Shortly after the two Rift Wardens rode into the city, they felt somebody use magic. It was a faint ripple in the world’s fabric, so small the perpetrator was obviously trying to avoid detection. Both men had been hunting magic-using Apostates for years, however, and picked up on it immediately.
Raster stifled a groan. He hated this.
“It was a trifling amount,” he said. “Not worth our time.”
His companion, Vic, glared into the scorched red sky with equally red eyes. “Nonsense. Magic destroyed the world. None who corrupt themselves with its use can be allowed to live. You know that. Rooting them out is our noble duty.”
Raster picked idly at his black uniform. “Sometimes I don’t feel very noble,” he muttered. The faces of all the people that had died by his hand floated across his vision, and he blinked back hot tears.
“Stay strong, brother.” Vic clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Our cause is righteous. We’ll see the world returned to its former glory one day, have no doubt. Come, let us deal with this Apostate quickly.”
Raster nodded, allowing the other man to lead him to their target and wearing a hopeless frown.
They traced the disturbance to a cracked door in the middle of a dark alley. Dozens of cats patrolled the area, scampering from one pile of trash to the next, eyeing the intruders warily.
Vic slammed a booted foot into the door, throwing it open, and both men leaped through with their swords drawn. A narrow staircase descended into thick shadow. There was a soft pattering sound of tiny feet fleeing the two men, then silence. The air reeked of rotting flesh.
When Raster’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw they were in some kind of sick room. Rows of beds lined the walls, most of them empty, and a small crowd of dirty children were huddled in the back. A tall woman stood in their midst, glaring at him.
“What are you doing here?” She asked angrily, though there was a tremor in her voice.
“We felt the use of magic, and it led us here.” Vic spoke softly, his body tense. “To you.”
Raster’s heart broke as he surveyed the scene. The woman was obviously the caretaker of these children. The rattling coughs that shook their small frames and the sores spotting their skin told him they suffered from plague. No doubt she’d only been trying to heal the poor wretches.
“You’re mistaken,” the woman said. “I’ve done nothing wrong.” Her terrified eyes gave away the lie.
Vic stepped forward and placed the point of his sword against one child’s chest. His eyes bored into the woman’s. “Don’t make me do this. We know somebody here is an Apostate. If you won’t admit to it, I’ll be forced to kill all of you.”
A few of the children started to cry — a high-pitched whimpering sound.
The woman rushed forward and fell to her knees before them. Tears flowed freely over her flushed cheeks. “No, don’t harm them,” she sobbed. “I am guilty. I only wanted to make these sweet children well again. Surely you can see there’s no evil in that.” She must have known there would be no mercy though, for she lifted her wrist limply up to them.
Raster had only to touch it to end her life. He had that power. He, like his companion, had been through the Rift and come back changed. More than human.
But something snapped inside of him, something that had been boiling beneath the surface for some time. This wasn’t righteous. It was evil. The Prophet be damned. Not everyone who used magic deserved to die. This was a good woman with a pure heart.
“Why do you hesitate?” Vic asked, eyeing him sideways.
Raster knew what he had to do, and it started with getting rid of his companion. He also knew that down that path awaited only death. He would be punished eventually. There was no question of that. But it no longer mattered.
Better to die a decent man than live a monster.
“These young ones have been through enough already,” he said. “Take them out while I deal with the Apostate.”
Vic shot him an odd look but complied, herding the children out of the room in short order. Many of them glanced back at their caretaker, faces full of infinite grief.
Then Raster was alone with the Apostate.
“Just get it over with,” she said softly. “Please.”
“I’m not going to kill you.”
She looked up at him sharply. “But…”
“Listen. I know what you’re doing isn’t evil, and my conscience can’t bear the weight of another innocent person’s death.” He shuddered. “I’ll just walk out of here and say I killed you. You just lay low for a while. Don’t leave and certainly don’t use magic.”
“Oh thank you,” the woman whispered, clutching at his sleeve. “Thank you, thank you, thank — ”
Her eyes grew wide, staring at his chest. He glanced down to find the red-tinted point of a sword sticking out of him.
Raster’s body began to weaken and he fell to his knees in front of the woman. Their eyes met. For the first time in many years, he didn’t see the unbridled hate he was used to, but sympathy.
It was nice.
The woman started to scream, but Vic slapped her, killing her instantly.
“I guess you were right, old friend,” Vic said. “You aren’t so noble after all.”
Raster smiled as the other man lined up the blow that would take his head. He had no idea what awaited one such as him in the afterlife, but now he could embrace it as a man who’d died for what he believed was right.
For the first time in longer than he could remember, Raster was at peace.
Paul Miller lives near Dallas with his beautiful wife and three young children. He enjoys writing short speculative fiction in what spare time he can find. His work has also appeared in The Red Asylum and Flashes in the Dark.