The troops sparred and dueled, under Heaven's best approximation of a
grueling midday sun. The sounds of weapons clashing against weapons
reassured the Archangel of War, as he leaned against a tall, golden
redwood and observed. His thoughts wandered, as they had been doing all
morning, contemplating what he had learned from the hard-won battles of
the past few days. Preparing to put that aside and speak to his servitors,
he paused as he noticed a figure approaching from above.
The blurry form moved with purpose, quickly flying down to where Michael now stood poised and ready. It took no great effort to recognize the shifting combination of cyclone, broad-shouldered man, and spiralling fire that denoted one of Michael's oldest allies.
"Janus!" Michael exclaimed with a wide grin, "I've been waiting for this since my announcement on the Council floor! What's taken you so long to challenge me, friend? Has it taken you all these days to build up your confidence?"
Janus laughed at Michael's ribbing. "Of course! One on one combat with the Archangel of War is quite a frightening matter, wouldn't you think? I decided to let Litheroy and Dominic - and Novalis - wear you down first. This way I can just polish you off."
Suitably rebuffed, the Archangel of War put his arm around his newest challenger. "Let's go find Laurence in the City, Wind - I can't wait to see what idea you've come up with."
"So it's like a sumo dogfight, then?"
Janus grinned. "Only War could mix metaphors like that. But that pretty much sums it up. We engage in aerial combat; the first one to fall - or be forced - below a given altitude loses. No songs, resonances, or attunements...just grapples, throws, strikes, and mid-air collisions."
Michael nodded and looked to the sky of the Groves, "And this is the manner with which you have chosen to mark the altitude?"
Hovering above the Groves, at an altitude equal to exactly twice the height of the tallest tree, was suspended a sheet of gossamer silk. Light and diaphanous, it seemed both impossibly thin and impossibly large, as it was held aloft by soft winds. It stretched for miles in each direction, blanketing the Groves and barely softening the light from above.
Janus nodded in reply. "The winds will keep it at a constant altitude. If one of us breaks through the barrier, that person loses."
Laurence rubbed his chin thoughtfully, as he gazed at the sheet, "It is a fair and simple challenge. I see no fault with it." He directed his gaze to Janus, "And what is your stake in this fight today?"
"The same as Michael's," Janus answered with confidence, "A boon. Unspecified, and used for anything which does not undermine Heaven or my Word."
Michael flapped his jeweled wings, leaving the ground, "Then onward immediately to battle, friend Janus, and we shall see who is the victor on this day!"
As Janus sped into the air, overtaking Michael on his way to the sky above the Groves, Laurence followed, grabbing Michael gently by a wing. "Be careful, Michael. I fear that you trust in your comrade Janus too much. He can be deceitful."
Michael smiled back at Laurence. Lowering his voice, he replied, "Fear not, Host Commander. The only thing I'm trusting Janus to do today is to surprise the Hell out of me."
The two ancient beings faced each other, each in their true celestial form, as they hovered thousands of feet above the trees of the Groves. Far below was the gossamer sheet that marked the line between victory and defeat. Tension filled the air as they slowly began to circle.
There were no close spectators for this fight. The crowd that had gathered to watch had all been ordered to remain below the hovering sheet. Everyone knew that any person above it was only a potential obstacle. The crowd had scattered throughout the Groves, knowing full well that this fight could range across the entire sky.
It was Janus who acted first, zipping behind Michael with the speed of a bolt of lightning. Michael knew he didn't have time to turn and look; he just darted out of the way to dodge the upcoming attack, and spun into a diving position.
Streamlining his serpentine form, Michael tore through the air below Janus, offering an undefended back to the Archangel of Wind. Quick to capitalize on any opening, Janus struck at Michael, burning a superficial wound into his scales. Before he could take pride in drawing first blood, however, Michael had wrapped his tail around Janus' spirals of flame. Wind was unprepared for the sudden force as Michael *yanked* him down towards the ground, hard.
Before he could recover, Michael had spun himself around and delivered two savage bites to Janus' fiery form. Counterattacking with a speed born of desperation, Janus dodged the incoming tail lash and pummelled Michael with a volley of strikes, forcing the older Superior to relinquish his grip.
Janus immediately took to the air, speeding away at a speed that Michael could not hope to match. No fool, Michael didn't even try to overtake him, instead following at an endurable speed, while mulling over the situation. He glanced at the fabric below him. "If I let Janus turn this into an open air battle, he's practically won already," he thought. "I can't count on outmatching him in his own element. What I need is more 'sumo' and less 'dogfight'."
Lowering his altitude, Michael began cruising a mere two dozen feet above the airy fabric, watching as Janus began circling around for another attack. "Priority One: Obtain the advantage," thought Michael. "Priority Two: Retain the advantage. If the first is accomplished, the second should be a breeze." Smiling at the pun, he watched Janus circling above him.
