Three: Devil’s Gate
John loaded the gun, fitting the custom-made bullets into the clip one by one while Mary watched. They were anti-demon bullets, hollow rounds made of iron and filled with holy water, but they would kill a human target as easily. John slid the clip home, jacked a round into the chamber, checked the safety then aimed the gun, checking the balance and weight.
There was a determined look in John’s eyes, one Mary didn’t enjoy seeing. She felt she was seeing, for the first time, the John Winchester who went to war: the side of himself they both believed he left behind in Vietnam. After everything they had been through, Mary couldn’t even blame him, but she hated seeing John like this.
“John,” she began, but broke off. She didn’t know how to continue.
“It’s a precaution,” John said, meeting her eyes with a look that said she should be carrying, too.
“We’re only going to see what’s there,” Mary pointed out. She had given her father’s pistol to Dean, and while she wouldn’t go unarmed, she didn’t want to pack a gun. Her weapons were different: holy water and Latin.
“And what’s there could be anything from an empty field to a pack of those hellhounds,” John pointed out. Unconsciously, he flexed his shoulder as he spoke, testing the healing wounds on his back. “If we’re not going prepared, Mary, we’re not going,” he added firmly.
She moved to stand behind her husband. He was sitting at the motel room’s only table, with the gun-cleaning equipment spread out on a canvas sheet before him. Mary laid her hands on his shoulders, hoping to massage away some of the tension he was carrying. John leaned back into her touch and laid the gun down. He sighed theatrically as she worked her fingers into his muscles. “Mm, that’s good.”
“Putty in my hands, honey.” Mary bent to kiss his cheek and John turned his head to capture her lips instead. She kissed him back with a little laugh. John used to do that when they were young and she enjoyed the reminder.
“In your dream, Mary,” John asked seriously, “was it night or day?”
The brief moment of lightness vanished. Mary didn’t need to ask which dream he meant. “Neither,” she answered, sitting down on the motel bed. “I mean, it was half-light, but it could have been twilight or dawn. I don’t know which.”
“If we leave now, we’ll be there before twilight.”
Mary shivered, though it wasn’t cold. “No reason to wait,” she agreed.
As soon as Dean saw Cold Oak ahead, he understood why Bobby called it a haunted town. It looked as if some terrible disaster happened there. It was summer, but the trees around the town were bare of leaves, as if it were winter. The houses stood empty and abandoned: some intact, many others with holes where roof beams had collapsed or trees fallen in long-ago storms. The road was a narrow track through the trees and Dean had to drive slowly to avoid scratching the Impala’s paintwork.
“Pull over here,” Bobby ordered.
Dean would have liked the car closer to town, in case they had to make a quick getaway, but he had become accustomed to obeying Bobby. Bobby always had a reason for his orders, even if he didn’t share it.
Bobby took the shotguns from the trunk. Dean checked his – it was loaded with rock salt – and tucked it under his arm. The two men walked side by side into the abandoned town.
Dean didn’t know what to expect. He was both afraid they wouldn’t find Sam here and, after what Mom told him, just as afraid they would. If they found Sam, if he was still alive, he couldn’t be the brother Dean remembered. So Dean did not call out his brother’s name as they approached.
The first body they saw was lying on the steps of one of the first buildings. It was a young woman, Sam’s age, her long, mousy hair covering her face. A gaping hole in her chest was obviously what killed her but Dean couldn’t see how that happened to her. It didn’t look like a gunshot wound. Bobby signalled Dean to stay put and examined the body carefully. Dean was happy to stay away; he didn’t know how Bobby could stand touching her.
“She ain’t been dead long,” Bobby announced, standing. “A day. Maybe two.”
“I’ll check inside,” Dean offered, figuring he needed to pull his weight.
The door was made of wood and stood partly open. Dean pulled on the handle, but found the door stuck in place. It had probably swollen over the years and now wouldn’t budge. Dean thought he could probably force it open, but the gap seemed wide enough so he squeezed his way in. He repositioned the shotgun so it was held at his side, pointed down but ready to aim if the need arose.
