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Fic: Devil's Arcade (8/14)

oooooooooooooo

My faith's been torn asunder, tell me is that rollin' thunder
Or just the sinkin' sound of somethin' righteous goin' under?
--Bruce Springsteen, "Livin' in the Future"

oooooooooooooo

Earlier that day

It was a beautiful November day in the Idaho Rockies. The sun was out, the air was warmly scented with pine, the occasional vistas of distant mountain peaks were breathtaking, and to top things off, Dean could even hear the damn birds chirping. Which was a little weird, because shouldn't they have migrated south by now?

He would have asked Sam, but his little brother wasn't exactly exuding friendliness this afternoon. Cursing under his breath as he stumbled on yet another tree root, he decided that poking the bear with a stick would at least be more entertaining than stumbling along in silence like they'd been doing since noon. "Are we there yet?" he called out in a tone of mock cheerfulness, his voice breaking the peaceful quiet of the mountainside.

A few paces ahead of him on the rock-strewn trail, Sam raised his hand to the side at head height and showed him a different kind of bird.

"Sammy, that's rude," he replied, changing his voice to mock injury.

"If you'd looked at the damn map, you'd know how far it was," Sam retorted without turning around. "I told you this morning it was a three-hour hike in. It's only been two hours."

Dean bit off the truly sarcastic reply he wanted to make and said instead, "If you let me see the map once in a while, I wouldn't have to ask how far it is."

When Sam came to a dead stop, Dean had to put his hands up to keep from slamming into his broad back. "Whoa," he said. "You don't come equipped with brake lights, you know."

"Here's your damn map," Sam said, fishing in his backpack before slapping a torn and folded sheet into Dean's hand and walking off again.

Dean watched him go with a raised eyebrow. He opened his mouth to ask something about pissing and cornflakes, but he'd watched Sam eat a stack of whole-wheat pancakes for breakfast (without melted butter or whipped cream, and where was the fun in that?), and it didn't seem wise to do anything else to tick him off at the moment.

It would be a lot easier if he knew what had set the boy off in the first place. But Sam had been grumpy all day, actually back to last night when he'd read that stupid story about the Basque brothers after Dean had told him not to. Really, Dean was the one who should be pissy, given that Sam had completely dodged his question last night about not salting and burning Dean's corpse.

Not that it hadn't turned out to be the right choice, given Castiel's grabby hands. But Sam hardly could have known that at the time, and it could have been a serious mistake. Of course, Dean's spirit hadn't been likely to be wandering around topside; he'd been firmly shackled in place, a thought which he quickly shied away from. But something else could have gotten into his skin, and…damn it, Sam should have known better.

Tucking the map away without looking at it, he trudged after his brother, almost out of sight around a bend in the trail. It was kinda pretty up here, nothing put pine trees rising above them with a relatively clear forest floor on all sides and sweetly-scented needles that swished underfoot. They were obviously second-growth trees, none wider than Dean's waist, but that didn't mean they didn't smell good. Occasionally, the trees would clear out and they'd come across a view that L.L. Bean-wearing yuppies would probably kill to have ready access to. But given how many miles they were off the interstate, combined with the fact that they were gaining about a thousand feet of altitude with every mile they tramped, they hadn't seen another soul on the journey.

And that was the way Dean liked it. Especially considering the two of them were carrying an arsenal that wasn't exactly suited for deer hunting.

After a few more minutes passed, there was a fork in the trail, and he pulled the map out to take a look. Sam had plowed ahead to the left without stopping, and it took Dean a moment of studying the green-and-brown lines of the topographic map to decide that he was headed the wrong way. "Hey, Sam!" he called out.

Sam halted in mid-stride and turned around. "You bellowed?" he replied.

"Wrong way, man." Dean pointed down the right fork of the trail. "This'll get us closer to the site where our miner dude is."

"Not if you take the topography into account," Sam replied, crossing his arms over his chest.

