I am woken up by a mental summons that cuts straight through my shields, ripping a red hot line down my gift and mind. When it fades, I am kneeling on the floor beside the bed, one hand twisted in the blankets and the other clenched in my hair. A piercing headache is left in wake of the call and I grit my teeth against it, lifting honey brown eyes to the clock. The numbers there announce it to be just past four; those glowing digits are the only source of light in the room. I suck in a deep breath against the pain, tightening my grip on the bed to help push myself to my feet.
There’s only one person that call could have come from, and I have no choice but to obey it immediately. I don’t even stop to change; I just find my glasses where they are sitting on the bedside table and set them on the bridge of my nose before turning to leave. There can be no delay at all when one is summoned by Rosenkreuz’s oldest telepath.
It has been a while since I was last at Rosenkreuz but all of the guest rooms are designed the same and I make it to the door in the darkness without trouble. A hand finds the lock and on the first try and I twist the bolt out of place to shove the door open. The lights are out in the hall but the sensors pick up my movement as soon as I shut my door behind me. Along the baseboards, faint green lights flick on to light my way. They follow me as I move, illuminating just the patch of hall ahead of me and flicking off as soon as I pass to keep the rest of the hallway dark.
I take the stairs down to the ground floor and let myself out into the chilly night. The breeze is icy against my bare chest and I cross my arms to help keep some warmth as I set out for the Council’s chambers. They have a standalone tower in the middle of the complex and their room is on the top floor where they can look down on everyone below them. The door opens for me as I approach and I pass the doors for the auditorium on my way to the elevator. It’s open and waiting on me as well, and I let myself in.
The jerk of it as it starts to lift almost makes me nauseous and I close my eyes against the reflection that stares back at me from the metal walls. It has been a long time since my shields were last cut in half, and I am not happy that it has happened again. Those of us with psychic gifts need shields to keep us alive. In most cases, they keep the outside world from ripping our minds apart. For a precognitive, they keep our gifts from driving us mad. We are the prophets of the countless futures; it is our job to watch them and pick out the paths that will lead Rosenkreuz and Estet for success. For this we juggle the actions and lives of thousands of people around the world, and that is enough to drive anyone insane. For specific instance precognitives, it is easier. They are told what to look for and they find it. The rest of us…? We live under the threat of seeing everything, and so instead clamp down our shields so that we can only focus on a section of the world at a time. I have seen precognitives lose their shields before.
Few things have given me nightmares quite like that can.
The call that woke me up this morning was from Nikolai Chekov, the oldest member on the Council and the only telepath in the last century to have made it to his fortieth birthday. How he managed when so many of today’s telepaths die young is something Rosenkreuz is still scrambling to figure out. While some are convinced that we should just let the telepath breed die out as a worthless Talent, others say that it is a necessary gift we must learn to unlock. The former claim that the telepath has earned its elimination, as it is obviously unfit to survive. This is a world where the strongest take all, a survival of the fittest, and their branch is clearly on the other side of the line. The supporters claim that it just takes the right breeding and the right sort of mind to be able to handle such a gift.
It is one thing to reach out and touch an object, to move it. It’s another to create friction in the air enough to create fire. To be able to see the future is just a few steps up from a great mind thinking ahead logically and acting to secure that vision. And empaths? Emotions have always been the easiest thing to sway about a human. But to be able to reach into another’s mind completely and hear all of their thoughts and influence them on such an intricate scale… Rosenkreuz still isn’t sure what it takes to be able to handle such a strain, and they’re running out of time to figure it out. Out of four hundred and sixteen students at Rosenkreuz, there are only thirteen telepaths, and Nikolai isn’t going to last much longer.
The elevator stops on the last floor and I open my eyes, stepping through it into the dark room of the Council. I have been here only a few times before, one of the few of Rosenkreuz outside of the Five that is called upon to advise the Council. It is a position that none of my peers envy. It is not a position of prestige, in their eyes; it just means that I am that much closer to death.
The room is pitch black: the carpet, the curtains, the furniture… There isn’t a hint of color except from the four men that are sitting at the long table waiting on me. Even the grandfather’s clock ticking behind them has been painted completely black.
