Fire reflects in the darkness around her. She looks like her body; there are chains around her wrists and stretching until they’re lost in the shadows. She is standing weighted down by a pile of bones while blood drips from the sky and plasters her hair to her shoulders. She’s choking on her own guts, on blood and acid, sliced open from throat to groin.
“Show me,” says the other demon, vaguely woman-shaped, its body no stronger a memory than that.
She is stretched out on a rack, on a wheel with her hands lashed above her, pressed into a spiked coffin. “My name is Ragnhild,” she spits, remembering, so when the demon pins her to the floor and presses a blade to her she bleeds cold fresh air and dead languages and the wool trade.
“Show me, Ruby,” says the demon, and Cathy Peterson’s ribs smash through her lungs as metal tears with a scream like nothing else on earth and this time Ruby feels it like she’s there, like she hopped into Cathy before she drowned in her own blood instead of while she was doing it, right there, car slammed into a tree within sight of the light show that was the Devil’s Gate opening and—
—she swings her knife through Gluttony’s throat, up into Greed’s, and then she’s not just saving Sam Winchester, he’s helping her, and when she kills Pride there’s something warm bubbling up through the fierce rush of triumph—
She had always liked rubies, the bloody glint of them. She wishes now as she spills her memories of the Winchesters into the demon’s cupped and waiting hands that she hadn’t chosen a new name.
“Ruby,” her captor says again, pressing something burning-hot through her chest, and she jerks with the impact of a bullet, the Colt smoking in Bobby Singer’s hand. She’s fixing it for him even as the chains curl around her wrists again, stretching her out and out and out as the voice keeps whispering “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby” over the tearing of her flesh.
She’s Ruby, she’s trapped in Ruby like she’s trapped in the shape of Cathy Peterson, she’s giving up Ruby with every drop and slice of her essence, and there’s nothing to Ruby but what this demon wants.
She knows the rituals, knows Latin and more powerful tongues never spoken by humans, but in terror and shattering pain as she stares at the walls of flame around her it’s curses that tumble from her lips, not prayers.
There’s a pause. She doesn’t know why, or what’s happening, doesn’t know how long she’s been here, but she’s on the wheel again, things shaped like bones but weighted like iron bars swinging into her. And it’s silent, only her own cries and the crackle of hellfire, and she lets herself be beaten smaller.
When her fingers break and the bones grind together they’re shorter, with a clerk’s calluses instead of—don’t, she thinks, and buries the name in a scream—her manicure.
The demon sinks taloned hands into the bloody mess of her thighs and pulls out the sight of plague-swollen men sobbing in mortal terror, of corpses piled like logs to burn.
“Ruby!” it snarls, reaching deeper, scraping against the splinters of her thighbones as—
—the demon she’d known first as Cecilia the midwife, who’d taught her how to keep her family safe, knocks her flat and bleeding in some polished modern house, ripping her out of her body one curl of smoke and sharp-edged phrase at a time. It’s pain like tearing hooks out of her skin, and then she realizes there are hooks and she’s more a body than a blur of meat again, strapped to a table made of skulls while her captor croons into her ear and peels the memory of futile attempts at self-sacrifice in a (war) police station away from her.
It carves out her eyes and knows how Lilith found her.
She can still see hellfire.
It leaves her someplace else, where the walls press in around her, so tight she can’t breathe. Time slows; it feels like it’s crawling now, and she slides her broken hands across the blood-slick floor to learn the boundaries of where she is.
They don’t want her to leave. It’s not just that they want her to hurt, she thinks, curled around herself to keep from touching the blade-prickling edges of this space, it’s that they want her here, locked away. There’s nobody around at all, not for long stretches of space-time-thought—there can’t be, because she can fuse her bones and seal her wounds and knit herself back together. Her will is the strongest one here, even damaged as she is. The last thing she fixes is her eyes, feeling them bloom beneath the fingers she presses to the lids, and when she opens them it’s dark instead of burning, the walls knife-studded shadows with only a few winking reflections of flame.
