Part Nine

    Schuldich's introduction to Rosenkreuz is the harshest I have ever seen.

    Word spreads quickly that we have a new telepath, but no one has the stomach to be pleased by such an idea after the first day.

    Whatever drove the Council to take a sudden interest in Schuldich- whatever meaning my words had for them- is not enough to keep them from turning him over to Hoffmann's care.

    It is hard to tell if Schuldich is a new recruit or a pet; he is kept in a room on a hall by himself. A schedule hangs on the door marking what hours the medic lab is to have him for blood work and genetic testing and what time he is supposed to spend with our telepaths to build his shields up. The rest of his schedule is unlisted, but that does not mean he has nothing to do.

    In the first three days Schuldich is at Rosenkreuz, he gets not more than a few minutes of sleep. Hoffmann spends several hours with him throughout each day, using his gift to tear the youth apart. I do not know what the purpose is; upon asking Ikida, who has been assigned to clean up the mess Hoffmann makes, the doctor murmured something about Hoffmann wanting to strengthen him. Between the telepaths building him up and Hoffmann tearing him down, Schuldich's mind is supposed to grow and adapt to something that will survive its own future madness.

    It makes absolutely no sense to me, or to Ikida, but it is the official reason and no one is allowed to question the Council.

    Ikida does his best to patch up Schuldich's body where Hoffmann's gift tears it apart, but there is only so much he can do, and he is not allowed to give the child any medicine for the pain in those first days. Without any mercy from Hoffmann or drugs from Ikida, Schuldich is literally in too much pain to sleep for the first three days.

    Hoffmann has instructed me to come and watch his sessions with Schuldich and has even been generous enough to schedule them around my classes and meetings. They take a large chunk out of my day that I cannot afford to give up, but he wishes me to watch the telepath that is fated to stand at my side. I personally think he just wants me on hand in case I need to tell him to stop. It is a good thing, as Hoffmann comes within a few minutes of pushing too far on the second day. The wall between the room and hall has a two-way mirror on it, enabling me to watch without having to hear the screams from within the soundproof room. I cannot hear them, but Hoffmann can hear me if I rap on the glass, and he listens for the knock.

    Now it is the fourth day, and Schuldich is finally unconscious. It is Ikida's doing; he spoke to Hoffmann about the necessity of letting Schuldich recuperate before progressing any further. Instead of waiting to do it with drugs, Hoffmann simply kicked his power up a notch to the point that Schuldich blacked out. He doesn't appear to have moved in the twelve hours since I last saw him; he is still crumpled in the same place and position. The floor is covered with dried blood where Hoffmann refuses to let janitors clean the place up, and orange hair is scattered on the floor where Hoffmann cut all of the youth's long locks off. Now his hair is only a few inches long, just enough for Hoffmann to still be able to grab.

    Shoes tap against the floor; I recognize the footsteps enough by now to know they're Ikida's. I had to learn to recognize the sound when I was blind. He has a rather distinct walk, unhurried without dragging, and his shoes have the slightest heel on them to click against the floor. Hoffmann is just a moment behind him with his more distinctive, heavy stride.

    "Herr Hoffmann," I say, looking towards the floor as I turn my head his direction. "Ikida."

    "Crawford," Ikida returns evenly, coming to a stop beside me. The middle-aged doctor looks through the window towards Schuldich and gives a slight nod as he takes in Schuldich's unchanged position. He seems satisfied by it; I suppose a doctor would be glad to see that Schuldich has been asleep since they left. The telepath is about to get a rude awakening, however, as Hoffmann is looking rather annoyed. An earthquake in Japan took out one of Rosenkreuz's new investments; the news reached us this morning. Hoffmann is no longer in charge of just the Asian division, but it is still his, and he is not pleased that this happened.

    I have no doubt that he and I will be having a talk later as to why I didn't see it coming, but I can't work up any bit of relief that he will see Schuldich before he sees me. The youth is bound to be enough to work off of some of Hoffmann's irritation, but it could never work off enough.

    Hoffmann doesn't bother to acknowledge my greeting but lets himself into Schuldich's room, and the door slams shut behind him. The sound is not enough to wake Schuldich up, not from wherever his sleep has pushed him, but Hoffmann's gift is.

