|One Inch From Shattering
||Dean moved slowly through the cavern, listening. Whatever was taking children was down here. Probably. Of course, coming down here alone was stupid, but lately, that’s what Dean had felt like. Stupid. And tired and just plain ready to let the world burn if that’s what it really wanted to do. Bobby’s death had been the last straw. And now Sam was running around being the perfect hunter, and where exactly did that leave him?
Alone. Grieving. And even messages from beyond weren’t going to fix that. If Ellen and Bobby and Jo were up there watching, they could kiss his ass. Because he had given at the office. Over and over and over again until he felt like an empty shell with a hard crust that had grown so brittle one good tap would shatter it.
And this was not the mindset to hunt in. Unfortunately, monster didn’t take vacations. Or if they did, they were the sort that involved soaking in the blood of innocent children.
Dean’s steps echoed against the cave walls and he slowed down and moved more carefully as the cave narrowed into a tunnel. Ahead, he could hear snuffling and a soft voice crying. Those were kids. Alive. The hope that he could do some good burned so brightly in Dean’s chest that it almost hurt.
Easing farther into the tunnel, Dean slowly pulled his gun as the edge of a bamboo cage came into sight. It was big. Huge. At least a dozen children all milled inside the bars, so if these monster were planning any blood filled hot tubs, they hadn’t gotten started yet. A vague sense of movement warned Dean a half second too late. He tried to turn to face the attacker coming up behind him, but a blinding pain in his head felled him before he could even turn. With only a vague sense of a grinning mountain of a man, Dean slipped into unconsciousness.
The television woke him.
“All thirteen children are safe, Dan, and the police report no leads as to the kidnappers.”
“Well, that is strange.”
“But a happy ending for all involved. We will stay on this story and report any new developments. This is Rebecca Schultz at the Seventh Street jail, reporting for Channel Sixteen news.”
The television clicked off, and Dean rolled to his side, groaning as his head throbbed in time with his heartbeat. “Was that little show for me? Because no way do I believe you just let all those kids go.” Cracking his eyes open, Dean looked at the small Chinese woman standing next to the bed. While normally Dean would be tempted to try and break her neck, his hands were shackled behind his back, and he wore hobbles. Yep, he was screwed. “So, what did you do? Infect them with something? Turn them into monsters?” Dean’s heart ached at the thought of more kids caught up in this mess. There had been too many lately.
“They were bait for you. You came. I have no reason to hurt them.” The woman reached down, and Dean went stiff as he braced for the torture. Instead, she brushed the hair back from his face. “I’m a god, not a monster.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that line before.” Dean jerked his head back and tried to roll away from the bitch, but she caught his arm in a harsh grip.
“I’m sure you have. I know how many of my kind have turned evil, so I don’t blame you for making assumptions, but I did let those children go, and I do plan to let you go.”
“Yeah, right. If that’s the case, why not let me go right now?” Dean gave her a cheeky grin. He expected to get slapped or gutted or dragged to the dungeon and strung up in chains. Maybe all three. Instead, she gave him a small smile and sat on the bed.
“If I let you go right now, you’ll try and kill me. I think I’ll wait until it looks like Sam has some real monster he needs help with, and then I’ll let you go. You’ll be able to see then that all the children are fine, and you’ll be faced with hunting down a god who hasn’t hurt anyone or backing up your brother who needs help. We both know what you’ll do, don’t we?”
Dean clamped his mouth shut. He hated it when the monsters made it personal.
“I wanted to show you around, but I really don’t want you snapping at my children. The decision to bring you here wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm.”
“Imagine that. Your monster children didn’t want a monster hunter in the house. Maybe someone around here does have a brain cell.” Dean didn’t add that he would put himself on the list of brainless idiots in this house.
The woman smiled. “Honestly, as much as I like your irreverence, I have to wonder how you avoided being killed by some angel. They are notorious for their lack of humor and inability to understand sarcasm.”
Dean grunted. The topic of angels was one more sore spot he refused to poke. Castiel’s death still pained him, and making fun of Cas’s inability to have fun… that was just wrong.
The woman patted him on the arm and stood. “I’ll get the chair.”
