Flesh Masks

Grim Facts

Mmm. Grim facts, you know, growing all the time.

Mmm. Grim facts, real grim. Yeah.

- Alice Cooper

Harry was brooding. He sat at one of the tables in Wren's Nest's nearly empty dining hall and sipped his coffee, staring darkly into space. The dinner crowd had already left and the late-night snackers had yet to arrive. Occasionally, Jenny would pass by and refill his cup without being asked.

After pointing Sam in the direction of some of the more useful arcane bookshops, Harry had gone back to his apartment and conducted a few experiments of his own on a few samples of hair he'd managed to smuggle out of Allison's apartment and the single hair from Kess's attack. He'd taken them to Butters, who had confirmed that they did indeed come from the same creature.

What he'd found next had him torn between wanting to tear his hair out in frustration and hide in his basement, curled in the fetal position for the next few weeks. That probably would be better for his health if he did. Of course, then people would die and he'd be responsible.

That probably wouldn't be too good for his mental health.

"Nothing's ever easy in this town," he muttered, taking another sip of coffee.

Just then, Kess walked by, with a look of particular annoyance that Harry was intimately acquainted with. Jenny was mothering her again, and Kess's newly acquired adult dignity was smarting from it. Seeing him, her face lit up in a smile and she plunked herself down at the table, but Harry noted the dark circles under her eyes and the pallor of her skin.

"You resting, Sprite? You look like hell."

"And you look like you're trying to figure out how to defeat it. Rough day, Harry?"

"I wish I had a pipe so I could blow smoke rings in an ominous manner and mutter mysterious things here in my corner. But, you didn't answer my question." The wizard narrowed his eyes. "I'm pretty sure I left a clear prescription of bed-rest and lots of fluids."

Kess shifted in her seat, not quite meeting his eyes. Harry sighed.

"In the twenty-one years you've been on this planet, you've never been able to keep a secret to save your life. Out with it."

"You're only thirty-two, so there's no need to sound so paternal," Kess grumped.

Harry just raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his chair.

"I badgered Mom into letting me do a grocery run. I didn't go alone," she raised a hand, "Dean Winchester drove me."

"Oh, that makes me feel much better." Harry's voice left no doubt about what he thought of that solution.

"I made him do all the heavy lifting and I took a long nap as soon as I got home." Kess hastened to add, trying to appease the cranky wizard across from her.

"Damn it, Jim! I'm a wizard, not a doctor!" Harry's voice softened. "And I have a hard enough time fixing people when they cooperate with me. If those raccoon eyes and that ghostly complexion are telling me the truth, you pushed yourself too hard today. After last night, with the amount of blood you lost, you need to go lie down."

Kess sighed and her shoulders slumped. Even after sleeping late into the morning and taking a long nap through the afternoon, she still felt drained. Nervous energy was really all that was keeping her upright at this point.

"No point in arguing with you when I know you're right," she stood slowly. "G'night, Harry."

"That's my girl." Harry smiled as she leaned over to give him a hug. "On your way up, will you tell our new hunter buddies that I need to talk to them?"

Kess nodded and headed out of the dining room, moving slowly. Harry leaned back in his chair and took another sip of his coffee. All too easily, his mind slid back to the newest problem that had found its way to Chicago. His mouth settled into a grim line. He was just finishing his cup of coffee when the Winchester brothers came down. Impatiently, he waved them over to his table. Both brothers, he noted, seemed pretty agitated, if their frowns were anything to go by.

"I hope you found something, Dresden, 'cuz we've got jack-squat," grumbled Dean as he sat, eyeing a couple seated a few tables down who were happily tearing into what appeared to be a pair of raw steaks.

"Oh, I've got something, and I'm willing to bet you'll wish I hadn't by the time this little powwow is over." Dresden called Dean's attention back to the matter at hand.

At that point, Jenny came by with the coffee pot and reached over to take Harry's cup. He tightened his grip on the handle and she retracted her hand.

"You boys want some coffee?" She asked, looking at Sam and Dean.

"No thank you. Just water and a salad for me," said Sam.

"I'll take a beer, if you have any, and some fries," said Dean.

"Just keep it coming," said Harry, eying his still-empty cup.

"How many cups have you had, Harry?" Jenny asked suspiciously. "I'm thinking I should probably cut you off."

"I am engaging in the time-honored wizard tradition of brooding, which is a state that requires steady caffeine intake to maintain," Dresden said with mock hauteur. "Now fill me up!"

Jenny rolled her eyes and smiled as she poured the wizard yet another cup of coffee. With a nod to the boys, she went off to get their drinks. Once they all had the beverage of their choice, they settled in to discuss business.

"So," the wizard began, "I got Murphy to let me back into Allison's apartment. The psychic residue there was almost identical to what I felt outside Wren's Nest last night."

"You said that last night," Sam said. "But, I thought you said that that stuff faded pretty fast."

"Blood remembers, boy." Harry suddenly felt very old and tired as he recalled the apartment. "Anyways, I wanted to double-check without you guys and Murph there to distract me."

"And?" Dean took a sip of his beer.

"I got a few hairs that S.I. missed and I ran some tests on them." Harry ran his hands through his dark hair and blew out a long breath. "We're dealing with a Yee Naaldlooshi."

"Well, shit," Dean sank back into his chair.

"A Navajo Skinwalker?" Sam spluttered some of his water. "Aren't those more Southwest monsters?"