    He went to sleep in pain and he wakes up in pain; he is bleeding within seconds of Hoffmann's entrance. Even still, his eyes are more sane now than they were when we found him. It seems the sleep has done him well; his expression is closed off as Hoffmann walks in a slow circle around him. The Soul Shaker's mouth is moving but the words do not reach Ikida or me. He comes to a stop behind Schuldich and reaches out, snagging him by the hair, and gives him a rough shake that makes my own neck muscles cringe.

    The smile on Hoffmann's face is full of hate, full of a need to hurt. He purrs the last of his furious promises into Schuldich's ear and I watch the blood that trickles down from Schuldich's lips as his uncle speaks to him.

    And then Schuldich does something incredible.

    He smiles.

    I watch his lips move as he offers up a response, and I do not have to hear it to know that it is probably the dumbest thing he will ever say in his life. If those half-lidded green eyes and mocking smile have anything to do with the words he is saying, then he will forever regret being so foolish as to utter them. As someone who has spent three days now and who knows how many times in the past being tortured by Hoffmann's gift, he really should know better. I have seen his defiance in my visions, but seeing them actually play out is something else entirely.

    Blood splatters against the ground. I do not know what has given way but I can see Schuldich's entire expression twist in pain. Hoffmann throws him down against the ground and Schuldich can just barely catch himself with his hands so his face doesn't hit the metal floor.

    Putting his hands out turns out to be a mistake, as Hoffmann promptly stomps on one hand, smashing it between his boot and the floor. Ikida makes notes beside me on a clipboard; a glance over there shows that he is tracking all of the injuries inflicted. It is a rather lengthy list already for this to be only the fourth day, but I do not expect it to get much longer. Hoffmann has a rather short attention span for most things, after all. If this is day four, then I do not expect these sessions to last longer than eight days altogether. Hoffmann is a very busy man, after all.

    "He is laughing," Ikida comments with some surprise, and I look up from his clipboard to study Schuldich's face. The German's expression is torn with pain and his smile is trembling on his lips, but he is forcing himself to laugh at his uncle's hatred.

    I think it is safe to say that no one has ever laughed at Hoffmann before.

    "He is very foolish," I observe.

    "Yes," the Japanese doctor agrees quietly as Schuldich's strained laughter gives way to screaming. "He is very strong."

    "Strong," I echo, and Ikida offers a slight shrug at the cool amusement in my voice. This, strong? This is just foolishness and an invitation for Hoffmann to hate him further. It is not strong to want to incite the Soul Shaker's wrath. Schuldich should know this more than anyone. "It appears we have a difference in opinion."

    "Perhaps we will learn to forgive each other for it," Ikida says lightly. "We judge by different criteria, you and I, as you are a precognitive and one of the Five and I am merely a doctor."

    "You waste our time to even pretend you are 'merely' a doctor, Ikida," I tell him, and he just inclines his head to me.

    A door opens at the end of the hall. I know who it is without having to look, as I asked Mosuli to come. Ikida hides his surprise over the presence of a second Councilman, bowing low to the African telekinetic as Mosuli heads our way. "Herr Mosuli," I greet him, inclining my head to him. He ignores us for the moment, coming to a stop beside me to stare in through hooded eyes. I turn my attention back to the view even as Ikida makes a few more hurried notes.

    Schuldich's hands are knotted in his hair even though I can see where the skin has split along his knuckles to show bone and raw muscle, his entire expression contorted as Hoffmann's gift rips at his mind. The Soul Shaker looks almost bored as he stands over him, thumbs hooked on his pockets.

    "I see nothing wrong here," Mosuli points out.

    "I did not mean to make you wait, Herr Mosuli," I assure him, lifting one hand to the glass. I rap my knuckles against it, keeping my eyes on Hoffmann's chest as the Soul Shaker glances towards the window. It's a warning for him to watch what he's doing- rather, what he's about to do. I can feel the weight of his stare on me and then he looks back to Schuldich. A moment later the telepath is gasping for air, freed briefly of his uncle's power.

    If Hoffmann found out from his colleagues whatever it was they were hiding from him about Schuldich, he chose not to pass it on to me. All I know is that Schuldich is not allowed to die, even though Chizuru's group has retrieved enough blood samples from him to take leaps and bounds with their research. That is why I am here; that is why he does not want me to let him go too far.

