Flesh Masks

Back to Avalon

Now I'm on my way back to where I belong,

Gonna go down with the sun.

Back to Avalon.

~Heart


The inn was dark when the Impala rumbled up. For once, Dean didn't bother with parking down the street. He gave the roof a worried pat as he slammed the door and hobbled around to where Sam and Harry were easing themselves out of the car. After splitting Harry's six bullets and Sam's remaining two between their three guns, they staggered up the walk, the brothers supporting Harry between them, trying not to dwell on the fact that they may already be too late.

Sam shouldered the door open and the three men lurched in. It was eerily quiet and there were no obvious signs of struggle in the small lobby.

Somehow, that made it worse.

Sliding Harry to the bottom step of the staircase, Sam checked the lock on the door to the dining room and began to rifle through papers on the desk while Dean slumped against the wall. His harsh breathing and the riffle of flipping pages were the only sounds in the room.

"Whatcha looking for, Sammy?"

Sam thunked the stack of paperwork down in exasperation and ran his hands through his hair.

"I dunno. A clue. Something to prove it's here."

"Oh, it's here all right, young man," a creaky voice sounded from the parlor doors. "We all felt it enter and most of us felt that it was a good time to get out."

Sam whirled, gun cocked and aimed at the shadows. Harry and Dean wearily followed suite, their movements more sluggish than they wanted to admit.

A wizened figure shuffled into the lobby, knarled hands raised.

"Don't shoot. I may have been a tough bird in my day, but really, an old Dwarven grandmother doesn't pose a threat to you boys, beat up as you are. Wouldn't you agree, Harry?"

Relieved, Harry lowered his weapon as the stooped old lady came into view. In the dim moonlight, her white braid sparkled silver and her wrinkles cast deep shadows across her face.

"Baba Tila," the wizard rasped, "why didn't you leave with the rest? How did they get out so quickly, anyways? As far as I know, we haven't invented the transporter yet."

"Some of the more benign Elder Creatures opened Ways through the Nevernever. A lot of us got out that way. Some of us, though, have nowhere left to go in that world, so we stayed behind to make our way as best we could here."

"Go to Mac's," Harry gritted his teeth as he shifted on the step. "He'll get you somewhere safe until it's okay to come back here."

"You always were a good boy." Baba Tila patted Harry's battered cheek gently and began to hobble towards the door. She paused before stepping out. "You get my girls out of there, you hear me, Harry? They've worked too hard to have it all taken away just because some little malcontent got delusions of grandeur."

Harry nodded at her back as she left, not daring to speak a promise out loud that he may not be able to keep. He glanced up at Dean and saw that same conclusion in the hunter's face.

A rumble from the uppermost floor of Wren's Nest and the crackling explosion of the lights up and down the street confirmed their worst fears. A strong gust of wind raced down the stairs, slamming all of the open doors throughout the inn. Harry took a deep breath and clenched his jaw.

"Looks like we've rested long enough," he levered himself up, putting almost all of his weight on the banister. "We're out of time."

Sam stepped up and slung one of the wizard's arms over his shoulder, while Dean heaved himself off the wall and got on Harry's other side. Together, the three men trudged up the stairs and down the dark hallway, past all the empty rooms.

"That magical GPS of yours would be handy right about now," Sam's voice was strained as he addressed his brother. "Any idea where she is?"

Dean was silent for a moment and they slowed to a halt.

"Keep going up to the top floor," he said finally and they began limping forward again.

"Their suite takes up what used to be the attic," Harry nodded. "Makes sense they'd be there, I guess."

Sam pushed open a door marked "Employees Only" at the end of the hall. The narrow set of stairs on the other side was lit with a flickering orange light. Harry disentangled himself from the hunters and grasped onto the rail.

"You go on ahead," he whispered. "I'd say, 'save some for me', but I think we all know that'd just be dumb. Don't wait; kill the bastard first chance you get."

Dean nodded, readied his gun, and slapped Harry's back before heading up the stairs as quickly and as quietly as he could. Able to move a little faster than his brother, Sam edged around him, gun drawn, and took point. They eased up the stairs and around the partition that blocked their view of the rest of the apartment.

