Dean marched over to the mess hall. "What's going on?" he demanded loud enough to silence the raised voices at the dinner line.
"Since when is the food being policed?" a scrawny guy asked angrily.
"Since we've got more mouths to feed than supplies right now," Dean responded.
The guy crossed his arms. "You mean those people you let come in here? They haven't done any work to earn an equal share of our food."
"They're hurt and sick. When they're able to pull their weight, they will. For now, we all have to make adjustments until we can get more supplies."
"You're going to slowly kill us if you keep taking in strays!"
Dean whirled on him. "You want to go back out there, try to survive on your own? Be my guest. No one's making you stay." He shot a firm gaze around at everyone. He wasn't getting off on being a tyrant here; he was trying to keep them all alive.
"Water heater's busted again," Bobby said. "James keeps Jerry-rigging it, but we're gonna have to look for replacement parts on the next supply run."
Dean nodded along. Just another issue to add to their long list. He'd known it wouldn't be easy setting up a permanent base at Camp Chitaqua, but sometimes it felt like the deck was stacked against them.
It was better than trying to survive in one of the cities, though.
Bobby closed the ledger. "One more thing. Sarah caught Frankie with the stash of liquor. He'd gone through half of it and was drunk off his ass."
Dean's chest tightened with fury. They'd been saving the hard alcohol for medical emergencies, not to drown their woes in. Dean wanted to be understanding, he did. But the world outside wasn't gonna cut them any slack, and so neither could he.
"Incoming!" Sam shouted.
Dean swept out from behind the truck and opened fire on the demon horde descending on their position. Bullets tore through the humanoids easily, but the hellish beasts had hides as thick as a gargoyle's, and they kept coming. Dean figured this was it, the supply run they wouldn't come back from.
A flash of brilliant bluish-white light erupted to the left, and a shimmering osprey collided with a demon, lightning talons tearing into it. Another flash flared, then another, and suddenly the area was filled with crackling animal shapes attacking the demons.
Dean staggered back a step in dismay, as did the others of the convoy. And then he caught sight of a familiar, blazing panther.
Dean couldn't help but break into a grin as Cas's grace swirled into the angel's human form in front of him.
"Look what the cat dragged in," he beamed. "Long time no see."
Cas gave him and Sam a hesitant smile in return. "Yes. I'm glad to see you both again."
Dean shifted his gaze over Cas's shoulder to where the other angelic animals were gathering into their human forms. "You found some friends."
Cas glanced behind him. "Yes. There are others who don't believe in following Heaven's corrupt orders. We're small in number, but we're fighting against the Apocalypse."
A bird screech interrupted them, and an eagle of gold instead of blue came swooping down. Its wings snapped taut, then folded down into an eddy before transforming into a blond-haired guy of short stature that Dean instantly recognized.
"Hey, wait a second, you're the Trickster!"
Sam sputtered beside him. "We killed you!"
The Trickster smirked and waggled his brows. "Call that another lifetime. Name's Gabriel."
Dean's brows shot upward. "As in the archangel Gabriel?"
He spread his arms and took a bow. "The one and only. What a small world that you're the Winchesters Castiel has told me so much about." Gabriel cast the other angel a curious look.
Dean managed to shake off his daze. "Well, thanks for the save," he said to his friend. "A lot of people are counting on us to get back alive with these supplies."
Cas's gaze went to the back of the truck. "You're providing for others?"
"We set up a base at a camp," Sam explained. "There's about twenty of us, survivors we've come across."
Cas canted his head in consideration, and then turned to Gabriel. "Is there some way we can help them?"
The other angels exchanged somewhat surprised looks. Dean was also a little taken aback by the idea, not because Cas wasn't the type to offer, but because he wasn't sure what all the angels could do.
Gabriel was contemplative for several moments, then said, "I'm sure we can think of something."
"Picture the bond like a tangible thread. Like a harp string stretched taut. If you were to strum it, it would transmit that vibration all the way down to the other end."
Sam felt his forehead crease further as he tried to concentrate and do as Cas instructed. Envisioning a thread reaching out wasn't that hard; it was maintaining focus on it that proved challenging. Any slip in his thoughts, and it would disappear and he'd have to start all over again.
But since Cas was sitting cross-legged on the floor only three feet across from him, it was easy to imagine that thread physically connecting them. Sam concentrated harder, until the thread felt tangible. And then he imagined reaching up to flick it.
He was surprised when he didn't have to envision the vibration; it pinged in the back of his mind like a wind chime.
"Not bad," Cas rumbled. Or…wait.
Sam snapped his eyes open, breaking the spell.
Cas opened his eyes with a sigh and gave him a wry look.
He grimaced sheepishly. "Sorry."
The angel shook his head. "No matter. You were doing quite well. I assume you were able to hear my thoughts directed toward you this time?"
Cas's brow furrowed thoughtfully. "I had to imagine the bond was a little more than just a string. More of a conduit I had to widen a bit."
Sam made a mental note of that. Cas may have been guiding him in how to access the link between them that had been created when Cas had healed Sam with some of his grace, but the angel was just as much at a loss as to the nature of the bond. They were both experimenting and trying to figure things out as they went.
Footsteps clomped up the steps outside, and Dean poked his head into the cabin. "How's it going?"
"We're making progress," Cas reported. "Why don't you join us?"
"Meditation isn't really my thing…" Dean hedged.
Sam unfolded his legs and stood to get the circulation back. "Come on, Dean, you need to learn how to use this, too."
His older brother heaved a sigh. "Fine. We don't have to hold hands, do we?"
"It'd be beneficial to learn how to access the bond from a distance," Cas replied. "But I suppose if it would help you initially, we could."
"Um, then no."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Just sit down and try." He took a step toward the door.
"Where are you going?"
"For a walk. I need to wake up a little." Sam paused on the threshold and turned to Cas. "If Dean falls asleep, just flick him through the bond."
Cas squinted at him in confusion.
"Or, you know, on the forehead."
Dean scowled. "You know what, go for your walk. By the time you get back, me and Cas will have the ESP down like it's cake."
