SUMMARY: Casefic. There's something out there in the dark, ripping its victims apart – and now it has Sam and Dean in its sights..
SPOILERS: Set Season 4-ish. A casefic which takes place in-between canon hunts.
DISCLAIMER: The characters of Supernatural belong to Eric Kripke & Co. I am playing in their sandbox, with their toys, with much gratitude.
RATING: T for some swearing.
WORD COUNT: 27K
A/N: Hello. *Waves sheepishly* It's been a while since I've posted thanks to my muse abandoning me this season. I'm still faithfully watching SPN, though, and my muse has been a bit more co-operative of late. Thanks so much to those of you who PM'd me, gently and politely prodding me for new fic; believe me, it helped a great deal. I should have an epilogue to Blood of the Bayou done shortly *crosses fingers* but, in the mean time, I hope you enjoy this casefic, written for the fanzine Blood Brothers 6, published in Spring 2012, and beta-ed by BB editor TeaJunkie, with much gratitude. Enjoy.
STAY IN THE LIGHT
The light flickered but stayed on.
A bead of sweat ran down Sam's temple, etching a path through the black dust and dried blood that coated his skin. He peered into the darkness beyond the reach of the light, searching for any signs of movement. There were none. He strained to listen, but the only sound was the rasp of his own labored breathing, amplified by the mask that covered his face.
Sam glanced up at the light—his last line of defense. It flickered again, then seemed to dim, and his breath hitched. He was seeing things…he had to be. He blinked and refocused on the lantern. The batteries were fresh, could power the light for at least four hours. No way had that much time passed. No way had Dean been gone that long.
But if the light was failing….
Sam quickly scanned the shadows. Dean had hung the lantern from a bent nail in the broken beam above him, its light spilling down in a protective cocoon. But beyond that small pool that surrounded him, the pitch black cloaked anyone's—anything's—approach. For all he knew, they were right there, lingering just beyond the light, watching him… waiting….
But as long as the light was on, waiting was all they could do. Sam closed his eyes until the latest wave of dizziness ebbed. It was when the light went out that—
"It won't come to that, Sammy. I promise you." Dean had cupped his hand at the back of Sam's head and looked him straight in the eye, their faces just inches apart. "Just…keep it together. The light'll protect you, and I'll be back with help as soon as I can."
Sam had swallowed and nodded, but the confident façade had crumbled the second the bobbing light of Dean's helmet disappeared down the tunnel in front of him.
He was alone — half a mile below the surface and trapped under a pile of rock and debris that had rained down on him when part of the old mine tunnel had collapsed.
Dean had been at the periphery of the cave-in, battered by the falling rocks but able to haul himself clear. Sam lay pinned under dirt, large slabs of stone and broken support beams, only his head and right arm free. Dean had frantically tried to pull the debris off him but the rocks trapping him in place were too big and too heavy for one man to lift, at least without further hurting Sam. Long before Dean gave up, they both knew he'd have to leave Sam alone to get help.
Alone—except for the things they were hunting.
Sam dropped his head back, wincing at the jagged shards of wood and rock that seemed to jab into every part of his body he could still feel. His chest was tight, the heavy weight of the beam pinning him in place making breathing difficult. His legs were hidden beneath the debris, sometimes numb, sometimes hurting like hell.
His gaze drifted to the dust dancing through the lantern's light, a mix of coal and stone particles that tumbled lazily before disappearing into the inky black that surrounded him. Watching the dust made Sam cough, even if the response was psychosomatic. His face was covered with a miner's mask, breathable air delivered through it from the canister Dean had wedged into the rocks at his side. The mask protected him from the dust and from the gas they knew was leaking into the mine.
Sam slowly inhaled three times, as deeply as the pressure on his chest allowed, then licked his lips, grimacing at the feel of cracked skin and the taste of coal that had worked its way behind the mask. He knocked off his helmet, shoved up the mask, then snagged the water bottle Dean had left within reach and took a quick drink.
