------------seven : Every action in this world will bear a consequence.

    It took three years and five months to earn the Elders' trust. Three years and five months wherein the Council didn't ask after their missing Five and Estet didn't volunteer information regarding Schwarz. The Council didn't know where he was, how his pet telepath was doing, or what he was up to. They knew Crawford had picked up at least one more teammate, since Estet had demanded it of him during negotiations, but they didn't know what manner of psychic he'd settled on. Despite the silence, they were not worried, because Crawford was Crawford. They assumed he was alive and well because it did not occur to him that he might not be.

    The hardest adjustment was flying blind on Asia. For obvious reasons, no one outside the Council and Estet's Elders knew the extent to which they'd lost control of Crawford. Crawford was the intermediary between the sector and the Council. His reassignment did not diminish his duties to his staff, but it did cut the corresponding rope between himself and Jonas. The Council received copies of reports from Asia's department heads, both the drafts they submitted to Crawford and the follow-up reports, so they were able to piece together his decisions, but they had no say in any of it. It took them the better part of a year to be okay with that, and then they accepted it only because Asia continued to profit and expand in a manner that pleased them.

    After three and a half years of this, the Council's patience paid off.

    The Elders stopped by Rosenkreuz for a weeklong conference and finally came clean regarding their ambitions and goals. They were restructuring the political hierarchy in Japan one piece at a time. Estet expected to have Japan under their control in another year, give or take a few months. Japan was small enough that it was good practice grounds for the rest of the world, but still important enough to be a good asset. The Elders had their hearts set on immortality, based on formulas in an ancient religion they followed. Jonas wasn't sure what to think of their demonic god, but eternal life sounded like a worthwhile investment.

    The Councilmen were presented with a choice: join the Elders and spend eternity presiding over the world, or remain mortal and autonomous with Rosenkreuz. The Council requested time to consider their options, and the Elders promised to meet them in Japan in one month to discuss the next step. The Council accepted this proposal with one addendum: Ikida would transfer to Japan as soon as he could extricate himself from his current cases. Their argument was that Ikida was the only one they trusted on hand if things were indeed picking up speed. Privately, they wanted an assessment of their half-mad telepath.

    The Council remained in Rosenkreuz for only another day, then left the Tower and Rosenkreuz grounds to see the world. For four weeks they traveled nonstop, going from sector to sector and team to team, dropping by unannounced and unexpected. In hotel rooms and at airports, they argued their strengths and weaknesses should they oppose Estet's decision. On the road and on planes, they discussed the possibilities of immortality. It was certainly nice to think about, though "long-term goals" now had an entirely new meaning.

    In bathrooms across the world, Jonas considered himself in the mirror, studying the traces of gray that peeked out of his burnt umber hair, looking for lines on his face that indicated age. He looked for Alessa in his reflection and found her nowhere.

    Mosuli caught him at it once, on their last layover before Japan. The Elders would not be prepared to meet them for another four days, but the Council needed time at the end of their journey to compare notes and come to a decision.

    "I will not go through with it," Jonas said when he felt Mosuli's heavy stare on the back of his head. "The world will rot to dust sooner or later; let them preside over their worthless sandcastles if they like."

    "They will think themselves gods," Mosuli said, a frequent point over these last few weeks.

    Jonas smiled, terrible and cold. "They will remember how to bleed, and that makes all the difference. Let them think whatever they like. I bow before neither man nor god. They will learn that soon enough." He looked over his shoulder at the telekinetic. "And you?"

    Mosuli grunted. "I am bored enough as it is," he said, as if that much should be obvious. "Why would I drag it on?"

    Jonas glanced at his reflection once more. "I suppose," he said, and he went back to their gate to wait.

    For the first time since they'd left Austria, the Councilmen kept their silence on the flight. They sat in first class, Mosuli and Jonas in one row of seats and Jean and Ahmed across the aisle from them. Each man tended his thoughts without seeking counsel. Perhaps the elder three were thinking about their futures, but Jonas had already set such things aside. His mind had been made up, and he would not stray from his decision. Now the only thing he thought of was Crawford.

