The Hope It Inspired

            “You always take what you want. You’re nothing but a bully.”

            There was a gasp or two from somewhere within the assembled crowd, but silence ruled the majority. The tall man in black turned around, his eyes hard steel in a face that seemed even harder. His thin lips cracked a sinister smile, but the amusement his mouth displayed was betrayed by the unwavering hatred in his eyes. 

            He quickly scanned his assailant, a boy certainly no more than twelve years of age; the youth’s voice had not even changed. The child stood a couple of paces forward from the rest of the crowd, face painted with the red flush of determined frustration. Willing to speak where his elders stayed silent, he stood as the personification of courage. Or perhaps stupidity. The rest of those assembled wisely stood quietly, watching and waiting, and none seemed willing to interfere in this conflict. They had learned. This boy, however, had not.

            “Do you address me?” The question was casual, quiet. Even that was sufficient; a woman near the back of the gathered crowd fainted. No one moved to help her. 

            In the breadth of just a few seconds, youthful exuberance and zeal melted away and though the lad opened his mouth to answer, no words came out. The determination in his face waned, and the red flush of bravery and anger was transformed abruptly into the pale white of fear. He stammered something, nothing intelligible, and closing his mouth with obvious difficulty, he nodded solemnly.

            “Do you know who I am?” Another nod from the foolish child. The youth’s gaze dropped and the man noticed that the boy’s hands were shaking. Fear turned to terror quickly in the weak and the young. At the very least it showed that the boy understood his own idiocy, even if he did so a bit late. Too late, unfortunately.

            “Then you realize you are about to die?” The boy might have nodded, but the man wasn’t sure. No matter. The child sniffled, tears running down his cheeks and slipping to the tile floor below. The man shrugged. He had driven pity out of himself long ago, and mercy was the mark of the weak. To kill this broken spirit before him would be nothing; he had done this and more before.

            The first time he had killed an innocent had been as much a shock to him as it had been to everyone else. He had originally promised himself that he would devote his abilities to protection, to good. To life. A starry-eyed dreamer, he had planned to be the comic book super hero who defends justice at every turn. It even started out that way. But that had been more years ago than he could clearly remember.

            At some point the temptation had been too great. A desire to help had been killed by a single night of folly. A woman, even now he could not remember her name, had frustrated him in some minor way. Useless argument led to angry emotions and ultimately, in a moment of unthinking, he had killed her simply by thinking it. A thought, nothing more, and she lay dead at his feet. He had long suspected that he could kill people so easily, but had never tried, never wanted to know. All it had taken to answer the question was the space of instant. At the time he wished it had never been answered. That desire for ignorance had passed.

            His unique powers had allowed him to escape the manhunt that followed. He could vanish in one place and appear in another thousands of miles away. He could read minds. He could move things without touching them. And, as he discovered when authorities finally found him, he had no need to fear bullets. It turned out that the philosopher's were right. Power corrupts.

            The return to the current moment was abrupt, and for an instant he was uncertain where he was. The sight of the shivering boy before him brought back the totality of the scene. Surely no more than a few seconds had passed during his ill-timed reminiscence, but all present watched him carefully, waiting for the punishment he had promised. Very well; he hated to disappoint an audience.

            With an unnecessary but well-practiced dramatic flair, he raised his right hand in front of him, knuckles to the boy. Then, with a cruel, twisted smile, he began slowly, very slowly, to draw it into a fist. 

            He had no more than started when a woman struggled through the crowd, tears streaming down her cheeks. As she emerged from the knot of people, she took a careful step forward.  “Please!  Please, he is my only child! My only son! Please don’t! Please don’t do this!” She took another tentative step forward, but the man glared at her and arched an eyebrow. Abruptly, she stopped her advance; the woman might be frantic, but not foolish.

            “Please,” she pleaded, her voice softer now, broken. She sank to her knees in misery. He smiled darkly at the woman, reveling in her misery and defeat, then directed his attention back to her insolent child. “Please…sir.”

            Sir. He had had a name once, but whatever it might have been was lost in the back of his mind.  Sir. Master. He had been called whatever would least offend. Some had tried to saddle long, impressive titles on him. They had quickly discovered that he disliked flattery, though that knowledge came too late for them to implement. Thankfully, those following after had proven wiser. Simple titles suited him best, so long as they showed respect. The actual title varied from language to language and region to region, but the whole world soon knew him and gave him the respect he deserved. They gave that respect or they died. For many, the choice had been simple. For the few others, the choice had been painful.