He was about to wedge the bottle back in place when a blast of wind howled through the tunnel, the same tunnel Dean had disappeared down minutes or hours ago. Sam turned his head away, the bottle of water slipping from his hand and tipping over, the contents spilling down the rocks as he yanked down the mask, coughing against the dust and dirt stirred up by the sudden gust.
As the wind disappeared, the mine filled with the creaks and groans of old timber mixed with the squeak of metal. Sam opened his eyes to see the light swinging wildly around him. His head snapped up; the lantern was rocking precariously, the metal ring it hung from rubbing against its nail perch and squeaking loudly. With each swing, it came that much closer to slipping off the nail and crashing to the ground below.
Sam swallowed. It was them, tired of waiting, trying to destroy the one thing keeping them from their prey.
As he scanned the mine, his instincts proved right. Each time the light swung away from him, momentarily shrouding him in darkness, three pairs of glowing white eyes, pupils just pinpricks of black, stared back at him.
Dean fell against the wall of the tunnel, yanked down the bandanna covering his face, and threw up.
He grimaced at the taste of vomit, spat, and dragged the back of his arm over his mouth. Still leaning against the wall for support, he turned and glanced behind him, using his helmet light to sweep the tunnel and make sure nothing had followed him.
Reassured nothing had, he looked ahead and frowned. Was he even going the right way? The cave-in that had trapped Sam had blocked the tunnel they'd used to gain entry. Their only way out was a surface breach they'd discovered earlier while exploring the mine. To get out, to get help for Sam, he needed to get to that breach.
Dean retched against another wave of nausea, and screwed his eyes shut as he mentally retraced his steps. As they'd explored the mine, they'd marked their way by spraying arrows on the tunnel walls in fluorescent orange paint. Yeah, that was it; he just had to follow the arrows.
He doubled over as his stomach cramped; the effects of the gas poisoning were getting worse. He had no clue how many pockets of methane he'd stumbled through but given his increasing lack of co-ordination, the headache about to split open his skull, and the sudden urge to puke out his guts, there'd been more than one.
Dean snorted weakly when, in a brief moment of clarity, he remembered a basic law of physics: Methane was lighter than air. As he made his way from deep in the mine toward the surface, the gas was following him, like him seeking a way out. The brothers had each worn full breathing gear into the mine, but Sam's mask had been smashed in the cave in, the tubing connecting his tanks to his mask severed. Dean had given his breathing gear to Sam without a second thought. Sam, predictably, had protested but the decision for Dean was a no-brainer.
"I'm heading for fresh air," he said matter-of-factly as he fastened the mask over Sam's face. "Trail's well-marked. A quick sprint and I'll be in the clear. No worries."
But the gas had affected him far faster than he thought possible, his sprint quickly deteriorating to a walk, the walk to his current stumbling gait. And as his thoughts muddied, he found himself taking more than a few wrong turns.
Pushing himself off the wall with a groan and adjusting his grip on his rifle, Dean stumbled forward. He pulled the radio from his belt, pressed the talk button and held it to his mouth. "Mayday, mayday." He swallowed and grimaced, his mouth pasty and sour, as his helmet lamp picked up an orange arrow on the wall. "Come on, Gus. You said you'd have someone on the other end of this thing 'til we hauled our sorry asses topside. I'm holding you to that."
He punched the tunnel wall in frustration when there no answer. "If anyone's hearing this, there's…there's a cave-in deep in the old mine. I have a man trapped and need assistance. Access from Swancott tunnel 44Z is blocked." He shook his head. "No…no... That's not right. It's Tunnel 44B, as in Bravo. I'm headed about two klicks west from that location. Tunnel collapse there offers access to the surface. I need a rescue team to meet me. Please respond."
Like every other time Dean had called for help, the only answer was static. Like him, the radio had taken a beating in the cave-in, but he kept sending a call for help in the faint hope it was transmitting if not receiving.
Dean's vision swam and his chest tightened, his heart beating way too fast. He reached for the bandanna around his neck and pulled it up over his mouth and nose. The cloth he'd soaked with water before leaving Sam helped his breathing, but it was a stopgap measure at best. Methane robbed the body of oxygen; he'd suffocate if he didn't find a way out of the mine soon.
