"You want to what?"
Novalis smiled, sunnily. "I want to take you up in your challenge, Michael. What else?"
The Archangel of War frowned slowly. "Novalis... we have rarely seen eye to eye--"
"Well, hear me out before you say no." She looked, smiling even more sunnily, at Laurence. "To be *fair.*"
Laurence's eyes betrayed no emotion. "You didn't say you *wouldn't* hear someone's petition, Michael. That doesn't mean I'll approve the terms." Laurence's unspoken words were telling -- he was giving the Archangel of War an opportunity to refuse without having to back down from the challenge. If Novalis's challenge turned out to be a roundabout way of insulting or undermining the Firstborn, Laurence could refuse to sanction the challenge.
"Mm, true," Michael said gruffly. Laurence could see a glint in his eyes, though. "Well, what did you have in mind, Leafschild? Garlands at twenty-five paces?"
"Oh, no no. Not at all. No, I propose a hunt."
Michael looked blank. "A hunt."
"That sounds more like Jordi's style than yours. What's the catch?"
"Jordi's challenge will no doubt be something entirely different, Michael. No, this would be a challenge of human form against human form -- no cataclysms or thunderbolts. Or axes."
"But... the objective is to bring your prey down without harming him. Or her." She smiled a bit more. "Captured alive, in good condition."
"Denied," Laurence said flatly. "It defeats the very conditions of Michael's chal--"
"Now hold on," Michael said, holding his hand up to the younger Archangel. "I'm intrigued. Tell me more, Novalis."
"Weeeeell... we can *both* agree that military objectives don't have to lead to the kill, yes?"
"So your warrior's skills have to expand beyond simply breaking necks or slicing off heads. As I said, this would be a challenge of human forms -- assume that disturbance constitutes a loss. So no Songs or noisy attunements. We can simulate this even in Heaven, after all. We shouldn't even use resonances other than our native ones."
Michael nodded. There should be *some* challenge in this. "On what battlefield?"
"The deep forestlands, abutting the Glades and the Savannah. The object is to trap unharmed, or otherwise put one's prey in a position where they cannot escape. This can be through anything from materials at hand to using a submission hold."
"So... pain is legal?"
Novalis didn't break expression, except perhaps back in her eyes. "So long as the other person isn't truly injured."
"Where is the potential for being hurt?"
"Accidents can happen in the forest, Michael. You know that as well as I do. Though should our referee determine that either of us cause an 'accident' to disable or injure our prey...."
Laurence's eyes flashed. "Are you implying Michael would cheat? Use the excuse to hurt you, Flowers?"
Novalis's grin grew. "Exactly, Laurence. That's *precisely* what I'm implying."
Michael laughed, startling Laurence. "She's smarter than you think, Laurence. All right, Novalis. You know the stakes if you happen to win this little hunt. A boon within my power. What are the stakes when *I* win it?"
Novalis laughed, a bright, airy thing after Michael's throaty laughter. "Oh, Michael, your confidence is *forever* refreshing. *Should* you win, I would make available an herbal stimulant, recently crossbred and not yet introduced terrestrially. It acts to keep the mind alert and numb the body to aches and pains -- a useful thing for an army. And it seems not to be physically addictive, though I can't swear that the human mind wouldn't...."
"Mm. Understood. There is a time and place to employ such things. But... it *would* be useful."
"I could requisition it," Laurence snapped. "As part of the War effort."
"Oh Laurence, do *try* to get into the spirit of this. Her offered boon neither compromises her principles nor would be worthless to me. I can appreciate both of these facts." He smiled a bit, perhaps a bit ferally. "If Novalis truly wants to let me hunt her, that would be prize enough."
"Why, Michael -- is that a double entendre I see before me?"
"You, dear Archangel Novalis, have a dirty mind."
Novalis arched her eyebrows. "What do you think flowers grow in, dear Archangel Michael? Remember. No axes. No weapons. No knives. Just hands, feet, and what the forest provides. You will be in my arena."
"Mm. Your domain. I think you don't yet understand arenas, Novalis. But we will change that."
"Will we?" She offered her palm, and Michael took it. "Let us begin."
The forest was thick, but cool. Not a rainforest -- not even a temperate one. Michael approved. In human vessel, he could feel enough of a chill that there would be some exposure danger, were he human. Of course, Vessel or not, he wasn't.
