Flesh Masks

Die Hard the Hunter

He is the shadow that's following you.

He takes no prisoners when he's hunting for game.

He's got a bullet and it carries your name.

~Def Leppard

Harry nudged the battered wooden door of the little apothecary shop open with his shoulder as he strolled into the store, maneuvering around a cluster of small tables crowded with brown-tinted bottles, each stopped with a cork and sealed with wax.

No strings of beads cluttered archways to add a New Age appeal for those who claimed to be "communing with nature" with self-prescribed herbal concoctions. No knock-off tapestries or brightly patterned fabrics festooned the walls to give the place a gypsy-like feel. There were no black candles or chipped skulls to draw in the wannabes who dabbled in the occult in order to feel exciting. No colored lights, black cats, or crystals of various shapes and colors to give the place that comforting familiarity that whispered, this isn't actually real.

No, Harry thought, smugness and apprehension mixing into a grim kind of satisfaction, this place was as authentic as it got. There was real power here, the kind that shouldn't be used lightly. It was why he didn't direct many people to come down this particular alley into this particular establishment.

While the shop was sparsely decorated, with a large Seal of Solomon inlaid into the teak floor in lighter panels of oak and holly as its only decoration, it was cluttered with containers of every kind, dimly illuminated through grimy windows.

In the back, one entire wall had been built over with shelves and cubbies that housed old mason jars, each boasting a handwritten label attached to the lid with twine listing the individual common spell components held within. Old prescription bottles, carefully relabeled and stuffed with the most potent of ingredients, lined the shelves behind a small wooden table that stood on the opposite wall by the door. Those shelves alone boasted locking plexi-glass doors and iron casings.

Harry stifled a cough as the thick smell of dust and spices burned his nose and scratched at the back of his throat. The muffled sound carried through the little shop and was met by the thump and rattle of disturbed bottles.

A clear glass tube with a black snap lid rolled out from between the ceiling-high bookshelves that were arranged to form aisles across the room. Harry gently stopped it with his toe and stooped to pick it up. The faded label read "Powdered Wormwood".

"Ah yes," a low tenor voice drifted out from farther back in the shop, "Irish monastery. 1342. Dried and ground with all appropriate rituals by a Celtic Druid. Potent stuff that. Time and patience have made it strong. But not right, I think, for your purposes today."

A slender man in an oversized white hooded sweatshirt, faded jeans, and sandals stepped out of the shadows. Pale eyes gazed unblinkingly at Harry out of an angular face, completely bald. In stark contrast with the calm voice, the man held himself tightly, his fingers continuously weaving and reweaving themselves together in front of him. He stretched out a hand for the vial.

Harry handed it over slowly, keeping his movement smooth. Long fingers closed around the bottle and tucked it away in some unseen pocket.

"You're right, as usual, Brother Andrew," Harry inclined his head towards the enclosed shelves behind the table. "What I need is probably in there somewhere. Quality work, by the way. New cabinets?"

The shop owner moved around to the back of the desk, shoulders hunched, arms pressed tightly inwards. He pulled a small iron key from a drawer, unlocked the doors, and slid one open.

"Not all of my clientele can be trusted, Mr. Dresden," he replied imperturbably.

Harry 'tsk'ed in agreement and rubbed the back of his neck.

"I'm looking for Palo Santo today. Have you got any?" He was learning that pleasantries were wasted in this shop.

Those unblinking grey eyes swung towards him again. Even with his head turned to look at Harry, Brother Andrew's hands rifled with quick precision through the yellow plastic bottles. He pulled one out from the back and set it on the table. Harry could just barely see a fat twig inside.

"Peru. 1649. It took the expedition two months to find the tree and another three weeks to prepare the ritual of safe harvest. Just enough in each vial to make a small amount of White Ash."

Harry merely nodded. Brother Andrew's intuition could be unnerving at times.

"Thank you for your help today, Brother," Harry said gravely, reaching for his purchase. He had just enough time to get home and complete the purification ritual before he had to meet the Winchesters at the park.

Brother Andrew's long hands clutched convulsively at the little bottle, but his face and voice remained as calm and pleasant as ever.

"You'll have better luck here, I think." He began pulling various items out from underneath the desk while handing Harry a slip of paper. "The ingredients are all here in the shop. Mostly against the back wall." He gestured into the shop and continued rummaging.

Harry's mouth thinned, but he knew better to argue with this particular shop owner. Grimly, he wandered through the shop, pulling jars and baggies off various shelves as he went. As he surveyed the wall of cubbies in the back, glancing between his list and the labels on the jars, he could hear Brother Andrew muttering to himself, an endless verbal inventory of the shop.

Dove's Wing Feathers. England. 1892. Raised by a priest in Cornwall.

Dried Roses. Spain. 2005. Picked from the headstone of a Saint. Rare.