Panic washed through Dean as pretty much every horror movie he’d seen washed through him. Hell, he’d tied a few things to chairs before torturing them himself. A lot of things, actually. The woman opened the bedroom door and an older man with silver hair came in, pushing a wheelchair.
“Is he giving you trouble?”
“David, he’s tied hand and foot.” She gave him a fond look, like she couldn’t quite believe he’d said that.
David moved close to her, his body molding itself to her as he rested his hand against her cheek. “I love you, Nügua. Immortal or not, you can die. Ironic, but true.”
Nügua. Dean didn’t know that one. At least he knew where to start now, assuming he got out of this alive.
“And you worry about me entirely too much. The last painting you sold… that was dark, love. I worry about you. About your soul. I shouldn’t have told you so much.”
“If you didn’t tell me, I would have nagged it out of you,” David said as he leaned down to press a kiss against her forehead.
Dean pressed his forehead against the bed. “Shoot me now,” he muttered. He really didn’t need to see any monster porn. He’d stick with cartoon porn, thank you very much.
“Sorry, no shooting,” David said. Hands touched Dean’s legs, and before Dean could try and wiggle away, David was pulling him toward the edge of the bed.
“Hands off freak show.” Shockingly, it worked. David let go and stood up, giving Dean a chance to sit up and scoot back until he pressed himself against the wall.
“He’s human,” Nügua said as she walked to the far side of the bed so Dean was trapped between them. “And I care for him a lot, so if you hurt him, I’m going to lose my temper.”
“Right… and if I’m a good little boy, you’ll just let me go. I’m not buying it, sister.”
“Dean,” David’s voice distracted Dean for a second. He knew it. He knew he presented a vulnerable arch of his neck to the bitch queen, but she didn’t move. Dean hated this. He wanted someone to try and kill him so he understood the rules here.
“Dean,” David repeated. “She can make you get into the chair, but she’s not human. She doesn’t always know her strength. I would rather be the one to get you moved over because I’m less likely to crack your ribs.”
“Once. I cracked your ribs once,” Nügua said wearily.
David grinned at her. “And it was the best sex I’ve ever had, although I’d rather skip the trip to the emergency room at the end, if you don’t mind.” It was the sort of familiar teasing that Dean hadn’t heard since childhood.
“If you hadn’t distracted me…” Nügua stopped. “Well, actually, I like how you distract me.”
“More than Vic?”
“He doesn’t have your talent.”
“Really?” David sounded amused. “Because I hear that Vic and Amanda had you all kinds of distracted the other night.”
“I’m hallucinating. That’s it. I finally drank myself into a coma and this is one really bad trip.” Dean closed his eyes tightly. “Wake up. Wake up, you dumb bastard. Wake the fuck up.”
“You’re not asleep. But if you get in the chair, I’ll give you some answers,” Nügua said.
Dean slowly opened one eye. “And if I don’t get in the chair, you’ll make me get in the chair.”
“Yep,” she agreed.
“Great. I love having choices.” Dean sighed, but he swung his legs off the bed on David’s side. David rolled the wheelchair up next to them and locked the wheels before coming around to help Dean stand and then drop down into the chair. “I am going to find a way to kill you,” Dean warned as David ran a strap around Dean’s chest and tightened it. “And yeah, that sounds a little arrogant seeing as how I’m tied hand and foot and strapped to a wheelchair, but you’d be surprised at what I can accomplish.” David added a strap around Dean’s knees, and Dean had to give them points for effective bondage.
Nügua came around to their side of the bed and sat down so that she was eye to eye with Dean. She was a beautiful woman with wide features and black hair done up in a bun with colorful sticks holding it in place. “I don’t think it sounds arrogant because I know who you are. You, however, have no idea who I am.”
“Can’t say that I do. I’ll add you to my ‘to do’ list if you like, though.” Dean frowned. Wait. To-do list made it sound like he’d do her rather than kill her. Bad choice of words. He was definitely done having sex with monsters.
“About four thousand years ago, I saved the world from the last apocalypse. That time instead of Michael and Lucifer, it was Gongue-Gon who broke one of the barriers to another dimension during a fight with Zhu Rong. What a mess. I had a real time patching that up, and for about the next two hundred years, I hunted down all the things that crawled through the cracks. I suppose that’s when I started really paying attention to the angels. They spent more time on earth back then.”
