It smelled like burned meat and ash. Blood dripped down the stone walls into a neverending pool of blood. Pieces of serpents and entrails and worms from the demons who had the unlucky fortune to get caught in the deepest part of Hell bubbled in the vast, still lake of red.
The Cage was perhaps too mild a term for it.
It was the Pit. Milton's visions of it had not even come close.
Close to him the corpse of an angel hung on a hook, it's grace sucked out, half the feathers gone from its wings…an angel Castiel knew. The campaign into Hell often resulted in this when an unlucky sibling neared too close to the edge of the Pit, and was dragged by demons down into it. He said a silent prayer for the dead. But he could not afford to waste time. If Sam was still alive…if his soul was, if a cell of his body still existed, then Castiel had to find him.
He ventured deeper into the Cage, Half-disguised in his vessel's body and half in his true form, swathed in shadow to hide the shine of his Grace, his wings beating silently through the thick cloying air.
He felt uneasy. He had not expected silence. Where were the flames and the battles of the two great Archangels? Where was the clash of those two great beings, destroying each other? Had the fight already ended?
Amid the piles of bone and half-rotted flesh and the corpses of demons and angels, something caught his eye. A half-scorched piece of recently torn flesh. He looked up to the top of the hill and his heart sank. It was the scorched, ripped-up corpse of Adam, a hole burned through his chest from Michael bursting loose from his vessel. The body was nothing more than a pile of charred flesh, but Castiel knew at once who it was. Adam was dead…inside the broken ribcage of the corpse it still smoked where Adam's soul had been consumed by Lucifer and Michael's battle.
Castiel almost stopped right there, shaking, his conscience wavering. What help was there for Sam now? He had already failed. He alit lightly on the pile of remains, studying the mangled corpse of Adam, kneeling down, closing his eyes and sending another prayer. It was a foolish and pointless thing to do, a bitter part of him whispered. His Father was gone, and he was orphaned; there was no one to hear his prayers. Still he prayed, swallowing hard.
Father…lay to rest this soul, that he might have peace at last…if you can hear me, restore him, bring him to you, and right this terrible wrong.
"Father," he whispered aloud. "Help me find Sam. Please."
Castiel swallowed hard, gripping his sword, knuckles white. He would find Sam. He would, if he had to ask Lucifer where he was. With a barely perceptible movement of air, Castiel's wings beat through the air, his eyes searching endlessly for a clue, any clue, as to the whereabouts of Sam.
Castiel pushed past the branches of a dead, twisted tree that grew from the filth and slime, then stopped as something caught his eye. A shred of fabric clung to one of the brittle branches, and Castiel pulled it off the tree to look at it more closely.
A piece of plaid flannel, half-soaked in blood, and stuck to the dark stain a few strands of long brown hair.
Castiel closed his fist around the torn shred, his jaw tightening, and closed his eyes.
He ventured ever deeper into the Cage, his fist still closed around the shred of bloody plaid. He knew he was getting closer when he heard the distant thundering and bloodcurdling sounds of Michael and Lucifer in battle. It was a terrible sound, them tearing at each other. But he could not keep them from destroying each other. They had chosen their fates. And for now, embattled, it meant that maybe, just maybe, he had a chance to get Sam out.
Castiel was almost giving up hope of finding Sam when he saw a shaft of light fall on a twisted human form hanging from a hook, above one of the many piles of death and decay that rose out of the lake. Castiel looked around, making sure that he hadn't been seen, then made his way slowly forward.
Castiel had seen Dean in hell before…but it had been nothing like this…angel though he was, Castiel hadn't been prepared for this.
Sam's soul still pulsed with a faint glow inside his chest, lighting up the ribcage and making the sigils that Castiel had carved into his ribs visible. A hook in his shoulder and his rib kept him suspended over the lake of blood. He was unresponsive and frighteningly still. Castiel couldn't see his chest expanding to breathe… his ribcage had been torn open, muscles ripped through, legs shreds of tendons over bone, one arm ripped off…skinned alive. A body and mind ravaged, unraveled, and undone.
What was one soul?
To Lucifer, not much. Sam was to him at best a parasite, his wrath directed toward his avatar a product of what Sam stood for. For most other demons, the worth of a soul was what could be bought by it. To humans it meant more, but still one soul was like a cell dying where billions waited to replace it. But to Castiel…a soul was like a light in the dark; a candle to light a treacherous path. An angel saw in a soul all endings and all beginnings of that life, intersecting, and through it, what God had in mind when he had created each one.
Castiel looked up at the boy's torn face, pushed the blood-damp hair away from it, putting a hand under his chin and raising his head. His eyelashes were still wet with tears. Like some puppeteer's cruel joke, he hung there, unaware of Castiel's nearness. His skin was cold with death.
Castiel concentrated and put his hand toward Sam's exposed ribcage, reaching out with his mind to the tiny light trapped inside.
When he finally rested his hand over Sam's heart, a horrible pain seared through Castiel's body that knocked the breath out of him. The echo of what he had heard and seen was still in his mind…a sound of screaming.
Castiel recoiled, almost falling into the depths of the congealing lake below, but his reflexes caught him in time, air giving him just enough lift under his wings to stay balanced.
Castiel breathed in roughly, almost letting out a cry of pain himself. He fell to his knees hard, cracking his leg against an old skull in the small pile of rock and filth that rose out of the lake beneath Sam.
The sound that Sam's soul made had invaded his mind and wouldn't leave, and for a moment Castiel knelt, shaking from the pain of it, paralyzed.
But it started to fade, and when he could bear it, Castiel looked up at Sam, suspended and still but for the silent cries in Castiel's head.
All of time he had watched the earth, and had seen generations born, live, and die; empires come and go. He had seen terrors and strife, and murder, and suffering…he had seen it always from Heaven, where, sterilized, it had little effect.
Suddenly Castiel realized how much he had been changed by two small lives, that to any other angel would seem pitiful and insignificant. He remembered now his ambivalence when Anna had assigned him to watch over and protect two small boys who, he was told, would one day be important. It had been his soldier's duty, and though he'd grown to pity their sad lives, they had only been lives then, two in billions.
Then, after rescuing Dean, and seeing them face-to-face, they had become his friends, or at least he told himself so.
But that had been seeing through a clouded glass, and now he had seen a glimpse of what it meant to be human.
Sam hadn't felt Castiel's presence, no more than a blind man could see someone standing in another room.
Was there anything left of Sam in that empty flesh? If Castiel got him out, he could restore Sam's broken body, though it would take a great deal of power out of him.
But putting back together his soul…
Castiel had saved Dean Winchester. But Dean's soul, though twisted and tortured, was still intact.
Sam's soul was not. Its gleam was sickly and poisoned; Cas could feel it straining to keep from collapsing in on itself.