“Get away from him!”  She slashed with her glowing blade, but the demons only laughed, hovering just out of reach.  She dared not chase them to attack, for if she took the time to deal with one, another would land atop the boy while she was distracted and begin whispering malicious words into his ear for his soul to feed upon.  There were thirteen again, a cackling and chortling flock of evil imps smelling of brimstone and the most vile kinds of garbage.

            They had been walking home from school when the boy got nervous.  He had to walk alone, even though he was only six years old, for his parents were busy working.  It was not a very far walk, and through safe neighbourhoods, so they had thought that he would be fine on his own.  But, being young, occasionally he got frightened while he was by himself.

            As soon as the fear set in, the demons appeared from the shadows under parked cars or trees.  They flew in a chaotic whirlwind about Mara and the boy, slashing at her with their claws and screaming obscenities.  She fought back, but they stayed just out of her reach.

            “Leave us alone!”  She screamed at them, frustrated by their taunts and her inability to stop them without placing the child at risk.  “Go away!”

            “We have every right to be here, child.”  A familiar voice said.  She looked with rage to her left to see Azazel standing in the shadow of a parked van.  He was leaning against it casually, as if he had been waiting for her to pass by.  As the boy continued to walk, the demons followed while Azazel fell into step with the entourage.

            “You have no right, he is under my protection!  Come near him and die, I don’t care how powerful you’re supposed to be…”  She growled, incensed by his presence.

            “Easy, girl.  I’m not here to fight with you.  I’m not here to hurt the boy, either.  You’re fully within your rights to protect him from physical harm.  A few months ago, when we tried to get him to fall, you prevented it.  That’s your job, and you performed it well, considering you were outnumbered.  You can’t blame a demon for trying to do his job, though, can you?”  He smiled, “But, if we’re not trying to hurt him, you have no right to attack us.”

            “You think their words don’t hurt him just as much?”  She gestured angrily at the horde flying around them, now grinning because their master was here.  They cackled madly, hurling curses her way.

            “Sticks and stones may break his bones, girl, but words…”

            “I’ll not be deceived by the likes of you.  You’re trying to convince me to let you hurt him, and I won’t fall for it.”  She brandished her blade at him.  The demons cautiously backed up a little: in their excitement they had allowed themselves to drift dangerously close to the gorgeous angel and her shiny sword.

            “No deception.  I speak truth.”  Azazel assured her.

            “Hah!  As if I would trust the word of a faithless demon.”  She contemplated bursting right through the cordon of imps to strike their leader, and then return for his subordinates if she survived the encounter.  It sounded crazy, but just possibly crazy enough to work.  Maybe.

            “This time he does speak truth, Mara.”  She turned to see me, Gambiel and Raguel descending from Heaven upon our radiant wings to land in the street.  The demons about her and the boy moved back again, worried now that the angel presence had quadrupled.  These odds weren’t nearly as much fun.

            “Father?  What’s going on?”  She asked, obviously confused to see us there.

            “It has been brought to my attention that you have been acting in a manner contrary to the regulations of the Host of Heaven, young lady.”  Raguel said in his brisk, official way.  “I am most disappointed.  This breach of proper conduct is very distressing.  I expected better from the daughter of an archangel.”  Here he had the audacity to turn his disappointed gaze my way for a moment.

            “What?”  She said, more perplexed than ever.  “What regulation?  What are you talking about?”

            “Regulation three dash fourteen from the Guardian Angel Handbook states quite clearly: ‘Any member of the party of the first part, or a designated agent thereof, is to allow the party of the second part, or any designated agents thereof, to have access to the party of the third part for matters pertaining to spiritual instruction, life decisions, moral dilemmas or any other point in time whereby the party of the third part makes a volitional choice as to the manner in which they choose to live their life while incarnate upon the earthly plane.’  You are clearly in direct violation of this rule, and I will not stand for it.”  Raguel said, reading from a scroll that then disappeared up his white sleeve.

            “Oh, that’s very clear.”  Mara said, her voice loaded with sarcasm.  “I still have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about!”

            “I don’t think I appreciate your tone, young lady.  You will address me with the respect due one of my rank, or I will have you brought up on charges of insubordination as well as this censure for a break from standard protocol.”  Raguel snapped sharply, chiding my daughter.

            “Perhaps I can explain, dear one.”  I intervened, speaking as calmly as I could, understanding Mara’s confusion and yet understanding the regulations, too, having followed them myself for thousands of years.

            “We have necessary rules, drawn up when demons and angels began vying for influence over the souls of men.”  I began, trying to explain.  “Without them we would be in constant conflict, at war all the time.  This way there is some peace before the final war, although we do fight battles here and there, where necessary, when one side or another seems to have gained an unfair advantage.”

            “And you have been continuously breaking Regulation three dash fourteen.”  Gambiel said.  “I’ve been submitting reports on your behaviour for months.  As the Watcher assigned to this creature, it was my duty.  Raguel wanted to wait until you were actually in the middle of committing such a dereliction of duty before confronting you, so that you would be caught red-handed and forced to see the error of your ways.”

            “You see, Mara, you’re allowed to protect your charge from harm, as the field operative that I’ve given Guardian authority to, but you’re also supposed to allow these demons to have access to him.”  I said.

            “What!  No way!  They’re evil, malicious, spiteful children of Hell!  I’m not letting them anywhere near him…”  She began to get angry again.

            “I’m afraid you have to, dear niece.”  Azazel grinned.  “It’s in the rules.  So sorry.”