“Right. Good bedtime story.” A monster-hunting monster. Dean was born at night, but not last night.
“You ass—” David started.
Nügua interrupted him. “Believe it… don’t… Your belief means nothing to me. However, during that time, I did hear about a little project the angels were planning. Even back then, they were focused on that final battle of theirs. You would think that God had ordered them to end the world at the first possible moment.”
Dean looked around at the room. It was normal. Frighteningly normal. He preferred monsters to look like monsters.
“They wanted to make vessels strong enough to carry them easily. I hear that carrying one of those huge beings inside your body is really quite difficult. Many people simply explode, and the larger the angel, the harder it is shoving it down inside a human body. And Michael.” Nügua shook her head. “He was beautiful. Huge. His wings covered the sky from horizon to horizon. I don’t think God has ever created anything quite as beautiful as the angels. I couldn’t imagine how he could fit into such a small and limited human body or what it would do to a human to have so much angel shoved in on top of its soul.”
“Yeah, well the angels are pretty much ass-hats. I don’t think they care about the soul that’s already in the body.” Dean tried to avoid even thinking about Jimmy. Hopefully Jimmy’s soul had found a way out because as hard as Cas had been there at the end, as cold as he’d been, Dean hated to think of Jimmy stuck in there, screaming as Cas had declared himself a God, although killing the KKK, that had been a nice touch.
“I don’t think they do. But then God did make them so very literal. And in their literal wisdom, they wanted a vessel who was stronger, more durable.”
Dean narrowed his eyes as he put the pieces together and finally understood what she was suggesting. Too much booze and too little sleep was clearly dulling his instincts a little. “You’re saying that’s me. You’re saying the angels bred me.” Dean thought about that cupid who had forced his parents to fall in love, who had created other love-matches on orders from angels, orders he didn’t understand.
“I am. You were designed for Michael. Of course, that means your brother is the same, only the demon blood that strengthened his body damaged other parts. Michael would not have been able to set up shop in Sam.”
“He set up in Adam.”
“Not easily. Adam’s body wasn’t as well engineered since his mother was a untouched human.” Nügua leaned closer. “Can I assume that you know about souls? About why they’re important?”
Dean narrowed his eyes. “Because you use them like batteries to keep you going? The more souls you suck in, the more power you have? Yeah, I know that.”
Nügua leaned back. “Good. Then I don’t have to start from square one. David, give him a tour. Let him talk to anyone he wants, push him down whatever hallway he chooses. Dean, I’m not trying to hide anything from you, but I know you won’t believe some of the things I have to say. Death thinks you learn a little better when you get to figure it out for yourself.”
“Death?” Dean’s eyes got big. If there was one person in the universe that scared the snot of him, it was Death. Well, Death and juiced up Cas, those two… you just didn’t piss them off.
“We know each other. I’m older than angels, Dean. I’m younger than the mother of all monsters, but I remember God shoving the Leviathans into purgatory, and before you ask, no, I don’t know how to defeat them. God had to intervene last time.”
“But—” Dean stopped. Nügua had vanished into thin air. “Well, crap.”
“Be honored. Most of the time she uses doors,” David suggested. “So, where first?”
“Boston?” Dean asked hopefully.
“Well, this house is sealed, and only Nügua can breech that seal, so Boston might be a problem. Do you want to see the kitchens?”
“So you can show me human body parts and threaten to turn me into Sunday dinner?” Dean demanded.
David blinked at him. “Those rumors are true? Gods are eating flesh?” He made a face.
“And your bitch-queen doesn’t?” Dean demanded. “Newsflash, she needs power, and we’re it. We’re her dinner.”
“Actually, she lives off what our souls radiate, especially if we give it to her freely,” David said gently. “She doesn’t have to consume souls, not unless she had to perform some incredibly difficult magic. And even if she had to consume souls, she would never eat the flesh. That’s disgusting. No god needs to eat flesh because the power is in the soul.”
“Right,” Dean said. “You keep on believing that.” For someone as old as David, he was naïve as hell.
