Not-Bobby hadn't been exaggerating when he said crossing the Bleaklands would be an ordeal.
He hadn't been specific about it being a wet, cold, tiring, stinking, miserable, frustrating, joint-aching, mosquito-bitten, soul-destroying ordeal, but both Winchesters agreed that an ordeal was an ordeal regardless of the details.
For hour after hour, under tumultuous churning skies the little band laboured across barren crumbling rockface, dusty and dry as ash, then through choking, fetid marshland. Both Dean and Sam had dismounted, walking beside their exhausted mounts to give the struggling horses a better chance of maintaining their footing through the mire. Rancid steam belched up around them as they placed each careful footstep, trying to keep on solid ground, but more often than not finding only stinking mud and rotting ichor. Around them, lonely willo-the-wisps danced and fluttered; tiny flickering beacons that blinked eerily through the gloom then vanished, disorienting and teasing the beleaguered travellers even further.
Yes, ordeal summed it up nicely.
Patting Beauty's straining, sweat-foamed neck as she stumbled forward, Dean lovingly encouraged her onward toward the ugly dark blot on the horizon that was their target; the one place they had to get to; a place where no-one in their right mind would want to go.
Darting from side to side, Not-Bobby was clearly nervous as he flittered along behind the brothers, scanning every inch of the featureless expanse that surrounded them.
"Y'okay there?" Dean glanced across to the little faerie as he bumbled along beside them.
"Yeah, friggin' peachy;" Not-Bobby replied humourlessly; "keep goin', the sooner we get out o' this crap-hole the better.
Dean nodded silently in understanding. Not-Bobby had prepared the brothers for the horrors that they could well face in their trek across the Bleaklands; foul, deadly creatures such as spider-ghouls or prowling Bleakwolves – he would be lying if he said he wasn't scared too.
Sam had readied every blade, weapon, talisman and incantation the little party had to hand. The mule's rear end was bristling with more armaments than an anti-tank division. If the brothers were going down, they would make sure they went down fighting.
Dean cringed as he put a foot forward and it squelched into something revoltingly soft, submerging him up to his hips into the mire.
"Ah, hell," he groaned, face crumpled into a grimace of disgust; "I've got goddam swamp ooze up my ass!"
Not Bobby buzzed around his ear; "jus' be thankful you ain't ended up like him," he snorted, gesticulating toward a rotting, armour-clad cadaver that had surfaced with a bubbling rumble from under the peaty bog; "that poor sap's got swamp ooze in more places than just his ass."
Dean sighed, leaning on Sam as he fought to extricate his leg from the sucking mud. Eventually the errant limb emerged with a wet slurp and Dean shuddered as he felt cold lumpy mud inside his breeches trickle down his leg.
"Ah man, that's nasty," he groaned; "I'm never gonna get laid now. I bet Prince Charming never rescued Rapunzel covered in friggin' swamp slime."
They ploughed forward for another hour, breathless and frustrated. It was Sam that eventually stopped.
"Hey Dean, d'y hear that?"
"Hear what?" panted Dean; "all I can hear is the princess tellin' me she doesn't wanna be rescued by some dude who smells like the mens' room in a Klingon warship."
Sam waved a hand briefly to silence his brother.
And that's when they heard it. A distant, threatening drone.
"What the hell's that?"
The brothers glanced at each other, brows furrowed with concern as they tried to tune in on the faint hum.
Their concentration was disturbed by a small voice beside them.
They both turned to Not-Bobby. "Oh crap?" prompted Sam; "care to elaborate?"
The faerie's little glowing face paled; "oooh … shit!"
"Not helping dude," Dean snapped.
Not-Bobby scraped a tiny hand over his bearded face; "swamp goblins," he gasped.
Dean blinked, trying not to register that the buzzing was growing noticeably louder.
"Swamp goblins?" he repeated hesitantly.
"It's got to be," he burbled, panic-stricken; "I thought they were all dead; everyone did. Fact is, no-one's seen a goddamn swamp goblin for years. Word was that Grimwald killed them all with his dark magic," he hesitated, glancing in the direction of the buzz which was rapidly becoming a whooshing roar.
"What if he didn't kill them? What if he used his dark magic to imprison them for his own use?"
Sam shook his head in confusion; "what're you saying?" he snapped.
"I'm guessing Grimwald's being extra cautious with all these rescue attempts, and released these things to defend the castle, I wouldn't mind betting they accounted for a few of your predecessors – LOOK!" He pointed to the far horizon, which looked even darker than usual, suddenly obscured by a murderous black cloud which churned and writhed as it approached.
"I'm guessing these things aren't good?" Dean grunted, not taking his eyes from the approaching menace.
Not-Bobby shook his head. "They eat humans," he stated bluntly.
"What?" Sam snapped, wide eyed.
"They hunt in packs, like freakin' pirahnas, they're voracious," Not-Bobby stared at the brothers distraught; "I'm sorry," he stammered; "I really thought they were all dead."
"What about you and the horses?" Dean stammered hesitantly.
Not-Bobby shook his head; "they won't touch us, we're faerie – we're poison to them."
Dean could feel his heart racing as he turned to Sam. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the black cloud approaching, close enough now that they could actually see it as a swarm, an approaching plague; thousands of tiny black bodies in one fluid mass bringing only the promise of death and destruction.
"What have we got?" Dean gasped, watching as Sam turned, rifling through the weapons.
"I don't know," Sam stammered, "we got swords, pikes, axes, quarterstaffs, nothing that's good for dealing with a goddamn swarm."
"We'll just have to pick up the pace," Dean snapped, "try to get to the castle and under cover before they get to us."