    It was the middle of the night when they landed at Narita International in Japan. Jonas was the only one present who could speak Japanese, so he led his colleagues through customs and immigration. They went out to the curb in search of a taxi. Jonas considered the waiting cabs in silence, then turned on his colleagues.

    Perhaps he was too predictable, for Jean spoke before Jonas could: "You are not going to him."

    "You have no say in the matter," Jonas said. "He is my Five. I will receive his report."

    "You are not looking for his report," Jean sent back acidly. "This is no time for such things, not when there is so much at stake."

    "Precisely why I need his reports," Jonas said blithely. "We need to know what he knows."

    "At two in the morning," Ahmed said, almost an accusation.

    "Councilmen do not wait for our people's convenience," Jonas pointed out.

    "These are dangerous times," Mosuli said. "We cannot afford to miss any steps; we must have all our pieces in play." The cannibal looked between his colleagues, dark eyes taking them each in as he chose his side. Jonas thought it a foregone conclusion. "We need information only the Oracle has," he said. Before Jean could react to that, Mosuli turned on Jonas. "Hoffmann," he said, "you must not hurt him."

    "I will not have you speak to me as if I am slow," Jonas said.

    "You are slow whenever Crawford is involved," Jean said. "He makes you stupider than any Councilman should be."

    Jonas ignored him through ease of long practice. He went over to the nearest taxi, and the driver got out to load his suitcase in the back. Jonas could feel the others' distrusting scowls as they joined him, but he didn't look back. Their suitcases were loaded in the trunk and Jonas told the driver where he was to take the three. Jonas remained behind as it drove away, taking a minute to smooth over his irritation. When he had himself more under control, he pulled his phone out of his pocket.

    Jonas had Crawford's address and contact information on a small piece of paper. It was the last thing the Elders gave the Council when they'd met in Austria. He dialed Crawford's number now, and Crawford picked up on the second ring. "Crawford."

    "Good morning, Oracle."

    The silence that followed that was short but telling. "Mister Hoffmann," Crawford said, carefully neutral.

    "Do you know where I am right now?"

    "I apologize that I do not, Mister Hoffmann."

    It was—infuriating, almost, that Jonas liked the sound of his voice so much. Three years should have changed things, but Jonas felt it all falling back into place like it'd never left. Jonas knew in an instant that he needed to walk away, that he should follow the others to the hotel room. He should wait until tomorrow to interrogate Crawford and leave it for when the others were present. If he actually sought Crawford out tonight, no good would come of it.

    "I am standing in front of Narita International Airport and jet-lagged as hell," Jonas said, stalling as he tried to make up his mind. "We're on an unannounced tour of our sectors. The Elders are getting twitchy about things the closer it gets to their deadline. We're here in Japan for a few weeks to make sure things are all in top shape."

    "I apologize if my reports have been insufficient."

    "Whatever." A smirk twitched at Jonas' lips at that dry remark. Crawford knew none of his papers had made it back to the Council. Jonas' decision was made; the Council could go fuck themselves. "The others have already started back for the hotel to sleep. I am too awake to sleep. You will come get me."

    "Yes, Mister Hoffmann."

    The line went silent, but Jonas knew Crawford hadn't hung up on him. Jonas let the quiet drag between them for a few moments more, savoring what was to come, then laughed and hung up.

    He stretched his gift out, but he felt Crawford nowhere. He gave the precognitive ten minutes, but still Crawford was outside of his range. Curious, he hailed the next taxi and showed the driver Crawford's address. "How far away is this?" he asked.

    "Oh, that is on the other side of the city," the driver said, handing the paper back. "It is very far."

    Jonas got into the backseat. "Take me."

    The car pulled away from the curb. Jonas propped himself against the window and watched the night go by outside. His gift was on high alert, searching for a mental signature he hadn't felt in years. They were on the road almost an hour before Jonas finally felt Crawford slip into range. Crawford's mind was almost as familiar to him as his own; the years apart had not changed that. Jonas sucked in a slow breath through clenched teeth and burned his gift into Crawford's veins.