    I would prefer to know why, seeing as how it has to do with Seraphim.

    Hoffmann leans over the crumpled form, mouth moving. I read his lips, read the order to get up. Schuldich's not really in any shape to pick himself up off the floor but he manages somehow to get to a sitting position. It's amazing what things one can accomplish in order to avoid Hoffmann's power.

    Hoffmann leans closer, and the change of angle makes it impossible for me to figure out what he says next. Whatever it is, Schuldich flinches. Hoffmann's hand moves to his face; fingers curl around his chin and turn the youth to face him.

    I see Schuldich's mouth work as he resists Hoffmann's pull, and I rap on the glass again. "Herr Mosuli," I warn him.

    Hoffmann forcibly turns Schuldich's head his way, and the telepath retaliates by spitting a mouthful of blood right into Hoffmann's face.

    Mosuli is gone. One moment he is standing right beside me, and the next he is inside the room. It sends a chill down my spine; teleportation is something only the strongest of telekinetics can manage. The training, skill, and concentration it takes for them to separate and rejoin their particles are off the scales. It is one thing to be born with teleporting abilities; it is quite another to be a strong enough telekinetic for it. It is extremely risky for them; their minds work the wrong way and they can't send an imprint of themselves to where they're going.

    Mosuli hates doing it, but there is no other choice right now.

    Schuldich is crumpled against the floor, screaming into the blood, even as Mosuli appears between him and Hoffmann. Hoffmann's expression is carved from ice as he watches his nephew writhe and Mosuli grabs him by his hair to yank the Soul Shaker upright. I watch lips curl back over teeth stained with Schuldich's blood and Mosuli's hand is already over Hoffmann's eyes to stop him from looking at the telekinetic. Their mouths move as they argue; Hoffmann smacks Mosuli's hand away and the telekinetic fixes his gaze on his companion's forehead instead. Schuldich is still screaming as Hoffmann refuses to let go, and Ikida's knuckles are white on his clipboard as we watch lines rip through the skin on his face and arms.

    Skin is swelling and changing color; first it looks as if little golf balls are trying to push themselves up from inside his arms and then they start to char, covering with blisters as Hoffmann burns his nephew from the inside out.

    Ikida whispers something in hoarse Japanese that I don't understand, and then abruptly, it stops.

    I watch Hoffmann's eyes roll back in his head and Mosuli catches him as he crumples to the ground. The African looks over his shoulder at Schuldich as the telepath's skin starts to flatten out, taking stock of the burns and cuts that will be there for a long while yet. A sneer curls Mosuli's thick lips and Schuldich is sent flying, hitting the wall and leaving a blood smear behind as he falls to the ground. Mosuli leaves him there, picking Hoffmann up as if he weighs nothing, and starts for the door.

    "Strong," I send at Ikida, not quite mockery, and he grimaces. The door opens itself and Mosuli carries Hoffmann out.

    "Get that thing cleaned up," Mosuli orders Ikida, and the doctor bows. I incline my head to Mosuli as he storms past, wondering where he plans on taking Hoffmann until the empath wakes up. It would be horribly damaging for the Council if anyone were to see the Soul Shaker in such a state, knocked unconscious by his own colleague.

    Ikida doesn't even wait to see Mosuli go. As soon as the telekinetic is out of his way he's running inside, lab coat flying around him in his haste to get to Schuldich. I just shake my head as the door swings shut behind him to block out the sounds Schuldich is making.

    I can see Ikida's mouth moving as he talks to Schuldich, and the Japanese doctor plucks up his med kit from the corner before kneeling by his patient's side. I don't know what he's saying to Schuldich- or rather, if Schuldich can even hear him over his own pained and desperate noises- but he must recognize the doctor's mind as something that isn't going to hurt him. He's face down in blood but he reaches out blindly across the floor towards Ikida. Broken fingers curl tightly in the cloth of his lab coat, staining the material dark red.

    Anyone else would have hit him for such a thing, but Ikida reaches out and sets a hand on his head in what seems to be a comforting touch. It is an odd thing to see from Rosenkreuz's doctors, but it's not my place to question how they do their job. Everyone knows Ikida is Hoffmann's favorite doctor, so it doesn't really matter how he works as long as he gets things done. I watch as he runs his fingers gently through ragged orange hair, his other hand busy getting his kit open to get a shot.

