Ruby Rock

Other submissions by NickSlessor:
If you want to read their other submissions, please click the links.
The Ballad of Bourbon Jones (Contemporary Fiction, Writing Award 2023)
Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Logline or Premise
Singing in a rock band is all thirteen year old Ruby has ever wanted to do, and if only her dad wasn’t Kokabiel, the last of three angels sent to protect the Earth from demons, everything would be fine.
First 10 Pages

Prologue – The Surrogate Souls

1299 AD

The Aztec Empire

The demons are coming, and the great city of Aztalan can do nothing but wait.

The city cascades for miles down the mountainside. Wide streets are lined with plum trees, low stone buildings and large squares surround squat temples. All the way to the lake at the bottom, where a large pyramid rises from stone columns, upwards in great steps from the crystal water. Half a million people fill the streets. Warriors stand in lines by the city gates, faces set in stone. Men and women nervously hold what weapons they have found or made.

Near the very peak of the mountain, stands a single stone structure. A flat topped temple on four levels, with a plain stone doorway sat on top. Wherever the doorway leads is lost in shadow.

Next to it stand two men. Ahuitzotl, the great warrior leader of the city, is bare chested below a headdress made of a human skull and adorned with huge black feathers. His face is painted for battle, and he holds a club lined with obsidian blades. He looks determined. Ferocious.

And Kokabiel, the last of the watchers - angels sent to Earth to protect it from demons who find a way from the Beyond. Glowing faintly with power beneath his grey robe. He is calm but with an anger in his eyes that he makes no attempt to hide. His wings are folded behind his back. Once, there would have been three angels, and Samiaza and Arakiel would have stood with him, but they both fell in love and were forced to return to the Great Garden. There are rules.

They stare at the doorway. The half a million, the great warrior and the watcher angel. Waiting.

From somewhere in the shadows to which the temple doorway leads, there is a growl that sounds like nothing on earth. It echoes with malice down the mountainside and through the streets.

The city seems to briefly shiver. Some turn, some fall to their knees, some cover their ears. But then they all return to their feet, turn back to face the mountain and the door. Stand firm.

Ahuitzotl and Kokabiel look at one another. Ahuitzotl pulls a silver marble from the eye socket of the skull sitting atop his head and holds it in his palm. It reflects the dim light of dusk strangely.

“The eye of Aztalan,” Ahuitzotl growls, “I did not expect to be the one to use it.”

“I hoped you wouldn’t need to,” replies Kokabiel, “I should have been able to close the doorway.” The anger in his voice is directed at himself, “I was too slow.”

Ahuitzotl places a huge hand on the angel’s shoulder. “The doorway should never have been made,” he says simply.

From the shadows there comes a huge roar that sounds as though it is just beyond door.

Ahuitzotl keeps his hand on Kokabiel. “I don’t fear death, Kokabiel, but if the legend is true, when I release the eye, I will lose my soul for a thousand years. Before I reach my final place of rest.”

“I know,” replies Kokabiel, looking Ahuitzotl straight in the eye and seeing no fear.

“And the person to whom I entrust my surrogate soul for those thousand years, will have its power to use, for good or evil.”

Kokabiel shifts uncomfortably, knowing what is coming next.

But it never does.

From the doorway, a demon bursts into the air above them. It looks almost human, only with crimson skin, and evil looking claws. It shoots into the sky on blood red wings and hangs for a moment against the flaming sunset.

“Wait until no more come through,” Kokabiel shouts over his shoulder as he stretches his wings and rises into the sky, “I’ll keep them away from the city.”

And with that he launches himself through the fading light towards the red demon, gathering his power as he flies. The demon, hungrily looking down on the city, sees him too late. Kokabiel hits it in the chest with so much force the shockwaves sweep across the lake far below. It screams in fury and opens its arms to meet the next blow, rippling with strength beneath its skin, half again as big as the angel. Kokabiel folds his wings behind him and twists in the air around the demon’s claws, spinning past it and grabbing it by the back of its neck. He hits the demon once in the back, and then he rips away its dark, edgeless soul. He holds it in front of his face for a moment, before flinging it screaming back towards the doorway, while the body drops to the water far below.

When Kokabiel looks back, he gasps. Hundreds of demons are pouring down the mountain towards the city. Some are swinging huge, evil looking scythes by their sides, and some are bounding along on all fours, venom dripping from their teeth. The one they follow is larger by far. She is such a dark blue she looks black in the twilight. Silver hair falls down her back and drags along the floor behind her. In each hand she holds a huge bone spear, and the tip of one of them is covered in blood.

“There are too many,” Kokabiel whispers to himself.

