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Dressed Like Hell

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Most demons, even the ones clever or lucky enough to make it out of hell, were simple agents of chaos: they wanted to cause as much suffering and confusion as they could, before they were inevitably sent back downstairs. That was the irksome part - nobody stayed upstairs forever. There were too many priests, hunters, and so-called light witches, for even the craftiest demon to stay on earth forever. Sooner or later, they all went back home. And since home was hell, no one was in a hurry to be returned to sender.

Ruby's first time out of hell, was maybe a hundred years after she entered it as a human. After a hundred years in hell, (though not so many on earth), she found it reassuringly familiar.

Different men in charge, but still men, as she knew them. Still petty, and grasping, and too easily manipulated. Still so worried about their women. Were they loyal? Did they love their husband-masters? What did they get up to, without men around? So worried about things. Did they have enough? Was their horse better or worse than their neighbor's? Easily read, and even more easily pushed and persuaded into doing exactly what she wanted.

It would have been boring, if it weren't so much fun. And eventually, even that wouldn't have been enough, if it weren't for the mission.

Before - her human life was a tiny space she called before, the memories too sharp, too vague, too unrelated to her now purposeful and vast existence; still available to her, but not hers; simply before - she'd been a witch. So she watched witches, knowing that they knew ways to summon demons, and were generally too stupid to prevent things from going in exactly the wrong direction. Demons could be bound, but who was clever and patient enough to find that out?

Ruby's first time out of hell, she'd rode the witch who'd summoned her right back to her family home. Strictly speaking, she hadn't been looking for Ruby. Not exactly. She'd been looking for power though, and she'd found it.

She materialized in the witch's circle, and looked around her. And yet not looked, because she no longer had eyes. In hell, she'd existed as a projection of herself, her body, and then when that had been ground down into nothing, as something else. But here-- earth was not hell, and on earth, she was smoke: a formless black cloud that moved and thought and existed, contrary to every human wisdom and science.

She looked, and immediately found the circle's weakness. The witch was sloppy. So many of them were. Before the witch could finish the invocation - binding the demon to her will - Ruby struck. She narrowed herself into a fine curl of smoke, and pushed forward, through the gap in the salt and painted blood. Toward her host. It was nothing like learning to walk. It was more like feeding. She pushed the witch's mouth, already open in a scream, even wider, then she pushed herself in and down, and everywhere. She crushed the witch's consciousness, wherever she went, driving it into the darkest corners of her mind.

There was a way - she could push further, press down with her being, until the witch's being was snuffed out, and the body with it. Ruby didn't need her alive.

The witch screamed and screamed and screamed. It was a small sound. There was no place for it to go. No place that wasn't already Ruby. The witch screamed, cried, begged, and then finally broke. Went silent. Mutely watched while Ruby learned how to use her body.

The first steps were shaky. She stumbled into the circles of the broken devil's trap, and then out of them, steadying herself by flinging out her arms. This was exactly like learning how to walk. The absurdity of it: the body, and herself-in-the-body. She laughed. Startled.

It was a new laugh. Not the one that had belonged to her human self, and not the one she'd made for herself in the pit. This was an old woman's laugh. Pale and thin with age. She raised the body's hands to the light. They were likewise old, and withered. Skin pulled tight over bone, veined with blue, and spidering lines of red and darkest purple. She turned them over.

Ruby had once studied palm reading very seriously. The old woman's palms had much to say, if you believed in it. She had lived a long and interesting life. That much was obvious just from the age of her. But palm-reading was always halfway a scam. The other half, the real half of it, told Ruby that the witch had been staring into an oncoming storm. So she'd summoned a demon, in an effort to stave off, or even misdirect whatever terrible things fate had in store for her. Palm reading never was clear. The storm was Ruby.

She settled into her new body. Not borrowed, because she had no intention of giving it back. Used its eyes to see as a human would, and her eyes, to see as her kind did. It was night. A clearing, in a deep forest. Lots of life around her, and not much that was interesting to a demon. No angry spirits, strange creatures, or even stray travelers. The witch hadn't wanted anyone to stumble across her ritual. She'd managed that beautifully.

