A Seraph faced a Cherub across a small windowless room. Each wore a simpletunic; each carried a short silver baton.
A line on the floor between them divided the room into two equal halves.At each end stood a slender pedestal, chest-high. On each pedestal stood asilver bell.
"The rules, then," said the Archangel Laurence, "are as follows. Eachcombatant shall have one chance to take the 'aggressor' role. Theaggressor shall step over the line into the opposing side. Once there, heor she has thirty seconds to strike the bell with the baton, while thedefender shall seek to prevent this.
"Songs and attunements may be freely used, but only after an aggressor hasstepped over the line. No weapons, other than the batons themselves, areallowed.
"Are there any questions, then?"
Michael shook his head. Across the room, Blandine murmured, "I asked forthese rules, Host Commander. I have no questions."
"Very well, then." Laurence removed a small cloth from his pocket. AnArchangel had no need of handkerchiefs -- or of pockets, for that matter --but it was good to observe the formalities.
He glanced to his right at Michael... relaxed yet alert, muscles ripplingunder his tunic. Laurence knew that the old Seraph didn't think much ofthis challenge. "She'll likely throw some illusions at me," he had saidthe day before. "Perhaps some Ethereal tricks.... I think she hasforgotten how many battles I've fought in the Marches. She does prettywork, but she's no fighter."
Laurence turned towards his left, and Blandine. She seemed, as ever,perfectly calm and self possessed. Laurence had never seen her dressed sosimply. Somehow she looked smaller without her elaborate capes andembroidery; it was almost impossible to imagine her standing against themassive Angel of War. But... she had asked for this contest. Laurenceshrugged internally; they would see soon enough.
"We begin at the count of three. One... two..." The cloth fell flutteringto the ground. "Begin!"
There was a pause while the two combatants stood motionless, gazes locked.Then Michael stepped forward. One long stride, another, a third... and hisfoot came down over the line. He tensed himself, lunging forward towardsthe pedestal
and went crashing to the floor, the breath smashed out of him by a suddenhammer-blow of unseen force. His arm went out reflexively to break hisfall... and Michael heard, more than felt, the crackling *snap* as thebones of his left forearm shattered like glass.
And then he was belly down on the ground, an impossible weight on his back,his broken arm pinned agonizingly beneath him. Four steps away, Blandinestood beside her pedestal, baton held at port arms, her expressionimpassive.
Michael writhed. _What is this? How did she do this?_ With a flick ofhis mind he shut down the pain from his useless arm. He calmed histhoughts and let his resonance expand outwards, tasting the strange flavorsof the Symphony as it sang through Blandine's Tower.
_Gravity. She just increased the gravity a hundredfold_. Michael workedhis good arm under him, and pushed himself off the floor. Slowly he drewone knee up under his body, then another. _That should not be possible.Physical constants in Heaven are a matter of consensus. Not even aSuperior can..._ He had hit his head on the floor; blood was running intohis eyes.
_Wait. In Heaven. But we're not just in Heaven. This Tower is in theMarches, too._ He slid one knee forward, then the other. The skin toreoff them at once; again, he silenced the pain. _And it's one of herTethers. So she can change... what? Gravity? Essence flow? Radiation?_Michael considered trying to stand, then decided against it. On one handand his knees, damaged arm hanging uselessly, he began creeping towards thepedestal. _I'm carrying the whole weight of her Tower on my back_.
"No, Michael. You're not." Blandine said softly. Michael grunted withsurprise; had he spoken out loud, or could she hear his thoughts somehow?He turned his head: Blandine was down on one knee, just out of arm's reachto his left.
"I discovered, some little while back, that I could use my resonance tocontrol the environment inside my Tower. What's happening to you... thinkof it as something like the Cherub of Stone attunement; I've just attractedthe floor to you, or vice versa." Blandine's tone was calm, almostconversational. "But it's been quite difficult to explore this ability.It could be another way to defend all those who take refuge here, but... mycontrol isn't perfect, and using it to hurt someone would be a perversionof my Word and my Tower.
"It was quite a puzzle for me. Until the toughest being in the universeannounced that he was challenging all comers."
Michael snarled, and clutched at his baton with blood-slippery fingers.One quick lunge sideways... but Blandine had taken a single graceful stepback from him.
"By the way, Michael, you're carrying perhaps a hundredth of the weight ofthe Tower. I don't think I can put it all on you without endangering thestructure's integrity. But I can double it --"
" -- and then double that again."
Michael's arm slid out from under him; the floor struck him like athunderclap.
"And then add a bit more, just to keep you there. You're very strong,Michael, and I don't care to take chances."
Michael's vision had gone red; there was a roaring in his ears. _How muchtime is left?_ He shifted his shape; for a moment, a great golden serpentwith a broken wing writhed on the floor of the chamber. _No. She hasturned this into a contest of will, rather than skill. And her will isstrong, here_. Michael shifted back to human form, gasped for a breaththat burned his lungs.
_I keep forgetting just how fierce even the gentlest Cherub can be_. Withinfinite care, Michael sheathed the baton in the belt of his tunic. Then hreached out one arm along the floor, groping for a tiny crack orirregularity. _I won't forget that again_. There! Painfully, slowly, hepulled himself forward by his fingers.
Was there time to use a Song and heal his arm? No. He had a suddensuspicion that Songs might not work properly in this room. His fingersslipped; he blinked blood from his eyes and found his grip again.
_She built this Tower from the stones of the Mount of Revelation, thatshattered at the Fall. *I* shattered them, when I cast Lucifer down._Michael reached out again, pulled... reached, pulled. _These stones didnot stand before me then, and they shall not now._ Reach, pull --
And then he was at the base of the pedestal. Four feet above the ground,the bell gleamed mockingly. Vaguely he realized that he had been crawlingalong a trail of his own blood.
_I must reach the bell. I must stand_. Michael closed his eyes, summoningEssence. _I will stand. I *will*_. One-handed, he pushed himself off theground, drew his knees under him. Was there still enough time? It didn'tmatter. He would stand. Essence burned through him like a bonfire.Somewhere, Blandine frowned. The pressure on him increased. Very faintly,the floor shuddered beneath him.
_If I have to bear all Heaven on my shoulders, I will. I will stand._ Hepushed himself to one knee, then groped blindly for the baton. _I am War._A thousand gravities were pulling the blood from his head. It didn'tmatter. He had Essence, and he had his unbreakable will. He pushedhimself upwards. _I am War. I am War. I will stand!_
With an arm that weighed tons, he raised the baton.
He struck the bell.
The Tower groaned from deep in its foundations. Dust fell from cracks inthe ceiling. There came a distant chiming of angelic voices crying out insurprise and concern.
"Time," said Laurence softly.
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