it." He brought up another screen. "According to this one website, the Shrouds' house is still standing. It's off Route 561. We could check it out."
"Sounds like a plan." Dean stood, swayed a bit.
"There's also a…club."
"Thanks, Sam, but I think I've had enough to drink."
"Not that kind of club, Dean. A…" Sam searched for the right words, then shrugged. "A fan club."
Dean stopped en route to the bathroom and turned back to his brother. "Come again?"
Sam shrugged. "I thought we could check them out, too. They probably have more information than anyone." He grinned, sheepish.
Dean stared at him a moment. The way he felt, the last thing he wanted to do was deal with a bunch of Jersey Devil fanatics. Sam was watching him, waiting, eyebrows raised. Dean waved him off and continued toward the bathroom. "Knock yourself out, Sammy." He didn't turn back, but he could just imagine the look on his brother's face, and it was enough to make him smile.
By the time Dean emerged from the bathroom, Sam was gone. Dean shook his head. Jersey Devil fans. And he wasn't talking the hockey team. What next? He hadn't really considered the fact that they might run into some resistance when it came to killing the thing. Like killing Bigfoot or Nessie, he thought as he poured himself another cup of coffee: black, no sugar this time. The shower had helped, and as much as he hated to admit it, the earlier coffee Doctor Sam had prescribed had done the trick as far as the nausea was concerned.
Dean settled in the chair before the computer and ran a finger over the touch pad. The screen came to life, giving him a view of what his brother had been reading earlier: "The Jersey Devil: Fact or Fiction." He scanned the article, noting the names of some very prominent witnesses. Commodore Stephen Decatur, a naval hero, had shot the thing with a cannonball and claimed it was unaffected. Well, that made sense. They'd need silver bullets for this one. And chopping off its head wouldn't hurt, either.
Dean hit the "back" button and waited…and waited. Finally, the Google results displayed. There were thousands of them. Great. He chose what looked like an interesting link, then sat back in the chair. Dial-up sucked.
It was going to be a long afternoon.
Dean started when the door opened. "Back so soon?" he asked as Sam stepped into the room.
Sam's eyebrows disappeared under his hair. "It's been like four hours, dude."
Dean stretched. "Really?" He glanced at his wrist, then realized his watch was still on the nightstand between the beds. "My how time flies…"
"Find anything?" Sam set a brown paper bag on the table behind the computer.
"Found lots of stuff. But most of these sites have the same information. Whether any of it will be useful, well…" He trailed off, the aroma of Chinese food making his stomach rumble. "How about you?"
Sam pulled out the other chair and sat at the table, pushing the computer back to the wall. "Yeah, actually."
Dean didn't miss the touch of red that colored Sam's cheeks. "I see," he said knowingly.
Sam fidgeted, annoyance touching his words. "No, you don't 'see,' Dean. It wasn't like that. She was just…very helpful."
"Uh-huh. And cute…"
A smile. Hesitant, but there. Finally, Sam shrugged.
Dean gave him a playful punch in the arm. "You're two-for-oh this trip, bro."
"Anyway, she gave me better directions to the Shrouds house."
Dean nodded, picked up the bag of Chinese food, and peeked inside. He glanced up at Sam without lifting his head. "One quart?"
The blush crept back again. "I, uh, ate already."
Dean raised his eyebrows but didn't comment. He pulled the carton from the bag and grabbed a pair of chopsticks. "And…"
Sam sighed. "Dean, I told you, it was nothing. We just went out and—"
"Sam. Jersey Devil," Dean chided, hiding a smile behind a mouthful of lo mein.
Sam looked abashed, clearing his throat before he continued. "Right. Um…I showed her those pictures I found on the internet, the ones of the dead guys. She said they were a hoax, but apparently there have been several disappearances each year, all around this time of year. They've never found any bodies, though. She said the devil has never killed anyone. It feeds on small animals. She said…it's a harbinger."
Dean looked up at the sudden change in his brother's voice. Sam wasn't looking at him anymore, his gaze unfocused. "Sam?"
