He felt a twinge of regret at the very end. Not doubt, never that! He knew this horrific deed was necessary, as part of a larger campaign to right the wrongs done his people and the One True Faith. He knew God smiled on him. But just for an instant, he regretted the loss of the mortal life he was laying down at such a young age. For an even briefer snippet of time, his mind's eye saw the faces of some of the infidels he'd be taking with him...and he wished it hadn't.
But his resolve never wavered. He whispered a final prayer. And for him, at least, the fulfillment of his mission brought no pain. First came a jolting, paralyzing shock, then a glimpse--real or imagined--of flames erupting around him. His spirit soared, triumphant.
And the world went dark.
He woke in a bare, windowless room. He was still clothed as he had been, and his body seemed whole and normal.
As he stood there examining his hands--flexing them, turning them over and over--he sensed he was no longer alone. He looked up...and what he saw took his breath away.
Standing not six feet from him was a Being who had the appearance of a man of his own race--tall and powerfully built, serene of countenance. He wore a flowing robe, and a nimbus of light surrounded him.
Almighty God looked exactly as the warrior had pictured Him. He stretched out His arms and said, "Welcome, my child."
The warrior knew his beating heart must be an illusion, but it seemed about to burst from his chest. He dropped to his knees, and somehow choked out the words, "My Lord and my God!"
God took his hands and pulled him gently to his feet. "Call me Father."
Awe-struck, he looked upon the visage of the Almighty. He had the odd impression that God's eyes were bright with unshed tears.
"You died bravely, my son," God told him, "thinking only to serve me. You have earned the Paradise you seek." He gestured, and a doorway appeared in the formerly solid wall. Beyond it, the warrior glimpsed a sunny meadow.
"P-Paradise?" Now that he was here, he could scarcely believe it.
God put an arm around his shoulders and walked him toward the door.
"Paradise," He assured him, with a loving smile. "It's not the same for everyone. But you'll find all the delights you expect, and more."
"Will I see You again?" He suddenly knew that mattered more to him than anything else.
"Yes, whenever you wish."
The warrior heard the pleasure in his Father's voice, and was glad he'd asked the question.
About to cross the threshold, he thought of another. "Father..." He stepped back from the doorway.
"Yes, my son?" There was a hint of concern in the voice now.
The warrior hesitated. Was his motive impure?
No, he decided, he wasn't seeking praise for himself. He loved his Heavenly Father, and genuinely wanted to know...
"Did my last deed on earth please You? My martyrdom?"
The hand that had been resting on his shoulder slipped away. God's face became an expressionless mask, and He said, "I wish you hadn't asked that."
"F-Father?" the warrior ventured, breaking a long silence.
"You meant to serve me," God said heavily. "I hoped I could avoid causing you pain. But there are rules here, rules that exist because I've bound myself to respect humans' free will. If you'd crossed into Paradise without asking that question, you would never have thought of it again. But since you've asked, I must give you a truthful answer.
"And the answer is...no, my son. I never wanted you to kill yourself or others. Some of your grievances were legitimate. But murdering people who'd done you no harm was not the solution."
"They were infidels!" the warrior protested. "They were evil, all of them--"
God shook His head. "No, they weren't. Some of them honored me in different ways, as valid as your own. But even among those who denied me, not a man or woman was 'evil.' And you've given their people cause to denounce you and others like you as 'evil.' Thinking in those terms can only make matters worse."
Stunned, the warrior whispered, "Our leader said..."
"He didn't deceive you," God told him. "Your leader is just as misguided as you were."
"But how can You permit--?" He broke off, shocked at what he'd had the temerity to say.
God didn't seem angry. "Free will, remember?" He sighed. "Sometimes, when a man thinks a divine voice is prompting him, he's right. But just as often it's the product of his imagination. You must decide for yourselves. If I didn't allow you the freedom to do that--to make mistakes, even commit atrocities--humanity would be something less than it is."
"I...see," the warrior murmured. And dazed as he was, he did see.
"Commit atrocities. That's what I've done, isn't it? In Your name!" His voice broke. "And...and You still meant to let me enter Paradise? That was real?"
God met his eyes and said quietly, "Of course it was. Is. No one sins unless he intends to sin."
"But I can't go to Paradise now! Knowing the truth!" He tore at his hair in anguish, pulling a clump of it out by the roots. "I don't deserve a reward. I can never forgive myself for what I've done. I'd be in agony in 'Paradise,' no matter what I was supposed to be experiencing!"
"Listen to me." God caught the young man's hands in His and held them tight. "You meant well. And you won't be tormented by the memory of what I just told you. You'll forget it as soon as you step through the door."
That brought the warrior up short.
He stood very still, for a moment that seemed like forever.
Then he looked at his Maker and said, "I won't step through it."
For an instant, God's eyes blazed with admiration. But then He said reasonably, "You can't stay here. And don't even think about Hell. All that will happen if you don't enter Paradise voluntarily is that when you finally do find yourself there, you'll retain that painful memory. Why torture yourself?"
The warrior pulled his hands free and fell on his knees again. "I don't want Paradise or Hell. Please, Father, I beg of You, let me go back to earth! Let me relive those last hours and undo the wrong I've done!"
He looked up to see God shaking His head. "I'm sorry, son. What's past can't be changed."
"Please! There must be a way I can make amends!" He choked back a sob. "All I ever wanted was to please You, and I want it now more than ever. If I can just set things right, I won't care what becomes of me after that."
"There is...one possibility." Tears were brimming in those eloquent eyes now, and it seemed the Almighty's words were dragged out of Him. "You can't change what you've done. But you could go back and be born into a new life. Try to do better."
"You mean...reincarnation?" The warrior's faith--the One True Faith!--had taught there was no such thing.
"Yes. It is possible."
He needed a minute to absorb that. Then he asked more quietly, "Will I remember? Remember my former life--and meeting You, the things You've told me?"
"No. At least not consciously. Please, you don't have to do this!" God bent to smooth and stroke the young man's hair. "You truly have earned the right to be happy in Paradise."
The warrior gazed up into that wise, compassionate face. How could anything expunge it from his memory?
Calmly and deliberately, he said, "I want to get it right, Father. Send me back."
And the face of God faded from his view.
When God was alone, His tears flowed unchecked.
Oh, my son, my poor son. I couldn't hurt you by telling you more. I'm glad you didn't ask the questions I would have been bound to answer.
"Have we had this conversation before?"
And then, "How many times?"
You wouldn't want to know how many "True Faiths" you've killed and died for. How often I've tried to urge you into Paradise, and you've gone back to earth with the best of intentions and wound up doing it again.
But perhaps, this time, you finally will get it right...