"How many turns of splitting firewood duty do you want to bet on that?" Sam replied.
Dean opened his mouth, but hesitated. "I would, if I didn't have the efficiency of camp to think about."
Sam scoffed. "Lame excuse." He pivoted and walked out, Cas's voice fading behind him,
"I don't think envisioning the bond like it's cake will be very helpful…"
Sam's lips twitched, and he shook his head as he made his way around the cabin to cross the campgrounds. He didn't really have a path in mind, so when he heard the steady beating of a mallet striking metal, he veered toward it.
Out behind the cabins a good distance, Muriel was driving a steel well point into the ground in order to give the camp a source of fresh water they could rely on. Driving a well would have been arduous work for any human without the use of a drill, but for an angel, it just seemed like a slow exercise in whac-a-mole.
"Hey," Sam greeted.
She carried through her swing with a dull thud and then paused to look up. "Hi."
"How's it going?"
"I've almost driven the well point in deep enough," she replied. "Once I have, I'll install the pump, and I expect you'll have clean water by the end of the day."
"That's awesome," Sam said sincerely. "Thanks."
Muriel nodded and reached for the mallet's handle again, only to pause and cast an uncertain look at him. Sam shifted his weight, suddenly feeling like he should let her get back to work uninterrupted, but she spoke first.
"How is the session with Castiel going?"
"Okay," he replied. "I mean, progress is slow, but at least we're making some. Even if it only lasts for less than two seconds." He shrugged one shoulder. "It's not like any of us really know what we're doing."
Muriel's brows rose a fraction in a knowing mien, which made Sam wince.
"You guys aren't too happy about the bond, are you?" he asked hesitantly.
Dean was one thing, as Cas hadn't known better at the time. With Sam he had. Not to mention there was the whole demon blood thing…
Muriel hefted the mallet to give another hammer to the well point. "It's not a matter of being unhappy," she said. "It's the uncertainty of something none of us understand." She set the tool down again and met his eyes. "What Castiel did is unheard of, unique." She paused again. "I guess my concern isn't that he created a profound bond with someone, or even that it's with you and your brother, just that Castiel is my brother, and I care about him."
"I get that," Sam said. "And you should know I think of Cas as my brother, too. And that was before he healed me."
Their friendship wasn't based on some mystical connection, but on a bond deeper than that—fellowship and brotherhood.
Muriel pursed her mouth, but nodded in apparent acceptance. She heaved the mallet up and drove it down with a reverberating thud, and a small pop issued from below.
"It's in," she declared, and turned to a pile of gears and mechanisms on the ground nearby. Biting her lip, she turned back to Sam. "Um, if you wouldn't mind…?"
He straightened. "Oh, sure. You said it's ready for the pump?"
Muriel nodded, and reached down to pick up the objects. "I did extensive research for this project," she said. "How to determine the best location, the procedure. But I'm afraid there are…some aspects of the actual hands-on mechanics that I'm not quite familiar with."
Sam smiled. "Well, I've never installed a water pump, but I've learned a thing or two about mechanics from my brother, so I'm sure between the two of us, we can figure it out."
Muriel's mouth tugged upward in return, and she passed him some tools.
"Hello 'ello yellow. Earth to Cas, do you read?"
Dean opened one eye when he didn't get a response. Cas was staring at him blandly.
"Are you even trying?"
Dean scowled. Why was this so hard? He'd been able to tap into the bond before, when Cas was in trouble. Granted, he hadn't been able to communicate with the angel, just sense his location.
"Look," he said, spreading his hands. "Maybe we're trying to make something that isn't there."
Cas frowned. "I was able to contact you in a dream once. I don't see why it wouldn't be possible to make similar contact while awake."
Dean huffed. "Well, maybe on your end."
Cas tilted his head in intense thought. "Perhaps we should take a break."
"Good call." Dean scrabbled to his feet and went to get the thermos near his bunk. The last dregs of coffee in it was cold, but he gulped it down anyway. Nothing got wasted, not even when he failed to drink it while it was still hot.
"Honestly, Cas," he said, "I don't see why we need to be spending so much time on this. At this rate, it takes just as much time to do a prayer ritual, and that's at least guaranteed success. And if you're in trouble, you can contact us through a dream."
"And if you were ever in a place where you didn't have access to the ingredients for a prayer ritual?" the angel countered as he stood up in one fluid movement.
Dean pursed his mouth, canting his hand in acknowledgement of that point. "Well, then you and Sam can keep at it. I'm just not sure it's my thing."
"You don't give yourself enough credit." Cas gave him a knowing look. "I've noticed you typically accomplish whatever you set your stubborn mind to."
"Thanks. I think." He took another swig of the tepid brew.
"It was a compliment. If it wasn't, I might have said 'pig-headed mind' instead."
Dean narrowed his eyes. "Mr. Pot calling the kettle black."
Cas's brows knitted together and he was silent for a beat. "Have we somehow switched to talking about my attire and flannel again?"
Dean chuckled. "One of these days, man…"
A revving engine and gunfire punctured the air outside. Dean dropped his thermos and bolted for the door, Cas on his heels. They barreled out of the cabin just as four trucks came rumbling into the middle of camp, broken pieces of the wood gate tumbling across the hood of the lead vehicle.
The trucks spread out over the open yard, tires screeching to a halt, and armed men in sunglasses started spilling out and swarming the grounds. People were running out of their cabins now at the commotion. Dean saw Ellen, Jo, and Risa armed in response, and he'd drawn his own gun from his thigh holster, but they were already overwhelmed, over a dozen weapons trained on them.
A hulking dude wearing biker leather spoke up from the invading gang: "Put your weapons down, and nobody has to get shot."
Dean flicked his gaze over the intruders, not liking the odds. He glanced at Ellen and Jo and Risa, who were casting questioning looks his way, ready to follow his lead.
Cas stepped forward, eyes dark like gathering storm clouds over a roiling ocean. His grace began to shimmer in opalescent ripples around him. "I suggest you be the ones to put your weapons down."
