"It is a proven fact that the servants of the Hyena of Heaven are a weak and timid lot with no true stomach for battle."
The cloaked Seraph who was being spoken to raised an eye to look over at the Malakite who had spoken to him. Lounging in the lower branches of a tree on the dueling grounds, he was beginning to tire of the sniping and whispers that constantly accompanied his entry into the area of Heaven controlled by War. Still, he had a friend to meet, and friendship required sacrifices at times...
Looking down at the black-winged angel beneath him, he spoke softly. "It is my personal opinion that you have absolutely no room to speak, seeing as how you have yet to make your first foray onto Earth. Perhaps you should return to your trainer and make the necessary preparations to become qualified to go there and find out what battle truly is."
The Malakite raised his voice slightly. "Are you saying that I don't have what it takes?"
"I did not say that, trainee Rubric. Were I of a mind to say such a thing, I assure you that I would say it with much more volume and in such a way that most of your classmates would not be able to help but overhear it." Taking a slightly more condescending tone, "You should head back and pretend to be the big, bad agent of destruction and fear around someone younger who might believe you. Your trainer is coming this way, and I intend to speak to someone competent, rather than you."
Rubric glared up at the Judge for a moment more before stalking off, muttering under his breath. He paused in his cursing as he passed a scarred and grizzled Cherub, then continued on towards a group of other young warriors who were commiserating at the edge of the field. The winged cheetah looked back at the group for a moment before he leapt up into the tree beside the Seraph.
The two of them sat there for a moment in silence before the Cherub spoke. "I take it that Rubric and the other trainees have been giving you a hard time, Starkariel?"
The Seraph twisted his coils around, popping the vertebrae in his spine audibly. "Not that I did not expect otherwise. The Most Just warned me to anticipate less than a warm response here in the Groves. Of course, it is not like either of us are not used to chilly responses from certain portions of the Host. Alberich, you know I..." He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts while the Cherub looked on with a knowing smile. "Since you are one of Michael's trainers, I am typically loathe to comment on your students. However..."
Alberich cocked his head slightly. "Rubric getting on your nerves with his comments about Judgment too, Stark? Boy's an idiot. I reported him last week to training command - boy made a boast that all servitors of Judgment were no better than the Hyena that they served, and that he could take any of them under any conditions. Judge Memnoch took him up on the challenge and had to be carried off the field."
Stark trained all of his eyes on Alberich and rose up slightly. "He did that to Memnoch? I know that the Dueling Field stops all killing blows and heals people once they leave here, but Memnoch is still emotionally scarred by the beating he got. Several people wanted to bring in 'the responsible party', but he refused to tell who did it." He turned to face the pack of students horsing around in the field. "You know that he is guilty of several charges, Alberich. Something needs to be done about him."
The Cherub sighed before speaking. "I know, but my thought has been that if he's taken to the tribunal, it'll only make him more bitter. Worse, it might cause his attitudes to rub off on the rest of the class. I'm not quite sure what to do with him, but I'll take care of it. If he wasn't the most popular and most talented member of the group, it'd be easier..."
Wrapping his tail around the tree branch, Stark threw himself toward the ground, releasing his grip and flaring his wings just in time to land on the ground. He turned back to look up at the startled Cherub, and raised a wingtip towards his friend. "Let me save you the trouble. If he is the best you have, then this will not take long..."
"Stark, what are you thinking?"
Starkariel looked up at Alberich for a moment, and then winked. "Trust me."
Alberich started making his way down from the tree. "You know, I hated it when you said that even when we were still in Hell. Redeeming doesn't make it any less unsettling, you know?"
As Alberich reached the ground, Stark's disembodied voice entered his head. "Hey, you believed me when I still worked for Kronos, and I was a Balseraph for crying out loud. I am telling you that you can trust me, Alberich. Believe me, I will not bring him in for trial, and I will not hurt him. Not permanently, anyway."
Rubric was in the process of flirting with another Malakite when he felt a light tap on his shoulder and heard a soft tenor voice behind him. "Excuse me, but are you the same Rubric that offered an open challenge to any Judge under any conditions?" Rubric rolled his eyes slightly. "Yes, I -" He choked off the end of his sentence as he felt a pair of fangs sinking into the side of his neck and his feet flying over his head momentarily before slamming down on his back.
As Alberich made his way to the trainee's portion of the field, the rest of the class looked on with surprise and no small amount of horror as their classmate was beaten and tossed around the field like a rag doll by a screaming Seraph wearing the traditional cloak of a Judge. Some of them began backing up as the Judge's sentences began to be punctuated by sickeningly loud and wet cracking sounds and correspondingly agonized screams from the Malakite.
