Disclaimer: I don't own Supernatural or any related characters. Those belong to Kripke and the CW.
Author's Notes: This is set within Supernatural season 6, somewhere just past The French Mistake. The places mentioned within this story are real, but I've taken some real fictional liberties with them. And the art included was done by the lovely, eyestoowide, as apart of the spn-gen-bigbang. Be sure to check the art out at the link! Also, I'd like to thank my dear friend Kimmi, who not only prompted me this fic for wishlist-fic (of which it is horribly late, sorry), but also beta-ed for me. Thanks so much, dear!This was also written for the 50 States of SPN.
The Impala pulled to stop in a rather snug parking spot within the Visitor Parking Lot. Dean shook his head, staring out the front windshield at the scenic college campus that stretched and curved out in front of him. He leaned down a little, trying to fight the glare of the early afternoon sun. Sam was already out of the car, and Dean only shook his head as he followed after.
"Little girl ghosts… never something I've gotten over," Dean muttered as they made their way toward the fountain that sat in the center of the campus.
Sam didn't reply, his gaze focused instead on the entrance of the several stories tall building on the other side of the white—well, white when freshly cleaned—marble fountain. The spray off the running water hit them before they were even close enough to touch it, and they stopped, moving just out of its reach. Dean shielded his eyes, taking in his surroundings. They were encircled all around by buildings—artfully old—flowers, and a cage. Dean took it all in in one sweep of the area. However, he found himself redirecting his stare back at the cage—out of curiosity. After a moment or two of watching the black bars, he saw not one, but two lions—a male and a female. He pursed his lips.
"You're thinking about it, aren't you?" Sam asked, turning to his brother.
Dean arched a brow. "Thinking about what? The hunt?"
Sam grinned. "No. You're wondering what would happen if the lions ever got loose."
Sighing, the eldest Winchester nodded in defeat.
"Fine, genius. It had crossed my mind. It's not like there's anywhere closer than thirty feet if they happened to be right in front of the cage."
Sam shrugged. "I'm sure they have all sort safety measures in place, Dean."
"Whatever you say. But all I'm seeing is bars. Widely spread bars at that." Dean sighed, turning toward his brother with a small flail of his hands. Groaning, he added, "Really, Molly is causing all these recent deaths, you think?"
Sam gazed at his brother in confusion, taking in the sheer amount of unwillingness that seemed to be emanating from him. The youngest Winchester made his way over to a black, metal bench nearby, taking a seat on it, while Dean moved closer and chose to remain standing.
"What's the deal? We've ganked little girl ghosts before," Sam said.
Dean shrugged. "I've read up on Molly. She's never been violent before. The worst it's been recorded that she's done is slam a door. She didn't act up while we were up against the Apocalypse, so why now? What's the trigger?"
Sam leaned back. "Wish I knew. Kind of thought that was why we were here."
Dean nodded. "Fine. But first, we've got to find this damned Off-Campus bookstore. Granted, I would think it would be, you know, off campus, but you took off in this direction."
Sam threw his hands up in the air. "Well, you didn't have to follow!"
Dean crossed his arms, turning his eyes back toward the buildings. Suddenly, as if some silent alarm had been rung, the paved sidewalk that made up the majority of the campus was filled with students pouring out in droves of each building. Dean moved to stand a bit closer to the bench, watching as a crowd of students made their way over. A young girl, a freshman most likely, brushed right by him, and he stopped her with a light tap on her shoulder. She whirled, her eyes a little bit annoyed at the obvious interruption to her destination.
"Hey, uh, we're here, um—" Dean began, but Sam picked up.
"Touring the campus, and we got lost. We were told to meet up at the Off-Campus Bookstore. Do you know where that is?"
The girl rolled her eyes, jerking her thumb back in the direction the Winchesters had come from moments earlier.
"Try actually being off campus. It's the stone cottage across the road from the teacher's parking lot," she said, whirling and walking off in a huff.
"Someone just got an F," Dean muttered before turning to grin at Sam, adding, "I told you so."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Let's just get over there and see what we can figure out before they close."
He pulled himself up from the bench—which was clearly not made for a man of his height—and the two took off in for the bookstore. They stuck to the right-hand sidewalks as they began to spilt to make room for the circular entrance and two parking lots. They took the small rise in the land easily, spotting the cottage in question as soon as they had topped the hill. They cut across the parking lot closest—the teacher's lot—and across the semi-busy road until they stood underneath the cottage's attached awning.
"It had a sign," Dean said, pointing upward, "that clearly reads 'Off-Campus Bookstore.'"
"Yeah, Dean, yeah. You were right."
Dean's hand rested on the store's door handle—which was clearly still the original door from when the cottage had actually served as a home—and grinned.
"And we drove right by it."
Sam rolled his eyes and pointed at the door. Dean chuckled as he entered the shop. A bell tinkled over head as they allowed the door to close behind them.
It was a quaint little shop, and it seemed as if the category of "bookstore" hardly fit it. The floors were carpeted in soft, shaggy gray, and shelves—flimsy, glass shelves with no backs—had been erected all about the main room. Whatever doorway that had once stood to divide a living room off from the next room over was gone, only a ramp rising up in its place. Off to the left was a long counter, a small room filled with much sturdier shelves behind it. The woman who stood behind the register there grinned, her short, bottle-dyed blonde hair bobbing as she rounded the counter.
"Hi. What can I do for you today?" she asked.
Dean and Sam exchanged a look before Sam finally smiled, answering.
"Actually, we're looking for a bit of information. Um, on local legends?"
She grinned, waving a hand dismissively. "You want to know about Molly, don't you?"
Dean cocked his head. "Yeah. How did you know?"
She laughed. "Oh, we get it all the time here. Molly's quite famous, you know."
The brothers exchanged another glance before they turned back to the woman. Dean shrugged, mimicking his brother's smile.
"Okay, you caught us. So, what's the story on Molly? She, um, used to live here, right?"
The woman nodded. She started toward the back of the store, and Sam and Dean kept close behind as the three of them topped the carpeted ramp. She rounded a corner, pointing at a small, rather un-extraordinary door.
"This leads upstairs, where Molly's room used to be. Her parents and she used to live here back in like, the '30s or something. She's mostly been spotted in her bedroom, looking out the window. Although, there was this homecoming parade in the early '90s that went right by the shop. Everyone on the boat, every student, described a blonde haired little girl, only about six or seven or so, waving at them from the sidewalk. They all waved back. Obviously, this was a bookstore by then and nobody matching that description was anywhere near here at the time."
