by Silke Juppenlatz
Ashriel stood in the hallway, bathed in the serene light shining down on him.
He’d screwed up. Big time.
Michael came walking out of a room to the left and jerked his head at him. “Walk with me.”
There wasn’t really any choice, so Ash fell into step beside him.
“What happened down there?”
As if he didn’t already know. “I went after a mischief demon. Things went a little...wrong.”
“A little? Those oaks were important, the town is named after them. Now all they have left are five stumps, and you say it went a little wrong?” Michael grimaced. “Why did you burn them?”
He hadn’t done it on purpose. “I miscalculated the air density and my landing wasn’t...well, soft.” No, he’d hit the ground like a bomb, leaving an angel-shaped imprint behind, as well as enough feathers to stuff a duvet. “The demon laughed at me, so I tried to smite him.” Ash cringed. His aim could have been better. “I hit one of the oaks, instead.”
“You smited the oak, instead of the demon?”
Well. When he put it that way... “I guess so.”
Nothing betrayed Michael’s thoughts. The angel just kept walking. “Then what?”
“I tried to put it out, but I flapped my wings to keep from singeing them, and the second tree went up. The third was the demon’s fault, he burned it.” Laughing like a loon. Ash could have sworn the beast nearly had an aneurism, he’d laughed so hard. “You know how it is. Fight fire with fire.”
“Yes. That’s three. What about the fourth?”
Ash wanted to sink into the ground. “I missed,” he muttered under his breath.
“Speak up. You did what?”
“Missed.” God save him. Michael’s expression couldn’t possibly get any more thunderous. “My aim isn’t great.”
“What about the fifth oak?”
“Demon burned it. Taunted me from the remains of the first two oaks, so I blasted him to Hell.” And it had felt so good. But angelic rage tended to manifest itself in rather destructive ways, and instead of sending the minion to Hell, he’d disintegrated him in the center of the burning oaks.
Michael’s eyes narrowed. “That’s not what I heard.”
“I might have blasted him a bit too hard. He soaked into the ground,” Ash admitted. He was so going to do duty in Purgatory for the rest of his existence.
“You poisoned the ground, on top of burning the oaks?”
Yeah, he had. Nothing would grow there, ever again. Ash shrugged, not sure how to answer.
“Are you remorseful?”
“Of course I am! I didn’t mean to destroy the trees, or the ground they stand on.” How could Michael think he’d purposely wreaked havoc in the little town? “I couldn’t fix it.”
“I know. Well, you can make up for it.”
Ash perked up. “I can?”
“Yes. There is another demon in town. Destroy it, and report back.”
Ash ducked his head, waiting for Michael to strike him down with his sword.
“What possessed you to burn down the church?”
An obsessive need to end a demon? Somehow he didn’t think Michael would like that answer. “It was an accident.”
Something dark and angry flashed across Michael’s face. “We don’t have accidents.”
Maybe Michael didn’t. It wasn’t so simple where he was concerned. “Apparently I do.”
“As I understand, someone came to harm?”
Remorse, guilt and sadness warred inside Ash. He’d tried to get the human out of the church, but nothing he’d done got through to him and he’d perished in the flames. A nod was all Ash could muster.
“I’m stripping you off your rank as vengeance angel. I think you’ve inflicted quite enough harm on that place.” Michael looked as if he’d bitten into a lemon.
He’d expected nothing less. He wasn’t worthy of the position, but still dreaded the next assignment. Ash would do whatever it took to atone for his mistakes, no matter what Michael chose as punishment.
“Last chance. I’m assigning you as a guardian for a young girl. Not even you could screw this one up.”
Ash sat on the bench outside Michael’s domain, his arms clasped atop his head. So much for not screwing up again. But it was her fault this time, not his.
Instead of hearing a booming call of his name, Michael appeared in front of him, in the hallway. His superior stared down at him, with eyes colder than a Siberian winter. A sharp pain ripped into Ash’s back and he cried out, confused and in agony. His wings! He reached around, fighting the immense pain, and found nothing. Where once his wings had extended from his back, there now was nothing.
Along with the pain came a creeping, bone-numbing cold and he could only assume he’d been stripped off his celestial light. The halo, as humans called it.
“Nothing to say?” Michael crossed his arms in front of his chest.
No, he didn’t dare.
“I realize you are still young. I realize you might have lacked training.” Michael sat on the bench next to him. “But Ashriel, you let her throw her life away. I cannot forgive that.”
He’d turned his attention from the girl for mere seconds. Seconds. And when he’d looked back, it was too late. Ash closed his eyes, not wanting to remember. He’d glanced to the side, watched a waitress cross the parking lot – next thing he knew Josephine had stood next to a police cruiser, naked, while the boy she’d been with boasted about how good she’d been.
He’d never seen it coming. The stupid girl had given no indication she was about to fornicate when she’d come outside.
“I’m sending you back. You get one chance to redeem yourself. Don’t screw it up, Ashriel.”
Back? To Five Oaks? Again? “What about my wings?”
Ash gave a jerky nod. He’d do everything in his power to fix what he’d done. Everything, except go anywhere near Josephine Button. Michael may resent him for screwing up, but it was nothing compared to Ash’s resentment toward Josephine.
No. He wasn’t about to jeopardize his redemption. Losing his wings because of her once was enough. He wouldn’t allow her to bring him down again.