Chapter 1: Married to my guilt…
Dean pressed his hand firmly against his abdomen when for the third time in the past hour his stomach grumbled loud enough to be heard over the strains of Slaughter's Up All Night. The irony of the song wasn't lost on the elder Winchester; he had been up all night, eyes focused on the double yellow lines of the highway as he steered the Impala across the Minnesota landscape.
It was nearly sunrise, the horizon already displaying vibrant shades of red, yellow and blue as the sun prepared to make an appearance. Dean hated this time of the day, this and twilight. He could drive for twenty-four hours straight, but there was just something about still being behind the wheel when the sun came up that seemed to instantly make him crave sleep.
So really, maybe it was a good thing that his stomach was growling so much. Its emptiness was at least keeping him awake.
It grumbled again, this time loud enough that it stirred Sam from the fitful sleep he had managed the past couple of hours. The younger man looked about the cramped interior of the Chevy, fighting for clarity in those first moments after waking.
"What the hell was that noise?" Sam asked, stretching as much as he could in the space between the dash and the seat. "Did you pick up a hitchhiking chupacabra along the way?"
Dean glanced away from the road and threw his brother a less than humor-filled smirk. "Funny, smartass. Sorry that I interrupted your beauty sleep, but you know, it's kinda hard to keep quiet when you're starving to death."
Sam chuckled. "Starving? Dude, you ate enough at that truck stop to keep a freakin' gorilla happy for a week."
"The truck stop? Sam, that was nearly seven hours ago," Dean cried, pointing at his watch. "My stomach has strict rules about feeding."
"Strict rules? Oh, I see, that should be a short list. Rule number one, eat often, rule number two, eat anything that doesn't get away fast enough, and rule number three, repeat rules one and two," Sam teased as he ticked off his made-up inventory against his fingers.
"Seriously, Sammy, I gotta eat! I have this metabolism thing," Dean whined as sincerely as he could manage.
He watched as his brother shook his head, and even in the dim light of the Impala, Dean knew Sam was rolling his eyes.
"Where are we anyway?" Sam asked after a second.
"About ten miles from Brigette's Place."
"Who the hell is Brigette? Dude, we're supposed to be heading for a case, not taking time out for you to hook up," Sam complained.
"I'll have you know that Brigette's Place is an all-night diner up ahead in Garvin that boasts the biggest breakfast buffet in the state," Dean clarified.
Sam seemed unimpressed. "Wow, can you manage any more 'B' words in a sentence, Dean?" he snarked.
"Bite my backside, brother," Dean quickly returned.
Sam exaggerated his disdain with a loud snort that only made Dean laugh silently with satisfaction. He paused before continuing to speak, his jaw working back and forth as his mind chewed through what his next words should be.
"Seriously, Sam. We should successfully stop in Red Lake by sunset even with a slight skirting of the scheduled route for some sustenance," Dean offered.
"Dean!" Sam's voice warned. "S's now? Do you think I'm impressed? That sentence barely makes sense."
"Maybe it's because my brain cells are starving."
"Oh, they're starved alright," Sam replied.
Sam chuckled again and an all-too-familiar quiet settled in the car, each man once more staring out into the darkness and lost in his own thoughts.
It had been a tense few months since the death of their dad with neither of them being able to come to grips with his loss. Sam tried, Dean had to give him credit, but even the younger man's junkyard confession had not stopped the on-going attempt to "fix things" by taking on one job after another. The initial grief had passed, and now the guilt had set in.
From Dean's perspective, his brother was dealing with his own whopping case of regret; something the eldest remaining Winchester was all too acquainted with. But there the similarity ended. While Sam was trying hard to make up for years of battling with Dad, Dean was merely trying to make it through the day without thinking about what his father had done for him… or what he'd told him that final day.
The problem was, a constant reminder was seated right next to him, ate across the table from him and slept in the bed beside his, every single day. Dean could barely look at Sam and not hear his father's voice echoing in his head.
Watch out for Sammy…
or kill him…
Nah, not like Dean wasn't dealing with his dad's death. Some days, he wished the man were still alive just so he could punch him in the face for dumping such a load on him. But that wasn't Dean's way. He'd been given an order, entrusted with a secret, and charged with a duty. He wouldn't fail, wouldn't risk wasting his father's sacrifice. He wouldn't – couldn't- lose the last remaining person that meant anything in his life. He just… couldn't.
