The Annular Eclipse

“Do you resign as a human being?”

That was Nacht’s first question to me, when I went to him for training.

I didn’t understand what he was asking, and I said so.

He just shrugged, like it didn’t matter, and we got started on the basics of sword-work. Good. This is what I had come for.

But why ask something like that? I didn’t give it much thought at the time.

“What is the thing that holds you back, as a warrior?” he asked, later on.

“Lack of skill… lack of physical fitness… not enough practice…” I was guessing, and we both knew it.

“It’s that you’re fighting for something,” he said.

I didn’t get that either.

The regular palaestra had rejected me. They’d sent me here, to this weird old man in the mountains, dressed all in black with wild gray hair down to his waist and huge bushy eyebrows that jutted from the side of his head. He lived in a cave, and hunted meat for his meals by throwing darts into the skulls of predatory animals before they could catch their own prey. He didn’t have me do anything weird, like the palaestra teachers had tried to do. None of this “fetch water from the well” or “meditate on suffering and injustice” stuff. Nope. Nacht went right to work with the weapon training. It hurt, and he drove me hard, but it made sense.

All except the questions.

One day he set up training dummies. This was pretty normal, except that he’d decorated them to look like villagers I knew.

“Attack,” he said casually.

I didn’t move.

“What are you waiting for, boy?” he asked, in a testy voice.

"They’re… " I gestured at the dummies. It should have been obvious. But he didn’t move a muscle. “These are people I know. Neighbors. Friends.”

“They’re training dummies,” he replied calmly. “Attack.”

What could I say that would get through to him? This was some kind of weird trick.

He leaped off the rock he was sitting on, and in one move he kicked the heads off two of them. He landed gracefully, catlike, rose and turned to look at me.

“See? Training dummies. They won’t hurt you.”

How could I explain this? I knew what I felt, but I didn’t have the words for it.

Nacht spoke my feelings aloud as I stood there, staring at him.

“You don’t want to attack your friends,” he said in a gentle voice. “They’re not really your friends. What you don’t want to do is feel like you attacked something that reminds you of them. It’s all in your head, but it’s stopping you.”

I didn’t know how to reply. He went on, walking in a slow circle around the training dummies, hands folded behind his back as he went.

“The most powerful weapon in the world, and the most dangerous enemy you’ll face, are your feelings. Your feelings of fondness for people kept you from doing a basic training exercise. What about your feelings of love? Or fear? Or anger?”

I struggled to piece together what he was saying. “But those feelings are part of me!”

Nacht smiled. “They needn’t be. It is time to cultivate your Darkside.”

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It was weird stuff, but Nacht had earned my trust. So I went along with it. The time was just before lunch, and the sun was bright and high in the sky outside the cave.

“Write a letter.” He pointed at the quill and ink and parchment on the crude table before me.

I sat down, and turned to ask the logical next questions. “To who? About what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, shrugging. “To me, about all the things you don’t like about me.”

Midway through, he approached, and lay a hand on mine as I wrote. “This time, watch your hand. Watch the quill.”

I did, and resumed writing. But I could tell that my handwriting was suffering for it.

“It’s easier if I don’t,” I said, but from his face I could tell he knew this, and getting me to know it too was the point of the exercise.

He replaced the writing implements with a bowl of soup and a spoon. “Eat,” he commanded.

“Do I need to think about it?” I asked, in an only mildly mocking tone.

He took the spoon away and put a fork into the soup bowl.


I raised the whole bowl to my mouth and drank directly from it. I expected to get smacked in the back of the head for my impertinence, like usual, but nothing of the kind came.

The soup was good. Whatever flaws Nacht had as a teacher and hermit, he was an excellent cook.

“You’re bad at thinking, boy,” he told me. “But the discipline you’re learning means that’s a virtue. You didn’t ask about the fork. You didn’t see it as a puzzle. You just did what came naturally. You had a problem, and you solved it in the most direct fashion.”

He gestured, and led me outside to the sword training area. He pulled one of the blades off the rack, and handed it to me.

“What is this?” he asks.

“A sword?” I stared at the weapon incredulously. The weird questions were getting weirder.

“What does a sword do?”

“It cuts things.”

“What else?”

I paused to puzzle this one out. “It… stabs things?”

“Anything else?”

“You can block with it.”

Nacht smiled. “Of course. You know this. But I want you to appreciate it. The sword is what it is, and nothing more. The sword will not fear. It will not hesitate. It will strike, and parry, and that is all it needs to do.”

“You, my boy, will overcome your weaknesses, and become a sword.”

“If I am a sword… who wields me?” I asked, uncertainly.

Nacht’s face lit up with the joy of a father proudly witnessing his child’s first steps.

The book had a picture of a circle on the cover. The edges were all uneven.

“The annular eclipse,” Nacht says. “The symbol of the school of swordfighting I teach.”

He pointed to the cave entrance. “When the moon crosses the sun, it blocks out the sun’s light. An eclipse. But it’s imperfect. An annular eclipse is when the moon is slightly smaller. A ring of the sun’s fire surrounds it.”

“You will drown all of your fears, all of your doubts, all of your hesitations and loves and hates, into your Darkside. The ring of fire is that which is left. What will guide you as a living weapon is the needs of the moment, as you understand them. Whatever it is inside you that knows right and wrong. All else will be stripped from you.”

I frowned. “It sounds like you’re asking me to give up some important things.”

Nacht was no longer standing a few feet away, showing me a book and its contents. He was behind me, a black-edged blade held in his hands. Its tip was at my throat.

I hadn’t seen him move.

“This is the power that will let you accomplish anything you must.” His voice was grave, and set with determination. “This is the power that will enable a man to take revenge against his oppressors. The price of that power is the feeling of fulfillment. You will fight for the right and the good, but you will no longer remember why.”

I felt the tip of the blade, cold against my skin, and heard him repeat the question he asked me when I first came here.

“So. Do you resign as a human being?”

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