Title: Set Me Free

Author: MissAnnThropic

Spoilers: Lazarus Rising

LiveJournal: miss_annthropic(dot)livejournal(dot)com

Summary: "I'm the one who gripped you tight and raised you from perdition." There was a story there… this is it.

Disclaimer: None of it's mine. I'm just a sad little fangirl that spends her days writing fanfic and watching DVDs of her favorite shows :(

Author's Note: The title comes from the Casting Crowns song by the same name; it just happened to be the song I was listening to the whole time I was writing this. If you know it, I'm sure you'll agree it is eminently appropriate :)

Much like "The Lord's Prayer", this was a fic I'd had in mind and wanted to do for a long time, but I was missing that little special something it obviously had to have before the Muse would take on the fic. It finally came to me a couple of weeks ago, so once again I'm a happy little fangirl :) Though if you look at the two fics that I was really excited to write, it might end up saying something dark and disturbing about me. Oh well. Enjoy!

"Ants, Castiel," Uriel said with a lilt of condescension in his voice. "Look at them scurrying around like ants… stupid little specks swarming over our Father's beautiful world, like they even matter. Self-important insects. It's funny, isn't it?"

"It is," Castiel agreed, because he didn't have an opinion either way, and everyone agreed Uriel was the funniest angel in the garrison. If he thought it was funny, it must be.

Castiel's regiment was among those summoned by Michael himself. Anytime Michael spoke, Heaven held its breath to listen. The gloried archangel gave them orders to infiltrate the bowels of Hell to rescue one tiny human soul. Dean Winchester. He was the righteous man, and God commanded he be saved.

The angels who had gathered to hear began to stir at the command. Castiel was privately uneasy about the venture. There was the prospect of going to Hell, of course, but that wasn't what had Castiel unsettled.

He'd never been near a human soul outside of Heaven. And in Heaven, human souls were touched by the divine… changed – blessed– to exist in the ethereal plane alongside angels. They were nearer to angel than man in the fields of the Lord. So they hardly counted.

He'd never encountered an earth-bound human soul, and now he was going to the Pit to fetch a damned one.

He would do it without fear, because God commanded it and Michael told him to do it, but he wondered what it would be like to look upon an unclean soul. From the way Uriel's wings shuddered in revulsion at the task laid before them, they were far removed from the Heaven-blessed souls that populated eternity.

Hell was worse than even Castiel had ever imagined. Sin pushed at them from all sides, dripping hot and putrid from their wings. Proto-demons, still human but halfway to demon, clawed at their arms… whether to tear them apart or beg for salvation, Castiel didn't know. He dare not stop to find out. Every vile presence that pushed toward him he shoved back.

The demons that came under his direct touch were burned on the spot, scorched and taken apart at the elemental level of their twisted soul. Those that fell to his sword were cleaved in two and pushed aside. But there was no death… not here. Not for the damned within the grip of Hell; Lucifer's power in the Pit was too great for even his brothers to negate. The beings of hate and fury and rage that were struck down by the angel warriors retreated to fester this new kind of pain, to subsume it into their tapestry of torment as Hell knit them back together so that they might suffer ever more. They would be that much more twisted and mangled for it, but there was no other way… this was Hell.

Castiel incinerated and sliced apart demon after demon, so many that he couldn't count them all. His brothers and sisters around him were just as efficient, but no matter how much the angels meted out Heaven's wrath against the Pit's spawn, there were more demons to take their place. An endless sea of the damned crashing against the angelic soldiers.

The demons weren't the worst. It was the human souls, still so intact if not marked for eternal damnation. Those that had not yet begun to turn into demons were the hardest clamoring creatures to bear. They were sane enough to still understand that there was an alternative to agony. They still ached with the hope of an end to the pain. They grabbed at Castiel, pleaded with him, crying, "Please, oh God, please…" "Mercy… mercy…!"

It caused him great remorse to shake them off and continue his quest deeper into the Pit. There was only one soul here deemed worthy of redemption, and that was the soul of Dean Winchester. Whatever reservations Castiel might have (which he did not admit he did) to turning a blind eye to all the others who were suffering in their singular mission to save one man went unspoken. It was God's command, and that was law.

The angels had been given the 'scent' of Dean Winchester's soul and sent into the fray like a pack of bloodhounds. They were expected to be separated; Hell was too overpowering to keep a battalion together under the onslaught. A garrison of angels locked tight in formation would only make themselves a single and irresistible target to all of the underworld's predators. The angels' only hope would be to scatter and pray that somemade it through the throngs of demons to their target.

Some would die in the attempt, that they'd known from the moment Michael bade them go. While the demons here couldn't die, angels could. Hell found any break in the integrity of an angel's grace and pulled it out like so many miles of intestines. The filament of an angel's very existence would be thrown to the beasts of Satan, where it was devoured. And so an angel died. Lucifer's power had that much sway in Hell.

Others would turn back. There was no shame in that… angels were the mightiest warriors of God, but Hell was unlike any battlefield imaginable. The angelic would never be in a more hostile environment than this. This was beyond even the biblical warfare for which they'd been created, and if no where else, here the angels could be overwhelmed. Every aspect of Hell repelled them, sought them out and tried to tear them apart. And so some angels would flee.

Uriel gave up in the first decade. Balthazar in the second. Raphael in the third. Through all his brothers turning back, Castiel kept going. He felt the same desire to escape this terrible place that his brothers had, but Castiel's tenacity was greater than this repulsion. He would find Dean Winchester.

