She glanced at the cage closest to her own, and suddenly felt the breath in her body turning to cold iron. There sat on an oaken perch a creature with the body of a great bronze bird and a hag’s face, clenched and deadly as the talons with which she gripped the wood. She had the shaggy round ears of a bear; but down her scaly shoulders, mingling with the bright knives of her plumage, there fell hair the color of moonlight, thick and youthful around the hating human face. She glittered, but to look at her was to feel the light going out of the sky. Catching sight of the unicorn, she made a queer sound like a hiss and a chuckle together.

The unicorn said quietly, “This one is real. This is the harpy Celaeno.”

The unicorn began to walk toward the harpy’s cage. Schmendrick the Magician, tiny and pale, kept opening and closing his mouth at her, and she knew what he was shrieking, though she could not hear him. “She will kill you, she will kill you! Run, you fool, while she’s still a prisoner! She will kill you if you set her free!” But the unicorn walked on, following the light of her horn, until she stood before Celaeno, the Dark One.

For an instant the icy wings hung silent in the air, like clouds, and the harpy’s old yellow eyes sank into the unicorn’s heart and drew her close. “I will kill you if you set me free,” the eyes said. “Set me free.”

The unicorn lowered her head until her horn touched the lock of the harpy’s cage. The door did not swing open, and the iron bars did not thaw into starlight. But the harpy lifted her wings, and the four sides of the cage fell slowly away and down, like the petals of some great flower waking at night. And out of the wreckage the harpy bloomed, terrible and free, screaming, her hair swinging like a sword. The moon withered and fled.

The unicorn heard herself cry out, not in terror but in wonder, “Oh, you are like me!” She reared joyously to meet the harpy’s stoop, and her horn leaped up into the wicked wind. The harpy struck once, missed, and swung away, her wings clanging and her breath warm and stinking. She burned overhead, and the unicorn saw herself reflected on the harpy’s bronze breast and felt the monster shining from her own body. So they circled one another like a double star, and under the shrunken sky there was nothing real but the two of them. The harpy laughed with delight, and her eyes turned the color of honey. The unicorn knew that she was going to strike again.

The harpy folded her wings and fell like a star — not at the unicorn, but beyond her, passing so close that a single feather drew blood from the unicorn’s shoulder; bright claws reaching for the heart of Mommy Fortuna, who was stretching out her own sharp hands as though to welcome the harpy home. “Not alone!” the witch howled triumphantly at both of them. “You never could have freed yourselves alone! I held you!” Then the harpy reached her, and she broke like a dead stick and fell. The harpy crouched on her body, hiding it from sight, and the bronze wings turned red.

The unicorn turned away. Close by, she heard a child’s voice telling her that she must run, she must run. It was the magician. His eyes were huge and empty, and his face — always too young — was collapsing into childhood as the unicorn looked at him. “No,” she said. “Come with me.”

The harpy made a thick, happy sound that melted the magician’s knees. But the unicorn said again, “Come with me,” and together they walked away from the Midnight Carnival. The moon was gone, but to the magician’s eyes the unicorn was the moon, cold and white and very old, lighting his way to safety, or to madness. He followed her, never once looking back, even when he heard the desperate scrambling and skidding of heavy feet, the boom of bronze wings, and Rukh’s interrupted scream.

“He ran,” the unicorn said. “You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention.” Her voice was gentle, and without pity. “Never run,” she said. “Walk slowly, and pretend to be thinking of something else. Sing a song, say a poem, do your tricks, but walk slowly and she may not follow. Walk very slowly, magician.”

Excerpts from “The Last Unicorn,” by Peter S. Beagle

. . .

Such is evil. It seeks to kill and destroy (Romans 6:23).

Here, Celaeno reveals the strange contradiction of our souls: “I will kill you if you set me free,” yet, “Set me free.”

Why are we compelled to free within ourselves the very thing things that will seek our destruction? Why does sin nature, even on this side of the cross and on this side of baptism and on this side of the indwelling of the Spirit of God, yet insidiously persist?

I have prayed many times that I, the ego that has been so destructive and selfish and weak (Matthew 26:41) will die. I have asked that the Lord crucify my ego Himself, or at least that He would bless me by taking me captive and locking that wicked part of me in a cage of His design.

But, alas, He came to bring freedom and not captivity (John 8:36). And what is freedom if not the freedom to do with our sin nature what we choose?

Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, argues that freedom is the manner in which intellectual beings seek goodness and, if ever there was a source of the good, the true, and the beautiful, it is found in Christ.

So why then am I so confused?

Perhaps because the evil is a thing so like me that I often can’t tell the difference. This must be why we “fix our eyes on Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) and why we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). It is the kind of process by which God seems to be shaping us not into people who merely follow rules, but into the kind of people whose worst sins point others to Jesus.

And so, we — I — walk slowly, sing songs, say poems, do tricks, and as we are going, we teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).