"Do you guys know much about cults and brainwashing techniques?" Abby asked after dinner when the threesome went to the living room to sit by the fire.
"You mean like Jim Jones and David Koresh, that kind of thing?" Sam asked.
"Well, yeah, but those are just the big, splashy cults that get on the news. I'm talking about the common everyday variety. Religious cults, exercise cults, diet cults, they all prey on vulnerable people."
"You mean people stupid enough to fall for their bull," Dean said.
"No, I mean, anybody," Abby insisted. "Anybody lonely or depressed, maybe just divorced, off to college for the first time, lost their job, whatever. Cult recruiters can spot them. They swoop in, offer company, affection, validation. It's called love bombing."
"Sounds like a trendy pickup technique." Dean smiled with chocolate in his teeth. Abby’s magic freezer had yielded up homemade chocolate chip cookies.
"It's actually a brainwashing technique," Abby said. "The target comes to a party say, or a meeting and everybody's immediately waaay into them. They get flattery, a shoulder to cry on whatever strokes they need. It's addicting. The leader makes sure they know he's the only one who can make everything right for them."
"For a price," Sam said.
"Yes. Slowly the things they're asked to do for the leader become more and more extreme. Those six new recruits for the Angels of the Nine started out normal people at a tough point in their lives. The priests recruited them, but instead of a charismatic human cult leader who just wants all their money, they have a demon who wants their souls."
"So, you want us to go easy on 'em?" Dean asked skeptically.
"Well yeah. They're still human. But the priests…” She pressed a finger into a smudge of chocolate chip on her plate. "The priests have been demon ridden for so long there's not much human left. I Saw them the night of the ritual.
"Tell us happened that night." Sam knew the look on Abby's face; he'd worn it when Dean first got him to describe the dream. "I know it's hard to talk about, believe me, but I think we're gonna need to know."
Abby gave him a determined nod. "Absolutely. You guys have to know what we're up against."
"So, six years ago you were trying to infiltrate the coven?" Dean prompted.
Abby was grateful for the all-business tone in Dean's voice. She rocked her head from side to side working kinks out of her neck. "Yeah. Remember, I was only eighteen. I was going on information in Poppa's journal. He'd found a pattern of disappearances going back a hundred years or more. It was always Halloween night; always seven people, about every thirteen years.
"Seven people?" Dean asked.
"Yeah, the six coven recruits and the sacrifice. I was a freshman at the University of Colorado. The coven was trolling the campus for one more member. I set myself up as bait, poor little lamb who's lost her way." She chuckled humorlessly and shook her head. "It never occurred to me that it wasn't an act." She dropped her face into her hands. "What an idiot. This is so embarrassing."
"Abby, like you said, you were eighteen," Dean said. "I thought I was gonna make a million bucks doing consults on horror flicks when I was eighteen. Just tell the tale."
Abby blew out a breath. "Okay, two nights before Halloween a couple of the coven members came to the dorm and invited me to a party." She drew sarcastic air quotes around party. "I opened my Sight… A dark taint twisted through their auras like a vein of black mold. It dimmed them; kind of sucked the energy out of them. I was intrigued." A grim little smile tugged at her lips. "I should have been terrified. When I went with them, my only weapon was this."
She shook back one sleeve and showed them a bracelet. "It was a gift from my dad. Now it'd be a big help. Then I didn't know how to use it."
Dean glanced at the simple twist of silver around her wrist and his hand drifted to the pendant at his neck. The word talisman crossed his mind. Was that what she was hinting at?
Abby brushed a stray curl out of her eyes. "So, they took me to the church downtown, tainted holy ground. Big stone ruin on a ruined block. Before we went in, one of them asked me if I entered of my own free will. That's the key to how this demon operates. He recruits volunteers into the cult."
"More power in a sacrifice freely made," Sam said quietly.
"Right. People make little sacrifices every day for the good of their families, the good of the community. But this demon twists that good impuls. I probably could have gotten out right then just by saying no. I said yes. They hustled me into a dark cell and locked the door." Abby lifted the mass of curls grown damp with sweat off of her neck. "When the two priests came to get me about a day and half later I was a basket case. It was the chanting that drove me nuts. The priests threw me around like two dogs with a toy. Their auras were twisted worse than the others. Almost as if they didn't have auras of their own anymore.” Abby laced her fingers together to keep them from trembling.
Dean, unable to sit any longer, left his chair and walked to the large picture window. He put one palm against it and watched the fog form a handprint on the cool, inky glass. He stared at his own reflection, wishing there was something to see outside in the dark. The pictures he was seeing in his head made him want to hit something.
Abby watched him for a moment, then went on resignedly. "The chanting ratcheted up a notch. In the old chapel, the smell of brimstone was so intense I could hardly breathe. They threw me up on to the altar and tied me down. I could feel this monster lurking just outside my vision. I knew something was gonna eat me alive."
Sam closed his eyes. He was breathing too fast. Shadows of his nightmare crowded his mind; the bodies in the tree drawing him closer, dark, frozen faces pulling the nooses taut. He rubbed his forehead, pressed his fingers into the spot between his brows where a sudden, dull ache had begun to pulse.
