I got within an inch of the Devil when he held up a hand and cried:  “STOP!”

            I barrelled into him at full force nonetheless, hitting him with my shoulder even as he dodged my sword thrust.  We grappled, rolling on the stone floor.  I felt like I was struggling with a tempest, an earthquake, a sea.  A primal force that should have crushed me, had I not been sustained by faith.

            “Astarte!”  Azazel called in desperation, and I heard real fear in his voice.  He knew that he could not get the best of me.  I rolled off of him and bounced to my feet, keeping an eye on the Prince of Lies while preparing for the arrival of the temptress from the desert.

            The ceiling disappeared, and she descended on dark wings to alight beside Azazel, who had risen to his feet.  Her robes were a dusty crimson, with intricate armour on her shoulders and chest.  Her blonde hair streamed out from her helmet. Astarte was lovely and terrible at once.  She threw a form to the floor, another cowering prisoner.

            “I’ve brought her,” Astarte told him.  Her black eyes flicked over me with recognition and hatred before returning to her leader.

            “Good.  Ethan, perhaps you will recognize our guest.  I believe she means something to you.”  Azazel reached down and pulled this unfortunate soul’s hair to force her head up.  I shuddered with anger when I saw her face.

            “Mara!  You leave her alone!”  I brandished my sword, and Azazel made a halting gesture.

            “Stay back, pilgrim!  I cannot touch you, but I can certainly inflict an infinite amount of pain on her.  Keep your distance!”

            I have never felt such anguish.  My beloved was in the hands of humanity’s greatest enemy, when she was meant for the glories of Heaven.  It wasn’t fair.  She had been good and kind for thousands of years, yet one bad moment put her here.  It was just bad timing:  had she lived a little longer, Mara’s love for God would have surely led to repentance for the death of Lamb.  What kind of system was this?  Where was the justice?  The mercy?

            “Let me make you a deal.”  Azazel said.  “Renounce your God, give up your quest, and I will let the two of you live here forever, in luxury.  I can give you anything you want.  Here, I am a god! ”

            He let Mara stay on the floor, and stepped closer to me, speaking smoothly, his words like honey.

            “It isn’t fair, is it?  She is so beautiful, so perfect.  How could God abandon her to this?  How can He say He loves His children, when He leaves them here to rot?  How could a loving God inflict damnation on anyone for all eternity?”

            He smiled at me, and I could feel how charming this demon could be when he wanted to.  “I’m not such a bad guy.  I just have a bad reputation.  God demands obedience, demands worship, demands your constant attention.  I don’t ask for anything – I offer free gifts.  I give people what they want.  Is that so bad?  Can I help it that they want sex and drugs, alcohol and violence?  I’m just catering to the market demand.  But all I want is to help people have a good time.  What’s wrong with offering them that choice?”

            Azazel seemed to think my continuing silence signalled my defeat, for he smiled at Astarte.  Little did they realize that I was thinking, and thinking hard.

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