Sam opened his eyes hoping that the end of the noise signaled the end of their trip. The need for oxygen had trumped his fear of arriving at the ruins about twenty minutes ago. He desperately wanted out.
The lid opened. Sam had about two seconds to squint into a low, pewter gray sky, then the world tilted crazily. He fell, tumbling. With hands tied, he hit the ground hard. He shook his head to clear powdery snow from his eyes. Blackened fingers grabbed for his neck.
Sam rolled onto his back, kicked out, but sank into the snow drift. The glancing blow he managed didn't slow the priest at all. It grabbed him by his jacket, flipped him back onto his stomach and planted a boney knee firmly between his shoulders. Sam let out a grunt of pain. The unmistakable snick of an opened switchblade froze the blood in his veins.
Suddenly, the attack was over. The priest moved off him and his arms were free. He flailed onto his butt, backstroked in the snow away from the priests till he hit a tree trunk and used it to leveraged himself to his feet. Sam swayed, trying to suck air past the gag still in his mouth. He tore it from his face, spat and took up a wobbly semblance of his fighting stance.
Joints as flexible as frozen taffy. Frozen fists tingling with pins and needles as circulation returned. If the priests decided to come at him now he wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell.
At the moment though, they just stood there, still as death, staring at him with their jaundiced yellow eyes. It occurred to him that maybe they were just going to keep standing there and watch him freeze to death. No need to put themselves out.
"W..well guys, who's up for a s..snowball fight?" Sam offered, teeth chattering. He got no takers; just silent menace. He was about to pick up handful of snow, he didn't have any other weapons on him, when one of them finally spoke.
It lifted one boney, blackened hand pointing to something behind Sam and rasped, "Of your own free will. Join the master, or choose death." It let the arm drift slowly back to its side.
A shiver, unrelated to the cold, racked his body. Sam turned to look over his shoulder. His heart rose into his throat.
Landscape/dreamscape, this was his nightmare. They were standing at the edge of a clearing. As if on cue, clouds parted. A ghostly glow spread across the pristine snow. Moon shadows leapt at him from the winter bare trees.
Atop a small rise stood the tree. Next to it, crouched deep in the shadowed hollow, sat the morados like some black, lumpish toad waiting lazily for hapless prey to chance by. Except for the figures missing from the branches, Sam stared open mouthed at his nightmare come true.
His lips twitched into a grim smile.
He turned back to the priests. "B..been there; d..done that. I'm n..not walking up that..t damned hill. You c..can go to hell." The vehemence he hoped to convey was a little marred by his chattering teeth, but he thought they got the idea. They both growled deep in their scrawny chests. He tensed.
"Then die," the priests hissed together. One of them moved too quickly for Sam's half frozen reflexes to respond and backhanded him across the face. He fell, this time with hands outstretched and still barely managed to keep his head above the drift. He spat a crimson star-burst onto the snow.
Sam got to his knees as the priests climbed into…! He blinked. They'd brought him up here on the back of a Forest Service snowcat?! They stole the damn thing from Abby! The half truck, half tank plowed its way up the hill toward the ruins. He kept watching till it disappeared over the rise and into the waiting jaws of the black toad. Even then he waited, expecting the priests to come charging back at super human speed to drag him up the hill.
What the hell's going on? Did they actually think he'd walk up that hill of his own free will? He shook his head and pushed himself onto his feet, brushing dry, powdery snow off his jeans and jacket.
As his right hand brushed his pocket he felt the cell phone. His fingers were almost too numb to flip the damned thing open and he nearly dropped it twice in the attempt. After all that, the glowing green screen informed him that he had zero bars; no signal, and a low battery.
"Well, c..crap!" No taxi service tonight. Sam tossed the useless gadget into his pocket, turned his back on the morados. He shakily started down the groomed trail the priests and their stolen snowcat had so kindly left him.
He kept looking back over his shoulder and only resisted the urge to run because his feet were so clumsy with cold he was afraid he'd slip and break an ankle. They’re not following. So all I have to do is make it…who knows how many miles back to the city on foot, in the dark, with no gear. Cake. It could be worse, it could be snow…. Crap! A frigid gust of wind hit the back of his neck and slid in under his jacket. Tiny crystalline flakes of snow began falling across the trail.
A shudder that register on the Richter scale made him stumble and brought one knee to the frozen ground with a crack. "D..d…damn it! Dean you b..better meet me half way!"