Dean's legs felt like jelly, his lungs like they were filled with cement. By the time he reached the next bend in the tunnel, he was moving even slower and leaning heavily against the wall, needing its support to stay upright. The sickly sour taste in his mouth fed the ever-present nausea, and his vision kept sliding out of focus. But as he lurched around the curve in the wall, he saw it: a small square of daylight, about two hundred feet ahead, falling into the tunnel from a hole in the ceiling. He blinked twice to convince himself he wasn't seeing things.
Behind the bandanna mask, Dean smiled.
But the smile faded quickly as he staggered forward, those two hundred feet seeming more like two hundred miles to his shaky legs. He went down three times before he'd covered the first hundred feet, twice more in the next fifty before collapsing onto the pile of rubble that would serve as his ladder to reach the surface. Dean glanced up; he was almost there. He just had to scale the debris to get to fresh air and a stronger radio signal that would get him the help he needed to free his brother. He exhaled slowly, rallying his strength; he'd need everything he had left just to stand up, let alone make a three-story climb. But he had to—for Sam. "Move your ass, Winchester," he muttered as he unsteadily pushed himself to his feet.
Needing both hands for climbing, Dean dropped his rifle, reached up and scrabbled at the pile of rock and dirt until he found a solid handhold. With a groan, he jammed his boot in between two rocks and hauled himself up. It was slow going, each inch he climbed stealing more of his strength, his arms and legs becoming less and less co-operative.
He was about ten feet from his goal when a rock under his right foot gave way. His arms no longer had the strength to support his weight and he fell, careening down the rubble and slamming onto the tunnel floor. Instinctively, he threw an arm around his head as protection against the dirt and debris that came down in an avalanche after him. Only one rock slipped past his defenses, but that one smashed into the back of his head.
"No," was all Dean managed before consciousness was pulled from him and the teasingly close daylight once again disappeared into pitch black.
Thirty-six hours earlier…
Sam stood next to the body laid out on the metal table in the morgue, leaning in to study the head. The forest ranger's neck and throat were ripped open, dried blood matting his hair, staining his skin and teeth and stiffening the fabric of his uniform shirt. His eyes were wide open, locked on some unknown horror, his mouth frozen in a silent scream.
Sam tried gently turning the head but the neck muscles were locked. He looked up at Dr. Matt Jamieson, the coroner for Anderson County, Tennessee and the man who'd called in the Winchesters to help with the case. "This is obviously the latest victim. He's still in rigor, which means he's been dead less than 12 hours."
The coroner nodded. "He was killed just before you arrived in town. He was tracking in the bush on South Mountain and missed a check-in. When they went looking for him, this is what they found."
"Tracking?" Dean frowned as he read through the report inside the open file folder he held. "Wait, they think a bobcat or a bear is responsible for these attacks?"
"What? No way." Sam picked up the crime scene photos the coroner had given him earlier, studying the ground around the body and the prints in the mud. "This man fought against his attacker, but there are no animal prints that I can see." He turned back to the body, leaning forward to examine the bite mark on the ranger's neck. He tilted the light above the table, his frown deepening as he focused it on the neck wounds. "Whatever did this was no animal, not the four-legged kind, anyway." He clicked off the light and looked over at Matt and Dean. "These are human bite marks."
Matt closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. "Thank you."
Dean raised an eyebrow. "'Scuze me?"
Matt glanced down at the body. "After the autopsy of the first victim, I put in my report that the body showed evidence of human bite marks. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was wrong."
Dean scowled. "By who?"
"The mayor, Harland Ryder." Matt gestured to the files Dean held. "Those are…sanitized versions of my reports, with all references to human bite marks removed. Forgive me for not being completely upfront with you, but I wanted you to come to your own conclusions."
Sam peeled off his blue Latex gloves. "What's the mayor's game? I mean, no town wants to stir up public panic over a case like this, but there's a big difference between that and falsifying evidence."
