He has a name long before he arrives in Rosenkreuz. It’s stamped across the top of his file in bold black letters, one of the only entries on the form I am given to study. There is no picture to go with it and only a few basic facts, scarce enough information that it is easily memorized in one glance. Even so, I have the file out on my lap as I sit in the car and I consider the blank spaces as the windshield wipers work at keeping the glass clear. It has been raining since our plane touched down in Germany four hours ago with no signs of slowing or stopping. We seem to have missed the snowstorm, however; the roads are lined with slush instead. We were told the weather wouldn’t interfere with our return to Austria later this evening, but the roads will be terrible tomorrow when the temperature drops and freezes the rain.
My companion shifts in the driver’s seat, glancing my way before looking out the front window again. We’ve been sitting here for half an hour now and silence has finally fallen over the line. I reach up to pull my headset off, setting it in my lap. The man with me, a diminutive Japanese doctor named Ikida Hiroshi, follows my lead and lets his headphones hang around his neck. “Well,” he says, deciding it’s safe to talk, “that could have gone better.”
“It could have, but it wasn’t likely to,” I answer, closing the file and setting it on the dashboard. I find my umbrella where it sits at my feet and push open the door, opening the umbrella before stepping out into the rain. A gloved hand pushes the door closed behind me and I step up onto the sidewalk, moving down towards the bar where our target is. Franz is waiting on my order before he can leave the bar and join us, but it is not time yet. I am still waiting to see the youth for myself. Of the jobs we run, a search and retrieval is among the simplest. This one, however, is only meant to be an observation run, which would make it a waste of our time if not for the target. The Council wants to know if there is anything left to salvage, though the notes say that it is highly unlikely. Apparently he was supposed to be dead a long time ago after Herr Hoffmann was through with him. When a nearby team sensed him on a scan, we three were sent out to see what to make of it. It is my call tonight to leave him here or bring him along. The Council will accept my decision either way, and the knowledge that I am acting for them directly warns me to be extremely cautious. There are no mistakes when it comes to the Council because there are no second chances.
The door to the bar crashes open as our target flees, but he skids on the slick sidewalk and falls to his knees. He pushes himself up but falls a second time before actually making it up, and he stumbles and clings to the brick wall of the bar as he tries to get his balance back. I can hear his ragged breathing even over the rain that beats against my umbrella. He doesn’t seem to notice me where I stand just fifteen feet away; apparently his conversation with Franz didn’t go very well. The other agent was supposed to simply approach him and probe him about his gift, testing him for mental coherency. Franz might have strayed a little too far when he started talking about Rosenkreuz and the training we offer there for people like him; that’s where the child started to freak and bailed out.
His eyes are tightly closed and his hair sticks to his face as the rain soaks straight through ragged clothes. His hands are thin and bony and his knuckles are white as he digs his fingers into the wall. At last bright eyes slide open to stare blankly at the ground, and he lifts one shaking hand to knot it in his hair. He makes a strangled sound that’s half-keen and slams his free hand into the brick wall.
He slowly slides down the length of the wall to his knees, hunched forward to press his forehead against the bricks, and I watch as he begins beating both hands against the wall. Whatever control he had, he loses, and the throaty sounds he was making escalate into a hoarse scream of pain and grief. Blood runs between his fingers as he rips his palms open, dripping down from his wrist to stain the slush around him. Only then does he seem to notice what he’s doing and he cradles his hands to his chest, rocking back and forth and babbling something I can’t quite understand.
I move towards him, shoes crunching against ice and water, but it is not until I am almost at his side that he finally realizes he’s not alone. A haunted green look flies up towards my face and we stare at each other in silence. He’s waiting for me to say something but I have nothing to say to one such as him, and I content myself instead to memorize the face of the ragged child that survived Hoffmann’s wrath. The gaze that should have been dark with madness is splintered, yes, but not lost. They’re almost too bright, a shocking clash to orange hair that is dark from dirt and rain. His face is gaunt and his body thin, half-starved from a rough life in the many years since one of Rosenkreuz’s own last saw him.