            “But why?”  She asked me, imploring me with her eyes to explain how something that seemed so hurtful could be required.  I understood her loyalty to the boy all too well, and her desire to prevent the demons from going near him, but I had to follow orders, and so did she.

            “Mortals have the gift of choice from God.  Volition, free will, call it whatever you like.”  I told her.  “It means that they can choose between good and evil for themselves.  You are the force for good in the boy’s life, and so am I, and Gambiel.  Any other angel that got assigned would also try to help out.  Demons are there to present the path of evil, so that humans can choose.  If they never have that choice, they might as well be golems or robots, doing God’s will because that was the only thing to do, instead of doing it because they wanted to.  It’s His greatest gift to the ephemerals, and you’ve effectively been taking it away from the boy by defending him all the time.  He has to learn to face those challenges himself, wrestle with the attacks on his conscience in his own way.”

            “So I’m supposed to let them talk to him, whispering their evil words?”  She asked, incredulous.

            “Yes, I’m afraid so.  How else will he face tribulation and learn endurance from it, strengthening his soul through the conflict?”  I said.  “If he is to serve God, he’s going to need all the strength he can get, you can’t always fight his battles for him.”

            My words were getting to her, for she put her sword away, albeit reluctantly.  She bowed her head in resignation.  “I guess I understand, but I’m not happy about it.”

            “I’m surprised you don’t know the regulation.  Did you not complete your training?”  Raguel asked. 

            “I had no idea that there was any regulation at all.  I’m sorry.”

            “Well, this puts a new light on things.”  Gambiel said to his superior.  “She was ignorant of the rules themselves and not acting in direct disobedience of them.  Perhaps the usual charges are not necessary here, and the usual disciplinary actions can be set aside.”  He suggested to Raguel.  I looked at him in surprise, for he seemed sympathetic to Mara and her plight.

            “I will have to speak with Jeremiah, for he was in charge of her education.”  Raguel said, “But if it turns out he overlooked the Handbook, well, I suppose that counts as extenuating circumstances.  I will perhaps be forced to find a disciplinary action suited for his breach of conduct, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.  Young lady, if I find that you were innocently ignorant, and you had better hope that I do, then your only punishment will be to read and memorize the Handbook itself.”

            “That’s all?”  She said, surprised.

            “No.  Unfortunately, you’ll be forced to watch your charge fall under the influence of these demons and their ilk.  Unless, of course, his will is stronger than most humans.  That, however, is a normal occurrence in the field work of angels.  But, knowing how intimate your relationship with this ephemeral, that’s going to hurt you, and is probably punishment enough.”  Gambiel explained.

            “That’s something I’ve been wondering about,” Raguel said, looking at me, “How is it that she is the only field operative assigned?  I thought I had you change the orders so that shifts rotated?  That was several millennia ago, but that’s standard procedure, is it not?”

            “We had direct orders from the Throne that Gambiel was to observe from Heaven, and Mara was to work in the field.  I have guardian duties, but she fulfils that role here for me, allowing me to do other work unless needed for extreme emergencies.”  I explained.  “I’m certain that I sent you the proper paperwork on his birthing day.  Check your files.”

            “Thank you, I will.  Now, we must be going.”  Raguel turned to leave, his wings spreading behind him as he walked up the street.  Gambiel began to follow, nodding at me and Mara before taking off.  I stayed behind, standing beside Mara and facing Azazel.  The boy had finally reached his home and gone inside, so we could stop walking and stand to speak.  The demons were hovering around the house like an excited flock of crows or vultures, some of them staring in windows.  They were waiting for us to leave, I was sure.

            “Well, how do you like that?”  Azazel said, smiling devilishly and rubbing his hands together.  “We now have permission to molest your precious boy.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  He’s ours now.”

            Mara grimaced.  Then, strangely, she smiled.  “We’ll see.  He’s stronger than you think.”

            “You do realize that we will torment you and the child as often as possible now?  You’ll slowly wear down, your defences will lower, you’ll get exhausted, frustrated, angry…  We’ll beat you.”  He gestured, and his demons entered the house, shrieking with delight.

            “We’ll see.”  Mara said again, smugly.  The demons suddenly burst from every possible exit of the house as if an explosion had ejected them from the building, pushing them away from the boy like a powerful wind tossing leaves in a storm.

            “What in the Devil’s name is going on?”  Azazel demanded as one of his demons fell at our feet.  The ugly little creature grimaced in pain and lifted itself off the ground gingerly.

            “Boy don’t want us.”  It grumbled, it’s voice deep and guttural.  “We had him for a moment, lots of darkness in his heart to feed on, but he threw us off.  He fought the dark, so light,” His eyes squinted in remembrance, as if reflexively experiencing the pain again, “The light expelled us.  The boy loves too much.”

            “So try again, and keep trying!”  Azazel barked orders at them, clearly upset that his plans weren’t working already.  The demons shivered with revulsion as they neared the house, but followed his commands and went in.

            “Looks like you have your work cut out for you.”  I said to the infuriated fallen angel.  I turned to my daughter and smiled.  “Mara, if there’s anything you need, let me know.”

            “Thanks, Dad, but I think we’ll be just fine.”  She was almost laughing, obviously pleased that her boy was so easily dealing with the demons himself, and probably without even knowing that they were there.

            “So do I.”  I agreed.

            I unfurled my wings and leapt into the air.  As I flew off, I looked back and saw the little demons tossed from the house again, Azazel shouting at them in exasperation.  I laughed and then turned towards Heaven.

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