Inside, Dean found a large room containing a table and an old bureau. There must have been chairs, once, but they were gone. The fireplace had a stone plinth and the old tools – a poker, a toasting fork and suchlike – stood beside it. There was a further door leading into another room. Everything was covered with a century’s accumulated dust. The only light came from a dirty window and the half-open door through which Dean had entered.
Footprints in the dust told Dean that someone had been here recently. He thought they were three different people but none of the footprints was big enough to be Sam’s.
Dean crossed to the next room and before he reached the door the smell reached him. He did not want to enter that room. It was dark inside and he couldn’t see clearly, but he saw enough to know there were more human bodies within. He thought he saw three. Dean had no choice. He had to know if one of them was Sam.
But, god, that smell! Dean pulled the sleeve of his coat down over his hand and used it to cover his mouth and nose. He breathed through his mouth as shallowly as he could. Carefully, Dean walked inside.
These three had been dead for longer than the girl outside. Flies buzzed around them and Dean saw the slinky movement of rats. He considered firing the shotgun to get rid of them, but he knew what Bobby would say to that. They didn’t know for sure that Sam was here but they did know that demons were. A gunshot would attract attention. Dean pulled out his flashlight instead and clicked it on to examine the dead.
The closest body had dark skin: African American. The second was female. Since Dean’s only interest was in finding his brother, he ignored them. The third body was too big to be a girl and the hair was dark, like Sam’s. Dean took a few reluctant steps toward it, but he just couldn’t tell for sure. He was going to have to touch it, turn it over.
For a long moment, Dean stood there. He knew what he had to do, but he couldn’t quite make himself do it.
“Dean!” Bobby called after him.
“I’m okay,” he answered, but the words stuck in his throat. He took a deep breath and tried again. “I’m okay!”
Come on, Dean. Just do it. He crouched, grasped the shoulder of the corpse and pulled it toward him to roll the body onto its back. The flesh was squidgy beneath his fingers. It resisted at first, almost like a living body, then suddenly fell toward him, revealing half a face. The other half was a crawling mess of maggots.
Adrenaline took over and Dean stumbled backward, almost falling over the female body in his haste to get out of there. He dashed for the exit, past Bobby and into the street. He fell to his knees and dragged a breath of fresh air into his lungs before his stomach rebelled and he threw up in the dirt.
Bobby’s hand was cool on his shoulder. “Let it out, son,” he advised gently.
Dean raised his head and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Not Sam. It’s not Sam,” he croaked. The only thing that really mattered.
Bobby looked grim, not relieved. “Then we keep lookin’,” he said, and offered his hand to help Dean stand.
The road came to an end in a green field and John shut off the truck’s engine. “I think we’re walking from here,” he suggested.
Mary took three of the water bottles and added them to her bag, a simple messenger bag she could wear across her body, thus keeping her hands free. She also carried some spare ammo. Her clothing was practical: jeans, a warm sweater and sturdy boots. She climbed down from the truck and spread Bill’s map on the hood. She set the compass on top of the map and traced the road with her finger.
“Looks like five, six miles,” John said.
“If the map is accurate, it’s wild country, but it looks flat. It won’t be hard,” Mary agreed. She folded the map and packed it.
Crossing the field was easy, but on the other side was a wood and there the terrain was rougher. The wood encircled the cemetery that was their destination, but Mary didn’t realise that until she saw the stone wall and iron gate ahead.
“Seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a graveyard,” John commented.
“Depends what’s buried in it,” Mary suggested.
John grunted an acknowledgement and reached for the rusty gate. He lifted the heavy chain that held it closed. Even if they had a key, the padlock was so corroded it would never open again.
Unperturbed, Mary stepped forward, tested the strength of the gate with her foot, then climbed over it. She landed lightly on the other side and looked up at the sky while she waited for John to follow her.
It was almost twilight.
The windmill was the worst.
The dead boy hung from the windmill, suspended upside down by one foot and swinging gently in the wind. His other leg was badly broken. There was no sign of blood or other injuries and from the expression on his face, the dead boy had been alive when he was strung up there. Dean couldn’t help wondering how long it would take to die like that. It must have been agonising.
The dead boy was not Sam.
“I swear to God, I’m gonna kill that yellow-eyed son of a bitch for this,” Dean muttered under his breath. He had lost count of the number of bodies he had seen in this godforsaken town. If Cold Oak had not been haunted before, it surely was now.