"You're damn right, there is." Matt pulled up the sheet to cover the body. "This man lost his life because the town is trying to bury the truth behind some fiction." The coroner glanced from Sam to Dean. "You two helped me out when I was in Atlanta, showed me there are more things out there than they taught us about in med school. Whatever's doing this has now killed four times. I don't want there to be a fifth. I'm being blocked on all official channels so—"
"That's why we're here." Dean closed the folder. "But what makes you think this is one of our playmates at work, and not some…Smoky Mountain Jeffrey Dahmer?"
Matt removed his gloves. "If this was a serial killer, trust me, Mayor Ryder would be hounding the sheriff, the state troopers and the F.B.I. to find the son of a bitch, make this town safe again. But he wants this kept quiet." He shook his head. "Besides, human killers leave evidence behind, no matter how careful they are. With these killings, there's next to nothing —and that made me think of you two."
Dean snorted. "When crazy happens, people often think of us." He stared down at the covered body. "You get the sense the mayor knows what's going on? That maybe something like this has happened before?"
Matt shrugged. "I've only lived in Camden Hollow a couple of years. I did some digging after the third murder, looked into any earlier cases that involved supposed animal attacks. They seem legit, but—"
"There's always a chance those files were sanitized, too." Sam glanced over at Dean. "Looks like we need to have a chat with Mayor Ryder."
Matt rolled the gurney holding the ranger's body over to a bank of refrigerated drawers. "I wanted to ask around but it's a small town. I start asking questions about a killer who rips each victim's throat out with his bare teeth—"
"And you'll be branded the town looney inside a week." Dean clapped Matt on the shoulder. "Leave it to us. Looney's one of the nicer things we've been called."
Sam stared at the covered body. "You said the killer left almost no evidence behind. What did you find?"
"In addition to bite marks, there was one more thing the mayor wanted taken out of the official reports." Matt massaged the back of his neck. "I found traces of coal dust on the skin of each victim."
Sam's frown returned. "Don't take this the wrong way but, so? This is a mining town, right?"
Matt nodded. "Exactly. About seventy-five percent of the people who live here either work in the mines or for one of the support industries. It's hard to drive down Main Street without getting coal dust on you."
Dean's frown now matched Sam's. "But if it means nothing, why pull it from the report? Did the mayor give you a reason?"
"Said he didn't want to drag the town's largest employer through the mud when a mangy cat was likely to blame for the deaths." Matt walked to a locked cabinet at the side of the room, opened it with a key from his pocket and withdrew a thick file. "Here's what I managed to find out about each of the victims, including everything that's not in the official reports."
"Thanks." Dean tucked the file inside his jacket and began walking toward the door. "We'll start poking around, see what we can find."
Sam, heading for the door, turned back to Matt. "If we wanted to talk to someone about local history, local legends…maybe someone who might know why the mayor's acting all hinky, anyone you'd suggest?"
Matt rubbed a hand across his chin. "There's Dan Culpepper over at the Historical Society. Old guy likes to talk so be prepared to be there a while. But for my money, your best bet is Gwyneth Jones, the former county librarian. Folks call her Miss Gwyn and if it happened here in her lifetime, she knows about it. Has tea and a honeybun at Molly's Café on Main Street every day except Sunday, at two o'clock, on the nose."
Dean grinned as he followed Sam to the door. "Sounds a little set in her ways for my taste, but thanks. We find out anything, we'll be in touch."
"There was too much blood left for vamps." Dean finished his slice of pizza, wiped his fingers and grabbed his beer. "What else likes chowing down on longpig?"
"Dude, I'm still eating." Sam looked down at his pizza, grimaced, and dropped the unfinished slice back into the box. "Or not." He pushed the box away from his computer and pulled the file folders holding the coroner's reports from underneath it. "Besides, there's nothing to suggest the ranger or any of the other victims were eaten. Well, not by what killed them anyway." He opened the folder, flipping through the reports inside. "Two of the four victims were ripped apart by scavengers, postmortem, but whatever killed all four was only interested in that, killing them—even if the killer did use his teeth as the murder weapon."
