Samuel watched as the man’s heart burned white in his chest. And, as ever, he tried to convince himself that he was only doing what was right. What was just.
But he felt the tingle at the back of his skull—an unmistakable glee that he cringed away from. Most days.
The feeling had been fluctuating from shock to fear to strength to burden for the past few months, and it continued modulating in his mind even now. Still.
It wasn’t what he expected; he’d simply hoped to earn his tenure. He knew his hypothesis about the thermodielectric effect was polarizing—a joke he’d make whenever he could. But he was certain: there was a way to extend the exact moment when a substance was transitioning to another form, and in doing so, manipulate and harness the resulting electrical charge. He wasn’t quite sure to what end. He just needed to prove it could happen.
Standing over yet another body, smoke swirling up from its orifices, the air around it crackling in a way that raised the hairs along his arms, he couldn’t help but think, “This would make a helluva paper.”
When he fell asleep that night, he landed in a dream.
It was dark. Not a void; more of a deep midnight cloak over everything. There was enough light to see that he was standing at the mouth of a crevasse. The wind was a low whisper in his ear, and it carried the scent of iron. There was a thrumming in his veins, and when he looked down, his fingers were giving off sparks.
He realized that he was the source of light in this place. His aura shimmered white, pulsing around him like a beacon. He felt reassured. And strong.
This is true power. This is the weight that balances the scale. This is the way it should be.
Samuel couldn’t place the voice, but it had a familiar quality. It ignited that same tingle at the back of his skull, spilling down his spine and spreading throughout his body. He felt safe, warm. He knew without a doubt that the voice was right. Which is why, when he peered into the crevasse and saw the broken and burned corpses, he wasn’t surprised. This is the way it should be.
Days passed, and Samuel didn’t think about the dream at all. Not consciously. So, he couldn’t cite it as the source of the ache in his chest, the tension in his neck, the phantom itch his fingers wanted to scratch.
But it was.
It was the reason why he felt nothing but relief the next time he saw someone’s aura darken. He wanted to thank a god he didn’t believe in, wanted to kneel down at that very moment and pray, when he followed this stranger, looking for the perfect opportunity.
It wasn’t until the man was whimpering, immobilized but for the frantic movement of his eyes, that Samuel remembered the dream. Because as he focused on the man’s heart, sending a current far too strong through it, he parroted what he’d heard atop that crevasse. “This is the weight that balances the scale,” he told the dying man. “This is the way it should be.”
Samuel tried to convince himself that his “increased productivity” was just a sign of his vigilance, his dedication to the mission of protecting his city.
He tried to ignore how his left eye developed a tick after a few days without a new mark. He wrote off how he felt interminably cold, only to be warmed by the burning hearts. He told himself that he was simply restless when he was lying awake in the middle of the night, practically vibrating off the bed from unused energy. When his mouth filled with a copper tang, having bitten his tongue while watching a teenager he’d hoped would go dark, he reasoned that he was simply staying on his toes.
Samuel couldn’t categorize himself as what he truly was: an addict. He was still functioning after all, still capable of rational thought. This was simply a desire to do more.
Weeks went by. Samuel was certain he was slowly going insane. Part of him cursed having these powers. But, even if he knew how to get rid of them, he didn’t really want to. Not at his core, which had mutated into a pulsing, molten center of need. He craved them. He feared them. He was desperate.
When he returned home from another night of seeking out and silencing the dangerous and wicked—feeling spent in a way that aroused and terrified him—the voice spoke again, buzzing in his head.
Samuel, what you feel is my will being carried out through you. You are the flint I will use to ignite this world and burn the unworthy. Give me your loyalty, and we will build a legacy together.
Samuel felt like his nerves had been lit on fire. Stumbling to the bathroom, he began to shake. After all this time, he was finally aware of the foreign presence in his head—in horror, he realized it had been there from the beginning. He felt it like a stone pressing on his brain, heavy and substantial. He clawed at his hair, moaning. His pulse stuttered. He felt the stone grind.
Samuel. Calm, beckoning, sinister.
“No,” he said out loud, his breathing ragged. “This is not real.”
The voice laughed, and it set his teeth on edge. Samuel. I am as real as the deaths caused by your own hands. I am what guides you.
“No,” he said again. “I am only doing what’s right. These powers . . .”
I gave them to you.
“No!” But already, Samuel’s resolve was weakening. The need crept up his throat, choking him. The desire was hot in his veins. “It was an accident . . . and I knew I shouldn’t waste them.”
It was no accident, Samuel. Your work called to me. I saw your mind and knew it was ripe. I chose you.
Samuel shook his head violently. This was just an experiment gone wrong and then right, and now it was wrong again. He needed a drink of water.
You are my vessel. At my command, you will ensure that there is a cleansing.
Samuel’s body jerked, a marionette called to attention. He faced the mirror, and he saw pinpricks of light swimming in his pupils.
I don’t care what you want, Samuel. We are together now; we are one. And it is time for the true work to begin.
He watched as the woman’s heart burned white in her chest. As with every new death since the presence made itself known, a piece of Samuel’s mind chipped and was lost. The stone weighed heavier than before, compounding with each kill. Samuel knew that he had no control. The sense of righteousness, that he was somehow improving the world, was gone. Now, he was nothing more than a murderer.
The thought tickled the base of his skull. And he smiled.