The steps went on forever.
Down and down and down. At times so gradual that the grade was unnoticeable, at times so steep they had to drop themselves down over the edge of one step to the next. Jo kept walking straight into exhaustion and past it, through the other side into numbness, her continuing movements becoming more mechanical than the truly mechanical demon who walked silently ahead of her.
Unflagging, untiring. Inhuman.
The heat, building constantly from the exertion of walking, had long ago built past the limit of Jo’s endurance and Ruby (who was temperature sensitive, but not temperature reliant) was now carrying Jo’s coat.
Further on the stairs became more uniform. For most of an hour the steps had been so even that Jo failed to notice that they had ended and tried to step too far, jamming her ankle and barely keeping herself from falling.
She staggered hard and caught herself against Ruby’s shoulder. The demon had stopped stock still at the foot of the stairs, staring at something Jo couldn’t see. She straightened painfully, wincing at the cramping in her thighs and calves, and moved out from behind Ruby.
There was indeed a forge.
A gigantic forge. A forge the size of the Rock of Gibraltar.
Standing behind it, backlit by the Promethean glow of the molten furnace, was a towering figure. No features were distinguishable, only an immense, shadowy form. A man writ large.
“Holy…” Jo breathed in delirious astonishment.
Ruby smiled. “Holy’ is exactly correct.”
There was a rumbling boom that shook the caldera. Jo staggered, mind going blank with the irrational fear of an eruption. Ruby caught her elbow and kept both of them on their feet.
The booming came again.
“What is that?” Jo shouted.
Ruby frowned, tilting her head to the side, still holding Jo’s arm. “I think… I think he might be talking,” she said slowly.
“He’s a god,” Ruby shouted. “What makes you think you could comprehend him at all?”
Jo rolled her eyes as another rumbling bout of ‘speech’ forced her to one knee. “We are so not having this conversation here and now.”
Ruby made a face and dropped to the ground beside Jo. She lowered herself further, pressing her ear to the stone.
“What are you doing?”
“Hush,” said Ruby, “I’m trying to hear.”
Jo considered the unlikely picture Ruby made lying full length on the bottom of a volcano trying to listen to a god. “What happened to being unable to comprehend a god?”
Ruby shushed her again, eyes closed and concentrating.
“It doesn’t really matter what he’s saying. He doesn’t know what we came here for,” Jo pointed out.
“So ask him,” said Ruby without opening her eyes.”
Jo stared down at her. “Are you serious? You’re serious. Are you insane?”
Ruby smiled against the dusty stone floor of Hephaestus’ forge.
Jo rolled her eyes and dragged herself back up to her feet. Too exhausted in body and mind to manage the proper level of deference at which one should properly address a god, or even something which only thinks it’s a god, she settled for shouting, “We seek the Key!” at the top of what was left of her voice.
There was a protracted silence. The great shadowy figure gave the featureless impression of studying her.
The rumbling, booming voice came again.
“You have come far,” said Ruby, slowly, translating through the vibration of the stone. “That might be a question,” she added. “Inflection is difficult to discern through bedrock.”
“Yes, we have come far,” Jo shouted. “The Visionary sent us. We seek the Key.”
The silence this time stretched for an interminable age of perhaps half a minute. And then the caldera shook with a response.
“Made the Key,” said Ruby. “Made a…deal? Made a deal and made the Key.”
“A deal?” Jo said. Ruby shrugged.
“Who did you make the Key for? What does it open?”
“Opens the light. Opens the light for the… angel.”
Jo staggered. “It’s a key… to run an angel?”
Ruby raised her head off the ground. “It makes a certain sort of sense, I suppose. Demons run with Keys, outside of Heaven something has to run an angel. It’s the problem Castiel has always faced.”
“I know,” said Jo. “I just never thought a key would be the answer.”
“Ask him where it is.” Ruby put her head back down. But to that query, there was no response. Nor could they induce Hephaestus to tell them which angel he had made the Key for, or if indeed he had made the Key directly for an angel at all.