I dig a handkerchief out of the pocket of my coat and hold it out towards him, watching the wary look he gives it. His gaze is distrustful when he looks back up towards me but I say nothing, merely waiting to see if he will take it. His lip curls back at last in a sneer and I let the cloth fall to the ground, using the heel of my shoe to push it down into the dirty slush at our feet. It wasn’t offered out of any sort of sympathy but instead to provoke a reaction. That wasn’t quite the one I expected, but I’m not particularly surprised at his rejection.
“I can’t hear you,” he says.
“I didn’t say anything,” I return, waiting to see if he has anything else to say. He bares his teeth at me behind his sneer and the hatred in his eyes is directed at the both of us. He pushes himself to his feet, grabbing at the wall for support, and braces himself against the building. I know what he meant, but there’s no reason to tell him that. I’m not here to interact as Rosenkreuz’s representative; that was Franz’s job. He says nothing else to me, but green eyes are sharp as he takes in my face. One bloody hand lifts to push his wet bangs out of his eyes and I take the gesture as a signal that our small conversation is over. I turn away and start back down the sidewalk towards the car.
I do not look back at him until I’m in the car. Ikida has the door open for me and I slide in, closing my umbrella and giving it a shake before setting it down at my feet. I pull the door closed and buckle myself in, studying the spot where the child just was. He has vanished already, leaving my handkerchief behind. I lift my headsets from where they hang off the cup holder between the front seats, moving the microphone towards my mouth. “Franz, pull out,” I say, not waiting for an affirmative before setting the headset back down.
“We are leaving him here, then?” Ikida asks.
“For now,” I answer, “but not permanently.”
“Oh?” He’s surprised, and he turns in the seat to consider me. I pull the file down off the dashboard, finding a pencil in the glove compartment, and start making notes on the blank paper beneath his forms. “He is salvageable, then?”
“He is sane,” I answer. “I am going to request the Council to free up a telepath to come observe him.”
Ikida gives a snort. “Not likely,” the older man says, relaxing back against his chair. I lift one shoulder in a shrug, though I don’t blame him for doubting me. The Council is very possessive of its telepaths. There are so few of them these days that make it past eighteen that they control the remaining few to within an inch of their lives. They will not want to pull one from his station to come out here for one ragged kid. We were sent out here because someone had to come and the Council trusts me. If there is any chance that this child could be used, we are the ones who must see that and make the decision.
“I will still try,” I tell him as I finish scribbling my observations down. The back door opens as Franz gets into the car, and he tosses his cap to the other side of the back seat to rake long fingers through short hair.
“Well?” he wants to know, leaning forward between the seats. “Abandon or retrieve?”
“He is still sane when he shouldn’t be,” I tell him. “Whether or not his gift is still intact is not for us to determine. We will leave him here for now; it is not like he can leave.”
He accepts that in silence, flopping back against his chair, and Ikida turns the key in the ignition. The car pulls away from the curb and I flip my papers back to the front page, considering all of the blanks that will have to be filled out eventually. There’s something going on that I do not know about here. There are too many questions that don’t have answers. I don’t have the right to voice them aloud, but I can still entertain them behind the safety of my shields. The Council told me that it was Hoffmann to destroy this child’s mind six years ago. Six years- how did the child survive such an attack? No one survives Hoffmann, which means the empath’s intention wasn’t to kill him. But why would he attack a telepath, and how did he come across him in the first place? The sensible thing to have done would be to recruit him to the school, not to attack his mind.
More worrying than that is how the child is still alive and well today, so long after such an encounter. He should have gone mad years ago, if not immediately. That could only mean that he had safeguards that are still in place, though they cannot be in very good shape now as his gift grows with the rest of him. Only shields could have kept him together this long, but he is barely a teenager. He couldn’t have made those shields himself; even if someone taught him he would have been too young and too weak to make ones that would last so long.
If he didn’t, then who did?
Cool brown eyes trace the block letters across the top of the page, reading the word that has been twisted into a name to brand this youth for the rest of his life.
What could a child so young be guilty of, and why am I the one placed in charge of him? I was content in my position as advisor for the developments in East Asia, overseeing the teams that are being put in place as Rosenkreuz secures power there. That is my territory; there are countless others who are assigned here in Europe. Why was I pulled for this? I have nothing to do with telepaths; I am a precognitive. I report regularly to the Council on a manner of things and they have accepted everything I tell them, trusting me in everything that I do, but this?
