The Greater Good
I am a hero.
Vic thought this as he skillfully guided his stallion through the thick forest, countless green-needled branches clutching at him greedily. He knew there were those among the Rift Wardens who didn’t approve of his tactics, calling him too brutal or, after one incident, a monster. But these were fools who had no idea what true heroism was. They had no idea what it required. He thought back to the words of the High Captain at his initiation, before he and the other recruits had been cast into the Great Rift to become something more than human.
Vic whispered the High Captain’s words to himself as he rode. “A hero is an individual that believes in his cause so much, nothing can stand in his way. Nothing short of death itself.” The High Captain had gone on to say that those among the recruits to believe and adhere to his words were the ones that would become truly great Rift Wardens.
I have become the greatest of them all.
Vic pulled the wide-brimmed black hat from his head, wiped his face with the sleeve of his long black overcoat, and gazed into the sky. Its blood-red hue matched exactly the color of his eyes. He often looked into its charred vastness to remind himself of his cause, for the sky had been ruined by the same magic he was sworn to fight.
The other Rift Wardens fought for the same cause, but most of them balked at the dirty work required to truly succeed. They dealt in half measures, letting weaknesses like compassion hold too great a sway over their actions. Vic was the only one to grasp what was needed. He alone possessed the necessary resolve. There was no place for half measures.
He felt a powerful surge of magic nearby, an ability gained from his time inside the Great Rift. The hairs on his arms and neck stood up and he shuddered.
Once again, somebody had ignored the laws against magic use. He could tell from the strength of the surge that the idiot had been seduced into drawing too much and lost control. No doubt a lesser rift had opened as a result.
Vic smiled. That meant there would be rift dwellers to kill. It had been too long since he last saw some real action, and he exulted in the prospect. It was time to be a hero again.
Destroying the rift dwellers before they caused too much death and destruction was the first part of his job. The second part, the part that set him above his brothers, would come later.
Vic leaped from his stallion’s back, landing softly on a cushion of thick grass and tying the beast’s reins around one of the dozens of pines surrounding them. He hated leaving it alone, but he was a Rift Warden. He could move much faster without it.
He turned toward the direction of the magical surge, gathered himself, and shot forward with blinding speed. The stallion simply blinked, used to its master’s eccentricities. It lowered its head and started to graze.
When he arrived at the small village the surge had originated from, an attack was already underway. He counted over a dozen rift dwellers, some hacking at the corpses of villagers too slow to find a place to hide, while others beat on the walls of the homes the remaining villagers had holed up in.
As was often the case in these places, most of the buildings were actually the carcasses of airships and hovercraft. They were relics from old Myria, their catalysts long since drained of any magic if not missing entirely. It was all a constant reminder that the world had once been a far better place. Until uncontrolled magic use destroyed it, of course.
The dwellers sensed his presence, one-by-one turning to face the new threat.
Vic grimaced as he sped toward them. “Ugly bastards.”
Some were roughly his size and shape, with shiny, scaled skin and birdlike heads. A few were massive fur-covered brutes, as big as most of the homes surrounding them. Then there were the smaller, more agile, apelike dwellers.
Vic hated them all equally.
He saw three of the bird-faced dwellers snacking on a corpse. He drew a small pistol from inside his coat; the smooth round stone known as a catalyst set in its back glowed with magic. He fired three times in quick succession. The blue bolts of energy struck each of the dwellers in the head, flinging them back. Their bodies vanished into mist in midair as Vic streaked past.
He so enjoyed using the magic-powered weapon to destroy them. It was the only legal magic in all of Myria-that-was, by order of the Prophet. And the only reason it was allowed was because the Rift Wardens didn’t have to draw the magic themselves to fill the weapon’s catalyst. The close proximity of their fortress to the Great Rift did it for them. That, and the fact that the importance of their job was undeniable.
One of the mammoths had reached a small home, once a single-family hovercraft. The dweller raised a tree-like arm to smash the roof in and let out a deafening roar. Vic launched himself toward it, drawing the sword at his hip mid-air. He slammed into the creature, driving the sword to the hilt in its side. Blood sprayed from the wound as the momentum from the collision bore both combatants to the ground.
Vic was up in a flash, jerking his weapon free. Before the mammoth could recover, he stabbed it over and over again until it too vanished in a cloud of mist. He rose to his full height, starting to turn and—
A clawed hand raked across his back. Vic stifled a scream and flung himself away. He landed in a roll and came up with his pistol in hand. Six apelike dwellers were right behind him, charging wildly. Blood dripped from the claw of the one nearest him. His blood.
He fired six shots. Six streams of mist drifted away in the wind.
A mammoth and three bird-faced dwellers were all that remained. They roared and charged in unison.
Vic glanced at the catalyst on his pistol to find that its glow had faded almost completely away. He slipped it back inside his overcoat and gripped his sword with both hands and forced himself to ignore the stinging pain in his back.
The dwellers reached him, clawing and biting with reckless abandon; the mammoth stomped its great leg in an attempt to squash him like an insect. But none of the attacks found their mark. Vic moved too quickly, staying just out of their reach while countering with vicious swipes and jabs when the opportunity presented itself.
One birdfaced dweller vanished. Then another. And another. The mammoth pulled up short, realizing the danger it was in. It turned to flee, but Vic was on its back in an instant, stabbing again and again.