His silence in response to repeated questions became intensely frustrating to Ruby who, in a rare display of temper, unwisely attempted to provoke the smith-god.
Forever after, Jo would remember their headlong rush back up the stairs, barely keeping ahead of the molten fury that pounded at their heels, as one of the absolute worst trials of her misspent life.
“Well,” Jo panted, clinging to the rope of the ladder, “I don’t know if that was helpful or not, but it was almost certainly a bad idea.”
Ruby looked up at her, tireless steel claws gripping the wooden step. “We know we’re looking for an angel, now,” she said. “That narrows it down somewhat. How many angels can there be on earth outside the presence of God?”
“Not too many, I suppose. But how the hell are we going to find one?” Jo tilted her head back, unhappily contemplating the climb back up to the Dashforth. “How do you find an angel?”
Ruby hooked a hand over the next step. “I have no idea,” she said.
They found later that the cyclonic winds had battered the Dashforth against the rim of the volcano, closing a vent and causing a breech when pneumatic pressure built up in the pipe. Jo gave Ruby the helm and changed into the grease-stained bottom half of a pair of mechanic’s coveralls she had appropriated from Bobby’s several years ago.
She was deep in the bowels of the ship, goggles pulled down over her eyes, her arms covered in scratches and motor oil, when she found a second crack. Jo flung the wrench across the engine room, hearing it clang sharply off the edge of the hydrogen tank. Dangerous, that.
“God damn it!,” she shouted at the ceiling.
“Zounds and blue blazes,” Ruby drawled behind her, correctively. “He may be listening.”
Jo felt her hands curl into fists.”Go away, Ruby.”
The demon touched the back of her shirt lightly, teasingly. Running the tip of one steel claw along the edge of her braces. Jo swallowed hard and fought back a shiver.
“Not now,” she rasped.
Ruby hummed noncommittally and pressed closer. The starched edge of her collar scratched at the back of Jo’s neck.
“No,” Jo said, striving for an authoritative tone and missing completely. She took a deep breath, feeling Ruby’s claws prick through her shirt with the movement, and tried again. “Go away. I’m busy and I’m not in a good-”
“I need to be wound,” Ruby cut in.
Jo let the rest of the breath she’d been holding go and strove for rationality through her frustration. Part of her wanted to refuse, let Ruby wind down for the sake of petulance alone. She told that part it was childish and did not befit a hunter.
“All right,” she said.
Ruby’s cabin was spacious, but every inch of it managed to be suffused with her presence. Black cloth in the shapes and forms of her various dresses and skirts and shawls and veils covered every available surface as though shadows had draped themselves piecemeal to soften the edges of the otherwise sparse room. Ruby had a great deal of clothing, and not much of anything else. She didn’t need much, and had a distressing tendency to borrow Jo’s weapons and hairpins and clean towels whenever she wanted.
She stopped in the middle of the room, and turned her back to Jo, waiting. When Jo made no move to come any closer, Ruby looked over her shoulder and smiled. Wickedness, encouragement, temptation. Impatience in the heat in her eyes.
Jo steeled herself and closed the distance between them, putting her hands to the dozens of tiny jet buttons that ran down the back of Ruby’s dress. She looked up to see that Ruby was still watching over her shoulder. Her eyes fixed and intense on Jo’s face.
“Turn around,” Jo said, brusquely, and Ruby turned her head, letting Jo reach the buttons that ran all the way to the nape of her neck. Her hands were unsteady as they slipped the buttons through the fabric one by one, slowly freeing Ruby from the widow’s black she preferred. Jo came to the end of the buttons and helped Ruby lift the dress over her head.
The sound of her own breathing was loud in the room beside Ruby’s inhuman stillness. The cheating little minx often chose not to breathe. Jo privately thought it was because not breathing –she wormed her fingers underneath the edge of Ruby’s corset – allowed her to cinch her waist to an otherwise impossible diameter.
“You’re only jealous,” Ruby said. She jerked sharply and took a breath at last as Jo tugged some slack into the corset lacing.