And then he sees Ahuitzotl.

He sits on the first step of the pyramid, eyes wide in disbelief, clutching at the deadly wound in his chest.

“No,” shouts Kokabiel in horror, reaching out towards his friend. He starts to fly back to him, and then glances down again at the flood of demons about to reach the city. They look at each other for a moment, both knowing there is no time. Ahuitzotl nods once. Kokabiel shouts out in frustration and then drops from the sky towards the edge of the city, just as the demons arrive.

The warriors of Aztalan pour from the city gates, screaming in defiance.

“Go back,” Kokabiel shouts desperately as they fall in behind him, looking at their clubs and spears and knowing they can do nothing against the immortal demons.

The first demon leaps for him, wolf-like jaws snapping towards his throat. He blocks it with one of his great wings, and in a single movement he flings it away with a burst of pure energy from one hand and rips the black soul from its body with the other.

He turns to the warriors, but he can see from their faces that they aren’t going to go back.

“If we don’t stop them, who will?” growls a raven haired woman with red face paint. Her eyes are full of terror, but she hefts a spear and flings it towards the huge blue demon anyway.

The demon catches the spear inches from her face and studies it for a moment. She gives a deadly laugh and beckons the rest of the demons on. In a few strides they descend howling on Kokabiel and the warriors.

With a mighty burst of power, Kokabiel hurls a pack of them screeching into the air. He leaps upwards after them, and before any of them hit the ground he grasps a handful of feathers from his great wings and flings them one after another, tearing a dark soul from a body with each one he hits. One great poisoned claw swipes for his neck as he stabs a feather into the demons chest. He gasps in relief as it misses by a hair’s breadth. He twists mid-air, folds his wings behind him, and falls onto the blue demon as she scythes her way through the ranks of warriors with her bone spears.

He crashes into her, knocking her to the ground and landing on one knee in front of her. She climbs to her feet with a snarl, snapping her teeth at him furiously. He stands tall, stretching his wings wide and glowing with energy.

“Say hello to the pit of hell for me,” he says, building his power. She looks over his shoulder and smiles.

“I don’t think so, angel,” she hisses.

He spins around, realising he is surrounded by demons three or four or five deep, and the sounds of screaming men and women fill the air beyond.

It is hopeless against so many, and his face drops for a second. The demon laughs again.

“You will be overpowered,” she says drooling at the thought, “and then we will feast on this city. And then the next. And then the next after that.”

Kokabiel pulls a gleaming silver sword from somewhere beneath his cloak. He glares at the demon, and he knows that she can see the desperation in this face. He can see it reflected back from her pitch black eyes. He shouts out in frustration. They close in on him, step by step, until he can smell their sickly breath. He crouches, preparing to fight until his last.

Then from the battle comes a roar that stops him, and a four-legged demon tumbles through the air, landing at the feet of the blue demon. It gets to its feet growling, with an obsidian bladed club still sticking from its back.

Kokabiel recognises the club.

Ahuitzotl somehow pushes past the demons surrounding Kokabiel and falls face down on the floor with an awful cry of pain. He stretches out his bloodied hand towards Kokabiel. The eye of Aztalan lies in his palm, glowing brightly in the evening dark.

“I entrust you with our souls, Kokabiel,” he whispers, so quiet he can barely be heard above the battle.

“What do you mean our souls?” asks Kokabiel, kneeling next to his friend. But it is too late.

The explosion hurls him into the air, a tumbling ball of feathers lighting up the sky and crashing, already unconscious, into the great pyramid of the lake.

When he wakes, coughing air thick with dust and smoke, all is quiet. Thousands of tiny lights fill the night sky, bobbing in the air like tiny stars, across the lake, scattered over city, all the way up the mountain. With their silver glow, he can see that Aztalan lies in ruins. The streets are filled with collapsed buildings and flattened trees. The pyramid on top of the mountain is no more than rubble, and the doorway is gone.

The streets are empty. The demons are gone, and so are the people. He reaches out for anyone, but there are so few survivors. Maybe ten. Maybe less.

He stands for a moment, taking it in, and then falls to his knees weeping.

“Michael,” he sobs toward the sky, “Shamsiel! Sariel! Why didn’t you help?”

There is no reply.

After a while, his crying subsides and he realises that the stars are moving towards him, He stands on top of the half ruined pyramid staring at the lights that surround him. And then he realises what Ahuitzotl meant. The legend was right, but the eye of Aztalan destroyed the whole city and left their souls. He shakes his head slowly.

“No, it can’t be,” he whispers to himself, falling to his knees.

It is a long time before he stands and accepts what he has been given

Half a million souls.

