If not for the burn deep in his thighs and calves, Sam wouldn't feel his legs at all. He trudges through snow, hands and feet aching with cold, compelled against his better judgment, against his will toward the things in the tree.
Clouds part, he hesitates, blinking. A sense of dread chills him deeper than the frigid wind.
Too big to be birds. Maybe cloth snagged in the thorns? His imagination churns looking for any mundane possibility.
Sam stumbles on. The jagged roof of a stone building comes into view. It's sunken in a dark hollow, untouched by the moon’s glow.
How the hell did I get out here?
Ten feet from the tree, dread tightens his belly. He falters. Not birds perched on the branches. It's bodies. Human bodies!
Stop! God, just turn around!
Five feet away.
Nooses around the necks of the still figures make his throat tighten. Blackened faces sag like melted wax, skin wrinkled and frozen. He lurches toward the lowest body whispering, "Don't, don't" on each ragged breath.
Its eyes fly open; the mouth stretches in a vicious snarl. The body twists on the rope. Icy hands grip his shoulders.
Sam woke lunging from the bed. The scream that had started in the nightmare trickled out as a whimper. Heart racing, his eyes darted around the room.
Cheap floral bedspread.
Cigarette burns on mud brown carpet.
Sun slanting in through dusty slats... another motel room.
The smell of cold pizza and mildew brought his heart rate down. He released his death grip on the bedspread and sat up.
Their father's leather-bound journal and papers were strewn across the battered motel desk in front of Dean. His leonine frame was molded to the rickety chair, but the relaxed pose didn't quite reach his eyes.
"That's the third nightmare this week," he said quietly. "Is it Jess?"
"No," Sam said, hoping that would end the conversation. He scrubbed at his face and ran his hands through dark, tangled hair. "Man, is it cold in here?"
Dean reached for the back of the room's second chair and tossed Sam his worn, gray sweatshirt, the words "Stanford Athletic Dept," barely visible across the chest.
Sam wearily pulled it on. He winced as an ache shot through his shoulders where the dead man's hands had…Damn, it was just a dream!
"Tell me," Dean insisted. He was sick of trying to pretend he didn't see the circles under his brother's eyes darken by the hour.
"Forget it. It's nothing," Sam said, hoping it was true.
Dean stood quickly and nearly tipped the chair over. He wanted to fix this; it's what he did. He fought to keep his voice even, "Look, you're having a little denial trouble, Sammy."
Sam frowned. "Don't call me Sammy."
Dean leaned over the bed, "Big 'D', DENIAL! Let's accept that you're getting messages from the great beyond." He waved his hands dramatically at the ceiling. "Or you're cursed. Whatever! Let's assume that these nightmares are popping into your head for a reason. You can't ignore them. You wake up screaming every night so I sure as hell can't ignore them!"
Dean caught and held Sam's eyes. He'd gotten used to the haunted anger in them since Jessica. It was the fear and uncertainty in them now that made him back off. God, he's really freaked.
Dean sighed and called up a little more patience. "Humor me. Please."
Sam tried to muster up another round of the "big D". He didn't have time for self-pity; stupid, unprofitable why me's and what if's, but this morning shoulders aching, eyes burning, he felt he deserved a good wallow. He glanced up at his brother. Half formed arguments died on his lips. He huffed out a breath in defeat.
"Fine, just lay it out." Dean dropped into his chair and molded himself into a comfortable position again.
Sam reluctantly let his thoughts return to the nightmare. He drew a shaky breath. "It's cold, night. Moonlight's reflecting off about a foot of snow. I'm trudging through the stuff, no gear." He hesitated, shying away from the image of the things in the tree. "I come to an old stone building…a church or a school maybe. It's too dark to see."
Dean raised his eyebrows, waited.
"There's a tree on top of this hill in front of the building. Three…" Sam struggled for the right word. "…things are hanging from it. At first I think they might be big, black birds perched up there, but when I get closer I see that they're people...hanging."