Sam struggled back to his feet, wrapped his arms across aching ribs, tucked his hands into his armpits and trudged on. He pushed the cold to the back of his mind teasing out the riddle of why the priests had dragged him to within fifty yards of the coven then let him go. Three weeks of torture then… "…of your own f..frinkin'…free wwwill? Yeah, r…right," Sam stuttered. It didn't make any sense.
By silent agreement, after Abby flipped the radio to the Rockies Weather Service station to hear what they'd be up against in the higher elevations, conversation ceased.
Gold Camp Road twisted up the mountain like a side-winder; far from anything like the straight, flat roads of Kansas. Dean's fingers whitened on the steering wheel as visibility diminished. Snow flakes thickening in the headlights forced him to cut their speed in half. He fumed, crawling along at the legal limit.
Abby fought her own demon, the self-doubt she'd worked hard to overcome for the past six years. She felt ninety-nine percent ready to face Vetis. That last one percent, the difference between preparation and the real deal made her stomach burn with worry.
They reached a fork in the road and Abby called a halt. A wide two-armed metal gate blocked public access to the narrow road they needed to take. Or it should have; the heavy chain that joined the two arms of the gate together hung broken in their head lights. One side swung back and tracks of a car or van cut ruts in the snow.
"This the only way up to the morados?" Dean asked nodding toward the fresh tracks.
"Yeah. That's gotta be them."
Dean edged the big car and trailer forward, nudging the gates out of the way. Abby twisted in her seat and looked back down the dark road. The weather service forecast hadn't been encouraging. Heavy snow was expected in the higher elevations for the next few hours. When it cleared off around midnight the temperature would plunge into the teens. Daryl and the cavalry would be a while coming. She gritted her teeth and turned back to the map. She ran through their plan, letting its practical simplicity calm her active imagination and too vivid memories. With Sam as victim instead of ally they'd had to alter things a bit. She and Dean would each take out three of the coven with the sleeping potion first. If they were fast and lucky, they'd disrupt the chant before the hell-gate opened. Next they'd sever the priests' connections to Vetis with pistols full of holy water. She'd throw her binding spell on the demon. Dean would read the exorcism. They'd rescue Sam, who would be shaken, but fine, and they'd all live happily ever after.
She drew a slow breath. It was a good plan, even with only two of them, but she couldn't keep from glancing back over her shoulder again. If only back-up wasn't quite so out of reach.
Abby squinted out at the blowing snow in the headlights and struggled to spot the landmarks she knew so well. Her stomach roiled at the thought of missing the turn off or sliding off the road and stranding them in a ditch; stranding Sam.
She glanced over at Dean, glad she'd let him drive. His white knuckled concentration on the road was hopefully keeping his imagination in check.
Dean had a much more facile mind than she'd given him credit for. The frosty grip he'd achieved on his nerves kept slipping on annoying pop-ups of hell gates, bloody priests and Sam on a slab.
"Stop, I see something. Look over there," Abby pointed out her window.
How she'd spotted anything Dean couldn't guess. The world ended in a swirling white wall about six inches from the side window as far as he could see. He heaved in a breath and peeled his fingers off the wheel one by one.
Abby grabbed a flashlight, pulled up the hood of her parka and stepped out of the car. Frigid wind took her breath away till she tucked her chin into the front of her parka. She swept her flashlight beam across the road. There, tipped nose first into the ditch was a boxy van quickly being blanketed into the landscape.
Dean stepped up beside her. He caught her eye and could see the same fantasy crossing her mind as had hold of his; the van had crashed, the priests had fled and they'd find Sam back, cold, but unhurt. No matter how wildly unlikely, Dean couldn't control the surge of his pulse as he crossed the road and reached for the door handle. He jerked it open, shoved the flashlight in ahead of him and shone it around the interior.
"They've gone on." Abby pointed the flashlight at another set of tracks. "They took him in one of our snowcats," she hissed through clenched teeth.
When his flashlight beam merged with hers, Dean saw what looked like tank tracks heading off on a narrow, plowed trail.
"How do you know it was one of yours?"
She turned her light back onto the van in the ditch. He'd flung the door open with enough force to knock the snow off of the Pike National Forest Service emblem.
"Ouch, they're cocky," Dean said.
"There gonna regret bein' so cute when I get my hands on 'em," Abby snarled. "This is National Forest Service property. Stealing it's a federal offense!"