The leader narrowed his eyes sharply, but didn't appear afraid. Instead, he grabbed a small oval device that'd been clipped to his vest, and threw it on the ground at his feet. Dean had only a split second to see what looked like a sigil smolder to life. And then the object exploded.
Dean threw an arm up to shield his face from the blinding light. There was no concussive force or searing fire from a grenade, though he felt static tingles race up his arms. It took a moment to blink the white specks from his vision, and when he did, Cas was out cold on the ground.
Dean's heart dropped down to his stomach, yet before he could think about fighting back, someone had surged forward and slammed the butt of a gun against his head. He pitched sideways and hit the dirt. His own gun was yanked from his hand. He dazedly saw men disarming the others as well. Now Dean understood why the bastards were wearing sunglasses. But where the hell had they even gotten a weapon that could take out an angel?
"You son-of-a-bitch," he growled. "What did you do to him?"
Lead biker-dude bent down to pick up the sigiled device, turning it over to admire it. "Clipped his wings." He went over and poked his shoe into Cas's side.
Dean tried to lunge to his feet, but a meaty hand clamped around his shoulder and forced him back down to his knees. He felt the circular end of a barrel pressed against the back of his head.
"Looks like it was just the one halo," the leader said. "But check the cabins for more. This thing should've knocked 'em all out."
Several of the men moved off to do that, followed by the shouts and cries of people still hiding inside.
Dean clenched his fists in rage and utter helplessness. "What do you want?"
Biker-dude removed his shades and smirked. "Everything you got."
Sam jerked ramrod straight at the sound of gunfire echoing from the front of the campgrounds. He immediately dropped the pump and wrench he was holding and started sprinting back toward the cabins. He saw a bunch of armed men, heard shouting, and then an explosion of light made him skid to a stop and throw his arms up across his face. He hadn't even realized Muriel was running after him until she staggered into his side with a gasp.
Squinting, Sam could just make out Cas collapsing on the ground. His heart seized, and he started to surge forward again, but Muriel grabbed his arm and yanked him back. He spun, shooting her a startled look.
"That was some kind of…magic," she said breathlessly, face pale. "Targeting angels."
Sam whipped his head back toward Cas. He could see Dean and Ellen and Jo being surrounded and taken captive and wanted to rush to their aid.
But whoever these thugs were, they apparently had weapons against angels—because they knew angels might be at Camp Chitaqua? And there was obviously too many of them. If Sam wanted any hope at saving the others, he'd need to come up with a plan. Which meant for now, it was better they hide.
"Come on," he said, taking Muriel's other arm and turning toward the tree line.
They made it without a cry of chase being sent up, and Sam ducked down near the edge of the thicket so the camp was still in sight. So far, it looked like the invaders were just rounding everybody up.
Sam turned to Muriel. "Are you okay?"
She nodded. "The weapon didn't hurt me. I just…felt it. I think I was just on the edge of its range."
Sam exhaled in relief, but then his gut clenched. "What do you think it did to Cas? I mean, he's not…?"
Her mouth tightened. "I think he's still alive."
Yeah, Sam was gonna go with that. Angels died loud and violently, like stars collapsing, and he hadn't seen that inside the brief flash.
"Can you call the rest of the garrison for help?" he asked.
Muriel's expression turned grim, and she shook her head. "They're all out looking for information on the Seals. By the time they get my message and come here, it might already be too late."
A lump gathered in Sam's throat, and his gaze shifted back to the mass of armed invaders who had taken over the camp. He swallowed, steeling his jaw.
"Then it's up to us."
Dean seethed as his arms were wrenched behind his back and a zip tie cinched around his wrists. Then he was shoved to the ground next to Ellen, Jo, and Risa, who'd also been similarly restrained, their weapons confiscated. The others of the camp were being rounded up as well.
Dean twisted around at a slew of curses spewing from a gruff voice issuing from the cabin to his left.
"Get your hands off me!"
Two thugs dragged Bobby from his cabin, ignoring the ramp and simply yanking him from his wheelchair and letting it fall down the steps in a clatter. They dropped him on the ground.
"Hey!" Dean surged to his feet and made it two steps before someone drove the butt of a rifle into his gut, and he hit the ground again, the wind knocked out of him.
"Have you no shame?" Ellen yelled.
Dean coughed, and lifted his head to watch Bobby's arms get tied behind his back. The older hunter's face was nearly puce with rage and humiliation.
Dean was closer to Cas now, but the angel was still down for the count. One of the invaders walked over and bound both his hands and feet with zip ties. Dean had a split moment of brief relief that Cas was at least alive.
Straightening, the goon then kicked Cas in the ribs. "Glowy bastard."
Dean pushed himself up into a sitting position and glowered at the leader. "Where did you get that kind of weapon?" he asked. And the way the guy had quickly used it, it was like he knew to expect angels in the camp. But how the hell could he have known that?
Biker-dude came to stand over him. "From another halo. Ran into one a few weeks back, but instead of smiting everyone like the bastards are prone to, he had a proposition for us. Find some survivor camp somewhere in the Mid-west and wipe it out." He smirked. "I would've told him he was nuts, but he said you guys were thought to have a bunch of good loot. Warned us there might be other halos around, and gave us this to take care of 'em." He waggled the sigiled device in front of Dean.
Dread carved a pit in his stomach. This was a bounty? "What other angel?" he growled.
Biker-dude shrugged. "Didn't get that far. He was a pasty white guy, though. Looked like a paper pusher." His lip curled upward. "Know him?"
Dean's gut tightened. He'd bet money it was Zachariah. The douchebag had mentioned tracking down the camp that was under the rebel garrison's protection, just to spite Gabriel and the other angels, not to mention the Winchesters for ruining Heaven's plan to wipe out said garrison.
"And you, what, thought you'd help those dickbags who are destroying everything? That angel doesn't care about humans."
"Hey, it's every man for himself out here. And like I said, he said you had loot."
Dean gritted his teeth in frustration. "How'd you find us?" he demanded.
