------------one : The beginning is the end is the beginning

    The small procession had drawn a fair crowd. The presence of so many curious psychics prickled along Jonas' gift, a twisting hum in his veins. He propped his shoulder against the side of the building and studied the three cars that had stopped at the Prophets' Hall. In an unprecedented move, all of the prescients had turned out to greet their newest member. Jonas studied their expressions, which ranged from serene to expectant, before looking at the cars. It took a minute before any of the doors opened, and the first man that stepped out was Adrian, the newest and youngest of the Five. Jonas' frown only deepened when Elizabeth was right behind him.

    Cloth rustled at his back, but Jonas didn't bother to look back. No one but the Five and Council dared to get anywhere near him, so he expected to watch the proceedings without interruption. He was more interested in watching the remaining three of the Five climb out of the car. What manner of Talent deserved such a prestigious welcoming committee?

    "Little Councilman," a voice said at his back, the only warning he had before hands slid along his shoulders. Her greeting was the only reason he didn't shred her where she stood—he knew that voice, and he knew what would happen if he dared touch the Council's Eyes. He forcibly called his power back where it was snarling beneath his skin, and in its wake, he could feel her more clearly. She was calm, completely unafraid of being here with him. She knew he wouldn't hurt her.

    "I am no Councilman, Seraphim."

    "No?" she asked. She danced her fingers along his back and down onto his biceps, as if her hands could tell her what her eyes could not. He thought perhaps she was reading his age in the height and breadth of him. "Not yet, then."

    Not yet, but one day. Jonas knew it as certainly as he knew he needed air to breathe. At seventeen, he was already in line to become one of the Five. Five Heigl had singled him out upon his arrival to Rosenkreuz two years ago. Since then, he'd been learning the ins and outs of the Asian sector. Heigl was forty-seven now; he would not last much longer, especially with his heart in such weak shape. Jonas would be Five, and years down the road, he would be Council. He refused to have it any other way.

    The back door on the middle car finally opened, and a child climbed out. He looked pathetically small beside his taller escorts and completely undeserving of such company. Jonas folded his arms across his chest and glanced again at the precognitives, waiting for one of them to protest this. Rosenkreuz wasn't supposed to bring students in until their ninth birthdays at the earliest. Rosenkreuz was serious business; they didn't have time to dawdle with babies. That child couldn't be any older than six.

    "You are not pleased," Seraphim noted.

    "Children are hateful, despicable creatures," Jonas returned acidly.

    "Bitterness does not become you, Jonas," she said, stepping up alongside him. "It is a wise man who knows how to step away from his past. Hating that which you cannot change will only destroy you."

    He refused to look at her and grit his teeth against a twist of helpless rage. Alessa had been gone for a year now. Once Rosenkreuz's most promising telepath, she was now no better than a dead mind, her shields cracked and gift torn. She'd been destined for the Five, destined for the Council, same as him, and now she was nothing but a breeder. They'd shipped her far away from Rosenkreuz and advised everyone to forget her. Few people knew her new job title; they only knew she'd been discarded as worthless. Her name had lingered for a few months in the halls, floating this way and that as the butt of jokes or as cruel taunts about each other's fates. Jonas had put a vicious end to that, and now she was a memory no one bothered to linger over.

    A year later, he still couldn't stomach her absence. The two of them had always been together. They'd started off in foster homes before moving to the street. They'd mastered their powers for the sake of getting off the street: combined, they'd been a deadly force. By the time Rosenkreuz had caught up to them, they'd had an estate and a bank account bursting with money. They'd been powerful and strong and together. And now? Now she was weak and broken and dying.

    "I don't expect a precognitive to understand," he said when he thought he could speak.

    "I do expect an empath to control his own feelings," she returned. "Alas, self-control has never been your forte. For better or worse, it never will be."

    "It does not matter."

    "Yet it does," she argued easily. "Our entire future could turn on its head if only you would show a bit of self-restraint." She curled her fingers around his elbow and leaned to one side, letting him take some of her weight. "No matter, I suppose. The end justifies all means, and we will have our glorious future one way or the other. What heavy duties fall on such small shoulders."

    He sent her a disbelieving look. "You can't mean the child."

    "Childhood is temporary. He will grow on you."