“I don’t wear corsets,” Jo said. “And get out of my head.” She started pulling the laces free.
“I wasn’t in your head, Jo. I don’t need to read your mind to know when you’re thinking about me.”
Jo continued sliding the laces through their grommets with ruthless speed. “I wasn’t thinking about you,” she lied.
Ruby laughed loudly as Jo undid the last of the laces, leaving her in her chemise and petticoats- Ruby never wore hoops. Or drawers, for that matter. Jo squashed that thought violently and turned her around by the shoulders.
“Lie down,” she said.
Ruby smiled, pliant and reasonable, and arranged herself on her bed, flat on her back and bare from the waist up, her chemise draped unbuttoned around her shoulders. The small brass plaque that covered her latchkey gleamed in the lamplight like a coin.
Jo took the Key out of its box, burningly conscious of Ruby spread out like a conquered thing, watching her down the length of her own body. Her breasts rising and falling with the breath she didn’t need. Her eyes an infinitely patient temptation.
The Key, Ruby’s Key, was roughly the length of Jo’s hand, and made of a metal (Brass? Steel?) that never needed polishing. A circle roughly an inch and a half in diameter supported two parallel prongs, each with protrusions away from the other for turning the tumblers. Two on one side and three on the other.
Jo took a steadying breath, told herself this was, in fact, the responsible thing to do, and put her right knee on the bed beside Ruby’s hip, swinging her left leg up and around to straddle her hips. Ruby, blessedly, refrained from any lascivious comment, though she did rest her hands on Jo’s knees and run her clawed fingertips lightly up her thighs. Jo fought back the urge to arch into Ruby’s touch.
“Stop that,” she said, carefully turning the Key over so that the side with two prongs was on the right. “I don’t want you accidentally clawing me.”
Ruby obediently dropped her hands to the bedspread, her eyes avid and hot on Jo’s face. Jo still wasn’t sure if being wound felt good or not. Pleasure and pain were much the same to a demon.
The latch was slightly to the left (Ruby’s left) of the center of Ruby’s chest, halfway down her ribcage. Jo flipped the cover to the side and lined up the key. She flicked her eyes up to Ruby’s face, raising her eyebrows a little, questioningly.
“Get on with it, then,” Ruby said, her voice raspy with anticipation. “I haven’t got all - ”
Jo slid the Key into her chest, slowly, watching Ruby throw her head back and fight to hold still. Self control wasn’t Ruby’s defining characteristic, but moving might throw off the clockwork, and Jo’s weight was nothing in face of Ruby’s strength. The mattress made a series of horrible creaking sounds as Ruby dug her claws into it.
Practice had taught Jo to feel carefully for the tumblers before attempting to turn the Key, which she did. A feat made more difficult by Ruby’s shivering.
“Hold still,” Jo murmured in what she hoped was a soothing tone. She prayed her voice wouldn’t shake; any sign of excitement on Jo’s part would only serve to make Ruby wilder.
“I’m trying,” Ruby promised, breathily. “Maybe you should tie me down.” She managed an impressive amount of innuendo despite the difficultly she seemed to be having forming words.
They used to tie Ruby down. Jo claimed it was no longer necessary because she no longer worried about Ruby hurting her, accidentally or otherwise, but in truth she didn’t trust herself tying Ruby to the bed anymore.
Jo felt the Key slot into place with a dull ‘click’ and Ruby gasped.
“Need a minute?” Jo teased, unwisely. She gave the Key the first clockwise quarter turn and Ruby made a soft, desperate sound, hooked the claws on her left hand in Jo’s leather belt, and writhed under her.
Winding, Jo reflected with the fragment of her mind that wasn’t lost in Ruby, shaking and undone and beautiful as midnight, was just the kind of singularly inconvenient method of subsistence that only demons would come up with.
She gave the Key another quarter turn. And then another. Click, click of the coils and springs ratcheting tighter. Ruby moaned, tugging at Jo’s shirt with restless, grasping hands. Jo became dimly aware that she was panting for breath, and didn’t forestall her when Ruby tugged her braces off her shoulders.