Dean tipped his head and mimed tightening a noose around his neck.
"Yeah. Suddenly I'm right there next to the lowest one and it…" Sam stopped; swallowed the lump in his throat.
"Wakes up?" Dean supplied gently.
"Yeah," Sam said, rubbing one shoulder, "And he's not happy."
"Then you wake up in a cold sweat. I'm familiar with that part."
Sam was surprised to find that getting the dream out of his head and hung out to air between them in the dingy motel room did help. After three years apart, he had to admit, it was good to be back with Dean.
"Ok. Do you have any idea where you are in the dream? Any details that could tell us anything?"
Sam raked his fingers through sweaty hair, "There's a lot of snow. Could be mountains. The terrain is pretty steep."
"Mountains, huh? That's somethin'." Dean turned back to the desk and their father's journal. "Dad's got a couple of entries in Colorado or Wyoming…somewhere in the Rockies." He turned pages thoughtfully; searching for the entries he remembered. Their father's well-worn leather journal was full of hastily scribbled notes, counter-measures against hundreds of things that go bump in the night. Strapped closed, it could barely hold twenty years of incidents, sightings, and disappearances.
Dean recognized an entry. "Here we go. I ran across this the other night. You remember, oh…five or six years ago, Dad spent a week, maybe more in Colorado Springs?" He shifted the book to the edge of the desk.
Sam moved down to sit on the end of the bed for a better view, "Uh, barely. At least I don't remember being debriefed about whatever happened there."
"Yeah, me neither. Listen to this," Dean read from a newspaper clipping carefully folded and taped into the book. "Ritual Human Sacrifice in Colorado Springs, Police rout a witches' coven calling itself the Order of the Nine suspected in the deaths and disappearances of several people over the past decade in Colorado Springs." Dean pounded a fist on the desk. "Come on! Dad was checkin' out something this big, came home, and we didn't get a crash course on witch burning?"
"Doesn't sound right," Sam agreed edging closer. He dragged the gaudy floral bed spread with him and wrapped it around his shoulders trying to beat the bone deep chills still making him shiver.
Dean skimmed the article. "Let's see… arresting officers…yada, yada, yada…They caught six coven members in an abandoned church in downtown Colorado Springs...Stopped 'em right in the middle of a ritual. The three leaders were still at large, as of …" He checked the date of the newspaper, "October thirty-first, two-thousand. Wild Halloween party." He paused. "You said three dead guys in the tree, right?"
"Yeah, but not so dead." Sam reached for the journal. "Let me see that."
Dean passed him the book and watched his brother's face as he read. The circles under Sam's eyes had deepened. His shoulders under the motel bedspread bowed as if gravity around him was a little heavier than everywhere else. His cheeks looked hollow, his skin even more pale than usual. A stubble of dark brown beard smudged his jaw line.
Dean frowned. I might as well start clucking. Mother hen much?
But Dean could count the things he considered essential to his existence on one hand. His dad and Sam were the first two. He'd been hunting for too long; knew too well what could happen to take anyone he cared about for granted. He fought dueling urges: first to sweep Sam into a hug and hold on to him till the nightmares went away, second, to throw his little brother across the room and beat that psychic crap out of him once and for all. Tough choice.
"According to this article, the members of the coven were into some pretty twisted stuff," Sam said, interrupting Dean before he could make up his mind. "I can't figure out why he didn't drill us on every detail of the job, especially if he never caught up with the last three." Sam pointed to a line in the journal, "Look at these names, Nysrogh, Vetis, Ormias."
"Don't know 'em. Sound demonic though." Dean leaned in to read the unfamiliar words. He worked through the names; getting a feel for the odd sound of each one and immediately regretted the effort. They gave him the same dirty, repulsive feeling he got from hearing some jerk use the "N" word.
"Then look at this," Sam said. He pushed the book toward his brother pointing to the words written below the paragraph and underlined twice in their father's jagged script.
