Michael stood at the gates to the Eternal City, watching, with Laurence by his side, as a plume of dust in the distance came closer. The plume intrigued Michael; rarely had he seen horses used in Heaven, and then only with Jordi's permission, and this rider did not seem to be coming from the Savannah. Still closer the plume came, and now the horse and rider were distinct from the cloud, and now the rider from the horse: a figure in black, cape billowing in a wind that Michael almost imagined he felt.
Michael remembered riding with the barbarians in Germany and Russia, and suddenly wanted a horse of his own. But there was no time - the rider was here, and dismounting. As he approached the Archangels, the horse started galloping off. None saw it disappear.
"Michael," whispered the rider. "You have given a challenge?"
The Archangel nodded.
"I wish to take you up on this. I have read the rules. I know the prize, and I know the consequence."
Laurence looked up. "What do you offer?'
The hooded figure looked up. "A Prince," he whispered, in a voice as dry as the most ancient of dust.
Laurence swallowed and looked at Michael. The elder Archangel's face was stony. "This is not a trick?"
"Even now he is in my possession, Michael."
Laurence glanced at Michael again. Michael nodded: 'It is truth. What are your terms?"
"Call the others," said the rider. "Bid them come. I will produce the weapons when they have assembled."
Michael, this time, looked at Laurence. The Sword nodded, and began sending out the mental calls that would summon the remaining Archangels - save Gabriel and Khalid, whose whereabouts he did not know - to them. One by one they approached, Dominic first, last Jordi. And in the back, another hooded figure. Laurence did not remember seeing him arrive, but he was in place before Jordi settled. The Malakite made a note to check into that later.
The hooded figure looked around. "Where is Gabriel?" he asked. "Where Khalid?"
"They are gone from Heaven, sir," replied Laurence, and Michael verified it with a nod. The third sighed.
"Very well," he said. "Let us proceed."
From his robes he pulled a pair of long, double-bladed weapons, looking like nothing so much as wickedly sharp French curves fused at the blunt end. There was a single handhold in the center of the weapons. Michael and Laurence both blinked; these weapons were utterly unfamiliar to The Sword, who was used to the Point-Blade-Hilt motif, and Michael had only once seen a weapon like it, in the deserts of Arabia. The stranger handed a blade to Michael, who hefted it carefully. Laurence backed off. "Be careful, War."
"The contest," whispered the rider in a voice to be heard by all, "is that of unfamiliar weapons. I have only today designed these blades, and their design is unique, so far as I know. Do you accept, Michael?"
War grinned. "I accept." He hoped that the stranger hadn't assumed that simply because a weapon was unfamiliar, Michael would have trouble fighting with it.
"Then let us begin," said the stranger in a loud, clear, voice, and he stepped back, sweeping his cloak out of the way and assuming a ready stance.
Michael and the figure danced for full seconds - an eternity to Laurence and the other Archangels - before Michael struck, swinging the blade down in a clumsy arc that the stranger deflected almost as clumsily. The handgrips on these weapons, thought Michael as he circled, were not meant for ease of use. He struck again, better this time, but again the stranger deflected the blow.
They circled like this, blow and parry, for perhaps a minute before Michael swung into full action. Moving the blade in broad sweeps, he twisted and turned before his opponent, every rotation bringing his blade within inches of the robed stranger. The stranger ducked, deflected, and drew back as Michael became more proficient with his weapon, and finally missed a block as the blade cut a shallow groove in his arm. His weapon came up in shock -
- and hooked one of the sharp holes in War's blade, nearly yanking the blade from his grasp. Michael gasped as the jolt passed up his arm - this stranger was nearly as strong as he was, though he didn't look it - and wrenched his arm and the weapon away, almost cutting himself in the process. At the same time, the stranger gasped, there was a sound not unlike a sword being unsheathed, and the half of the stranger's weapon that had been hooked to Michael's was flung up into the air, spinning like a fan. The stranger grasped the other half in one hand like a sword, and now Michael saw that it was /meant/ to come apart, though he'd be damned if he could figure out how, and the stranger pressed him back with the single blade.