Nikolai points to the spot in front of him and I follow the summons forward, stopping a polite distance back from their desks. The Russian telepath leans back in his chair, folding his arms over his chest and looking towards the rest of the Council. At my far left is Mosuli, a telekinetic brought in from Ghana. To his left is Nikolai, and on Nikolai’s left sits Jean, a French pyrokinetic. At the end is Ahmed, a teleporter from Saudi Arabia. It’s the same order they’ve always sat in, and the same order they always will.
…Well, not always.
Nikolai’s forty-six years old, after all. He hasn’t got that much longer left to live. If people weren’t so scared of him they’d start taking bets on exactly how many more years until Hoffmann is called upon to take his spot on the Council.
“Oracle,” Nikolai greets. “I trust we find you in good health this morning.”
I incline my head to him. “Herr Chekov. Councilmen.”
“Hoffmann has been keeping us filled in as to your progress in China,” Jean says, piercing gaze studying my face. “We are forced to admit that you are more profitable to us than we had thought you would be.”
“I live to serve the Council’s interests,” I tell him, and it’s no exaggeration. My gift fated me to Rosenkreuz and this path. My entire life revolves around Rosenkreuz’s wishes; I will be serving them until I die. It is profitable and the only work suited for one with my gifts, so I have no problems with it.
They know my words are the truth and it brings a cold smile to Nikolai’s lips. “Hopefully you will continue to bring us such results when your time is up in China,” he says. “We have great things to accomplish. These next ten years are going to change the world. And you…” Brown eyes flash and he pushes himself to his feet. His gaze is only half focused on me and I can feel his gift peeling at my shields. It burns; I clench my teeth behind a smooth expression as his power eats at me. One of the first rules a prescient learns is to not ever let any other psi gift in past his shields. My shields have the strength to withhold an attack from any telepath, but Nikolai is not just any telepath. That rule doesn’t apply to the Council, but they didn’t think that a telepath would ever live long enough to make it to such a prestigious position. There’s nothing in the books to say what I’m supposed to do if he starts trying to pry his way in. Do I defy the Council or do I let his gift eat my mind?
“These next ten years…” he murmurs throatily, lifting a hand to brush shaking fingers to his lips. “Ohhh…”
His gift slams up against me so hard that I almost lose my balance, and Mosuli flicks Nikolai a sharp look when he realizes what the telepath is doing. “Nikolai,” he snaps out, a harsh reprimand.
Nikolai knows better to touch my mind, but he’s already half mad from his gift, and out of all of the precognitives at Rosenkreuz, I am the only one with the answer he so desperately wants. I don’t know why I was chosen to see it when I’m a general vision precognitive; it’s not something I should be privy to. But I know, and he knows I know, and I know that’s what he’s after. I can hear his voice crawling along my shields, dark and twisted with hate and madness.
Jean grabs Nikolai by the wrist and yanks him bodily back into his chair. The telepath abandons my mind, whirling on Jean instead with an ugly snarl on his face. The argument is kept to mental grounds and the two glare each other down as they fight with unspoken words. It is the first time I’ve seen the Council at odds with each other; they have always acted as a unified force before. I cannot really appreciate the sight of a divided Council, however, when my shields are still reeling from that close brush with insanity.
Something hits me; Mosuli’s gift sends me into a chair by the window. I hit the cushions hard enough to drive the breath from my lungs and he stabs a finger at his temple, scowling. “Fix them,” he says, and I turn all of my attention to pulling my shields in tight.
“I’m the one who made these next ten years possible!” Nikolai bursts out at last, almost screaming. “I’m the one! I’m the one, and I’m not going to live long enough to profit from it! I want to know when! I want to know when!”
“Get a hold of yourself,” Jean snaps back. “We’ve all devoted our lives to this ideal; we are doing what is best for Rosenkreuz. What matters is that Rosenkreuz and Estet profit, not necessarily that we live long enough to see such plans come to fruition!”
“I have the right to know!” Nikolai snarls, starting to get up from his seat.