When the first seal breaks a little later the shockwaves tear through everything.
Her prison smashes around her and she doesn’t even mind the wall of knives that’s just slammed through her because this is Hell: you can’t die here. You can never die here.
She crawls from under it and looks around, wills the space around her into coherence. There’s the wreckage of the room she was in, and around it a charred plain, a vast dead crater without even blood or bone growing in it, with not even the tiniest imp in sight. Even the hellfire is faint, here.
She starts to walk, limping, leaving bloody footprints behind her. They shimmer wetly until the ash blows over them to dull their dark shine.
There is nothing here for her, nothing she can grasp and bend to her will. She hopes whatever the first thing she finds is fragile enough that she can kill it easily—and the one after that, and after that, until she has made of herself a functioning weapon again.
It was the spine of some three-headed creature as long as her arm, but now it’s a wicked-tipped trident. She peeled the meat off the bones with teeth and then fingernails, reformed what was left from frail ivory to something like adamant. The vertebrae are smoothed to a grip that her hands, however slippery with blood, won’t slide away from; it’s long enough that she can use it as a staff if need be.
The heads and limbs and spike-tipped tail she left by the river. Someone else will find them and she doesn’t care who as long as she’s gone by then. Maybe some other poor bastard can use them.
A decade from now she doubts she’ll care one way or the other, but just now she knows the soul-deep desperation for an end to Hell’s finest.
Up ahead there’s screaming—an old-fashioned lake of fire. She pushes her hair back from her face, wincing when it sticks to the blood on her hands, and tries to release her hold on the physical. It’s hard, trying to find a balance between keeping herself and passing as any other demon, someone who belongs here, revels in it.
Her bone-thin fingers dissolve in coils of shadow that writhe up her arms. She tosses her head and her matted hair floats out around her. The metal reek of blood is gone from the air; it’s replaced with the bite of cold, the deep red of pain. She licks her lips and tastes winter before her tongue forks and curls. Hellfire is the only constant—the lake is gone, the blood and the bone; here there are spears of ice that glow like garnets, and through them she can see the blurry shadows of demons and the indistinct grey of souls corrupted by agony.
It’s dark, at least. The things to fear in Hell are light and color, not the hulking masses of normal essence.
She drifts around the edge of the ice-field, gritting her teeth—for a minute the vast blue-white fangs of cold drip blood which burns below them, and she makes herself relax, thinking no teeth, no mouth—and then she’s past the edges of it, and time pulls at her ankles like she’s wading through deep snow, chill and brutal.
She goes with it, because what else is there to do? Everything slows around her as she stumbles through a forming bog, feeling it thick and murky and corrupt around her ankles. Corpses bubble to the surface, split open by knives or bursting as they rot, and she gags and gags again on the taste of loss. When flames erupt from the water she welcomes the burning against her skin, because hellfire is so common a torment she’s grown used to it, and the corpses are invisible now. She smells ash and pain; they’re almost comforting to her.
Through the fire. She finds a cave whose walls are the color of despair; they drip bitterness in half-frozen stalactites. Time crawls slowly over her skin with tiny skittering feet that catch on her scars, until the scars begin to fade.
A year passes and she can think of knives without flinching from the taste of her own viscera. She works her way deeper into the cave, into a narrow tunnel barely wide enough to fit the body she still thinks she has. It is colder here, and the walls are slick with frozen tears. She swims through ice; she drifts back to the surface and finds herself older, stronger again, less broken. She has lost all sense of time.
When she leaves the cave she has worked through all of Ragnhild’s memories, all the parts of Ruby that the other demon tried to take. She clutches them to herself and moves on.
Ruby is in a cavern echoing with screams, lit with the dimming grey of souls. Every so often one flares ember-red and is reborn. She’s fighting for her freedom, tearing at one of the guards with fangs made of mourning. It bleeds acid beneath her mouth.