    "I doubt that," he said. She didn't answer that. They watched in silence as the precognitives took turns inspecting their newest ally, and finally he asked, "Who is he? I can't feel him."

    "No? Ahh, but you are still an eight, then."

    He sent her a sharp look. "What is that supposed to mean?"

    She ignored that and stepped around in front of him. She curled her fingers around his chin in an iron grip, forcing him to look at her. It physically hurt to look her in the face when he couldn't use his gift on her. Lashing out was instinctive, had had years to become instinctive, had been what had brought him and Alessa to Rosenkreuz's attention so many years ago. He bit back on his power with everything he had, but he felt his control splintering when their gazes locked. The power in her eyes—the sheer knowing—was suffocating.

    "The Council trusts me with their future," she said. "They trust me to live and breathe and die for Rosenkreuz. They trust me to never misstep. You must trust him like they trust me."

    "You expect that child to be so important to me?"

    Her smile was slow. "Oh, Jonas," she said, amused by his ignorance. "You have no idea."

    She let go of him and turned away, and Jonas could only watch as she crossed the courtyard toward the child.


"After three miscarriages, Alessa has finally given birth to a baby boy. Although it is too early to determine whether or not he carries her talent, all signs point to a healthy delivery."

    Jonas slammed Ikida's door behind him almost hard enough to break the hinges. The doctor didn't dare call after him, but Jonas could practically taste his alarm. It sloshed over his tongue like the current from a nine-volt battery, humming against his teeth and throat. Jonas couldn't block him out—could never block anyone out. His shields simply didn't work that way, no matter that everyone else's did. Instead he cast about for a distraction, something to override such disgusting, unnecessary pity.

    The closest students to him were at the gymnasium, so Jonas turned his steps that way. He made it up the stairs and halfway through the doorway when he collided with someone who wasn't—couldn't be—there. He was going fast enough that he completely bowled the other over. He had to catch onto the doorframe to keep himself from following suit and he stared blankly down at the sprawled child. It took him only a moment to recognize the boy, more for his age than any distinctive features. It was the prescient Seraphim had singled out. It had been almost a year now since he'd last crossed paths with the child, but Jonas still couldn't feel him. He was a complete blank slate, a nothingness where something should be.

    The boy pushed himself up on his hands, winded from the collision, and made the mistake of looking up at Jonas. Hazel and blue locked and Jonas was already reaching out, throwing his gift into the silent chasm between them. He didn't feel it hit and couldn't feel the child's reaction. For all the boy reacted, Jonas hadn't even touched him. Their stares held for a few endless seconds more, and Jonas couldn't stand it.

    There was no thought in it. Jonas' boot slammed into the boy's face hard enough to send him rolling. He followed the boy inside, closing the gap between them on a few quick steps, and knotted his hands in raven hair to yank the child to his feet. He turned in one fluid move and heaved the boy at the wall. The precog lost his air in a short grunt on impact, but he braced his feet to keep from falling. The boy's expression stayed calm, but the tense set to his shoulders gave him away.

    Jonas stalked across the room toward him and slammed his hand into the wall above the boy's head. The boy didn't so much as flinch. He wasn't a stranger to physical violence, it seemed, but Jonas wasn't impressed.

    Quite the opposite—he'd never wanted so badly to see someone scream.

    He caught the boy by his throat, forcing his head up, and again the child was stupid enough to look him in the face. Not defiance, but pride, too much pride for such a pint-sized brat.

    He reached for the other's mind, only to slide right off those shields. His lip curled in a silent snarl as he tried again, scrabbling for some sort of foothold. The boy didn't even try to escape, for all intents and purposes content to stand there and let Jonas try to take him apart. It was utterly infuriating, and each second that Jonas failed, Jonas hated him more.

    An infinite minute later, the boy finally said, "I will be late for class."

    And something—snapped.

    Jonas felt his anger like a physical heat, ripping its way up his throat. It felt like it tore him in half, almost taking him off his feet, and the ice that followed it was so cold it burned. The world flickered black and Jonas swayed. He blinked thickly, trying to clear his vision. He felt hands on his as the boy tried to pry his fingers free, and then—

    Impatience, not his own.