“We’re definitely showing you the kitchens, any corner of the kitchen you want, and if you find one bit of human flesh, I’ll help you hunt Nügua myself, even if I love her more than myself,” David said firmly.
“Don’t say that. You say that, and next thing you know, the creature you pledged yourself to is lying to you, threatening to end your world, and you have to fight him,” Dean warned.
David pulled the bedroom door open and wheeled Dean down a wide hallway toward an elevator. “Maybe that’s happened, but I can’t see it happening to Nügua. She says that our true love and devotion bathe her in energy. She doesn’t have to end the world. She doesn’t want to.”
Dean didn’t have an answer for that sort of naiveté, so he sat in the chair and let David wheel him down to a monster’s kitchen. Hell, he half-expected to be the monster’s dinner. And sadly, he couldn’t come up with one good reason to fight it anymore.
Four hours later, Dean had run out of hallways to nod toward. He’d seen Nügua’s house from top to bottom: the altar to God, the meditation room, the human rooms scattered throughout the mansion, the art room, several offices where humans worked, looking up with a smile when Dean came in the room, a smile that turned suspicious when David introduced him.
But oddly, the suspicion was all about wanting to protect Nügua.
“He’s safe in there, isn’t he?” asked a young woman with red hair that curled around her jawline and a paint-splattered smock.
“Seriously, what is Nügua even thinking, having a hunter in here?” demanded an angry man who had a blow torch in hand, twisted metal sculptures all over the room. That had made Dean a little nervous.
“David? Are you sure she knows what she’s doing?” asked a woman with white hair and hands that shook as she lay in a bed that overlooked a rose garden.
Thirty-six people, all ages from about thirteen or so up to the old woman in the bed who had to be pushing ninety… they all looked at Dean like he was the monster.
“You’re all going to die, you know,” Dean pointed out as David pushed the chair down the hall that led to the big library.
“We’re human, we all die.”
“Well, living with a monster, you’re going to die earlier than most.”
David snorted. “Cassie is ninety-one. Living with Nügua does not reduce our lifespan.”
“And how many of you live that long?” Dean countered as they came into the library. David pushed the wheelchair to a spot opposite from the couch, locked the wheels, and then checked all the straps holding Dean to the chair.
“Steven was in his seventies when he died, Nancy was eighty-four, Lillian was fifty-three and cancer got her. Nügua could have cured her, but we all know the price when Nügua uses magic like that.”
“She has to kill someone,” Dean said, and suddenly he wondered if one of Nügua’s pets was ill. He was dinner so she could rev up the mojo.
“No, but it does drain all of us, and if something were to happen when Nügua was weak, we’d all be in danger. Lillian didn’t want that. She’d watched her mother die in terrible pain, and all she wanted was a chance to have her soul become part of Nügua—to die peacefully and be one with the woman—the goddess—she loved.”
“So, she does eat you,” Dean said triumphantly. Finally, someone was being honest.
“Very few choose that.” Dean turned his head and Nügua stood in the doorway. “Reapers never say where they take a soul. Some go to heaven or hell or purgatory. Some go to another planet or are returned to the womb to be born again. Some vanish into corners where I cannot see, and Death is not the most forthcoming of creatures.” Nügua walked slowly into the room and sat down in front of Dean. “Lillian feared change more than anything. She feared change and the potential for more pain. Her soul was powerful, bright, but the light was sharp and bitter, filtered through a life too harsh for someone so good. She didn’t want to risk more pain, another life with all the loss that came with it. She asked me to take her soul.”
“And that makes for a warm and cuddly afterlife, being eaten by a god,” Dean said, bracing himself against the fear that he was about to have the same fate.
“No,” Nügua said softly. “No, the soul comes in and for a time, I can feel that bright furnace and hear the voice of the soul as it settles in, but then the furnace slowly dims and then it finally goes dark and there’s nothing of the soul left. I would rather think of Lillian out there in the body of some child who is drawing figures in chalk on the sidewalk, but I know she’s gone.”
Dean pressed his lips together. “Great. So if you plan to eat me, get it over with.”
“I don’t plan to eat you. If I did that without your permission, I would have the world’s worst case of heartburn.”
Dean frowned. “What?”