Behind and to War's right, the other half thudded into the ground, a good foot of the blade sunken into the dusty earth. Still the stranger pressed, and Michael was hard-pressed to defend this berserk flurry of attacks. He moved backward, nearly stumbled over a rock he hadn't expected and caught a glancing blow to the temple that sheared off a lock of greying hair, which stumbled him even more. And the stranger backed off.
Now the two separated themselves by the half-weapon stuck in the ground, circling it warily, Michael reaching up to touch the trickle of blood that dripped from his temple. Sweat beaded on his brow - it was /hot/ out here - and droplets fell into his eyes. Across the field, War watched the stranger wipe the sweat from his forehead.
They both stopped, looked at each other.
Within a split second of each other, based on a decision that Michael later could not remember, War and the stranger ran at each other, screaming war cries. As they met, their weapons crashed against each other with a deafening noise, the stranger grabbed the half-blade - which, too, had a handle, like its brother - from the earth, ducked, and swept his feet under Michael, catching War's blade with both of his as the Archangel went down.
The jolt was painful again to the bruised Michael, but he looked up, raised the edge of his weapon that did /not/ have two half-blades hanging from it, and pressed it to the stranger's throat.
:"I yield," said the stranger. And Michael knew that it was True.
The hooded figure extended a hand to Michael, helping the Archangel to his feet. "It is not the first time I have won on my back," said Michael, and smiled, "but it is one of the most memorable." He dropped the weapons, and to his surprise they turned to dust as they hit the ground.
Laurence jogged over. "You are both all right?" The stranger and Michael both nodded. "It is recorded that Michael has won. Stranger, you have a bargain to keep."
The stranger nodded. He carefully undid the tie of his hood, then threw off his robe. And before Michael, Laurence, and the assembled Archangels stood a man intimately familiar to only one of them: with flowing red hair, bright green eyes, and two weeks' beard, thin but not emaciated, in simple peasant clothes.
"What are you doing here, Kobal?" asked the Archangel of Judgment in hushed tones. "I knew you were up to something when I spoke to you a month ago."
Kobal looked down. "I did as you said, Dominic," replied Kobal. "I walked the earth for a month. I ate nothing but bread and sausage, drank nothing but water. I did good works." He held out his hands, which were streaked with scars. "I have performed my penance, Most Holy. Will you perform your judgment?"
Dominic strode angrily from where he had watched the confrontation. "You DARE tell me these things in the face of what you have done?' he asked, his voice shaking.
Kobal was quiet. "I cannot lie here, Most Holy. You gave me my penance, and I performed it. Will you not forgive me?"
Furious, Dominic reached out from behind his robes, grasped Kobal with a slightly scaly hand, and drew him close, subjecting him to the purity and light of the thousand eyes of Judgment.
Behind him, Michael nodded. He knew what was coming. "You accuse too easily, old man," he said, just before Dominic whispered "Oh, my God," and fell back. "I am ashamed," he told Kobal.
"I want only to join you, Dominic. I have repented my sins. See - I am not hurt by the light of God. He has forgiven me. But he has also given you your own selves - us our own selves. Will you agree with the light of God?"
Novalis nodded, after a pause. "I will."
Blandine nodded as well. "It is wonderful to have you back, Kobal."
One by one, the Archangels affirmed their acceptance. Finally Dominic and Michael stood. Michael spoke first. "Thank you for your lesson. You have paid your price." He looked at Dominic, then back at Kobal. "Welcome home, brother."
Dominic looked up. "I have misjudged," he said, simply. "I must atone." And he was gone.
One by one, the Archangels dispersed, Kobal among them. And for the first time in twenty thousand years, he entered the Eternal City, and laughed.
On the plain of dust stood a man in a hooded robe, similar to the one Kobal had sported when he arrived. Slowly he conjured a horse out of the dust and mounted it when it was finished. He took one look at the Eternal City behind him, smiled, and said, "Kobal... at least the City will have a Friend to watch over it while I remain gone."
And the plume began to retreat again, into the distance.
Michael stood by the gates to the Eternal city, with Laurence at his side, watching.
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