A small grin touched his lips. "Yeah, the bastards. And kidnapping's pretty serious too."
She ignored him. "This really ticks me off. He's laughing at us. You notice they aren't covering their tracks at all?" She headed for the trailer to unload the sleds as she fumed.
"I noticed. Could be they're in too much of a hurry."
"Yeah, or it could be they just don't think we're a threat."
"Well, they have a little surprise coming then, don't they?" Dean could barely see the flash of her grin through the blowing snow, but its ferociousness warmed his heart.
By the time Sam had puzzled it out, his thoughts were moving like bubbles through tar. Realizations wended their way slowly up through the thickening murk to burst less and less frequently onto the surface of his brain. He stopped, swaying drunkenly in his tracks.
One of the bubbles popped dumping the word hypothermia into his brain. He dimly recalled that that condition would slow his thinking, mess with his judgment as if he were drunk.
The shivering had almost stopped though. He had to be grateful for that. But his feet had turned into fifty pound ice blocks on the ends of his legs. He felt so tired. Maybe he could just take a little rest…
Another bubble burst.
No, I have to stop them! He and Abby and Dean had everything twisted. Jess got it right. Had their dad known? Probably not. Didn't matter. Sam knew. Everything depended on him now. I have to stop them, he reasoned speciously. I'm the only one here. A surge of determination turned him around. At a weaving, unsteady lope he started back toward the waiting black toad.
It took Dean only a few fishtailing starts to get a feel for the sled. Visibility gave him the most trouble. The snow cutting across the beams of the headlights fell in steady diagonal lines tricking his brain into thinking he was always veering right. He kept his eyes focused as far ahead as he could, on the mounded right edge of the quickly filling trail.
"How far from here?" Dean shouted after several minutes.
"We're almost to the clearing. It’s fifty yards or so more across open ground to the morados."
They burst out of the trees. Abby heard another shout.
Dean had spun his sled to the right sending a plume of snow arching up. He leapt off the seat.
"Dean, what's wrong?" Abby looped back around. She could barely make him out half running half jumping through the deep snow beside the trail. Just as she got her headlight on him, he fell to his knees next to a mound on the edge of the trail. Oh God.
Dean reached into the snow muttering through clenched teeth, "Not Sam, not Sam." His fist closed around cloth. He pulled. Sam's body burst from the snow, pale, still as death. Dean ripped off his gloves, cradled his brother's head on his arm and shoved two fingers against the carotid artery in his neck. Sam's skin was rubbery, cold, but a faint pulse made Dean hiccup in a breath.
Abby leapt from her sled; its engine sputtered off. "Is he breathing," she gasped, into the sudden snowy silence.
"We've got to warm him up fast. Breathe into him."
"Abby, I said he's breathing on his own," Dean growled at her.
"Not for him, into him. Like this…" Abby leaned down till her mouth nearly covered Sam's then slowly breathed out. "Your breath will warm him from the inside."
Dean got the idea and nodded. She jumped up and followed the slashing headlight to Dean's sled and the CSPD duffel, shouting more instructions as she went. "It's hypothermia and it's deadly. Open your coat and his. Get your chest down as close to him as you can without putting any weight on him."
Sam's dark hair hung in frozen strands across his eyes. Dean gently brushed it aside and winced at the brittle feel of it. Sam's canvas jacket lay open, his shirt packed with snow that his body was too cold to melt. Dean brushed it clear with trembling hands and unzipped his borrowed parka. He leaned over Sam's body spreading the sides out to make a tent over them both and brought his face down over Sam's.
The angel pendant hung from Dean's neck fluttering between them. Dean gently laid a palm against Sam's chest. As his brother's chest barely rose, Dean exhaled warm breaths into Sam's nose and mouth. "Come on Sammy, come on."
Abby pulled the parka Daryl had loaned them out of the duffel along with mittens, and a wool cap. Dreading what she'd See, but not daring to avoid assessing Sam's condition, she opened her Sight.
A sob caught in her throat.
Sam's aura barely sputtered along the surface of his skin. There was no color to it, no lively pulsation. It was as if the light itself had frozen and thickened to slush.
They were too late. Too damned late! She swiped a hand across eyes gone watery. When she looked up, again a cry tangled in her throat.
Dean's aura blazed! Abby gasped as she watched it grow and Dean engulfed his brother in a ball of flickering flames.