Part Eight

    There are pros and cons to everything in life, and regaining my eyesight is no exception. Whereas my blind ranking gave me automatic respect and deference before, the school has no clue what to make of me now. I'm a level eight precognitive who lost his sight and gained it back, something Rosenkreuz has always labeled as an impossible task. I am Hoffmann's trusted associated and now one of the Five, yet I have retained control over the school and everything that happens under it. One or the other is more than enough work for a sane man, but juggling the duties of both means too much paperwork and too little sleep. Nevertheless, I'm not going to let anyone else ruin what I'm pushing the school into, and I refuse to relinquish my hold over it. Hoffmann lets me do as I wish because it amuses him to watch me sit up late into the night giving myself migraines as I juggle both positions.

    My colleagues think I'm insane, but I'm starting to think the respect they show me is finally real. My students have twisted down other paths; some are more terrified than before and others have tripped over themselves trying to be useful. Hoffmann laughingly called me their idol. I ignored him as discretely as one can ignore a level nine empath.

    There was a rumor that circled briefly that my eyesight had been a lie, because no one wants to believe that I could have gone blind and then found a way around such a disability. I don't know who answered that challenge, but they effectively squished it with the counterargument that Hoffmann too broke precedence by being the only Talent to register as a level nine. There wasn't really a way to argue around that; whoever started the rumor shut up quickly for fear of someone outright accusing him of implying that Hoffmann was a liar too, just because it had never happened before.

    There is more than enough to keep me busy as the weeks slide by towards my reunion with Schuldich. The date is circled on my calendar but only Hoffmann knows what significance it holds. He comes to see me less now than he did before, as he is extremely busy with his new position, but he still makes time at least once a week to drop by my office and see how things are going outside of my scheduled daily meetings with the Council. I keep an eye on my calendar, knowing the day is swiftly approaching when Hoffmann will lose interest in me in favor of breaking in his newest toy.

    It never crosses my mind to feel sympathetic for the ragged orphan and what awaits him here; I wasn't taught such an emotion and if I did have the ability to register it, it wouldn't be spared on him. I see no reason to linger over the blood that goes hand in hand with visions of him. Pain is a way of life at Rosenkreuz. Some experience more than others; that's just how it goes.

    And so it is that when the day comes and the five of us head to the airport that I am quite content to go, ready to see again the youth who so frequently haunts my thoughts. The Council is taking a field trip to see the telepath for themselves; I am not sure what the purpose is of all four going, but they are all there when I head to the car that morning. Schrei's pyrokinetic will be meeting us in Germany; he was the one assigned to watching over Schuldich and poking at him occasionally to try and get him to ease Rosenkreuz's way.

    Today Schuldich will give into because he has run out of other options. If he does not take what William is offering him, he will lose his mind, and he knows it. He is cornered by his gift, betrayed by his own mind. It is a miracle that he has made it this far but miracles are things of fancy, fleeting delusions. As much as Schuldich must detest the thought of looking towards his mother's former organization, the thought of madness is a worse ending. Telepaths who go insane have a rather slow death awaiting them unless someone is merciful enough to finish the job. I do not know how much he remembers of his own mother's demise, but it must have struck deep in his child's mind.

    We are driven to the airport and dropped off there, and we do not bother to go through the checkpoints. Hoffmann's gift breeds trust and complacency in those around us and it is all these humans can do to hope they do not look him in the eye as we stride past. Hoffmann and Mosuli lead the way with Jean and Ahmed behind them, and I follow in the rear and consider Hoffmann were I can see him past Ahmed's shoulder.

    Hoffmann has not been one of the Council for long, but he has already done what I predicted he would and turned it upside down. Jean and Ahmed, who have themselves been Councilmen for over ten years now, have lost their power to him. Hoffmann refuses to come second to anyone else. The work he did for Nikolai was only for his own personal gain; he aligned himself with a telepath specifically because he knew Nikolai would not live long. The strength of his power and his ruthless, cruel ambition lead even Jean and Ahmed to wonder if they should cross him.

    It is of little surprise that Mosuli would have decided to side with the empath; the two are closer in age, with Mosuli the second newest to the Council's seats. It is questionable whether or not he really fears Hoffmann, and I wonder what sort of position the Council finds themselves in. Hoffmann loves to be feared above all else; it is a feeling he cultivates with the same desperate greed as a newborn fighting for its first breath of air. But for the Councilmen to fear him means that they defer to him. Hoffmann does not like equals or anything else that challenges his authority, but the Council is not meant to be an uneven playing ground.