"Well, you got awfully serious all of a sudden. What? Did all that thinking fry what few working neurons you have up there?" Sam teased.
Dean blinked several times and smiled weakly, not offering any sort of reply to the jibe. He cleared his throat which had suddenly gone dry, and glanced quickly at Sam before turning back to the road.
"So, you got a plan for when we reach Red Lake?" he asked nonchalantly.
Sam started to speak and then paused, a half-formed word softly escaping his lips but not escaping his brother's keen ear.
"What?" Dean demanded, already on edge.
Sam had been hinting at another "conversation" for the past couple of weeks, starting to talk only to stop midsentence or change the topic. Dean had thought the whole deal was past now, that they both had said their peace, beginning in the back of Bobby's salvage yard and culminating in the parking lot of the Adobe Court Motel, punctuated by Dean's fist.
But his baby brother was a talker, a fixer, and no matter how much Dean avoided, growled or simply refused, he knew sooner or later he was gonna cave. Sam always had a way of worming past the defenses of Dean's vault-like emotional walls. It had begun when his brother was small, starting with tears and pleading and ending with soulful eyes and an irritating penchant for persistence.
"I was only going to say…" Sam began slowly.
"WHAT?" Dean interrupted again.
"Well it was something. You started to say something, so why don't you finish it, Sam?"
"Are you trying to pick another fight with me, Dean? I told you before, you can punch me all you want if it makes you feel any better, but it's not going to fix anything and in the end, it isn't going to help you either," Sam snapped back.
"Fuck off, Sammy. I'm not getting into this again. I apologized for what happened back in Montana, what more do you want from me?"
"To be honest with yourself. To quit burying all that pain so goddamn deep down inside of you. Quit being so friggin' stubborn and just talk to me."
"Aw puhleeese…" Dean groaned. "You do want to go through this all over again…"
"Again? I don't recall going through it the first time," Sam reminded him.
"First time? Gee, let's see, there was the day after I was discharged from the hospital and then the relentless weeks at Bobby's , and how about our pleasant little walk outside of Medford, and oh, lets don't forget all the accusations back at Red Lodge…"
"Yeah, and in all that time, Dean, have you ever said one honest thing about Dad's death? You run around trying to act tough, like you're some sort of hunter badass, and maybe that works on people that don't know you, but it isn't fooling me. When will you get that? Just like tonight, we could have stopped somewhere. There was no rush to get to Red Lake, nothing that couldn't wait until tomorrow. But, no, not you, the invincible, Save-The-World Dean Winchester! You have to drive all night just to prove something!" Sam shouted.
"Prove something? This hunt was your idea, Sam. Remember… 'it's what Dad would want us to do?' Any of that ringing a bell, little brother?" Dean threw back angrily.
"That is not what I said."
"Oh? You could have fooled me. I distinctly recall wanting to head south where it was a bit warmer, not exactly take a road trip through the backwoods of Minnesota in late fall."
"We agreed that this needed checking into, Dean. Five men, all gone missing over the last two years only to turn up dead and with their livers torn out of them."
"Black market organ ring. You hear about that all the time," Dean grumbled back.
"In northern Minnesota? Yeah, right. Besides, that whole 'wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a kidney missing' is nothing but urban legend," Sam insisted.
"It happens, Sammy," Dean insisted.
"Yeah, maybe. But according to the reports, their organs weren't surgically removed, it was more like they were ripped out. I mean, no way was someone harvesting these folks and leaving a mess like that," Sam answered with a shrug as he grabbed the wad of papers he'd been scanning earlier in the evening
"Then what do you think is happening there?" Dean queried, semi-relieved that the conversation was turning away from any further talk about Dad.
"I dunno for sure. Could be some sort of spirit or…" the younger hunter paused.
"Maybe our friends, the Benders, had some cousins out around these parts," Sam suggested.
Dean groaned and shook his head, chasing away the fast onslaught of memories. He wasn't sure if his brother was being serious or not, but he sure hoped like hell that Sam was joking. The idea that there could be more of the demented family still out there on the loose made his flesh crawl and he shivered.
"Maybe Lee and Jared got away? Or maybe you're worried about their little sister coming after your ass," Sam teased.
Dean flashed an angry glare and followed it up with a raised middle finger. "So, assuming it's not some med school dropout looking to make money on the side or a bad remake of Deliverance, then what?"
