This short story was inspired by the quote at the end (some of you might recognize where it's from). The scene itself is a reference to part of one of the first novels I ever attempted, abandoned now, but I opted to leave the characters ambiguous. This plays as something of a counter to another short story I wrote which was far less ambiguous.
~ Sacrifices ~
He stood, quivering, his gauntlet clutching the loose folds of cloth. The sword shook in his grip, the red glow illuminating the tears sliding down her face. Her eyes, a moment ago wide in fear, were now shut tight. And still he stood, uncertain.
Dark grey hair framed his vision -- there was nothing before him except the girl, the wavering sword tip, and the deep emptiness of the midnight skies. What he was doing was wrong, against everything he'd sworn his life to. That he knew.
But so, also, was not doing it.
His breathing was ragged, his eyes wide, as he struggled mightily against himself, against his own doubts. He gritted his teeth, as he tightly closed his eyes and looked away. He did not let go.
He was on one knee, before a circle of the most widely hailed paladins, heroes in their own right. Hands crossed over the pommel of his blade, set into the floor, he spoke. "I swear that I shall believe all that the virtues teach, and shall observe all their directions." The virtues were Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Humility, and Spirituality. He knew each one well.
He opened his eyes, and pulled back his arm, ready to finish the job, but stopped. Her eyes were open. In those pale blue eyes he could see her pain, her fear, her confusion, and... hope. Her hands clutched at his fist, trying to pry his grip open. "I shall respect all weaknesses, and shall constitute myself the defender of them."
He blinked. No, he had to do this: that was the price. Ultimately, if he did not kill her, he would fail the Light. He had to endure this dark act, or Darkness could never be defeated. He tightened his grip on the sword.
"I shall be everywhere and always the champion of the right and the good against injustice and evil." He couldn't afford to hesitate. So why was he? He knew that to overcome evil, he had to become evil. It was the only way.
She let out a sob and shut her eyes again. His blade stopped, touching her throat.
"I shall never attack an unarmed foe. I shall never use a weapon on an opponent not equal to the attack." He closed his eyes again as tears of frustration squeezed out. "I shall protect the innocent." But she wasn't... not really. Not when she had the power to undo everything. Not when the choices she made could end it all, before he ever had a chance to overcome the Darkness.
He had made thousands of compromises, of sacrifices, to get this far. Why couldn't he make this one? What was stopping him?
Was it just one too many?
He paused, his eyes widening in revelation.
He had made a compromise, and then another compromise, and then another. Such sacrifices were the prices he had to pay, but he had never been the only one paying the price.
As he stood here, under the moonless night sky, looking at this young woman, he realized that he was nowhere closer to his goal than he had ever been.
From behind, a man called out her name desperately. It was now, or never.
With all his effort, he managed to steady his arm. His voice hoarse, he whispered, "I'm sorry." He looked into her eyes. Then he let go and pulled his sword away.
He turned, catching the man's sword on the flat of his blade.
With barely a glance at him, the man ran past him toward the girl. She desperately clutched at his arm as soon as he drew near. Sheathing his sword over his shoulder, her rescuer snatched the girl up. The red cloak fluttered slightly in the wind. The man turned a smoldering glare his way and then spoke a few words.
The two of them disappeared, leaving him alone on the empty plains.
The former paladin stood there, loathing himself. After all these years, though, he could see the slightest glimmer of light.
All along he'd thought there had to be a sacrifice, but... maybe there was another answer after all.