Dean gave an exaggerated shudder as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "That just sounds wrong, no matter how many times I hear it. Okay, something human ripped its victims' throats out but didn't eat them. That rules out rugarus, ghouls, zombies, revenants..."
Sam nodded. "And wendigos would haul away victims…."
"To eat later." Dean shuddered for real this time at memories of his own run-in with a wendigo, then drained the last of his beer. "Okay, let's attack it from a different angle. All four victims were found in the backwoods of South Mountain, and all evidence suggests they were killed there. So why would the mayor want any mention of coal dust or the mine pulled from the coroner's reports?"
"I might have something." Sam turned back to his laptop. "While you were on the food run, I was reading through the historical society's database. There's some really fascinating stuff and—"
"Dude, you and me? Very different definitions of fascinating." Dean, crossing the room to get another beer from the cooler, pulled a face at the site Sam had open on his screen. "This is gonna be boring, so Cliff's Notes version please."
"Boring, huh?" Sam shot Dean a look. "Since when is an all-out battle—cannons, rifles, the whole nine yards—boring?" He smiled when Dean looked up from the cooler, definitely interested. "South Mountain is listed on the National Registry as a historic battle site."
Dean's eyes widened. "You think whatever's doing this is somehow tied in to a Civil War battle?"
Sam shook his head. "No, the battle took place after the Civil War. It was between the National Guard and miners fighting for better working conditions."
"Okay, professor, you've got my attention." Dean offered Sam another beer, then dropped the cooler lid shut when his brother shook his head. "But stick with the Cliff's Notes. It's too close to bedtime for flashbacks to ninth grade American History. That teacher I had in Michigan? They could've marketed him as an insomnia cure."
Sam couldn't help smiling as he turned back to his laptop and tapped a few buttons. "Okay, in a nutshell, Camden Hollow was established in the reconstruction years after the Civil War and, according to what I've read, there have been mines operating here ever since."
He turned again to face Dean. "This part of the state was settled by Welsh miners. They were brought over to the U.S. before the war to get the mines up and running, and then to work in them.
"But after the war, Tennessee was broke so the state passed a bill to allow prisoners to work the mines. Private industry loved it because they got cheap labor. The state loved it because they didn't have to build prisons and got paid by the mining companies for each convict put to work. The mines here in Anderson County relied heavily on convict labor. But the prisoners weren't trained miners and conditions were bad. Those two things alone led to a lot of accidents, a lot of deaths."
Dean took another drink of his beer. "Any of those criminals convicted of eating their coworkers?"
Sam ignored him. "The Welsh miners refused to work with the convicts, saying their lack of training put every miner's life at risk. Most of them moved on to work in mines that didn't use convict labor. But as the death toll kept rising in the convict mines, it was the Welsh miners who led the fight for better working conditions for everyone."
Dean raised an eyebrow at Sam. "So, what? You think the ghost of Norma Rae is behind these deaths?"
Sam snorted. "I'm impressed you even know who that is, but no. It all led to that battle I was talking about. Labor disputes in those days went way further than the picket line. And those battles between the miners and the state forces were staged in the woods on South Mountain, right where the murders are taking place. That could be the link we're looking for."
"Damn." Dean sank down onto his bed. "So we're looking at a whole battlefield of potential vengeful spirits?"
Sam nodded. "Maybe more."
Dean stared at his brother incredulously. "How the hell could it be more?"