    It was a soft trickle, barely noticeable beneath his own anger, but it was enough. Jonas threw everything he had at it, and this time it hit with a sickening thud he heard on more than one level. The boy's entire body arched away from the wall, mouth open on a silent cry. Skin ripped in jagged lines up the child's throat from Jonas' fingertips to his cheeks. Jonas blinked blood out of his eyes, startled.

    He yanked his hand back, and without that to support the boy, the child collapsed. He caught himself with his hands and knees and choked for breath. Jonas stared down at him, seeing him without seeing him, feeling only his own power. His entire life, it had been tearing him apart from the inside out, burning against every square inch of him as it tried to burst free. Finally, finally, it felt like it fit him how it should. He could breathe without any real effort, could curl his fingers without feeling like he was pulling his skin too tight.

    And he could feel.

    Hooded eyes watched as the boy carefully picked himself to his feet. Jonas gave him just long enough to get upright before letting go of his gift, seizing the echoes of pain still haunting the boy's limbs. He didn't even have to touch the boy; the sheer force behind his empathy sent the child crashing into the wall behind him. He left blood behind him when he slid down the wall to the floor.

    "Oh," Jonas said softly. "Oh, that's very interesting."

    It took half an hour for Seraphim to catch up to him- more than enough time for Jonas to realize what an unprecedented leap his gift had taken, more than enough time to leave the boy a bleeding, shaking wreck on the floor.

    Seraphim brought the Council and Five with her. Jonas looked back at them where he was still dripping with the child's blood. Seraphim was considering him with a calculating smile on her lips. The others' expressions were impassive, but Jonas could feel them. For the first time since coming to Rosenkreuz, he could feel such high-ranked men without any effort. The thought was dizzying, was empowering, and Jonas slowly turned to fully face the ten.

    "Jonas Hoffmann," Councilman Nikolai said. "The Five are here as witnesses. The Council of Rosenkreuz hereby declares rank. The empath Soul Shaker is hereby recognized as breaking rank nine. The Council bestows on you congratulations and the expectations that you will use this promotion in the best interests of Rosenkreuz and Estet."

    Jonas' smile was slow and cold. There was a flash of nerves: Elizabeth and Miguel weren't pleased with this latest development. The uneasiness and distrust from the rest of the lot were like honey on his tongue. The only one pleased by any of this was Seraphim, but her opinion was worth more than anyone else's.

    "Everything I do is done for Rosenkreuz's future," he said. "My life and gift are at your disposal."

    "Seraphim, the child," Councilman Jean said in a clipped tone.

    Seraphim obediently crossed the room to the trembling youth. She stopped before him and offered her hand, not looking or feeling an ounce sympathetic for his plight. There was a flicker of—something—from the boy. Resentment, perhaps, but too muted to really mean anything, except that it was directed at Seraphim and not Jonas. Pain, predominantly. And that stupid pride that burned like a constant thing, a pulse in the back of everything else. The boy pushed himself to his feet painstakingly slow, refusing to even look at Seraphim's proffered hand. He was covered in gashes, burns, and welts, but he stayed on his feet through his own power and even bowed to the ranked men present.

    "Councilmen," he said, or tried to say, but his voice was little more than a scratchy whisper. "Five."

    Seraphim murmured the same and started away. The child limped after her. Jonas gazed after him, wondering if the Council would read it as impudence if he took the child off his feet.

    "Leave it," Nikolai said. "We need him alive."

    "We are going," Mosuli said, and the nine turned away. "Hoffmann, you are coming."

    It was a bit of a deadly, hungry rush to be walking with the nine. He had no right to walk even with them, but he had to walk close enough that they could hear him. They asked him about the changes in his gift and how it had occurred. Explanations weren't enough, were rarely enough in Rosenkreuz. Instead they brought him to one of the training rooms. The students inside were practicing hand-to-hand combat, but everything ground to a halt when the ten walked in.

    "We will have the room alone with your most worthless student," Jean said.

    The teacher swept the room with a single glance and singled the young man out. The pyrokinetic in question looked close to having a heart attack as the rest of the class filed out, and Jonas smiled at the way his panic beat so fiercely.

    Mosuli gestured. "Show us," he said.

    Jonas was more than happy to.

    By the next week, he'd become the official welcoming party for Rosenkreuz, and every Talent that passed through their gates went through him first.

