After the Fire
Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. Isaiah 14:9
She heard gunfire in the distance, but Ellen didn't care about that. It was steady and controlled, so Kathleen and Diana were methodically working down the ranks of Infected with police-trained accuracy and efficiency. She turned her truck slowly off the highway, on to the service road. The dark desert stretched in all directions around the isolated Nevada township that had turned into a battlefield. Black mountains all around tore a strip of stars from the sky. A few houses strewn about to the west and south, behind her the main drag, buildings and stores, most dark, some lit by the fires burning unchecked. And the two-story hospital Dean had been held in for the last few weeks. The Impala was waiting in front, driver's door still standing open, right where Sam had left it when he went in to get Dean.
Of course it would never occur to a Winchester to dig in and wait for help to arrive. She scanned in a full circle, her fists wanting to shake the steering wheel. 'Dammit, boys...' Once Sam had found out where Dean had been taken, there was a straight line between Sam and there, best not be in the way. Of course it had been a trap, and as soon as Ellen found out she called Deacon. His team had stormed out of Truckee hell bent, but Sam had still got there first. She turned off the road and slowly cruised in a slight zigzag, letting her high beams play along the desert scrub. One hand on the wheel, the other on the shotgun.
It hadn't even been a year, she thought, as she peered into the night, a year after the fire, looking for any sign of movement. The brilliant starlit sky was almost brighter than her headlights. A year and then some since Jo had left, a year and then some more since John Winchester's sons had busted into her bar and the countdown started. Not that she blamed them for what happened when that countdown hit zero and her life went up in flames. But not even a year since the gate to Hell had opened, and all that came after that.
After the fire, of course, came the drive to Bobby Singer's with the files Ash had left in the safe. After the night in front of Samuel Colt's mausoleum or whatever the hell that was, it wasn't like she could just go on vacation to Mexico and lay in the sun. Nothing keeping her in Gilead. Jo wasn't coming home, Bill hadn't been coming home for years, she was free. Of course there was a war on, or so everyone had said.
But she didn't care about that. At first she just drove, visited a couple of old friends, trying to reconnect. If the storm had arrived, it was a quiet one. She found a lot of angry people, people she considered friends and decent folk with serious axes to grind with the Winchesters, and with Bobby Singer, and with her. How anyone found out what had happened that night in the deserted Wyoming cemetery was a serious question, and she had yet to hear a satisfactory answer as to how that story got round. She hadn't breathed a word, and Bobby Singer wasn't known as a gossip. The Winchesters didn't know anyone to tell.
So she found herself with a chip on her shoulder, and found she didn't hold with laying blame for that night on her, or on Bobby, or holding those two boys responsible for all the ills of the world. Bare-naked stupid, and she found she didn't mind telling people. Even it if cost a few bruised knuckles and bruised egos.
Surprised her. She thought hunter folk were smarter than that. Everyone was het up, gearing up to fight whatever was coming, or already here, but as far as most were concerned the Winchesters were on the wrong side. At any rate, they were on their own. She nursed her feelings, her knuckles, and she pondered. She took those files Ash had left and started going through them.
She made calls, made visits. She met some unusual people, and heard unusual stories. A school friend of Sam's in St. Louis. A priest in Rhode Island. She found some of the folk on her list had already found each other. A lawyer in Kentucky who tracked down a police detective in Baltimore who had talked with a deputy in Minnesota. All had been touched by the supernatural and by the Winchesters, and each one had kept asking questions. Most all of them women, which always gave Ellen a laugh.
Missouri Moseley, who tried to get her to see that there was a greater purpose to her roaming. The good of humanity, the survival of the world. Ellen didn't care about that, called her an officious busybody, and let her know all she cared about was the good name of two brave boys who were out there somewhere alone. Thinking they were alone, anyway. With what hung over their heads, it broke her heart to think of them thinking that. Took a while, but she and Missouri Moseley came to a workable relationship. And that was before the blind preacher started calling her up to give her instructions from God. So now she had a mission. Ain't that something.