Click, click, click. Three quarters of a turn. Ruby plucked at the buttons of Jo’s shirt and whimpered when Jo put a hopelessly inadequate hand on her stomach to hold her still.
Another full turn. Ruby had let this go too long. She’d been close to winding down completely.
Jo leaned in closer, giving more leverage to the next turn of the Key and murmured, “You take too many risks.”
Ruby laughed breathlessly. Kite-flying high on the slow, delicious tension of being wound. She hooked her claws through the plain cotton of Jo’s shirt and dragged her all the way down.
Jo nudged the wheel straight, wincing as the carelessly pressed fabric of her shirt pulled over the myriad scratches Ruby couldn’t help but leave all over her skin.
She saw the flash from the corner of her eye, forty miles out over the Aegean. Jo told herself it was the sun on the water, or the steel of the fuselage, but then she saw it again and really, nothing gleams in the sun quite like the wings of an angel.
“Better bring one of the ramparts down,” she said, assuming Ruby’s soundless presence behind her. “I think Castiel wants to talk.”
The presence of angels was still odd to Jo. Demons and ghosts and angry things which thought they were gods she could handle, philosophically. But she’d always had trouble with angels. It didn’t help that the sight of a man in Savile Row tailoring sweeping out of the sun on wings easily twenty feet wide and fashioned of some extraordinary indestructible metal would never, ever cease to amaze her.
Castiel stepped easily onto the deck of the rampart and the last rays of weak sunlight flashed off the sharp-edged steel alloy of his wings as he folded them in at the hinges and made them disappear.
Ruby’s eyes went completely black. She (and Castiel) purported this to be a demonic response to the presence of the divine. Jo, in view of Ruby’s clockwork soul and Castiel’s metalcraft wings, thought it must be some sort of electromagnetic switch.
The angel and the demon sized each other up for a long uncomfortable moment, as they did every time they came into contact. Jo did not even consider intervening, and said nothing until Castiel shifted his attention with a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgment.
“Hello, Jo,” he said finally, in his careful, deliberate way.
“Hello, Cas,” she said. “I don’t suppose this is a social call?”
The angel moved further into the ship, allowing the rampart to close. He appeared to be considering the rhetorical question. “No,” he said. “Bobby said you were attacked in relation to the prophecy Sam and Dean Winchester sent to you.”
Jo settled her hip against a barrel dried fruit. “Yes,” she said. “Lilith’s demons in the marketplace. They were after this “Key.”
Castiel tilted his head and looked at her as though checking for injury. “Have you discovered anything further about the…Key?”
When a quick glance showed clearly that Ruby was clinging to silence, Jo said, “Yes. We talked to the Visionary, and then we… we talked to Hephaestus.”
The angel looked surprised. “That was very dangerous.”
Jo shot her eyes at Ruby again. “Yes,” she said. “So we discovered. But, this might be of interest to you: Hephaestus told us it was a Key to run an angel.”
Castiel went even further statue-still than usual. “A Key to run an angel?”
“That’s what he said.” He must be worried about winding down, Jo thought. How long has he been cut off from Heaven? A year, almost?
“That is most interesting.
“I thought so,” Jo said. “We’re having some trouble deciding how to find an angel, though.”
“There are many angels on Earth,” Castiel said. “But angels on Earth outside the dominion of Heaven…” He trailed off, turning his head as though listening for something and was silent for several minutes.
Jo looked over at Ruby, who had wedged the considerable volume of her skirts between a shipping crate full of miscellaneous spare engine parts and a lady’s traveling wardrobe that had belonged to Jo’s mother.
Her eyes were still black. And they were fixed on the angel.
Castiel held out an arm. The airship pilot in Jo automatically noted the direction (north north-west) and the angle of inflection (approximately thirty degrees).
“There,” he said. “I cannot guarantee this is the angel for whom Hephaestus made the Key, but it is an angelic sign that is… unusual.”