Stepping around a wooden table into a small open kitchen, they saw that the orange light came from a summoning circle in what once passed for the living room. The circle seethed with flames that crackled and popped with what seemed to be unnecessary vigor.

At the edge of the circle lay Jenny, unconscious in a heap on the floor. Beside her stood the Skinwalker, holding Kess. She stood rigid, chin lifted, jaw clenched, eyes wide. It had twisted her arms behind her back and pinned her, holding an iron knife to her throat with its other hand. Sweat dotted its forehead as it stared unblinkingly at the circle.

"Dean," Sam whispered, not daring to turn to look at his brother as they crept forward. "Dresden said that saying these things' Names will weaken them, right?"

Keeping his eyes on the Skinwalker, Dean jerked his head in a curt nod. His nostrils flared when he realized Sam couldn't see him.

"Yeah." His whisper was hoarse.

"Let's hope this works then," Sam muttered.

Through the shifting haze of smoke, both hunters could see the hulking figure imprisoned within. Clearly over seven feet tall, it towered over the Skinwalker. The antlers that protruded from the bucket helmet that covered its face only added to its stature. Two glowing circles gleamed with cold fury through the eye slits.

It could only be the Erlking.

The Fae Lord had gotten as close as he could to the edge of the circle. Everyone could feel the pressure in the air as he locked wills with the Skinwalker. Its hand shook at Kess's throat. Blood oozed thinly from around the knife blade and Dean had gotten close enough that he could see the welts and burns at the edge of the wound. He gritted his teeth and steadied his gun.

"I have your daughter, Erlking, " the Skinwalker ground out. "If you keep resisting me, I'll slit her throat in front of you."

The Erlking showed no sign that he'd heard the Skinwalker and continued to press against the circle that held him. Kess hissed as the blade nicked her throat again but she kept her eyes locked on her father, determined not to cry. She'd felt Dean enter the room and could only assume that Harry and Sam were with him. She stomped down on her captor's foot as hard as she could and was rewarded for that defiance by having her arms twisted more sharply upwards.

"Stop squirming, Lree."

The command was snarled low into her ear. Instantly and completely, she stilled. She bit her lip as she fought the command, but her mind refused to send the proper signals to her limbs and so she hung, limp and compliant as a doll, in the Skinwalker's grip.

What was taking that hunter so damned long?

The corner of Dean's mouth twitched upwards when he saw Kess grind her heel into the Skinwalker's foot. A few scratches marred its arms and, if Dean wasn't mistaken, there were a couple sets of teeth marks on the arm that held the knife. He smiled in grim approval as he tried to get a clear shot at the creature. Abruptly, though, she froze. He frowned. The Skinwalker held Kess at such an angle that neither of the hunters could hit a vital without seriously harming her in the process.

Taking a deep breath, Sam raised his gun.

"James Delacourt," he shouted, putting every ounce of mental strength he had behind the Name, "Drop it!"

The Skinwalker stiffened, eyes wide as the knife fell from its hand with a clatter. Kess elbowed it in the stomach and twisted out of its grip. Scrambling out of its reach, she hunched protectively over her mother, cradling her head and shoulders in her lap.

The Skinwalker started towards Sam, fingers lengthening into claws, when a rumbling laugh stopped it in its tracks. With a mental pop, like the breaking of a rubber band, the pressure in the room ceased completely.

A sharp gust of wind blasted from the summoning circle, pushing the flames outward to lick against the furniture and walls. Kess cried out and hugged her mother more tightly as the fire passed over them. Sam and Dean each took a frantic step forwards, but could get no further, held in place by a will much stronger than theirs.

In the cleared space the Erlking stood, now flanked on either side by two huge black hounds. Their red eyes were fixed on the Skinwalker as they crouched, hackles raised, at their master's side. Twin growls reverberated through the room, muffling the crackling of the flames that continued to grow.

The Erlking stepped out of the broken circle and turned his faceless helm towards the Skinwalker. Dean got the eerie feeling that the Fae was smiling underneath.

"Your ambition in summoning me has been thwarted, little pretender," the Fae Lord growled. "And though thy will may have contained me for a short while, I call thee a coward, for only craven men would stoop to using women and children as shields against their own failures."