Sam blinked, his eyes meeting Dean's. "It's been seen before times of great strife. The Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam." He leaned forward. "Dean, it was seen in 1983…and just last year."
Dean felt something twist inside, but he kept his face neutral. He knew where Sam was going with this, and as much as he wanted to deny it, the kid's intuitions were usually frighteningly on the mark. He shrugged with his expression. "There's always a war somewhere, Sam. Heck, we're at war now in Iraq—"
"Then why isn't it seen all the time, Dean?" Sam looked at him pleadingly, as if he needed Dean to tell him he was wrong.
"What if it's more? What if there's something coming? A war of a different type?"
Dean set aside his meal, no longer hungry. He needed to stop this speculation now and get to the matter at hand. "Sam, we can sit here and talk Something Wicked This Way Comes, or we can do something about it." He held Sam's gaze with a hard look. There was no anger in it, only determination.
It worked. Sam swallowed, nodded.
Dean stood, clapping him on the shoulder. "Let's go."
Even with the directions they had, the house was not easy to find. The overgrowth of trees, grass, and shrubs made it easy to miss.
The sun was setting as they trekked over the uneven ground, Sam using his machete to cut the tangle of thorny bushes from their path. He had taken the lead, which was not something he did often. Dean usually took point; it was simply an unspoken rule between them. But today… Maybe he thought Sam needed to work off some restless energy by hacking away at brambles.
"Want me to take over?" Dean asked, a few steps behind.
A small smile touched Sam's lips. His brother always seemed to know what he was thinking. "I'm okay."
"Well, let me know when you want a break."
Sam glanced over his shoulder, saw Dean fiddling with the EMF meter. "Anything?"
Dean shrugged. "Nah…nothing." He stopped walking and glanced around. "I thought this place wasn't far from the road."
"According to Cat, it should be—"
"Cat?" Dean asked with one of those grins, then made a purring growl sound.
"Dean…" Sam warned, then stopped, his eyes catching something ahead of them. They were on a steady incline that peaked about a hundred yards ahead. Trees dotted the top of the hill, and…something else. Sam reached into his pocket and pulled out the paper Cat had given him. The black-and-white picture was a few years old, but it seemed to match. Moving to his right, Sam sought a better angle. Within moments, he had it. The dark shape of a dilapidated house came into view. He glanced back at his brother.
Dean wasn't there. The uneasiness Sam had felt outside the gun club returned with a vengeance.
"Dean?" he called, turning in a frantic search.
Sam heard his brother almost the instant he saw him, several feet to the right, crouched in the tall grass. With an inaudible sigh of relief, Sam joined him, looking down at a path worn into the rugged terrain.
"Someone's been coming out here on a regular basis," Dean noted.
Sam knew that tone. "You think this is all a hoax."
Dean shrugged, pushed off his knees and stood. He stepped onto the path and took up the lead. "Let's find out."
The rest of the way was much easier on the path. Sam made a mental note that they should come back when there was more daylight and see where the path led in the other direction. But right now his focus was on the house atop the hill. It was like something out of a horror movie. He knew Dean was thinking the same thing when his brother glanced back and grinned. This was right up his alley.
The grade became steeper, but the path was almost stair-like, allowing them to move swiftly. There was an eerie stillness to the area: plenty of insects to herald the evening, but no swarms of birds flying from tree to tree as they searched for a place to nestle for the night. Sam also found it odd that they hadn't disturbed even one rabbit on their journey. He didn't like this place. Not one bit. They crested the hill, and it didn't get much better.
The back of the house and one side were completely obscured by trees and scrub brush, but the front and other side were fully visible. Slats were missing from the roof. A window with a wooden shutter stood open on the side, and Dean crept over to take a look. He pulled out his flashlight and sent the beam traveling over the interior.
"You realize this place is, like, three hundred years old?" he said, his eyes narrowing at something the light caught.