Bobby emerged from the final house. In his years as a hunter Bobby had seen, if not worse than this, surely other scenes as bad. You wouldn’t think so to look at him. His mouth was set in a grim line, his eyes weary and furious at once.
“Nothin’,” he said when he reached Dean. “Your brother ain’t here.”
Dean should have been relieved. Sam wasn’t here. It meant Sam was probably still alive. But if their mom was right about what happened in this place – and they’d found strong evidence that she was – Sam could only be alive if he killed these kids. All of them.
The dead boy swung from the windmill, the wood creaking slightly under his weight.
No. No way. Sam couldn’t have done this. Dean frowned, his eyes drawn to the dead boy once more. Sam was a big guy, strong and athletic. If Sam’s life were in danger and he had to defend himself, maybe then he could kill. Maybe. But Dean’s little brother who rescued spiders from the bath before Mom or Dad could squish them, who cried when Bambi’s mom got shot and who wanted to be a lawyer ever since he read To Kill A Mockingbird…he couldn’t have become a person capable of stringing a kid up and listening to his screams for hours or days until he died.
This had to be the demon’s work. There was no other explanation.
“Dean,” Bobby said, breaking the silence. “Are you up to this?”
“Up to what?” Dean asked confused. He tore his gaze away from the body above them. “If he’s not here…”
“We ain’t done. We have to burn the bodies.”
“What? No!” Just the thought of going through those houses again, facing all those bodies again, was unbearable.
“You want this many pissed-off spirits haunting this town?” Bobby demanded. “You’re a hunter now, kid. This is our responsibility.”
Dean swallowed. “We’ll need a lot of wood to burn that many bodies.”
Bobby’s gaze swept the whole street. “Wood’s all around us, boy. We have to burn the town.”
“Right,” Dean agreed, relieved. “There’s gasoline in the trunk. I’ll get it.”
Using flashlights, Mary and John examined every grave marker in the cemetery. If something was buried beneath one of them, there was nothing to give it away. They found no X marking the spot. Not even a familiar name on a headstone.
Mary had left the mausoleum until last because it seemed too obvious. A huge stone structure with an ornate decoration, it didn’t seem like the kind of place you’d hide a secret. But when she finally approached it and ran her flashlight over the decoration, she realised her mistake.
“John!” she called.
He was at her side at once.
Mary played her flashlight over the front of the mausoleum again. The decoration looked like a kind of mandala: an elaborate design in concentric circles. But in the centre was a five-pointed star, and the design around it, if you looked carefully, enlarged that star.
“It’s a devil’s trap,” Mary explained. An unusual one. I think whatever we’re looking for, it’s inside here.” And it was demonic: a devil’s trap wouldn’t hold anything else.
“Mary, someone – Samuel Colt – went to a lot of trouble to lock something in. Whatever it is, I don’t think opening it is a good idea.”
“I agree. We have to make sure it stays closed,” Mary agreed.
“I wish you hadn’t said that.” Sam’s voice came from behind them.
At the sound of her son’s voice, Mary felt only joy. She turned, her lips curving into a smile, a greeting on the tip of her tongue. What she saw made her freeze, the words unspoken.
Sam looked haggard. His eyes were dark bruises in his too-thin face. His beard was unshaven, which accented the hollows of his cheeks. But it wasn’t just his face that showed how much Sam had suffered. There was something about the way he held himself, coiled tight and tense, that made Mary think of a rattlesnake about to strike. She was afraid of her own son.
John, too, sensed something. He took a step forward, subtly placing himself between Sam and Mary: a protective gesture.
“Sam. We’ve been worried about you,” John said. His voice was wary; not a good way to begin.
Mary deliberately moved from behind John’s protective stance. “Sam, I’m so glad you’re safe.” She began to move forward.
His bark of laughter stopped her. “Safe! No one is safe.”
She raised one hand, both to show she was unarmed and to reach out for him. “I know about the demon,” she began.
“You don’t know anything!” Sam snapped back.
