------------nine : The ground caved in between where we were standing and your voice was all I heard.

   When Jonas said he'd consider bringing Aine back to Japan, he hadn't meant for it to be interpreted this way. The Elders seemed to think it would be all right to sign her with Schwarz—never mind that Crawford had been reinstated and that it would be overkill to have two Five in the same location. The Elders saw Aine as the convenient solution to a problem: the Talentless Berserker on Crawford's line. It made sense to them to trade out a dead mind for a pyrokinetic. Jonas agreed Farfarello was a blight on the team, but argued that Aine was not the solution. The Elders could make use of her elsewhere.

    Estet finally conceded that point, then switched their demands to say they would accept any replacement. They thought that would be enough, but Jonas put his foot down again. Seraphim's visions said Schwarz was how Crawford needed it to be. He couldn't explain that to the Elders, since it was not their business how much the Council relied on a dead prescient's word. They were frustrated by his vague excuses, and finally Jonas offered a compromise: they would test Farfarello's worthiness.

    For that reason, he and Mosuli went calling on Schwarz, and they brought a small contingent of dead-mind mercenaries with them.

    The four of them gathered on the porch: Mosuli and Jonas on one side of the door, Crawford and Schuldich on the other. Crawford looked on the armed group with disinterest. Schuldich viewed them with scornful pity. There was a stirring upstairs as the other two of Schwarz came to investigate. Nagi was a bit confused by the gathering—to him, this was a complete waste of time and manpower. Farfarello's mind came alive with hungry anticipation when he surveyed the night's prey.

    Farfarello didn't waste time coming downstairs. He leapt soundlessly from the second-storey window and landed in the middle of the group. The second his feet touched the ground, he was moving, rocking along the balls of his feet and springing forward. Moonlight glinted off his weapons of choice: a curved, jagged blade and a needle-thin pick. The Irishman went for the seven with guns first. He carved gaping smiles across throats with one hand and sheared fingers off with the other. Blood arched into the air from severed arteries, splattering wetly against skin and blades.

    He turned, sliding a bit on the bloody grass, and slammed his knife into one man's gut. He tore the man in half on his way by, but it was enough to slow him down, and he got the footing he needed to go right back into the fray. A club glanced off his shoulder, but Farfarello didn't slow. One man lost his courage and made a break for it. Like a true predator, Farfarello went for the weakest prey and sprang after the coward. He landed on the man's back, wrapped both hands around the man's face, and gave his head a brutal wrench that ripped his throat open.

    It was over in a matter of minutes. Jonas sucked in a ragged breath and studied the line of Farfarello's back. Farfarello stood among the fallen bodies, surveying the fallen. He noted which ones were still alive, then decided they were close enough to death to be worthless. He was covered in blood, but Jonas didn't know if he'd been injured. Farfarello felt no pain—only irritation that his fun was over.

    Jonas clapped three times as started Farfarello's way. "That was beautiful," he said, and he meant it. He finally understood why his Fives favored Farfarello. Crawford had to appreciate such efficiency and power; Aine would have admired his sadism. "Neither Oracle nor Prometheus was exaggerating about you. A demon incarnate-"

    He reached out to touch Farfarello, wanting to turn the Berserker around to face him. The second his hand brushed Farfarello's shoulder, however, Farfarello smacked his hand viciously away. The man twisted around to face Jonas, expression stony. One glittering yellow eye locked with Jonas' blue stare. Jonas lashed out instinctively, but his gift skittered across Farfarello's mind ineffectually.

    "Don't touch me," Farfarello said.

    The two demons stared each other down: Jonas speechless and Farfarello radiating a challenge. Jonas scrabbled at his wits enough to try again, but his gift went through Farfarello as if the man wasn't there. Only one other mind had withstood Jonas', and that was Crawford's, back when Jonas had still been an eight. But back then, Jonas hadn't even been able to feel Crawford's mind. Farfarello he could feel—he just couldn't touch.

    "My," Jonas said, because he had to say something. "What a surprise. Do you have any clue how long it has been since someone looked at me in such an insolent manner? I think it was your foolish teammate, almost seven years ago now. I had forgotten what it looked like… It never stayed on his face long once he dared lift his eyes to mine."

    Mosuli had come off the porch, realizing something was very wrong. Jonas went around Farfarello in a slow circle to stand behind him, so the Councilmen effectively boxed the Berserker in. Farfarello wasn't worried or intimidated. He turned his dirty look on Mosuli, but the telekinetic wouldn't stand for being looked at in such a way. His gift hit Farfarello with a solid thud, sending the Irishman flying. Farfarello used the momentum to roll to his feet. Once up, he shifted his grip on his knives in a clear warning.