Some folk she met up with were just folk, ready to be helpful, but not set up to be heroes. Couple of airline execs in Pennsylvania were real handy as friends. So was the rich lawyer from Mississippi, Handler, he was real open handed with his money. So was Gert Case, the old bat. So much like her own gran, God rest her, it gave her shivers. Whatever else they might be, though, they all were happy to know there were other folk in the world who knew they weren't crazy.
Not all the meetings were pleasant, not at all. Alice, in Michigan, who said she owed her life to the Winchesters, but it cost her son, and she closed the door in Ellen's face. Stephanie, a hunter's daughter, now a hunter herself traveling with Jo, fighting the good fight, and fighting hard every day, real hard, not to blame Sam for her father.
Then there were the kids. The moms and kids. All were grateful, and willing to talk to her, but most just wanted to forget. Ellen had been willing to let them forget, till she arrived at the motel in Wisconsin owned by a woman on her list named Joanna, to find Tamara, a hunter she knew by reputation but had never met, investigating Joanna's murder. Sulphurous fire took the mother, and two little boys had barely escaped with their lives. That same night Missouri had called to tell of a premonition of danger to the family living in the Winchesters' old house in Lawrence. The house burned to the foundation two days later. So something else was following the Winchesters' trail.
So she couldn't let them forget after all. She talked to Bobby, and Gert, and then Ellen went right down the list, calling the mothers and children that might be used as hostages or bait for the Winchester boys. Offered them a safe place in upstate New York to wait out the end of the war or end of the world. An old girl's school, Halcyon Hall, as spooky an old pile as she'd ever seen, but it was owned by the spooky old Marlowe, the fellow Bobby got his books from, and warded to the rafters. Right down the road from New Paltz. Gert was there to take them in and see them settled.
She high tailed to Lawrence, where Missouri had Jenny, Ritchie and Sari packed and ready. They needed little convincing. Back to Fitchburg to find the orphaned boys, Michael and Asher. They'd been placed in separate foster care facilities, and after a few choice words with bureaucrats who must have been hatched not born, Ellen cruised the back roads around the town till she found two boys with backpacks trudging to God knows where. Trust didn't come easily, but the magic name of Winchester at least got them into her truck and to Missouri's house in Lawrence. Then wheels just started turning on their own. Mara Daniels, the Baltimore lawyer, arranged for a Dr. Garrison, who she had never heard of but once again the Winchester name was invoked, to take custody through some fancy court finagling that Ellen would rather not know about. Before the authorities could give her grief for transporting across state lines, the youngsters were on their way to Halcyon Hall where they would have family, where people wouldn't think they were crazy, and where dear God they wouldn't be separated.
Then it was six more trips for her, five mothers, eight kids, seven Winchester stories and she ran out of names. She prayed she'd got them all. Bobby was working the east coast with the Collins's, so now the place was spilling over. Hunters had never been much in the way of organized and were always secretive. After the fire she'd thought maybe they'd lost too many, and the world was in dire shape, but turned out there were more than anyone had guessed. A lot of them had families and were glad to hear of a place that would protect them. And there were a lot of orphans, and the hunting families wanted every one of them.
Nothing would replace Michael and Asher's mother. But at least they'd be with mothers and kids and good people. She could have strangled John Winchester when she found out about Sam and Dean. Known him for over two years, and he'd never said word one about having children. Suspicious, paranoid, isolationist bastard. Could have had them around, maybe not permanent, but at least they could have grown up with some kind of family, had Jo for a part-time little sister or something. Lord knows she was no model mother, and she would never have tried to step in like that, though Bill had wanted a son so bad you could bottle it, but that didn't work for John Winchester, no, he needed them far away and under lock and key or whatever bullshit reasons he kept in that barbed-wire brain of his. Jesus.