Finger Bone of the Dead. New Orleans. 1998. Mustn't ask where he got them, oh no.

Harry huffed out a silent chuckle. The man even muttered in that agreeable tone. He climbed up a ladder to reach an upper shelf. Squinting to make out a tag that was faded beyond legibility, Harry reached out to pull the jar down when the muttering stopped mid-recitation.

"Oh, no. Not that one, Mr. Dresden," Brother Andrew's voice carried no trace of alarm or irritation. Harry glanced back at him. He hadn't even looked up. "Not even my new cabinet doors would protect my stock if you used Dried Hellebore in this ritual. England. 1437. It's become volatile in its old age. What you want is two jars over. Powdered Abalone. Venice. 1805. Mermaids' songs were caught inside."

Gently pulling the correct jar off the shelf, Harry dusted off the lid as he descended the ladder and made his way back to the front desk.

Brother Andrew had placed the Palo Santo in a small silver chalice in the center of a circle with five smaller circles evenly spaced around it. A silver tinderbox sat on the desk next to it. He carefully measured out the correct amount of each component in the appropriate circle. Finally he looked up at Harry with a small smile.

"And now, Blood of the Living. Chicago. 2006."

"I'm not entirely okay with this part," Harry held out his hand, forefinger extended.

The Impala rumbled to a stop against the curb at the edge of a wooded park. The doors creaked in unison as both brothers got out. Sam slammed his door with more force than usual, causing Dean's head to snap up, ever-vigilant against potential damage to his baby.

"So, are you going to cover me this time, or are you going to leave that to the wizard again?" Sam didn't bother to hide his frustration as he leaned his arms on the roof and glared at his brother.

"Really? You wanna have this conversation now?" Dean asked incredulously, raising both his eyebrows.

"I just want to know where we stand, Dean. I don't want to charge in without any backup."

"Look," Dean walked around to lean against the car next to his brother. "Last night, it was like this pull in the back of my head. I was halfway to her room before I realized I didn't even know where her room was."

"So, it's like some mystical GPS that you have no control over?"

Dean rubbed the back of his neck and frowned.

"At the inn, I'm pretty sure if I just started wandering around, I'd end up where she is." He shrugged. "It's better when we're away from there. Easier to ignore out here."

Sam frowned and turned to his brother to say more, but was interrupted by Harry's VW Bug pulled around the corner and up to the park.

The Blue Beetle settled into its parking space with a rattle and a metallic clank from the engine. Dean winced at the sound, shaking his head once again at the multi-colored junkyard reject that Dresden claimed was a car.

The three men exchanged nods as they gathered on the curb.

"You're late," Dean challenged as Dresden got out of his car. "You got what we need?"

Harry nodded as he came to stand by them.

"Had to do some clean-up before I came. Took longer than I expected." He turned back to survey the park, one hand shoved deep in a duster pocket.

Young children played happily on a small play structure while their mothers watched from a shady nook. The excited giggles were punctuated by the rusty squeal of old swings and the clatter of little feet on the segmented plastic bridges. A few of the moms pushed strollers along the perimeter, chatting and smiling as they went. Behind them, a leafy trail invited the more intrepid walkers to hike farther into the park.

So many people, Harry thought grimly. Too much collateral damage.

"Easy pickings," muttered Dean, echoing the wizard's thoughts.

"It picked a good spot," Sam's mouth was set in a thin line as he looked around. "Any killings can be easily hidden or written off as muggings. Can't hunt it easily, either. Too many witnesses."

"Don't'cha hate it when the monsters start getting smart?" Dean grumbled, turning back towards the cars.

Glancing up to make sure that they weren't being watched too closely, he popped the trunk of the Impala and pulled out a couple of handguns, passing one to Sam and clicking the other one open. Harry whistled approvingly and pulled out his own gun. Dean raised an appreciative eyebrow – it would seem that the wizard's taste in cars was not reflected in his weaponry.

Dresden pulled a small box out of one of the pockets in the duster and flipped the lid open. Silver bullets glinted coldly in the morning sunlight, each one's tip coated in a chalky white film. The wizard dumped six of them into his hand and passed the box to Sam, who did the same before giving it to Dean. He emptied it, tossed the box in with the other weapons, and slammed the trunk shut.

"Six each," Harry said as they started down the hiking trail, weapons concealed beneath their jackets. "Hopefully, that'll do the trick."

They proceeded along the wooded trail in silence, straining to hear anything out of the ordinary. Above them, birds twittered while the occasional squirrel rustled through fallen leaves and loam before skittering up a tree trunk. The only other sounds beyond the usual forest noises were the crunching of the men's boots as they moved farther down the trail. As if by an unspoken agreement that they were far enough away from potential witnesses, the three men drew their weapons. Keeping his gun at the ready, Sam turned back to Dean.