"To the charge of turning your back on a self-avowed opponent - GUILTY! To the charge of arrogance without ability to back up your boasts - GUILTY! To the charge of displaying pride in your abilities when none is warranted - GUILTY! To the charge of failing to evaluate an opponent's capabilities before issuing an open challenge - GUILTY! And to the charge of displaying a lack of faith in Almighty God by questioning his choice for the Archangel of Judgment, I find you guilty, Guilty, GUILTY!!!" Throwing the broken and bloody Malakite towards the rest of his classmates, Starkariel slithered over to loom over the gasping and sobbing angel.
"Your sentence is to remember this for the rest of your life. When you speak about your prowess in battle, remember that the first time you truly faced it against an opponent who was not a trainer sworn not to hurt you, you lost. I sentence you to remember that a Judge, someone you thought incapable of harming you, left you beaten and incapable of defending yourself. Here, your wounds will heal once you drag yourself off the field, but once you get to Earth, you will not get that luxury. And I sentence you to remember how you feel right this second, humiliated and in pain. Maybe now you can learn how to show mercy, now that you have learned how to suffer." Raising his voice slightly, he called out, "Now, does anyone else care to try his or her luck?"
As he lifted his head to look at the training class, he saw the rest of the class standing at attention and Alberich pointing behind him. "Actually, I think the good Archangels behind you would be willing to take their shot at it." Stark swallowed quietly and then slowly turned around to face the two serpentine figures looming over him. Looking upward at the Archangels of War and Judgment, he straightened himself up before speaking. "Ah. Good afternoon, your Graces. How might I serve you?"
Michael bent down to look directly into the eyes of Starkariel. "Judge Stark, might I ask what precisely you thought you were doing to my servitor in my groves?"
After a second of hesitation and an eye towards the cloaked Archangel beside him, "I was assisting Trainer Alberich in correcting a minor aberration in young Rubric's preconceived notions about the servitors of Judgment. I was also aware of certain charges that would soon be brought against your servitor, and I chose to help him deal with the underlying problems that were their cause before it became necessary to formally charge him. Furthermore, a formal trial would only have had negative effects on his classes' morale and would have set his training schedule back. I thought it best to handle it privately, rather than waste the time and resources of both organizations."
Michael kept his eyes firmly locked on the Judge. "So you thought it in the best interests of War and Judgment to beat my servitor within an inch of his life?"
"These are your groves, and their properties are well known. His life was never in doubt, sir. Rubric was guilty of several crimes that would have necessitated a stay in the tribunals if he had been formally charged. And with all due respect, sir - he had made an open challenge to any servitor of Judgment under any conditions. He cannot make the challenge with the stipulation 'under any conditions' and then cry foul when someone takes him up on it, sir. Had I accosted him outside the groves, I would rightly agree that a wrong had been committed, but inside the grove he could not be permanently harmed." Starkariel chewed his 'lip' for a moment, and then spoke again. "Whether I risk your censure or not, I feel that my actions were just in their stated context. I will not back away from that, sir."
Dominic spoke quietly. "You feel that this is a correct interpretation of my word?"
Stark closed his eyes for a moment then looked at his Archangel. "In this context, yes."
Dominic and Michael looked at each other silently for a moment, then the Archangel of war looked down at the young trainees who still stood at attention. "Class, two lessons should be learned from this incident. The first lesson, which Judge Starkariel pointed out to Rubric so effectively, is that one should never make blanket assumptions about an opponent. Although Judgment is seldom found on the true front lines, there are certain people in their organization who are quite capable of holding their own in a fight. Always be wary of an opponent - do not let their preferred modes of operation cloud your ability to properly analyze their capabilities."
Dominic then spoke. "The second lesson to be learned is that, when dealing with a member of the Host, you should not judge their worthiness by their Archangel. Many members of the Host were once demons, and as such have a certain perspective that those of us who have known only the light of Heaven can be hard-pressed to match. Your trainer, Alberich, openly admits that he was once a servitor of Asmodeus, and as such you pay special attention to his words regarding the Horde. Not all redeemed make themselves known as openly. Judge Starkariel is a good example of this."
He turned to look at Rubric, who had managed to crawl off the field and was leaning against a tree as his wounds slowly closed. "You should consider yourself well trained by this experience, Rubric. Your opponent was once known as Starkelenath, a Captain of Fate who was personally responsible for the Fall of over two dozen angels, including your trainer, and the soul-deaths of over a hundred others. You can never tell who or what someone was before they came to their senses, so never judge prematurely."
Dominic then turned to Michael. "Starkariel will be back later once his weekly debriefing is complete. I trust that if you have anything to say to him, it will wait."
(To be continued.)
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