    It took Crawford a few minutes to catch on and realize that heat wasn't nerves. When he knew he was being manipulated, he fought back. Jonas let him struggle because it was amusing—and futile. He used Crawford's nervous system to map his body and worked his gift over every inch of it. His power teased at Crawford's skin, heavy enough to register as a physical touch. Whatever Crawford was doing to distract himself was failing. The closer the two got to each other, the easier it was for Jonas to take him completely apart. Jonas could feel Crawford's concentration fracturing.

    He hit redial. This time it took Crawford three rings to pick up—three rings to make sure he wasn't going to crash the car with one more distraction. Jonas solved the problem for him by saying, "Pull over."

    Crawford reported that he had, and Jonas didn't have to be careful anymore. He closed his eyes, let the world stop and start with him and Crawford, and dug his gift into Crawford almost hard enough to hurt. The precognitive had to know what was coming, but that didn't make him any better prepared, and he choked on a short, sharp gasp. Jonas dug his fingernails into his thigh at the sound.

    "It's been too damn long, Oracle. Have you missed me?"

    It was a mocking question to which he already knew the answer. Once upon a time Crawford had respected him. Jonas had broken that respect, but he didn't care if Crawford liked him or not. Crawford was loyal. Crawford was his. That was all that really mattered.

    By the time the taxi pulled up by Crawford's car, Jonas had already broken past most of the precog's defenses. He sent the driver away without paying him, and the driver didn't think to protest. Jonas approached the car on slow steps, soaking up Crawford's roiling agony and need. Crawford didn't notice his approach; the Oracle had an arm folded across the steering wheel and was using it to hide his face.

    "Say please, Oracle," Jonas said quietly.

    The reaction to that demand was intense, but Crawford said it anyway. "Please, Mister Hoffmann."

    Jonas dragged his tongue along the back of his teeth, tasting the coppery sting of Crawford's hate. "Good. Open the door."

    Shock alarm hate need and Crawford did as he was told. Jonas leaned in, throwing his phone into the empty passenger seat, and caught Crawford's mouth in a hard kiss. One hand in Crawford's hair kept the precog's head still; the other fumbled for the latch. It popped as he pulled it, and he forced Crawford's chair back. There was just enough room for him to fit between Crawford and the steering wheel, so he climbed into Crawford's lap without breaking the kiss.

    He'd forgotten how good Crawford felt, but he had all night to remember.


    Schwarz was not at all what the Council expected it to be. It'd started as an arrogant Five and an insane telepath. Now it consisted of a Five, a level eight telepath with sonic leanings, a dead-mind Irishman, and a level eight telekinetic Crawford had somehow combed off the streets of Japan. How and why the team worked, the Council wasn't sure. Now that they were in Japan, they had access to Crawford's extensive reports, but several days' of study didn't help. It certainly didn't explain why Crawford would take on someone like Farfarello, his statistics and skills be damned. The vote to execute Farfarello was unanimous if not for the timing. They could not break Schwarz up yet. The only thing they were sure of was that Schwarz was good, with a perfect success rate and single-digit injury rate. Half the injuries listed originated within the team itself, not on the field.

    The coming weeks destroyed such pretty statistics. Four days after the Council arrived in Japan, Ikida called on them with the news that Crawford was ill.

    His flu didn't mean much to the Council—what got their attention was the fact that Crawford had called it in. In all his years with Rosenkreuz, Crawford had never willingly reported to the physicians' ward. Crawford did not have time to be sick, and he considered it beneath his dignity to be coddled with drugs and tests. If he was asking Ikida for medicine, it meant it was serious. Ikida understood that as well as the Council did.

    It came at the worst possible timing, as the Council was on the way to their meeting with the Elders. Jonas endured a lot of antagonism on the ride over, but he refused to accept the blame for his Five's cold. The four managed to set aside their irritation long enough to get through the meeting with the Elders, at which they announced their intentions to sit out of the final ceremony. They would do everything within their power to help Estet get that far, but they had no wishes to tag along into immortality. The Elders reacted with mixed opinions: pleased that they would not have to contend with the Council for the rest of their endless lives, but suspicious of the Council's disinterest.