"Yeah. I'm amazed it's still standing." Sam stepped closer to the window, getting his first look inside. The room—a living room, he guessed—had a loft and a huge stone fireplace that took up most of the far wall. No furniture remained. The rungs on the ladder to the loft were all broken, and there was some graffiti on the walls. A doorway at the back led to another room. Sam glanced at his brother.
"Come on," Dean said in a hushed voice, and made his way around to the front.
Sam followed, pulling out his own flashlight.
The front door was intact, a wooden latch holding it in place. A sign beside the frame warned: DANGER. DO NOT ENTER.
Dean shrugged. "Never stopped us before." He reached for the latch, but paused.
"This place has been fixed recently."
Sam gave him, then the house, a dubious look. "How can you tell?"
Dean sidestepped, running a hand over the slats under the sign. "These boards were nailed back into place. See?" He pointed. "They used old nails here, but here…"
"New nails." Sam nodded. "Well, it is a historic building."
"Yeah, and they've kept it up so beautifully." Dean stepped back to the door and lifted the latch. It swung inward with only the smallest of squeals. Dean took a step forward, but Sam put out an arm to hold him back.
"Don't you think it's strange we haven't spooked anything by being here? There should be birds all over this place. I mean, look. There aren't even any bird droppings on the floor, no nests, nothing."
Dean stepped inside anyway with a murmured, "That is weird."
Sam followed, hearing the creak of the boards beneath their feet. His uneasiness intensified, the hairs on his arms rising as he shivered. The beam of light played over the dusty floor. Cobwebs dangled from every corner and from the beams that supported the loft. There were many footprints in the dust, too many to be of any real use. And they were all human. No hoofprints as the legend suggested.
Drawing his beam along the base of the wall, Sam sighed. "I don't know, Dean. Maybe this is—" He stopped, swept the light back.
"Sam?" Dean was at his side in an instant.
"I…I thought I saw—"
The shrill scream was almost deafening.
Sam winced, ducking his head as he spun toward the door. The words he'd heard in the gun club echoed in his head. It screams. Like a woman being murdered. It did sound like a woman's scream, although Sam doubted anything human could be that shrill. His eyes searched for Dean, found his brother a few paces away, gun already in his hand. The scream came again, too close. Sam held his machete in a white-knuckled grip as he followed Dean out the door.
The sun had already dipped below the horizon. To the west, the remnants of pink and purple clouds made the sky glow, but to the east darkness engulfed the woods and was fast approaching. They stood just outside the door, back to back.
Sam didn't actually see it; it was more of a sensation, one he recognized. The uneasiness had progressed to almost…dread. But before he could give it more than a moment's thought, the scream came again, so close Sam had to cover his ears.
"Where the hell is it?" Dean sounded worried. He didn't like fighting what he couldn't see. He moved in a slow circle, and Sam moved with him, covering his back.
They didn't see it, but they felt it. The heavy thump in the air, the rush of wind, warm and rank, was the only warning they had before a force blasted right between them, throwing the brothers to the ground. Sam threw out his right arm so he wouldn't land on the machete, but the impact with the hard-packed dirt knocked the wind out of him. He tried to call out to his brother, to make sure he was okay, but he couldn't draw enough breath to make a sound. Then he heard a curse from nearby, and Dean was at his side, tugging at his arm.
"Sam!" Dean's voice held urgency. "Come on, get up!"
The deep thwump was back—or was that the blood pounding in his ears? With Dean's help, Sam managed to get his legs under him and push to his feet. Another displacement of air nearly knocked them both down again, and the screech that followed made Sam dizzy. Dean cursed again, forcing Sam to move. They practically slid down the hill, kicking up clouds of dirt and sending dislodged stones skittering down with them. It was like running on marbles. Sam hit the bottom hard, Dean's firm, steadying grip the only thing keeping him from landing on his face. Then Dean was behind him, pushing him forward.
"The path, Sam. Go, go!"