    Hoffmann knows what they feel about him- it is not something they can hide. If they fear him, he will taste that and use that. If they despise him or look down upon him, he will find a way to change that. If they are indifferent to his power and ambitions, what then? I can only imagine the sorts of fights that take place behind the Council's closed doors. It is far simpler to be beneath Hoffmann- at least in terms of rank- than to get into such a subtle, vicious struggle for power.

    We're settled in first class, the Council paired up in the two seats ahead of me and myself in the third row against the window. I pull the shade down to block out the view before buckling and consider the tray table where it is fastened in place on the back of Jean's seat. It takes just a few moments for me to look past it, blurring the colors together into orange and green and red.

    "Doesn't it ever bother you?"

    Disgust, anger- disappointment. Green eyes flicking my way, and I can see a hundred sleepless nights in the shadows beneath them. Teeth baring behind a smile and blood dribbling between them, staining his lips and gums.

    "I *hate* you."

    ~Fine with me,~ is my easy response to that future moment. ~I'll take from you what I'm meant to have. I'll follow these visions and see what is to come from it. But in the end you're just someone else I'll use until you have nothing left to offer, and I'll leave you battered on the roadside where I found you.~

    I filter through everything I have seen so far, running through a thousand little moments, a thousand heated words. I can piece several of them together, connecting words to gestures and lining the snapshots up. It is rather annoying to think that this German takes up so much of the space in my memory and is the focus of my gift. My precognition is for Rosenkreuz's good; I do not see what someone like this would have to offer them. He is simply a half-mad telepath. At best he will be alive for another ten years, and then what? I would be more forgiving if I could find out what connection he has to Rosenkreuz, but the only times I have ever seen him doing anything with the school, it was when I saw Hoffmann tearing him to pieces.

    No; all of my visions are centered on interactions between the pair of us. Schuldich is not important to Rosenkreuz- he is important to me personally. That is not supposed to happen. I have no interest in such a rude, hateful Talent. It is such a contradiction… I am tired of watching him in my mind, but I will be relieved when he is back at Rosenkreuz. I would much rather interact with him in the present than in the future; I want my gift cleared up for other things. I want nothing to do with him but I want to find out what purpose he has to serve. I hate him, but find no satisfaction in the blood and pain and images of shattering green eyes.

    The flight passes without incident and Schrei's sonic is waiting for us with a rented black limousine. She holds the door open while we climb in and I'm left to the back row while the Council divides itself between the two rows of seats that line the sides. It isn't until the door is closed that the Councilmen finally break the silence we have traveled in thus far. Hoffmann slouches back against the cushions of his seat, picking comfort over the more dignified positions of his colleagues. Long fingers rake through ragged burgundy hair and he flicks a look over his shoulder to consider the view out the window.

    "My, my," he says. "So good to be home, of course."

    "I despise it here," is Jean's response, and Hoffmann offers him a lazy smile. "If I had it my way, I would not step foot on this soil."

    "Serpahim knows best," Ahmed reminds him.


    "As long as her son proves equally useful, everything can be forgiven," Jean sends back, but it sounds more mocking than anything else. Ahmed offers him a grim smile that is echoed by a satisfied smirk on Hoffmann's face. Just like that, the conversation is over, leaving me to wonder what they know that I don't. There is an understanding between them, shared in those smiles and the muted scorn in Jean's eyes.

    I'd thought it odd that all of them are here in Germany, uprooted from Rosenkreuz just for the retrieval of a telepath. It is not because of his connection to the Soul Shaker; Hoffmann made it inescapably clear that he wants no connection between himself and the orphan in the eyes of Rosenkreuz. It is his choice to make; it means nothing to me whether or not they see him as Hoffmann's nephew. No one would be stupid enough to be jealous of such a prestigious connection. Blood ties are just blood, after all, and nothing spills faster across Rosenkreuz's grounds. The Council knows that Hoffmann tried to kill him but they do not know why; it makes me wonder what the official story is.

    It is a long drive; Schuldich migrated out of Berlin in the months since I saw him. Apparently he started to move when he realized Rosenkreuz had someone out looking for him. Whether or not the drive is long in terms of minutes, I am not sure, for I know better than to look at my watch, but time doesn't run quite the same when one's traveling companions are the Council.

    Hoffmann glances my way when the driver alerts us that we are coming up on the city. "Anything to add?" he wants to know.

