When a man who has set his will neither on dying nor upon living at any cost, comes into the presence of the tyrant, what is there to prevent him from being without fear? Nothing.
-- Epictetus, Discourses
s Taarna approached the oasis on her bird, she saw it at last. The peak of the highest mountain on the range beyond the oasis had been destroyed. In its place was a glowing, green sphere lodged deep within the rock. Although only a portion of the object was visible above the craggy precipice, it clearly had monumental dimensions.
She experienced a piercing instant of heart-stopping recognition. It was a moment unlike any she had ever known; a moment when one's nightmare, never thought to be possible, is suddenly realized. She sensed innately that this Thing--this thought turned reality--was immeasurably ancient and evil, and that it had been the author of Kraan's annihilation.
Some of her questions, about what had occurred in the Sanctuary and why, were now answered. This was no longer about her destruction of mere men, but about a confrontation with Evil itself--the Adversary, her Adversary. Her deepening awareness of the prodigal task laid before her caused a visceral shiver to run down her spine.
Her distress, which had the power to overmaster and emasculate any resolve, did not last. Taarna found her emotions transformed instead, as if by some mysterious act of grace, into an immense, pitiless anger. The sphere had been responsible for the destruction of thousands of innocent lives, lives that she had sworn to protect, and was now bound to avenge. It was an object to be hated, despised, and somehow, defeated. She held onto her anger, welcoming it; for the familiar, frozen deadness it created in her heart, as when killing work was at hand, was infinitely preferable to the incapacitating terror only a razor's edge away.
As she passed beneath a natural arch which spanned the pass, a large net suddenly descended from above. It was cleverly weighted, and although she attempted to turn Alata from his path, it was too late. They flew squarely into it, and within seconds the corners were drawn up, trapping them.
Alata squawked forlornly as they swung back and forth, the energy of their forward momentum rapidly dissipating. Taarna was pressed tightly between his body and the rough cords, and found it hard to draw a breath. She looked up and saw a dozen men working the ropes and pulleys, lowering them down.
She breathed easier when Alata's weight was transferred to the ground. Surrounding her were more men who shared their appearance with the troopers in the bar. One of them, who had a beard and wore torn clothing, grabbed her hair roughly and pulled it up to reveal her neck. She knew what he was looking for and grimaced in pain. A look of incredulity came over his face. He turned and ran from her. The others circled around, looking at her with curiosity.
The barbarian chieftain had seen the capture from a distance and was conferring with one of his captains about it when the man rushed up to him. "A Taarakian! We have captured a Taarakian!" he announced.
The leader was surprised at this, but did not let his reaction show. Instead, he reached out and seized the man by the neck with his mechanical arm, forcing him to his knees. He glared at him and sneered. "But the Taarakian race is dead . . . extinct," he replied.
With some difficulty, the man choked out, "But she had the marks, your Holiness . . . I saw them." He clasped his hands together, begging for release, clawing at the leader's lapels.
Taarna did bear the bilateral marks of her race, red stylized swords behind her jaw and below the ear. She had received them upon her initiation as a full-fledged warrior.
The barbarian leader was silent for a moment. Then he released the man, who fell prostrate, rubbing his neck.
"Have her bound, and washed. Then . . . bring her to me," he ordered, a smile creeping over his face. He turned and began to walk away.
"But what of the bird?" the man inquired.
The leader turned and looked at him flatly. "Kill it."