    Three days later, Schuldich was briefly hospitalized with gunshot wounds. The attending physician wasn't sure what had gone wrong on Schwarz's mission, as neither Crawford nor Schuldich would speak to him. Ikida would have gotten answers one way or another, but the doctor was out of town for a short conference. Still, the Council wasn't particularly concerned. Injuries happened, after all, and they knew Crawford would file a thorough report as soon as he returned home.

    They never got that report.

    Instead they got a phone call from a nurse that same night, reporting that Crawford had been admitted for what might have been a heart attack.

    Jonas was out the door an instant later.

    Ikida's newest ward was in the basement of a hospital. The door had a security code, but the nurse who had called the Council was waiting there to let Jonas in. He stepped through the door to find all of Schwarz already there: Farfarello and Nagi to either side of the door and Schuldich arguing with the medic in the middle of the room. Nagi didn't look up at Jonas' entrance. He didn't know who Jonas was and he was ultimately more interested in what the other two were arguing about. Farfarello had gone on alert the moment the nurse had put the code in upstairs. Jonas felt his heavy, assessing stare, but a dead mind wasn't worth any of his time.

    "Good evening, Mastermind," he said. Schuldich's code name tasted like poison in his mouth.

    Schuldich tensed up so fast it was a wonder he didn't crack in two. Jonas stepped up alongside him and couldn't stop himself from sending the younger German a sidelong glance. Schuldich looked older now. He looked sane. He still looked every inch his father, except he was white in the face now that Jonas was here. It had been years since they'd last seen each other, but they would never be ready to be in the same room. Jonas' hate was a violent knot in his chest. Schuldich's fear was ice in his veins.

    "Herr Hoffmann," Schuldich managed on the third try.

    Jonas turned his attention on the pale physician. "I came for the report on Oracle," he said, and he was handed Crawford's files. He read in silence, but it took two read-throughs before any of it made sense. The physician diagnosed Crawford as having a panic attack. That was impossible, bordering on outrageous. Five did not panic. Crawford did not panic. Jonas wanted to kill the physician on the spot for implying such a thing.

    For a moment, Jonas wondered if he'd finally asked too much of Crawford: giving him a field team, handing him off to Estet, and cutting him loose from the Council to preside over his sector alone. In the end, Crawford was human, despite Crawford's and Jonas' wishes, and humans had their limits. Had Crawford reached his? A week wasn't long enough to read all of Crawford's backlogged reports. Maybe the Council had missed something crucial. Maybe Estet had pushed too far. Maybe—

    The soft tap of a shoe alerted him to Crawford's arrival. Jonas looked up from the papers at Crawford's averted gaze and serene expression.

    Did I do this?

    But he refused to linger on such things.


    Three days later, Jonas' phone went off during breakfast.

    Ikida was on the other end. "Herr Hoffmann, it's Crawford."

    His tone told Jonas everything he didn't want to hear. The Soul Shaker hung up on him without asking for details.


    Jonas hated hospitals. His power was a vacuum, unable to keep anything out. Rank nine or not, there were ten floors of sick, unhappy, pained, dying people he had to wade through. There were few people to draw on to distract himself. Nurses were tired, receptionists were harried, and relatives were weepy and worried. Add Schuldich to the mix and there was no way Jonas could place Crawford's mind from halfway across the city. Crawford had put the telepath's shields back together, and in doing so, given him back his sanity. It meant good things for Schwarz, and terrible things for the two Germans. Blood knew blood; Schuldich's mind rang loudest in Jonas' gift, and Jonas' shields threatened to consume Schuldich's.

    Despite the risks and the headache, Jonas did another mental sweep of the hospital from the parking lot. Crawford's mind was missing, either lost in the noise or silent in unconsciousness. Jonas didn't like either option. He would have looked again, but his head was pounding from the first sweep. The hospital was practically bleeding pain this morning. Jonas felt it like fire on his nerves, eating away at his focus and calm.

    Schuldich was waiting for him in the hospital lobby. The telepath was trying to look casual, but his bravado failed him as Jonas stepped out of the crowd in front of him. Schuldich's knuckles were white where they were clenched on his arms, and his breathing was quick and thin. Under the pretense of getting a good look at him, Jonas took hold of his chin and tilted his head up. In reality he was soaking up everything he could from the young telepath, using Schuldich's loud mind as a buffer against the rest of the hospital's silent screaming.