    Schuldich's shoulders are shaking as he cries helplessly against the floor, and I can see Ikida murmur into his ear as he slides the shot in. Schuldich just gives the slightest shake of his head and Ikida tilts his head just a little bit more, just enough to rest his forehead against bloody hair. Schuldich's fingers tighten in his coat in response.

    It is a scene I will see many more times that year.


    My estimate that Hoffmann's interest in Schuldich after just eight days falls short by at least fifty weeks. I am a Rosenkreuz graduate and one of the Five, but I am still human enough to be quietly horrified by this.

    One… year.

    One entire year.

    Every day for three hundred and fifty-seven days I have watched Hoffmann tear his nephew further and further from sanity. It is the most horrendous sort of bonding, I think, that any of us could have. Ikida and I have seen too much of each other, and haven't spoken to each other in months. There is nothing more for us to say. We merely go where Hoffmann wants us to go and watch as he destroys a mind that was strong enough to have made it this far. Hoffmann simply doesn't get bored of taking apart his little toy, though even Mosuli seems to have grown tired of the game ages ago. The telekinetic has been a part of Hoffmann's sessions ever since the day he had to carry Hoffmann out of there before he could kill the youth. He is there to make sure Hoffmann doesn't go too far, but all Schuldich knows is that things get worse than he imagined they could be when a telekinetic is on hand to hold him down.

    I am not sure Schuldich exists anymore, to be honest.

    His green eyes are dark with insanity; his mind has been shattered and put back together countless times. Hoffmann will tear him down and build him up as he pleases, cutting him down to the bone and soul and then smoothing the pain out with love and loyalty and happiness. It is a violent back and forth, and the school only knows Schuldich as the bony, scrawny ghost that follows Hoffmann around the compound. Hoffmann has gotten into the habit of taking Schuldich for walks once a week, having the telepath trail behind him wherever he goes.

    I don't think Schuldich even knows he leaves the room; he has a vacant smile on his lips and an uncomprehending look in his eyes as he stumbles along. The only times he speaks are to answer his uncle's mocking drawl: "Yes, Herr Hoffmann. Yes, Herr Hoffmann."

    He always sounds as if he's choking on blood.

    Sometimes the telepaths are called in to section off chunks of his mind, sorting through the mess and repressing what they can. I think it is the only way Schuldich makes it past the second month; it stops him from completely shutting down and breaking.

    Even still, I can only stare at him from a distance and wonder how this bleeding, wretch of a child is supposed to turn into the mouthy, vibrant man in my visions. I am far past the point where I should be questioning my sight, but I do not see how such a thing is ever going to happen. What Schuldich should be, he isn't, and he can't be. Not like that. Not when he hangs onto the wall as he wanders absently after his uncle, trying not to fall down. Not when he's screaming against the floor, trying to claw himself open to pull out the pain.

    I am starting to have nightmares about this child, and I do not know how to make them go away.

    I wish I could; Hoffmann knows that something is wrong. He finds it highly amusing that my indifference could fade; he finds it amusing that his "heartless Fifth" could be bothered by what he is doing. He *had* lost his interest in me. I am not happy to have it back.

    "Doesn't it bother you?" – the disgusted, frustrated words I heard so long ago. I know not what my future partner is referring to, but it works well enough for now.

    "It shouldn't," I tell my room, watching as my pencil traces idle circles on a piece of paper.

    It shouldn't, but it does.

    There is a knock at my door, and I slide a clean sheet of paper over the one I was scribbling on. "Enter," I say, lifting my voice just enough to be heard. The knob turns and I greet Chizuru with a calm look as she steps through. She offers me a little lopsided smile, closing the door behind herself, and crosses the room to me.

    "It's been a while," she says. "You're a hard man to catch up with."

    "You are just as busy," I remind her.

    She grins, understanding my words to be a dismissal and deciding not to heed them. "I'm actually here on business, Crawford," she says, tilting her head at me. "No worries, yes? Is it all right if I sit?" She doesn't wait for an answer but perches on the edge of my bed. I don't bother to give her a response when I know she wouldn't heed it anyway, and instead watch as she sets thick folders down on her lap. "I only ask for a few minutes to abuse your precognition."