“He forced you to kill,” Mary said. “We know, Sam. But you’re safe here, in this place. You have a choice. Whatever the demon wants – ”
Sam looked at her as if she’d claimed the sky was pink and the sun blue. “You have no idea,” he said contemptuously. Then he looked at his father. “You should both go,” he instructed. “I don’t know what will happen when I open this thing, but – ”
“I can’t let you do that, son,” John answered carefully.
“Do you think you can stop me?”
“If I have to.” John sounded so confident. He glanced at Mary and she saw a question in his look. John’s hand hovered near his gun. Would he really use it? Against Sammy?
No! Mary thought, praying John would understand from her expression what she didn’t dare to say aloud. But the thought of John’s gun reminded her of her dream. She had seen this place, this moment, and in her dream, Sam had the Colt. Did he have it now? She saw no sign he was armed. Had her dream been wrong, then?
Sam’s face twisted as if he were in physical pain. “You have to let me do this! Please, you don’t understand…”
“What will happen if we do?” Mary asked him. She felt calm, suddenly, because Sam was asking, not demanding. She could still reach him. The demon didn’t own him completely.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, but then his voice rose to a shout. “And I don’t care! I know what will happen if I don’t! Get out of the way. Please!”
Sam didn’t wait for them to move. He strode forward and shoved John aside, taking him by surprise. John hit the ground hard and Mary heard his grunt of pain.
“Sam!” Mary cried, shocked. She knew Sam was strong, but so was John, and that seemed effortless. Sam now stood between her and John. Mary gazed into his eyes and saw pain. She tried, one more time. “You can choose, Sam. We can help you.”
“I can choose,” he repeated flatly and turned his back on her as he stepped toward the mausoleum.
Sam’s movement revealed the Colt, pushed through his belt at his back. Mary gasped, surprised to see it even though she had foreseen this moment.
“The Colt,” she said urgently. “It can kill the demon.”
Sam looked back over his shoulder. “What good is that?” he asked bitterly. “It can’t kill all of them.” He took the gun from his belt and reached out to touch the mausoleum.
Abruptly, Mary understood her dream. Samuel Colt built this place. He built the mausoleum. He protected it with the world’s biggest devil’s trap. And Samuel Colt created that gun, too. He didn’t create it as a weapon. Maybe it could kill demons, but the legend of the Colt was a smokescreen to conceal its real purpose. The Colt was a key.
“No!” Mary started forward, but it was too late.
From somewhere deep beneath their feet a low rumble began to build. The ornate mandala began to move, its parts spinning like dials. Mary heard the creak of machinery long unused beginning to move and the clunk as ancient tumblers fell within a magical lock.
She stared at Sam, horrified. Oh, god, what have you done?
The world exploded.
The rumble beneath the cemetery turned into a roar. The mausoleum split in two. Heat blasted out of it, followed by a tornado filled with thick, black smoke. Mary saw the glow of flame just as the force of the blast slammed into her, lifting her off her feet as it blew her backward. She hit the ground with a bone-shaking impact. Pain darkened her vision and she fought to draw a breath. When she did, it tasted of sulphur.
And there was more. Whatever magic, or force, or power had protected this place was gone. Mary hadn’t known she could feel that protection until she felt its absence. The smoke billowed upward, endlessly, like ash from an erupting volcano. There was power in it, flashes of blue-white energy. The noise was deafening.
“Mary!” The sound of John’s terror reached through her own and she rolled painfully over, looking for him. When she saw him, she began to crawl toward him across the grass. She didn’t trust herself to walk. John met her halfway and for a moment she clung to his hands like a lifeline.
A moment was all they had to comfort each other.
“We’ve got to get it closed!” Mary yelled over the din.
“Are you crazy?” John objected. “We can’t get near!”
“No choice! That’s a door to Hell.” Mary gestured to the thick smoke still flooding out of the mausoleum, but John didn’t understand and she had no time to explain. “Help me!” she demanded, and struggled to her feet.
Mary fought her way to the open mausoleum. It was like trying to walk against a gale-force wind, but she made it. She was grateful to see John on the other side of the gate. He didn’t understand, but he would help her. Mary threw her weight against her half of the devil’s gate. It barely moved. She braced her feet and shoved with every ounce of strength she had. She felt the skin scrape from her hands, felt the pain of muscles protesting and she screamed with the effort, barely aware she was doing it. Slowly, the gate began to move. Sweat and tears poured down her face. The gate moved by inches and with every second that passed more demons were fleeing Hell.