Cool but not cold enough for frost or frozen ground. But the cool meant that moisture would cling to sod and clay, and that meant footprints would be clear. Somewhere in the fifty acres of this wood was an Earth Mother in human form. He merely had to find her and pin her to beat her. He knew that wasn't in doubt. If it came to wrestling, he would win. Beyond his size and weight advantage, Novalis simply didn't have the experience.
But no matter how much Laurence sniffed before setting them both in the woods, Michael knew better than to underestimate her. She *was* the Archangel of Flowers, and her attunements caused little disturbance directly, making them legal. Which meant she could be nearly invisible. And she knew the forest. Knew it as well as Michael knew his axe.
Michael began to move, his own legs fluid, no wasted movement or undue sound. His footfalls naturally landed on stone or thicker moss, leaving fewer footprints. No signs of where he was. No signs to attract attention, his eyes cleaving at the underbrush, looking for a sign. Any sign. It was hard to say how far away they both were. It didn't matter. He would find her.
By the sun, they had been in the forest for an hour and a half when he saw the first sign. A branch out of place. Half a footprint in the mud. Close. He just had to track her. And he was behind her now. She couldn't run far enough to stop him, and an ambush would be suicide.
Michael's pace quickened, even if he still yielded no trail or noise. He felt a slight thrill -- this... *this* was worthy, even if the battle would be short. A simple challenge, but a challenge noneth--
The stones that would leave no trace collapsed beneath Michael's feet. Sheer luck -- or the Lord -- had it happen on his off foot, even as the pit began to open. With a thrown leap, Michael was pushed off to the side before the deadfall of trees, leaves and mud collapsed into a natural tiger trap. Michael grabbed a tree and held on until the trap had fully opened. He stared where it had been -- she hadn't time to dig the pit, so she had to disguise a natural formation. But even *that* would take time and effort. How could she know he'd go this way? Could she be leading him? A horrible risk, given the effort this would have taken.
Not that it mattered. If she had managed to lead him, she'd done a good job. He started around the pit, to pick up the trail--
The snare closed around his foot, the 'fallen tree' by him snapping up to full. He had less than a second to react, to twist and grab at the roots of a tree on the ground. The snare snapped taut, and a jolt of pain filled his body as he hung on, his own body tight against it, the tree straining to straighten and the bark and leaves and branches that made up the snare trying to haul up, leaving him high above the forest floor, away from any branches he could use to get down. He *held* the root, which it turn held to the ground, ignoring the pain in his body. He would not yield. He *could* not yield. He forced his hand to wrap around the root, letting it cut into his hand as he reached up with the other, forcing his knees to bend, to reach the snare--
With a whip-*CRACK,* the tree snapped true, the empty snare whipping up, then settling down to hang. On the floor of the woods, Michael stared up at it, holding his hand. He was bleeding slightly. Well, he wondered if there was any chance for pain.
This was *insane.* Novalis couldn't be a better tracker or hunter, couldn't be so effective at blinds that she could funnel him along a specific path without knowing his starting location. It was--
Michael began to slowly smile. A feral smile. The smile of a warrior who had been too complacent, too convinced of his own infallibility, in the face of an enemy he didn't respect. Novalis had set the terms. Resonances and attunements, no disturbances. Resonances.
If Michael had been facing any other Cherub in this challenge, he would never have taken her hand to shake when first she suggested it. But this was *Novalis,* who embodied Cherubic love. It had never occured to Michael that she could attune him. Could know exactly where he was at all times. Could prepare his path with traps born of the forest and plants she knew so well. If he continued to follow the trail, he would keep getting grabbed or held or trapped until one of them *worked.* Michael had assumed too much -- that it would come down to his superior fighting skills, not her wilderness knowledge.
Michael's mindset shifted, his eyes narrowing. He would *not* be defeated by Flowers. The shame of it would devestate the Morale of his followers for years. He had to win. And he couldn't underestimate Novalis again. He was in a fight. A *hunt.* He had given her every term of battle. Every opening. Set himself on her field. Let her attune herself, so she could sense both his position and the direction he was moving in.
Slowly, the Archangel of War brought his full senses to bear. And as he did so, his pleasure grew. By the Lord in Heaven, this *was* a challenge. Throwing his head back, he *howled* his great war-howl. He knew it wouldn't frighten Novalis -- not with her attunements -- but it would be a sign to her.