    "Elizabeth warned me you were coming," I tell her.

    She smiles. "She warned me you were not pleased," she returns easily. "But I am sure she told you why I was coming, so you know my excuse is legitimate. Besides, it has been half a year, hasn't it? You have been busy trying to take over the world and I have been busy in the lab."

    She is right about that, at least; we have both been too busy for her to spare the time to come hunt me down. The last time I saw her was five months ago, when she wanted to take some of my blood into the lab. I didn't understand the reasons, but Elizabeth had signed off on it.

    Chizuru reaches for a small pair of glasses that are tucked into her lab coat pocket and waves them at me, a small smile on her lips. "I suppose we all go blind one day," she says, putting them on. "I've worn my eyes down from too many nights poring over these files. Perhaps we should start printing them with bigger font. Who knows? I tell you, though- that subject Herr Hoffmann brought in has kept my entire team fascinated since day one. There's so much there in his blood, you know. It's not quite the same as what we find here, but it took us months to try and pinpoint where the differences were.

    "We have taken…" She searches for words, face glowing. "…It's been so wonderful, Crawford. We've been taking leaps and bounds ever since Schuldich came here. It's just amazing. Do you realize it? We've been going through Rosenkreuz's files, looking for something to relate this to, and did you know that there are three documented cases of telepaths living until their fifties? There's even a fourth article from Brazil where they claim that one sixty-year-old woman had telepathy. Rosenkreuz keeps a scan of the article on file, but it is from before the school's founding and so they do not accept it as truth. Besides, the thought of a telepath living that long is considered heresy. But the files are there in the lab; we found the files on the three documented ones when we were looking for records of telepathic abnormalities."

    She leans forward, stabbing a finger against the folders in her lap. "There's something different in his blood, Crawford. Something that separates him from the rest of the telepaths- something that matches up with Rosenkreuz's three old telepaths. Everyone in Rosenkreuz has a blood sample in the freezer in our lab; we do it for cataloguing purposes. We brought their samples out and thawed them for tests, and they've all got this unidentified gene, this extra pair of chromosomes that he has."

    She considers that for a moment, searching my face. I hope she is not looking for an echo of her elation in my expression; I continue to regard her with a smooth look. "You have it, Crawford," she tells me in a low voice.


    The folders are pushed aside and she reaches out, grabbing onto my shoulder. She has half-risen from my bed and she searches my face, excitement making her voice shake. "I asked for your blood five months ago in part because our secondary team thought it would be best to breed our next group with your genes. Precognitives always breed true; we could have asked you to impregnate someone, as it would have worked the same. Instead we didn't want another's genes to taint it, even those of another strong precognitive. We wanted yours and you were the obvious choice- the precog who went blind and then could see again.

    "You have the same genetic abnormality," she insists. "We found it when we were running tests to figure out why you could see again. You have the same extra set that he has." She lets go of me, sitting down again to rummage through her files, and she pulls out slides that have black squiggly marks down them. She sets them side by side on my white sheets and presses a manicured fingernail to each slide, pointing out what I suppose must be this defect she is talking about.

    "The pair that kept his mind alive after Hoffmann tried to kill him- the pair that kept those telepaths alive until they were old- the pair that makes you strong enough that you can have both sights without suffering for it…" She looks hungry as she stares down at the pictures. "Do you have any idea what that means, Crawford? Do you have any idea what such a discovery could do for Rosenkreuz?"

    "Rosenkreuz the school, or Rosenkreuz your project?" I ask her idly.

    "Both," she insists. "They are one and the same, are they not? Project Rosenkreuz is done for the good of all of Rosenkreuz."

    "You are breeding power that does not have to be bred," I remind her. "Your task was to find out how to breed telepathy. Instead you divide your efforts into making teams. What letter are you on now, Chizuru?"

    She frowns at me, not wanting to be discouraged by my obvious lack of interest in her precious pet project. "We are on F only," she says. "We hit delays with all of this. I feel it is worth it; this is the most fantastic discovery we could have hoped to find."

    "Cheers," I tell her.

    Her frown deepens. "I ask you not to mock my work, Crawford."

    "If you did not wish to be belittled, you wouldn't have come here."