Before she was Ruby she would never have gotten lost this easily. If she had, she wouldn’t have become Ruby.
She spits out acid and teeth and the skin of her lips, lets herself grow scales and long spiraling horns. The guard drags winter-cold claws over her, tearing up some of her armor. The scales land on the floor with a sound like choking.
If they keep her here they’ll strap her to one of the racks, just to keep in practice, and they’ll carve and carve until Ruby is gone and she’s just a mess of smoke, and they’ll let her up and give her the knife in congratulations and by tradition. She doesn’t think she’ll be lucky enough to hate it again. They were careless the first time; they cut away her future but in their haste they left her past.
She has the guard on the floor, her taloned foot at its throat, but it grabs her leg and throws her to the ground and pins her there with a spear trailing chains. She twists and flails free, coiling up from the floor just as it shakes beneath her.
At first it feels like the tremors of any of the other seals’ breaking, shockwaves rattling through Hell, but instead of fading it builds, on and on in a great bone-melting crescendo that flays its listeners raw.
Nobody moves or speaks or screams. Nobody can gather the will to do so.
And then there’s a single cry, piercing and massive and triumphant. Hell rocks on its foundations—its pillars of fire and blood; its lakes of bone and ice. Everyone collapses, dropping to their knees or lower, felled by the sheer power of the voice as it approaches and then fades, rushing up and up and up into the world.
“He is freed!” someone shouts from across the cavern. “Our Father is freed!”
Ruby pushes herself up from the floor, settles herself shakily on her knees and then rises to her feet. As the guards celebrate by turning their own weapons to the prisoners, she fades into the shadows and is gone.
When the Cage opened it tore a hole between Hell and the human world. Ruby makes it to the edge after it has sealed but while the boundary is still thin, stretched-out, healing. She tears her way through with her bone trident until it breaks, claws the rest of the way out with her hands until they’re bloodied and melting into smoke. She winds the rest of the way through normal dirt.
A highway marker tells her she’s not far from Baltimore, and she hitches a ride in a trucker headed that way. He’s worse than she remembers Cathy being, much worse, alive and frantic inside this too-small body with her.
“I’ll be out soon,” she says.
Help me, he screams, someone help me! God! Anyone!
She wonders how other demons stand the noise of it, the desperate terrified clamor. Cathy had died before Ruby’d figured out how to make the body work and now she’s glad.
The trucker is praying. The words flick against her like hail, too weak to hurt but annoying nonetheless. She drives through the night without stopping, glad when he screams himself silent and slides into an exhausted sleep.
She uses an internet café to find the biggest morgue in Baltimore, then checks the trucker into a nearby hotel and leaves him there. If she’d been planning to try to find a comfortable-looking host alive, she knows better now. It won’t be comfortable. It’ll be screaming, endless and miserable, and it’ll be far too crowded.
In the morgue she looks around until she’s found what she wants, a body that looks about right, pale and bled-out with cuts like gaping mouths in its arms. There’s a med student down the hall going through forms. She’s a few inches taller than the body, a few pounds heavier, but her clothes should fit well enough.
Ruby jumps into the student, ignoring her screams as she walks her down the hall to the room with the new body and takes off her clothes. She finds a wallet in the jeans pocket and pulls out around thirty bucks in cash. She looks longingly at the credit card, but she won’t have time to get much out of it.
Then she locks the med student in a broom closet, seeps out under the door, and gets into her new body.
The sound of screams follow her down the hall. Someone’ll find the girl soon enough.
It takes a little magic to get her out without security noticing her, and it’s possible someone will notice something on the video feed, but by the time anyone finds her she intends to be somewhere far away. Besides, nobody’s going to believe a corpse just got up and walked out.
There’s a lot to be done. Lucifer’s out there somewhere, and she likes the world. There’s probably not a damn thing she can change, but she might as well die fighting in clean fresh air.