The night air was cool and clear, and would have carried sound perfectly, had there been any to carry. Nothing but insects, rodents, and whatever paltry game had managed to avoid being hunted to extinction. It felt like autumn, near the last harvest of the year. It was cold to the witch's naked body. Ruby felt it, the body's reaction, but it had no meaning to her - Ruby wasn't body. She warmed and sustained this one with a thought. Registered its discomfort, distantly, but didn't feel it. That was interesting.

The clearing wasn't man made - the blackened stumps that ringed it made that clear - but someone had maintained it. Scrub grass was suppressed by stone, everything from precious marble, to the cheapest local rocks. Group effort. There was no altar, but the witch's devil's trap had been laid inside a rough circle of stone. The clearing, lightning made if she judged it right, was just shy of a ley line. There was nothing like back country magic.

Where had the witch summoned her? Ruby put all her human and demon senses to the problem.

She was far north of the city that a human Ruby had called home, but not too far from the whole point to this little excursion. Ruby probed the witch's memories of the area, mentally plotting her course out of the forest, and to the road that eventually, after endless twists and turns, would take her to her destination. Should she ride the body, or travel in her true form? The latter was faster. The former was... more interesting.

"What's that witch?" Ruby asked the empty clearing. The witch could hear her, even stuffed down inside her own head, as she was. "You have a family? Maybe we should pay your son a visit." The witch's being jerked and flailed in its prison. Ruby noticed only because she was paying attention - all her protests, they were less than nothing.

The witch's village, where her grown son and his children lived, was out of her way, but Ruby had time. The witch screamed again, and threw herself at the walls Ruby had built in her mind. "I almost felt that." Ruby laughed. The witch was stubborn. She kept fighting, kept picking away at Ruby, like the tiniest, most persistent flea.

Ruby sighed. "This stopped being amusing two minutes ago." If anything, the witch only fought harder, pushing with everything left to her, scratching at Ruby, searching and searching for a foothold, a break in the lines, a way out. There wasn't one. "I was actually considering letting you say goodbye to your son, but now... I'll let you wonder. For one breath, witch. What will I do to your family, once you're gone?" The witch screamed, and for once it was almost a word, almost no - Ruby caught the sentiment, regardless.

She pushed into those dark places where the witch's being hid. Inexorably, so the witch could feel her coming, could see the thread of her existence running thin, thin, thin, to nothing. One tiny spark of the witch's being was left. Ruby breathed. She was gone.

She propelled her stolen body out of the clearing, and down the narrow path that would take her to the witch's home, and then to her actual destination. She didn't stop to put on the witch's discarded rags. Ruby didn't need them. It had been a long time since she'd been embodied: a hundred years since she'd walked, breathed, touched rock and dirt. It was novel and familiar at once, but this stolen meat suit wasn't quite pleasant.

***

Witches were stubborn. Ruby knew because she had been one, and because she'd made a study of them.

Of all the ways to get out of hell, witches were the most reliable. Devil's gates were so rarely opened. Necromancers were thin on the ground, even in the darkest ages. Witch's though, were as common as toadstools. Where there were unhappy women, there were witches, and where there were men, unhappy women were a given. Witches were by nature, the stubborn ones. The women who believed, contrary to every proof life gave them, that they too could be powerful, happy, and rich. And they could. For a price.

So they collected herbs, made runes and circles, exploring the narrow avenues of power available to them. There was only so much any human could do. And when that wasn't enough, they went begging for real power, from their Goddess. Herodiade, Queen of Witches. The demon bitch, who'd staked all witches as her territory. Her personal fiefdom: a barely tapped market for souls, ready to sell themselves for the thinnest scraps. She harvested the worst from her cult, women (and men) so corrupt they were barely human, leaving the novices and the dabblers to flounder their way into hell. That left a way open for Ruby.

Demons were territorial. That was a given. Hell bred jealousy and infighting, because there was so little in the pit worth hanging on to.

Riding the witch to her freedom was a risk, but one that Ruby was willing to take. The demon bitch who called herself Herodiade in this human age - she'd had other names, and would have countless others - might even come after her. But Ruby had found a way around that old hag once before, and she wasn't worried.