"When I finally saw the demon, he was this ordinary looking man with silver white hair, smiling down at me. I felt a hysterical sense of relief. I think I even started giggling." She paused, "Then I looked into his eyes."
Dean frowned noticing both Sam and Abby's pale faces and almost suggested they take a break. Then he registered her eyes again. She challenged him, forbade his surge of righteous anger on her behalf. She didn't need rescuing, the look said, not any more, never again. Dean took a deep breath and forced his fists open at his sides.
Abby went on, "He wore a crystal around his neck. It had an aura, like a living person. The demon said when he trapped my soul in that crystal, my life-force would anchor him to this world." She gave her head a shake. "He kept blathering on, gloating, but the words made less and less sense to me. I wish I'd paid more attention, but the priests were getting... distracting."
She raised her left sleeve turning her palm up. Dean had to squint to see the faint jagged scar that ran vertically along her wrist.
"They cut me." She could still hear the ragged scream that had erupted from her throat and echoed around the chamber with that first stab of pain.
But that had signaled the end of it all too.
Dean looked into her face. Instead of the anguish he'd expected, a smile played across her lips. Realization dawned. "That’s when Dad and your granny showed up," he said.
She nodded. "My guardian angels to the rescue."
Abby looked back and forth between the two Winchesters. At least, underestimating the demon and his coven wouldn't be a problem this time around. "So that's my sad song. How're we gonna kick their asses for good this time?"
“What were they trying to do to you? What's the deal with the crystal?" Sam asked.
Abby took a big sip of tea and grimaced into the cup. "My theory is that if the ritual had gone on, the chanting would have opened a rift to hell. The demon would have used dark energy to suck the life-force out of me and transfer it to the crystal.”
"The crystal needs a recharge every decade or so," Sam said quietly.
"Right." She paused, took a breath, "A friend of mine has one more theory."
"A friend of yours? Somebody else knows about all this?" Dean came to sit beside her, elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped tightly.
"Yeah, you'll meet her tomorrow." Abby took another breath. "Her theory is that every few decades this demon doesn’t just need to recharge the crystal, he needs to acquire a whole new body. The crystal’s life-force makes the one he's riding age very slowly, but he can't stop time completely. She figures he's desperate for brand new vessel by now."
“The demon needs to possess…someone," Dean asked without looking up at her.
Abby could see his jaw muscles bunch. "No. It’s not possession. We don’t think he shares the body. He forces the other person's soul completely out then levers himself into the empty shell.”
Sam bolted to his feet as if the dam holding back his racing thoughts had sprung a serious leak. "How does he trap the soul in the crystal? How could a body survive with only a demon in it?"
"I don't know."
"Abby," Sam pleaded.
"Sam, I'm sorry. I'm making educated guesses here." She watched him pace. "Once the hell-force pushes the soul out, it's adrift, lost. Crystals have strong elemental magic. Maybe they draw the soul to them; attract it to a safe haven; mother earth." She could see her answer didn't satisfy him. "I'm sorry I can't be more certain."
"It's okay." Dean said quietly. "Sam, sit down."
"Dean, we've got to have more information than this! We can't come up with a plan based on guesses."
"Sam! Sit. Down."
Dean’s familiar combination of authority, understanding, and irritation got Sam's attention. He dropped onto the stone hearth and perched tensely on its edge.
"Is there any chance that this is the demon that killed Mom and Jess?" he asked.
Sam’s voice was even, but Abby heard its hard edge. "I don't know who Jess is,” she said.
"Was," Sam corrected her, turning his face away.
Abby's brows drew down and she glanced at Dean. She could see from his grim look that there was a story here, but he shook his head. She wasn't going to hear it tonight.
"No, I don't think it's the same demon that killed your mom. This one's been around here for a century or more, repeating his routine with the coven and ritual. He's in a rut. Either not strong enough or not ambitious enough to get out of it."
Sam pushed up from the hearth. "Great. A new one. I'm a demon magnet!" Bitterness roughened his voice as he stalked toward the front window.
Sam flung out his hand to cut Dean off. "Don't! Don't tell me it's not my fault!" He turned his back on his brother and found himself staring at his own reflection, struggling for control.
"Damn it," Dean muttered. He turned to Abby, forcing the emotion out of his voice. "So, if he keeps to his pattern, the ritual’s tomorrow night."
"What better way to screw with Dad," Sam growled, "…than to take the body of his son for the next fifty years." When Sam turned to them, it was with a snarl. "So, what? You two think I'm going to stay locked safe while you go hunting tomorrow?"
Abby and Dean looked at each other. Sam knew that that was exactly what they thought.
"No way." He started to pace again. "There's no way that's gonna happen. I've got to find this thing and put it down. Except for last night, it's been weeks since I slept without him in my head." He raked fingernails across his scalp. "There aren't words to make you understand how that felt! When we figure out where it is, I'm there." He thrust a finger toward his brother. "Don't even think about trying to stop me!"