She and Dean had started out crosswise for sure over that very issue. Of course two wayward boys brought out the mother in anyone, specially when Sam turned on the big eyes to get information. She could have told Dean right there she wasn't going to tread on that sacred ground with either of them. Dean's memory of Mary Winchester was something religious. And Sam had a mother; he was sitting right next to him. Still, Dean was suspicious and defensive.
She wasn't even scaring up jackrabbits. She picked up speed a bit, letting the truck jostle over the rough ground. The fight must have sent them out the back, since the Impala was still there. They must have gone into the dark to shake pursuit. Mostly Infected, a whole lot of zombies, and maybe a few possessed. Deacon and his small army had swept into town, went full metal on the creatures trying to get into the clinic, which Sam must have barricaded. Given them a chance to escape, it looked. In the big picture, it was a substantial victory. A base of operations destroyed, a whole lot of bodies put back in the ground. But she didn't care about that. She cared about finding those boys.
Her cell rang. She glanced at it. Reverend Roy, with typical timing. Whatever he had to tell her would have to wait, because it would only be more murky advice from the friends of the Winchesters that only he could talk to. Been talking to Death, the man had said. Death apparently owed Sam Winchester a favor. Or had unfinished business with Dean. Last time he'd said he had a message from Pastor Jim Murphy, and she'd hung up on him. Well, unless his 'spirit guide' Layla had told him where she could find Sam and Dean Winchester at this very moment, she wasn't interested. Not a betting woman, but she was going to bet not. Might accept some advice on how to get them in the truck without shooting her first, though. What they'd found in the town had chilled her to the bone.
The take-over must have happened months ago. The town was small, off the beaten track, and the Infected kept things looking normal. Behind the shuttered windows, though, it was all nightmare. The inside of the hospital had been horrific. Deacon and his company fighting their way in, Sam fighting their way out. Randall had spotted them on the monitors: a bloodied Sam carrying semi-conscious Dean in hospital scrubs, fighting off corpses. By the time the good guys had found that corridor, the boys were gone.
How to convince the mistrustful and wounded Winchesters that the good guys had won? She should have brought cheeseburgers. Set them out in a trail leading into the back of the truck. She grimaced, and wished she hadn't thought of food. What they'd found in the hospital had made some of the prison-hardened lose their stomachs. She'd have to prove she wasn't one of them. Infected or possessed. And the boys were always suspicious. And rightly so. She didn't feel very charitable towards humanity these days. In the recent months, as the news had more and more trouble keeping the War a secret, it became apparent that the Possessed had infiltrated many key areas, but there weren't enough of them to really take over. But they found volunteers. She was glad she hadn't been present to see the expression on the boy's faces the first time they encountered someone that was willingly working with the invaders. That was how Dean got taken. Not by the creatures they had protections against, but normal humans. Quislings. Set up and handed over by Bela Talbot.
Bela Talbot. There was a shameful waste of God's good air. She'd come to Sam with Dean's cell phone, in that motel outside Boise, showed him the video on it. Shaky, blurry glimpses of the things the black-eyed doctors were doing to the patients, to the children. And to Dean. It had been taken days earlier. Dean had been taken weeks ago. He could handle pain, Dean Winchester, and fear, and would make jokes to God's own face, but even he couldn't fight the stuff in needles, and their powers, and they took their time.
She had claimed to have come across the phone by accident and brought it to Sam at once. Picture of innocence. Nothing in it for her. But she screwed up. Sam had flown out the door, of course. Called Bobby, who called Ellen, who called Deacon, and the girls... Bela should have made herself scarce. But she made a few phone calls from his motel room, lady of leisure. She didn't think she was in any danger when the first car pulled up, the one with the college girls. Ellen hadn't found them, they'd found her. Jill Shoemaker and Charlie, from Toledo. Lori Sorensen, Iowa. Kat from Illinois, and Emily from Boston. They all met up over the Internet, somehow or other. Stories of mirrors and trees, monsters and ghosts. And stories of the Winchesters. They had gathered themselves together, and they had hit the road. They'd seen more of Jo than Ellen had herself in the last months. Called themselves the Hell's Sorority or something. Jo in a sorority. Never in her born days. Good shots, though, all of them. They had been looking for Sam, too, knowing he was in trouble.