    "I came here because I wanted you to understand that you are part of something special," she insists, "something that will change Rosenkreuz's future. I want that thought in your mind so your third eye can keep a discrete eye on it." She presses a finger to her forehead, where the mythical third eye is so often drawn. "I came here because I want your blessing on team D's progress."

    "D," I echo. "You are still favoring them."

    "They still stick to the confines of their teams," Chizuru admits, grimacing. "The telepaths of D, E, and F still can reach no mind outside of their own units. Even though Edward and Peter have perhaps stronger minds than Berger, Berger is worth more attention because of his teammates. The powers on his team are more important to us than encouraging a closed telepathic network with sonics and teleporters. I would rather have the pyrokinesis and telekinesis. But can you imagine what that would be like, Crawford, to have teams on such a tight, closed network?"

    "I think if you want such a thing, you should find a telepath strong enough to do that but still reach outside his own mind."

    She looks frustrated by my complete lack of enthusiasm or support. "You're not *listening*," she says, and she's right. My mind is already skipping ahead.

    "Kind of quiet in here," Schuldich remarks, looking around. We're surrounded by darkness and he looks back at me, offering me an amused smirk. "I'd expected to be able to hear *something*."

    "More fool you," I hear my calm response back to him.

    "Your team is obsolete," I tell Chizuru, cutting off whatever blistering remark she was making. Her teeth click together and her eyes flash, but I continue before she can recover from such a blunt assessment. "My team will succeed where yours fails."

    She just stares at me. "You are a professor, Crawford. More than that, you are one of the Five. You have no team and never will; it is against the rules for one of the Five to be assigned to a unit."

    "My team," I tell her again, "will succeed." I offer her the barest of smirks, reaching up to lightly flick my bangs out of my way. "The telepath that you rave about as one of your precious lab rats is mine to do with as I like, and he will do what your lab-bred telepaths cannot."

    A bond between Talents… A link between two minds, a closed network to the outside world. I can understand Chizuru's enthusiasm for such a thing even if I cannot approve of a network with no outlet. A team that can communicate instantaneously could get a great deal accomplished without a lot of the fussing. People have often guessed that a telepath would be driven unstable if he ever could figure out how to tie mental strings to another's mind, but apparently, it works. I can see Schuldich's smirk in my mind and know in my gut that the Schuldich I'm seeing is not a physical form of him.

    "Schuldich?" Chizuru asks, and she gives a barking laugh. "He is insane and everyone knows it, Crawford. Hoffmann is destroying him. The only good left to come out of him is in the blood that beats in his veins, but the telepaths that file their reports with us in the lab say that there is no way he will ever recover. If you intend to form a team with something that is no better than a dead mind, I pity you for the trouble and the headaches sure to come."

    "Good day, Chizuru."

    She doesn't bother to argue, too displeased by our conversation to want to fight to stay. She pushes herself to her feet, gathering her folders to her breast. She stalks to the door but stops with one hand on the knob, and the silence stretches between us.

    "I came," she says at last in a tight voice, "because I am being transferred out. Malachi wants me in Japan. That's the next big thing, yes? The East is so thoroughly inbred that the powers are frequent there. They hope we can find what we're looking for there. I've got years of research ahead of me and I do not know when I will be back to Rosenkreuz."

    "I am sure you will enjoy your stay," I inform her, picking up my pen where it has rolled off to one side. "I do hope you have not forgotten your Japanese."

    "I wanted you to know," she insists, and I can feel her stare on the back of my head. I don't do her the favor of looking back. "Rosenkreuz isn't going to know why I'm leaving. It's for Estet, Crawford. They have a hand in this. The Elders accepted me when the Council offered my name up. If I could, I would say it is because I am a dead mind and they want me out of their school, but the Elders themselves accepted me for this project. Rosenkreuz will let my name die down and there will not be a fuss in my absence. I will be forgotten here, Crawford. All of my work will be forgotten."

    "You are a dead mind, Chizuru. You are not worth remembering."

    Silence follows those calm words, and then she wrenches the door open. It slams in her wake and I push the top sheet of my stack aside, going back to drawing circles.

    My eyes are on my hand as it moves across the paper, but the eyes that matter are staring through the desk at Schuldich, watching his skin burst and bleed.

Part 10
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