Sam shrugged. "Remember the reason for the battle. Unsafe conditions led to who knows how many deaths in the mines." He turned back to his computer and clicked open another screen. "The Swancott Mine, the largest in the area, runs underneath South Mountain. It didn't exist at the time of the battle but two older mines on either side of the Swancott operation did. Both had fairly spotty safety records and have long been abandoned and sealed up. But this is where it gets really interesting." He turned back to Dean. "Turns out methane gas is a byproduct of coal mining. Two months ago, there was a small explosion in an unused tunnel and Swancott engineers discovered methane leaking into their operation from one of the abandoned mines. A crew was sent out to dig bore holes from the surface into the old mine to allow the gas to vent. I'm thinking when they punched those holes into the old tunnels-"
"They let something out." Dean pressed his cold bottle of beer against his forehead. "That's a lot of potential angry spirit suspects, but it still doesn't tell us why the hell whoever it is, is ripping victims' throats out with their teeth?"
"Or how they're picking their victims." Sam's chair creaked as he sat back. "Turns out, it's hunting season. The state handed out over 5,000 licenses this year, so the backwoods of South Mountain have been pretty busy over the past month and we have four deaths. Obviously, whatever this is, it's not going after everyone."
"So who are our victims?"
Sam picked up the papers Matt had given them at the morgue, flipping through each page. "Tom Griffiths, the first man killed, was a Swancott engineer. He was part of the team assigned to vent the methane gas. He disappeared and they found his body two days later, torn to shreds. The rest of his crew weren't touched and say they saw nothing.
"Victim number two is David Evans, a state workplace safety inspector, assigned to the Anderson County mines. He was hunting with three buddies when he was killed."
Dean's frown deepened. "None of his buddies were harmed?"
Sam shook his head as he flipped to the next report. "Victim number three is a Lloyd Clayton, a fourth generation miner and a vice-president of Local 341. He was also hunting with buddies and, like the others, it got him but didn't touch his friends. He was the other one ripped apart post-mortem."
Dean swung his legs off the bed, resting his beer bottle on his knee. "What about the forest ranger? He was alone, right?"
Sam turned to the last report. "Ranger Trevor Davis served as the county's liaison between the forestry service and the mining industry. Part of his job was to make sure the mine owners followed all environmental protocols, to protect the animals, plant life, water quality, yadda, yadda, yadda, in the land surrounding the mine." He dropped the papers back on the table. "And while the official report says he was tracking when he was killed, he was actually checking methane levels from the mine vents."
Dean reached over to set his beer bottle on the nightstand. "So, all the victims had jobs related to mine safety." He shrugged at Sam. "If the spirit is a miner who died in unsafe conditions, or died on the mountain fighting for better conditions, I could see it going after them for not doing their job. You know, putting other miners at risk."
"But that doesn't explain the M.O., and," Sam tapped the sheaf of papers on the desk, "from what I've read, these men were good at their jobs. There hasn't been a serious accident at Swancott for over thirty-five years. So why now?"
"Because whatever was in that mine couldn't get out until now." Dean stood up and stretched. "We need to know what happened in that mine."
Sam slouched back in his chair. "Basics are easy. During the Civil War, Tennessee needed coal to fuel the war effort. At that time, this whole area was uninhabited, so the state kept the mine under the radar. If the Union Army didn't know it existed, they couldn't target it. The mine pumped out coal for the Confederacy until the end of the war. At that point, it was shut down."
Dean frowned. "It never reopened?"
Sam shook his head. "Other mines were established around it, but that one stayed dark."
"Makes you wonder why. Anyone die while it was operating?"
Sam shrugged. "Like I said, basics are easy but beyond that, there's nothing. No records of how many men worked in the mine, how many died…nada. Now, war was under way so it could be just crappy recordkeeping, but if I was the suspicious type, I'd say someone's trying to hide something."
"Well I'm definitely suspicious and I say we need to get a look inside that mine." Dean was pacing now. "It still sealed up?"
"Yes and no." Sam sat up. "Both official entrances are sealed, but the explosion brought down a wall. We can get in through the Swancott operation."
"Sounds good." Dean headed for the bathroom. "Let's set it up for first thing in the morning."
Sam reached for his phone. "Before we talk to the mayor?"
"Definitely." Dean glanced back at Sam. "Once ol' Harland knows we're here, my guess is he'll try to shut us down just like he did Matt. I want a good look inside that mine before he even knows we're poking around."
Continued in Chapter 2...