    "Nothing new as of yet, Herr Hoffmann," I assure him.

    "Triggers?" he wants to know.

    "If the Council does not mind my asking, I am wondering how much Schuldich has been told regarding Rosenkreuz and our pickup today."

    Hoffmann laces his fingers together behind his head, offering me a lazy smile. "Blaze has been approaching him on a monthly basis to check on his mind and promise him a cure for his madness," he says. "The deal he has been offering is teaching him how to shield in exchange for a little blood and a coupling. What he didn't say was that the blood he wanted was not meant for Chizuru's labs but to bind him to Rosenkreuz."

    "Ask me for something else!" Heated, furious, desperate.

    Hoffmann arches an eyebrow at me as I tense in my chair, but I keep my expression unchanging as a swirl of colors and strangled words rocket around behind my shields.

    ~No. That's not the way to do it. That's not the way to do it at all.~

    "William is trading sex for sanity," I repeat, making sure I heard it right.

    "Schrei's Blaze was commanded to bargain with something Schuldich would not want to give up," Jean says, flicking his fingers in dismissal. "It was a good judge of just when he would find himself at the crossroads where he had to give anything to keep his sanity intact." He flicks a look my way. "They were your words, Orace: 'He must reach the point where he is willing to give up anything for our cause or he will die when he is here'."

    "Did you forget to properly define 'anything', Oracle?" Ahmed asks.

    I hesitate, thinking that through, thinking of the unwanted heat of Hoffmann's hands and mouth. "As a precognitive, I will say that it will make things much harder, Herr Ahmed."

    "Harder, but not impossible," Mosuli says.

    "No, Herr Mosuli. Not impossible."

    For a moment I am amused, but the emotion comes hand in hand with a trickle of heat and I know that it is sent my way from Hoffmann. He understands the reason behind my hesitation over Schrei's tactic. I do not look at him, but I incline my head slightly in acknowledgement of the message. If the Councilmen take note of the gesture, they say nothing, perhaps writing it off as deference to their indifference over Schrei's tactic.

    The city is busy when we arrive and our driver takes us through the streets to a quieter part of town. I watch out the window as the sidewalks become less crowded and the houses start to look more worn, and we come to a stop at the curb in front of a hotel. A bellhop hurries over, eager to be of some assistance, and our driver waves him off with a few flat words. It is not time yet.

    "There he is," Hoffmann murmurs, gazing through his hands as his gift picks up on his nephew. "I must say he's not in much better shape now than he was when I left him."

    "But he *is* salvageable," Mosuli insists, looking my way.

    "On a long term basis, Herr Mosuli," I confirm. "I have seen him years down the road, sane and well."

    "Do you honestly enjoy watching him so much?" Hoffmann asks, and I don't know whether to interpret his tone as amused or disgusted. If Rosenkreuz wasn't in such dire need of telepaths, he would have come here alone to execute the child. As much fun as he is sure to have breaking the youth in to the harsh reality of Rosenkreuz, I do believe he will hate it just as much.

    "Honestly, Herr Hoffmann?" I query, and he gives a flick of his fingers to confirm that he means it as a literal question. "I do not seem to have a choice in whether or not my gift centers on him. I have seen enough of him by now to know that he will be important to me, but I would prefer it if he would stop taking up ninety percent of my vision."

    Hoffmann is the only one who does not tense at those words. Ahmed flicks Jean a quick look, but the French pyrokinetic is too busy staring at me. Mosuli's expression has closed off as he eyes me across the space between us. Hoffmann glances around at them, picking up more on their emotional reaction to the word than their physical reactions.

    "Tell me you are exaggerating, Oracle," Jean says evenly.

    "Herr Jean, I do not know whether to do as you say and lie to you or respectfully decline in favor of the truth."

    Jean looks over at Mosuli before looking towards Ahmed, and the three consider this in silence. Hoffmann watches them through hooded eyes, and while his expression is calm, I wonder what is going on beneath the surface as he realizes the Council knows something that he does not. I have known Hoffmann far too long to find it amusing that his colleagues have kept him excluded from something, whether intentionally or not. It is a rather dangerous slipup on their part.

    These thoughts are interrupted when Jean smiles. I have never seen the cranky pyrokinetic smile before. It is a thin, cold expression, and it is the only time I will ever see it curve his lips. I am not particularly pleased to see it now, as I am not sure it means good things.