    "Herr Hoffmann."

    "How is your leg doing?" Jonas asked, turning Schuldich's head a bit more. Schuldich had to close his eyes to avoid making eye contact.

    "It will heal, Herr Hoffmann," the telepath said.

    "I am sure it will," Jonas said, and he stepped past Schuldich. The nurse had taught him the door's security code when he'd come here last, so he let them into Ikida's ward. Ikida was at his desk, surrounded by mounds of books and paperwork. He rose at Jonas' entrance and motioned to the sole chair across from him. Jonas had Schuldich sit at his side. "So, Ikida?"

    "I've gone over everything Schuldich has told me and what we've recorded from Crawford's earlier visits," Ikida said, shuffling through his paperwork and skimming notes. "My assistant diagnosed Crawford as having a panic attack. Based on the original symptoms, I might have agreed. Their persistence and progression, however, point to a different problem entirely.

    "His reflexes have stopped working. I ran a nerve conduction velocity test, and the signals from his brains to his limbs are moving slower than they should be. They're getting lost along the way. Ah." He found a folder amongst the rest of the mess and put it on top of the stack. "I noticed some parallels between Crawford's case and an earlier one the hospital treated. I am formally diagnosing Crawford with Guillain-Barre Syndrome."

    Ikida massaged his temples, looking for the words to continue. The stress and fear he was radiating did nothing to reassure Jonas. "GBS is a disorder wherein the body's immune system turns on its nervous system. The first symptoms are weakness and tingling sensations in the legs." He glanced at Schuldich at that. "Most of the time, it spreads to the arms and upper body as well. The weakness can increase until the patient is almost totally paralyzed. Sometimes it requires placing the patient on machines that will assist body function, such as ventilators or heart monitors. It can be life-threatening and is classified as a medical emergency."

    "What causes it?" Jonas demanded sharply.

    Ikida shrugged helplessly. "No one is sure. It's a rare syndrome: less than ten thousand people get it each year." He was silent for a few seconds, then thought to add, "It's treatable."

    Jonas took no comfort in that, as Ikida knew he wouldn't. Paralysis, weakness, emergency—there was nothing Ikida could say that would make this better. This was Crawford, this was the Council's Five, the Council's Eyes, Schwarz's team leader, Estet's puppet master. Jonas was going to have to leave here and go back to the Council and explain this, and he didn't even know where to start.

    "There are a number of ways to treat it," Ikida continued, "and most patients recover. Less than five percent die. The hard part is keeping his bodily functions going while the nervous system recovers."

    "How long?"

    "A few weeks, a few months… It depends on the severity of the case."

    Estet didn't have months to waste. "He will recover fully?"

    Ikida hesitated. "The majority of the cases recover to almost their full potential. Five to fifteen percent will have long-term disabilities. Most cases will have some abnormal side effects in years to come. Recurrences of fatigue, pain, and tingling are common, but can be aided with prescriptions."

    Ikida went quiet again, then glanced toward the back rooms. "His lungs gave out while you were en route, Herr Hoffmann. I moved him to the ICU and hooked him to a ventilator. His mind is still intact, however, so you will be able to fully communicate with him."

    Realization was sickening: Jonas could feel Crawford's mind. It was what he'd picked up on outside—a massive knot of roiling agony. Crawford's calm was gone; his shields were barely intact. The only thing he was now was pain, and it was sucking Jonas in almost too fast for him to stop it.

    He didn't need to stop it; all he had to do was channel it. He scorched the skin right off Schuldich's shoulder, almost burning his fingerprints into the telepath. "Weeks or months, and the possibility of long-term disabilities," Jonas repeated quietly. Schuldich was on the verge of freaking out. Jonas' gift was triggering traumatic memories of Rosenkreuz. Jonas hit him to snap him out of it and got to his feet. "I feel better now," he lied. "Bring me to Crawford."

    "Of course," Ikida said, and he led the way to the back room.

    Crawford was stretched out in the hospital bed and already hooked up to several machines. Gauze was taped over his eyes and he was trailing tubes everywhere. Despite the equipment, Crawford looked calm. He lay silent and still as if he were simply sleeping. Jonas' gift told him a different story entirely.