"Um," Sam began, walking over to the door and gently pushing it open.
He gazed up the staircase that was before him. Again, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Plain wooden steps, painted in white, led up to another white-painted door much like the one the taller Winchester had just opened. When he pulled his attention back to the first floor, he smiled at the woman who was still patiently standing with them.
"How did she die?" he completed.
The woman's round face fell a bit as she shook her head. "Her parents had gotten her a puppy for her birthday, and it developed rabies. She was playing with it one day, and it bit her. She only lasted a week or so after that. Poor baby."
Dean arched a brow. "You speak rather fondly of her. Hasn't she caused any trouble?"
The bookstore employee shook her head. "No! I mean, well, she slams a door now and then. But she's eternally a kid, you know? She gets a bit cranky when people are in her room. Some of the football players used to use the room for card games, but the slamming doors freaked them out. Now we use it mostly for storage."
Sam crossed his arms. "So, nothing else? No one hurt? Molly doesn't, like, throw things at patrons?"
The young woman shook her head, her lips pursed in thought. "Not really. She's really quite nice. Well, except for the door slamming."
Dean moved around the employee to join Sam at the door. He pointed upward, flashing the girl another grin.
"Would it be okay if we could go check out the room?"
She blinked, and a faint blush colored her face. "Well… I'm not sure it's really allowed…"
"We won't touch anything, we promise," Sam said, putting on his gentle, trust-me-like-you-would-a-saint voice.
"You can even chill here at the door to keep an eye on us," Dean offered.
She glanced over her shoulder, as if checking to see if another employee or boss was watching. Finally, she nodded.
"Make it quick, please."
"Not a problem," Sam said as he mounted the stairs, Dean close at his heels.
The two brothers topped the creaky stairs in moments, pushing open the identical door at the top. Before long, they found themselves in the center of a room filled with rolled up, musty laminated posters, boxes, and other such bookstore paraphernalia. Dean reached into his jacket, withdrawing the EMF reader. The moment he cut it on, it spiked. Only once, but it was enough to make Dean venture a bit farther into the room. It spiked again, but instantly went back down to null. He did another quick sweep of the room before finally putting the tiny machine away.
"If there's a ghost here, it is so far below the threat level, it's ridiculous," Dean said.
Sam nodded. "Local legends tend to turn out as much. But you know what this means."
Dean nodded. "Square one."
The motel was one of the better ones that the Winchester brothers had had to share over the years. It was a handful of miles from the campus, just on the outskirts of where one could mark the beginning of the historical downtown district of Florence, Alabama. It was still by no means a palace, but the coffee maker worked, the television's cable reception was clear, and the free Wi-Fi was actually fast. Sam chose the double-sized bed farthest from the door, leaving Dean, happily, with the clear path to the electronically locked entrance. In fact, if Dean thought hard enough, he was pretty sure this was the first motel they had stayed at that had cards for keys.
"I'm not sure if I like the cards more or less," Dean commented lightly as he dropped his duffle bag on his bed.
He didn't bother to empty it, instead just digging for the fresh shirt and pants he required.
"Dips on shower," he said, grinning over at Sam.
Sam, meanwhile, had already dropped his bag, and moved to the round table that set before the room's only window—to the right of the door—to set up his laptop. He popped open the silver lid, and it didn't seem to take long before Dean could see the various internet windows opened.
"We're missing something," Sam murmured.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Dean said, starting toward the bathroom door, which was directly opposite the front door.
Sometimes, Dean wondered how much thought actually went into the designs of these rooms. After all, what if he had had to run out of the bathroom, forgetting something like his shaving cream or toothbrush? Because, hey, it happens. And what if Sammy happened to open the door wide to come in just at that exact time? Well, then the entire parking lot, and the highway beyond it, would get a big ol' eyeful of Dean in the buff. Total full-frontal. Who didn't think about this when building a room? Seriously? But, what was done could not be undone, so he sighed, reaching into the bathroom to flick on the light.
"We came here assuming it was Molly because of the deaths taking place on campus, and all of those people being somehow related to the campus," Sam continued, either totally oblivious to Dean's snide comment or ignoring it completely.
Dean turned, leaning in the threshold of the bathroom.
"Yeah. What were the deaths again?"
"Um, Winter Malcolm, 21. Found dead in the center of the campus. Cause has yet to be determined, but it said that it looked like she drowned," Sam said, reading off of his screen. "Authorities think she was drinking and drowned in the fountain."
"And then what? She got up and walked out of the fountain after she died?" Dean huffed. "Jeez, the things people will make themselves believe."
"One of the Professors, Dr. Jeffery Rosen, was found dead shortly after that. He was found fairly far away from where the Malcolm girl was," Sam continued. "He was found on the steps of Norton Auditorium, and it looked like he was strangled. Only, there were rope burns on his neck, and his neck was broken."
Dean crossed his arms, his much wanted shower—it had been a long drive from their last hunt to north Alabama—moving further and further from his thoughts.
"Like he hung himself?" Dean asked.
He pushed himself off of the threshold, dropping his clothes back onto his bed, as he pulled up the table's second chair.
"Yeah. And there's about three more deaths here, all different, all found on campus, all somehow related to the campus, either student or employee," Sam said, leaning back with a sigh.
He rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes, keeping them covered as Dean turned the laptop toward himself.
"Which death was the earliest?" the elder Winchester asked, although he was already on his way to answering that very question.
Sam seemed to know that as well, as he only sighed, waiting for Dean to find the article. Which he did. He skimmed the entry on the local newspaper's site.
"Maria Watterson, 20, found in between the Guillot University Center and Keller Hall. Looks like she was burned to death, but no evidence of a fire anywhere else around her. But she was the earliest death," Dean said, leaning back.
"You know what I don't get?" Sam asked, uncovering his eyes and leaning forward on the table. "All the deaths are different. One looks like drowning, the other looks like a hanging, another looks like a burning. Ghosts don't do that. They don't switch up their M.O.s at will. And there's several, several ghost stories about this campus, Dean."
At that, Sam took the computer back, opening a new tab on the browser's window and typing a new address in. After a moment, and some scrolling, he whirled the screen back toward his brother.
