John was in the lead, followed by Anna, then Ladona and Dean at the rear. They kept their eyes open and their mouths shut, listening for any sound that might alert them to danger. Anna held the wicked, curved blade of her silver knife against her forearm while the men carried guns and Ladona held her right hand loosely closed, channeling energy to her palm just in case.
Sometimes the younger woman wished she still needed to carry a gun like she used to when she and Dean first began hunting together, but her trip to rescue Anna had spurred her to embrace her power fully and take ownership of it. Rarely did she need a weapon other than magic, but she still strapped a knife of her own to the small of her back.
They were halfway up the mountain when they came to a plateau of sorts and John took a seat on a large rock. He looked meaningfully at Ladona, her cue to set a silencing spell that would allow them to speak freely, but would keep their voices within the circle they formed while still letting the sounds of the forest into them. Once the spell was complete, Ladona took a seat near Dean and accepted a bottle of water from the backpack he carried.
“You okay?” John asked Anna, concern clearly etched into his features as his eyes searched her face.
Anna nodded as she took a pull from her own water bottle, then smiled at her husband. “I’m fine. Really.” She reached out and took his hand, surprised to not feel the heat of Dean’s gaze at the contact.
John shifted his attention to Ladona. “What about you? Do you feel anything like what you did earlier?”
The young witch shook her head, her eyes continuing to scan the woods. “No. Yes. I don’t know. There’s magic here. It’s dark and old. I can feel it like a light sweater on my skin if that makes any sense. But no, it’s not any stronger. It’s just there. I’m sorry. That doesn’t help us.”
Dean reached out and squeezed her shoulder, rubbed the tight muscles at the base of Ladona’s neck. John watched the silent interaction with some bemusement. He’d always wanted his boys to find love, and he was happy for them. He just hadn’t expected them to find love where they had; Dean with a witch and Sam with a half-demon witch. John chuckled to himself and then answered Ladona.
“I didn’t really expect there to be anything. Just let me know if that changes.” John took his and Anna’s bottles into his backpack while Dean did the same with his and Ladona’s water. “Everyone ready to keep goin’?” Ladona whispered the words to break the spell and they continued following the trail further up the mountain.
An hour later, they were drenched with sweat and had taken off their jackets and sweatshirts. Even though it was just after lunch and they could see the sun bright overhead, it was like dusk under the canopy of trees and they would have felt cool if they weren’t exerting themselves. For the past few minutes, Ladona had felt the magic in the air changing. It was so subtle at first that she wasn’t confident of her perception but now her steps were heavier and the touch of the power weighed her down, made it difficult to breathe.
“John,” she gasped. Both Winchesters were at her side almost before she could blink, each taking an arm and leading her to rest on a fallen tree. Ladona leaned down and put her head between her knees, but that just made it worse. She stood suddenly and stumbled to a tree with a twisted trunk. Ladona stood before the tree, swaying as though she were drunk while Dean and John and Anna formed a protective triangle around her, turned so they could watch for any movement from the forest.
Her body felt as if it was on fire and Ladona broke out into a sodden sweat. The malevolence assailed her from all sides. She tore her jacket from around her waist and ripped her t-shirt over her head to stand in just her tank top and jeans, anything to cool her fevered skin. Dean turned to his father with a terrified, questioning look and it ripped John’s heart out to not have any idea how to help either his son or the woman Dean loved.
Ladona took a deep breath and dropped to the forest floor to sit cross legged before the tree. She closed her eyes, tilted her head back and lifted her hands to the sky, chanting words in a language Dean had never heard before. Ladona leaned forward and placed both hands on the tree, palms flat against the bark. She could hear the blood of the damned roaring through her veins. Her tone got more urgent, the words flowed faster and before the unbelieving eyes of the others, Ladona’s hair turned white, every strand glowing in the near dark while the colors of her Goddess tattoo at the base of her neck grew more vibrant to the cadence of her voice.
Finally, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, Ladona sat back. The words slowed and her voice dropped to a whisper, her hair changing back to its normal color with every syllable spoken until Ladona was silent. Her head was bent to her chest and her hands rested in her lap with her fingers laced together. No one moved until Ladona raised her head and stood up. Dean grabbed her shirt from where she’d flung it and tugged it over her head before wrapping her in his arms, trying to decide if she was trembling or if he was.
“Dean.” John’s voice was quiet but held the unmistakable note of authority. Dean reluctantly pulled away from Ladona, but didn’t let her go until he’d looked her over thoroughly to make sure she was alright. He had to admit she was pale and looked a little worse for wear but was otherwise unharmed.
She turned to John and held up a finger, telling everyone to hold on a moment while she performed the same silencing spell she’d used earlier. When she was done, Ladona returned to Dean’s side to try to explain what happened.
“It knows I’m a witch,” she began. “Just like I could feel the magic at the diner, whatever is out here can feel the same thing. It was supposed to be some kind of trap, I guess, to try and …” Ladona took a deep breath before continuing. “Anyway, this is ancient and ugly magic, that’s for sure. Strong, too. I didn’t think I’d be able to break through it, but the Goddess, well, she never lets me down.”