“Thank you, Castiel,” Jo said.
The angel fixed his overwhelmingly bright blue eyes on her. “Be careful,” he said. “It concerns me that Lilith seeks this Key. It concerns me greatly.”
“It concerns me, too, Cas,” Jo promised. “It concerns me very much.”
“Are you sure about this?” Jo shouted back over the howl of the wind.
Ruby made a horrible face and fought with the helm as a side gust caught under the edge of the starboard wing and tried to shove the Dashforth into the Alps. The storm was getting bad, building itself up into a ship killer tempest. Jo had given Ruby the helm when she’d been thrown across the bridge as the wind forced the ship to spin like a child’s toy.
“I don’t think Castiel knows quite what lying is,” said Ruby as she held the helm steady against driving sideways rain with steel-alloy strength.
“That’s not,” said Jo as the ship swung dizzingly under the push of the storm, “exactly what I meant.”
“Dammit,” Ruby cut in. “Cut the starboard engines before we hit the mountains.”
Jo obediently flipped levers and watched the dials swing to zero, feeling the ship even out briefly.
“If you mean,” said Ruby, “’should we really be trying to fly through this,’ yes, I’m sure.”
Jo carefully adjusted the hydrogen mix to feed a little more power to the port engines now bracing the ship against the southbound storm. “Really.”
“Well, yes, I..” Ruby staggered as the ship tilted, forcing Jo to grab the bronze and crystal altimeter to stay standing, “… feel there is some urgency warranted here. Angels aren’t known for staying in one place very long, and at the moment we have the best information we’re going to get, but it has an expiration date.”
The storm punctuated Ruby’s urgency by redoubling its efforts, the rain like chain-gun fire against the hull.
The view from the port windscreen showed Jo an ancient forest winding up the sides of the mountains. Tree limbs tossing wildly under the deluge like a forest of frantically waving hands.
“Take us over the mountains,” she said. “We’ll never make it on this side.”
She wouldn’t turn around. She didn’t need to.
She knew Ruby was smiling.
“So, what’s the plan?” Jo asked several hours of fighting the elements later. “Search the entire city of Paris for an angel?”
Ruby looked sidelong at her and Jo paused in thought. “There’s a joke in there, somewhere,” she said, and Ruby grinned.
“No, dearest,” she said cheerily. “Thanks to Bobby, I have a much better plan.”
Jo felt her eyebrows rise in incredulity. “Bobby talked to you?”
“I sent him a telegram,” said Ruby. “Several words may have been misspelled so that he would believe it to be from you. And he responded,” she continued loudly over Jo’s indignant huff, “with instructions as to modifying that vampire-tracking compass that has been gathering dust in your closet so that it will track an angel.”
She pulled a man’s pocket watch from her reticule and flipped it open to reveal the compass workings inside. She had, Jo noticed, carefully pasted an image of a Michelangelo cupid to the inside cover. The odd, wedge-shaped wooden needle swung sharply as the carriage rounded the corner and started down a broad avenue.
“That compass,” said Jo, “was in a locked box at the back of my also locked wardrobe.”
Ruby hummed vaguely. “And yet,” she murmured.
The needle swung suddenly ninety degrees to point straight right with a sharp ‘thock’, and Ruby thumped Jo’s swordcane against the roof of the carriage as a signal to the coachman who pulled the horses to a halt.
“Here we are then,” said Ruby, smiling. “An angel in Paris.”
They were in the theater district, Jo noticed, and was pleased she’d swapped out her oil and bloodstained leathers for pinstriped cotton, Saville Row shoes, and the top hat Bela had sold her once at a horrendous price. Even if things were much less formal in the afternoon.
She turned back to the carriage as Ruby held out one gloved hand, her widow’s black crepe and veils making her look more delicate than she was. Jo took it gingerly, feeling the inhuman strength in the fingers around her own, and handed her down from the carriage. She wished she could refuse, but habit made her offer Ruby her arm. The demon curled in close, sharp steel claws through her glove and Jo’s sleeve making indents in her flesh.