"I'm just taking the big red X into account," Dean retorted. "The one you marked that's in line with the trail you're not on?"

"Dean, we're going to have to scramble for about a half a mile along the remains of the landslide. That's much easier to do going uphill. So if we take this trail, we'll climb up the rock pile, do the salt-and-burn, and then keep going up to the other trail to head back."

"Oh." He looked back at the map and saw what Sam was talking about. "Huh." Which was the closest he ever got to offering an apology on the once-a-year occasions Sam was right and he was wrong.

With a roll of his eyes, Sam proceeded to—there was no other word for it—flounce off.

Dean tucked the map away again and strode forward, determined not to let those freakishly long legs get too far ahead of him. There might well be a spirit lurking around this forest, and he really didn't want to find out about it the hard way.

The bulk of another hour passed in silence. At one point, Dean shucked off his sweatshirt and stuffed it in his pack as the sun made things surprisingly warm for their season and location. Then again, he was practically doing a Stairmaster for all the climbing he was being subjected to, which explained the sweat soaking his back. But he would be damned if he asked Sammy to slow down for him, so he manned up and kept trudging uphill on ever-rockier ground.

He'd been wondering if they would have any trouble identifying the location of the landslide, but when they got there, it was pretty obvious. The foot-wide dirt path abruptly ended at a boulder half the size of the Impala, and looking ahead, Dean saw white blazes marked on the rocks in a more or less horizontal line, tracing a route ahead across the rockpile. About three hundred yards away, he could make out the regular trail resuming and curving back into the evergreens.

Sadly, they weren't headed that way.

Instead, he came to a stop next to Sam, who was shading his eyes and looking up the mountainside. The rockpile seemed to go on to the very top, or at least up to timberline. This must have been one huge landslide.

A breeze wafted past, and Dean couldn't suppress a sudden shiver as it washed over his sweaty back. He looked up to see that the sun had gone behind a cloud. Frowning, he asked, "Hey, what was the weather report for today?"

"I thought you were going to check it," Sam replied.

"Dude, you're the one who's always on the computer," Dean retorted. The clouds he could see were not the friendly white and puffy kind, but the dark grey that heralded a storm. "Oh, that's great."

Sam turned around and grimaced. "That's not snow, is it?"

"How should I know?" Dean turned back to face the rockpile, digging his sweatshirt back out of his pack. Castiel might have laid his hand on him somewhere that was usually hidden by a t-shirt, but the bottom of the puffy red scar still poked out from time to time and never failed to draw the attention of anyone nearby.

Including Sam, whose eyes had dropped to Dean's upper arm as if he couldn't help himself before looking away again up the hill. Dean yanked the fleece over his head and muttered, "Let's just do this and get it over with."

Fifteen minutes later, he was really hoping their Basque spirit didn't give them any trouble, because stable footing was really in short supply. The rocks themselves were pretty secure; the slide had occurred over a hundred years ago, and even with a few minor shifts since then, they were pretty well in place. The problem was the completely uneven surface, the lack of flat ground to put a foot on at a normal angle, and the impossibility of keeping a salt circle intact on this uneven surface.

Dean sighed and hopped over to another boulder, wobbling a little with the unexpected weight of the crossbow and backpack he was carrying. They were gonna be lucky to get out of here with both of their ankles intact.

"It should be just up ahead," Sam called from behind him. The younger Winchester had actually fallen behind, his usual agility somewhat limited by the huge knapsack on his back. The shotgun in his hand prevented him from having both hands free to grasp rocks, but when Dean had offered to take it, he'd gotten a look that made him hold his hands up and back off.

He was going to be so glad to get back to the motel.

After a few more minutes, Dean pulled the map out of his pocket and squinted at it. "What are we looking for?" he called down to Sam.

"When we're right in line with the top of the peak across the valley, we should stop climbing," Sam replied, his head down as he scanned the pile looking for his next move.

Dean looked down at the map and noted the neat pencil line from the red X to a feature labeled in brown ink. He squinted at the writing, tucked away in a fold of the map. "Hey, does that say Elk Butt?"