"See?" he said, pointing at the screen. "Wesleyan Hall is supposedly haunted by a civil war ghost. Norton Auditorium is supposedly haunted by a construction worker that fell to his death from some scaffolding. And students are still reporting spirit activity all over campus, including the dorms and other classrooms."
Dean leaned in toward the screen. "It says wet footsteps can be seen at night in Wesleyan."
"Yeah, but the drowned girl was found nowhere near there."
"And there's nothing specific about burning or hanged ghosts. Just guesses," Dean muttered.
"It doesn't add up. And then there's Molly, who hasn't done anything more violent than slamming a door."
Dean leaned back, running a hand through his hair. "Yeah, this sure does look like square one."
"It definitely looks like a job for us, but… I just don't know which ghost to pin it on," Sam said.
They sat in silence for a moment, just staring at the glow of the computer screen. Finally, Dean stood, stretched, and retrieved his clothes once more.
"Shower," he said by means of an explanation.
"Fine," Sam sighed, grabbing up his laptop once more. "I'll see what I can find, starting with the earliest deaths. See if any red flags pop up."
"You do that," Dean said, shutting the door behind him.
He was out of his clothes and in the hottest water that he could stand in record time. He leaned his forehead on the title underneath the shower head, sighing as the water steamed up off his shoulders. He reached beyond the opaque white shower curtain for one of the motel's provided washcloths, and he ripped open one of the little complementary soaps. He folded the soap up inside the now soaked rag, running it over his body and just enjoying the relaxation of the moment.
The Mother of All might be out there, walking about, causing trouble. And they might be on a hunt that didn't make a damn lick of sense, but shower time? That was Dean's time. By God, he was just going to relax, just let his mind go blank. Just be at peace—something he hadn't been at for a long time.
"Dean! Get out here! I think I've found something!" Sam called through the door.
Dean groaned. He might not have grown up normally, in a stable home environment, but he still had to deal with all the annoyances that living with family anywhere entailed. For example, not getting a full damn minute to himself!
"Coming," he said, hoping that it didn't come out like he thought it had—in a growl.
Not that Sammy would care. He was used to it, and often had the same reaction when the shoe was on the other foot. So Dean finished washing all of the soap and shampoo off, turning off the shower, toweled off, and redressed all as quickly as he could manage—slower than he had gotten into the shower, in truth. He pulled open the bathroom door to find Sam back at his laptop. His younger brother's eyes whirled onto him, turning the laptop in the same direction.
"I found a connection," he said.
Dean took up the second chair once again, and he noted that he wasn't in the shower long enough for any of his skin to prune. He sighed, using the thin, mauve-colored carpet to dry the bottoms of his feet.
"Okay, so, enlighten me why I had to cut my shower short," Dean huffed.
Sam shook his head. "Well, since you take girlishly long showers, I thought you wouldn't mind it if I interrupted it with some actual work. Besides, you're long overdue to get your Man Card back."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Whatever. I never lost my Man Card."
Sam huffed. "Dr. Sexy."
Dean pursed his lips. "What've you got?"
"An art exhibit," Sam said, pointing at the screen.
Dean leaned in, noting that Sam was on the university's website. It was the art department's section, advertising the senior-level undergraduate's showing of their art throughout the year. The student currently selected to show her pieces for the semester was a young woman by the name of Emily Rogers. The rest of the page was simply some of the professors praising her works, calling them things like "refreshing," "original," and "emotional," and some passing descriptions and pictures of a handful worth of her works. The art exhibit, according to the site, began two weeks ago.
"Two weeks ago," Dean said, leaning up to look at Sam.
Sam nodded. "Right about the same time that the first murder took place. And Maria, Winter, and the other three deaths were art students. And Dr. Rosen used to teach sculpture."
"All art related."
"Right. Maybe there's something about that gallery, or something in it, that's the cause for all of this."
Dean smiled, clapping his brother on the shoulder as he stood. "Well, Sammy, you always used to whine how I never took you to any museums. Guess you won't get that privilege anymore."
Sam shook his head. "Nice try. This so doesn't count."
There was something… peaceful about the campus at night. At least, apart from the live lions sleeping behind nothing but too-wide bars and a single pane of glass. But the fountain was still on, and fully lit. And even Dean had to admit that it looked kind of… well, he would never say "pretty." Cool. Cool was a good word.
"This way," Sam said, pointing toward a building that sat on a hill that rose above the little, fake cobblestone street that led throughout the main portion of the campus. "This is where Maria died. If we cut through here, we should be on a fairly straight shot for the art building."
"Where the gallery is at?"
"Uh, yeah, Dean."
Dean gave his brother a light punch in the arm for his sarcasm. Then, shaking his head, he added, "Wait. How do you even know this anyway? Earlier today, we couldn't have found crap on this campus. Suddenly you're an expert?"
"I looked up something called a map. Not really a revolutionary concept," Sam retorted.
"Jeez, whatever. What's got your panties in a wad?"
Sam shot his brother a glare but didn't reply. Apparently, someone had woken up on the wrong side of the bed. The two of them were now hiking up the small hill, weaving through the world's cruelest access ramp—the thing turned corners about five times, sharply, only to end in a wide set of three stairs—and finally emerging into another parking lot behind the Guillot Center.
"Students get their exercise with all these hills," Sam muttered, sounding a tad out of breath.
Dean didn't reply, reluctant to admit that the hills had winded him a little as well. The two of them cut a corner of the parking lot, hitting a sidewalk and crossing a thin, obviously one-way only street before Sam pronounced they were officially within the realm of the art building.
To Dean, it looked like just another building. Three stories tall, and looking like the side of a hotel were all the rooms opened to the outside, it really wasn't all that impressive. Across from it, and one story shorter, was another building—a little more enclosed—that attached via walkway to yet another two story structure, one that was completely round and had a set of double glass doors. Sam pointed at the round building.
"I think that's the gallery," he said.
Dean nodded as both brothers approached the doors—which stood under a tiny hanging of brick. They both hugged tightly in, in case of cameras, and Dean laid a hand on the door. One tug, and it flew wide open. He arched a brow at Sam.
"It's unlocked," he said, disbelief coloring his words.
Sam shrugged. "Let's not question it."
