The Essence of Power (2.1)

He did not remember how he had left the museum. It had been a blind panic… no, not panic. Instinct. Savage instinct. He had desired to leave, and he had. That was the essence of power: you want something, and it happens.

He had power now, there was no doubt of that. He’d felt it wash over him, course through him, transform him. His muscles were big and corded. His skin was cold and hard, his breath hot and wild. His nails were something like claws, his feet hooves, and he was very conscious of the horns that had erupted from his head.

Physically, he was something like a demigod. He’d made it off the whole goddamned island and halfway back to the shore with a single leap. The cold, choppy waters of the brackish bay had not bothered him. In the wooded hills, he’d been able to test his powers without interruption, felling trees and splitting rocks, leaping and running.

It was amazing. He was amazing.

And yet…

There should have been more.

He found a cabin, maintained and with power lines but with no car out front and no signs of current or recent habitation. Looking in the window, he spotted a landline phone hanging up in the kitchen. He very carefully broke the lock on the front door, then let himself inside.

Hitting the buttons on the phone and holding the receiver were tricky, but he needed to learn fine manipulation sooner or later. His cellphone was gone… no doubt ruined and lost somewhere in the frigid waters. It had never held the number, he dialed, though, as he had never called it from his own phone. It was never written down, but always in his head.

The line rang once.

“Well, is it everything you hoped it would be?” the voice on the other end asked.

“No!” he said. “Something went wrong!”

“You sound different enough.”

“Not different enough,” he said. “I have strength, but not power. I look like a goddamn monster! There’s no way I can move around without being seen now.”

“You knew that would likely be the outcome,” the voice said.

“I expected to be powerful enough that it wouldn’t matter anymore!”

“Had you stuck to the original timetable, you would have already been powerful enough by the point you seized this artifact that it wouldn’t have mattered if it did nothing for you but put a flashing sign over your head saying ‘here is the bad guy, come beat him up’,” the voice said. “You knew there were risks when you altered the plan. I suggest you find a way to live with the consequences.”

“The risk was supposed to be worth it!”

“I’m not sure you understand what ‘risk’ means.”

“Listen, you smarmy little cuck,” the man said. “The power of the gods was in that vessel! I felt it go through me! It changed me! But now, I can’t feel it… can’t access it, can’t do anything with it! I can jump like a rocket-powered kangaroo but I should be able to fly. What the hell happened?”

“I believe you said it yourself: the power passed through you,” the voice said. “It’s no longer with you. It went somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“Who knows? Perhaps it merely dissipated into the ether.”

“That’s not how it was supposed to work,” the man said. “You said it yourself: the power needs a vessel. It craves a master. When freed of its bonds, it will flow into the nearest suitable container. That was me!”

“Was there no one else nearby?”

“There was no one else in the room!” the man said. “And if that punk-ass kid hadn’t…”

“Wait, what ‘punk-ass kid’ is this?”

“Some sherbet-haired she-twink who couldn’t mind her own business and tried to stop me.”

“From outside the room?”

“No! What? She was right there, trying to rip the damn thing out of my fucking hands!”

“…so, you weren’t the only one in the room,” the voice said.

“How do you figure?”

“You just said there was another person, grappling with you for control of the vessel, meaning there was another suitable vessel for the power to go into,” the voice said. “Was she touching it when it broke open?”

“I… what? No!”

“No, she wasn’t?”

“No, she was, but filth like that doesn’t fucking count as a ‘suitable vessel’ for the power of the gods!” the man said.

“I’m not sure that’s your decision.”

“Listen here, she was just some goddamn social justice warrior in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is no fucking way my power wound up in her hands.”

“Well, you had better hope that it did,” the voice said. “Because if it did, then it’s still in one place, waiting for you to claim it. The next most likely alternative is that it’s simply gone.”

“So, what do you suggest I do?”

“Find her. Crack her open the way you did the statue. Make sure there is no one around, not just anyone you hold in any regard. Though, this might be complicated by the fact that she now holds the power of the gods.”

“Holds, maybe,” the man said. “But she cannot know what it is she possesses. She can’t have any clue how to use it.”

“In the same way she couldn’t count as a worthy vessel? Of course, you could always resume the original plan, start working your way back up the list. Your inability to ‘blend’ will work against you, but your enhanced physical capabilities might make up for that. You could then deal with the usurper of ‘your’ power when you reach the point you would have been going after the vessel, anyway, with all of the powers you would have had at that point.”

“No,” the man said. “Right now, every advantage is mine. I must give her no time to find allies or learn how to use her abilities. The list can wait.”

“It’s your decision,” the voice said. “I hope the list is somewhere secure.”

“I have it memorized,” the man said.

“Good. So there’s no paper copies floating around.”

“There’s a printout back at my motel room, but it would be meaningless to anyone other than me. There is no way anyone could understand its significance.”

“Of course,” the voice said, and then the call disconnected.

The man stared at the phone in disbelief, then almost put it through the wall hanging it up. He stopped himself. He might need it. The cabin was two rooms, not counting the bathroom. Finished. Furnished. Comfortable enough. Not insulated, though. There was an air conditioning unit sitting beneath a window, but no heater.

Conclusion: this was someone’s summer retreat. He could hide out in it for months and never be noticed. Meanwhile, there was light and power, and a satellite dish on the roof.

That grubby little degenerate who had taken the power that belonged to him must have been transformed as he was. He was lying low. She, he had no doubt, would immediately seek the spotlight. She couldn’t help it. Why would anyone do that to their hair if they didn’t crave attention like an addict craves drugs?

All he had to do was watch the news. She would pop up sooner or later.