Hell was a convoluted place, with pockets of misery and pits of torture packed together in a structure reminiscent of porous igneous rock. The deeper Castiel went in his search, the more he relied on hollow caverns coated with blood and bile to hide. His search went from headlong charge to stealth infiltration. The depth and severity of the corruption was suffocating, but Castiel's determination had never been greater. After years of following a vague sense of direction, Dean Winchester's soul was now a distinct homing beacon in his grace. Castiel knew he was finally getting close to him. Nothing could deter him.

The humans were no longer reaching piteously for him as he hunted the bowels of Hell for Dean Winchester. This deep in the Pit, they were all bound and tethered, great chained hooks buried in their concept-flesh. There was no real flesh down here, but those souls that were still human clung to their self-concept of flesh and bone. They knew themselves as flesh and blood, and so it existed to them. Belief made reality, a twisted mockery of faith.

Castiel wanted to tell all of them to abandon the notion of the bodies they'd worn in life. If they didn't imagine themselves as being made of flesh and bones, there'd be no flesh to skin off or bones to break. It would be a different kind of mutilation after that, of course, but maybe less horrifying than seeing their own skin peeled away. Less human, anyway.

The demons had conceptual figures, too. Some became horned beasts, remnants of their mortal understanding of the demonic. Some were visceral representations of death – the rot, the decay, the exposed organs. Some were terrifying creatures without human frame of reference. Some were knots of anger and rage tangled in tissue not quite flesh and nowhere near human. Some of them had no eyes, no hair, no form that held. Those amalgams of pain lashed out at Castiel with tendrils like whips, mouths of razor-sharp teeth opening, gaping from blood-clot-colored tissue to roar at him from several places at once.

Castiel beat them away, burned them when he could manage a firm hold, and soldiered on.

Castiel had a conceptual self-image here, too. Not the one he had of himself as an angel, but a human form he'd chosen. Unburdened with a vessel, he could command his grace to project whatever appearance he wished it to. He chose to look like his living vessel on Earth… Jimmy Novak of Pontiac, Illinois. It was a choice made with a great deal of care. Some of Castiel's brothers and sisters went to Hell alongside him as they were, pure energy and light. Zachariah, perhaps to be contrary, went as a thundering beast with the head of a lion, serpent, falcon, and bull. Balthazar chose a dragon. Castiel chose to appear as a winged Jimmy Novak for two reasons. One – Dean needed to recognize his rescuer as an angel, and he'd been raised in a culture that proliferated the notion of angels looking like humans with wings. Two – should Castiel need to interact with Dean on the mortal plane, it would have to be using a vessel, and this way it would be a face Dean knew… even if he didn't consciously realize it.

His form he chose for Dean's benefit, but it had a profound effect on the hordes of Hell. The stereotypical angel appearance made the human souls even more desperate to get near him. The demons that were still slightly human were furious at his presence. Vindictive at his temerity to appear as a servant of Heaven after the fact, when it was too late for so many of them.

But Castiel kept his form, kept to his mission, and cut a swath through Hell toward Dean.

When Castiel found Dean Winchester, it was not how he expected to come upon the righteous man.

There was a human soul on the rack, and initially Castiel assumed it to be Dean. It took him only a fraction of a second to realize Dean wasn't the victim… he was the creature holding the knife and doing the slicing.

Dean whirled to face Castiel when the angel's grace resonated in the small space, distracting the tormenter from his work. Castiel stopped and considered the soul before him. It was a bright thing, fierce and strong… but damaged. So very, very broken. Strips of it hung from him in tatters, bleeding pain and shame and manic frenzy. Castiel had pushed past many human souls to reach Dean, an untold number of souls in such unimaginable agony that they all began to look alike to the angel, and yet this one shone with an intensity the others had not had. There was potential, but there was miles and fathoms of blackness wrapped around it. A blanket threatening to smother the spark.

Castiel moved toward Dean.

The savage creature crouched and brandished his weapon. Lips curled back to bear blood-stained teeth. Dean's eyes gleamed darkly with madness, confused and tortured beyond reason.

"Dean Winchester… fear not, I've come to save you," Castiel intoned. He reached out a hand, expecting Dean to be like the others. They'd clawed at him and clung to him and begged him to take them. He imagined taking Dean with him would be no more difficult than reaching out a hand and letting Dean take it.

Instead, Dean lashed out at him, slashing wildly with the blade in his hand. A noise escaped him, animalistic and inhuman, a sound that was just as pained as it was enraged. Castiel flinched back, surprised. He hadn't expected the one soul he had permission to save to put up a fight.

"Put down your burden, Dean Winchester, and come with me, for you are redeemed."

The defensive creature was unimpressed. He backed away from Castiel, shaking and slavering like a rabid dog. Castiel followed after him, unsure now of what to do.

Dean snapped and lunged at him, swinging his weapon wildly and screeching a noise that sounded a lot like, "Sam!"

Castiel dodged the strike then quickly knocked the knife away.

Dean screamed.

Distracted from the human he'd come to save, Castiel sensed a powerful demon coming their way. He'd been told that, this deep in the Pit, their greatest foe next to Lucifer himself would be Alistair. Since Castiel would recognize his fallen brother's twisted grace, the beast coming toward them could only be Alistair.

Castiel could either fight or flee. It was his nature to fight – he was the celestial embodiment of God's justice and wrath – but fighting Alistair was not the reason Castiel and his garrison was sent into the Pit. Their only objective was to save Dean Winchester… not mount a holy war against the hordes of Hell.

Making his decision, Castiel reached past Dean's flailing arms and grabbed him on the shoulder.

Dean seized and let loose a hideous scream, while Castiel felt the flesh beneath his touch sizzling. Burning. The way demons burned at an angel's touch.

Surprise and horror made a bitter combination Castiel had never experienced before. But he didn't have time to study the strange cocktail of emotion.

Castiel pulled Dean to him, tightened his hold, and flew.

To Be Continued…