Dean agreed, and the two made their way inside the dimly lit building. The room was full of art, but sort of empty at the same time. Several pieces of black and white photography hung on the wall, as well as some sculpted pieces that showed off various shapes—apples, Dean thought he saw in one. The both of them walked a bit farther into the room, Dean reaching into his jacket for the EMF again. Almost the second he turned it on, it spiked high, and stayed that way.
"Sam, check this out," he said, barely looking up from the EMF.
"Uh, Dean, check this out," Sam said.
Dean glanced up to see that his brother had crossed the gallery's floor and was now standing in a little space that the spiral staircase left open, and it was obviously modified to hold the main attraction. Occupying the small pedestal now was a tree. But not one that would be found naturally.
It was constructed entirely out of welded wrought iron, making the trunk and the branches of the tree—and there were three sets of five branches. And at the end of each branch, and on the very top of the tree, were bottles. Clear, blue bottles. The trunk of the tree was not entirely unornamented. Objects of all sorts—rings, hairclips, money clips, and several other small, otherwise useful things—were attached right about where each branch met the trunk.
"It's a bottle tree," Sam said.
"I can see that, Sammy," Dean groaned.
"No, Dean. Bottle trees have long since been associated with hoodoo. It comes from long ago from the idea that spirits could be trapped in bottles and destroyed in the morning light. But that got mixed in with other beliefs, like that the color blue could prevent spirits from entering or leaving a place."
Dean nodded. "Yeah. I remember Dad telling us about that. Um… haint blue, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. Dean, all these bottles are blue. Not one of them is a different color," Sam said.
The boys exchanged a glance, and almost as one, they took another step near the tree. Dean held the EMF out toward the structure, and it was almost off the scale. He looked to his younger brother before glancing back at the reader.
"Well, that isn't good. Either that's one powerfully pissed off spirit in this tree, or—"
"Or there's more than one," Sam murmured. "Dean. Look at the bottles."
Dean pulled his eyes away from the EMF just in time to see exactly what it was Sam was talking about. Sixteen bottles, total, on the tree, and suddenly, all of them had faces inside of them. Plural. As in one for each bottle. Hands appeared to push against the inside of the glass as the faces contorted and screamed soundlessly. Dean's eyes widened.
"Sixteen ghosts. Well, that explains the different types of deaths," he sighed.
"Not really. Look," Sam said, lifting a finger to indicate the nearest bottle.
The ghost of a young woman, her hair dark and fluid—like she was underwater—pushed against the inside of the bottle. Her hands appeared, curling into fists and beating against the glass. Her mouth opened and she screamed, but no sound came out.
Dean leaned in a bit farther toward the tree. "I'll be damned. Apparently, haint blue works. Who knew?"
Sam arched a brow and shook his head. Dean put away the EMF reader in his jacket.
"So what do we do?" he asked.
As if in answer, the sound of fluttering wings sounded behind the brothers. They both turned, more than a little surprised to see Castiel—trenchcoat, suit, askew tie, and all—standing behind them.
"What are you doing here?" Sam asked.
Castiel's bright blue eyes flitted to both brothers before he finally stopped to rest them on something beyond the two. Dean glanced over his shoulder, watching the ghosts struggle against their prisons. He turned back to the angel, jerking a thumb in the bottle tree's direction.
"Yeah, isn't that something? Blue traps ghosts," he chuckled.
"Still wondering why you're here. I mean, no offense, Cas, but since you've got the weapons back, I thought you'd be rather busy for a little while," Sam said.
"Forgive me," Cas said, stepping forward toward the tree. "I thought you were hunting for Eve, and I thought I'd see if you had made any progress."
"Nope. Nothing new, so we decided to take up this hunt," Dean answered. "Sorry."
Castiel's eyes fell on the eldest Winchester, and the angel looked like there was maybe more on the subject that he wanted to say. However, he simply stayed silent. After too long a moment of such silence, Dean finally shook his head.
"Well, we've gotta figure out what to do with this thing. No telling how far and wide the bodies of these ghosts are spread," he said.
"We've got bigger questions first, Dean. Theses ghosts are trapped. How did they get out to commit the murders?" Sam asked.
"Good question. Maybe we ought to snatch the tree, try to take it somewhere safe and figure it out."
"I could remove it for you," Castiel offered.
Both brothers looked to the angel questioningly.
"We can't move it. It'll be noticed, and we can't have a missing bottle tree show up in any sort of news until we figure this all out. These ghosts can't have killed those people, not like they are now, at least," Sam argued.
"But this variety of ghosts is the only thing that makes sense," Dean replied.
"Simply destroying it would fix this dilemma. Would you like me to do that for you?" Castiel offered.
"No," Sam and Dean said simultaneously.
Castiel looked somewhat startled by the response, and Dean chuckled.
"We've got this. We'll keep you posted on Eve, too, okay?"
Castiel stared between the two, his lips pursed. Finally, he nodded.
And with that, he was gone with another flutter of wings. Dean shook his head.
"Dude," he groaned. "All right, so the tree. If we can't move it, and we can't destroy it or the ghosts… what do we do?"
Sam shrugged. "Nothing, I suppose."
"Nothing until we can figure out more on whether this tree is related to our murders or not. I say we head back, sleep, and then do some more research in the morning."
"Great," Dean said, throwing his arms up in a half-hearted shrug. "Fine. More research while we hope these ghosts don't somehow kill another person."
They were never early risers, the Winchester boys. But sometimes, when Sam wanted to wake up a bit earlier than eleven in the morning, he would set an alarm. The day following the discovery of the bottle tree, however, was not one of those days. Dean actually managed to roll out of bed before his brother, making a beeline for the bathroom. By the time he was done washing, brushing, and dressing, Sam was awake, looking bleary-eyed at the computer screen.
"Looking for that worm, are we?" Dean asked, taking a seat at the bottom left corner of his bed.
Sam blinked at his brother, as if Dean had spontaneously started speaking French. Finally, he shook his head and said, "No. Look at what's in this morning's paper."
Dean stood and moved to lean over Sam's shoulder. The headline was as clear as day, "Body of Young Girl Found on UNA Campus, Dead." Dean stepped back, rubbing his hand over his face.
"One of ours?" he asked.
"Says it looked like she was beaten to death. But there was no evidence of anyone else having been in the area at the same time she was."
"Where was the body found?"