"Never heard of one coming this far north before," said Harry grimly. "They're bad business either way. I'll whip up a tracking spell tomorrow. No point in hunting it down til we know how to kill it."

"Our dad collected a lot of lore on them," said Dean. "Strong, fast, creepy as all hell, and impossible to kill, or close to it. The tribes he talked to wouldn't give him much information on the things."

"That's because we do not talk about such things with outsiders for fear of drawing the Evil Ones' attention." A new voice spoke from behind them. "The less those things know of your existence, the better."

Sam and Dean turned and saw and old man with a leathery face and perfectly straight hair, once black, now gone to gray. On his shoulder perched a young raccoon.

"Your dewdrop faerie was surprisingly punctual in delivering your message to me. I came as quickly as age and distance would allow."

Harry sprang to his feet and clasped hands with the old man.

"Well, magic certainly helps with the travel. Good to see you, Injun Joe. I'm glad Toot was prompt. Not sure what we'd do if he wasn't."

"Ummm," Sam fidgeted in his seat. "I'm not sure you're allowed to say that here."

Injun Joe turned to the hunter and smiled.

"Bah. This foolish white man knows he's supposed to say 'Native American Joe' now. You may refer to me as Listens-to-Wind."

Both brothers nodded and shook his hand.

"My name's Dean and this is my brother, Sammy."

"Sam," corrected the young Winchester shortly.

Listens-to-Wind nodded gravely and slowly sat down next to Harry. He glanced down and an indulgent smile wrinkled his weathered features.

"Little Brother, that is not for you. We do not take without invitation."

While they had been making introductions, the small raccoon had scampered onto the table and was busily washing one of Dean's fries in Sam's water. Completely nonplussed, Sam gingerly pushed the cup towards the little creature while Dean shifted his fries into his lap with a glare.

"It's okay, he can have it," Sam stammered, causing Listens-to-Wind's smile to grow.

"He thanks you for your generosity." The old man's face turned serious. "But now we have darker topics to discuss – ones that would be better suited to daylight if we had the time."

"But we don't," Dean said abruptly, "so what have you got for us? You know about these Skinwalkers?"

"All of my people do. They are shamans who have renounced our traditions in favor of the Witchery Way and have murdered their own kin to gain great power, casting off their humanity in the process."

"They have all sorts of nasty tricks," Harry began, but Dean cut him off.

"Those we know about. Shapeshifting and imitating any animal or human."

"I read in Dad's journal that they can even read minds," offered Sam.

"All true," Listens-to-Wind nodded gravely. "To meet their gaze is to invite them into your body. It is why they are feared."

"So how do we gank the sucker? I'm not one for letting it roam loose."Dean popped another fry into his mouth.

Listens-to-Wind stared into space for a moment. The other men allowed him his silence and waited. Only the splashing of Little Brother dipping bits of Sam's forgotten salad into his water disturbed the heavy atmosphere around the table. Finally, Harry reached over and put his hand on the old man's arm.

"Please," he said softly, "If you can tell us anything that'll help us stop it. It's killed twice already and sliced up someone under my protection."

The old man sighed and spoke tersely and quietly, not looking at any of them.

"There are only two ways of killing an Evil One. The first way is to shoot it with a silver bullet coated in White Ash. Few choose that way though – a Skinwalker's power has been known to render modern weaponry unreliable. The second way is to speak its True Name while it is in animal form. Such an identification would strip it of its power and cause it to wither away."

"Well," Dean tapped the table absentmindedly, "We don't know its True Name, so we'll have to risk it and hunt it the old fashioned way."

"Where do we get White Ash?" Asked Sam, frowning.

Listens-to-Wind shook his head and Harry sighed.

"At least we have a jumping-off point now."

"What about the hex bags?" Sam attempted to reclaim his salad from the little raccoon. "It doesn't sound like a Skinwalker would need to use one."

"Perhaps the coven who planted them are using them to control it," suggested Dean. "It's powerful enough that it could easily take them all out without proper precautions."

"I have never heard of such a thing," Listens-to-Wind said slowly. "But these are strange times we are living in." The old man stood slowly and held out his hand to Little Brother, who scampered up onto his shoulder. "I find myself tired now and too old for such late hours with such grim topics."

Harry gave him a sidelong look and rose.

"Well, I had Jenny make a room for you. I'll go with you." He turned to the brothers. "I'll keep researching. I have a few angles I haven't tried yet."

Sam nodded to Harry and turned to Listens-to-Wind.

"Thank you for your help, Sir." He stopped. "You didn't come here just to talk about Skinwalkers, did you?"

"When my young friend calls, I come," the old man smiled and followed Dresden out of the room.

Left alone at their table, both Sam and Dean noticed that most of the other diners had cleared out. Reaching over, Sam retrieved his picked-over salad and began to poke at it with his fork.

"Well, this just gets worse by the day."

"You're telling me. First witches, now a Skinwalker."

"And we still don't know how Kestrel fits into all this."

"Right. I'd almost forgotten about her." Dean stood and stretched. "Guess that means you get to go research White Ash and iron allergies tomorrow while I keep an eye on Kess."

"Yeah, I'm sure you'll keep an eye on her," grumbled Sam as he scooped up the remains of his food to throw away.

"'Gotta do what we gotta do. Besides, you're better at the whole library scene than I am." Dean clapped Sam on the shoulder as he sauntered out of the room. "To each their own, man."

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