"You reign undefeated, Brother," Laurence said.
"Of course," Michael replied. "The interest in these challenges is what we might learn from the tactics used against me. Who will win is not really an issue."
Laurence nodded, knowing that only Michael could make such a declaration and know it to be True. Together, they watched the next Archangel who approached the Groves. Laurence registered some surprise. "I didn't think he would respond."
"I confess I wasn't expecting him either, but I am pleased to see him participating," Michael said. "The more he socializes with us, the better." He nodded in greeting to the beautiful Elohite. "Al-salaam alaikum, Khalid."
"Wa alaikum al-salaam, Mika'il." The Archangel of Faith bowed low. "And God's peace be upon you also, Laurence."
"May the Lord bless you and keep you," Laurence replied sincerely. "Have you come to answer Michael's challenge?"
"Indeed I have, if it would not be too presumptuous." Khalid bowed low again.
"Presumptuous, Faith? I doubt it." Michael smiled slightly. "And what is the nature of your challenge, and the stakes?"
"I pondered long how to challenge him who is first among the Host," Khalid replied. "For as God made you and named you War, surely no being can defeat you."
"Unless it was God's will for me to lose," Michael observed, anticipating Khalid's line of thinking.
"Indeed. Under what circumstances, then, would God wish for you to lose? But to contemplate that is to attempt to apprehend the mind of God and anticipate His desires, and except inasmuch as He has revealed His will in the holy Quran, surely to look elsewhere to divine His intentions would be presumptuous and faithless."
Laurence shifted uncomfortably. "But it's our job to carry out God's will, and sometimes that means making decisions without knowing exactly what His will is..."
"But with perfect faith that whatever we do will be His will." Khalid smiled at Laurence, and for just a moment, the Commander of the Host wondered if his erstwhile rival, who had only very recently put centuries of animosity behind him, might be teasing him....or worse, mocking him. But that was an unworthy thought, and Laurence dismissed it. "I take your point, Khalid, even if my perspective is.....slightly different. But that leads to the question, how do you intend to challenge Michael?"
"With faith, of course." Khalid turned to face the Archangel of War, looking more serious. "Mika'il -- praise be upon you -- it is well known that you count the greatest warriors who have ever lived among your servants, both in Heaven and on Earth. Likewise, it is well known that your finest servants are beloved by you, as are mine by me." Michael nodded, scratching his chin, and indicated that Khalid should continue.
"Therefore, my challenge is this: you must choose one servant -- mortal or angel, it matters not -- whom you are absolutely certain can defeat any servant I choose. The conditions are two: first, that the one you choose is beloved by you beyond all measure, as shall be the servant that I choose. Second, that they shall battle to the death on Earth, and that him who dies shall be forever cast out of his master's sight."
Even Michael blinked at this. "You mean.... you will Outcast your proxy if he loses to mine?"
"If he is an angel, yes," Khalid replied. "If he suffers corporeal death. As you shall do if your Servitor dies. If he is a mortal, you shall banish him forever from your Cathedral, and swear never again to lay eyes on him until Judgment Day."
Laurence opened his mouth, intending to ask what they would do if a mortal representative didn't happen to wind up in Heaven after dying.... but then thought better of it. However, he shook his head and said "I can't approve of turning a Servitor in good standing into an Outcast for losing a fight on behalf of his Archangel."
"Would you not cast out any Servitor who so completely destroyed the faith you placed in him, much as you might love him?" Khalid asked. Laurence opened his mouth again, then closed it. He looked at Michael, who was still scratching his chin.
"And the stakes?" Michael asked.
"The holiest man in the world," Khalid whispered. "I give unto you the power to precipitate Armageddon once again, should you choose to do so and it be God's will. For the next seven generations, I will whisper in your ear the name of him who is the most holy."
"I accept," replied the Archangel of War. Khalid bowed.
"If the loser is an angel, I require that you permit me to take him into my service should he lose," Laurence said. Khalid and Michael both nodded in agreement
"Not far from Baal's stomping grounds," Laurence muttered, looking around at the war-ravaged ruins. He and Michael waited in the Iraqi desert. Standing calmly some distance away was a young woman wearing a shawl and headscarf over camouflage fatigues. Her head was bowed in prayer, her lips moving silently as she fingered a necklace of prayer beads. There was an AK-47 slung over her shoulder.