"I dunno really. I've cross-referenced everything I could but so far, nothing's turning up." Sam sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
Dean watched the movement absently. Sam had changed so much since Dean had dragged him from the quiet halls of Stanford academia. Granted, he was back in the game, but little things like his hair and his clothes all signaled a shift from promising lawyer to supernatural hunter. When once Sam's laptop likely held research for class, the browser now brought up nothing but websites pertaining to lore, legend and the occult. Hands that had grown accustomed to holding books and pens where now once again developing thick calluses from digging graves and handling weapons.
And then there were the visions. Dean wasn't sure what to make of them. He'd hoped that the first one was going to be the last, and that it had been some sort of strange premonition linked only because of the ties to their former home. But the visions hadn't stopped. If anything, they'd gotten worse and more frequent, and those were just the ones Dean knew about. He was suspicious that Sam had been keeping them on the down-low ever since what had happened with Max Miller.
Yeah, his brother had changed. But then, Dean admitted silently, so had he...
Save him… or kill him…
The words screamed in his head nearly every waking minute, condemning him, suffocating him, stealing away precious beats of his heart. He couldn't escape it, not with any amount of sleep or alcohol, not with abusing his body until he collapsed with exhaustion, and not even taking out all his pent-up anger on every supernatural SOB he could get his hands on.
The elder Winchester's head snapped up, suddenly aware that he had drifted off in thought.
"Yeah?" he mumbled, swallowing hard and forcing the pesky voices to the back of his mind.
"I was saying, there's Brigitte's Place," Sam announced, pointing off to the side of the highway. "You were starving, remember?"
Dean nodded silently and offered his brother a weak smile, knowing Sam was still watching him warily. He slowed the Impala, his eyes spotting the non-descript turn-off to the diner. The place was well lit; a couple of cars and a large delivery truck waited quietly in the parking lot.
He scanned the surroundings, always cautious, always on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, always in protector mode. Especially now… although who and from what he was doing the protecting was becoming less and less clear.
He pulled the Impala into a parking space within easy reach of the diner's entrance, and with an unobstructed path back to the main road. Just in case… Killing the engine, he turned, surprised to find that Sam had sprung quickly from the car and was already heading toward the restaurant. Dean sucked in a sharp breath as he watched his brother walk away, felt it catch slightly in his chest like it always did when he looked at Sam these days.
He paused, taking in the burgeoning red sky that signaled the approaching daybreak; another day, another opportunity to make something of it. But deep down, Dean knew there was no optimism left inside him. Without the Colt, they stood little chance against the Yellow Eyed Demon and without Dad, the chance of ever getting his family back together was gone. All that was left was Sam.
Save him… or kill him.
Now wasn't that just a damn fine cross to bear?
Dean dropped into the seat, scooting across the sticky vinyl until his back rested against the corner where the booth met the wall. He hated having his back to the door, preferring to choose a place where he could watch every entrance and assess any potential threat to Sam.
Sammy… just looking at his brother stole away any appetite he had. Not even the inviting aroma from the nearby buffet seemed able to combat the sudden ache deep in the pit of his stomach or the echoes of his father's voice in his head.
Dean looked up at the middle-aged waitress standing at the end of the table, a steaming pot held in her hand. He nodded, pushing the cup towards her, and watched as she filled first his and then Sam's.
"Will you be wanting the buffet or do you want to take a look at the menu. The buffet is all you can eat for $5.99 and includes your beverage," she announced.
Sam laughed. "My brother can eat an awful lot ma'am. You might want to warn the cook."
She smiled in return and then turned back to Dean, looking him up and down as though she were sizing the "threat." She ended up shrugging nonchalantly before tapping on her order pad impatiently, waiting for the brothers' responses.
"Are there pancakes on the buffet," Sam asked.
"Yep, regular and blueberry."
"Then that's what I'll have."
The waitress nodded again and turned back once more to Dean, raising her eyebrows as she waited for his order.
"Yeah, me too," he answered without excitement.
She pointed out the long buffet bar, telling them to help themselves before she walked back behind the counter. Sam eagerly jumped up and headed toward the food, piling far more on his plate than Dean did. They returned to the booth and Dean watched with amazement as his brother poured syrup all over the hotcakes and began to devour them.