Part 1: In London

Ruby kept her head down as she walked, the collars of her jacket pulled up close around her ears. The heavy, rain-soaked material hung from her skinny frame like wet dogs’ fur and the collar rubbed painfully against her black skull ear rings.

Ruby had always loved the rain. A girl could keep her head down all day long and no one would bother her. In a storm, important things get done quickly and unimportant things are left until tomorrow.

This particular storm was unseasonal and unexpected though, and Ruby had no appetite for wet clothes tonight.

She paused for a moment under the sagging awnings of the newsagents as the rain thundered down and pretended to consider buying the local paper. There was a story about a camel wandering through Islington and Ruby smiled at the thought of it clipping down the street amongst the weekend shoppers.

She checked to make sure no-one was looking, and then swept her hand down from the top of her head to her ankles, flicking the air away towards the floor. As she did, the water squeezed from her clothes and her hair and her skin, until she was bone dry with a pool of water at her feet. She looked around again and ruffled her blue spiky hair with a vaguely guilty expression on her face. She shook her head and tutted to herself as she turned away towards Upper Street and The Sandalphon Music Hall, as if she had just done something that she wished she hadn’t.

“Special occasion,” she muttered under her breath.

She smiled in relief when she saw the ragged line of kids snaking away from The Sandalphon Music Hall, past St Mary’s church and almost as far as the drowned tarpaulins of the outdoor market. Spikes and mohawks every colour of the rainbow wilted in the rain, but the energy of the crowd still crackled. One short, red headed girl in a denim jacket covered with patches had a speaker hanging from her backpack and the song screamed out over the sound of the storm. Ruby hadn’t expected as many people for a second gig. When they sound-checked an hour ago the place was empty. She clenched a fist in her pocket in silent celebration.

She crossed the road from the dark of the graveyard across from St Mary’s. A bat swooped down through the rain overhead, to a chorus of squeals and shouts. It landed on the guttering around the illuminated dome of The Sandalphon and shook its wings. Some of the kids looked up and tried to hurry the queue along away from its gaze, and others laughed at them. Ruby didn’t laugh. The bat wasn’t looking at them; it was glaring straight down at her from its perch, chattering angrily. She never got used to the interest that mother nature took in her. It was one of the quirks of her heritage, but she didn’t like bats any more than most people. If Dad had been here, the bat wouldn’t have come within a mile of him. Bats definitely did not like angels – or their daughters it seemed.

Ruby tugged at her lip ring as she walked along the queue. She hated being reminded that she was different. She didn’t want to be an angel. She hated angels. Except her dad of course and she would be a lot happier if he wasn’t one either.

No, she wasn’t an angel; she just happened to be an angel’s daughter, which was different.

She slipped around the corner and down the side of the hall to the old, hidden side door. It squealed on its black iron hinges as Ruby heaved it open, emerging into a dark corridor between the stage and the backstage rooms of the dark and sticky concert hall. She breathed in the stale dry ice and smoke as though it was perfume. She loved this place. She slid the bolt back, grateful that Sam had left it open for her as promised and paused for a second, listening to the chatter through the half-open door of the backstage room. She spotted Sam crouched on the side of the stage and headed over. His new ink black bass guitar, which he never let out of his sight, leant against his legs. He shoved his duffle bag out of the way, beckoning her to sit next to him.

“Nice night for it,” he laughed, as Ruby sat down and pulled her jacket off her shoulders. Ruby replied with a grimace. She briefly panicked that he was going to ask why she wasn’t soaking wet, but he either didn’t notice or didn’t care. His black mohawk stood dry and proud, but then he didn’t have to go out in the rain. Ever since he ran away from his most recent foster family, Sam had slept in a hidden old storage room upstairs in the Music Hall. He was a couple of years older than Ruby and the rest of the band, and sometimes it felt like having a big brother who was always looking out for her. The others thought that living in secret above a music hall would be awesome, but Ruby thought it just sounded lonely.

“At least it didn’t stop people coming,” he said, nodding towards the dancefloor.

He was right. Beyond the stage, underneath the ancient brass chandelier that didn’t work, a crowd was building, and a noisy one at that. Ruby felt the same nervous energy she remembered from the last gig and smiled.

“There are twice as many as the first gig already,” she said, “and there’s still a queue all the way up the street. It will be packed for the headliners.”

Sam reached for his battered old phone and took a picture, while Ruby scanned the crowd carefully.

“He here yet?” Sam asked.

Ruby looked for a moment longer, as if she wouldn’t be able to spot her dad instantly in any crowd.uh

“Doesn’t look like it,” she said with a put-on smile, and then looked away back towards the crowd, twisting her lip ring between her fingers.