First, he had to get out of the minefield. He crouched, looking at the tree the snare had been tied to, and jumped for it. Getting a purchase, he scrambled up and let his weight begin to lower the tree down. It had to be flexible enough to bend but not so sturdy as to hold, or Novalis couldn't have bent it down. He angled it away from any logical path to follow. He couldn't follow a path any more. He had to force the Cherub to hunt, not let her be hunted and set his path.
He landed in the brambles of a bush. Fine -- he knew she wouldn't bother trapping that because it wouldn't make sense to go that way. Not for him. She could do it herself. *Damn* his complacency. Slowly he picked through them and started to move. Swiftly, heedless of his noise or trail. The woman knew where he was anyway -- there was no need to hide.
Yet. He knew a thing or two about fighting Djinn... or Cherubim.
A mile's movement let him relax, and take some time. He stripped off his shirt and bathed in the loam and mud of the forest, the better to hide himself. He couldn't match Novalis's camoflague in the forest, but he was still a master at it and he didn't need to be as good, just good enough to let her get close....
And then he held, waiting... almost invisible. Letting Seraphim's perception attune itself to the woods around him. A hundred thousand fights looming in his bones as he listened to the wind, to the motion....
There... a crack. She was due North of him, no doubt moving to set snares in the path she felt him taking. He tensed himself, listening... fingers finding a smooth rock and taking it in his hand....
Laurence wouldn't have understood Michael throwing the rock at her. Snapping it against her skull. Letting her feel the blood and pain of War. Teaching her a lesson. But Michael would have done it -- save she blocked that route for him. No accidents. No intentional injury. He *hurled* the rock, letting it crack against a tree to Novalis's left, and he could *see* her turn, startled--
And Michael *tore* towards her, his muscles sleek as he burst from his loam enclosure like a trap door spider, his eyes burning as he closed on the soft woman. And her eyes darted to him and she spun, running for the thickest undergrowth. He got closer, weaving through the close trees and feeling them scratch and snag at him. She never broke stride, the trees and brambles twisting out of her way. Her Malakim's attunement at work, of course. He twisted and lept and ducked and rolled. Getting closer despite her advantages....
Close enough to grab for her, his fingers reaching for her back, covered in a tan hemp weave, seizing her... tearing away from her as she grabbed the nearest tree and was *gone,* no disturbance. What was--
Ofanite of Flowers attunement. Once a day only, line of sight. He whirled, looking -- looking... moving... she had gone to ground, and with her Nothing but Flowers attunement, she was nigh invisible. But only nigh invisible -- there were no flowers here for her to hide among. He let his eyes cleve the truth... she wouldn't be able to let herself move while he was searching....
There. He was almost sure of it. But his body language didn't betray it. Instead, he began to climb out of the undergrowth for the trees above. Letting her think he didn't see her, that he was moving off... letting her feel his movements with her Cherubic resonance, and letting its pattern deceive her until she began to move...
Michael slid down the bark, losing some skin but shooting down along the tree. Novalis, startled, whirled again but not before his legs fouled hers and his weight knocked them both down. They struggled there, arms and legs twisting to hold or be freed....
Her arms twisted back into a chickenwing. Not a comfortable one. He pushed them up and heard her hiss. "Yield," he snapped.
Novalis looked over her shoulder at him, half-smiling that damnable smile, her torn tunic twisting around her midsection painfully even as Michael's knee braced the small of her back and his hands pushed at hers. "I yield," she murmured. And Michael saw the Truth of it. She had yielded the battle.
"A waste of time and effort. The Litheroy fight was worthy if futile. But this 'fight' was nothing more than an extended game of tag. I'm glad you got to rub her face in the dirt."
Michael looked at Laurence sidelong. "She drew first blood," he said mildly, and looked out to where Novalis, dressed again in her usual flamboyance, was approaching with baskets laden. The herb she promised. "And she made her point."
"Mm. I don't suggest you challenge her, Laurence. *Your* pride might not take it." He smiled a bit more. "She gave me a fight, Laurence. She kicked my preconceptions out from under me. And *that's* why I'm doing this, right?"
Laurence turned to look at the ancient Archangel. "You...."
"Let's just say... I've learned to respect wilderness survival skills." He half-smiled. "Excuse me. I'm going to accept my prize, and buy my enemy a drink."
"After all. I need to give us both a chance to become infuriated with each other again." Michael winked, and headed out. Gabriel, Litheroy, Novalis. Three victories.
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