    A month later, just a couple days after his eighteenth birthday, things changed. Heigl went before the Council to ask permission to die, stating that the Five would benefit more from his successor. He had dedicated his entire life to Rosenkreuz, and he knew he had nothing more to give. The Council voted unanimously in his favor, and the rest of the Five and Jonas were called in as witnesses. Nikolai broke his mind clean through in less than a heartbeat, and Jonas was sworn in.

    He spent the rest of his evening drinking to avoid thinking about Alessa, and when he slept, it was long and deep. It was the last full night of sleep he would ever get, but such was life for a Five.


    Rosenkreuz was broken into five sectors: Asia, North America, South America, Europe, and Africa. Each was headed by a Five, who in turn had advisors, staff, and teams. Jonas had the most territory, but Elizabeth had a complicated genetic research division within her ranks. Ricard ran Africa and the outlands, like Australia, but he also owned the head teacher of the Rosenkreuz school. Adrian had control of North America, and Miguel had South America.

    Bouncers had no borders, though the Five tried to keep the best within their own territories, and the medics were in a hierarchy of their own. All other Talents, however, were forced into one of the five divisions at either age thirteen or a rank five, whichever came first. Ninety-five percent of the time, psychics had to be slotted by age, much to the chagrin of their Five. Elizabeth called it Russian Roulette, since those they chose could either turn out to be duds or great assets to their divisions.

    Jonas hadn't been found by Rosenkreuz until he was fifteen and he'd already been a rank seven upon his arrival. His age and rank meant he had to be slotted immediately, though most of the Five had been leery of taking on a psychic who knew nothing about Rosenkreuz's ideals. Heigl had had no such qualms and had staked a claim on both Alessa and Jonas the same day they'd arrived.

    Usually the process was more complicated than one Five saying "Mine" and the others going "Have at". Anytime a Five wanted to claim a psychic, he had to take it up with the rest of the Five and argue why his division deserved that power. He needed two of the other Five to vote in his favor to make it official, and then it was submitted to the Council. It was one of the most important decisions a Five could make, since the psychics they chose would one day be paired up into teams or assigned to foreign posts.

    When Heigl had taken Jonas on as his successor, Jonas had had to learn the names and statistics of everyone and every team in the Asian division. Now that he was a Five, he also had to track the names and statistics of the other divisions' teams and Rosenkreuz's students. There were some four hundred students enrolled when he ascended to the Five, and he had to learn everything he could about the two hundred and seventy that either hadn't broken rank five or were too young to count. He had to start keeping mental tabs on those he wanted to acquire one day and consider where he would put them and why.

    The reasons were extensive, starting with the fact that he eventually needed to argue his case to his colleagues and ending with the amount of prep work it would take to get the young psychics ready. Those destined for field work needed to move out of basic defense and into more specialized killing and espionage classes. Those with keen minds were put toward intelligence and needed to learn systems inside and out. Language was the most crucial skill, perhaps, because it was the most time-consuming.

    Until they were thirteen, students either learned German or English: English if they already spoke German, German if they didn't know it yet. In the case that the child already spoke both, they were put into whichever language class had an open spot. Once students were thirteen and assigned a region, they learned a language that would be beneficial to their future posts.

    There was an exception to everything, however. One child in particular was complicated, though it wasn't until Jonas was a Five that he realized just how complicated it was. That was when he gained access to the boy's file. The youngest precog's name meant nothing to him, but his lineage was something else entirely. Brad Crawford was Seraphim's only son, born of a dead mind American.

    Although Brad had been moved to Rosenkreuz early, he did not take classes with the older children. Seraphim bypassed the system with the Council's approval and wrote a private curriculum for him. He spent his first three years studying basics: German and English in the morning, and academics in the afternoon. Jonas read the report three times through, mostly out of disbelief. Seraphim had not allotted any time for Brad to hone his gift. She hadn't even bothered to rank him. Seeing how she'd broken rank eight at the age of twenty-three, Jonas found Brad's blank slate aggravating.

    But Jonas had no time to waste on stupid children, no matter who his mother was, so he put Brad's file away and forgot about the child. It was two years before he really remembered the boy existed. It was a justifiable slip, considering how busy he was. Heigl had trained him extensively, and the years had given him an increasing amount of responsibilities, but Heigl had still borne the brunt of the work. It was his right and duty as Five. Now Jonas was the Five, and he only slept every other night. When he did sleep, it was never for long, because he was a half-dozen time zones behind his teams. He needed to be awake during the day to work with the Five and Council, and awake at odd hours of the night to contact his teams.