Not even Zach knew that, and from what it sounded like, he still didn't. He'd just hired some human goons to do the legwork for him. Dean's heart suddenly seized with terror that these guys might call the bastard down. But no, they didn't know his name, so there was no way they'd be able to contact him through prayer.
"Ran into another old friend of yours," the leader said smugly. "Gotta say, you don't have a lot of fans out there."
Dean frowned. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Biker-dude craned a look over his shoulder, and Dean followed his gaze to a scrawny guy in the back of the gang who started to step forward. He pulled his sunglasses off, and Dean's brows shot upward. Frankie Sanders?
"Bet you never thought you'd see me again," the young man said, making his way over.
Dean could only stare in stupefaction.
"You little putz," Bobby snarled.
"Shut up, old man," Frankie snapped back. "In case you haven't noticed, your high horse got kicked out from under you."
"Why are you doing this?" Dean asked.
Frankie's eyes were cold and feral when he bored his gaze into Dean, nothing like the last time Dean had seen him months ago. "You really have to ask? You threw me out like a dog. Well, I found a bigger pack. One that happened to share my newfound goal in life."
Biker-dude clapped a beefy hand on Frankie's shoulder. "Lucky we ran into this kid." He raised his hand to give the guy a noogie. "Lucky he didn't end up shot full of bullets."
"Sounds like the makings of true love," Dean muttered.
Frankie jerked away, and leaned down to sneer in Dean's face. "Not so self-righteous now, are we?"
Dean's gaze didn't waver. "I'm not the street thug here."
Frankie straightened again, and finally roved his gaze around the other captives. His brows furrowed. "Someone's missing."
"We checked all the cabins, Pete," one of the bikers said to the leader.
Frankie whirled back to Dean. "Where's Sam?"
Dean stiffened. He hadn't even realized Sam wasn't among the prisoners. His brother had gone for a walk…had he gone far enough not to hear the attack? Or was he evading the raiders? Dean hoped so. With a jolt, he realized Muriel was missing as well. She'd been working out back…was she lying unconscious out there after that sigiled device went off? Surely these goons would have noticed when they did a sweep of the place, unless they were utterly incompetent. Maybe she'd gone for help.
Dean hardened his gaze at Frankie. "Sam took off. He didn't like the way things at camp were being run, either."
Frankie lashed out to grab the front of his shirt. "I don't believe you." He pushed Dean backward, almost making him lose his balance, and turned to Biker-dude—Pete. "We need to search every inch of this place and the surrounding woods."
"I give the orders here," Pete responded. "And I'm not wasting time searching for one guy." He nodded to his men. "Put these people inside one of the cabins, then start grabbing everything. We'll pile the loot out front and decide what to take." He paused, and shifted his gaze back to Dean. "And then we'll burn everything else to the ground."
Dean's blood ran cold.
"I'm telling you, there's one person unaccounted for!" Frankie pressed.
"You got your prize," Pete retorted sharply. "We get the loot, you get some quality time with this Dean Winchester. I suggest you get started."
Dean shot Frankie a dark glower as the young man turned back to him.
"Help me," Frankie grumbled to one of the thugs, who despite Pete's declaration that he gave the orders, proceeded to grab Dean by the back of his jacket and haul him up.
"You bastard!" Bobby's shout and Ellen's after that was drowned out in terrified cries as the rest of the gang started pulling people up and escorting them into Bobby's cabin.
Frankie, however, led the way to Dean's own cabin. Inside, he grabbed a chair and dragged it over to the middle of the floor, and then the raider shoved Dean into it. He heard the familiar 'zpp' of another zip tie and grimaced as his bindings were then secured to one of the slats in the back of the chair.
The raider left, leaving Dean and Frankie alone. The scrawny kid started rolling up his sleeves.
Dean cracked his neck. "So, this where the payback starts? I should probably tell you, I spent days under a demon's knife back when the Apocalypse first started. Not much you can do to top that."
Frankie swung a fist that impacted his cheek and sent blood splashing through his mouth.
Castiel woke to a throbbing headache and a soreness permeating every fiber of his being. Even his lungs felt bruised with the shallow, autonomic movements of respiration. His right arm was hurting, too, somehow tucked underneath the heavy weight of his body. He tried to extricate it, but found he couldn't. As the pain receptors in the rest of his limbs activated, Castiel became aware of his arms torqued behind him, something hard biting into his wrists. His feet were lashed together as well.
Castiel forced his eyes open, only to immediately squeeze them shut again as the light speared directly into his skull. What had happened? Why was he in this condition?
"Castiel?" a soft voice prompted.
He pried his eyes open slowly, and found Jo Harvelle leaning over him. She had her arms folded behind her…no, her shoulders were too taut for it to be casual. Squinting, Castiel tried to shift his gaze around several blurry shapes huddled around him on the floor. All of them were restrained, though he was the only one lying down. Bobby was propped up against the side of the desk with Ellen next to him.
"Castiel?" Jo said again. "Are you okay?"
He blinked, trying to clear his muddled mind. "What happened?" He swallowed against a coarse throat.
"Invasion of the assholes," Bobby growled.
Castiel's brow pinched. That didn't exactly answer his question…
"The camp's been taken over by a gang of humans," Ellen said. "They're here to raid and pillage the place. They used some kind of sigiled device that knocked you out. Any idea what it was?"
He had to swallow a moan. "No. But it was decidedly unpleasant." He frowned. "They had weapons meant for angels…"
"Yeah," Ellen replied grimly. "Said something about taking a bounty from another angel who wanted this camp found and destroyed."
Castiel's eyes flew wide. "What? Did they summon this other angel?"
"No. Apparently all they knew was that somewhere in the Mid-west was a camp of humans with angel allies. Though Dean knew one of them. Sounds like there's some bad blood there, as this guy led the raiders here."
"Understatement," Bobby muttered. "Frankie Sanders used to live at camp, back when we first set it up as a permanent living situation. But he was a lazy-ass son-of-a-bitch who couldn't follow the rules. Dean gave him plenty of chances before finally kicking him out after the kid drank through the liquor stash—again—and then tried to cop a feel with one of the women."