Bela had laughed at them, as they kept her there, waiting for the second car. She offered them money, which they refused. She pitied them their bourgeoisie ways. Looking for Sam? That was dangerous, she said. Aren't you aware it's fatal to have designs on Sam Winchester? Yes, they said, they knew, they've been told what would happen to any of them if they made a move on Sam Winchester. They exchanged looks and smiled and said it was more dangerous to have hurt him. Bela didn't get the joke, even when the second car pulled up, and Gertrude Case got out. Gertrude's presence was a surprise. And money wouldn't move her... That made Bela uncomfortable. With Gertrude was Sarah Blake, who didn't appear likely to be swayed by money either, and the look in her eyes made Bela's anxiety quite acute.
It should not have been a surprise that the art dealer's daughter and the art-collecting socialite had met, living as they did in the same area, during the course of business. That they enjoyed each other's company was not surprising at all. That they both knew just enough to drop hints about the nature of certain objects, and pick up on those hints was not a coincidence, but a credit to their astuteness. That they both came by that knowledge by way of a certain tall, beautiful, haunted young man and his rascal brother, well.
Over the course of the next hour, Bela Talbot had learned why the girls had laughed, and that lesson was very painful. But later Gertrude called Ellen, and informed her Sarah had learned the name of the town where Dean had been taken, and where Sam was headed. Shafter, Nevada.
Ellen didn't care about bloody Bela Talbot. She drove round a gully, trying to get her headlights aimed down enough to see into it. She wracked her memory. What else was in this area? Anything? In any direction? Nothing but desert, no civilization till Salt Lake City, near a hundred miles east. Must have gone out a ways and turned north or south, hoping to shake the Infected and circle back to town. But if they knew there were demons, they couldn't shake them that easy. How could they, both of them wounded, hope to get a hundred miles to... She grunted and laughed, turned directly east. Easy driving on this featureless landscape, just have to avoid ruts and gullies. A few miles ahead it would get even easier, when she reached Bonneville Flats, that three thousand acre plain of raw salt. Those boys were something. She gunned the engine into high speed
She remembered something Dean had said to her, late one night, after a few beers, about feeling bad about not feeling worse. About the things he had to do. She wondered if she felt that way about Bela Talbot. Nope. Not a flicker. Sarah was ready to just put a bullet in her head, but Gert had proposed they keep her alive. Bela had access to objects, to knowledge, information that could be useful. Gert spoke with Ellen, and they, the wise old heads of the group, discussed options. Convincing her to part with that useful information and those useful objects, even just keeping her under lock and key, would be a ticklish job. The hunters weren't equipped and the policewomen too useful in the field. Bobby Singer agreed with Sarah. Ellen had a suggestion. Another peculiar Winchester connection, one that had found her, too, like the Sorority Girls. Offered aid if needed, she owed the Winchesters a favor or two, and didn't want to see the world come to an end either, thanks. Ellen had barely been able to talk rationally to her at all, considering, but Ellen called her and gave her the story. Then Ellen instructed Gert to keep Bela where she was, preferably sedated. Gert reported later that Bela was arrogant to the last. She was typically contemptuous of her new warden as they drove off, and even Gert had been surprised at the wan thing Ellen had sent, but after a moment of conversation, and the chill that followed, Gert was happy to leave Bela Talbot to the tender mercies of the pale, pretty girl with ancient eyes named Lenore.
