Clambering shakily to their feet, the Winchesters dusted themselves off and cautiously scanned their surroundings. In doing so, the first thing they noticed about the interior of the tower was that it looked every bit as grim and foreboding as the exterior.
The round courtyard in which they stood was bare and cobbled, an ugly, ill-maintained ring of barren space shrouded in perpetual darkness by the shadow of the towering wall that surrounded it. On their other side, the hulking, moss-strewn wall of the crumbling castle keep starkly demonstrated their next obstacle.
However, there was something else around them that had captured the Winchesters' attention.
Dotted around the courtyard were statues; not many, but enough to draw the attention of the two interlopers. Strange, grotesque statues of armoured men, all depicted cowering, recoiling; arms raised above their heads as if to deflect a blow; cringing as if their likenesses were captured at a moment of excrutiating pain or crushing terror.
Dean stared at the disturbing figures, speaking to Sam without tearing his eyes away from them; "I've said it before Sam, this Grimwald dude is one sick puppy."
Nodding silently, Sam turned, continuing with his scan of the environment, and froze with a squeak of shock.
Behind him stood another statue, this one a massive, towering monolith. Sam's saucer-wide eyes were level with its knee; beneath the carved contours of its breeches, its colossal calf muscle alone was thicker than Sam's chest.
"Holy crap Dean," croaked Sam; "look at this!"
Dean's head twitched in a double take as he spun round to see the huge limbs planted in the ground.
"sonofa …" craning his head upwards, Dean squinted through the meagre sunlight, but the giant statue's upper half was too distant to be able to make out any discernible features.
"D'y reckon that's supposed to be Grimwald?" he mused, glancing across at Sam who was still staring in open-mouthed bewilderment at the pumpkin-sized kneecap; "these freakin' megalomaniac douchebags love their giant statues and portraits of themselves."
Sam shrugged; "Don't know; our so-called Faerie Godmother should be able to tell us."
"That's a point," replied Dean, spinning back round and scanning the courtyard again; "where the hell is the little asshat?"
"No idea," snorted Sam; "perhaps he's waiting for us to open the gate?"
Dean shrugged, "he could just fly over the wall, surely?"
"Don't know, dude, but whatever," Sam grunted, "looks like we're dealing with this asshole on our own."
"… and that suits me just fine …"
The brothers spun round on hearing the unfamiliar voice and stood, frozen in shock to see a figure standing beside them.
Thin to the point of cadaverous, the figure's skin was grey, with a sickly yellow patina that made him look like he was made of ancient parchment. His ragged black cloak hung limply over a threadbare black doublet and hose that looked as grim and unwholesome as its wearer.
"Grimwald!" the Winchesters growled in unison.
Dean's hand tightened around the hilt of his sword.
"I don't know how you managed to get past my swamp faeries," Grimwald began, his narrow, bloodless lips stretching into a smirk, "but then, that's what I get for putting my trust in faeries; mindless, fickle creatures, all of them."
Suddenly, far from wanting to stamp on Not-Bobby, Sam felt a surge of anger and leapt to defend their strange little friend.
"Only to people who are too stupid to appreciate them," he snapped in response, curling his lip in disgust.
"No matter," the emaciated figure shrugged; "the swamp goblins' Queen is a 'guest' in my dungeons," his lipless smirk stretched into a cold, humourless smile; "of course, as they have failed in their duty toward me, she dies tomorrow."
"Their duty?" Dean snapped; "you were forcing them to kill to order by threatening their Queen?"
"Of course," Grimwald's sneer was riddled with cold malice; "there is a general belief that these things are fierce hunters," he began; "far from it actually. They're idle, stupid creatures, scavengers by nature; they don't like to kill and will only hunt as an absolutely last resort. They live on carrion and manage quite adequately on the remains of the occasional traveller who comes to grief across the Bleaklands."
"So I needed to provide them with a little 'incentive' to ensure their help."
"You're a freakin' twisted bastard," Sam growled.
"I prefer resourceful," Grimwald's sneer broadened to the point that it made Sam shudder; "but anyway, we digress. You're not interested in a mob of faerie vultures are you? You're here for the princess," he continued casually.
His eyes narrowed as Dean flinched at his words.
"Ah yes, the princess," he speculated aloud; "congratulations, you made it further than most of her prospective rescuers, but gentlemen, I'm afraid here is where your journey ends."
