The Archangel Raguel's order swept down the line, sending shivers of anticipation through the ranks. The battle was about to begin: the assembly before them larger than had been first reported, the demon horde amassed in uncountable numbers, an amorphous swirl of darkness that radiated foul intent.
They dare? The thought ripple-spread from angel to angel. They dare approach the very Gates of Heaven?
In tandem with his brothers and sisters, Castiel raised his sword, his unleashed Grace pulsating with righteous fury, the heavenly host shimmering now with reds and blues and greens, yellows and orange and violet, all overlaid with a sheen of brilliant white. The combined incandescence was such that it made even angels narrow their eyes to mere slits, as bolts of multihued lightning forked their way across the firmament.
Whether the accompanying roar was the echo of thunder, God's blessing upon His champions, or angelic voices uplifted in a war cry, was uncertain.
More than a few demons broke formation and fled. Those were the wise ones.
Satael gently nudged Castiel and directed his gaze towards the darkest core of their swarming enemy. There, he thought-gestured. I will smite those upon the right. You take the centre, Castiel. Dardiel will veer left. Our garrisons will follow in our wake. We will cut a swath through the demons and double back to surround them.
Both Castiel and Dardiel glowed even brighter than before, indicating their agreement.
On the count of three, Raguel commanded, and all eyes turned to the general where he stood, a towering blaze of glory, rallying them all. One...
Dean? Castiel's head tilted to one side as his attention shifted from Raguel's fiery sword to the unexpected utterance of his name.
The pain and desperation behind the cry were unmistakable. Castiel was turning towards the voice of his beloved before Raguel had time to utter the count of two.
Where do you think you're going? Dardiel hissed. Stand fast, brother.
Castiel! Satael bellowed. You have your orders! Stay –
But Castiel was already gone.
"Your pet angel isn't coming." Euryale laughed, good humour restored now that she had the human totally at her mercy. "Stheno and I saw to it that he and his winged friends would be kept very, very busy. We arranged for a little foray on Heaven to divert attention from our greater plan. Demons are such stupid creatures, falling all over themselves in a berserker fury, with no thought to spare for anything more than a few moments of mayhem. And you... You Winchesters are equally predictable. Each of you always so willing to sacrifice yourself for the other. It was only a matter of time before you summoned one of us and set the wheels in motion. I was hoping I'd be the one you chose." She licked Dean's ravaged cheek, humming to herself as she savoured the taste. "Sweet," she hissed. "The blood of heroes – even would-be heroes – is like a fine, aged wine."
"You fucking bitch!" Dean swore, ignoring the torment of the Gorgon's claws as he attempted to bash his head against her nose.
Euryale laughed even harder, lifting him effortlessly with one hand and dangling him in front of her, suspended by his shirt collar. Dean choked and sputtered, his toes barely scraping the floor, his ragged gasps turning to a pain-filled moan as a single talon ripped a jagged line from chin to mid-chest.
"Open your eyes, my darling," she said, lowering him just enough that he could get his feet under him and fill his straining lungs with air. "Turn to stone and save yourself the agony you will suffer if I have to skin you alive."
"Give it your best shot," Dean spat. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Ah, but you should be," Euryale cackled. "Better men than you have quaked with fear at the very mention of my name. Perseus fled with his tail between his legs rather than face my wrath. The stink of his terror lingered in the air for days."
"I'm not Perseus."
"No, you most certainly are not. You're much better looking, for one thing. And you haven't been foolish enough to commit the unforgivable sin of murdering one of my kin. So... perhaps there is hope for you yet. After all, your death is not the goal Stheno and I seek. You are nothing to us... but you have something we very much want. Something that will ensure our success in claiming Hell's vacant throne."
"Crowley," Dean growled.
"Crowley," Euryale agreed. "All that power... condensed. Ours to harness and use as we will. Unfortunately, your angel has made it impossible for us to break the wards that guard your house. But you can enter freely," she crooned, her seductive tone in marked contrast to the nightmare that was her face. "Promise to hand dear Crowley's remains over to me and I will let you live. Perhaps I will even heal your brother. There's no reason we can't be friends."
A sudden high-pitched whining noise filled Dean's head and he clasped his hands over his ears, unsurprised to feel a slick ooze of blood seeping from them.
"I can think of one reason," he said.