With little victories like that, the war, such as it was, was actually going pretty well. Horrible things happened, sure. The demons targeted isolated communities, or closed groups, and wreaked havoc, but left little direct evidence. Mass murders. Small towns going crazy. Strange disasters. But there were successes. The prison in Greenville would have been a blood bath, but John Winchester's old war buddy Deacon knew how to fight them, and when they abandoned the place, there were a lot of bodies, true, but there was also a group of twenty guards and prisoners who had been blooded as a fighting unit. Her own daughter Jo had gone into Camp Pendleton in California to lead out survivors, and what came out had already been trained to fight, and now they knew what they were fighting against. Jo in a Marine base. That line of thinking was bad for her back teeth.
And apparently demons were just dumb. The Infected, those poor folk who were diseased with something that acted like possession but without the demonic powers, were easily created, but just as easily defeated. No supernatural protection for them, and most of the vulnerabilities. The demons had taken to mass necromancy, raising zombies as shock troops, but they were slow and unthinking, and were easily shown on television. That was an indication of how bad things were going for the demons. They were being forced into the open.
She didn't even care about how the great plans of the Demon Duke Lilith were foiled by her own monumental stupidity and ignorance, though the circumstances gave Ellen a good laugh. The plan had been to open a gate from the netherworld on a moonless night in September in a remote desert location, just west of where Ellen was now, far from civilization's non-believing witnesses, and bring a numberless legion of demons to earth. With nothing but a campsite of air-headed hippies gathering for some summer festival to impede her new army from rising from Hell, there would be nothing to prevent their descent on nearby unsuspecting Reno and beyond. Fully fifty of her faithful lieutenants boiled their oily black forms across the bleak and flat sands of an ancient lakebed to Black Rock, the aptly named gate, sealed by Shoshone petroglyphs, to find not a collection of VW buses and tie-dyed pot smokers, but a great assembly of fifty thousand, fully ready to witness, believe, and act. Gaelic songs and knotted kerchiefs twisted the winds to hold them fast; Sanskrit hymns and colored sand immured their powers, pentacles and Latin chants commanded from them answers, and finally Shinto prayers bound them into little origami paper shapes, there to be consigned to the great pyre, and a quarter of Lilith's legion was released unto the Great Spirit of the desert in the cleansing flame of the Burning Man.
By midnight, not a demon remained, and their plans were discovered. By noon the next day, with the magic of cell phones, the word was spread to the great sinful cities to the west, cities Lilith had thought would be easy pickings for the corrosive temptations of demonkind. She had not counted on the witches, the shaman, the New Agers, the artists, the religious of every stripe, those that believed, being ready to answer the call to arms. There was proof enough for the doubters, and by the end of the week every tattoo parlor in San Francisco and Los Angeles was offering free Sun-and-Star tattoos and the lines were stretching down the block.
The regular news still was talking about biological agents and mass hysteria. But the traditional media found itself eclipsed by freelancers, working over the Internet, who would construct reports in a neutral fashion so as to avoid being labeled alarmist kooks or fabulists. To those that knew what to listen for, the word got out. Ellen made a note to call Cassie Robinson as soon as she got the boys settled safely.
How to keep them settled? They still had battles to face. But not alone, not now. Ellen's phone wouldn't stop ringing. Or Bobby's. Or Missouri's. The word was out now, the good guys talking, organizing. The hunters were coming out of the shadows. The boys were still needed, they'd want to head right back into it, but first things first, they had to heal up and fix their own problems. Get the FBI business sorted out, at least. They had the ammo and the muscle to deal with that now. They had friends that could help, damn it. Food, that was it. That Susan Thompson was a hell of a cook, Bobby said, she had run a hotel or something in Maine. Get the boys to Halcyon Hall and keep them eating.