The demon was raptly consulting the compass, the swordcane propped against her side. She looked from the compass to the buildings and back several times and finally said, “Here,” tucked the compass away, caught up the swordcane again, and tugged Jo back the way they’d come.
The building Ruby had decided on was a decidedly lowbrow theater in a state of disrepair which invited patrons to tempt fate by entering. ‘Le Teatre Jardin’ was written across the front in flaking paint.
Jo frowned in half-recognition. “Wait a minute,” she said, digging the broadside she’d been reading in the carriage back out of her pocket.
“What is it?” Ruby asked, peering curiously over the edge of the sheet of cheap newsprint.
“This theater.” Jo looked at the sign again and then back down at the paper. “Yes. Le Teatre Jardin. It’s a cheap playhouse. Burlesque comedies, that sort of thing. The critics have turned it into a synonym for, well, bawdy. Poorly produced.” She scanned the article again as Ruby tugged impatiently at her arm with implacable steel strength.
“Wait, wait!” Jo tried unsuccessfully to reclaim her arm. “Look, it’s been getting amazing reviews for the last several weeks, there’s a whole editorial about it.”
“How lovely,” said Ruby. “Perhaps we can catch a show later. Come on!”
Since it was go willingly or be dragged, Jo tossed the paper aside carelessly and tried to look like she was leading Ruby up the rickety wooden steps rather than being led. The inside of the theater yawned wide past the cramped little lobby. Jo said a brief prayer for architectural soundness to any god who might be listening, and let Ruby pull her past the sagging double doors into the theater proper.
The inside of the theater, they found, was quite different than the façade. Where the clapboard fronting suggested the building had formerly been a tavern, or perhaps a tannery, the inside gave the impression of a grand opera gone to seed.
It was larger than Jo would have guessed and there was a sense of shabby grandeur in the moth-eaten upholstery and carved hand rails defaced with chips and at least three layers of slightly different paint. Several workmen were repairing an ominous hole in the floor.
“Hmm,” said Ruby. She flipped the compass back out and consulted it carefully, occasionally glancing up at the stage where a rehearsal for something that involved several scantily clad women and a large, four poster bed was taking place.
Jo looked up at the ceiling where cobwebs liberally strewed a glass chandelier coated in soot and the grime of a hundred performances now illuminated by gaslight.
“This way,” said Ruby, tugging again at Jo’s greatly abused arm, and led the way down the aisle to the stage.
The director, distracted by Ruby’s sauntering entrance, took in the cut and quality of their clothes and said, “May I help you, ladies?”
Ruby looked back down at the compass and appeared completely unwilling to answer. Jo opened her mouth with no idea of what she would say, and was saved from having to admit it when one of the women said, “I think they’re looking for me, George.”
The woman who had spoken was on the bed, half wrapped around, half leaning against one of the posts. She was dangling one leg over the footboard, her petticoat tossed high enough to bare her pale blue garter and the unskillfully darned hole in her silk stocking. From this angle, her main talent seemed to be her ability to slouch provocatively in a tightly laced, whalebone corset.
Which in this place undoubtedly made her the lead actress.
“Ah,” said Jo, as Ruby continued to frown at the wildly spinning compass, “We’re not fans. We’re actually looking for…”
She trailed off as the actress rolled her eyes and flapped an impatient hand at the others on stage, making them disappear. Instantly.
Jo gasped and spun. The other actors, the workmen at the back, everyone was gone. They were alone in the theater.
“Allow me to guess,” said the actress, wrapping herself more comfortably around the bed post, “you came here looking for an angel.”
She was wearing only a corset and petticoats, all of good material, silk brocade and handmade lace, all in shades of cream and ivory and eggshell. Her dark hair tumbled in an unconstrained fall, and the short sleeve of her chemise slipped over one shoulder.
A shaft of sunlight struck through a high casement window, highlighting the dancing dust motes. The sunlight turned her shabby finery to a glowing, puritanical whiteness. Something spun from starlight and ice.