    The day Brad reentered Jonas' life was the day the headmaster had submitted student schedules to the Five. On top of everything else Jonas had to do this week, he had to sign off on every single schedule for his "minions". He was the only one who knew exactly what he wanted from his people, so he was the one ultimately responsible for the path they took to get there. He had a say in which of his students took classes together, who they took their lessons from, and what classes they couldn't take. If he wanted to test aptitude for future positions, he could move them into classes that would highlight their strengths for that field.

    There were a couple changes from last year that couldn't be helped: some of the children weren't doing well in their respective languages. Heigl had complained once that he ran the division of squiggles, since the Asian sector covered everything from Russia to Japan. It was a rough adjustment for students and a constant headache for Asia's Five and instructors.

    Jonas was staring down at one such problem child now. Rebecca had started in Chinese, but had failed miserably, no matter how her instructors had punished her for falling behind. She'd been moved into Russian next, since it was closer to an alphabet she recognized, but she'd flunked that as well.

    He pinched the bridge of his nose and sucked in a slow breath through clenched teeth. The clock hanging above the door dinged on the hour. It was four in the morning, he hadn't slept in almost three days now, and his coffee had gone cold. He stared up at the clock for a few minutes, watching its second hand glide, and finally stretched out with his gift. It took no work at all to find Rebecca. It took less work to burst her heart in her chest.

    He picked up a red marker and wrote DECEASED across her student file. He tossed it to one side, only to watch it skitter off the top of a stack and drift to the floor. There was a notebook in his drawer, carbon copy papers for reporting student deaths. He filled it out, signed the bottom, and tore off the copy he'd have to turn in with the Council in the morning. With that done, he went to get another cup of coffee.

    The caffeine didn't help. When the next file reported similar incompetence in another student, Jonas' patience was already gone. Paperwork was faster than trying to get someone up to speed, and he scratched out another harsh DECEASED. Yoric was dead before he knew he was in trouble.

    Jonas decided it was past time to take a break. He propped both elbows on his desk and buried his face in his mug. He gave up thinking, content to drift in his gift. There was still another hour before students had to be up for classes, so the only people up at this hour were those with rank: instructors who needed a couple drinks before dealing with their students, Adrian and Ricard, night shift doctors, Seraphim, and the Council.

    The only one that interested Jonas right then was Seraphim, because she was heading his way. She was one of very, very few that would dare approach him without a summons. The students were terrified of him, his own division preferred to keep a safe distance, and even the rest of the Five were cautious of trying his temper. They were careful not to give themselves away, but he could still feel it. A few years ago, they'd had the right to look him in the face. His promotion hadn't changed that, but dealing with him one on one for so long was wearing on them, and they'd eventually all started shying away from making eye contact.

    He stayed on his break until she made it. She knocked, though she didn't have to. He lifted a couple fingers from his mug in a beckon. She couldn't hear him, but she'd already seen he would let her in, so she stepped inside.

    "You look tired, Five Hoffmann," she said.

    "I'm not in the mood for jokes," he told the blind prescient. "What do you want?"

    "You have an open spot in your Hangul class," she said, motioning to his desk. He glanced down at Yoric's file. "I would like to reserve it."

    He gazed at her in silence for a few moments, then said, "For your son."

    "He will do well in it."

    "You watch him too much," he said, but there wasn't an accusation in it. He was a rank nine empath. He knew exactly how Seraphim felt about her son. If she was biased toward him, it was only because she knew what she could get from him. "I'm assuming he's going to end up in Asia, then."

    "He will go wherever you wish him to," she said.

    Jonas thought that over, but there was only answer he could give her. "He had better keep up," he said, straightening and digging a notebook out of the mess on his desk. He wrote a note to the headmaster and set it on top of the Council's files. Seraphim waited in silence until he was through. He looked over at her. "Anything else?"

    She thought that over for a bit, then asked, "Are you lonely, Five Hoffmann?"

    He quirked an eyebrow at her. "I thought you were incapable of stupid questions."