Ahmed is at my side in an instant, disappearing from his chair to reappear by my side. He gives a snap of his fingers in a sharp order to follow and starts for the door. I push myself to my feet, ignoring the nausea I feel when I incline myself to the remaining Council members in a bow, and block out Nikolai’s tirade as best as I can as I trail behind Ahmed to the elevator.
He’s scowling as the doors close behind us and stands at the back of the elevator with his arms folded over his chest, glare fixed on his reflection. I know better than to say anything, and the ride back down to the ground floor passes in silence. He follows me out into the hallway and we stand there so he can have a few words with me.
“Nikolai will not last,” Ahmed says, moving in a slow circle around me. I stand still, keeping my gaze straight ahead. His stare is heavy and I can see his anger in the tense set of his shoulders. “You know by now; everyone knows by now. The question is when, and who will replace him. You know that Jonas Hoffmann is going to be one of the Council.”
“There have been rumors as such, Herr Ahmed.”
The dark skinned man comes to a jerky halt in front of me, lifting his hand to stab his finger at my face. “The times are changing. The prescients have spoken. Find a successor for your position in China. You will be repositioned here at Rosenkreuz before the year is out. Tell me why we are taking you out of Beijing.”
I had not been expecting those words. Rosenkreuz’s training and my long years as Hoffmann’s underling are all that keep me from showing surprise at such sudden and unwelcome news. China is my project. I am the head of the Far East division. What use have I for anyone back here at Rosenkreuz? “I have not seen anything regarding such a move, Herr Ahmed.”
His hand snaps out to grab me by the throat and he yanks me forward, putting his face right in mine. “You find a reason, Oracle. Find it fast. Seraphim died looking into your future. Hoffmann knows you are loyal and there is no fooling him, so you tell me why we lost our precognitive trying to see you.”
I can do nothing but stare at him, and he shoves me away from him, disgusted. “Find an answer for us,” he says, giving me a warning look. “Find a successor. We will be waiting.”
“Herr Ahmed,” I answer, but I don’t really hear it.
He gets back onto the elevator and the doors slide closed behind him. I remain where I am for several minutes afterwards, staring at the elevator doors as my mind races. Seraphim? They lost Seraphim? That isn’t possible. No. As a precognitive I learned that anything is possible, no matter how improbable it seems. I take a deep breath, reaching up to rest my palm against my throat where his fingers were clenched on pale flesh.
The chiming of the tower’s bell announcing a quarter after the hour startles me from my thoughts enough that I finally tear my gaze away and start for the exit.
I almost don’t notice the cold as I push the doors open and step back out into the courtyard. Quick strides take me across the dirt towards the Prophets’ Hall, a building devoted entirely to the training of Rosenkreuz’s prescients. The security system recognizes me and lets me through even though it has been years since I last resided here. Only precognitives and the Council are allowed access to this building. Young precognitives have such unstable minds that they need to be safely isolated from the rest of the school until their shields are ready for it.
I take the stairs up to the third floor where the professors and resident precognitives sleep, completely disregarding the hour as I find my way to Malachi’s door. I don’t bother to knock. I see that he sees that I am coming, and that is enough. The door opens as soon as I reach it and I find myself face to face with my mentor. He says nothing but merely steps aside, and I accept his silent invitation and step into his room. He does not ask me to sit, so I do not, and he shuts the door and flicks the lights on.
“I’d say you could have picked a better time to come,” he says, “but I know why you’re here now, so I’ll refrain.”
At forty-nine years old, Malachi looks to be at least sixty. His hair is already completely white and grizzled with age, and his eyes are cloudy and unfocused as he considers me. He was my teacher when I was first inducted into Rosenkreuz’s twisted world, but he was promoted before I graduated from training. Few Talents make it to level eight; the best of us will stop at level seven and will spend the rest of our lives wondering at our inability to make that last jump in power. As soon as Malachi was registered as reaching that coveted ranking he was jerked from his position as an instructor to become one of the personal precognitives for the Council. Before then, Seraphim had been the only one. She had reached her level eight ranking by the time she was twenty-three and had been with the Council for nine years before she had any assistance.