“Does this mean this thing – the creature that knows about you – is a witch, too?” Anna wanted to know.
The question shook Ladona to her core. She’d never considered it, had thought whatever lived up here was capable of casting a wide net. But a witch hunting humans? Drinking their blood? Ladona blinked several times as she tried to wrap her mind around … no. NO! It was too horrible for words. Before she could delve any further into the possibility, John told them it was time to go.
“We need to get to the caves and back into town before it gets dark,” he reminded them. “If I remember correctly, we need to veer off the trail here and go another 100 yards or so.”
Dean nudged Ladona and reminded her about the silencing spell. She gave a start and whispered the same words she’d used earlier, then took her place behind Anna as they picked their way through underbrush that snagged at their pants and branches that caught in the women’s hair. More than once Anna looked back at Ladona, sensing the turmoil in her silence. Anna even caught Dean’s eye once or twice, an understanding passing between them that all was not right.
Ladona can’t escape the feeling that they’re being watched but she shrugs it off. She’s already reported it to the others and they’re doing all they can to keep their eyes open. They won’t see it though, she knows, not unless it wants them to see it. Her mind still refuses to acknowledge that what they’re dealing with is a witch, one who’s practicing darker magic than she ever dreamed possible. She’s run up against black magic before but…
She bumps into Anna who’s stopped on the path before her. “Sorry,” she mumbles and shakes her head to clear it.
John turns and Dean steps up beside Ladona. They don’t crowd together though; in case of attack everyone needs to have room to fight. John’s voice is low and frustrated. “I can’t find it, damn it. I know it was right around here though.”
They’ve been scouring the same area for over half an hour but haven’t found a single hole, let alone a cave entrance. “It’s hidden,” Ladona says as realization hits. “A concealing spell.” She looks at the others and shrugs helplessly. “We’ll never find it.”
Dean and Anna exchange a look. Oddly, their mutual concern for Ladona seems to have wiped away the unease between them for the moment. Dean nods slightly as he understands Anna’s silent question. Putting a hand on Ladona’s arm he says conversationally, “Can you break through the spell like you did at the tree?”
Ladona shudders at the memory of the magic attack she survived less than an hour ago. She’s certain it was meant to kill her. Or any other witch who wandered too close. She shakes her head in answer to Dean’s question. “No, I…this magic is stronger than mine,” she confesses. Another realization strikes her. “It’s stronger because there’s more than one person involved. Shared magic,” she breathes. She lifts her eyes to the others. “A coven.”
Uneasy glances fly around the group. It was bad enough when they were facing one evil witch but now they’re facing a whole coven of them? Anna voices the question on all their minds. “How many are there in a coven?”
“There’s no set number. Twelve is often used but really the word simply refers to a group of witches. And wizards,” she adds as an afterthought. “No sexism in the magical world.”
They stand absorbing the information. Finally John asks, “You’re still able to perform magic though, right?”
Ladona nods. “Yeah, but except for the incident at the tree I can’t counteract one of their spells. And their spells are everywhere.” She shrugs. That explains the low level of magic she’s felt since they set foot on the mountain. Not one extremely powerful witch but several.
“They must’ve left some loophole,” Dean says disgustedly. He looks hopefully at Ladona. “Anything?”
She bites back the sharp remark she was about to make and instead closes her eyes. “Everyone, step back,” she murmurs as she turns in a slow circle.
They do, giving her room but staying close enough to keep from getting separated in case of attack. John and Dean scan the trees for the slightest movement while Anna strains to hear any suspicious sounds. Not that I’d know what a suspicious sound was, she thinks forlornly. The worry that she’ll be completely useless if they’re attacked has been gnawing at her since they started the hike. And now with a coven of evil witches and wizards in the picture it’s become a certainty.
Ladona stops and points. “There.” She opens her eyes and is depressed to see she’s pointing into an impassable thicket. Great, she thinks.
Dean tries to hide his disappointed expression. He knows magic isn’t a precise science but he’s come to rely on Ladona’s ability more than he thought. John on the other hand doesn’t seem dismayed in the least. He merely leans down, picks up a stick, and tosses it into the thicket. The stick passes through the tangled branches as if they aren’t there.
Grinning back at them he walks into the thicket himself…and disappears from sight. Anna, Dean, and Ladona exchange astonished looks then Anna scrambles after John and the others follow. They come out in a small clearing at the entrance to a cave. Their excitement is short lived however as a quick inspection shows no signs of activity in the area for quite some time.
Dean wonders if further spells might be masking tracks or something but Ladona shakes her head at his unasked question. Pointing toward a carving on the wall just inside the entrance she comments, “But someone was here once.”
“Yeah, someone who didn’t want people snoopin’ around judgin’ by the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign they left behind,” John answers as he studies the carving.
Anna beside him murmurs, “Death and blood.”