And take care of that bullshit Deal. She'd put the pieces together, going through the boys' own journals, left behind in Boise, and she didn't apologize for reading them given what she'd figured out. No wonder they'd been so skittish and desperate over the last year. Selling your soul. Load of crap. She'd just have to sit Dean Winchester down and give him the straight talk, make him listen. Him and her and a bottle of twelve-year old bourbon. If there was a God, then Hell was for punishment, and what kind of punishment lets you forget what you're being punished for? Ask a mother. When your child gets punished you make damned sure they know exactly what for and they wouldn't forget a moment of it for a long, long time. If there was a God, Hell was someplace you were sent by God's judgment, not by whim, not by contract, and demons didn't have a damned thing to say about it. As far as she could tell, God not being particularly visible in the picture, if a soul went to Hell it was because that soul decided that's where it belonged. No judgment but your own, no scales to be weighed, no Golden Book consulted. So the demons were just running a big old con job, a scam, all they can do is convince you that you deserve it and you send yourself down. But they can't compel shit. And at the end of the year Dean can tell the bitch to go blow and what can she do about it? Well, try to kill him, of course, but that's preventable. They kill all the time, willy-nilly. Even if the demons did have that kind of power over Dean's soul because of his Deal, they don't have it over Sam's, which is what it would have taken to bring Sam back from Heaven or wherever, so more evidence it's all crap. And as for that monumental bullshit about 'Sam not coming back 100% Sam,' aren't they using their heads at all? If they didn't deliver 100% Sam, they don't get 100% of Dean's soul, so unless souls can be sliced up, screw 'em. The whole business made her head hurt.
When Dean's time comes, he'll go where he chooses, where he believes he deserves to go, like the very spirits he's sent on have done. Father Reynolds had told her about his experience with the Winchesters. Sounded to Ellen like the spirit of a dead priest decided to 'walk into the light,' never mind the suffering he'd caused. If he could forgive himself then so could Dean Winchester, demons be damned, no pun, though it may take some convincing. After the fire, she had plenty of bourbon.
There. A shape against the dark. Huddled low, holding still, but she was sure. Her heart was pounding. She fought the urge to gun it right towards them, which would earn her a shotgun blast in the windshield for her trouble. She slowed, drove closer, tacking wide. What to say? Ask if they have any holy water left? Say something in Latin? She pulled up her sleeve so the Star-and-Sun was plainly visible.
They looked to be in bad shape. Crouched on the cold ground, no cover to be had, blood everywhere and fading fast, though the fight would only go out of them with the last breath. Sam had tied the sleeves of his coat together so he could rope Dean to his back. Sam looked battered; his left eye was swelled closed. He was trying to bring up the shotgun with one arm, the other looked broken. Dean looked barely conscious, bruised and gaunt, eyes closed, head lolling, wearing just scrubs and a sweatshirt but one hand was groping for the pistol stuck in Sam's waistband. A leather restraint with a dangling strap was still on that wrist.
She put the truck in park, but angled so the lights weren't shining right at them. She debated calling Randall or Deacon to come sweep the area, but she decided not to risk it, didn't want to take the time or make a move that looked at all suspicious. Her thoughts raced through things to say. Convince them she's not possessed, infected, or turncoat. How to get past the bullshit 'you're always alone' stuffed in their heads by John Winchester. Damn the man (never mind what she had seen that night in the cemetery). So the world was at war with demon kind, that's not their fault or their responsibility. Deals with the devil, demon curses, death and killing and blood and never knowing their mother, losing their father, no hope for a future, they'd face the horrors ahead of them alone because alone is all they'd known. Screw 'duty,' or the future, or 'we have work to do' like Bobby said they said to each other, they needed warm beds and three squares and time. Before the fire, she might not have known what to say. But after the fire... She stopped a few feet away, and exhaled. Could still hear gunfire in the distance, some other noises. But whatever the Godforsaken universe would send after these boys, and that was considerable, it was going to have to take a number. Hell can wait. She stepped into the light and paused.
"Ellen?" Sam's voice rasped from the dark.
"Okay, boys," she said. "Let's get you home."