Every mirror in the barn exploded, sending shards of glass flying across the room, most of the glittering daggers specifically directed to embed themselves in the Gorgon's thick coils. Shrieking in agony, she dropped Dean like a limp rag doll and towered over his prone body, weaving back and forth like a hooded cobra, poised to strike, snakes writhing about her face in a tangled fury.
Castiel's true voice cracked louder than a thunderbolt as his disembodied hand plucked the roof from over their heads and tossed it to land in a field several miles away, as easily as a child might throw a Frisbee.
"Cas!" Dean shouted, feeling an overwhelming tsunami of relief-wrath-love pour over him through his reopened bond with the angel. "Cas, I – "
Stay put. Keep your eyes shut. Just this once, don't argue. Do as you are told.
Castiel snatched the Gorgon away from Dean and casually threw her against the wall. Euryale smashed through protesting lumber, screaming incoherently, her coils slithering into place beneath her even as she rolled, allowing her to spring up and lash out at the angel's true form with a force equal to his own.
Dean kept his eyes scrunched shut and his fingers plugged tight in his aching ears. It didn't help much. Blinding flashes of light and unearthly screeches continued to buffet him from every side. Flinching as each crash sounded, the hunter yearned to open his eyes and see for himself which way the battle was going. But, instead, he curled up in a ball and made himself as small a target as he could manage, wishing for the meagre shelter of his shield – lost somewhere in the rubble – as flying debris whooshed past him and the tumult grew.
"What the fuck?" Sam cried, a hot wave of coffee splashing over his hand as he made his way towards the kitchen table. The mug slipped from his fingers and crashed to the floor, a floor that seemed to be doing its very best to knock Sam's feet out from under him as it bucked and moaned, tilted and heaved.
Earthquake, was the first thought to cross his mind, followed swiftly by: No. Cas. As if in agreement with this latter theory, a blast of thunder rocked the house, making every hair on Sam's body stand on end.
If this is Dean getting laid, I don't think he's going to survive it, Sam thought wryly. Hell, I may not survive it.
A second, louder explosion sounded, followed by a piercing, nails-on-the-blackboard screech that sent Sam's hands rocketing up to cover his ears. The sharp tang of ozone filled the air, indicating that a sizeable bolt of lightning had preceded the blast. But not a drop of rain beat on the roof. No hail fell. Not a breeze stirred.
Something was wrong. Dead wrong. But what?
Dean said he was going into town, Sam thought, a frown crinkling his forehead, his fingers testing the sticky fluid leaking from his ears. He sniffed curiously. Blood. There was no mistaking that coppery odour. God knows, he'd smelled it often enough in his life.
I suppose he could have hooked up with Cas, and they wanted to be alone for their grand reunion. But he didn't know Cas was coming back when he left. Up till now, he's been hovering over me like a mama bear with an ailing cub. Sam's frown deepened as he mulled this over. Seems awfully damned suspicious that he'd pick tonight to leave me alone. And then to have this happen...
"I don't believe in coincidence," Sam said aloud. Retrieving his cane from where it was leaning against his abandoned chair, he walked over to the back door and stepped outside.
Four steps... five... a dozen more...
Sam's outstretched hand touched the sleek hood of the Impala. The metal was cold. Clearly Dean had not followed through on his plan to go hustle up a game of pool.
Why did he lie?
What is he hiding from me?
Where is he now?
A crash sounded off to his right; several louder crashes followed as the ground beneath his feet shuddered. Sam's head turned to the noise, unerringly pinpointing the source.
That came from the barn.
Sam began to tap his cautious way towards the unearthly sounds, following a path he had taken many times before with Dean at his side.
If Castiel could be likened to the Chrysler Building, the Gorgon was the CN Tower: her true form sleek and slender, a pillar of silver and diamond scales glittering in the blue glow the angel cast. Prisms of reflected light, like falling stars in reverse, sparked their way across the sky as she readied herself to attack.
Castiel lifted his sword in reply, at the same time turning slightly to expose his vulnerable left side: a blatant attempt to provoke Euryale into attacking in that direction, drawing her away from the barn... and Dean.
The ploy worked. Euryale launched herself at the angel in a flurry of claws and venom.
The Gorgon was fast... but the angel was faster. Marginally faster. The deadly blow meant to rip his torso open merely grazed him instead. Grace leaked from the wound as Castiel wheeled around and sliced his sword through the Gorgon's hair: a writhing mass fell to the ground, the remaining serpents a screeching chorus of pain and hatred.