            After establishing his supremacy, the world settled into a pattern. He received whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. When you found that you could never kill the one who could kill you, ultimately the will to fight was killed as well. No one dared argue, the man received every desire of his heart. Ironically, it was one of his lesser takings that had sparked the argument that would very quickly result in the death of this foolish child. 

            He had been browsing, shopping, and discovered a small vase to his liking. It was nothing grand, not even expensive, but the pattern attracted his eye. The owner had quietly informed him that someone else had expressed a desire to purchase it. He had loudly informed the owner that he didn’t care. The man demanded what he wanted, and he always got it. And so, as he made his selection, silence had greeted him from the majority. They all wanted him to have what he wanted, if only so he wouldn’t wipe away their miserable lives.

            Except this boy.

            What had set this little fool’s teeth on edge? Why did he intend to die where others wisely stepped aside? 

            Realization dawning, the man smiled darkly. “You were the one who intended to purchase the vase,” he said slowly, and the child nodded dejectedly. “Why was it so precious to you?” 

            “I was going to buy it for my mom,” the youth answered quietly. “For her birthday. I was saving up all summer. She drove me here, and I…” The man laughed suddenly, cutting off the boy’s response, but the laughter held no mirth. Many within the crowd shuddered at the sound. 

            “What a good son you are,” the man mocked. Bringing up his free hand, he let the vase hover just inches from his fingers. With a wave and a thought, the vase lazily floated to the boy’s mother, where it landed softly. “Bought with your son’s life,” the man said to the weeping mother, “I will allow you to keep this. Treasure it, woman; I’m sure this is the most expensive present you will ever receive.” He shook his head and added with a sneer, “Maybe you should cremate him and keep his ashes in it to remind you what it cost.”

            Ignoring the woman’s horrified look, the man again began to curl his fingers inward. The boy cringed and gasped, clutching at his chest. He slipped to his knees as pain overwhelmed him. His mother let out another cry, but made no advance toward her son or the boy’s assailant. She had learned. She had learned and would regret not teaching her son.

            The motions with the hand were unnecessary of course. His mind did all the work, but giving the audience something to see as he played with them had done wonders for his control of the masses. They knew he could crush the heart and lungs in their chests with just a thought, but to watch him act it, to see as he slowly squeezed them in his fists, the terror was multiplied a hundred fold. When the hand was open, life. When it was closed, death. Even a child could understand that concept; at least he had thought one could.

            He watched the youth gasp and groan. The boy’s breathing was irregular, and he was staggering slightly. His gaze was still directed downward. The man smiled darkly and slowly released his grip. This was ending too quickly; he wanted to toy with the child first.

            The youth dropped to his knees, drawing in deep, ragged breaths. His mother took a quick glance at her son, and then looked plaintively at the man in black. “Please,” she begged again. Licking her lips, she pleaded, “Please, sir!”

            The words were the same, but the tone had changed, and the plea was most certainly different than before. Previously the cry had been born of desperation as she asked for the one thing on her mind, even as she knew she could not have it. Now, though, reality had breached her thoughts and she knew the final result. That frail, keening moan was not asking for life, but for death. Please don’t torture him. Please kill him quickly, sir.

            He looked away. Not because he felt remorse, but simply so he could end this execution. Turning back to the boy, he prepared his mind to slowly crush the life from this young fool. Just as his fingers began to curl, however, the boy looked up and their eyes met. The man stopped, and almost stumbled as he saw what lay behind them.

            Hope.

            That emotion was foreign to him now. He remembered in the past, though, at the beginning, his greatest goal had been to bring hope. Now his presence pulled every last vestige of it from their souls. At first, after his selfish nature won, people had begged, pleaded, and even as he stared down at them, hope blossomed. They promised him whatever he wanted. Some had offered their cars, their money, their homes, their service. The more selfish had offered the lives of their loved ones. Each had watched as the man accepted the gifts with a smile. Valuables were whisked away, or family members slaughtered before their eyes, but in every deal the hope for their own life carried them through loss. And then, each one realized too late his mistake. They had all died anyway.