“Heartburn,” Nügua repeated. “Human souls are batteries, they’re power generators. But if everyone else is a back-up generator running on gas, yours is a nuclear reactor. Eating you would be more power than I’ve had for a while and more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Come again?” Dean was definitely confused.
“You’re a human… a human that has killed gods, survived hell, bounced back after being slammed through walls and broken by monsters. Your brother was tortured by Lucifer and Michael, both of whom had good reason to hate him. And still, you two survive. You survive what no human can.” Nügua tilted her head, her expression so very serious.
“We’re human. If you think we’re monsters like—”
“Not monsters,” Nügua cut him off. “But you’re humans at the end of a four thousand year old breeding program. The rest of humanity are Chincoteague wild ponies and you are a thoroughbred Arabian. For four thousand years, angels have guided your development so that you would have the strength and the power to carry Michael to victory. They tried so hard to hide their work, to force Lucifer into a lesser vessel, but Lucifer sent his servant to poison one son of every potential vessel-line so that no matter who turned out to have the best genetics, he would have his own vessel waiting.”
Dean stopped breathing. It sounded so very logical. Actually, it sounded like the sort of dick move angels would make.
“You are the best of humanity, and now I see your soul dimmed by loss and pain and confusion.”
Dean pressed his lips together and ignored her. This bitch seemed to know everything, so she could hold up both ends of the conversation without him.
“I take in lost souls, Dean. I love them. Protect them. They pursue their art or their passions, and the people out there in the real world think of us as an artists’ colony. They are bright lights that shine into the dark, and I don’t have to take any more than they offer.”
David sat down next to her on the couch, his hand going to her knee. “And we offer because we love her, and that love makes her strong. She has fought for humanity longer than human history has existed.”
Nügua smiled. “You’re a pretentious little species, but I like you more than angels. Lucifer never did understand why so many of us, including God, were so fond of you.”
“So, this is an invitation?” Dean wasn’t sure he was tracking this conversation particularly well.
“I know you won’t take it now,” Nügua put her own hand on top of David’s. “But it’s an offer. If you get too tired to fight anymore, come back to town and call for me.”
“You’re giving me your number?” Dean asked for clarification.
“Pray to me,” she corrected him. “I don’t listen outside of this town because that would require more energy than I have or want. I don’t want to attract too much attention, especially now that the Leviathans are back, but if you come here and pray, I will hear you. You have a place here, Dean. You could set up a library and take calls, researching for other hunters… or I could help you forget everything.”
Dean sucked in a breath. God, that was tempting. Hell, losing Sam, losing Adam, losing Bobby and his father Ellen and Jo and Cas and every other damn person in his life… sometimes all he wanted was to forget. But if he forgot, who was he? Without hunting, he didn’t have anything.
Nügua smiled at him sadly. “It’s too soon now, and I know it. Your brother needs you, and you’ll go to him, but know you can come home to me. You would bring me the strength of your soul, and I would so much like to give you some peace and some happiness after all the sacrifices you’ve made to save the world I so love.” Nügua scooted forward on the couch, her eyes bright with tears and she reached up to run fingers down his cheek. “You deserve some peace, Dean.” Reaching up, she brushed her hand over Dean’s eyes, and darkness chased him down into sleep.
Dean sat bolt upright in the hard, hotel bed. Panting as his body tried to catch up with reality, Dean searched for any sign of things out of place. His cell phone sat on the bedside table. He wore the same clothes he’d been wearing when he’d gone into the caves, his bag of weapons waited next to the door. Rubbing his face, Dean pushed himself out of bed and headed for the door. Opening it, he looked around. His car sat there, even though he remembered leaving it near the caves. And two doors down, he could see the headlines on the newspaper stand. “Thirteen Children Home Safe.”
Dean didn’t know what to think, but then his phone rang—the tone telling him Sam was calling. Pushing the rest of the mess to one side, Dean strode over to grab his phone.
“Dean, I need you.”
That’s all Dean really needed to know. Everything else would wait. And if he felt a little stronger for knowing there was an escape route… well, Dean wasn’t going to examine that bit of his psyche any time in the near future. He might kick a little angel ass if he ever saw another one, though.