Euryale's voice rose above them all, blind outrage compelling her to redouble her assault. Heedless of his sword, she flung herself at the angel, clawing at his face and wrapping his body in a death grip with her coils.
Castiel flexed his wings in an attempt to fling the vicious harpy off, driven by his need to shield the barn from further damage, but doomed to fail if he did not first protect himself. As his attention was diverted by his struggle, a beam was knocked down from the hayloft, narrowly missing Dean as it crashed to the floor.
Dimly, Castiel heard his lover calling his name, over and over, in a cheerleader chant that was equally a prayer.
Somehow, he managed to twist the sword in his weakening grasp and plunge it into a coil.
Euryale shrieked, but stubbornly maintained her hold on the angel, increasing the pressure of the constriction to intolerable levels.
Castiel groaned, but doggedly kept working his sword deeper and deeper into her flesh.
When Euryale finally gave in to the pain and flung Castiel away from her, both Gorgon and angel lay unmoving on the ground, seeking a few much needed moments of respite.
Inevitably, the lull in combat did not last.
Slowly, carefully, Euryale gathered her coils beneath her and slithered upright. Equally slowly, Castiel staggered to his feet.
And the battle continued.
Sam had just passed the midpoint between Bobby's house and the barn when an unearthly shriek sounded. The silence that followed was almost worse than the cry. Sam stood frozen in his tracks, ears straining to pick up the slightest noise.
He heard nothing. Nothing at all. Not a creature stirred, not a branch rustled.
"Eye of the storm," he muttered to himself, his own voice startlingly loud in the leaden air. His shoulders hunched, as if in readiness to ward off an invisible enemy, as he took a few hesitant steps forward, and then a few more.
The closer he came to the barn, the deeper his unease grew. Sam felt the hair on the nape of his neck lift and tingle. The scent of blood and burnt ozone filled the air, the acrid smell making the back of his throat itch.
Every instinct screamed at him to turn the other way. To go back to the house and call Bobby for back-up, begging him to return post haste. It was, after all, the sensible thing to do. And Sam was an eminently practical man, with a finely honed sense of self-preservation.
He would have done it too – would have sought shelter and waited for a man with eyes that could see to step up and take charge, but just then the silence was broken. A tiny murmur that slowly coalesced to his brother hoarsely chanting "Cas? Cas? Cas?" over and over again.
Sam's shoulders straightened and his grip on his cane tightened. Determinedly, he strode towards the barn.
And that is when the sky split apart with a flash of light that would have blinded him, had he not already been blind, followed by a sonic boom that sent him sprawling to the ground.
The first explosion was followed by a violent series of others, each one brighter and louder than its predecessor: the furor of a thousand Fourth of Julys all wrapped into one. Dean squeezed his eyes shut even more tightly, and clasped his hands over them for good measure. It didn't help much. Light crept in under his closed lids, a dazzle of brilliant white which caused a stream of tears to flow down his face in protest, and he flinched as each bang sounded.
What seemed to last forever, in reality lasted no more than five or so minutes.
"Cas? " Dean called into the silence which followed a final, punishing salvo that threatened to bring the remaining timbers of the barn tumbling down about him. "Cas!" he repeated more loudly, as the silence stretched and deepened.
There was no reply.
All of a sudden, the angel's earlier words of warning began to run though the hunter's head: Dean, I am not omnipotent. Nor am I indestructible. A single Gorgon is a close match for me in battle. If the sisters happen to join forces, they will scatter my atoms to the solar winds. But if that's all I am to you, a tool, then I will do it. I'll throw my life away for you. It wouldn't be the first time.
No. It wouldn't be the first time. It wouldn't even be the second. But Dean had vowed the last time Castiel had sacrificed himself for him, it really would be the last.
What if it wasn't?
What if the sisters had joined forces?
Oh, God! What if – What if –
Dean opened his eyes and blinked until the destroyed barn came into focus. Slowly, then, he clambered to his feet.
"Cas?" he whispered, before tilting his head back to the open sky and screaming out at the top of his lungs: "Caaaaaaaaaaaas!"
This time, the tear that sluiced its way through the grime that coated Dean's face did not have an external cause. Fear and sorrow tore it from his very heart.