    "Seraphim knows best," he murmurs, and Ahmed nods, and the pair look almost relaxed.

    Idly I wonder if there is any way I can secure access to my mother's files. I know her prophecies had to be recorded somewhere for the Council to go over again and again. In any other situation, they would be off limits to everyone except the Council and their chosen precognitive, Malachi. With the progress my gift has made, however, perhaps they would be willing to let me see them. Malachi has already proved himself unreliable when it comes to tracking Schuldich, but if he was important enough for Seraphim to have made predictions about…

    I have no doubt that Hoffmann will be digging through those files upon our return to Austria. Of the four, he is the most likely to grant me permission to see them. There is a slight chance I will not have to ask, if he sees it fit to bring the papers to me to help him interpret them.

    For now, though, he gives no sign that he is offended by his exclusion, and instead says, "It's time."

    He alerts our driver with his gift and she beckons to the bellhop to make himself useful. He hurries back over to the door and opens it, and it is his lucky day that he is too busy bowing when Hoffmann steps out to look at the empath's eyes. We climb out onto the sidewalk and start towards the door, which slides open soundlessly at our approach. This hotel is the nicest building on the street but is still nothing that Rosenkreuz's staff is useful; William likely had little choice if he wanted to get Schuldich away from the peeping eyes of the city.

    The elevator is already on the first floor, as the hotel is empty save for the man at the desk, and we ride up to the third floor. William's room is third on the left; Hoffmann leads the way there by trailing the emotions of those inside. I hear the locks pop as Mosuli's gift tears across them and Hoffmann shoves the door open, letting it bang against the wall. I follow the Council inside, passing a small bathroom and closet, and the five of us arrange ourselves along the wall of the bedroom.

    For the record, I have never seen anyone go that white as what Schuldich's face does when he sees Hoffmann.

    "You're looking well," Hoffmann greets, and his hate is hidden behind an amused drawl.

    "Councilmen," William says, indifferent towards his unclothed state, and he inclines his head to the four. "Oracle. I present to you Schuldich." He lifts his hand, face still downcast, and Hoffmann cross the room towards him. Schuldich scrambles backwards on the bed away from him, grabbing at the only thing he can reach- a pillow. I don't know what sort of damage he expects to do with it, but his knuckles are white around the material.

    Blood is collected in William's palm, though I cannot see where the cut is on Schuldich yet. Hoffmann presses his hand down onto it. It trickles out between their hands, dripping through William's fingers to the bed.

    "Blood sacrifice made and accepted; the Council acknowledges Schuldich of Rosenkreuz."

    Schuldich hurls the pillow at him and throws himself off the bed. He can't hope to escape, but it is a valiant effort. Foolish, but valiant. The pillow explodes halfway to Hoffmann, shredded into cotton bits courtesy of Mosuli, and Hoffmann's gift brings Schuldich to his knees just a foot away from the bed. His fingers are knotted in messy orange hair, his mouth open in a scream he can't quite get the breath for, and Hoffmann moves over to him.

    "You should have died," Hoffmann advises him, reaching out to tangle his fingers in Schuldich's hair. He jerks the boy's head back and Schuldich's eyes snap shut before he can meet Hoffmann's stare. "You would have saved us both a lot of trouble. Blaze, you are dismissed."

    "Councilmen." He gathers up his clothes and moves to dress in the bathroom.

    Hoffmann throws Schuldich down against the floor and starts for the door. "We are leaving."

    Schuldich can breathe again, but his breaths are high pitched and strained, either in pain or the edges of panic or both. I would forgive him either.

    When he makes no move to get up, Mosuli's gift sends him flying the few feet to crash into the wall. "Get to your feet," the African grinds out. "We have better things to do than stand around a place like this."

    "Bring yourself down to the car of your own power," Ahmed advises the young German. "You will not like it if we have to take you there."

    Schuldich's arms are shaking as he pushes himself up where he's crumpled against the wall. He sends a wild look our way, green eyes splintered where we can see them through his bright bangs. His lips are moving around a soundless, desperate denial: "Won't I won't I won't I won't-"

    He chokes on his cry as a gash rips down his arm; fingers clench over the wound as if he's trying desperately to hold the skin shut. He looks like he's just a minute away from full out panicking, and that would be the worst thing for him. If he loses it, the Council will lose patience with him, and his stay at Rosenkreuz will be off to the wrong foot.

    "Councilmen, if you would prefer it, I will escort him downstairs," I suggest.