Whatever question he'd been about to ask his brother died in his throat as he caught sight of a long-limbed shadow racing through the trees beside them. He whirled and aimed his gun.

At empty air.

"I saw it too, Sammy." Dean's voice had gone hard – his hunting voice.

What headspace his brother entered when his voice took on that edge, Sam was never sure. But, in some regards, his brother had retreated, and wouldn't return until they put this creature in a body bag. Sam had always envied Dean that particular flavor of tunnel-vision. Too much outside of hunter life intruded on his mind for him to ever fully develop such an attitude.

He squared his shoulders and leveled his gun, scanning the woods, listening. Ahead of him, Dresden froze, gun raised. He lifted a finger and swung it to point farther into the trees. The faint cracking of branches and crunching of bark and loam gave the creature away. The rest of the wooded area had gone silent.

"That way. I guess being hurt has made it sloppy."

The three men jogged down the trail, guns drawn. Even in such a crisis, Harry couldn't help but idly ponder how nice it was to have people who could keep up with him running. Murph, for all that she was in better shape than he was, just couldn't keep up with his long legs over any sort of distance and Thomas usually just humored him when they jogged together – the half-vampire could out-strip him without even breaking a sweat. These hunters, however, easily matched his loping strides, allowing them to move smoothly through the trees as a unit. Maybe this is what Billy and Georgia feel when the Alphas go out as a group.

A sharp rustle behind them made them skid to a stop and twist around to face their attacker. Sure enough, Harry caught the faintest glimpse of long limbs and a furred back disappearing into the foliage.

An eerie sort of growling cackle drifted out from the opposite direction. Sam frowned and Dean cursed as they tried to pinpoint its source.

"Split up?" Puffed Sam, slightly winded.

The other two nodded, similarly short on breath.

"Who goes where?"

Dean held one fist over his open palm and nodded in Harry's direction.

"Winner gets first pick."

The wizard raised an eyebrow, but stepped up, hands mirroring Dean's. Three quick thwacks later, Dean grinned triumphantly. Sam just shook his head, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Scissors beats paper. Sorry, Dumbledore." He pointed in the direction that the sound had come from. "We'll take that one."

Harry nodded and they parted ways. As the wizard ducked out of sight into the trees, Sam turned to Dean.

"You think he'll be okay on his own?"

"If he's handled anything even remotely similar to this, he should be fine," Dean quirked an eyebrow. "Let's go."

Sam took two steps along the trail when a hot weight slammed past him. His brother's alarmed shout ended abruptly in a breathless grunt as the Skinwalker tackled Dean to the ground, knocking his gun out of his hands.

"Dean!" Sam hollered

"Dammit, Sammy, just shoot it!" Dean roared over the top of the creature's growls and snarls. It kept the hunter pinned, all of its weight pressed onto his chest, as it slashed and clawed at his face and throat. Dean grappled with its long arms, simultaneously trying to protect himself and reclaim his gun.

Lips pressed together, Sam cocked his gun and advanced, firing shot after shot into the hairy creature, praying that his aim wasn't off. The Skinwalker jerked in pain, but stayed locked with Dean as they struggled. Sam heard Dean grunt as the monster finally managed to rake his face with its claws. Nostrils flaring, Sam fired a fourth shot, only to have the gun jam. A sound tinged with desperation came out of him as he struggled with his weapon, one eye on his brother and the Skinwalker.

Ignoring the pain that was snaking across the side of his face, Dean bared his teeth as he held the monster's wrists away from his head with one hand, desperately groping for his gun with the other. Saliva dripped on his cheeks as it leaned closer in, pressing its advantage. He heard the click of Sam's gun jamming and his little brother's muffled curses as he tried to unjam it. His eyes widened as he strained against the creature, lips white, jaw clenched. It just laughed deep in its chest, and bared its teeth in a shark-like grin.

His fingertips brushed against something smooth and Dean risked glancing away from the monster. He had finally reached his gun, now if only he could get a good grip on it. He strained, reached, and managed to grasp the handle. Without hesitation, he whipped the gun up under the Skinwalker's ribs and squeezed the trigger. It shrieked in pain.

He kept firing.

It arched its back and abruptly its arms went slack as it collapsed against the hunter. Dean felt his breath whoosh out on impact and he let his head drop to the ground. He heard footsteps and soon Sam's face peered over the corpse.

"Dean! Are you all right?"

"Heh," Dean mustered up a battered grin. "I'll be better once you get Ugly here off of me."

As Sam heaved the Skinwalker's body off of his brother, Harry came running up, gun drawn. He stopped short to survey the scene.

"I heard gunfire," he started.

"Yeah," croaked Dean, "kinda missed the party. Sucks, don't it, Gandalf?"

"I really missed out on all the action on this one," the wizard frowned in annoyance. "Probably better for my health, but still."