Castiel frowned, and tried to lift his head to see more of the cabin. "Where is Dean?" he asked urgently.
Ellen's mouth pressed into a thin line. "With this Sanders. Guy took Dean into his cabin while the rest of us were put in here."
Castiel tried to surge all the way upright at that, but his head swam and he ended up collapsing back on the floor and squeezing his eyes shut. He felt Jo inch closer, pressing her knee to his in what little gesture of comfort she could offer.
"Are you badly hurt?" she asked.
He tried to focus his senses, muster his angelic essence to banish some of the pain and strengthen his limbs so he could break free. But it wasn't working.
"I can't feel my grace," he confessed. "Whatever that weapon was, I'm afraid it's left my powers completely numb."
And he had no idea how long the effects might last…if they were temporary or not.
Shouts and jeers rose up from outside, along with clanks and clatters that sounded like objects being cast into a pile.
Ellen sighed. "Well, one good thing is Sam wasn't caught."
Castiel stiffened. "He wasn't?"
She shook her head. "Sanders noticed, too, but the head thug didn't want to take attention away from plundering to go look for him."
Then there was hope…Castiel scanned the room again now that his head wasn't so dizzy. "Muriel?"
Ellen blinked, expression slackening. "I forgot she was here."
"I didn't see her get dragged in," Jo said.
Castiel's stomach clenched with worry. Would Muriel have been hit with the weapon that had knocked him out? Was she okay? He wished he knew more of what was going on, what was happening to Dean and what angel had sent these barbarians after a group of mostly defenseless humans.
But he was just as powerless as the people he had taken under his wing and vowed to protect.
However, perhaps he was not entirely helpless…if Sam was still out there, Castiel might be able to reach out through the bond and contact him. He could only hope the connection wasn't dependent on the state of his grace.
All he could do was try, though. Not bothering to try getting off the floor again, Castiel closed his eyes and reached for the link.
Sam stayed ducked down behind some reeds, watching through the splayed fronds as men continued to ransack his home, carrying out armfuls of supplies and dumping them in the middle of the grounds. They also carted out personal objects, things that didn't have any functional value, and tossed it all together.
He thought he had the leader picked out—the brutish guy who stayed by the pile and casually sorted through it, discarding things here and there with callous disregard. Sam knew the harsh times had hardened some people, driven them to commit unmerciful acts against each other in the desperate need to ensure their own survival. But this savagery was a measure beyond that. A despotic enjoyment of crushing other people beneath them.
A swish of branches behind him had Sam whipping around in fright, but he instantly slumped when it was just Muriel's opalescent osprey gliding in from above. It tucked its wings forward around itself as it came in for a landing, swirling into her human shape a split second before her foot touched the ground.
"What'd you find out?" Sam asked.
"I counted fifteen invaders," she replied, peering through the trees at the cluster of cabins. "All have guns. That one, the leader, has what looks like a sigiled device, but I couldn't tell if any of the others are carrying anything similar."
Sam frowned. "You'll have to avoid doing anything angel-y so they don't think to use it like they did on Cas. At least until we can get that weapon away from them."
Her mouth turned down as well. "Castiel and the others were herded into one of the cabins. At the moment, they're being left alone."
Sam's shoulders heaved with a frustrated breath as he tried to wrack his brain for a plan. "Our best bet is to pick off these guys one by one. Get their weapons, even the odds."
Muriel folded her arms across her chest. "We'll have to draw them away from the others for that."
Sam pursed his mouth. Yeah. Without drawing the attention of too many at the same time. He started to pace, only to pivot back around. "How's your acting?"
"You could zip in behind one of the cabins, get one of the raider's attention, pretend to be terrified and beg for your life."
Muriel arched a dubious brow. "And what would that accomplish?"
Sam shook his head and held up a hand, gears whirring and not yet finished. "Tell him you know of a secret stash of goods, and you'll show him where it is if he doesn't hurt you. But you'd have to be convincing if he's gonna follow you away from the others."
Her mouth pinched, and she continued to look skeptical about the idea. Sam had to wonder whether she was capable of playing a damsel in distress.
But she nevertheless sighed and dropped her arms. "Alright."
"You can lead them to the well," Sam went on. "It's out of sight from the main grounds."
Sam started shifting his weight again, now trying to think two steps ahead. That ruse could work a few times, but eventually the absences would start to be noted, and then they'd have to move to a larger scale distraction.
He turned back around. "What?"
Muriel frowned. "I didn't say anything."
Sam quirked a brow. He could have sworn he heard… Something pinged in the back of his mind, a familiar thrum that sent adrenaline spiking through him with elation.
"Cas," he breathed.
Muriel raised her brows. "What about him?"
"I think he's trying to reach out through the bond," Sam said excitedly. Shit, okay, he needed to concentrate.
He lowered himself to the ground and closed his eyes, feeling somewhat silly and much too jittery to maintain a proper meditative pose, but the structure helped him visualize what they'd accomplished that morning. Granted, that had been very brief, but now it was crunch time. Lives were at stake.
Sam envisioned the gossamer thread anchored in his soul and extending out into the ether, connecting him to Cas. "Cas?" he called tentatively.
He huffed out a half giddy smile at how relieved the angel sounded. Cas's voice was faint, but clear.
"Are you okay?" they asked at the same time.
Sam shook his head. "I'm fine. So is Muriel. What about you? We saw them use some kind of weapon on you."
He sensed the link vibrate with discontent.
"My grace has been temporarily anesthetized."
Sam frowned, not sure what exactly that meant, but it didn't sound good. "Just hang in there, and tell everyone to hang in there, too. Muriel and I are working on a plan."
"Sam, Dean isn't being held with us. A man named Frankie Sanders is partially behind the invasion."
Sam blinked. "What?" he blurted.
Frankie Sanders…it'd been months since he'd heard that name, or seen the man it belonged to. Not since they'd first settled at Camp Chitaqua, before the angels started helping them. Things were rough back then and they'd had to make a lot of hard decisions in order to keep everyone safe.
"Is Dean with Sanders?"