“Herr Ahmed says that Seraphim was lost,” I say. He has to know that is the reason I am here, but it is common courtesy to actually state it out loud. “I had not heard.”
“It happened just last night,” Malachi answers with a small shrug. He crosses the room to the window, pulling back the gray curtains to stare out at the night. “Rosenkreuz is going to see some changes,” he muses, rubbing the curtain between his fingers. “These next several years are going to be very big. They could have used her power. They needed her.”
“She died looking into my future,” I tell him.
“Yes, she did,” he agrees with a bland smile that’s not all there. Hooded dark eyes turn towards me and he releases the curtain to brush knotted hair out of his face. “The hierarchy is going to change soon. Herr Chekov is dying. Yes?”
“Everyone knows his mind is giving out on him.”
“Herr Hoffmann will take his spot,” Malachi says. I don’t answer that, because it’s something I already know. The staff suspect as much but do not dare make assumptions, whereas the precogs know it is a certainty. “The Council will be four again and there will be a gap within the Five. He trusts you most, you know.” His smile is lazy and vacant.
I offer him a slight frown. “It is not my place to judge his faith in my capabilities.”
“Oh, come off it, Oracle. You have the potential to be so much more than you are and he knows it. He knows how to work with you. He knows he can trust you.” A finger presses to the underside of my chin, tilting my head up. “He knows that you are not afraid of him, but instead of seeing this as insolence, he has decided that it is just a measure of depth of your respect for him.” He lets go and takes a step back. “The Council knows he will be theirs, and he knows this as well. He is simply waiting for the when, the secret that was entrusted by fate to only you.”
I do not like the smile on his lips. It’s the sharpest expression I’ve seen on him in years, and I remember it distinctly from my time as a student beneath him. “He presented your name to the Council as a replacement for him, to take his spot as one of the Five beneath his command. The Council wanted Seraphim to answer that request.” Malachi gives a wave of his hand. “Poof,” he whispers. “How grand, is it not? She made no sound. We almost didn’t know she’d gone, except that she smiled for the first time in years.”
He reaches for me again, fingernails digging into my cheek as he grabs my face in his hand. “I wonder what she saw, this pretty mother of yours,” he says, turning my head from side to side to consider me. “What on earth could she see in her only son’s future that would kill her in an instant like that? A level eight Talent, a specific instant precognitive, and she was lost in a heartbeat. All she had to do was answer one question.
“Hoffmann claims that your loyalty is unshakable. He should know, wouldn’t you think? But the Council does not trust you now, no matter what he says. They don’t want to trust you. Hoffmann sees you as you are now; he cannot see what you will be ten years from today. They wanted her answer over his and you killed her.”
That’s troubling, but I keep a serene look in place. Malachi can’t provide the Council with the answer they need; he has a general sight like my own. He cannot be asked a specific question and get an answer; he has to take things as they come and work his way through the rest. But what could Seraphim have possibly seen that would kill her? I reach up and pull his hand free of my face. “My place is in Rosenkreuz,” I say.
“You say that now,” Malachi says.
“And I will say it always,” I say, a flat edge to my voice in response to the obvious challenge in his. The clocks are chiming again outside to show it is half past the hour. My flight leaves at a quarter to six; I had been intending on waking up now so I could arrive at the airport a little early. “I have a flight to catch.”
“Yes, you do,” he returns, moving past me to sit on his bed. “We will be watching you, Oracle. We will *all* be watching you.”
I say nothing to that because there is nothing to say, and instead cross the room to his door. I let myself out into the hall and close the door quietly behind me. It is drizzling when I leave the building but I do not rush to get out of the rain. I have been given too much to think about to care if I get wet. Any bit of satisfaction over the announcement that Hoffmann recommended me as one of the Five is buried beneath the rest of the jumble. Seraphim’s death is a blow for all precognitives; she was the spider that kept the strings of the web we’re making untangled and smooth. All of this global work we are breaking our backs for was being orchestrated by her command. Malachi is competent- more than competent, as he is a level eight- but he does not have the depth and reach that Seraphim had.
The Council doesn’t trust me.