He had perhaps a hundreth of a second's warning before the fastest Ofanite in Heaven flashed down at him. The collision was painful and unavoidable, as Michael was caught up in the rings of fire and forced towards the barrier below. Struggling with all of his might, he forced himself aloft, just a few yards above the fabric, which rippled with each beat of his wings as Janus bore down hard.
He had the advantage of strength, but though Janus could not force him down, Michael could not escape his clutches either, not without sacrificing altitude. But now, the fight was different. It had come down to wrestling, and Michael knew how to wrestle better than almost anyone in Creation. Snaking his tail up, Michael deliberately sought a good grip on Janus' flaming body. Janus gritted his (metaphorical) teeth, knowing what was coming, but unable to stop it without loosening his grip. Michael found the hold, and with only an instant to brace himself, stopped flapping and whipped his body around, breaking almost completely free of Janus' grapple.
Unsurprisingly, Janus clung tightly to Michael's lower torso as the Archangel of War spun in the air. Surprisingly, however, he did not assume a defensive posture at all. Instead, he put all of his strength into his own spin - a last-ditch effort to hurl Michael towards the ground.
"Foolish move," thought Michael as he was thrown free of Janus' grip, "I still have enough room to stop my desce-"
And it was then that he broke through the fabric.
The world spun.
Michael opened his mouth, but could not speak.
Everything suddenly sounded very distant and tinny. He couldn't seem to feel his body very well. He saw the ground below him, but could not stop his fall.
He had failed.
The Champion of Heaven had been defeated.
The air rushed by his face, wind whistling in his ears.
He had been beaten. Not in an arena of war, as a director of troops...of lesser beings who would do their best for him, but could not always do enough.
He had been beaten. Not in a war of wits, or of puzzles, or even of strategy.
He had been beaten. In personal combat. In a fair fight.
He fell past the tops of the highest trees, the foliage at this altitude still widely spaced.
"It can't be," he thought. "Did it really happen? Has it? Could it? How... how.... how.....?"
The world around him seemed darker, and a knot had formed in his stomach. He felt a throbbing pressure in his mind, and tasted something warm and metallic in his mouth....
"How...how could something like this happen?"
He realized, distantly, that the taste was his own blood, that he was biting his own tongue....
Maybe...maybe it didn't *really* happen...?
A tree branch smacked him square in the jaw, snapping his head back.
Shaking his head violently, Michael became aware of his surroundings. Of the impossibly-tall trees, each a different hue of the spectrum. Of the cool breeze wafting through the forest. Of the throngs of angels and souls below, watching in awe. Of the soft singing from the other cathedrals throughout Heaven. And of the gentle, warm glow coming from above.
The eldest angel in Heaven looked to the glow above, and evoked a silent prayer.
My Lord God, please grant me forgiveness for my thoughts and actions. Please grant me the strength at all times to remember that I am but an implement of Your Will, existing only to serve You. Please forgive me my transgression, forgive my pride and hubris, and forgive my doubt. All I do, I do for You, for You are the Power and the Glory of All.
Michael coasted to a stop, a few yards above the ground. Nobody spoke.
>From a distance, the black-winged figure of Laurence flew urgently towards him. At the same time, the whirlwind that was Janus descended. Both arrived at the same time. Forestalling any uncomfortable pause, Michael spoke immediately.
"I have been defeated in fair combat. There is no sin or shame in that, and I am proud of my brother Janus for besting me. Only God is infallible; we must all remember that. Only God...is infallible."
The look in Laurence's eyes as he stared in turn at Janus, then Michael, was a mix of anger, surprise, and countless other emotions. He opened his mouth for a full second before speaking.
"Michael...you have *not* been defeated in fair combat. As Janus threw you, the winds below suddenly flared up directly below your point of impact, raising the altitude of the barrier." Laurence paused, staring accusingly at the Archangel of Wind. "Janus cheated."
There was a gasp from the crowd. Michael slowly turned to face Janus. Unlike Laurence, his face held only genuine confusion.
The Archangel of Wind settled to the ground. "I admit this. I violated the predetermined rules of this challenge, and therefore I forfeit. Michael is the clear winner."
Laurence looked to Michael, who appeared to be at a loss for words. Turning back to Janus, he asked, "Why?"
Janus responded, with a clear, unwavering tone. "A warrior is not complete until he has faced failure. Until he has been beaten decisively and accepted this, without shame, he is not whole. Michael has never had the chance to know true fallibility. Now, even if only for a few moments, he has looked defeat in the eye, and stands no less proud for it...no less confident. This is the greatest service I could think to do for my brother, though you may think me wretched for doing so."
Janus turned to Michael, "I love you, my friend. That was my reason."
There was a long period of silence, as the three Archangels stood, each waiting for the other to speak.
Finally, Laurence broke it. "Hmm...well, I suppose this means that you now owe Michael a boon. You can claim it whenever you wish, Michael."
"No," Michael quietly responded. "He has already granted it to me."
The Archangel of War then quietly turned and walked back towards his camp without another word.
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