"Elk Butte, you ass," came the disgruntled response.

"Whatever," he muttered in reply. He rotated around and looked off into the distance, unhappy to see that the dark grey clouds were growing closer. One of them pulsed slightly, confusing him until he realized it was lightning. Oh, great. Peachy. "Sammy, when you say 'in line', does that mean according to a normal person or to one with legs like stilts?"

"I didn't triangulate for our difference in height, if that's what you're asking." Sam hurled himself from one rock to another, coming to a skittering stop on the next boulder over from where Dean stood. "What do you think?"

He shrugged. "Seems level to me. Let's start looking for some bones."

They found a relatively large and flat rock about the size of the Impala's hood to lay their weapons and packs down on. Sam kept the shotgun in one hand while Dean fished out the salt canister to carry with him. As they moved around searching for anything bone-like protruding from the hillside, Dean constantly re-calculated the distance back to that rock in case anything suddenly appeared that needed more than a shot or a sprinkle.

After about ten minutes, Sam gave a shout, and Dean's head shot up. The younger man was about fifty feet away, where the edge of the landslide blended into the trees, his attention focused on something on the ground. "I think I got it," he called.

Dean picked his way over, nearly dropping the salt when his foot slipped on a gravelly patch. Sam was standing next to a boulder that came up to his waist, dark granite with a few pink stripes scattered throughout. As Dean watched, Sam tentatively pushed the boulder, and it wobbled back and forth in place. "Looks like this came loose recently."

"Yeah," Dean agreed, casting a nervous glance uphill at the many larger rocks above them that could still fall prey to gravity. He came up next to Sam and looked down at where the boulder used to be.

A scrap of rusted metal was poking up from the ground, next to what could have been a long, thin white rock, but was probably what they were looking for. He exchanged a glance with Sam, and then the two of them were scrambling down into the depression left behind by the shifting boulder.

It took only a few seconds to determine that yes, these were human bones, and yes, all of the major ones appeared to be here. Dean sat back on his heels and looked around him. "Poor bastard almost made it," he said, nodding towards the forest floor just beyond Sam that was empty of rocks. It looked like Miguel had been within ten feet of safety when he bit it.

"Yeah," Sam agreed, straightening to his feet. "I'm gonna get the packs."

"Sure." Dean rose as well, head swiveling around now that they were getting near to the good part. Someday he wanted someone to explain to him how a spirit knew when you were about to torch its bones. All he knew right now was that way too many times, this was when things started to get interesting.

A gust of wind shot up the mountainside, and Dean shivered. Then a rumble of thunder caught his ear, and he turned to see the clouds closing in.

A few yards away in the middle of the rockpile, Sam looked up, a worried expression on his face. "Maybe we should come back tomorrow and take care of this," he called.

"Are you kidding?" Dean turned to face him. "What are you talking about?"

"It's just…it's not a good idea to be exposed like this with a thunderstorm coming on," Sam said, his eyes skittering away.

Dean let out a huff of breath. "Dude, I am not spending another six hours walking out here and back tomorrow. It's not my fault you're taller than some of the trees around here." That got the bitchface he expected, and he went on, "You read the ritual, I salt and burn, we walk back, hopefully not in the driving rain."

"Or snow," Sam said, as if he just had to get the last word in.

"Right, 'cause that would totally make my day," he replied in his driest, most sarcastic tone. "Can we get on with it? You were the one who was so eager to get here, you were practically running up the hill."

"Sorry if I went too fast for your little legs," Sam retorted, a glimmer of good humor under the sharp jibe.

Dean pressed his lips together. That was the closest to a good mood his brother had been all day, and as much as the insult stung, he could take it if it meant that Sam stopped pouting. Instead he called out, "You gotta read something before I can put down the salt, right?"

"Yeah," Sam answered as he scooped up their packs and weapons. "You got that stone handy, right?"