There are too many questions surrounding this youth. I would rather leave them to be answered by someone else; I should not be the one to make the call for it. Even if I am Hoffmann’s subordinate, there are others better suited for this.
It is a long drive back to the airport, and on the way I call the nearest Rosenkreuz team to have them arrange our outbound tickets for the next flight. It takes him just a few minutes to get everything in order for us and we’re assured that we can pick them up at the counter when we get there. Whatever he really thinks about being interrupted from his work to tend to us, his voice is respectful. Franz is one of Europe’s advisors and I’m on the leading team presiding over the east, and we have rank on a simple team leader. He was warned ahead of time that we would be in this area and that it would be up to him to take care of us.
I study the view out the window after I hang up, musing over what it would be like to be in his position. Most Talents graduate straight to field status when they have finished training with Rosenkreuz. Those that are judged to be the cream of the crop are offered other positions, such as myself and Franz. There’s a very set hierarchy within Rosenkreuz, but only five levels really matter when it comes down to it. At the very top is the Council. Beneath those four are the Five, the most trusted and respected of all of the Talents Rosenkreuz has ever trained. They are the eyes and ears of the Council, going where the Council cannot and guiding the rest of the school to greatness. Beneath them are the rest of the advisors, who report directly to the Five. That is my step on the rung, and it is even with people like Ikida. Considering the things Rosenkreuz does and the way they train their people, doctors are a necessity. Ikida happens to be one of the best, and as such, he wields a great deal of authority. While it would be hard for him to override the word of one of the Five, he ranks even with advisors such as myself because we have yet to decide whose word counts more. If an advisor claims that their plan is the best way to succeed but the doctor thinks there is too much at risk, it comes down to the Council’s decision as to which one has to stand down. Beneath us are the instructors, a bitter and vicious lot whose only joy and greatest aggravation comes in shaping the youths Rosenkreuz’s teams find for them.
Rosenkreuz… It is not a name that would be familiar to most of the world, as most of the world is ignorant. They go about their simple lives believing in simple dreams, worrying themselves with taxes and jobs and families. The elite part of society, those businessmen with the money and power to move the world… They are the ones that whisper our name in the shadows when the public has turned away. Rosenkreuz is an old school established in the mountains of Austria that collects and trains Talents, those of us born with the mental capacity to wield power. Telekinetics, precognitives, telepaths, empaths… The sort of people most of the world dreams about but no one really believes in. We are the true power of the world, and we will be greater yet once Rosenkreuz finally figures out how to breed power.
Rosenkreuz exists through money made off of the teams it sells out around the world to the influential and corrupted of society, though a great portion of its funds come from an ancient and mysterious organization known as Estet. Most of the work Rosenkreuz does is for this group, though it is rare that the teams know exactly how their assignments work back that direction. As overseer for the Far East, I can watch the lines twist across the globe even as I am uncertain as to what they expect will come of it. A precognitive I may be, but I cannot see that far. Even still, that is my place, working for Estet’s behalf. I am not a team leader for a field unit that can be picked up and put down at will; my place is over there for Estet, not here judging a half-starved telepath.
The thoughts cause a quiet sigh as I turn my eyes forward. It is not for me to say where I go and where I stay; I do what the Council tells me to and nothing else. If they say I am to be here, I will be here, and I will turn in my report with them and wait for them to send me back to China. They cannot possibly keep me here for long when I am the head of my team over there. Who would replace me?
“What a waste of our time,” Franz says, breaking through my thoughts.
“Perhaps,” Ikida answers with a shrug.
“Only time will tell,” I agree, closing the file.
A few hours to get from China to Austria, a few hours in neighboring Germany, perhaps a day or two to clear things up back at Rosenkreuz, and then I can go back to work. For as many mysteries as there seem to be surrounding this child, I will be content to consider them from Beijing and find out the answers later if I remember to ask someone. This Schuldich child has nothing to do with me and nothing at all to do with Rosenkreuz and Estet’s future in Asia.
Jonas Hoffmann is thirty-seven years old and one of the Council’s Five. He has held that position since his eighteenth birthday and many say his approaching ascension to the Council is long overdue. He is the highest ranked Talent in Rosenkreuz history at a level nine. He is very easily the most dangerous man in all of Rosenkreuz, Council included, though no one dares to say such a thing aloud and most are too afraid to even think it. He is the only empath who has ever learned how to push a mental gift onto a physical level. The wounds and pains he inflicts on a person with his gift have a tendency to become real: the sensation of burning leaves blisters or scarred skin behind and I have seen him break bones before. The Council’s four are the only ones who can call him to order and the man they call the Soul Shaker rules the rest of the Five and the school with a cruel smile on his lips and a zero tolerance for bullshit.
Hoffmann is the welcoming party for every youth inducted into Rosenkreuz, and it is a welcome that is never forgotten. His power works best when he can make eye contact with people; it is as if the eyes allow him an unobstructed entrance into your soul. No one dares to look him in the eye save for the Council, for even Hoffmann knows not to mess with them. Anyone else who is bold enough to look him in the face is left in little mental and emotional shreds all over the floor. Every single person who is brought to Rosenkreuz is given a private meeting with him. It’s a very effective way to teach people that Rosenkreuz is no joke.
He also happens to be the one of the Five that’s in charge of Asia, which makes him my boss and means I have to deal with him on a semi-regular basis. Rosenkreuz is split up into five regions: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Asia has always been the largest branch, so it makes sense that Hoffmann would be assigned to it. When I was promoted to head of the advisors it meant that I was to take all orders from him and that I would send my reports back to him. The only thing I have going for me to protect me against him is my ethnicity. Hoffmann hails from Bonn, Germany, and as such, he has a sadistic interest in all Germans that work under him. He goes out of his way to check on them and keep them in line, and the only thing worse than being a German is to be a German empath.
Or, so it seems, to be a scraggly German telepath in Berlin.
Myself? I am a twenty years old American christened Brad Crawford. Hoffmann has no real interest in Americans. Considering how many of us there are, we have a low percentage of Talents. It seems that Talents breed best in pure lines, and Americans are too much a mutt of a race to provide clean genes for it.
Right now Hoffmann sits slouched in his chair with his shoes propped up on his desk. Schuldich’s file is in his lap as he stares at the bare page and I stand silent for his response after my second summary of the short run. It is not my place to speak until he gives me that privilege, so I wait for him to give me further orders. My gaze is fixed on the calendar to his right, studying the dates there rather than risk looking him in the face.
“Still sane,” he muses at last, tossing the file to his desk and scratching at his scalp. “That damn boy…”
It’s not a question, so I say nothing. He tilts his head towards me. I catch the movement in my peripheral vision and I feel cold chills run across my skin as his power settles on me. Hoffmann cannot look at anyone as a subordinate or an equal; the only equality there is with him is that everyone is sized up as a game to play. He doesn’t look at me for long before he digs out a clipboard from the drawer of his desk and he drums his fingers on it. “And your final decision and recommendation?” he drawls, mockery lining the words.
“If it were my place to offer an opinion, I would suggest that a telepath is pulled from the least critical post and sent to investigate his mind,” I answer. He motions for me to continue. “If he has been on the loose for six years now and his safeguards are still intact enough that he is sane, then either the one who shielded his mind had a profitable Talent or his own is strong enough to keep the shields in place regardless of his lack of training.”
“Or he’s so weak that there’s not much to protect,” Hoffmann points out.
I do not answer. One of the fastest games I learned how to play was when to talk and what to say when it comes to the Five, especially Hoffmann. Any answer I give him now would be viewed as insubordination whether it was intended to be so or not; he exploits any chance he can to mete out punishment. If I agree, it means I think my opinion means anything to him. If I give a vague answer, it means I can see an argument to his decision. If I argue? Well, that’s not intelligent. Hoffmann once told me that I am his most boring subordinate; apparently I’m the best of the lot when it comes to playing this game. People love to talk these days, and their mouths always get them in trouble.
“The telepaths are busy,” Hoffmann goes on. “We need them where they are now; the soonest any of them could get pulled away is two months from now. I want a team going out on regular checks to make sure he stays where he is until we can have his mind scanned. Who’s there right now?”
“Schrei is an hour to the east,” I tell him.
“I’ll tell Elizabeth to put them on it,” he decides with a nod. Elizabeth is another one of the Five and the head of the European division. “You’re going back to China in the morning,” he tells me, stabbing a finger at me, and I feel the weight of his blue gaze once more. “The reasons for your summons back to Rosenkreuz are confidential and not to be spread to the rest of the board. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Herr Hoffmann.”
“Then get out of here, Oracle.”
I incline my head to him and leave, closing the door quietly behind myself and heading down the hall. I pass only a few people on my journey to the room I have been assigned for the night. My carryon bag from China was brought there for me upon my return from Germany and I find it sitting on my bed when I enter. It is not very late here in Austria but it is hours ahead in China and I know I will be able to sleep through the night. There is nothing else required of me, so I pull a pair of sleeping pants out of my bag and set the bag on the floor beside the bed.
Before I can change there is a knock at the door, and my uninvited guest doesn’t wait for an answer before opening it. I am not overly surprised at who it is and I offer Chizuru Aoi a cool look in welcome. She smiles back, ignoring my expression.
“I’d heard you were coming back for a short trip,” she tells me. “Elizabeth dropped me a note.”
“How kind of her,” I answer, tossing the pants to my bed and turning to face her. “What do you want?”
She offers me a dainty shrug. “You’re the precognitive,” she tells me. “What do you think I want?”
“I am a precognitive, not a telepath,” I answer. “Therefore I only deal in possibilities and certainties, not a simple woman’s unreasonable hopes and desires. Ask a telepath or empath to translate the rest.”
“Oh, don’t be so cold, Crawford,” she complains, propping herself against the doorframe. “So what if I wanted to see you again? It’s so hard to catch you these days.”
“You have your work to do and I have mine,” I tell her, moving over to take hold of the door. “I have much more important things to do than to worry about your foolishness. Concentrate on your job and leave me alone.”
She frowns, reaching out towards me, and I push her hand away. She sighs, turning to rest her back against the doorframe. Lean arms are folded over her chest and she sends an impatient look towards the ceiling. “Fine,” she says. “You want to talk business? We’ll talk business. That’s all you ever think about, anyway. Maybe it’ll make you happy to know that the project’s progressing nicely,” she says. “We think we’re finally going to get a batch that works this time.”
“I’m sure the Council is pleased with your success,” I tell her.
She shrugs. “It’s not a success until it actually succeeds,” she says, tossing my own words from several years ago back in my face. She gives me a wry little smile, searching my gaze, but I have nothing to offer her. Chizuru is a legend unto herself at Rosenkreuz in that she is the only Talentless that the Council has ever allowed into their ranks. Apparently she is a bit of a genius when it comes to genetics and bioengineering, even though she is only my age. She was sucked into Rosenkreuz’s world five years ago and worked for the Far Eastern division for a while under my command. She was only there for three years before they moved her to Elizabeth’s region and set her to work on breeding Talents.
I did not miss her smiles at all.
“Since you obviously didn’t come back to see me, what brings you to Austria?” she wants to know.
“I grew tired of Chinese food,” I answer.
She rolls her eyes at me. “In other words, Herr Hoffmann doesn’t want you to tell. Don’t you find it a little bit unfair that I tell you about my work but you don’t reciprocate?”
“You will notice, perhaps, that I didn’t actually ask you what you were doing,” I point out. “Now, if you will excuse me…”
She smiles, giving a tilt of her chin to indicate the pants I’d been holding when she barged in. “I don’t mind watching.”
Whoever said that all Japanese women are quiet and conservative was a liar. “I can manage on my own, thank you,” I tell her, pushing the door closed. She knows by now that I will shut it on her and is smart enough to move, though she heaves an exaggerated sigh over my dismissal of her. I close the door and slide the lock into place for good measure. I hear her laugh out in the hall over the safety precaution; she and I both know that if I didn’t do such a thing that she would just open the door again. She’s important to Rosenkreuz and as such is allowed a certain bit of leniency. She has no protection at all against the Five but the rest of us are fair enough game. She cannot interfere with our work but there exist no rules against her being an aggravation. Rosenkreuz doesn’t want to risk her steady hands or sharp mind and so will only punish her if she truly has earned it. The rest of the time it’s up to us to just shrug her off and go on our way.
“Talentless,” I murmur, standing by the bed to change. “Synonym: worthless.”
It does not take me long to fall asleep, and I entertain myself with thoughts of the day until I fade away. The last thing I see before I drift off is a pair of haunted green eyes.
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