The woman lowered her eyes demurely, and when she raised them again, they had changed. She looked straight at Jo with bright yellow, slit-pupiled eyes and smiled. “Surprise,” she said.
Jo struggled for her voice, Ruby statue-still beside her. “Clever, clever snake,” she managed.
The Serpent grinned.
“I…what?” Ruby looked from the Serpent to the compass, which seemed to be attempting to crawl inside itself. Or possibly point straight up, no mean feat for a fixed needle.
Ordinarily, the sight of Ruby at a loss for words was one of Jo’s favorite things. In this particular instance, she would have more appreciated another of her typical smarmy explanations. As one did not appear to be forthcoming, Jo leapt a little desperately into the breach.
“Obviously, there’s something wrong with the compass,” she said.
Ruby scowled at her. “There’s nothing wrong with the bloody compass,” she gritted out, carefully articulating every syllable, a sure sign she was furious.
“There’s nothing wrong!” said the demon in a tone verging on hysteria.
The Serpent appeared to be watching the proceedings with great amusement.
“It’s supposed to find vampires,” Jo offered.
“But it didn’t find a vampire, did it?” Ruby cast a pointed glare at the woman now reclining across the footboard in a manner her corsetry should have rendered impossible. “It found a Trickster masquerading as an angel. Stupid gadget couldn’t tell the difference between the real thing and a child playing dress-up.”
“Ruby,” Jo said tiredly, “I’m pretty sure that’s the Serpent of Eden you’re lampooning.”
The Serpent – it had to be the Serpent - arched one carefully plucked eyebrow, and Ruby seemed to remember herself.
“No offense intended,” she added as a hesitant afterthought.
Jo winced and, remembering everything Dean had told her about Tricksters, prepared to be attacked by an incongruous orangutan.
The Serpent laughed.
“Little clockwork toy,” she said fondly to Ruby. “Don’t fret.” She abandoned her pose of dramatic negligence and sat up straight on the edge of the bed. “There’s nothing wrong with your gadget.”
She made some minute movement with her shoulders and the expansive (and probably illusory, Jo reminded herself) theater was filled with a sudden burning white light. Shielding her eyes from the glare and squinting up at the stage, Jo saw the impossible as the Serpent stretched wide a pair of burning wings woven from lighting and the dreams of stars and glowed like a captive sun with impossible, uncontainable power.
Before that all-consuming glory Jo felt nothing more quantifiable than the brush of divine judgment. Ruby’s eyes went black like a switch had been thrown and both women fought the reflexive urge to kneel. To prostrate themselves before that implacable fury and beg for unwarranted mercy.
After an eternity of maybe a minute or so in which entire worlds could have been created and destroyed unnoticed, the light faded. And the woman on the stage became a simply a woman again.
“That,” said Jo hoarsely, “is a trick.” She found she was crying silently.
A deeply shaken Ruby looked down at the compass which she had been clutching at like an ineffectual lifeline. It was actually smoking.
“I rather think it wasn’t,” she said.
The Serpent looked smug.
“Who are you?”
She shrugged, careless. “The Serpent, pet. The first of all Tricksters.”
“I wasn’t aware you were an angel.” Jo traded a look with Ruby, but the demon was dividing her attention between staring confusedly at the Serpent and frustratedly at the goddamn compass.
The Serpent rearranged herself into a more comfortable position. She appeared to be growing bored with the interrogation. “I’m not an angel, idiot child.”
Feeling as though she was missing something important, Jo said, “But the wings are real.”
As the Serpent’s eyes were slit-pupiled, it was impossible to tell if she were rolling them in frustration, but Jo rather thought she might be.
“They’re not mine,” she said in a tone of great exhaustion. “I’m just holding them.”
Ruby frowned up at her. “Why would an angel give you their wings?”
“To hide, obviously.” The Serpent looked pointedly at the compass Ruby was still clutching in a white knuckled, steel clawed grip.
“Why would an angel need to hide?”
The Serpent smiled slowly. “Perhaps he didn’t wish to be an angel any longer.”