    They probably only accept this because they think it has something to do with my precognition, but they do leave without a word. Blaze is finished getting dressed and he steps out of the bathroom, sending me a lazy smile when the room is empty except for the three of us.

    "He isn't half bad, you know," he says with a leer.

    I send him a look that is just cold enough to wipe the smile off his face. We stare each other down across the room and at length he fidgets uncomfortably.

    "Your work is done here," I tell him, and he grimaces at the ice in my voice. "Remove yourself from the premises. Schrei will be happy to be at full strength again."

    "Of course, Oracle," he murmurs, and the door clicks shut behind him.

    I turn my attention back on Schuldich and find that he looks worse now than he did when I first saw him. It is in part because of the madness that is tearing apart his mind, in part from living on the streets; the largest part of it has to do with the fact that he was reintroduced to a monster he never wanted to see again. He is shaking so badly he is almost rocking and I reach into my pocket, digging out a handkerchief.

    It is an odd little repeat of our first meeting; I hold it out towards him in an offering. He stares through it for a long minute before lifting his gaze to mine.

    "Rosenkreuz," he whispers. "Rosenkreuz."

    Schrei's utter incompetence is disgusting. They were supposed to be prepping him for his induction to this school; instead it seems they have done nothing of the sort. It makes me wonder why he ran from Schrei in the first place, and a glance towards tangled sheets and the bruises down Schuldich's scrawny, naked form offer a few hints.

    I will take it up with Elizabeth, as Schrei is her team, but it is doubtful whether or not she will care enough to do anything about it. In the end, Schuldich is still Rosenkreuz's, so the method shouldn't matter. If it weren't for my own experiences with Hoffmann, I probably wouldn't care.

    Fingers loosen around his bicep and bloody fingers reach up; this time he accepts the offer he rejected almost a year ago. I watch as he clasps the white cloth to his cut.

    "Listen to me," I say, and he stares up at me with a desperate gleam in his eyes. It is a testament to how horrible his last encounter with Hoffmann was if he is not trying to escape when it is down to just the two of us. Apparently he learned that no one escapes Hoffmann, and I wonder how often he saw the Soul Shaker while he was growing up.

    "You are now a student of Rosenkreuz, registered and filed as Schuldich, telepath ranking zero. You are coming back with us from here to Austria, where you will be trained to rebuild the shields that have broken in your mind. You will be taught how to keep your shields from giving out again and will learn control over your gift. You have no say in this matter."

    He shakes his head at me, lips bloodless where they are pressed so firmly together.

    "If you do not get to your feet of your own free will, Herr Hoffmann will bring you to them," I say. "We are leaving. You chose life over death; these are the consequences of your greed to live."

    "I don't want-"

    "What you want has never mattered," I inform him, arching an eyebrow at him. "You are a telepath. First and foremost, you are a telepath who was specifically bred for this day. Your parents meant for you to be inducted. It is something that was decided long before your birth. I would suggest you start moving; Herr Hoffmann has no patience for dawdling."

    Silence stretches between us for several tense seconds, the seconds that will forever decide Schuldich's fate at Rosenkreuz. If he breaks and tries to bolt, Hoffmann will destroy him. Otherwise… I can see him turning towards me again, that lazy, amused smile on his lips that is so reminiscent of his uncle's. I wonder if it will be possible for anyone to miss the connection between them when he is older and will wear his the Soul Shaker's expressions so easily.

    It takes him those seconds to decide what terrifies him more: going down to where Hoffmann is waiting or having Hoffmann lose his patience. The decision is made; terror is replaced by something bleak and the shaking fades. Schuldich pushes himself to his feet and grabs at his clothes, and I do not wait for him but start for the door. He hurries when he realizes I am not going to wait on him, probably afraid that my leaving will mean that he is taking too long and will incite Hoffmann's wrath. He is only half dressed when he starts after me but he pulls on his ragged mess of a shirt as he follows me down the hall.

    He is trembling again before the elevator reaches the front door and I reach out to hold the doors open with one hand, turning a considering look on him.

    "You will survive this," I inform him, and he refuses to look at me. I can see the muscles working in his jaw and wonder what he is choking on. Hateful words? Denials? A scream? "You will not think so, and you might not want to, but you will, and you will be the better for it."

    I do not wait for an answer but start for the door, and the telepath follows after me.

    Oracle and Schuldich; precognitive and telepath.

    The world must have a questionable sense of humor if it really intends to pair the two of us up.

Part 9
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