The Lord has made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm; He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me. You are my servant, he said to me, through whom I show my glory.

-- Isaiah 49:2-3

aarna stood alone in the canyon. An alarmingly copious amount of blood streaked down her left hip and thigh. It saturated her stocking and puddled in her boot. She tried to keep pressure on the flank wound to stop the bleeding, but the blood continued to ooze between her fingers. The area of unnatural cold expanded with her exsanguination, spreading icy fingers throughout her torso. Her breathing was labored, and waves of weakness and nausea washed over her.

She had defeated the barbarian chieftain, but this did not bring joy. Instead, she felt a dull emptiness, the physiological consequence of blood loss and impending shock. No emotions stirred within her at the sight of his fallen body; it now appeared as limp and harmless as some rags strewn on the ground.

Her legs felt weak and rubbery as she stumbled, bent over, toward the bird. Her exhaustion made her yearn to lie down next to him, but she feared that if she did so she would be unable to regain her feet, and the opportunity which now presented itself would pass unfulfilled.

Alata had retrieved her sword and was holding it in his mouth. Managing a small half-smile at his faithfulness, she took the sword. Then she stripped the saddle from his back; it no longer served any purpose, and the crippled animal could do without the weight.

She paused to look at the mountain and frowned. The warm air reverberated with its rumbling. The sphere glowed malignantly, and spasms of green lava were ejected from the crater in which it had come to rest. She looked down at the sword, grasped in her trembling hand. "My light within you will dispel the darkness," he had told her. Through the long travails of this day--which she now accepted as her last--she had come to understand what his words meant. She had reached the final point, and there was no looking back.

With some difficulty Taarna mounted the bird. She drew comfort from his warmth beneath her. Together they soared aloft into the darkening sky. As the animal painfully struggled to climb, she felt weary, yet oddly at peace. Nothing mattered now; there was no more self-doubt. She had fulfilled her duty, had been true to herself, and having done so, was now free. She was, and forever would be, a Taarakian warrior.

Doubled over on Alata, she held the sword and reins with her right hand and clutched her bloody waist with her left. She began to feel detached from herself, and her consciousness faded in and out, intermittently broken by darkness. The sword grew heavy in her hand, and it became harder to maintain her balance with her legs. As the weakness increased and her control slipped away, her head and shoulders bowed low, resting almost completely on Alata's neck.

Through the thickening veil of her faltering mind, the realization of her impending death finally struck home: I am dying. And notwithstanding the inner peace that she had felt moments before, with this thought she became deeply, viscerally fearful. She felt piercingly lonely, and afraid of her approaching oblivion; frightened of an impending blackness, the preordained destruction of her self; of her own das Nichtige, her unavoidable extinction. The end of her life arose at last--Death in the form of a terrifying, black void coming to consume her. She tried to overcome her terror, her hope of salvation a candle flame fluttering in a dark night's icy gale.

As they passed over the rim of the crater, the vast expanse of the green sphere was everywhere below them. It bathed them in its vivid emerald glow. "Taarna," it called to her at last. "Do not sacrifice yourself. You cannot . . . destroy . . . me." But now, Taarna barely heard its frightened, impotent pleading. Dying, she sensed that she was crossing some final threshold, slipping beyond her life and into another, and the sphere's voice seemed faint and irrelevant. Its evil seemed small and petty, its words distant and unimportant to what was approaching for her.

Like a drowning swimmer's last struggle to keep head above water, with a spasmodic motion Taarna sat bolt upright, her head extended, back arched, mouth gasping. She swung the sword over her head and seized it with her left hand. The sharp blade bit deeply into her clenched fist. Alata, also plunging over the precipice of exhaustion, sensed her shift of weight and strained upward. Her last thought was only a partial one, broken by the unleashed power which consumed her: Ah God, your will--

On the ground far below, the barbarians looked up, startled. Above the mountain, a new star silently burst upon the night sky, an expanding wave of silver heralding its appearance. Far outshining the others, it glowed with a fierce white light and descended toward the mountain. They heard the sphere's frightened denial and were struck with terror. Their master, whose power they had believed limitless, lay broken and prostrate, its designs overturned and dashed into ruins. The fiery, brilliant starburst fell implacably into the sphere, obliterating its surface in white.

* * *

A period of blackness; then Taarna looked up. A brilliant sun shone down from a crystal clear, azure sky, brighter than the sun she could remember in her former life. She could feel the Sun in her mind. It was full of a great Love, and its rays, warm and inviting, ran straight through her.

She was astride Alata; the wind blew softly through her hair. When she looked down there was nothing but clouds as far as she could see, a thick blanket of puffy white which extended from horizon to horizon. But she knew that they were not real clouds, just as the Sun was not a real sun.

She noticed her forearms and hands. They were strangely colored, a pale ivory. Then she observed that her entire body was likewise white and perfect, without mark or injury. No longer did she experience any pain, suffering, or loss, and no longer could she remember those things.

Looking about, she saw another bird descend from above to fly alongside in perfect formation with hers. Its body had also been glorified. Riding upon it, Kanei and Cynane smiled back at her. Together, they heeded the beckoning, golden rays and flew higher and higher, into the Sun.

Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension.
But to apprehend
The point of the intersection of the timeless
With time, is the occupation for the saint--
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

- T. S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages (1941)


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