"In her dorm room. Her roommate had gone home for the weekend, and the door was locked from the inside. Officials had to bust it in to find her when people began to grow concerned."
Dean huffed. "I don't like this. We've gotta find this Emily chick, the artist? And make sure she's okay. I'm gonna guess this new victim was another art student."
Sam nodded, standing. "I hacked into the school's system and found out when and where Emily's classes are. She's got one in about twenty minutes in Stevens Hall. We should start there."
"Then let's go."
At the bottom of Stevens Hall, right on the first floor, was a library. It announced itself as The Learning Resources Center, and Sam and Dean decided that—since they were still early for Emily's class—that would be a good starting point.
"How do we know which student is her?" Dean whispered the moment they walked into the rather small room.
It was definitely large enough for a library, just a small one. One could easily cross the distance from the front desk to the back wall—which was, predictably—lined with books in moments with nothing more than a brisk walk. It looked rather childish to be a library on a college campus, with stuffed animals lying atop many of the blue, metal shelves. And even the books—save for the ones on the wall opposite the door—looked to be for a younger level of readers.
"Dude, what's with this place?" Dean whispered.
"It's for students studying to be high school teachers."
The two of them stopped just past the security posts, staring around the room and marveling on how no one, in the small space of tables, even lifted their heads to look at them.
"Okay, so, I'll say again. Which one is her?"
"May I help you?" came a whiny voice from their right.
The boys turned to see an elder woman, her highlight blonde-and-brown hair cut close to her neck. She was dressed in general, stereotypical old lady librarian garb—high-waisted blue jeans and a simple, pink-and-white striped, long-sleeved cotton shirt. She stood like the beginnings of a hunch was forming on her shoulders, and she looked up at the two of them—being more than a head shorter than Dean—with closed eyes.
"Uh," Dean stammered.
"We're looking for a student. Emily Rogers?" Sam interjected.
The woman pursed her pink-painted, withered lips together. She blinked, the Winchesters catching a flash of dim blue eyes, before her eyelids drifted shut again.
"Um, well, I'm not really able to point out students to unidentified strangers. Besides, we don't do any sort of check in here. It's a library. It'd be different if this was like Collier and she was renting a room for an hour for studying," the woman said, her voice droning in and out between fake-informative and grandmotherly-chastising.
Dean's face scrunched up, unable to really believe what he was seeing or hearing. It was rare that he met anyone that, on first sight, made his flesh crawl and want to claw someone's eyes out. But this woman… Dean was finding the urge to smack her a little strong. Strange, he figured, for someone he had known for like five seconds. He turned, staring up at his brother while Sam placed a self-depreciating smile on his face.
"Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am. We're from the paper, doing a story on local happenings. I understand that Emily is the artist behind the wonderful exhibit in the art gallery?"
The librarian facing them was still doing that pursed-lipped frown, but she shuffled her way over to the single computer behind the desk. She clicked the internet browser icon, and it instantly brought up the university's website.
"Well, let's see what we can find. You know, you can just go to our website here, and click on this link over here," she said, instructing them as if they had never seen a computer before.
Dean shot a pleading look up at Sam, one that clearly said, "Please, man, don't let me hit her." Sam held up two hands, moving them progressively lower. Dean sucked in a deep breath, turning to smile at the librarian as she continued to mumble about how to find what Sam and Dean were looking for. Finally, she arrived at a specific link, scrolling down to reveal a picture of a young girl with pale, rounded features. Her eyes were hidden behind thick, black rimmed glasses that perfectly matched her curly, black hair—which seemed to fall just off her shoulders. She looked rather petite, thin but not to the point of starvation. A caption underneath the picture announced her as Emily Rogers, senior-level art student.
Dean turned, his eyes scanning the room. There, at one of the round, wooden tables just before the line of blue shelves at the back of the room, sat just the girl they were looking for. Her hair was still falling free, forming a curtain around her face as she stared down at the open textbook in front of her. She was dressed in torn jeans—designer torn, not work torn—and a tight-fitting long sleeved blouse decorated with wide, white and black horizontal stripes. Sam hit his hand lightly on the glass cover to the counter.
"Thank you," he said.
The librarian woman opened her mouth to say something, but Dean grabbed his brother by the arm, pulling him toward Emily's table before anything could come out. They stopped, standing over the girl, and cleared their throat to announce their presence. She looked up, a glare catching off the right lens of her glasses, but the other revealing an olive-green eye. She arched a thin brow.
"Can I help you?" she asked, her high-pitched voice rife with confusion.
"Yes, hi, Emily. I'm Sam, and this is Dean. We're from the paper, and we'd like to do an impromptu interview about your art exhibit, if you don't mind," Sam said.
The girl's face instantly lit up, and she straightened in her seat, indicating the two empty chairs across from her. Dean and Sam took the seats, both sharing a single glance to confirm that they felt the same way about the chairs that were ridiculously short for the age group they were suppose to cater to. They then grinned at Emily, and the girl clasped her hands politely over her textbook.
"So, your art," Dean began.
She smiled, nodding.
"What inspired it?" Sam put in.
She flushed, pride lighting her eyes even further. Evidently, she was in no short supply of joy when it came to her possibly murderous exhibit.
"Oh, a variety of things. Life, I guess, is the short answer. I like it to harken to the organic. Nature, you know?"
Well, if that wasn't a perfect segue, then they wouldn't know what was. Dean leaned forward, imitating Emily's clasped hands.
"So, is that the inspiration behind the bottle tree?" he asked.
There it was. A flicker. A dimming of her pride. But it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Dean glanced at Sam, realizing that his brother had seen it too. Emily grinned, forcing it a bit broader.
"Yes, actually. Oh, and of course, for its cultural significance."
Sam leaned back, a dangerous move for him in such a low chair, but he managed to keep his balance.
"So, you know of the legends? Tell me, Emily, have you noticed anything unusual about your tree?"
Her eyes narrowed at the taller brother. "What do you mean?"
Dean waved his hand, thinking of all the usual ghostly symptoms.
"Cold spots around it. Things moving when they shouldn't be. Strange noises. Anything like that?"
Emily pulled her hands back, crossing them low across her stomach, like she might be a bit sick. She shook her head.
"I'm not superstitious, if that's what you're asking. I don't believe in all that hoodoo crap."
Dean huffed out a small laugh. "Weird. Being an artist, I would think that you'd be more open to it than anybody."