            His reputation spread, and the hope behind the eyes vanished from his victims. They knew to expect no quarter, and none was ever given. Oh, they still begged, they still pleaded, and they still offered, but none now dared hope. 

            Except this boy.

            The man focused his eyes on the child, his gaze hard and unyielding. Fear still ruled the boy’s face, but hope was steadily gaining. This child must have been sheltered. His mother must not have told him everything about the man standing before him, the man who literally held his life in his hand. The boy was told enough of the man to generate fear, but not understanding. And that naïve outlook had created what should have been impossible. Looking away from the boy, the man scanned the faces in the crowd. Most reflected sadness, some reflected anger, all reflected fear. The boy’s mother still showed only desperation. Desperation. That and terror had been his unyielding formula for years. Everyone knew it.

            Except this boy.

            And now, despite his best efforts to the opposite, the man found himself uncertain. He had killed without thought for longer than this boy had been alive, but before that he had inspired the very emotion that he had ultimately killed. And now, he knew that even if he desired it, he could never again inspire hope in those other than the naïve. 

            He could drop his still extended arm to his side, turn away, and disappear to his home, but it would not inspire hope, only panic. Everyone present, save the one doomed to die, would suspect-no, they would know-that he had something darker and more sinister planned. Even if he had made no such plan. If he tried to bestow wealth and property upon this wretched woman and her son, she would reject it, or accept it only from fear that rejection would be perceived as insult. There would be no hope in it, only suspicion.

            He shook his head. To inspire terror was easy. Even the lowliest human could cause pain. The magnitude to which it spread might never be as great as that which he could spawn, but a bullet from that lowly human would slay this woman’s son as surely as he could.

            The man began to curl his fingers into a fist, and the hope vanished abruptly from the boy’s eyes as he again clawed at his chest. All present watched the outstretched hand, their eyes locked unswervingly on it. All present knew that the instant it closed the boy was dead. The man stopped short, though, and the hope returned to the child’s eyes, though it was weaker and more unsure. 

            “So fragile,” the man whispered to himself, though even he was unsure whether he meant the boy's hope, or his life. Another twist, another squeeze, and surely the hope would drain completely from that young fool’s eyes. And one more person would know only fear and terror at his presence--for the few seconds he was alive. Unconsciously, the man tightened his grip ever so slightly, and the boy collapsed to his hands and knees, his breathing reduced to nothing but choked heaves.

            The man shook his head vehemently and almost growled. Was that all he could do? Inspire terror? Incite panic? Could he still give hope to those who were wiser than this naïve child?

            He could.

            But at what price?

            The battle raged in his mind. Could he return to what he was before? Could he pay the price it would exact?

            Shaking his head in frustration, he steeled his nerve, made a decision…

            …and snapped his hand shut into a fist.

            The reaction was immediate. The boy gave a cough and his mother, maternal instinct finally overriding self-preservation, sprang forward to embrace her boy in a hug. Tears streamed down her face as she wailed wordlessly. The crowd gasped, though it was more release than surprise; the expected ending had finally come. 

            Or had it?

            The tall man in black lurched forward, falling to his knees. Mere feet from him, the boy’s mother gave a gasp as her son struggled in her arms and began taking deep, ragged breaths. Confusion painting her face, the woman looked at the man in black. An odd, somewhat satisfied smile crossed his face, and now the grin touched his eyes. For the first time in a seeming eternity he looked almost pleasant. Almost human again. 

            Disbelief ruled the day. The mother, pulling her attention from the dying man, looked over her living and undamaged son with uncertainty. Tears of joy replaced tears of pain as the boy assured her that he was alive and well. The crowd stared at it all, alternately watching the struggling man in black and the overjoyed pair next to him. And the man continued to smile, noting that the death itself was less painful than he had anticipated.

            Sliding to the ground, he stared at the ceiling, straining to hear the conversations that were already beginning. The words were unimportant to him. Only the tone, the intent. Disbelief was already passing into joy, and a joy heavily saturated with new hope. As he lay there, he heard one curious bystander ask, “Did he mean to do that?”

            Those thin lips remained locked in their odd smile. He would let the people argue it. Not that he could have spoken if he wanted to do so. The room was blurring, sliding slowly into black, and he knew his time was running out very quickly. 

            As shadows reached in to consume him, he wondered silently how history would record his reign. Would they focus on the terror? The pain? Or would they focus on his death…and the hope it inspired?

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