“Maybe he’ll sneak in when we’re on so no-one sees him?” Sam offered. Which was exactly the kind of thing her dad would do. He didn’t like being recognised at the best of times, never mind in a crowd.

“No,” she said shaking her head, “he’s not going to come. I haven’t seen him for two days.”

“Ah,” said Sam, “Sorry. I thought he told you he was going to come this time.”

“He did, or he said he’d try at least.” She sighed heavily. “We had a big fight again before he left, which was probably all my fault. I don’t know if he’d come even if he could now.”

“Again? What was it about this time? Or shouldn’t I ask?” said Sam.

“You shouldn’t ask,” she replied with a sigh. “The annoying thing is, we’d had such a good day. We talked about Ruby Rock, and I told him singing in a band was really and truly what I want to do. And then…”

And then he mentioned them. The angels. Shamsiel and Sariel. That he had to go away just for a day or two, and he was sure he’d be back in time. And so she’d flown into a temper like she always did.

“…and then we had a fight and I said things I really wish I hadn’t. And called him some names. And broke some stuff.”

She could feel the heat rising up her neck as she remembered and pulled her collars up to her chin. She didn’t know whether to be mad or sorry right now, but she did know two things; that she wanted nothing more than to see him in the crowd, and that he wasn’t going to be there. She settled on being mad. “He’s always got something more important to do than watch his angry daughter on stage.”

She took a deep breath and stood. She gave her bag a kick and then regretted it as it splashed water up her jeans. Sam tried not to laugh, unsuccessfully, and then regretted it when Ruby shot him a death stare. He put his arm over Ruby’s shoulder as he stood.

“Hey Monster, are you ready?” he shouted to a girl stood near the back of the stage, staring intently at the bundle of wires cascading from the back of a desk. Her real name was Monica, but she was such a ball of energy when she was making music, behind her drum machine and pads, and the decks and laptops and interfaces. She had a pair of huge black headphones half hidden in her crazy afro, and a pair of drumsticks sticking out of a rip in her jeans. She gave them the devils horns, and then turned to a camera high up on a tripod looking down towards the stage and clicked on a mouse.

“Hey everyone, big news. Ruby is in the building,” she said in her usual excited way, “looks like Ruby Rock are ready to…. Rock! We’re streaming any minute so get on and spread the word. The link to our page is up there somewhere.”

She gestured in to the air above her head happily and then clicked the mouse again.

Ruby grinned. Monster’s energy was contagious. Ruby suspected the reason their social was growing so fast was more to do with Monster’s full-speed posts than the music.

“Hey there Ruby Tuesday,” said an almost-as-excited Australian accent from behind them, “about time. Have you seen the crowd? Half of the school’s here.”

Eric fist bumped Sam then Ruby, flashing her possibly the whitest smile on the planet.

“Half of London’s here,” Sam said, “Word must have got out about those knee slides!”

“Or they heard about the freak with the mohawk and came to get a picture,” said Eric with a smile.

Sam laughed back, “Maybe. Just try not so scare them off by playing out of tune again this time,” he replied.

Eric’s face dropped. “No one noticed,” he snapped, “and it was only one song.”

Ruby pushed Sam in the chest. “That’s not fair and you know it,” she told him.

Eric was already an amazing guitar player. He was fourteen, a year older than Ruby and Monster, but he played like he had been learning for twenty years. Sometimes Ruby wished she had his self-confidence, and sometimes she wished he wasn’t so cocky. Either way, between him and Monster, there was always plenty of energy around Ruby Rock.

Ruby strummed his guitar as she pushed past him to get a final look at the crowd. “He’s only winding you up,” she said, “It’s like having two brothers in the band sometimes.”

“No-one would ever mistake us for brothers,” laughed Eric.

Sam pushed Eric away as he stood on his toes and rustled his mohawk, “We agree on that,” he said.

“Here comes Foxy,” said Ruby, gesturing behind Sam.

Mr Fox, the larger-than-life owner of The Sandalphon Music Hall strode across the stage towards them, face red as beetroot and eyes bulging. Erupting out of his clothes in every direction, Ruby thought that he couldn’t be less like a fox if he tried.

He looked at each of them in turn, stopping for moment on Eric who was practicing his one-knee guitar solo pose.

“Hey – I was just stretching,” said Eric with a pained expression on his face and exaggerating reaching up to the ceiling.

“Are you ready?” he asked Ruby.

Ruby glanced at Monster who had joined them on the side of the stage. Monster gave her a thumbs up.