Harry walked closer as he spoke. Sam gave a final shove and flipped the corpse off his brother. He and Harry pulled Dean up and the three men stared down at the body at their feet. What had definitely been a fangy, hairy, moderately deformed creature was now a seemingly normal human corpse. Pale green eyes stared blankly out of a freckled face. Bits of bracken and a few dead leaves festooned tangled brown hair. The only clothing that adorned the body was a shredded pair of blue jeans and a pendant made out of woven strips of black leather. Dean reached down to investigate but Harry grabbed his shoulder.

"Better not," he said. "It takes murdering kin to kick off the spell to become a Skinwalker. A blood spell that nasty is best left alone, as are any trinkets connected to it. Allow me."

Dean shrugged and stepped back. Harry circled the corpse once, examining it before pointing at it and snarling, "Fuego". Immediately, the corpse caught on fire. Sam let out a surprised huff of breath and Dean looked impressed in spite of himself.

"Told ya I was gonna light him on fire," Harry looked sideways at Sam and smirked.

It took a good forty-five minutes for the corpse to burn as the men stood around and watched. Finally, satisfied that the thing was no longer recognizable as human or otherwise and that any residue of evil magic had been burned away, Harry gathered the remains into a thick plastic trash bag. He straightened up and slung it over his shoulder with a grunt. Without saying much they headed back up the trail to the main park where life went on, blissfully unaware that there had ever been any immediate potential for it to stop.

As the three men crossed the grass on the outside of the play structure, one of the young moms looked up. Her smile died a quick death when she took a look at the dried blood that streaked the side of Dean's face.

"Oh my gosh," her voice came out a breathless squeak. "Are you all right?"

"Oh, that?" Sam shook his head. "Just an accident on the trail. See, my brother tripped."

"Trash clean-up day," supplied Harry, holding up the bag as evidence.

"Gotta protect our environment." Dean deadpanned, his eyes crinkling around the corners as he produced an insincere smile.

With that, the three men hurried away before the woman could say more. Harry slung the bag into the back of the Blue Beetle and turned to look at the Winchesters.

"Gotta hand it to you, Dresden," Dean stepped up, "your bullets really did the trick."

"Bullet's only as good as the guy carrying the gun. Nice work yourself." Harry nodded towards Dean's face. "What about the head wound? I know a guy who can patch you up."

"Nah. Had worse." Dean shrugged.

"When do you want to follow up on the other trail?" Sam asked, heading around from stowing the weapons in the trunk of the Impala.

"We'll get in touch tonight," the wizard replied. "I've got to get rid of what's left of Ugly. I'll come by Wren's Nest when I'm done."

"Just call us," Sam replied, handing him a scrap of paper. "These are two of our numbers."

"Works for me," Harry pocketed the paper and folded himself into his car.

He started the engine with a wheeze and a clatter and pulled out into traffic. Dean shook his head once again, unable to reconcile himself to the existence of such a vehicle, and climbed into the Impala. As he turned the key in the ignition, he gave the car an affectionate pat on the dashboard. Sam just rolled his eyes as he snapped his seatbelt in place.

Three classic rock hits and one power ballad later, they pulled up to the street a couple blocks away from Wren's Nest and headed to the inn. As they walked through the front door, Jenny and Kess looked up from what looked like ledgers of some sort. Both women gaped at the wounds for just a moment before Jenny went to get the first aid kit, ignoring Dean's protests. Kess followed them up the stairs, looking worried. Sam watched her out of the corner of his eye.

She and Dean seemed to loosely orbit each other, but they wouldn't make eye contact or speak. She went as far as their room, hovered for a moment, before just shaking her head in disgust and hurrying up to her room. Dean huffed out a breath and pulled the key out of his pocket.

As they went in, Jenny came up with the first aid kit.

"Did you get it?" She asked.

"One of them," Sam took the kit and smiled. "We should be able to wrap this up soon."

"That'll be a relief," Jenny smiled and turned to leave. "You boys have done more good than harm while you've been here. I'd almost feel safe opening this place up to hunters if more of your kind were like you."

Sam just smiled as she walked down the hall. As she turned the corner to the stairs, he shut the door and tossed his brother the little white and blue box. Muttering, Dean dug through it and went into the bathroom to shower and clean up his face.

He came out some time later looking much better. Some sutures held the outer ends of the cut shut, though Sam noticed a short line of tight stitches through the middle. Despite that, Dean seemed much more cheerful as he flopped onto the bed for a quick cat nap. Sam followed suit and didn't stir until his phone buzzed on the nightstand. He picked it up and winced at the burst of static from the other end.

"Hey," Harry's voice crackled. "Murph called and told me to meet her at Allison's apartment building. Seems they found something else. You should get here as soon as you can."

"Sure," Sam sat up and tossed a pillow at his dozing brother. Dean grunted and rubbed his eyes as he sat up, glaring in Sam's direction. "We'll be right over."

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