Sam's chest tightened. From what he remembered of Frankie, the young man had a short temper, and if he was here with the gang of thugs, it was probably for revenge. He and Muriel needed to act now.
"Okay, Cas, just hang tight. We're gonna get you guys out."
"Be careful, Sam."
Sam opened his eyes, reluctantly breaking his concentration. He felt the thrum in the back of his mind fade. Muriel was gazing down at him tensely.
"Is Castiel okay?"
Sam got to his feet and brushed pine needles off his jeans. "He said his grace has been numbed. I'm guessing that means he can't use his powers. But he's okay. We have to move now, though. The guy behind all this has a score to settle with Dean."
He took a deep breath and met her gaze resolutely. "Ready to play damsel in distress?"
Dean grunted as another fist impacted his stomach, followed by one that widened the split across his cheekbone even further. He leaned to the side and spat a glob of blood on the floor.
"Feel better?" he directed to Frankie. He was rewarded with another gut punch that left him dry heaving for several seconds. Before he could recover his breath, fingers clutched a fistful of his hair and yanked his head back, arching his throat painfully.
"You think you're untouchable?" Frankie spat. "You're not."
Dean coughed and choked on the blood that trickled down the back of his throat at this angle. "You got a problem with me, fine," he managed to ground out. "But why hurt everyone else here? They don't deserve it."
Frankie released his hair with a shove. "Why not? None of them stood up for me. Why should I care what happens to them?"
"Because you're not a monster," Dean tried. A pig, definitely, and even worse when drunk, but Frankie had gotten up close and personal to deliver this beating, and Dean could smell that he was stone cold sober.
Frankie's lip curled up in a feral snarl. "Not a monster, huh?"
He planted his feet apart and squared his shoulders. Taking a deep breath, his chest started to shudder. Dean frowned. What the hell…
Frankie closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again, they were yellow. Dean's heart leaped into his throat. No way.
Claws began to extend from his nail beds, and he opened his mouth to bare incoming fangs.
"You're a werewolf," Dean blurted, for lack of anything better.
"I am now." Frankie raised his hand to examine it, then narrowed that sharpened gaze back on Dean. "You sent me out there to die. I didn't last a week before a werewolf found me. I almost didn't survive the transformation."
Dean shook his head in dismay. "I didn't want to do that."
"Liar!" he seethed, lunging forward so quickly that Dean automatically recoiled against the back of the chair. "You had it in for me since day one."
"The rules were simple," Dean retorted. Like hell he was gonna let Frankie paint him as the bad guy in his own private melodrama. "I gave you plenty of chances to follow them."
Frankie snorted. "Like you're such a saint. Dean Winchester, the man who can do no wrong."
Dean looked away. He was so done listening to this. "Your friends outside know you're a werewolf?" he asked casually.
Frankie punched him in the mouth, sending a fresh burst of copper onto his tongue.
Dean swallowed thickly. "Take that as a no."
"You won't be talking your way out of this," Frankie seethed. "You're gonna pay for what you did to me."
Dean scowled. "You know what, why don't you man up and take responsibility for your own life?"
"You ruined my life!"
"I tried to save your life!" Dean shouted back. "I'm trying to save all of their lives! The world's ending. This isn't a vacation spot, or a place for you to drown your sorrows. We've all lost things in this war. Homes, people. You didn't deserve special treatment."
He paused to take a ragged breath. "And you know what else, I was wrong; you are a monster. I never should have let you stick with us as long as I did."
Frankie's nostrils flared, yellow eyes blazing with bloodthirsty fury. "Well, like I said, I'm here to make sure you regret that mistake."
Claws raked across his chest, sundering fabric and flesh. Dean gritted his teeth and choked on a garbled cry.
Muriel made the short jump through the ether to land right behind one of the cabins on the outskirts of the cluster. She could hear the interior being ransacked and multiple pairs of heavy boots clomping around inside. She waited until one of those sets of boots stomped their way out, leaving the other one alone.
Muriel lifted her eyes to the sky and shook her head, then forced herself to let out a pathetic sounding mewl. The ruffian inside stilled his movements.
She grimaced and tried to whimper again. Now the boots were slowly making their way to the door, probably to come around and investigate. Muriel was no stranger to the concept of playing bait, but as an angel, it usually meant faking an injury so a demon would come close and then get ambushed by the rest of the team. To play a simpering 'damsel' would take some…creativity.
But her brother was being held in one of these cabins, along with a bunch of innocent people. So she could find the inspiration.
Casting a look about herself, she decided to crouch down as though she were hiding. A normal human probably wouldn't have been able to hear the man approaching, but she could. Muriel closed her eyes and took a breath.
As soon as the man rounded the corner, she threw her arms up as though to ward off a blow. "No, please. D-don't hurt me."
He sneered a yellow, toothy grin at her. "Well, ain't you a pretty little thing."
Ugh, these vermin deserved what was coming to them.
He reached out to grab her, and she scrambled back on her hands and feet. "No," she gasped, "wait. I- I know where a secret cache of valuables is!" She pretended to try looking around him and lowered her voice. "I'll show you. Just, please, don't hurt me."
He paused, shrewd gaze narrowing on her. But then he slowly glanced over his shoulder, and Muriel saw the shift in his eyes when he looked back, the gleam of greed.
Sam was right; these humans were predictable.
The brute squatted down to her eye level. "Where?"
Muriel swallowed thickly. "This way." She slowly rose to her feet, arms out defensively. She made sure to dart her eyes back and forth like a frightened rabbit as she started to move. "The well's a fake," she said. "Dean said it just doesn't work, but I saw him burying stuff out there."
The raider moved forward to grip her elbow hard. "Show me."
Muriel quickly averted her gaze so he wouldn't catch the scathing flash of ire she couldn't keep off her face.
She let him roughly keep pace as she guided him to the well. Then she pointed to a bare patch of soil three feet next to the well point. "There."
He moved closer to begin inspecting it, completely turning his back on her. His mistake. Muriel picked up the mallet off the ground and clobbered him in the side of the head. He went down like a felled tree trunk. No muss, no fuss.