"Good of you to choose a Catholic," Laurence said, and then flushed. "Uh...not that your champion is going to lose, I mean...."
"Actually, she's Muslim," Michael said, ignoring Laurence's discomfiture. "Bosnian. The prayer beads belonged to her mother. Both of them spent months in Keraterm. Aida survived; her mother didn't."
Laurence nodded slowly. "A Soldier of yours? She must have great resilience. But... what makes her so special that you're certain of her victory? Khalid could pit her against a Malakite Master of the Wrath of God."
"He could," Michael agreed. "But I have faith in Aida." He smiled fondly as he looked at the woman. "And," he said softly, "if any of my servants deserve an early discharge to Heaven, she does. She's already done her time in hell."
Khalid arrived not long thereafter. He and his champion both descended in celestial form, and the shimmering of the Virtue's Forces confirmed Laurence's fears; this was no mean Servitor. No matter what talents Michael's human servant might possess, Laurence didn't see how she could survive a battle to the death with a mighty Malakite of Faith who was fully prepared and loaded for bear.
But Michael had faith in her, and Laurence had faith in Michael.
Khalid regarded the woman dispassionately. She licked her lips, finally betraying nervousness as the Archangel of Faith and his designated killer materialized in the desert in all their celestial glory. Khalid looked at Michael. "This woman, she is precious to you?"
Michael nodded. "I love her no less than any of my Servitors. And your servant?"
"Faris, my beloved, was among the first Malakim to join me after I became an Archangel."
"Hello Faris," Laurence said quietly, tight-lipped. Faris, expressionless, bowed to the Archangel of the Sword, from whose service he had deserted twelve centuries ago to join Khalid. As Khalid regarded the Bosnian Muslim, no doubt hearing her prayers as if they were spoken aloud to him, Michael smiled tightly and murmured to Laurence, "It seems we're both making statements of sorts. Faris served alongside you and Khalid both under Uriel, didn't he? If you don't want him back, perhaps the Tsayadim will take him."
Laurence struggled to maintain his composure, then said simply "Are you ready?" Aida, the human, and Faris, the angel, nodded. "Then you may begin."
Aida simply continued praying, but with greater intensity. Faris took two steps towards her, shouted "ALLAH'U AKBAR!", and exploded.
The shockwave would have knocked all three Archangels off their feet, except that Khalid and Michael both assumed celestial form a millisecond before the detonation, and Laurence, reacting, did so half a millisecond after them. The explosion sent a plume of sand and smoke half a mile into the air, and the rumble was felt in the nearest town, some fifteen miles away.
Khalid, Laurence, and Michael recorporealized in a swirling cloud of dust. "He must have been carrying enough explosives to level a city!" Laurence exclaimed. "What sort of insanity was that? Khalid, your servant's vessel has been blown to bits, so by the terms of your challenge, BOTH of you have lost your servants!"
"Not so," Khalid said. "Mika'il -- God's peace be upon you -- you knew, didn't you?"
"That you would sacrifice your servant, and that he wouldn't think twice about making such a sacrifice? Of course. You are an Elohite; you couldn't possibly let your love for him prevent you from seeking the surest way to victory."
Laurence sputtered, then looked confused, until he noticed a miniature cyclone spinning in the middle of the blast-strewn debris and fallout. A few seconds later it subsided, and Aida, coughing, fell to her knees and echoed the obliterated Malakite's words: "Allah'u akbar! Allah'u akbar!" Her hands and forehead touched the ground, and Khalid regarded her silently.
"The Song of Shields," Laurence said. He shook his head, chuckling.
"I told her to sing it immediately when things began. I had faith in her ability to time it correctly. Although," Michael grinned, "I did give her a reliquary with enough Essence to make sure it would go off." Laurence eyed the prayer beads still clutched in the woman's hand.
Khalid said "Allah'u akbar! You have won the challenge, Mika'il, God's peace be upon you!" He stepped forward and cupped a hand to the Seraph Archangel's ear, and whispered into it. Michael nodded.
The Archangel of Faith turned to Laurence. "I did encourage Faris to return to your service, oh Laurence, insha'Allah. But he is surely leaving my Mosque, even as we speak. It is my hope that he will take up service with someone in Heaven, rather than remaining Outcast, but..." Khalid shrugged, and repeated "Insha'Allah."
"He has another vessel, I suppose," Laurence remarked dryly, not really asking a question. But Khalid was already gone.
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