"Huh," Dean huffed, eyebrows raised.
Sam shrugged. "No idea."
Again they sat in silence, considering everything revealed in notebook and nightmare; attempting to fit the pieces into some logical pattern.
"Aaaaah." Dean stood and stretched muscles gone stiff first from keeping watch over Sam's sleep then from sitting bent over the book. "Maybe it’s a different Sam." He raised his arms, arching his back with a groan. "But, we're only, maybe, three hundred miles from Colorado Springs. We have to check this out."
"Yeah," Sam sighed resignedly. "But Dean, this feels different. Like the dream isn't right. Isn't normal."
Dean barked out a laugh, and then turned incredulous eyes on his brother, "Normal? Sam, come on…" Dean spread his arms and invited Sam to look around the room; around their lives and show him where the normal part was.
"Ok, ok," Sam muttered, reluctantly allowing a grin as he stood up. "Let's get out of here."
It was past noon by the time they packed up. With the sun high, nothing but miles of flatland to cover and Dean driving, they'd make nearly supernatural speed toward the Colorado border.
Sam fought to stay awake, but the Impala's leather bucket seats cradled his backside way too comfortably. For years, one of his favorite things in the world had been to read a book till he drifted off to sleep in the car.
He knew exactly when the thought of drifting off for an hour had begun to make his palms sweat. Damn, he was so tired, and tired of it.
Sam woke with a gasp and grabbed for the hand gripping his shoulder. He automatically jabbed a thumb against a pressure point in the wrist and twisted.
"Ow! Ow! Sam, wake up!" Dean's voice, solid and annoyed drew him fully awake.
Dean shook out his hand and said through clenched teeth, "The phone's in your pocket."
Sam frowned, confused then heard the insistent ringing coming from the right pocket of the canvas jacket that Dean must have put over him while he slept.
"Oh man. Sorry." He fumbled, still groggy and feeling like an idiot till he finally jerked the phone free and flipped it open. "Hello," Sam croaked.
A female voice said, "Hello. Is this Dean?"
"No," he scrubbed at his face, willing coherence into his brain, "This is Sam, I'm Dean's brother."
"Oh, Sam. Hi, I'm Abby Graham." She paused.
"Uhm. I'm actually looking for your dad. I called him and got the message to try Dean's number. He's not with you is he, your dad, I mean?"
"Uh no." Sam's head cleared significantly at the mention of his father, "We're looking for him too actually. Is there anything we can do for you?"
"Your dad's missing?"
"Yeah, kind of."
There was a short silence. "Well, I worked with him a few years ago, ya know, in Colorado Springs and things are getting a little hairy here again. I just needed some advice."
"Ms. Graham we're…" He covered the phone and whispered, "Where are we?"
"Just went through Limon," Dean answered. "What's up?"
Sam went back to the phone waving a hand at his brother to wait. "We just went through Limon. We'll be in Colorado Springs in about an hour and a half. We could meet you…"
"No!" The woman shouted.
Sam jerked the phone away from his ear. "Excuse me?"
"I said, no! Why in the world would you….Don't come here!"
What the hell? "Look, we're almost there."
"No, you look. Don't be stupid. Just turn around!" The line went dead.
"And that's an order," Sam finished for her. Her words, so much like what he told himself in his nightmare, raised the hairs on the back of his neck. "She hung up."
"She said her name was Abby Graham. Dean, she knew Dad. I think she's mixed up in this coven thing."
"Did she say that?"
"Not in so many words, but man, this can't be a coincidence. She was calling from Colorado Springs."
"What exactly did she say?"
"She said …" He stopped himself, "No, she ordered us to turn around."
"What? Who the hell does she think she is?"
"She said things were heating up there and she needed Dad's advice. When I told her we were nearly there, she went drill sergeant on me and hung up."
"Well," Dean said, "I'm really looking forward to meeting Ms. Graham."
"Definitely," Sam agreed.
The Impala revved up to mach speed.