"I don't think so, you freakin' sonofabitch," Dean snarled, pulling his sword cleanly from its sheath, and in one fluid movement swinging it above his head with violent fury, ready to strike a killer blow.
It all happened in seconds; so quickly that Sam was hardly able to rationalise what he'd seen.
As Dean's sword was sweeping over his shoulder on a direct route to Grimwald's head, the sorcerer produced a wand that looked to be little more than a gnarled twig from inside his cuff, pointing it directly toward Dean's chest.
Sam recoiled violently as Dean seemed to explode into a burst of light, letting out a terrible strangled howl that would haunt Sam forever.
When the light cleared, Sam blinked the tears out of his stinging eyes and stared in horror at what stood in Dean's place.
His arms stretched above his head, hands still gripping the hilt of a now-stone sword; his back arched midway through the effort of the powerful swing, but his body twisted grotesquely as if he'd recoiled from the force of the sorcerer's terrible magic.
But it was his face that Sam couldn't take his eyes from; frozen into a pebble-eyed, open-mouthed mask of horrified shock.
"What … you …" Sam stammered.
"… turned him to stone," Grimwald replied calmly; "yes, that's right, I believe the technical term is 'petrify'."
"He can join my collection of other knights who came this far," he added humourlessly.
Sam wheeled round, staring at all the statues as he realised that's why they were all so grotesque, so twisted and pained. They hadn't been carved like that at all; it was the position their body was thrown into when the same evil magic had turned them to stone.
Sam panted breathlessly; his fear and rage formed a potent and dizzying cocktail that sent his heart racing faster and faster until he felt his vision dimming, his legs beginning to buckle beneath him.
"Turn him back;" He roared; "c'mon asshat, do it; do it now." Sam stumbled backwards, panting harshly as he tried to regain some control; "because if you don't I swear, I'll tear you apart."
"No you won't," Grimwald replied levelly; "firstly, you're only a squire and you're unarmed."
The sneer made a reappearance across a face so hardened by malice and cruelty it made Sam's blood run cold; "secondly, I have a little insurance; allow me to demonstrate …"
Leaning forward, Grimwald pointed his wand over Sam's shoulder at one of the statues behind them and a shrill screech emanated from its tip, cutting through the air. Sam stumbled backwards, clamping his hands over his ears as he clenched his teeth through the pain that drilled through his head like a skewer.
As the sound abruptly ceased, Sam dropped to his knees, his hands falling limply to his sides, and watched as the statue which had been the focus of the terrible sound continued to resonate, the vibrations ringing through it harder and harder until it exploded into a shower of tiny shards.
"For your information, that will be your knight's fate if you act toward me with anything other than unquestioning obedience," Grimwald stated flatly.
Sam stared in mute horror at the pile of dust and rubble that marked where the statue had once been.
"Now, tomorrow you will join me to attend the execution of the princess. I want you to bear witness to your knight's total and abject failure in his quest."
"Then, well, who knows. What use is a squire without his knight? The spider-ghouls out on the Bleaklands are hungry at this time of year, I'm sure they would appreciate some fresh meat." Grimwald's horrible smirk spoke of satisfaction, complete and lavish, but Sam couldn't help but notice that he was keeping his wand pointed squarely at Dean's stone figure as he spoke.
"On the other hand," the sorcerer mused aloud, "you and your knight make a handsome pair; I may petrify you along with him and display you both in the centre square of Impalia when that country is under my fightful rule."
Silently glaring past his adversary at the rank of guards who had suddenly assembled behind him, Sam trembled with rage. Although the brothers' cache of weapons were still in the saddlebags of the mule who was currently waiting outside the castle, Sam had armed himself with a knife which he had managed to keep hidden from unfriendly eyes. Thanks to Not-Bobby he was also armed with knowledge of incantations which would help to suppress all kinds of dark magic; but now, with the appearance of Grimwald's entourage, he had suddenly found himself outnumbered six against one.
He could try to fight; he was ready to fight, but it would only take one second. One second for Dean to be exploded into dust like that other poor bastard.
Sam knew that, from there, there would be no bringing Dean back. It was a chance Sam just couldn't afford to take.
Sam's shoulders slumped in defeat as the guards surrounded him, enclosing him in a serried ring of cold steel. He chanced a desperate look back to the forlorn statue of his brother before a sharp jab in the spine with the point of a halberd forced him forward toward a barred portcullis at the base of the castle keep.
Beyond it was only darkness.