And Sam ran. He headed for the woods, for the road, the safety of the Impala. He could hear Dean's harsh breathing behind him, hear the pounding of his boots on the ground, and he could hear…it. It was after them. Behind them, no, over them, in front of them. He could hear it, sometimes smell it, but he couldn't see it. It moved too fast. He ducked his head, feeling its presence, the beat of its wings, the heat of its breath.
Another scream. Sam gasped, his eardrums protesting the abuse. The thwump—the beatofits wings, Sam realized—came close again and he stumbled. So close to the woods, so close. He managed to keep from falling, but heard behind him the uneven steps, the grunt as a body hit the ground. Dean.
Sam skidded to a stop and turned, knowing instantly the dark spot on the path was his brother. "Dean!" He ran back, sliding to his brother's side, his heart lodged in his throat.
Dean coughed, sputtered dirt from his mouth. "I'm okay, just go."
Sam grabbed Dean's arm and pulled.
The attack came in an instant. Something slammed into Sam's shoulder. He would have fallen on top of Dean—except for the hold it had on him.
Then he felt the pain. It branched out from his shoulder, down his chest and left arm. He felt himself being lifted. The beat of its wings became more deliberate.
Sam reached up, grabbed the bony limb, felt the claws embedded in his skin. His weight was too much. Its grip slipped, tearing skin. Sam cried out, trying desperately to dislodge its hold.
Three shots rang out in succession, and Sam hit the ground on his knees.
Sam reached out, grabbed a fistful of Dean's jacket. It grounded him, just knowing Dean was there. "You got it?" he asked, breathless.
"Yeah, but I think I just pissed it off." Dean wasted no time pulling him to his feet. "Move."
Sam pushed back the pain, ignored the wetness on his chest and back. He moved automatically, swallowing the nausea. Dean still had a grip on him, pushing him to keep going, tugging him this way and that. It grew very dark all of a sudden, and it took Sam too long to realize they had finally entered the woods. The thing screamed—it was still there—and this time he could hear the anger.
Things were becoming hazy, sounds muted. He thought he heard Dean say something, but he wasn't quite sure what it was. He just knew he had to keep moving. His foot landed on something hard, and Dean steered him to the right. It wasn't until he heard Dean again—not so much the words as the tone—that Sam blinked to focus and realized they were on the road, the familiar outline of the Impala just visible in the dark.
Sam offered a small laugh of relief, but it sounded horribly giddy.
"Easy, Sammy, we're almost there."
Those words, spoken softly, penetrated the haze. Sam could hear the strain in his brother's voice, the breathlessness. Suddenly he realized how much of his weight Dean was supporting. Somewhere along the way, his good arm had been pulled across Dean's shoulders, and Dean's arm was around his waist. When had that happened? He knew then that the only thing keeping him on his feet was his brother.
With great effort, Sam managed to get his feet firmly beneath him and straighten up, easing Dean's burden. A wave of vertigo threatened to topple him, but he focused ahead on the car, willing himself to keep going. Not much farther.
Except the road kept stretching out before him. The more steps he took, the farther away his goal seemed. Come on… His eyes slid closed.
The urgency brought him back, and he blinked several times to focus. He was leaning against the hood of the Impala. Dean stood before him in a stance that suggested he had dodged back to catch Sam if he toppled over. "What?"
"I think I lost you for a minute there," Dean said, backing toward the passenger door. "Just stay with me a little longer, Sam, okay?"
"'kay," was all he could manage.
The door creaked open, then Dean was back, guiding him to familiar comfort of vinyl seats. Sam heard himself groan.
"You're not gonna hurl, are you?" Dean asked, sounding annoyed. "'Cause you're already bleeding on the upholstery."
Sam rolled his head along the back of the seat to look at his brother, leaning over him in the doorway, and knew instantly the biting comment was meant to mask concern. As if he knew exactly what Sam was thinking, Dean tousled his hair before pulling out of the car.
That's when they heard it.
"Dean," Sam warned, but the door slammed closed. He couldn't even breathe as he waited for the driver's side to open. "Dean?"