Then suddenly, some imperceptible tipping point was reached and the gate moved much faster. It slammed shut with a deep, booming clang. The whir of machinery from inside promised that the lock was engaging once more.
There was something more she had to do, but Mary could no longer think. She slid to the ground, weakly. The gate was closed, and that was good, but she knew they’d been too late. Bobby told them he’d heard of fifteen possessions this year. There were about to be many, many more. How many demons were in that enormous torrent of smoke? A hundred? A thousand? Mary had no way to count them, but she knew it was a legion. An army.
It was the end of the world as she knew it.
The fire spread swiftly through Cold Oak, the old, dry wood catching light quickly with the aid of the gasoline. Leaning on the hood of the Impala with Bobby at his side, Dean watched the flames spread until he was sure every building was burning. Flames licked toward the height of the windmill and Dean relaxed. It was done.
He opened the car door without saying another word. He was more than ready to leave. He wanted to forget he had ever been here, but knew he could not. The things he had seen today were branded into his memory.
Bobby, too, was silent as Dean drove down the narrow track away from the abandoned frontier town. Dean was grateful for the silence; he needed it to process everything. He felt as if something fundamental within him had been changed by Cold Oak. He was different. His perception of the world was different. Everything in his life was changed by this day.
When they reached the junction to the main road, Dean broke the silence. “Which way?” he asked, expecting Bobby to direct him to a motel for the night.
“We need to go to South Wyoming.” Bobby looked at Dean. “How fast can you drive, boy?”
Dean turned the car toward the highway. “What’s the hurry? Mom and Dad are going to meet us – ”
“Dean, think!” Bobby snapped. “Whatever was happening in Cold Oak was over a day ago. Maybe two. The demon got what it wanted. If Mary’s right – ”
“It wants whatever’s in that devil’s trap!” Dean interrupted. He felt cold. He hadn’t even thought of that. His parents were there. He floored the gas.
The first Mary saw of him was his legs. They were clad in black denim worn over scuffed cowboy boots and it seemed they just appeared in front of her. She wondered if she had lost consciousness for a few seconds. Confused, she looked up. He was standing so close. She saw a heavy silver belt-buckle. Mary felt a shock of recognition when she saw the Colt next to that bright buckle. Her eyes continued upward and she saw a dark shirt, open at the neck to reveal pale skin and a pendant on a leather thong. Finally, she saw his face. It was an unremarkable face; a stranger’s face.
He smiled, a flash of white teeth in the darkness. “Howdy, Mary.” He greeted her like an old friend.
With the words, she knew him and knew he was no friend of hers. Adrenaline surged and she tried to back away, but the mausoleum was at her back. She had nowhere to go.
“You!” she gasped.
He blinked slowly and Mary saw the sickly yellow of his eyes revealed.
This demon killed her mother and father. It forced her into the deal that was tearing her son apart. It stole her son. And she was more afraid of him than any other creature that existed.
There was no warning.
The demon moved too quickly for her to get away. Its fingers closed around her throat, cutting off her air. It lifted her effortlessly. Mary grabbed his wrist, struggling to breathe. Her protective bracelet touched the demon’s skin and where it touched his flesh smoked, but it didn’t slacken his grip at all.
Dimly, Mary heard John shout her name. She saw the demon glance his way – just glance. “Wait your turn,” the demon snarled.
Mary would have begged him not to hurt John, but she had no breath. Dark spots danced in her vision. Her fingers pulled weakly at his wrist. Her pulse pounded in her head. She was dying.
“No.” Sam’s voice was unnaturally calm. “I did what you asked.” Sam said something else, but the blood rushing in Mary’s ears drowned out the words.
Abruptly, the demon released Mary.
She fell to the ground. Her lungs spasmed and she drew a breath. Cold air sucked in through her damaged throat was both agony and blessed relief. She collapsed for a second time, coughing weakly. The grass was cool against her cheek.
Blackness rolled over her and she knew no more.
Mary woke cradled in John’s arms. Both Sam and the demon were gone.