“Ready as I’ll ever be, and we’ve got over a hundred waiting for the stream to start.”

“OK Mikey. Let’s get this show going,” Mr Fox said, tapping his headset. Almost immediately the lights dimmed. “Good luck,” he told them, patting Sam on the shoulder, and disappeared into the dark.

A few of the crowd cheered and clapped enthusiastically as first Sam and then the rest of the band, walked onstage. The lights dimmed and the crowd quietened.

Ruby spotted a group from school and smiled at them. And then she screamed “1,2,3,4” and Eric and Sam leapt in the air in unison, and Mike smashed on the lights as planned, and “Your Daily Rock” kicked in.

The first song was intended to be the perfect introduction to Ruby Rock. Big, loud, punky guitars, a buzz of drum loops and samples that would make a corpse want to dance, all wrapped up around a chorus that sticks in your head like glue. Only today the excitement got the better of them and it was too quick and too loud and way to loose. Sam stared desperately at Monster the whole way through. She’d somehow managed to play the drum loop at the wrong speed, but she either didn’t notice, or had just decided it was too late to change and was now desperately trying to keep up on the decks.

Eric finally realised that he was getting carried away when he spotted two girls smirking at his second knee slide, and Ruby saw the confidence slip a little from his face. This wasn’t going as well as she had imagined. She could feel the tension in her stomach and the heat rising up her neck

She turned to the band. “Guy’s, what’s going on?” she hissed over the humming of the speakers, “we sound like we’ve never played before. Even I wouldn’t listen to us!”

No-one replied.

“Can you slow down please so I can keep up?” she snapped at Monster, and then turned to Eric, “and can you just concentrate on playing guitar instead of showing off?”

Eric looked like he was about to reply, and then thought better of it. Sam patted him on the shoulder. “Wise,” he said.

There was a whistle from the crowd. “You finished already?” someone shouted.

“Come on, let’s enjoy it,” said Sam, and he turned back to the crowd and started picking out the start to “Dangerous” - at the right tempo. It was their best song and good enough to get a few more people up to the front. Ruby was still feeling angry - at the band for starting the gig so badly, and at herself for shouting at them. At her dad for not being there. She threw the anger it into her singing, and she could see people nodding along as she snarled through the last chorus. At the end of it, they got their first real applause of the night.

For the next ten minutes, Ruby Rock gave everything they had. Ruby sang until her throat hurt, and Mikey the soundman gave them a little extra volume normally saved for the headliners. It wasn’t the perfect second gig, but they won a few of the crowd over.

Ruby looked around the stage as the last notes of the song rang out. Monster looked like she had just run a marathon, sweat dripping from her forehead and her smiley bones t-shirt soaked. But she had a grin on her face and Ruby smiled back. Eric, checking his tuning, also looked exhausted but wide eyed.

Ruby glanced across at Sam, expecting him to be his usual composed self, but he was far from it. He was stood just out of a spotlight, his bulky silhouette hard to make out clearly. He was scanning the crowd intently, obviously looking for something. They were paying attention to the band now, and most looked as though they were having a good time. A few at the front had been dancing and were catching their breath. Then Ruby realised what had Sam’s attention wasn’t a person, but a noise. It was so quiet at first that she thought it was just the speakers making some weird feedback, but as it got louder it sounded more and more like voices wailing. They sounded like they were in pain - in fact they sounded like they were in agony. And there were lots and lots of them.

Ruby and Sam looked at each other. He stepped into the light, his forehead creased like he was in pain. Others in the crowd were now hearing it and looking around, covering their ears as it got louder and trying to work out where it was coming from. The group of girls Ruby recognised from school were shouting at Mikey to turn it off, but he was covering his ears and looking as confused as everyone else. Some of them had started crying. One boy fell to his knees with his arms wrapped around his head.

Ruby glanced upwards and saw someone. Up on the small balcony to the right of the stage, a little away from anyone else. Smartly dressed and out of place in a dark, slim suit jacket with shiny buttons and a collar up around his neck. An androgynous face - smooth and almost pretty – with a perfect half smile. But trouble, definitely trouble.

He slowly raised his arms into the air at his side, his palms pointing towards the stage. He was looking directly at Ruby and there was a flicker behind his eye, briefly. A spark, as though under his skin there were flames. He muttered something and Ruby felt a breath of air on her neck like someone stood just behind her, whispering in her ear. She began to shiver and found herself gasping for breath.

The noise was getting louder and more terrible. Piercing screams cut short that made Ruby’s blood run cold.

She glanced away to see if anyone else had noticed the man, and when she looked back, he was gone.

And then the stage exploded.