The door swung open with such force, it startled Sam. Dean practically leaped inside and slammed it behind him. "It's determined, I'll give it that," he growled as he dug frantically for the keys. With a jangle, they broke free of his pocket. He jammed home the ignition key and started the car, threw it into gear, and sped out onto the highway, both hands gripping the wheel.
Sam sighed, sinking further down in the seat.
"Still with me, Sammy?"
Sam nodded. "Just…dizzy."
"We'll be back at the motel in no time, and I'll—"
It landed on the roof of the car with a resounding ka-thump.
"Son of a—" Dean swerved, trying to lose it, but the thing hung on.
Sam looked up out the window. At the edge of the roof, curled around the metal, were three sharp claws. He pushed himself up in the seat and leaned away from the glass. "Uh, Dean…?"
"I know, I know!" He ducked to look up through the windshield. "I swear, if this thing scratches my car—"
"Dean!" Sam yelled, grabbing the dashboard as he caught the flash of white tail dart out in front of the car.
Dean's gaze snapped back to the road. With a curse, he threw an arm across Sam's chest and jammed on the brakes. There was a thump against the bumper as the Impala caught the hindquarters of the deer before jerking to a stop and stalling. Then something hit the hood, bounced off, and disappeared below the grill.
It was eerily silent. Sam hardly dared breathe as he cast a sidelong glance at his brother, who hadn't moved. Dean's arm was still across Sam's chest, his left hand holding the steering wheel with a straight-armed grip. Outside the car, smoke from burnt rubber drifted up before the headlights, the smell of it turning Sam's already queasy stomach.
The question sounded too loud, yet Dean's voice was almost hoarse. Sam nodded.
He realized Dean's eyes had never left the road—he knew it was still out there—so he hadn't seen the nod. "Yeah," Sam replied. "You think—?" He cut himself off as something rose in the smoke. Sam gasped, but that was all he could manage before his lungs stopped working.
It moved slowly, coming into view above the hood. Strangely, it looked like a demonic horse, although its head was about the size of a large dog's, and with the height of the car for comparison, it only stood about four-and-a-half-feet tall. It might have been harmless looking if not for the glowing red eyes…or until it hissed at them, revealing sharp teeth with upper and lower extended fangs. Its body seemed to be covered with hair, but it was hard to tell.
One clawed hand settled on the hood, then the other. The claws on its left "hand" were covered with blood. Sam's blood. It looked at them through the glass, turning its head as if studying them with first one eye, then the other. Then its gaze settled on Sam.
Sam swallowed against a dry throat and inadvertently pushed back in the seat as it leaned closer. Dean's hand remained where it was, centered on Sam's chest, possessive. Protective. Sam tore his gaze away from the creature to steal a glance at his brother. Dean glared at the thing, his face set, his mouth a thin line. The muscles of his jaw flexed from tautness. The message was clear: You can't have him.
And not for the first time, Sam thanked God for his brother.
The creature's gaze lowered to Dean's shielding hand, then followed his arm until it locked with Dean's equally unfaltering gaze. Its eyes narrowed to thin red slits. It was angry. Sam didn't just know it; he could feel it. He didn't doubt it knew Dean was the one who had shot it. There was something in its eyes that told of intelligence. It wasn't acting on instinct; it had the power to reason. And that made it very, very dangerous.
Dean barely blinked. And Sam swore he saw what could pass for a smile on its face before its head jerked to the right.
The deer, terrified by the creature's cry, scrambled up onto its three good legs and took off into the woods. The Jersey Devil took off after it, pterodactyl wings lifting it off the ground with one beat. Sam got a quick look at a dragon-like tail, then it was gone.
Once again, everything was silent. Sam drew in a ragged breath and looked at his brother. Dean was looking out the window at the woods where the thing had disappeared. His hand fell away from Sam's chest as he turned forward and gripped the key in the ignition. "You know what?" he said finally.
"Something tells me this isn't a hoax."