She visibly bristled. "I don't like to reinforce obvious stereotypes, sir."
Sam held up a hand, quick to play damage control.
"Sorry, we didn't mean to offend. If you don't mind me asking… those objects attached to the trunk of the tree. They're pretty random. What made you add them?"
She faltered for just a moment, before shaking her head.
"It's representative, you know? Pollution and all the crap people just don't think about. All of that stuff was things that people lose or throw away on a daily basis without a thought," she explained. Then, with a glance at her watch, she stood, gathering up her items. "Sorry, I've got class."
"Yeah, hey, thanks for your time," Dean said, standing to shake her hand.
She shook it once and bustled out of the library, accidentally bouncing off Sam's shoulder without so much as an apology. Dean turned to Sam.
"What do you think?"
He shrugged. "Something's up with her. But I'm not sure if it's an I-murdered-a-few-students-and-teacher something."
Dean nodded. "Yeah, I got that feeling too. So, square one's looking kind of cozy, isn't it?"
Sam nodded toward a set of semi-ancient desktops across the library. "Let's see if we can dig anything else up on Emily or that art of hers."
The two moved over to take up both seats at the computers, groaning at the slowness of the machines. It took three whole, complete minutes just to get to a search engine. And before either brother could type anything in, an annoying little cough sounded above them. They turned, gazing up at the librarian who had greeted them before.
"I'm sorry," she said in a voice that said that she clearly wasn't. "But those computers are for students only."
Sam smiled, looking a bit strained. "Of course. Sorry."
With that, the Winchesters exited the Learning Resources Center. The moment they left Stevens Hall—a short walk from the library, maybe three feet to the set of glass doors on the left—Dean sighed.
"What the hell was with Bitchy Librarian?"
Sam shrugged. "And I thought we took our jobs seriously."
Dean was at a local bar, called On the Rocks, under the pretense of doing research. Sam had tried to argue with his brother, saying that they should be doing real research that night—since another death would be likely and they still had no information. But Dean could not be swayed, beckoned by the idea of greasy food, beer, and college chicks. So, Sam was alone in their motel, cell phone pressed to his ear as the other end finally answered on the third ring.
"Bobby," Sam said by way of greeting. "What do you know about ghosts and bottle trees?"
The gruff redneck on the other end huffed. "Would that be separate or together?"
Sam shook his head. "We've got a bottle tree, Bobby. Sixteen blue bottles, all filled with trapped ghosts. There are objects on the tree, like attached. It's currently on display in this college's art gallery. There are been various deaths around campus, all art department related, but Dean and I saw the tree. Those ghosts are trapped. They can't pass through the bottles."
Sam could hear the seat behind the desk squeak over the phone as Bobby sat down. He could even hear him shuffling a few books around.
"Haint blue, right?" he asked.
"Yeah. You knew it worked?"
"I'd heard tell of a couple hunters claiming it did."
Sam scoffed. "Why did you never say anything?"
"Wasn't sure. Blue seems an awful lot to hang your life on, son."
Sam nodded. He had a point. Sighing, Sam rubbed his hands over his eyes.
"Bobby, Dean and I have been firmly stuck on square one. And we're worried that the artist herself might end up a vic in this spree. Anything you've got."
Bobby hummed a minute over the line before he groaned.
"What's the tree look like, any special markings?" he asked.
Sam shrugged, fully aware that the motion meant nothing over a phone. He got up from his seat at the foot of one of the double beds, moving over to his laptop on the table. He went to the art gallery's website, scrolling through the pictures until he arrived at the one—deftly ignored earlier as unimportant—of the bottle tree. Sam clicked it, enlarging it as best he could.
"Um… black wrought iron, holding sixteen blue bottles. The items on the trunk are various—hair clips, money clips, a key, a watch. There's, like, eight of the items visible in this picture, but there were more on the backside of the tree."
"Personal looking items?" Bobby asked, his voice indicating a piqued interest.
"Is there anything special about the bottles themselves? Other than them being haint blue?"
Sam clicked on the picture, enlarging it so one of the bottles looked even clearer. Sam squinted his eyes, looking over every visible inch of the bottle.
"Um… blue painted cork. I guess that factors in with the haint thing. And… wait, hey. There's something on the bottom of the bottle I'm looking at. It looks like… writing. But I can't make it out in the picture."
"Damn it," Bobby swore.
Sam arched a brow, absentmindedly pressing the cell closer to his ear. "What is it?"
"That sounds familiar. Too familiar. Let me do some searchin', and I'll call you back."
The line disconnected with a click. Sam looked at it for a moment, confusion on his face, before he snapped it shut. At that point, the lock to the room clicked, and Dean walked in, the very picture of smugness. Sam rolled his eyes.
"If you had sex in the bathroom, I don't want to hear about it," Sam groaned, tossing the cell to the bed.
Dean shrugged. "Your loss. But no, that's not it. Guess what I discovered tonight?"
Sam leaned back in his chair, waiting for his brother to continue. Dean lifted a single finger and wagged it in the air as he moved to take up a seat on the bed closest to Sam.
"Drunk, young college chicks… like, freshly twenty-one college chicks… they get talkative. And giggly. But the talkative part is what's important."
Sam crossed his arms. "Are you telling me you found something out tonight? Like, really? At the bar?"
Dean's grin was triumphant as he nodded. "Yes, I did. And you know what it was? It was that Emily Rogers… is a bitch."
Brow furrowed, Sam leaned forward.
Dean nodded. "Big bitch. Apparently, Emily likes to rant on and on in class about how her work is so superior to others'. Problem was, everyone knew that she didn't have the grades to back it up. See, highest grades gets that gallery honor. Guess who had 'em?"
"Maria Watterson," Sam said, eyes wide.
"Well, that would give her motive for that death. But that still doesn't explain how… or why the others."
Dean wagged his finger again. "I'm not done. This chick I was talking to tonight… she was plastered, and man, would she not stop the gossip. Guess whose class Emily was flunking?"
"Dr. Rosen's? But what about the other victims? Winter? And the girl in the dorm?"
"Turns out, those two were fairly buddy-buddy in class, Winter and our latest death. And they both shared a very common belief: that Emily didn't do all of her art pieces alone. Actually, they were fairly certain that at least half of them were copied or stolen from someone else."