"Yeah, I got a rock in my pocket," Dean replied, feeling the outline of Rose's fossil in his front pocket. "Just hurry it up." He continued to rotate in place, salt canister gripped tightly in one hand, eyes flickering in all directions. Another cold breeze brushed across his neck, and he looked up at the clouds again.

Then he froze. The breeze hadn't come from the approaching storm. It had come from the trees behind him.

He whirled to see an apparition standing next to the closest cedar tree, definitely transparent but thickening by the minute. "Sa-am!" he called.

The hasty "Shit!" a second later told him Sam had seen it as well. "I've got you covered," came the reassuring reply, and Dean could picture his little brother standing up on a boulder with his shotgun aimed at the spirit, looking like some kind of mountain man. The spirit looked the part, too, in patched pants and a torn flannel shirt, his features unmistakably those of the image of Miguel Etxbarri that they had seen at the historical society.

No one moved for a few seconds. Then the ghost glided closer, and as Dean took a step back, he saw that it was carrying something. "Hey Sam, spirits can't normally do that, can they?" he asked, pointing at the solid object in its hands. It looked like a wide, shallow pan.

"Huh," came from behind him, closer than before. He heard Sam's foot scrape on a rock above him. "Maybe it's that unburned and unburied thing."

"You mean he's immortal?" Dean asked incredulously.

"Well, most spirits are, right? In a manner of speaking." There was a rustle and two thumps to his right, and then Sam was standing at his side, shotgun still leveled at Etxbarri. "Here, take this," he said, nodding towards the weapon.

Grabbing it with one hand, Dean kept the aim steady. "How long does this ritual take?"

Sam had dropped his pack onto the ground and was rifling through it. "At least ten minutes, assuming I pronounce everything right. And once I start, I can't stop to say anything else, or I have to start over." He pulled out the lighter fluid and set it on the ground.

"Right." Dean cast a quick glance to the sky and back to the miner, who was still standing there and watching them. "So it'll pretty much be a race between you and the storm, then."

"I'll read fast," Sam muttered, fishing a couple of sheets of paper out of his bag and zipping it closed. "Gimme the salt."

He handed it over, glad to have both hands on the gun. "Hit it," he said.

The first few sentences—at least Dean assumed that was what the pauses between the garbled sounds indicated—had little effect. Etxbarri continued to watch them, walking slowly back and forth, Dean tracking him with the shotgun as Sam paused to squirt lighter fluid onto the exposed bones. It was when Sam shook the first dose of salt onto the bones that things started to happen.

The apparition seemed to grow, shifting from the size of a man shorter than either of the Winchesters to someone Sam's height. Sam cast a nervous glance in Dean's direction but kept reading, the unfamiliar consonants tripping off his tongue less smoothly than Latin ever did.

Lightning flashed overhead, and it was twenty seconds before the answering rumble of thunder rolled by. "Four miles away, Sam," Dean pointed out, not willing to take his eyes off the spirit.

He sensed an annoyed look for his trouble. Another series of incomprehensible sounds followed, then another shake of the canister.

And Etxbarri grew another foot in height, tossing down the metal pan he'd been carrying and taking a menacing step forward.

"Okay, that does it." Dean adjusted his aim upward slightly, pulled the trigger, and salt went flying. The miner wavered for a moment before disappearing.

He let out a breath. That should buy them some time.

Sam was digging in his pocket for the matches, which Dean grabbed from him as soon as he had it out. "Don't want you setting anything else on fire but the bones," he said, tapping the notebook paper with the Euskara words scrawled out in Sam's hand. Sam rolled his eyes but continued to read as Dean squirted a healthy dose of lighter fluid into the depression below them.

Dean waited until he got a nod, then lit a match and held it over the bones.

A gust of wind promptly blew it out.

He looked up sharply, but it was the storm, not the spirit. "Let's try that again," he said, lighting another match and promptly dropping it into the shallow grave at their feet. If he remembered Sam's explanation from the night before, this was the halfway point.