    "His eyes are covered," Jonas observed.

    "He no longer has the ability to blink," Ikida explained quietly. "The gel will keep his eyes from drying out."

    Jonas tasted bile when he swallowed. "We do not have time for this."

    "He is my priority," Ikida said, even knowing that wasn't enough. Rank saved no one in the end. "I will do everything I can."

    Jonas stared down at Crawford for a minute longer, then turned abruptly on his heel and left the room. Ikida hurried after him. "In two weeks I will return and evaluate his condition," he said, hating the words, hating more the necessity of them. "We will decide then whether treatment will continue. Until then, you are funded, Ikida. Proceed."


    The Council was waiting for him when Jonas came storming through the door. The Council's mood had never been pleasant, had never been anything but tense, really, but today it was downright black. The door slammed behind him before he could even reach for it and Jonas flicked an acid look around the room. Jean, Mosuli, and Ahmed were standing safe distances apart from each other, but the weight of their power crackling against his skin made the room seem a tenth of its size. He could see the fury on their faces, could feel it screaming in his gift, but still none of them dared hold his gaze.

    Mosuli held up a stack of papers, dark face almost black with rage. "A fax from Ikida."

    Jonas strode across the room and snatched them from Mosuli, tearing several sheets as he did so. He stared down at the papers, already knowing what he would see, wishing with every fiber of his being that it would be something else, that Ikida would be mistaken. He threw papers aside in his hurry to get to the diagnosis. The bold letters across the top of the page dashed that hope: Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

    No no no fucking no.

    "What the fuck have you done?" Ahmed asked. It was barely louder than a whisper, but the hateful accusation he packed into it made his voice shake.

    Jonas dragged his stare up from the papers. It took more work than he knew it should to look at his fellow Councilman. "You will not blame this on me," he said in soft warning.

    "You did this to him," Jean said hotly. Jonas gave a sharp jerk of his hand, either in dismissal or a vicious order to shut up. Jean wouldn't be silenced. "Seraphim's only son, Rosenkreuz's Oracle, our key to a successful future—and you've destroyed him. How stupid are you?"

    "You will not," Jonas said again, louder and harder, "blame this on me. It is a legitimate illness. There have been other cases such as this."

    "You can't claim innocence here. You've worn his nervous system down to nothing," Ahmed said. "You made this possible."

    "One fucking order," Jean snarled before Jonas could answer that. "Just one—fucking—order. Leave him alone. That's all we said, but you couldn't do it."

    "I will not be called to order by the likes of you," Jonas said icily. "You have no right."

    "You had no right to touch him!" Jean exploded. Fire sparked along his skin, crackling blue and white. Jonas curled his lip back, daring Jean to even think about touching him with those flames. The room was sweltering already where Jean's anger was radiating off of him in heat waves. "We should have left you in Austria! You have cost us everything."

    "No," Jonas said flatly. "Ikida said he would recover."

    "Bias blinds you," Mosuli said, and Jonas sent him a withering look for taking the others' side. "Nowhere in his report did he promise recovery. He said it was possible, with rest and constant care. We cannot wait for him. We cannot afford it."

    "He is the Oracle," Jonas pressed.

    "You should have thought of that before you fucked him," Jean said.

    Jonas didn't realize he'd turned on the pyrokinetic until Mosuli's fingers clamped around his upper arm. He tried to wrench free, but Mosuli's gift was in his fingers, and Jonas nearly dislocated his shoulder in the attempt. "What I do with my Five is and always has been my own business."

    "He is not just your Five, and you know that," Ahmed retorted.

    "Was," Jean added, earning a sharp look from Jonas. "He's useless now. We have too much to do to simply sit and wait for a maybe-maybe not of him getting better."

    "His mind is intact," Jonas pointed out. "He will recover."

    "So Ikida says, but what proof do we have?" Mosuli demanded. "We cannot trust Schuldich as our go-between. You are not enough to vouch for him, not this time. You can't hear from him what we need to hear and know."