Ladona silently agrees that would be an appropriate caption to the carving. It’s rough but the image of a fanged beast standing astride a pile of torn bodies, blood dripping down its snout, is clear enough. Looking at it too long makes her mind hurt so she turns toward the interior of the cave. It only takes a few steps before she feels the overwhelming urge to flee. Terror seizes her and she turns to run, bumping into Dean hard enough to send both of them sprawling.
John and Anna hurry over to help them up. “Sorry,” Ladona mumbles for what seems the fiftieth time that day. “I just felt…” She groans. “Stupid!” she curses herself.
“What’s up?” Dean asks. He stands rubbing his elbow, having banged it pretty hard when they went down together.
“There are other spells still in place,” she explains ruefully. “I walked into one. It’s designed to give anyone venturing too far inside a sense of unease bordering on terror so they’ll leave.” She blows out her breath. “It works.”
John starts into the cave, stopping only to pull out a flashlight and hand one to Anna. Dean follows suit. With each step they all feel the dread building. Anna feels like her skin is going to crawl off her body.
“Keep going, it’s just a spell,” Ladona gasps but it’s taking all her willpower not to run again.
Suddenly they’re through it. John and Dean both shake themselves before continuing on. Ladona and Anna bring up the rear huddled together, lessons about leaving enough space between them to fight be damned.
The cave’s obviously been deserted for decades but whoever lived here left their artwork behind. The carving at the opening was just the beginning. The scenes get bloodier and more violent the further in they go. Some of the carvings are even painted in what Anna’s sure is actual blood.
The dark magic is like biting insects on Ladona’s skin and she’s not sure how much further she can go. What if they sense her intrusion and block the exit? Crap! She’s just about to voice this horrible thought when John and Dean come to a halt at a smooth blank wall.
“That’s it,” John announces, shining his beam over every inch of the wall. He turns back to the women. “They’re not here anymore. Let’s get down the mountain before dusk and regroup.”
Ladona and Anna both nod, extraordinarily relieved. Dean nods too and they follow John back out into the afternoon air. They’re a quiet group following the trails back down to the motel, each lost in their own thoughts.
John can’t get those pictures out of his head nor the guilt over knowing his mistake 20 years ago already cost eight more people their lives. These evil bastards have to be stopped, he thinks savagely…but mixed in with his determination is worry about Anna. How can he protect her from magic that even Ladona can’t fight? The truth is he can’t but he knows who can.
Ladona’s just trying to keep her equilibrium after the blow of learning her own kind is perpetrating these horrors. And those carvings show this is nothing new. An ancient cult, she thinks. An ancient cult of people like me. Just the idea hurts her soul.
Dean’s running through ideas of how they can stop this coven. There aren’t a lot of options he can see. It’s been three days since the last victim was taken so the next will probably disappear this evening or early tomorrow morning. It might be necessary to use one of themselves as bait…but he’ll wait to hear what Dad comes up with before suggesting such a desperate measure.
Anna’s just completely miserable. She knows now that she has nothing to offer the group. She doesn’t know magic, she has only rudimentary fighting skills… And the things she saw in those caves. She has no doubt they were representations of real events and they’re like nothing she’s ever experienced, not even in Hell. Her greatest fear is that she’ll let John down when he needs her most and she can see it happening so easily.
The sun is disappearing behind the mountain as they file into John and Anna’s room. Dean leans against the wall by the door while Anna and Ladona sink gratefully into the two chairs. John stands in the middle of the room, arms crossed over his chest. He knows his plan isn’t going to sit well but his mind is made up. It’s the smartest thing they can do at this point even though the others won’t understand why. And it’s not just about protecting Anna, he tells himself firmly.
“Here’s the plan,” he begins. “I’m gonna get Sam and Skye down here as quick as possible. We need reinforcements.” He was torn about explaining exactly why they need Skye but decided it wouldn’t be right to reveal her secret without her permission; he doesn’t even think Sam knows she’s immune to magic. Maybe after he talks with her he can fill the others in. “In the meantime,” he continues, “the next victim should be taken tonight or in the morning. It’s always lone hikers or joggers and I already scoped out the most popular routes.” He did that when he went to get breakfast this morning. “We’ll set up two surveillance teams, Dean and Ladona, me and Anna.” He walks over and spreads a map out on the table between the women, pointing to the designated locations. “If either team sees somethin’, they call the other and we pursue together. Otherwise we wait for help. That’s it.”
The silence that fills the room is deafening. Dean’s in complete shock. Surveillance and wait for backup? Is Dad serious? Last time he talked to Sam he was all the way up in
Ladona doesn’t quite know what to think. Sure it makes sense to involve another powerful witch but it seems they could do a lot more than sit and watch in the meantime. She could even set a few spells of her own…
Anna sits looking at John with no expression. She knows damn well what this is about and the fury is building inside her. Hopefully she’ll be able to keep it in until the others are out of the room.
“That’s it,” John repeats firmly, fully aware of the reactions he’s getting. “We need to grab dinner then get into position.”Dean stares at him coldly for several minutes before turning and leaving the room with Ladona on his heels.