A dry leaf caught, then another, and then a bone. "Sweet," Dean said, stuffing the matches away and returning his attention to their surroundings.

The sky flickered again, and he saw Sam cast a nervous glance upwards before flipping to the second piece of paper and reading both faster and louder. He sprinkled salt for a third time over the flickering flames.

And then he went sprawling on his side, the pages flying out of his hands.

"Damn it!" Dean raised the shotgun, but didn't see a thing. "You okay?"

When he didn't get a response, he turned around, heart in his throat. Sam was picking himself up off the rocky ground, favoring his left shoulder. Lips pressed tightly together, he gave Dean a short nod and scrambled for the sheets of notebook paper before the wind could carry them away.

A rustling sound came from Dean's right, and he whirled to see a faint trace of vapor swirling above the burning remains. Without bothering to wait for confirmation, he sent off another round of salt with a hard pull of the trigger, and the vapor disappeared. "Let's step it up, Sam!" he barked as he reloaded, cursing yet again that there was no way to draw a salt line around themselves on the pile of rocks.

Sam lurched forward, crumpled paper in his hands. He smoothed out the sheets against his thigh and then started to read again. After a moment, he nodded urgently at Dean, pointing to his left pocket.

"Ah, damn it." The ritual required the fire to be lit multiple times, and if he'd remembered that, he could have been ready with the matches instead of having to lower the shotgun, dig them out, fold back the cover, strike a match, and drop it on the already-burning fire before stepping back and looking around.

As it turns out, that was more than enough time for Etxbarri to re-form and be standing right in his face.

Dean yelped and darted back, raising the shotgun. But the miner held out a hand, and in an all-too-familiar move, Dean went flying backwards, slamming into the same waist-high boulder that had been covering Etxbarri's bones, his weapon falling to the ground.

"Son of a bitch!" he exclaimed as he bent over to grab the gun, his legs and lower back instantly aching from hitting the rock. "So much for a fossil warding off evil spirits," he muttered.

Sam's words were growing louder as he dug in his pocket for the fossil he'd been carrying. When they planned this out, Dean had been reluctant to let Sam use his rock as part of the ritual, but now it was pretty clear that it didn't provide direct protection to an individual, he didn't mind so much. Sam held the fossil over the fire and called, "Emaiquzu biziko ta hileko argia!" Then he dropped the rock and took a step back.

From what Dean remembered, there was a pause here before a few final words and one last match. He held up the shotgun with one hand and dug for the matches again, waiting for Sam's signal.

And then a brilliant flash of lightning strobed across their vision in concert with a clap of thunder that was loud enough to be God's voice cracking the sky.

Dean turned to make some snarky comment about how nice it was that Mother Nature was providing an appropriate setting for their activities, when he saw Sam. He froze.

His brother was staring upwards, arms held out from his sides, back slightly arched, jaw open and fear on his face like Dean had only seen a couple of times in his life. For one heart-stopping moment, he thought Sam had been hit by lightning, but he quickly realized that if that were the case, he'd be sprawled out on the ground, not standing upright as though someone had him on a set of strings. "Dude, you okay?" he shouted over a second roll of thunder.

He felt a cold breath on his back and was already lifting the shotgun as he turned around. Etxbarri was right behind him, both hands raised this time and anger wreathing his ghostly face. "Sam, get on with it!" Dean screamed, finger on the trigger, knowing he was too slow even as he fired the weapon.

There was no response from behind him. And in the next second, as the ghost sent him flying backwards again, this time not just his lower body but his head contacting the sharp edge of a fallen boulder, the last thing he saw before darkness slid over him was Sam frozen in place, gaze fixed on the skies, and not doing a damn thing to get rid of the ghost.

(Chapter 9)

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
zubeneschamali
May. 5th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
Another one of those potentially interesting consequences that had to get left behind this season because of all the angels and demons. Oh well, that's what fic is for!

Yes, and poor Dean. The boy does get whumped a lot...
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )