It's the sound of the door opening that wakes me up. No, "wake" is the wrong word, because I know I've been awake. I blink down at the table in front of me and realize that I'm not in Hoffmann's bedroom anymore, but I honestly have no clue how I made it from there to here. I don't even know how long I've been sitting here staring at the tabletop.
"It's about time," Hoffmann sends at me, and I draw my eyes up from the polished wood. Hoffmann and Mosuli are sitting further down the table and I don't miss the way Mosuli is seated between us. The telekinetic is eyeing me with a flat look on his face and his expression just hardens at the disoriented look in my eyes.
"Jonas," Mosuli warns him, stabbing a finger at my face.
"He's fine," Hoffmann answers, sounding bored. "Rather, he will be."
"Why isn't he now?" a sharp voice demands, and I look away from Mosuli to the two at the door. Jean has stopped just a few feet in to stare at me and I blink at him, trying to get my body to lean forward in a greeting bow. I'm stopped by Mosuli's power and I realize it is completely blanketing me, just as Hoffmann's gift still sits heavy in my veins. The sensation of being unable to move makes my skin crawl.
Schuldich's voice, exasperated and tense: "Did you already forget what we talked about last night? Aren't you supposed to be getting better and not worse?"
I push him from my mind. The Council is more important than his unhappy words. "Councilmen," I greet, looking from Jean to Ahmed. Jean whirls on Hoffmann, an accusing look on his face, and stabs a finger at me.
"What did you do to him?" he demands. "The Elders will be here in less than an hour and your precog looks like he doesn't even know his own name."
"You remember your name, don't you, Oracle?" Hoffmann asks, but I don't have a chance to answer.
"Don't play around!" Jean yells, slamming his hands down on the table. The sound almost echoes in the room and I don't miss the way fire flashes up his arms in his anger. "This is Estet, empath! They have been waiting for this too long to botch it now. We need one of the Five in Asia with them. How could you be so stupid as to risk that?"
"Don't think you can try to call me to order when my subordinate is present," Hoffmann says, but he sounds more amused than anything else. Rather, it's that amused tone that is a pure threat. Flickers of last night twist through me and my fingers twitch against the arms of my chair. It is the only thing besides my head that I can move and I swallow hard against the taste of bile and blood.
Mosuli glances my way. "Stop trying to move," he warns me, sounding annoyed that I've made even the slightest bit of movement. "I'm the only thing keeping you upright."
"Hoffmann-" Ahmed starts, sounding furious.
"It's not quite that bad," Hoffmann drawls. "Just close. But look. He's not scratched up or anything."
Jean's face is white with anger. "Hoffmann," he says tightly, "I would like to speak with you in the hall."
Hoffmann shrugs and pushes himself up. The door slams behind them and Ahmed sits heavily across from me. There's a flat accusation in his gaze as he glowers at me. "What did you do?" he demands. "What did you do that triggered this? You're one of the Five; you're *his* Five. You should have known better than to incite his wrath, especially right before the Elders come. If you're just trying to get out of Asia-"
"Quiet," Mosuli interrupts him. Ahmed flicks him a look, but Mosuli is too busy playing with his earrings to return the look. "Jonas was drinking last night."
"That doesn't matter," Ahmed says. "We can't afford to lose another Five, especially not *him*."
That wakes me up more than anything else. "Another Five, Herr Ahmed?" I ask.
They both look at me and then each other. "Hoffmann didn't tell you?" Ahmed asks, looking a little irritated by the lapse. "He said he would take care of it."
"He was in the reading room last night," Mosuli says with a shrug. "Needless to say, he forgot."
The reading room- it means Hoffmann was reading my mother's prophecies. I have never been allowed inside and have done my best not to wonder about what all is there, but the news that Hoffmann started drinking after reading my mother's predictions rekindles an interest in it. I know better than to ask and instead wait until Mosuli turns back towards me.
"Elizabeth made a surprise tour around her teams this past week," he says, sounding disgusted by the whole matter. "She wanted to see them when they didn't have time to put on the perfect façade. Apparently one of her teams was lying to her about how competent they were, and she brought them back here with her to take care of. You know which one I'm talking about."
There's an accusation in his words, so I offer up the only name I can guess at: "I will assume it was Manie, Herr Mosuli."
"It is standard procedure to announce relationships to Rosenkreuz," Ahmed says, voice hard. "You usurped Elizabeth's authority and broke the rules by allowing it to happen."
"I did what I saw was best for the team, Councilman. The procedures said that it had to be approved by a Five. I approved it."
"Did you see what would come of it?" Ahmed asks, curling his lip at me in disgust. "Elizabeth and Manie's leader both petitioned to the Council for the right side. Hoffmann voted in your favor, as he is prone to think that you can do no wrong. Elizabeth did not take it well, and Hoffmann killed her on the spot for her reaction." He stabs a finger at me. "You forced him to pick sides within the Five, Oracle, and he did it without checking with any of us."
That would explain Jean's bad mood, as Elizabeth was his. Still, the news of Elizabeth's death is a surprise. I wonder how I could have missed it, and then wonder why I wasn't told.
"And Manie, Councilmen?" I ask.
"Hoffmann shouldn't have taken your side," Mosuli says. "No one expected him to. Manie's pair killed themselves while the women were arguing their sides."
Kristof and Jackie…? I think of the last time I saw them, when they were tangled together in their kitchen. I remember Sarah talking about how she knew Elizabeth would rewrite her teammates, and the story she told me about the team that fell apart without that integral relationship that made it tick. Kristof and Jackie knew what was going to happen to them, and rather than live through it, they took their lives. I would not have expected them to do that; I would not have expected that level of commitment between them. Talents are supposed to be that deeply committed to the Council, not their teammates.
"You cost Europe its best team," Ahmed accuses me, "and the Five one of their own."
"The Elders are coming here on our request," Mosuli tells me. "We want you as far from Hoffmann as we can get you. Because they are coming on our word, you had better be well enough to make a strong impression."
"Rosenkreuz's future lies with Estet, Herr Mosuli. I will do all that I can to secure it."
He says nothing else and silence falls in the room. I can hear muffled voices in the hall from the other two where they're still arguing. It is several minutes more before they go silent. Eventually they return to the room, but they both look more tense now than when they left. Jean seats himself stiffly beside Ahmed while Hoffmann takes his spot beside Mosuli again, and no one says anything until the Elders arrive.
It has been years since I was here, but there is something distinctly familiar about the ceiling of the medical ward. That sinks in even before the smell of antiseptic. I lift one heavy arm from the sheets to rub at my face, trying to put the pieces back together. The Elders' meeting is a blurry chunk in my mind, and I remember nothing from after that. It seems the combination of Hoffmann's and Mosuli's gifts were all that was keeping me conscious. As soon as Estet left, Hoffmann let go. His gift could keep me awake, but it couldn't help me heal.
"I had almost thought I was rid of you," a voice says from the doorway.
"I am sure you are disappointed, Ikida."
The doctor pushes away from the doorframe and moves my way, finding my glasses where they are resting on the nightstand and turning them over. I watch the ceiling come into sharper focus above me and glance towards him. He looks the same as he has always looked: busy, short and Asian. He offers me a thin smile as our eyes meet and sets his clipboard down.
"You have been unconscious for two days," he tells me. "Rosenkreuz has been holding its breath waiting on you to wake up. The thought of losing you right after Elizabeth finally succumbed to her sickness has kept all of the school on edge. Elizabeth, they can live without, but Rosenkreuz doesn't want to lose its Oracle. You have done too much for it."
I eye him. "I was not aware Elizabeth was ill," I say.
He gives a small shrug. "Neither was the school," he says. "Apparently she didn't want her subordinates to know, as she wanted to put on a strong image for them. I wrote up the reports myself the day she died, all dated appropriately. The school has accepted such a story and that is all that matters."
"I suppose." I ease myself upright and say nothing about the way Ikida helps make sure I get there. "The Elders?"
"They have been gone for days. The Council left your orders with me. Hoffmann was not sure you would remember them." There's a question in his voice even if he doesn't word it as such, and I glance past him towards the clipboard. He takes that as a response and hands it over. "The Council has been holed up since they left, trying to find a replacement for Elizabeth. I was told Hoffmann would be too preoccupied to check on you, so you are welcome to stay until you are healed and then you are to leave."
"I will be removing myself from your care today, then."
"Of course," he answers, sliding his hands into the pockets of his lab coat. "These walls have seen far too much of you, Oracle," he says.
"They saw much more of Schuldich," I point out.
He has nothing to say to that immediately, but at length he speaks. "I was wrong," he says, and I glance up at him from the pages on his clipboard. "I argued against you removing Schuldich from my care, but I have read the reports you have been sending the Council regarding him. They give me a copy of them as his personal physician. You have done much better for him than I would have been able to. That you managed to piece back together his gift and his sanity in barely more than the time it took Hoffmann to completely tear him apart… I would like to apologize for my rudeness in the past."
"I have no need of your apologies, Ikida," I tell him, turning my attention back to the clipboard. "Schuldich only survived long enough for me to make use of because you were so concerned about his health. If you had not been his doctor during his year with Hoffmann, then he would have crumbled before I had the chance to save him."
Silence settles between us once more and then Ikida offers me a low bow. "I will trust you with him," he says. "There have been rumors that I will be following Schwarz to Asia in a few years to replace the current medical staff. Until we cross paths again, I will rest easy knowing you are watching him."
The tap of a shoe at the door draws our attention that way. Ricard snaps at Ikida and jerks his thumb over his shoulder, a clear command to leave, and Ikida murmurs a farewell to me and excuses himself. The remaining members of the Five filter into the room and Miguel shuts the door behind them. My colleagues gather around the bed and I quiet the small bit of irritation at having to sit here and let them tower over me.
"I hear Elizabeth is dead," I comment.
"You missed the show," Ricard tells me. "Hoffmann blew her heart up inside her chest. She was puking blood even after she was dead."
"Do you?" Adrian asks me. "Rather, did you? You sided with a team against its Five, Crawford. You turned them against the Council."
"I won't apologize for not being the dead one."
"Don't bother," Miguel says, making a cutting motion of his hand. "It isn't as if we care that she's gone. As long as it wasn't us, it's fine. It's her fault for letting Hoffmann feel her reaction to him taking your side."
"Besides, she would have been dead soon enough," Ricard adds. "She was past fifty."
"And her successor?" I ask.
"Rejected by the Council," Ricard answers. "They're still trying to figure that out. In the interim, Adrian has inherited Europe. As you can see, he's quite pleased by the promotion." Adrian glares at him. "Rumor has it that Estet picked up your 'team'."
"Apparently?" Miguel echoes.
"Looks like someone's brains have been scrambled," Ricard says, offering me an amused grin. "Elizabeth didn't get to keep her life, but somehow, I think at some point in the past few days you wished you were in her spot."
"I have no use for death," I tell him. "I still have many things left to accomplish and I would not trust the rest of you with them."
"Arrogant as always. Either way, Hoffmann said to see you about your third."
"My third," I repeat.
"His brains really are scrambled," Miguel decides with a small scowl. "Estet doesn't want to invest in a two-person team. The work is going to be too big and they don't trust a simple pair with it, no matter who recommended you. You need a third at the bare minimum. Haven't you read the report yet?"
"I was busy sleeping," I answer.
"You still look drugged," Ricard points out helpfully, gesturing towards his own eyes.
Adrian decides to speak up, irritated by the constant sidetracking. "We were told by the Council that you needed to pick a third person before you could go to Japan. We've gone through the files of our teams and bouncers and we came here to offer the best of each division to you." He holds out a file, thrusting it at me impatiently. "These are the four."
I set the folder down on top of Ikida's clipboard and open it, pulling out the four sheets. The vision I was looking for days ago finally decides to show up. The first sheet I touch is the one Adrian chose from Elizabeth's division, and I gaze down at the paper in silence as I listen to Schuldich's voice in my head: "Crawford, I don't know if you've noticed, but this guy is seriously off his rocker. He's so far gone I think he needs a new one."
"You can turn the page," Miguel says dryly when I continue to gaze down at the paper.
"Maybe he's smitten with her picture," Ricard says.
It's a female, a pyrokinetic. She's not at all who I'm looking for, but there is still something there. I set the other three sheets aside, face down, without looking away from her file. At last I draw my eyes away from her face. Current location: Ireland. Position: bouncer and team coordinator for Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Nordic countries.
"Who is she?" I ask.
"The best in Europe, which you would know if you read the file or paid attention to us when we told you what we brought you," Miguel says.
"You've already said that once this meeting," Ricard tells me. I ignore him and push back the sheets. The rest of the Five-turned-four exchange glances. "Aren't you going to consider the others?"
"There is no need," I answer. "I am going to Ireland."
"Smitten," Ricard decides.
"She is not who I am looking for," I answer, setting the paper aside to stand. I'm a little too aware of how carefully they watch me get to my feet. There are frowns on their faces when I gather up the clipboard Ikida brought me and I leave all four profiles on the bed. "But she is where I am looking for."
"You're insane," Miguel decides. "Stupid precog."
"Anything further?" I ask them.
"No," Adrian says, sounding a little sour. "Just go. We'll be glad to be rid of you again."
I leave them standing there and exit the medical ward. It seems like a long trip back to the Prophets' Hall and I find my untouched suitcase waiting for me. The suitcase isn't the only thing; Malachi is perched on the bed I never had a chance to sleep in. He offers me a phone as I step through the door and I take it from him to call the airport. I book a ticket from Austria to Dublin and have the agent book one from Rome for Schuldich. When he comes back on the line to tell me that he has sent the ticket to my teammate, I hang up with him and call Schuldich instead.
"Ireland?" he asks dubiously when I tell him what we're doing.
"There is a number programmed into that phone," I tell him, ignoring his doubt. "It is the third speed dial. Call them and arrange for them to close up the house. All you need to bring to Ireland is enough to get you there and then to Japan."
"Fine, fine," he agrees, and we hang up.
I turn the phone back over to Malachi. "From the number of visitors I am having today, I would think either something is terribly wrong or I was just that sorely missed," I tell him.
"You wish it was one of the two," Malachi answers, setting the phone to one side. "I told him not to go in, you know. I knew what would happen if he saw what was there."
"It does not matter," I answer, "but I don't suppose you've decided to share the contents of that room."
"You're implying that a precognitive has the right to know his own future," Malachi says, feigning offense. "Truly, Crawford… You should just learn how to look for yourself."
"If I could spare the energy to see anything outside of Schuldich, I would not have to ask."
"That's the crux of it, isn't it? That's why the Council gives you everything you want."
"And here I thought they liked me."
"You're as insufferable as always." He pushes himself up and I decide he looks much older now than he did the last time I saw him. He lifts a hand to his face, touching a fingertip to his temple, and recites words I decide immediately are my mother's. "There will come a day when someone will catch your Oracle's eye. When this happens, you must take heed. The darkness they bring will take Rosenkreuz and Estet to places it never would have dared to imagine. What your Oracle asks for, give, and take pains to keep them well. Forgive them their trespasses and they will give you the kingdom of heaven."
He arches an eyebrow at me and lowers his hand. "Those are the last recorded words of Seraphim," he says, as if I haven't figured it out. "The next time anyone asked her anything was when they were checking to see if you were right for the Five, and she died."
"Why are you giving me these words now?" I ask him. "You never would before."
"Seraphim told me to tell you when Estet came for you. Don't ask me why."
"Does the Council know you're telling me?"
"If they ask, I'll tell them," he says. "If they don't, then… It's a precognitive thing. It doesn't hurt them for you to know that your mother expected far too much of you."
"I live to disappoint her memory," I answer, and he looks to the ceiling for patience. In my mind I turn the words over and over, putting in place at last the Council's various reactions to me throughout the years. I still remember the way they reacted when I told them just how much of my sight Schuldich was taking up; I distinctly remember the frequent times they referred to my decisions as being ridiculous except for the fact that I was Seraphim's son. I also remember how pleased they were by the name I chose for my team- Schwarz, for this "darkness".
"Aggravation is genetic," I decide.
"I've always known that. There is one more for you, and then you should go before I tire of looking at you. You are still the Five and still a team leader, but Rosenkreuz is detaching itself from you and offering you up to Estet. Estet is the future and apparently, you're the only one who can take them there. Rather, you and that mad rat of yours."
"She cultivated Schuldich for me," I tell Malachi.
"I'm not surprised. You've finally given several of her prophecies an answer key, ever since you dubbed that 'path with such a code name. Up until now, the Council refused to accept that those words were talking about you. Are you listening? She didn't write this one down, so you'd better hope my memory is working right."
I incline my head to him and he taps his temple again, trying to remember the words my mother entrusted to him years ago. "The demon, the devil, the orphan, the king: the darkness bleeds from them to cover the world. The path seen by the king is found by the demon, opened by the orphan, and walked down by the devil. The rise and fall of an empire is at the king's will to change, if he will only reach out and decide which way to push at the crack. Do not doubt what power they have- it is not what is in any of them alone but what you are together. Most of all, do not doubt the devil."
He arches an eyebrow at me. "Happy now?"
I mirror the expression. "Am I ever?" I ask.
"Prescients don't have the right to be happy," he says. "Especially not those of us connected with the Council and most especially not you."
"You're telling me things I already know."
"I'm dying today," Malachi tells me. "Seraphim told me that the messages I was holding for you would be the death of me. She said that you were everything Rosenkreuz needed for the future, which is why I accepted her plea not to tell the Council." He tilts his head to one side, searching my gaze. I gaze back in silence, expressionless mask in place in the face of his unexpected words. Malachi smiles and it is a tense, almost frightened, expression.
"It seems she's right," he says. "She knew those words would be a trigger to me, these few years down the road. Enough is falling into place that I can see now glimpses of what she wanted me to see. I have always trusted your mother despite her obsession with you. And despite everything, I've always trusted you."
"Those words are not reassuring when they come hand in hand with your intention to kill yourself," I point out.
"It isn't my job to reassure you," my one-time mentor answers. "Go to Ireland. You'll find the next piece of what you're looking for there. Steer clear of Adrian's suggested Talent; you want nothing to do with her."
Neither of us says anything for a minute more. We just gaze at each other in silence, each tending to our own thoughts. My mentor, my mother's steadfast companion, and the eyes of the Council- and he is going to die for me today. It seems Rosenkreuz is thick with death these days all because of me. I cannot find the energy to regret their deaths, but I decide that at least Malachi's will not be in vain. If even he can bring himself to believe in my power, then I will find that future I was born to create.
"You're going to miss your flight if you don't leave," Malachi says at length. "Your ride is already waiting."
"Of course," I say.
On those words I leave him there, and by the time I arrive in Dublin, my escort has news of Malachi's sudden decline. The official word is that Malachi's shields collapsed. Rosenkreuz has written it off easily, as he was the oldest rank eight in the entire compound and precognition is one of the hardest mental strains to deal with. The Council had no choice but to kill him when they found him lost in madness.
I wait at the airport until Schuldich arrives, and when he steps through the archway into the arrivals area, I consider him not as the aggravating youth that has been assigned to me by fate or as the burden my mother foisted off on me, but as Rosenkreuz's highest ranked telepath and my way into the future. I think Schuldich sees that something has changed because he says nothing when he stops in front of me and instead stares back in silence. The crowd moves around us but these nameless faces mean nothing at all to either of us.
"Are you ready?" I ask him.
He knows immediately that I'm not talking about leaving the airport. He doesn't answer immediately, instead content to study my face. At length he offers me a slow smirk, the first one he's offered me in a while that doesn't have mockery edging it. "If you are," he says.
"Then let's go," I say, pushing myself up from my seat. "We have a demon to catch."
"Sounds like fun," he agrees, slinging his bag over his shoulder.
The Oracle and the Mastermind.
If it is darkness my mother saw, then we will turn the world black.
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