"Huh," Sam said. "But then, how is Emily doing this? I'd venture that she was somehow doing this without the supernatural influence, but she happens to possess a tree containing sixteen different ghosts. We can't have that big of a coincidence on our hands."
Dean shrugged, and right at that moment, the cell phone sitting behind him rang. He reached for it, giving just a quick glance to the caller ID, and flipped it open.
"Bobby," he said.
"Tell Sam that I found out a bit more about that tree. Or, at least, I'm pretty sure I did," Bobby replied.
Dean relayed the message before putting his attention back to the phone.
"What did you find?"
"A name. Retired hunter by the name of Abigail Rogers. She lives on Woodward Road, right up next to the school. I think you ought to talk to her."
"Cryptic. Text us the address, and we'll try her in the morning."
"Good luck," Bobby said, ending the call.
Dean huffed out a small laugh, looking up at Sam.
"We, apparently, have to talk to an Abigail Rogers, retired hunter."
"Rogers? You think she's any relation to our artist?" Sam asked.
"That or this really is us riding on one hell of a coincidence."
The cat on the front porch was friendly, and it kept rubbing its white, fluffy body up against Dean's leg as he pressed the button for the doorbell. Sam laughed as Dean stooped and, gently, tried to shoo the animal away.
"She likes you," Sam said.
Dean just grinned mirthlessly. It was bright and sunny that morning, and the house they stood outside of was nothing terribly impressive. Old, but maybe not older than the seventies or so, the porch was painting a deep hunter's green, with a seafoam green swing hanging to the boys' right. The rest of the house, however, was an aged white, along with the cracked and peeling painted door that opened a moment later.
The woman was short, her back straight but her hands withered and slightly gnarled. She smiled, brushing her gray curls out of her eyes as she opened the screen door.
"You boys demons?" she asked, a knowing twinkle in her eyes.
Sam and Dean flashed their tattoos. She laughed.
"Oh, dear, I know you're the boys Singer sent my way. Got ol' Bobby's call sometime last night. But it's always nice for grandma to see a bit of flesh now and then. Come in, come in."
The Winchesters exchanged a wide-eyed look before following the woman into her rather modest living room. She gestured for them to take a seat on her large, fluffy brown couch, while she sat in a matching, rocking recliner across from them.
"Would you like anything to drink or eat? Got some fresh sweet potato pie and sweet tea," she said.
Dean lit up, his mouth opening to accept, but Sam smacked him, discreetly, on the shoulder. He frowned, shaking his head.
"No thanks. Um, so Bobby said we should talk to you about the bottle tree."
Abigail lifted a brow. "Oh, yeah. Foolish pursuit of youth, I guess. Used to have it in my backyard, before she snatched… ungrateful young thing."
Sam and Dean looked between themselves. Sam scooted forward a bit in his seat.
"Are you talking about Emily Rogers?" he asked.
She nodded. "My granddaughter. Said she needed it, for her art. I tried to tell her not to fool with it, but the next day, poof. It just come up missin'. And she thinks I'm fool enough to believe that some hoodlums took it. I love her, but, she's not the brightest bulb in the box."
"And… do you know about the deaths, Ms. Rogers?" Dean asked.
The woman's mouth pulled itself into a deep frown, and she swallowed, hard. She nodded. Dean sighed.
"Why haven't you done anything about it?" he asked, a bit more roughly than he had intended.
"Who was gonna believe me, that my granddaughter was using ghosts to kill them people? And I'm old, boys. Real old. Got every old person aliment you can think of short of Alzheimer's. Ain't no way I'd be able to stop her. 'Fraid that's up to you, I suppose."
"Wait," Sam said, holding up his hands. "You said that tree was a foolish pursuit of youth. What did you mean? Why would you trap sixteen ghosts instead of salt and burning their bones?"
Abigail sighed and leaned back in her chair, giving it a small rocking motion. Her eyes were fixated on a spot somewhere above Sam and Dean's heads when she spoke again.
"When it started, I was testing that old hoodoo myth. You know, that ghosts could be destroyed in haint blue bottles in the morning's light? Yeah, load of crap that was. But then… well, I was always a thinker. Guess that's where Emily gets it from, but I'd like to hope that I wasn't as obnoxious about it. I began to wonder if I was really doing 'em ghosts a favor, burning their bones. Sure, trappin' 'em in bottles kept them from killing, which was great… but was I condemning them to a fate worse than death by burning 'em? I wasn't comfortable with that. So, I collected them. And, along with them, I collected items they were attached to, just in case. See, I went and burnt their bones anyhow, to pass it by my parents—who were also hunters. But the personal items, I put them on the tree I built. Sixteen ghosts later… damn, do I regret it. I etched the names of each ghost, and which item goes with which ghost, on the bottom of their bottle."
"That's..." Sam said, trailing. But Dean was quick to pick up the thought.
"Insane. Insanely stupid, actually."
"Dean," Sam chastised softly.
Abigail laughed. "No. The young man's right. And now those poor people have died for my sins, and ain't a damned thing I can do about it. I don't deserve to ask, but… you'll take care of the problem, won't you?"
"Yeah. We will," Dean said.
"But… your granddaughter?" Sam asked.
Abigail frowned once more. "It's a high price. But it's hers to pay. In case y'all were wonderin'… she's planting items. That's how she's doing it. Those pieces on the trunk? I made them removable. Then she's uncorking the bottles. It's hell to get them back in, by the way, but I figure she's done it. She'd have made a great hunter, I think."
"You're crazy," Dean muttered.
Abigail nodded. "I know."
"You made the items removable just in case you had to use them the same way your granddaughter is doing now," Sam said, his voice breathless with disbelief.
The boys stood, and Abigail closed her eyes.
"Would've been a great weapon, hunting-wise. Like I said, foolish pursuits."
The Winchesters shook their heads, and, turning, they left the house without a word. Outside, the friendly cat had taken up residence on the swing, and it meowed loudly as they passed.
"Crazy place," Dean muttered, the brothers' feet hitting sidewalk.
"We need to find Emily, fast. Before she kills again."
"Then we'll go to the source. Tonight," Dean said.
Emily wasn't going to show until dark, of that Dean and Sam were sure. So, they holed up in their motel room, prepping for the night ahead. The clock ticked by slow as hell as Dean loaded a duffle bag with gasoline and rock salt, making sure that the sawed-offs were loaded as well. Sam, meanwhile, was busy gazing over the picture of the tree, as if it would give them some sort of advantage in the fight. A good idea in theory, but, in the end, useless.