The last of the dwellers perished, and Vic dropped to one knee, breathing heavily. His back was on fire, but it wasn’t a mortal wound. He would still be able to do what needed to be done. The first part of his job as a Rift Warden was finished.
Now the real fun started.
After some time had passed in complete silence, the villagers began to emerge from their homes. Many wept, whether for the fact they had almost been killed or for those that did die, Vic wasn’t sure. A few actually applauded the Rift Warden that had saved their miserable lives. One man dared come up and pat him on the back as if they were old friends.
Vic noticed a slight tingle in his spine. At first he thought somebody was foolish enough to use magic again, right after what had just happened and with a Rift Warden present. Then he spotted a glimmering tear in the world’s fabric, floating above the ground just outside of the village.
The rift was too big to burn out on its own. A sacrifice was required.
A lot of Rift Wardens felt the need to sacrifice themselves in such circumstances out of some twisted form of honor. Vic was not one of these. He knew his job came first. Who else could punish the ones responsible?
He grabbed the man who had patted him on the back with a gloved hand and dragged him toward the rift.
“Hey, wait,” the man said. “Wha . . . what do you think you’re doing?”
The other villagers gasped and pointed, wearing various expressions of shock and outrage.
“The rift needs to be closed before more dwellers arrive. There could be more than even I can handle next time. I’m sorry.”
Vic flung the man into the rift. There was a loud pop, then both man and rift were gone. A hushed silence fell over the rest of the villagers.
Vic returned, clasping his hands behind his back and pacing before them. “It’s time for the one responsible for all of this to step forward and face his or her punishment.”
His only answer was silence and angry stares. One old man pointed at him and spat. “Why did you kill Harold? He never hurt nobody.”
“It was necessary,” Vic answered, trying to remain calm. “I urge you people to cooperate. Otherwise, this could get a bit ugly.”
Angry silence. The smart ones looked a little afraid too. They were right to fear, he thought, the pathetic sheep.
Vic shrugged. He slowly pulled a tinderbox from his coat and made a show of setting a large branch on fire. He then walked to the nearest home and held the branch against it–the homes were mostly metal, but the sealant in the joints burned like dry grass. There was a loud whoosh, and the entire building was ablaze. He watched the villagers as it burned, snapping and crackling behind him and eventually collapsing in on itself.
Still nothing. Vic thought the one who’d used magic must be a particularly loved individual in this village. That, or they just weren’t very smart. He lit another branch from the embers of the first home, strolling to the next one and setting it alight as well.
By the time he was moving to his fifth home, a breeze had spread the fire some more, and half the village was burning.
“Enough!” a rather homely woman cried, stepping toward him. A few of the others tried to pull her back, but she shrugged them off. “I’ll not let my home burn. He won’t stop until he finds Mayor Berron anyway.” She pointed to a barn on the outskirts of town. “The one you’re looking for is in there.”
The mayor. That explained their stubbornness. Vic nodded and started toward the barn.
“He was just trying to bring a little rain so we wouldn’t all starve,” cried the old man who had spoken before. Angry murmurs of agreement rippled through the gathered crowd.
“Any use of magic is punishable by death, no matter how noble the reason for it,” Vic said loudly. “So saith the Prophet.”
The old man looked ready to say more, so Vic carefully removed one of his gloves. The old man’s eyes widened. He hesitated only a moment then quietly walked away. All knew the touch of a Rift Warden was death for a normal person, and they no longer doubted whether or not Vic was capable of killing someone for simply speaking ill of the Prophet.
Fear could be a wonderful tool. He wished the other Rift Wardens understood that fact as well as he did.
He kicked open the barn’s door. Inside, three hulking youths with short swords stood protectively around a fat balding man. They hesitated at the white-skinned, red-eyed apparition before them, then raised their blades.
To Vic, taking up arms against a Rift Warden was an intolerable offense. He waded into their midst, sword a steel-colored blur, and all three of the sword-wielders dropped to the ground, sightless eyes fixed in permanent expressions of terror.
The fat man, undoubtedly Mayor Berron, dropped to his knees. “Please don’t,” he whispered.
Vic reached out his bared hand and brushed the man’s cheek. Mayor Berron’s eyes rolled up in his head and he fell beside the corpses of his protectors.
Vic sheathed his blade, straightened the wide-brimmed black hat on his head, and strode past the stunned villagers. When he reached the village’s edge, he turned back.
“Remember this day. No matter how desperate the situation, should you find yourselves thinking of using magic ever again . . . remember this day and lament your folly.”
With that, the Rift Warden turned and disappeared into the forest as the village he’d saved burned behind him.
The stallion raised its head when its master returned, staring at him quizzically. Vic just nodded, patting its soft neck as he untied the reins and carefully climbed onto its back.
“It went well,” he said. “Another job well done.”
Vic gently urged his mount forward, skillfully guiding it through the thick forest as countless green-needled branches clutched at him. He thought again of the High Captain’s words at his initiation. He did believe in a cause so much he would give anything for it. Anything at all. Unlike the others, he understood that sometimes this might mean committing dark acts for the greater good. He was the true embodiment of what the High Captain spoke of.
Vic smiled. I am a hero.