Not-Bobby fluttered round them, his tiny calloused hands wringing the pink ruffles of his dress; "no, you can't outrun them that far," he gasped; "not a chance, you'll have to get down into the swamp and try to hide from them."
The buzzing was becoming a roar; the thundering, drilling dissonance of a thousand flapping wings that bore down on the Winchesters, vibrating through their chests, driving their hearts into a rapid sickening cadence. Over everything, they could now hear shrieking and chittering sounds that made their blood run cold
Grabbing an axe out of the Mule's overstuffed saddlebag, Dean threw it toward Sam as he grabbed a vicious looking halberd, and moved to stand shoulder to shoulder with his brother.
Flapping and fluttering, Not-Bobby darted back and forth in front of the Winchesters, forming an, admittedly very insubstantial, barrier between the Winchesters and the oncoming storm.
Within moments, a swarm of tiny dark bodies engulfed them. Their world became a wheeling, thrashing melee of spindly black wings and long, spidery arms with needle-sharp claws that grasped at the Winchesters, scratching and pinching and tearing ...
Flailing blindly, the Winchesters' weapons scythed uselessly through the swarm.
Eventually, seeing no way out from the clutches of this shrieking, lashing onslaught, Dean threw his weapon to the ground, and lunged toward his brother, forcibly pushing him face down into the mud and hurling his own armour-clad body over Sam's prostrate form. He guessed at least his armoured backplate would form a barrier of sorts, however limited.
As they lay, gradually sinking into the foul mire and fighting to keep their heads above the suffocating ooze, they felt tiny claws and teeth ripping through their clothing, tearing into exposed skin and tangling painfully into hair. Through the merest slit of his squinting eyes, Dean could see a tiny pink dot whirling through the maelstrom as Not-Bobby fought in vain to protect his charges. Further back he could see Beauty, rearing and plunging frantically, wall-eyed with fury as she lashed out, stamping some of the tiny creatures underfoot.
Beside her the mule had found a patch of satisfyingly salty moss to munch on.
Then, as suddenly as it began, the swarm lifted. The chittering and shrieking turned into gasping chokes and the creatures recoiled, wheeling back up into the air and retreating haphazardly .
As the threat gradually diminished, the dazed, bloodied Winchesters looked up blearily through the sudden calm.
"Thanks dude," Sam groaned breathlessly, elbowing Dean in the throat as he tried to roll over; "now geddoff me, you're heavy enough without the freakin' armour."
Slowly, shakily, Dean stumbled to his feet, reaching out a bloodied hand within a shredded glove to help his mud-coated brother up. Once he was satisfied Sam was upright and likely to stay that way, he strode over to Beauty and threw his arms around her neck; "Baby, you're awesome," he gushed as she whittered softly into his neck.
Not-Bobby stared in disbelief; "how… what the …?"
Dean's blood-streaked face was frozen in confusion as he glanced out from under Beauty's chin to Sam's mud-caked silhouette, and the little baffled figure bobbing up and down between them.
"I don't get it," Not-Bobby mumbled to himself; "you two are humans, those sonsofbitches eat humans." He glanced up toward Sam, standing hunched and weary, barely recognisable beneath a masque of drying green mud. "They eat humans," he mused absently, "they can't eat faeries, so why …"
Suddenly a shaky smile crossed the little faerie's face. "That's it, holy crap; that's it!"
"What's it?" Dean asked absently, glumly examining his mud-coated armour, and watching in dazed resignation as the tattered sleeve of his gambeson gave up the attempt to stay in one piece and slid meekly down to his wrist.
"Apples," Not-Bobby announced proudly.
"Right …" Dean cast a sideways glance at Sam, circling his temple with his finger; "don't you think you're a bit obsessed with these darn apples?"
Not-Bobby huffed impatiently. "Listen idjit, those 'darn' apples just saved your freakin' life."
He hesitated to see if the penny was about to drop but it stayed well and truly put.
Rolling his eyes, Not-Bobby continued; "those apples that you've been whinin' about were all created with my faerie magic, and you've eaten so many of them, they've tainted you," he beamed in delight; "don't you see? You taste more like a faerie than a human."
"You're poison to them," the little faerie finished triumphantly, crossing his stocky little arms across his chest.
"I taste … like a … faerie …?" Dean's blood-streaked nose wrinkled in disgust; "you have no idea how wrong that sounds, on so many freakin' levels."
Sam scraped back the congealed mess that was once his hair with bloody hands; "yeah, whatever dude, I think we might have more important things to think about right now, you can save your macho ego crisis for later."
A final push saw the dishevelled, filthy band finally standing at the foot of the great black-stone castle. Close up, it looked no less daunting and unwelcoming that it did when it was ten miles away.
Fifty feet high, its towering lichen-pocked walls soared above them.
A brief circumnavigation of the building revealed one massive iron portcullis gate and no other apparent points of entry or exit.
They stood and pondered.
Sam absently scratched where his matted hair had dried into a solid brick as he stared up at the imposing wall and tried hard to ignore Dean standing next to him rearranging his damp and chafing groin.
Dean only ceased his enthusiastic explorations when Not-Bobby smacked him upside the head; "are ya gonna stand there like a friggin dork twiddlin' your bits, or are we gonna get our asses inside that place?"
Dean glared at Not-Bobby, rubbing his head with his sleeveless arm.
"Well, I'm guessing we can't just walk up, knock on that door, an' invite ourselves in for coffee an' cakes," Dean snorted, turning to Sam; "so unless you've got a fifty-foot ladder secreted up that thing's ass," he grunted, pointing at the mule, "I'm all out of ideas."