Ruby stood in the ruins she'd made of the witch's home. This time there was an altar, dedicated to one sham Goddess or another, but not Herodiade. Some Eastern moon Goddess that Ruby didn't know. She toed through the wreckage. It was unlikely but there might be something worth taking. Witches hoarded objects of power, and the better ones were smart enough to recognize them. This body had been skilled enough to summon Ruby, but not skilled enough to hold her.

She was set to leave, having decided the hovel was as uninteresting as the witch's body, or that of her now broken son, when she heard someone at the door. She went still and listened. A woman and a child, sex indeterminate and unimportant. She looked to the body of the witch's son. "Is it dinner time?"

"Mother?" The woman and the child stood in the doorway, shock still. It was, she imagined, quite the tableau. Ruby watched her eyes flicker past the broken furniture, to her husband's broken body, to her mother-in-law's naked one. She pushed her child behind. "Are you well?" she asked, voice wavering. She moved to Ruby, a hand raised.

She was an ordinary woman, but pretty and in good health. Ordinary in every way, save for the bracelet that circled her left wrist. "Welcome home," Ruby said. The woman's eyes went wide - the incongruity of the greeting, and something else. Daughter in law to a witch wasn't entirely ordinary. That, and the bracelet, made things interesting all of a sudden.

The child pressed against his mother's legs like an animal, sensing danger even if it couldn't understand it. The woman put her arm around his shoulders, held him close. "What are you?"

"Do you see, then?" The woman scowled at her - brave, this one, but so had grandmother been.

"What have you done?"

"I killed your husband and his mother," she said simply. "But the better question is: what has she done?" Ruby smiled."Grandmother called me. Now don't mistake me, I'm certainly grateful, but why would she do that?"

"I don't-"

"Why would she expose such a lovely little family to me?" Ruby let the witch's eyes go black with a bit of her true self.

The woman raised crossed arms and yelled a soundless word of power. The bracelet on her left arm gleamed with power--power that Ruby would make her own, when she was done with them.

It hit her like fury, a wave of pure destructive energy battering her meat suit. She'd give the little witch credit, she was fast and clever, but Ruby was cleverer. Let her rage take the body: there were others. Ruby fell to her (stolen) knees under the force of it. Skin went cold, colder, cracked under the witch's assault. The woman could blister this body's skin, strip flesh from bones, but that meant nothing to smoke.

"Run," she said, and the child did, tearing out of the hut and into the night. She advanced on Ruby then, with her child safe. She moved slowly, body heavy with power, and the air between them thick with it. "Get out," she ordered.

Ruby smiled; too wide, lips peeling back over bloody teeth. "Would be a pleasure." The words were stone on flesh, blood spilling down the old witch's lips, chin, throat. The woman screamed again, a word of power that was desire, destruction, a bridge. Ruby took it.

Ruby was inside her, taking hold of all that power and twisting it, before the old witch's used up body crumpled to the floor. The woman--girl really, hardly older than Ruby had been at death--struggled, but no more effectively than grandmother had.

"Shh," Ruby urged. "I'm trying to get used to your skin." The girl fled through her memories: a sibling's funeral; her wedding day; the birth of her child, a boy, apparently. She scrabbled for purchase, a weapon, a refuge. Ruby examined the bracelet, the weight of her presence crushing the girl slowly. "This is lovely work." The bracelet was plain in the way of country magic, but useful; silver braided with generations of women's work.

"You should have known better, little witch. Your fury makes a bridge." The girl quailed, knowing Ruby was right. "Do they still say be sober, sweet? Vigilant? Your adversary the Devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." What was left of the girl cried, my child, my child.

"Are you asking for mercy, or are you so stupid to think I can't hear you?" Ruby laughed. "You've given me such a pretty present here, and I've priests to kill, a mission to complete. I'll leave your child to the road." Relief flashed through the girl's soul; the last of her energy. She faded quickly, turning to wisps of feeling, faint warmth, then nothing.

"Much better," Ruby said. She left the hut, and the village of cowards hiding behind useless walls, for the road. Would they be able to feel her absence? This was power.

The night was quiet. The emptied body still strange, but becoming less so as she walked. Ruby pursed the girl's lips and blew--an easy tune the girl had used to soothe her son. A hundred years since she had whistled, breathed, walked. There was the mission, but he couldn't fault her for finding fun in it, could he?

Ruby walked, and while she walked, she sang.