Dean observed his brother for a moment longer, toying dispassionately with his own food before dropping his fork and turning his attention back to the cup of coffee between his hands. He closed his eyes, relishing the warmth that soaked into his flesh. He always seemed to feel cold lately, and dimly he wondered if it had more to do with his near brush yet again with the reaper, than with the outside temperature.
"What's up with you?" Sam asked between bites, peeking up from underneath his shaggy mop of hair.
"What do you mean?" Dean answered defensively.
"You spent the last hour whining about how you're starving to death and now you act like someone put tofu on your plate. What's wrong?" Sam demanded. "And don't bother telling me its nothing."
"I am not doing this, Sam," Dean warned. "Now do you want to talk about this hunt or would you rather keep dredging up a bunch of emo shit that won't solve anything?"
He forced a determined glare on his face while he waited for Sam's response, stubbornly unblinking as his brother first returned the fierce stare and then finally conceded with a frustrated huff of air.
"Saammmm…" Dean continued, not sparing the pleading whine in his voice. "The case? Please? Come on dude… how 'bout we put all this energy into beating the crap out of some evil asshat instead of each other for change?"
The taller man huffed again, unable to bar the grin from appearing on his face as he pulled a sheaf of papers from the backpack on the seat beside him. Pushing aside the dishes, Sam sorted out the notes as he thumbed through them.
"Well, as I said before, over the past two years there have been five men, all found dead up around the Red Lake area, and all with their livers torn out."
"Any connection between the victims?" Dean asked, stabbing at a piece of sausage.
"Um… not that's immediately apparent. One worked for the DNR and another was a construction worker out of Rochester. Got this one who worked as a deckhand on some freighter that ran Lake Superior and dude, number four was a county cop by the name of Gene McNally," Sam informed him, shuffling through several obit reports.
Dean shoveled a forkful of eggs into his mouth, deciding that if Sam could focus on the hunt, then the least he could do was pretend that everything else was normal. "A cop, huh?" he mumbled. "What about the last one?"
"Three weeks ago, Charles Patterson was released from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud."
"What was he in for?" Dean asked, pushing his plate away, satisfied that he'd made a decent effort.
"Six to ten for assault. It says he put two men in ICU following a brawl outside a bar in Albertville. Patterson was stabbed twice and still managed to break one of the men's arm in two places and beat the other so bad the guy needed reconstructive surgery on his face," Sam read aloud.
"So he was one badass S.O.B. Apparently, he wasn't tough enough to keep something from carving out his liver and having it with some fava beans and a nice chianti," Dean commented before making a sucking noise through his teeth to mimic Anthony Hopkins.
"Nice, Dean," Sam groaned. "It says that Patterson's body was found a week ago on the side of County Road Fifty-two."
"How 'bout the rest of them? Where were they discovered?"
"All over the county. Hunters found the deckhand out in the woods beyond some town called Plummer. Cops found their buddy up near Thief River, which is nearly seventy-five miles from where he lived and worked. And the DNR guy turned up half decomposed on the shore of the lake," Sam recounted. "There's just nothing that seems to connect these men. They were all from different towns, all from different walks of life, and there's no reason to think they ever knew each other."
"So, random kills? Not like the Benders ever went grocery shopping at the same store. It would've raised too much suspicion."
"You still think this is some whacked-out human?"
Dean shrugged and took another sip of his coffee. "I dunno, you have any better suggestion? I mean, we're not talking any of our usual suspects."
"Well, the bodies were all found within twenty miles of Red Lake. So whatever it is, I'm guessing it centers there," Sam suggested. "But I agree, this isn't any sort of shapeshifter and it's certainly not a wendigo."
"Nope," the elder hunter agreed. "A wendigo would have finished off the entire meal, wouldn't have just taken the liver. I can't think of a single thing that's so selective with its kill."
"Which puts us back to square one. I dunno, Dean, maybe you're right and this is nothing more than some werid-ass serial killer taking trophies."
Dean scratched at the nape of his neck and chuckled loudly.
"What?" Sam asked, his brows pinched with confusion at his brother's sudden change of mood. "What the hell is so funny?"
"A serial killer in nowhere Minnesota? There was a time when I would have said that no way with our luck is it ever just a serial killer in Minnesota. And why can't we catch a gig somewhere like Hollywood? How come mangled corpses never turn up there?" he mused.