Sam crept from the tree line and hurried over. He quickly relieved the thug of his weapons, and then grabbed an arm while Muriel took the other to drag him into the woods.
Sam bent down and yanked a coil of plastic circles from the guy's belt loop, and then proceeded to cinch a couple around the man's wrists and ankles. Muriel watched, intrigued by the objects. They were quite effective.
Sam finished by digging out a handkerchief from the man's pocket and stuffing it in his mouth. Then he hefted the rifle and stood up. "Again?"
Considering the plan had worked rather smoothly, Muriel nodded, and flew back to the same cabin, this time to lure out the other vandal that had been rifling through things that didn't belong to him.
She would even say she got better at playing the damsel each time, and she and Sam managed to pick off five of the raiders without raising an alarm. But now they were pushing the limits, as she'd heard someone start asking where so-and-so had gotten to.
"Now what?" she asked Sam after they had secured the fifth invader, their arms full of several weapons.
Sam turned his gaze back toward the front of the camp. "Time for a bigger distraction."
The pain in Castiel's extremities was slowly lessening, save for where the plastic ties were cinched tightly, cutting off circulation. They were biting into his flesh, too, since he'd been struggling against them for the past several minutes, trying to regain enough of his angelic strength to simply snap them.
It wasn't working.
He slumped against the hardwood floor with a vexed sigh. He really did not like being cut off from his grace. And the longer he was stuck in here, the longer this Sanders fellow could be doing horrible things to Dean. And there was the increased chance of Sam and Muriel getting captured as well…
Castiel huffed in frustration, and caught Jo giving him a sympathetic look. She was a hunter, used to action just as he was. Castiel had told them Sam was well and safe, and working on a plan to free them. But the waiting was proving agitating for Castiel.
The sound of an explosion jolted him and everyone in the cabin, along with the resulting shockwave that rattled the windows. Guess the waiting was over.
Castiel pushed himself up into a sitting position, trying to see out the window at what was happening. Shouts went up outside, followed by another explosive concussion. Gunfire peppered the air. Castiel's heart leaped into his throat.
A scraping sound at the rear of the cabin had them all whipping their heads around as the back window was jimmied open from the outside. Sam's head popped up as he stood tall to shove his shoulder into the frame and raise it all the way.
"Sam!" someone exclaimed.
The younger Winchester quickly roved his gaze over them before dropping out of sight for a moment. When he returned, it was to thrust an armful of weapons through the window to clatter on the floor. Then he was hopping up onto the windowsill and slipping inside.
He didn't waste words as he whipped out a knife and started cutting their bonds. First Risa, as she was closest, then Ellen. He paused to hand them guns before moving on to Castiel and Jo.
Castiel shook out his hands as blood flow resumed to his fingers. "Where's Muriel?"
Sam passed him a handgun. "Starting the party. Let's go join her."
He handed off his knife to the last person he'd set free so they could continue freeing the others while those with fighting experience headed outside. Castiel immediately saw that the source of the explosions and consequent distraction for the raiders was two of their vehicles currently in flames. The ruffians were in chaos, running for water to put the fire out, but the moment the members of Camp Chitaqua were spotted spilling out of the cabin, more gunfire ensued.
Castiel darted over to the next cabin to take cover. Normally he didn't have to fear mundane lead bullets, but given the state of his grace, he didn't want to risk it. Plus, he had no idea if Zachariah might have equipped these men with angel bullets. Castiel hoped not, as he caught flashes of bluish-white light flitting in and out as Muriel attacked the thugs from behind.
He saw her zip out of the ether next to the large man Castiel remembered as having wielded the angel weapon against him. The brute reached for it now, yet Muriel captured his fist in her own and cranked his arm back far past the human skeleton's natural range of motion. She then pried a small metallic device from his fingers and smashed it down on the hood of the truck. Castiel saw a small spritz of light as whatever sigiled magic it contained was nullified.
That was one thing to be relieved about. Muriel disappeared again before the men could start firing on her, though most of their attention was focused on those few people actually returning fire.
Castiel was unpracticed with human projectile weapons, but his visual acuity was sharp enough that aiming was easy. He squeezed the trigger and watched the first bullet shoot from the chamber and hit its target across the yard at center mass. He quickly adjusted to aim at another foe.
Despite having started off outnumbered, between the formidable women of Camp Chitaqua, Sam, Castiel, and Muriel still able to use her grace, the invaders were all neutralized in a manner of minutes.
Or so he thought.
"Sam!" Risa shouted.
Castiel whipped his attention to where the woman was looking—the Winchesters' cabin where a raider they'd missed had stepped out onto the porch. He wasn't a large man, but he still had an arm wrapped around Dean's throat and was holding the Winchester against him like a shield. Dean's face was a mottled mess of bruises and abrasions.
Castiel's jaw tightened with rage. Sanders.
"Frankie," Sam said. "Let him go."
"No! All of you drop your weapons." He pressed his own gun into Dean's ribs.
"Look around you," Sam replied, gesturing to the bodies of all the raiders scattered about. "It's over."
Sanders shook his head. "Dean and I are gonna leave. Don't stop us, and the rest of you can live."
Sam didn't move. "That's never going to happen."
Dean squirmed in the unyielding grip. "He's a werewolf, Sam!"
Castiel started. A werewolf? Why wasn't he told this? Though, a look at the shocked expression on Sam's face suggested he hadn't known. That explained how this human with a physique more spindly than Dean's seemed to be overpowering the Winchester, even when injured.
Sanders tightened his chokehold on Dean, cutting off his air. "That's right, Sammy. So why don't you back off before I decide to bite him. Unless you want to have to put a bullet in your brother's heart."
Fury surged up in Castiel and he immediately adjusted his angle for a head shot, but while his aim was good, he didn't trust his proficiency with the weapon to take the shot while Dean was in the line of fire. If only he had access to his grace.
Muriel suddenly rounded the corner of the cabin, casually striding up the side. Sanders jerked his weapon away from Dean toward her, his aim jittery.
"I said, back off!"