The Skinwalker opened its mouth to speak, but the Erlking lifted it by its throat bodily from the ground and squeezed, cutting off all sound.

"Nay, I cannot call such as thee a man. Just a mewling wretch pretending to be a monster. Thou art meat to be wasted, not even worth a Hunt."

The Skinwalker gurgled and kicked limply. The Erlking tossed it into the remains of the summoning circle. Without turning his head, he spoke to the hounds.

"To thy quarry, my cŵn annwn."

The animals lunged at the dazed Skinwalker, tearing into its torso and throat, worrying at its limbs, ripping through flesh in such a frenzy that Sam and Dean, hardened as they were, had to look away. In a matter of seconds, the Skinwalker died a soundless death. When the hounds began to eat their kill, the Erlking stepped up.

"Cease."

The hounds raised their bloody muzzles and backed grudgingly away from the ravaged corpse. The Erlking patted their heads approvingly before stooping to pick up his daughter and her mother, both unconscious and lightly singed, but otherwise unharmed by the fire that had whirled around them. With a brief nod, he released the hunters from the hold he had on them. The men hurried forwards, but stopped as the hounds circled around to stand between their master and these strangers who were not yet prey.

"You have the mark of hunters," the Erlking said gravely. "You also have saved my daughter, for which I thank you. In return for such a deed, I shall not harm you this night." He paused. "But that promise shall not protect you should you seek me out in the future," he said severely.

He adjusted his grip on the women and moved back into the circle, calling his hounds to his side with a sharp whistle.

"Also, tell the wizard who crouches in the shadows that I have not forgotten our last encounter here. He is lucky that I have more pressing matters to attend to, else I would still take great pleasure in running him down."

And so, he vanished. With no show, no flash of light or any visual flourish, he, his hounds, and the women he held simply winked out of sight, leaving Sam and Dean alone and conscious of their burning lungs.

The entire apartment had caught on fire by this time. Without the Erlking's power to slow them, the flames licking greedily at the wood floors and whitewashed walls. In the circle, the Skinwalker had been engulfed in a stray patch of fire - already its corpse was black and crispy.

A stretch of flame reached one of the gas lamps on the far wall, causing a sudden flare as its fuel was added to the growing inferno. Flames leapt up with an audible rush and crackled against the wooden beams in the ceiling.

Coughing and covering their noses and mouths with their jackets, the brothers crouched low and ran for the staircase. Harry was slumped on the front step, unable to come further because, once the railing ended, there was nothing for him to support his weight on. He looked apologetically at the Winchesters and started to speak, but they slung his arms over their shoulders and kept going down the stairs.

"No time," Sam's voice was muffled.

"Shut up and run," Dean added, suiting his actions to his words.

The three men barreled down the stairs as best they could and kept up a limping run down the hall. Behind them, flames wound down the banister and slithered along the walls and ceiling, devouring rugs and furniture with unnatural speed.

"Ventas!" Harry gasped as he jarred his leg on the floor.

Immediately, a strong gust of wind blew from behind him to push the fire back. It allowed them to gain a few yards, but the flames surged forwards again, as if to make up for the lost time.

They could feel the heat on their backs and hear the crackle of the fire as they ran. Their throats burned and they ached as they forced themselves to keep moving at full speed, despite injuries.

Maintaining a steady verbal stream of obscenities, Dean readjusted his grip on Dresden as they rounded the corner and stumbled down the stairs. Sam saved his breath for running, though he didn't disagree with his brother's sentiments.

"That's quite a talent you got there," Harry grunted. "Ventas!" He said more forcefully.

Another blast of wind shot up the stairs to hold the fire back just long enough for them to tumble out the door. Righting themselves, they made it to the end of the drive before they collapsed. Gasping, they all looked back at the inn.

Its roof was completely engulfed in flames and windows were popping and shattering as the fire spread to each room. The entire lawn was bathed in the orange glow and flickering highlights reflected off of the Impala's polished surface.

Dragging themselves across the pavement, the three men leaned against the car and closed their eyes. No one said anything as the distant sound of police sirens and the impatient blast of fire truck horns heralded the arrival of the cavalry.

Better late than never is the saying, but right then, not one of them believed it.

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