    Couldn't hear him, no, but Jonas could feel him, could feel him all the way here at the hotel. Crawford's nervous system had turned on itself, and Jonas' gift was burning in time. If there was coherent thought anywhere in there, Jonas thought it must be screaming itself hoarse. A mind couldn't survive like that. Crawford was going to shatter. Maybe it would take him a couple days, maybe a man like him would last weeks, but sooner or later, he would completely burn out.

    The Council didn't believe in mercy, but reality was reality. It was better to execute Crawford now, before he snapped, before that pain wore his shields to nothing. Once his shields broke, he'd go mad, and nothing in the world would save him.

    "I will call Prometheus," Jean said at length. He took Jonas' silence to be their victory, but he was not pleased by it. Fury and bitterness twisted in equal parts throughout the pyrokinetic's mind. This was an avoidable loss. They had put everything on Crawford's shoulders; they had learned to follow him just as Jonas did. None of them wanted to think about what his death would cost them.

    "He isn't done yet," Jonas tried.

    "He is finished," Ahmed said.

    "He isn't done yet," Jonas insisted again, a little louder, encouraged by their frustration. Their rage at him for putting their Oracle in this position was bleeding into immeasurable disappointment. He caught hold of that and refused to let go. "He promised us more than this." He cast about for the right thing to say and seized on the one name the Council could never ignore: "Seraphim promised us more than this."

    They said nothing at first, content to stare into the distance as they wrestled with their violent emotions. Jonas knew he'd won when Mosuli looked to Jean, wanting someone else's opinion on the matter. Jean refused to return the stare, but Ahmed glanced between the others.

    "We are going to the reading room," Jean said at last, angry that he had to take Jonas' side. "We will see what is written there and make our decision based on that. On hard facts," he said, flicking Jonas a look of icy hatred, "and not bias."

    For once, Jonas kept his mouth shut.


    Jonas hadn't been in Seraphim's reading room since he'd learned the truth about Alessa. He'd never wanted to step foot in it again after that, but today he had no choice. He'd brought a chair with him, as had two of the others. They sat around the desk. Mosuli's gift snagged Seraphim's tapes from their shelves and restacked them in the middle of the table. Jean pulled the directory out of the desk's bottom shelf. Malachi had been the last to update it; it had been his duty to catalogue and cross-reference the tapes.

    Jonas sat back and let the others work. He'd been here just once, and only to listen to Alessa's tape. He knew nothing about the rest of Seraphim's prophecies, so he wasn't sure where to even start. Jean had an idea, and after some searching he finally pulled three tapes out of the stack. The four men sat in silence as Seraphim started talking.

    The first tape was useless, because she referenced things that had already happened. The entire tape had to do with Crawford, but most of it was in cryptic, short remarks. Jonas knew why she skirted over the details: these visions were her own. She'd always walked a thin line of obedience with the Council, knowing her place was to see only what they wished her to see, but also believing she had to look out for Rosenkreuz's well-being. At one point, the Council had asked her if Crawford was worth the hype or the trouble, and Seraphim had held onto that as permission to look on her own.

    The second tape was more confusing, and the Council had to pause it frequently to argue over her words. Figuring out the timeline of Crawford's life was difficult when going off one- and two-sentence bursts. Some of it was obvious; others impossible to interpret. She made a couple comments on Jonas and Crawford, but they were mostly vague observations.

    Halfway through the tape, she finally gave them something solid to lean on.

    "Jonas and Crawford," she said after a lengthy pause. "Crawford and Jonas." She started laughing, and it took her some time to get herself under control. "Oh, what a mess, my child, what a mess, but so little of it is your making. You mourned your humanity once. Embrace it now. The road you must walk on is not one you can do alone. He is the only one who can see you through this. Do you understand? The two of you are bound to each other. It is for no one to get between you. The consequences are severe!"

    There was a short pause, then Seraphim continued, more soberly: "Councilmen, do you understand? One cannot live without the other. If you try to make them, you will lose everything. You do not believe me, of course, but when your precious Oracle collapses, you will know I'm right."

    And then, in Japanese: "This is all pillow talk."

    After that, she went silent. The Councilmen waited for more, but the second half of the tape was empty.

    "She stops with his collapse," Ahmed said. "That is not promising, Hoffmann."