The sun seemed to take its time, dragging itself below the horizon. However, finally, it had set, and Sam and Dean made their way to the Impala, tossing their items in the backseat.
"So, how are we stopping Emily, Dean? I mean, she's human," Sam asked as they made the short drive toward the visitor's parking lot of the university.
"We stop the tree, Sam. Maybe Abigail will wake the hell up and deal with her damn grandkid after we do that," the eldest Winchester snapped.
The rest of the ride was silent as Dean parked in the now empty parking lot. They sat there a moment, their eyes drifting in the direction of the gallery. Finally, Sam sighed.
And it came out as a cloud of fog.
"Damn it," Dean swore, reaching, lightning fast, into the back to grab his rifle.
He got his hands on it just in time, as a ghost appeared in Sam's lap—a woman, dressed in a plain blue sleeping gown. Her eyes, however, were dark coals, and her translucent skin was white as paper. She screeched, and Sam's eyes widened.
"Dean!" he shouted.
Dean pulled the gun into the front seat as the ghost wrapped her hands about Sam's neck, pressing down hard. Sam choked, trying to draw in air, and Dean aimed, firing a single shot. The ghost vanished the moment the rock salt bullet hit it, and the casing broke out the glass of the passenger window. Sam gasped, immediately shoving his hands into his pockets.
"She planted something, the bitch!" Dean yelled, and Sam rolled his eyes.
He rooted around the pockets of his pants before finally getting to his jacket and making a small "aha" noise. He withdrew a small, ornamental hairclip, and the boys all but fell out of the Impala. Sam threw the clip to the paved ground, catching the salt that Dean tossed him. Dean rounded the front of the car, pouring on gasoline. He withdrew a book of matches, lighting one up just as the ghost flickered back into existence.
"Not this time," he said, dropping the match.
The flames formed instantly, and the ghost was consumed by the result, screaming until she burnt away. Sam shook his head, grabbing up his weapons.
"Let's go," he said.
The two booked it across campus, not caring if they were drawing any odd looks by the one or two students they passed. They ran their way up the access ramp of death, and didn't stop until they reached the gallery. Yanking open the glass doors, they were unsurprised to see Emily there, removing another item from the trunk of the tree. She made a noise somewhere between a squeak and a screech, putting her back to the brothers as she reached for one of the bottles.
Dean and Sam rushed at her, but she had managed to wrestle one of the bottles free from its hold.
"Don't even think about it, kid," Dean shouted, aiming the shotgun at her.
But Emily was nothing if not brave. She struck out at the elder Winchester, knocking the weapon from his hand as Sam tackled the girl to the ground. Grip lost on the bottle she held, it clattered to the floor, shattering and sending bright blue shards everywhere.
"No!" Emily screeched as a ghost flickered into sight.
It was the one Dean and Sam had seen earlier, the dark haired woman who moved like she was underwater. Dean and Sam pulled back, scrambling for their weapons. Meanwhile, the ghostly woman set her eyes on Emily. Emily pulled herself to her feet, straightening her askew glasses.
Dean got his rifle lined up, ready for the shot, only to have the ghost screech at him. The move sent him flying backward into Sam, and the two landed on the floor with the gun sliding away once more. And, once again, the ghost stalked toward Emily, who was now backing up.
"No. No, I'm not the one you're after," she said.
She ran her hands over her body, trying to find the item she had removed earlier. The ghost loomed over her, standing so close that their faces almost touched. She grasped Emily by the throat, lifting her up off the ground. She screeched, and when she did, a flood of water moved from her mouth to Emily's. The girl struggled, hanging in the air, gurgling as she tried to breathe around the water pouring down her throat.
Dean and Sam were back on their feet now, weapons ready, but Emily had long stopped moving. The ghost dropped her to the ground, the body landing with a thud, and that was when they took their shot. The ghost dissipated when met with the salt, and Dean and Sam lost no time. They searched Emily's body over, looking for the item that had drawn the ghost's attention. They found it, a gold locket with a magnet that had obviously been added much later, sticking to the dead girl's belt buckle. They salted it, doused it in gasoline, and burnt the ghost into oblivion. And, when it was all said and done, they sighed, eyeing the tree.
"Well, I guess we took care of Emily," Dean said dully.
Sam nodded solemnly, his eyes trailing on the poor girl's body. His gaze then lifted to the bottle tree—fourteen bottles still containing ghosts—as he and Dean got to their feet. They approached the tree, ready to finish it, when a flutter of wings sounded behind them. They turned, both clearly surprised to find Castiel standing there.
"Uh, Cas, man… these random visits are fine, but… what the hell are you doing here?" Dean asked.
Castiel's eyes seemed to graze over the deceased Emily's body before landing on Dean.
"I've come to say that I believe Eve is acting faster than we were suspecting. I believe you should leave, immediately, and get back on her trail."
"Which we'll do. As soon as we burn these items, okay?" Sam said.
"No," Castiel said, stepping forward.
Dean lifted a brow. "No?"
"Um, I mean, ah. I'll take it. Eve is of greater import. I'll destroy this tree for you, rest assured."
Dean and Sam exchanged a glance, before Dean finally sighed.
"Sure, whatever tickles your fancy, big guy."
And in a blink, Castiel, with the bottle tree, was gone. Sam looked from the empty platform, to the spot where Cas had been standing, and finally to Dean.
"Wasn't that weird to you?" he asked.
Dean shrugged. "Cas is a weird guy."
"No, Dean. I mean, weird in the way that Cas seemed to really want that tree. Like, it wasn't about him doing us a favor."
Throwing his arms up in an I-don't-know-what-you-want fashion, he sighed.
"Why would Cas want the damn tree? He's right. We need to get back on Eve's trail… and drop Emily's body off with her grandmother. Seems only right."
Sam sighed, but Dean could tell his brother was still not fully convinced. However, the younger Winchester nodded.
"All right, Dean. Let's go."
End Notes: And there you have it. A complete story. As for Castiel's randomness… I ask you all to remember that this is season six, and Castiel was up to a lot of, ahem, extracurricular activities. Oh, and there are a couple of things in here that I've used real people or places or ideas for, but switched to make entirely fictional. Hope you all enjoyed!