That cuts deeper than the news of Seraphim’s death. Everything I have done thus far has been for the good of Rosenkreuz. That they do not trust me any longer simply because an aging precognitive died in the middle of a vision…
That is why they are going to pull me back from China, I realize, and it’s an unwelcome bit of insight. They cannot pull me back right now when there is too much going on over there, but as soon as there is a break, they will want me back where they can keep an eye on me. They are going to revoke my position and give me something else to do. That can’t be. I did not claw my way up from the bottom just to be sent back there again!
The flight back to Beijing seems longer than it really is. I have a window seat and sit with the shade rolled down and a notepad in front of me. Fingers are tight on a pencil in my hands and I stare down at the blank sheet of paper, tapping the lead lightly against it. Slowly I release myself backwards into my gift, staring through the paper as I begin to trace little circles along the margins. I do not expect to see anything useful here as I gaze through time towards the future, but it is still worth a try. I let go of everything around me save for my pencil, using the feel of it to provide a grounding. The chair I am sitting on fades to memory; the murmurs of the other passengers die away.
~I want to know what she saw,~ I tell myself, though I know from experience that I cannot make such a demand of my gift. When I shot straight past a level five ranking to a six, Malachi and Seraphim both tried to wrench my gift to turn it to specific instance precognition, but my sight refused to budge. All it succeeded in doing was affecting my physical vision. Seraphim had seemed pleased by my sudden near sightedness. She herself had been blind for years, giving up visions of the present world to concentrate solely on the future. She claimed that the fact that my gift could affect my physical sight as well meant that I still had room to grow with my power. Regardless, I have been a level seven for two years now.
What could my mother have possibly seen that would have killed her?
I open my gift further, reaching out for anything and everything I can touch. I flick past scenes of landing in Beijing, where Ming will be waiting with a car for me. Past the offices, past the reports I will find on my desk. Past an aggravated voice demanding to know just how much longer Rosenkreuz expects us to keep putting up with the Chan family.
I hit a solid wall in my gift, a black lining that is excruciatingly painful to run up against. It jars me out of my gift for a second; I see the back of the chair in front of me, hear a baby crying a few rows back, and then I force myself back against that wall.
I must know. I have to know what she saw.
A trigger. I need a trigger. I look for anything I can find, pressing against a gift that refuses to cooperate, rummaging through all of the projects I am involved in. There has to be something there. There has to be a trigger.
I am loyal to Rosenkreuz. I am loyal to Hoffmann. I am loyal to the Council. My life is lived for their future. What could she have seen that could make anyone question that?
~I need a trigger,~ I send at my gift, and it ignores my insistent demand.
A hand to my shoulder jars me neatly out of my concentration; I am snapped back to the here and now and see that my pencil is in pieces on the tray in front of me. There is a woman sitting in the seat beside me and it’s her hesitant hand on my shoulder. The stewardess has the drink cart paused beside our row. My intrusive neighbor has already been served her drink and it is my turn now, but I do not appreciate the interruption.
“Would you like a drink, sir?” the attendant wants to know. I shake my head and she seems surprised by my rejection. “We have juice, water, soda…”
I flick her a cold look that shuts her up mid-sentence, but I don’t hear her apology and I don’t notice her move the cart on to the next row.
She has green eyes.
Bright, bright green eyes.
Fingers twisted in orange hair, green eyes staring at something I can’t see. Blood dribbles out of a mouth that’s open in a silent scream. A hand catches his chin; I see a flash of a too-familiar smirk and I can watch the light in that emerald gaze shatter into a thousand pieces…
A bloody hand against my face, pushing at me, trying to shove me away…
A body sprawled across the floor, lying almost too still, green eyes vacant…
I am dizzy when I focus again and turn my gaze towards my circles to try and find something safe to look at until I am reoriented in the present. I am surprised to see that among my simple lines I have scratched out a name that has only recently come to mean anything to me. A piece of my fractured pencil is in my hand and I set it down slowly, reaching out to brush a thumb over the name and smear the lead. My mouth moves silently over the sounds as I read it. Schuldich…
I have the sudden feeling that I’m sealing my fate with this name.
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