Laurence set the parchment down on the conference table. "A challenge
"Everyone." The ancient Seraph leaned back on his chair. He and Laurence were alone in the General Staff Room, high in the highest tower of the Spires. "I'd like to issue a challenge to single combat, one on one. To everyone and anyone who cares to accept it."
"I... see." A silence stretched. Laurence shook his head. "No, I don't see. You've obviously given this some thought. Please explain to me why this isn't as insane as it sounds."
Michael smiled broadly. "Think about it. There have been only a handful of Superior-level combats since the Fall. Not nearly enough to be able to develop a general tactical theory! But if we could hold a whole series of combats -- _trial_ combats, of course -- between Superiors, we could learn so much!"
"And is that the only reason?"
"Oh, no." Michael leaned forward, his gaze growing intent. "There's at least one other reason."
"_I_ need to be challenged."
"I'm the Archangel of War. I'm Heaven's champion, the Hero Victorious. And I /am/ victorious, again and again."
"That's the problem, Host Commander. It's been decades since one of my Servitors came up with a trick in combat that even gave me a moment of trouble. Centuries since I had a *real* fight, one that forced me to think and to sweat." There was something in Michael's voice that Laurence had never heard before. "I... I _need_ this challenge, Laurence. Or _some_ challenge. How else can I know that I'm pushing myself to the furthest possible limit?"
"I see." _Pride_, thought the Angel of the Sword. _Hubris, even. And yet... yes, he does have a point. A sword kept sheathed grows dull._ "Well. Do you have... parameters, for this challenge? Rules, of some sort?"
Michael nodded vigorously. "Oh, yes. As I said, I've given this some thought."
"One, it must be held here in Heaven. Obviously, I'm not going to wander off into the Marches, or stage a battle between Superiors on Earth. But any location in Heaven is fair ground."
"Two, I'll fight anyone who shows up, Superior or not, at any place in Heaven, at any place in Heaven, using any means of combat they require --"
"Wait." Laurence raised his hand. "So, you'd fight Janus, say, in a free-fall judo match ten thousand feet above the Groves? Or Gabriel in the heart of her volcano?"
"Yes!" Michael slapped the desk. "Exactly! Their locations, their rules... as long as it's a fair combat, I'll accept the challenge.
"A fair combat as defined by..."
"You, of course." Michael shrugged. "You command the Host, by God's will. Yours is the final authority. If you determine that it's fair, it's fair."
_He means it,_ thought Laurence wonderingly. _Of course he means it. It's the Truth._
"Mind you," Michael added, "it is a challenge to a trial of /combat/. I'll agree to any sort of combat, no matter how weird... but it has to be combat. I mean, I'm not going to take on Novalis in a flower-arranging competition, or Jean in a Fermi Quiz."
"Ah. A combat, not just a competition. Someone has to get hurt?"
"Well..." Michael frowned. "...there has to be the /possibility/ of someone getting hurt. That's what combat is about, after all."
"But if Jean used a giant robot, say, or a battle-suit..."
"Yes! Exactly." Michael nodded vigorously.
"...or if Novalis came up with a..." Laurence paused. "I mean, if she decided to... ummm..."
Both archangels fell silent for a moment.
"Well, the point is, it has to be some sort of combat. Even if it's just thumb-wrestling. Any sort of unarmed combat, or any sort of weapon, anywhere. Or a contest that tests combat skills, even. But no foot-races or riddle-games."
"I see." Laurence rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and looked down again at the draft of Michael's challenge. "And... trial combats, I see. Non-lethal."
"Well, I'm certainly not planning to kill anyone."
"Right..." Laurence rustled the parchment again. "And, ah, stakes. I see that you're offering..."
"To anyone who can defeat me in a fair fight, one boon. Anything that's within my power to grant, and not inconsistent with my duties as Champion of Heaven. Attunements, forces, relics, Essence... Anything within my power to give, or do, as long as it doesn't interfere with my office."
"So if someone asked you to dance in a ballet? Or spend a day shining their shoes, or hand over your axe?"
Michael frowned. "If I lose the contest," he said heavily, "of course I will pay the forfeit. Fair is fair. But I really don't think it's going to an issue."
"Ah." Laurence turned to the parchment again. "I notice that you've gone to some trouble to specify that the Pax Dei applies to any challenger."
"Well, we don't want to scare anyone away, do we?" Michael shrugged. "If an Ethereal, say... or, well, anyone... was thinking about walking into Heaven to wrestle me, or whatever, well, we wouldn't want them worried about being ambushed by the Host, now, would we?"
"Mm." _Is he really hoping that a Demon Prince is going to endure the pain of the Light of Heaven just to take a whipping from him?_ Laurence contemplated the ancient Seraph, his tense stance and intent expression. _Yes, I do believe he is. Hope springs eternal._
"Well. This is very interesting. So, information on Superior-level conflicts, possible new challenges, and a good workout for you..." Laurence paused. "Are those the only reasons you have, for proposing this?"
There was a long silence. Then Laurence spoke again, very softly.
"It'll drive Baal just mad, won't it?"
...and Laurence found himself seized by an uncharacteristic emotion. _I would never have believed that I could ever want to laugh at Michael. But -- the look on his face!_
When the silence had stretched to the point of acute embarassment, Laurence allowed his gaze to drift away to a corner of the tent. "Of course," he said in his best General Staff-meeting voice, "a Demon Prince could never issue such a challenge. First, since demons inevitably cheat, and defeat would mean death, he would be placing himself in deadly danger."
Laurence steepled his fingertips. "Perhaps an unusually strong and... valorous.. Demon Prince might issue such a challenge anyway. Perhaps Lucifer might even allow it. But what then? Even if he did so, and did defeat all comers... why, what would he gain? Everyone in Hell would assume the contest had been rigged to support the status quo. He would lose face, not gain it. A no-win situation." Laurence glanced at Michael, who had gone very quiet and still. "So, just by issuing such a challenge... why, you would be striking Baal at his most sensitive spot. Reminding him of what he was, and where he now is, and how far he has Fallen." Laurence let his gaze drift back to Michael. "Correct?"
The ancient Seraph seemed to have some difficulty speaking. _Sometimes I'm glad God didn't make me one of the Most High,_ thought Laurence. When you see them wrestling with the Truth like that..._ When a few moments had gone by, Laurence spoke again. "Actually, I think this is a good idea."
"You... you do?" Laurence found himself suppressing laughter for a second time; Michael surely didn't realize how surprised he looked.
"Yes, I do. Enraging Baal is good tactics. His pride is his weakness; I think there's an excellent possibility that this may cloud his judgement. Which could easily lead him into tactical error." Laurence tapped the parchment. "Yes, as a piece of psychological warfare, this is first-rate. Michael, I approve."
_And perhaps_, the commander of the Host thought to himself later, after the overjoyed Seraph was gone, _perhaps this will do good in one other way as well._
_You're the Champion, Michael. You're skilled with every weapon, infinitely cunning in combat._
_But I am the Commander of the Host, and I have some idea just how clever and resourceful Heaven's inhabitants can be._ Alone in the room, Laurence smiled to himself. _It's true that this will enrage the Prince of the War. But... Baal may not be the only one whose Pride takes a rebuke from this._
_Good luck, my old commander. I think you'll need it._
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