Muriel came to a stop only six feet away, eyes narrowed on him. She didn't speak, just held the man's gaze with fierce intensity. Sanders didn't seem to know what to do with her, except to stare nervously back. Sam and the others started exchanging uncertain glances.
And then Muriel's grace exploded with such force and an ear-splitting screech that Sanders flung himself backward away from it. Dean dropped to the deck and rolled against the siding as the lightning osprey shot forward and hooked its talons into Sanders shirt. Twisting around, it tossed the man out onto the grass.
The other humans danced back a few steps as Sanders's eyes flashed yellow and he started to transform. Muriel simply marched forward, wreathed in crackling wings of iridescent plasma. The bird arched its head back with a shriek, and then plunged down to jab its beak into the mutating werewolf.
Sanders screamed and tried to get away, but the osprey was relentless. Muriel spread her arms, and the bird glided the few inches forward to land, talons digging into Sanders's legs and shoulders. He lashed out with partially shifted claws, which did nothing against the grace animal. Blood oozed from cauterized wounds, and Sanders gave one last shudder before falling still.
Muriel stepped back, the osprey's opalescent wings folding down behind her like a cloak and fading.
Sam moved first, rushing to Dean's side as the older Winchester pushed himself into a sitting position. Castiel dropped the gun he was holding, as he didn't need it anymore, and hurried over as well.
"You okay?" Sam asked urgently as he started to untie him. "Did he bite you?"
"I'll live," Dean grunted, wincing when his hands were freed. "And no, he just roughed me up a bit."
Castiel's gaze darkened as he took in the slashes on Dean's chest and marks of the beating up close. But the important thing was the Winchester was alive and not irreparably harmed, and for that, he was grateful.
The three of them looked at each other, relief finally settling in. It had been a long day.
Sam stood with arms folded across his chest as Ellen fussed over Dean's injuries.
"Looks painful," she said, dabbing at his chest with a handkerchief.
"I'm fine," Dean groused, and tried to nudge her arm away. She refused to budge.
"Well, at least it doesn't look like you'll need stitches."
Jo came over with an ice pack that was dripping condensation after having been thrown out on the grass with the rest of their freezer supplies. The rest of the camp members were busy putting the perishables back.
"This is still cold," Jo said, offering it to Dean.
He took it with a small nod of thanks and pressed it to his face with a wince.
"When did Sanders become a werewolf?" Sam asked. He was still having trouble wrapping his brain around everything that had gone down. The bit about Zachariah hiring a group of thugs to hunt down their camp was startling, but not necessarily surprising after the incident with the mole, Ezra. Frankie's role in all this, however, was.
Dean dropped his gaze. "Sometime after I kicked him out."
"That wasn't your fault," Bobby said gruffly, back in his wheelchair. "Boy made his own choices. You weren't responsible for him the moment he went out that gate."
"I pushed him out that gate."
"He was bad for the camp," Sam said sympathetically. Yeah, he'd regretted the necessity of kicking Frankie out back then, but the guy hadn't left them much choice.
Dean lifted dark eyes. "He didn't deserve what happened to him."
Ellen stopped her ministrations to give him a solemn look. "You can't save everyone, Dean. Oldest rule in hunting."
He looked away again, resignation in the droop of his shoulders. Just because Ellen was right didn't make the reality any easier to live with.
Sam glanced over at Cas and Muriel a few feet away. Cas was leaning against the side of the cabin with his eyes closed, while Muriel had a hand hovering over his chest as though examining him.
Dean leaned forward to peer around Ellen. "Cas gonna be okay?"
"I think so," Muriel replied, lowering her hand. Cas opened his eyes. "His grace has sustained a shock, but it should recover with time. Hael might be able to help with it, too."
A little more tension seeped from Dean's posture.
"What are we gonna do about the rest of the raiders?" Ellen asked.
Sam half turned toward where the five thugs who were still alive were laid out on the grass, immobilized with their own zip ties. The leader wasn't one of them.
"Can you transport them somewhere?" he asked Muriel. "Like really far away maybe?"
She nodded slowly. "One at a time, sure. It won't be pleasant for them."
Dean snorted. "Good."
"What about the angel who hired them in the first place?" Bobby put in.
"Zachariah doesn't know where the camp is," Cas said. "I'm sure this 'bounty' was just an opportunity in the moment that he took advantage of. He has more important things to worry about."
"Well," Dean added, "those mooks never got his name, so it's not like they can pray to him and let him know."
Meaning they wouldn't have to actually kill the raiders to protect the camp, which Sam was relieved about.
Dean nodded to Muriel. "Go ahead and banish them or whatever."
She dipped her chin. "I'll pick a different continent."
She turned away to start taking care of that.
Sam roved his gaze over the damage left in the wake of the invasion. They had a lot of cleanup ahead, but things could have been much worse.
"We did learn one thing today," he said cheerily. "The bond works even if Cas's grace is low." Sam clapped his brother on the shoulder. "And you now owe me several turns of splitting firewood duty."
Dean's face scrunched up. "I didn't take that bet."
"But I still beat you to it. Cas and I had an entire conversation through the bond," Sam said, grinning at the angel.
Dean scowled, and returned to icing his face. "Whatever."
"Come on, Jo," Ellen said, trying to hide a smirk. "Let's help put things back."
Cas pushed himself away from the wall. "Would you like some help?"
Jo just gave him a fond smile. "Take a load off. You look like you could use it."
Cas quirked a confused brow, probably at the colloquialism.
"She's right," Sam put in. "You and Dean take it easy. We've got things out here."
Dean shrugged, and waved for Cas to follow him inside. Sam paused long enough to watch his brother and best friend wearily shuffle their way into the cabin.
Oldest rule in hunting—you can't save everyone. But he'd saved them.
He would take that as a win.
"You want to what?" Castiel asked incredulously.
The Winchester brothers glanced at each other.
"Well, it's the Colt," Dean said. "It kills everything supernatural."
"And we still have no leads on the other Seals," Sam added. "With this, we have a real shot at getting rid of Lucifer now."
Art by 29PiecesOfMe