"They do," Sam offered with his own chuckle. "Dude, have you seen a picture of Joan Rivers lately?
Dean wrinkled his nose with distaste and feigned a shudder before they both broke into twin rounds of laughter. For a moment, it was the same easy-going humor that they'd enjoyed before…
Before what? Dean thought. Before Sam left for Stanford? Before the crash? Before their dad's death? Before John's haunting last command?
The laughter died as abruptly as it began, forcing Dean to stand in order to avoid the awkward silence. Digging several bills out of his wallet, he tossed them on the table before draining the last dregs of coffee from the cup. The dark beverage wasn't hot and strong anymore, but then, Dean admitted, neither was he.
Biyen Aysebun rose stiffly from the ground, careful not to disturb the carefully placed mound of rocks he'd created. The early morning sun was just about to eclipse the thick blanket of rising mist from the lake, the amber rays peeking between the rows of Red Pines and Tamarack Larches.
The old man stretched, his weathered hands rubbing at the kinks that his overnight vigil caused to settle into aged joints and muscles. He knew there'd come a day when his body would betray his ability to carry out his duty, but for now, Biyen couldn't worry about that. Someday, this responsibility would fall to another. Someday, it would have to.
For the good of the people, he reminded himself. What he did was for the good of the people. His family, friends and all of those who were subjected to the curse of their ancestors; he did it for them.
Wiping the thin sheen of perspiration from his brow and ignoring the pounding of his heart in his chest, Biyen moved to collect the ceremonial dagger from his satchel. The sun was creeping higher and he knew that he needed to complete the ritual before it crested the eastern shore.
Removing the long hunting blade from the bag, the old man gently unwrapped the ornately decorated deerskin that covered the knife. Reverently, he withdrew the weapon and walked slowly back toward the mound of stones.
Kneeling down, Biyen closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, forcing his mind to clear of any other thought and pushing aside the heaviness in his chest that throbbed with each beat of his heart. He had to finish this…
Sure, maybe the others were content to abandoned the "old ways", content to eke out some meager living while working at the casino, unmindful of the loss of their culture, the continued watering-down of their history or their traditions.
No, he had to finish this. If his people were going to survive into the next millennia, then someone had to carry on with the ceremonies such as this one.
Drawing the knife across his inner forearm, Biyen laid open his flesh as he had many times before. Both of his extremities were lined with silvering scars, each representing some other time that he'd performed the ritual. There wasn't even pain anymore, just the slight rush of adrenaline as the warm serum poured down his arm and dripped from his fingertips.
The blood quickly covered the smooth stones, coating them with a red paint that rapidly dried and turned brown. Even before he began the chant, a far-off shriek pierced the early morning quiet, stirring birds from their treetops and silencing the insect denizen of their soft twitters and chirps.
Biyen continued unfazed. He had to finish. If the ritual was left half-done, there was no commanding the beast. Uncontrolled, it would attack without provocation, without heed to who it took so long as they were worthy. Unfettered by the rite, it would prey on his people as it had so long ago.
No, he had to complete his task. Even as the pain in his chest increased, the vice-like grip causing his own hands to go numb, he managed to hold on to the blade as he finished the strange mantra. He collapsed as the last syllable rolled off his lips, dropping backwards to the cool earth exhausted but relieved, his breathing slowing as the crushing pain in his chest lessened.
Another shrill cry rose above the forest and the old man groaned, pushing himself up to an elbow. He wasn't really done yet. Sure, the ritual was complete, but he still had to find a suitable sacrifice to ensure that his people would be safe for another season.
Struggling up from the ground, Biyen cleaned away the evidence of his work, but left the bloody pile of stones untouched. Carefully, he cleaned and rewrapped the ceremonial knife and replaced it in his pack. Hoisting the bag up onto his shoulder, he began the long trek back to the reservation.
Catching a glimpse of the lake, he smiled. The sun was fully up now, brilliant hues of orange, yellow and red glinting beautifully off the fast changing foliage. Fall was in full bloom and winter's cold white chill wasn't far behind.
One more time… Biyen thought to himself as he continued through the forest, his breath visible in the still-chilly air.
He didn't hear the soft creaking of the branches above his head as the creature's weight settled on them. He didn't notice the gently falling leaves that were torn from the forest canopy by its arrival. And he didn't know that malevolent red eyes watched his every step, tracking him as he moved through the forest; watching… waiting…