    Jonas didn't hear him. "When did she learn to speak Japanese?" he asked.

    Mosuli spread his hands in a who knows gesture. Jean put the third tape in, but the Council knew almost immediately that the tapes were out of chronological order. The second tape said the most for Crawford's future, and it had not ended on a promising note. Jonas wracked his mind for answers and excuses, for anything to hinge his hopes on. Mosuli started to say something, but Jonas had already found what he needed.

    "These are all of her tapes?" he pressed. "You are sure?"

    "Her collection is complete," Jean said.

    Jonas took the directory from Jean and scanned Seraphim's pages. "What of tape nine?" he asked, referring to Alessa's tape. "It is not listed here. You only knew of it because she made sure you did." He pushed the directory back at Jean so the pyrokinetic could confirm his words. "She is hiding her secrets from us."

    "There is a line between hope and foolishness," Ahmed said. "Do not cross it yet again."

    Jonas waved that off and left the room. He went to Seraphim's floor and down the hall to her long-empty bedroom. Her room was as she'd left it, in the chance that her successor would find some hidden meaning in her cluttered mess. Jonas was grateful for the Council's superstitions as he crossed the room to her bed. He peeled pillow cases off her pillows one by one, and on his third try, a tape fell to the sheets.

    It was unnumbered. He peered at the tape coils and saw very little of it had been used. Still, it was something, and important enough that she'd hidden it from the Council until now. He brought it with him back to the room.

    "Where did you find that?" Mosuli demanded.

    "In her room," Jonas said, dragging the tape player closer. He slipped the tape inside, rewound it, and hit play.

    "Oh," Seraphim said, amused. "So the Oracle has finally fallen, has he? I do hope you are not surprised by this, Jonas. I warned you, did I not, that you would destroy the things that were so important to you." She clucked her tongue. The Councilmen sent Jonas quelling stares, but Jonas refused to look up from the player. "Councilmen, what dark looks and heavy hearts! Come now, you should be celebrating. These are such important times.

    "Estet dreams of a deathless future," Seraphim continued more gravely. "Rosenkreuz cannot misstep now. The only team who can secure Rosenkreuz's future is Schwarz, but Schwarz as it is now is not enough. Crawford and Jonas are its core. So long as they do not stand together, they do not have a chance of surviving. Crawford understands by now," she said. "His core is built on the future; he knows why Jonas is all he sees."

    "Wait," Jean said sharply, but Seraphim wasn't waiting.

    "They must trust each other unequivocally," the dead prescient warned them. "Exploit Crawford's sickness and bind the team together. Force Jonas to see his place. Force him to understand. Take away that which he has built his life and shields on, and he will fall into line. Only then will Schwarz be ready."

    She paused for a moment, then said quietly, "Councilmen, these months will be very difficult for Rosenkreuz. I ask you once, as I have asked you all my life: trust me. Believe in me. I live and die for Rosenkreuz. I live and die for our glorious future. Trust Crawford as you trust me. I have made him everything Rosenkreuz needs him to be. He, in turn, has made Schwarz everything he needs it to be. Do not stand between them."

    With that, she went silent.

    Several minutes stretched by before Jean reached out and turned off the tape player.

    "Hoffmann," Mosuli said, and Jonas could hear the fury in his voice. "What is that child's name?"

    Jonas' jaws worked over words he refused to say. He didn't have to say anything; the Council could figure it out on their own.

    "You never thought that was important enough for us to know?" Jean demanded, radiating outrage and disgust. Jonas knew he was just as angry at Seraphim for being so intentionally misleading all these years. "She has tapes filled with visions of her son, frequently interspersed with your name. How are we to know now which one of you she meant? We have always assumed it was you."

    Instead of addressing that, Jonas focused on the most important thing: "Crawford is going to survive this."

    Jean stared at him for another minute more, then abruptly stood and left the room. It was that or stay and kill Jonas. Ahmed wasn't far behind him. The door slammed behind them, leaving Mosuli and Jonas sitting across from each other at the table.

    "You are an imbecile," Mosuli said.

    Jonas said nothing, because there was nothing he could say.

Part 8
Back to Alles Schwarz