    "You were never alone before she left," Seraphim said, meaning Alessa. "Now you live in your office. You speak to your teams over the phone, you eat with the Five twice a week, and you meet with the Council once a week, but the rest of the time?" She lifted her shoulders in a small shrug. "Your reputation hasn't diminished in your absence, but one wonders the toll it takes on a person to be so alone all the time, especially one your age. You are so very young."

    Jonas' voice was cold; his expression was colder. "You are neither an empath nor a psychiatrist. It is not for you to worry about. You keep your eyes on Rosenkreuz and its future and stay out of my business."

    "You are a crucial part of that future," Seraphim said in quiet argument. "They are inextricable. Who you sleep with-"

    "-is not your business," Jonas cut in. "The Five are not to have relationships."

    "The Council can override that," she pointed out, "if they know the Five will not be distracted from his or her duties. I am not suggesting this out of sympathy, Five Hoffmann. You have to understand that. I simply want to keep you from destroying that which is so important to you. Perhaps if you could hone your people skills between now and then—"

    He had heard enough. "Get out. A woman who has never loved anything but an ideal has no place saying such things to me."

    Seraphim said nothing to that. She didn't have to when he could feel her disapproval. They stared each other down for a few tense seconds, and then she stood. "Five Hoffmann," she said in farewell, and she let herself out of the room.

    Jonas glowered at the door as it closed before forcibly turning back on his files. An hour later, her words still lingered in his thoughts.

    They still stung.

    Two hours later, when Jonas was finally letting himself think about sleeping, Ikida showed up at his doorstep. "The Council has given you a two-day leave," the doctor said from the doorway. "No one has been to see your sister since her child was born. They would like you to check on mother and child and bring back a full report. Your car is already waiting to take you to the airport."

    Jonas stared at him for a few seconds, caught completely off-guard. A fleeting part of him wondered if he had fallen asleep and was dreaming, but he wasn't going to wait around to figure it out. He got to his feet, gathering up his reports for the Council and the headmaster, and started for the door.

    Ikida held up a small bag at his approach. "Two years ago, we collected a blood sample from the child. If you would not mind gathering another?"

    Jonas took it from him and tucked it under one arm. Ikida inclined his head and stepped out of the way. Jonas made only two stops: once at the headmaster's office, and once at the Council's chambers. Only Nikolai was there when he arrived. The telepath took the reports without questions or any real interest in the students' fates. Jonas dismissed himself with a few words and went down to the waiting car, not even stopping long enough to pack a change of clothes.

    He stayed awake for the drive and the short flight to Germany. He took a taxi to the address printed on the medical bag, and Alessa was waiting for him on the porch when the cab pulled up. He took the sidewalk up to her, staring hard at her face but seeing past it to the hazy agony her damaged shields were causing her. Despite the pain and slow onset of madness, she still knew who he was, and she smiled brilliantly at the sight of him.

    "Fiiiiiiiive Hoffmann," she drawled, pleased and proud and warm. Not a bit resentful that he was on the path to the sky while she was chained to the rocks, not a bit afraid of the power he wielded. She reached out for him as he stepped onto the porch in front of her and dragged him up against her. She was shorter than he was, but not by much, and she was content to rest her chin on his shoulder.

    "Oh, you're so cold," she noted, sounding amused. "As usual, brother mine."

    And she was still—always—warm.

    "He isn't here," Jonas said, more a warning than a question.

    "I heard you land," she said. "I sent them out for the day, but they will be back later. I'm assuming Hiroshi wants another sample for Elizabeth."

    Elizabeth? Jonas wondered, but he didn't ask.

    She led him inside, but didn't bother to give him a tour. Instead she pulled him down the hall to the guest bedroom. She crawled onto the bed first and he sat on the edge to consider her. She smiled at him, tugging insistently at his wrist, and he finally stretched out alongside her. She was quick to burrow herself against him, winding her arm across him and tangling one leg through his. They weren't children anymore; they were too old now to sleep in such a way. He was a Five, and she was an outcast. But he said nothing about it, because Alessa was still Alessa, no matter what else changed.

    "You shouldn't be here," he told her, muffled against her hair.

    "I have no regrets," she said. "I adore him."

    "You are not allowed to replace me."

    She laughed at him and tightened her grip. "Still such a child," she teased him. "Sleep, Jonas. We are both so, so tired."

Part 2