    Across the yard, Schuldich's mind was humming alarm. Crawford radiated caution at Farfarello. Farfarello glanced away from Jonas and met his superior's gaze across the yard. Crawford must have said something to him across Schuldich's gift, because Farfarello's mouth twisted briefly. Still, he conceded the fight at Crawford's command and started for the porch.

    Jonas wasn't going to let Farfarello walk away. He motioned to Mosuli, who was quick to catch Farfarello with his gift. The Irishman went still as stone. Crawford stepped off the porch, realizing he needed to intervene before things got ugly. The grim edge to his thoughts said he knew it was already too late, but it was Crawford's duty to step forward.

    Jonas knotted his fingers in Farfarello's hair. He pulled Farfarello's head around to stare at him again. Farfarello scowled at him, teeth bared behind his full lips. Jonas stared back at him, digging deep for the reason behind such thoughtless acrimony. Farfarello didn't know enough about Jonas to hate him, and he certainly didn't care enough about his teammates to be angry on their account. It was all instinct: one predator reacting to another, riled by the invasion of his territory.

    No one looked at Jonas that way.

    No one.

    "He is giftless," Jonas said, glaring at Crawford. "He has no Talent, therefore he should be dead."

    "I do not have an explanation for this," Crawford said as Schuldich started their way.

    "Your Irishman has a soul, does he not?" Jonas demanded.

    "A broken one," Schuldich said, inviting himself to the conversation.

    Schuldich's impudence was the last thing Jonas wanted to deal with that night. He let go of Farfarello. "He passed our test tonight. We arranged for a group to assassinate him, and instead he was left standing. He is marked, but not severely. We used this test to decide whether or not he will remain in Schwarz. The decision was made with his victory and we will stick to it. However," he said when Schuldich started to feel relieved. A flick of his fingers signaled Mosuli to move Farfarello. Mosuli threw him toward the car. This time he didn't let go, so Farfarello couldn't catch himself. He hit the ground hard enough he rolled and slammed into the car's back tire.

    Jonas turned fully on Crawford and Schuldich. "I am going to borrow your teammate. I was made aware that he could not feel physical pain, and Adashi reported his gift's ineffectiveness on the Berserker. I must say I am intrigued that an empathy three levels higher still fails to touch him. Your teammate is special."

    Schuldich roiled with defensive, helpless fury. Crawford wished to argue, but he had been Five long enough to know when he must not speak.

    "Your teammate will be returned to you at a later time," Jonas said, reaching up and catching their throats. "A pleasure, as always."

    It was too easy to knock them unconscious. Jonas watched them collapse to the ground, then glanced up at the second-storey window. In the light, Nagi looked pale and grim as he watched everything unfold. Fortunately for him, he was too busy staring at Farfarello to meet Jonas' gaze. Jonas turned away and went for the car. Mosuli loaded Farfarello into the backseat. Farfarello snarled something ugly at being manhandled. Mosuli had had enough, and he knocked Farfarello out before getting in the passenger seat. They slammed their doors, and Jonas got them started back for the Council's current suites.

    "You can't hurt him," Mosuli said, not quite an accusation, not quite a question.

    "Oh, I will," Jonas said, a low, furious promise. "He will never look at me that way again."

    They said nothing else on the way back to the hotel.


    Blood added a flair to the conference room it had been lacking before. Jonas traced his fingers down the length of the table, finger-painting his frustration onto the wood. Farfarello was pinned to the tabletop by Mosuli's gift. Mosuli stood closer to the door, watching the proceedings. Anger was a low, burning knot, spiked through with resentment and dreams of murder. Jonas wasn't sure anymore whose feelings they were: the three of them were in equally foul moods.

    Jonas had spent an hour trying to repair the broken links in Farfarello's nerve endings, to no avail. There was nothing he could do to make Farfarello feel pain again. It was infuriating. Not even Crawford's mind had been so hard to crack. Each passing minute made him more desperate to see Farfarello scream. He wanted to watch Farfarello fight and writhe; he wanted Farfarello to realize how insignificant and powerless he was compared to the Council.

    He could go the long route: he could program Farfarello to fear them. But that would take time and his undivided attention. Jonas was willing to put the effort into it, but it was time he didn't have. On top of that, he didn't know which side of the line that fell on in regards to Seraphim's orders. Schwarz was as Schwarz should be, she'd said, which meant he couldn't change Farfarello on such a critical level. He needed a quick fix, something brutal but efficient, something that would teach Farfarello to watch his step. He couldn't take the monster out of the monster: he had to teach it to recognize and follow its alpha.

    "Aggravating," he said, coming to a stop by Farfarello's head.

    Farfarello spat on him.

    Jonas reacted with his gift, but it was Mosuli's power Farfarello felt. Telekinesis hit Farfarello hard enough that the table legs groaned. Farfarello grunted as the air was knocked out of his lungs, but he didn't feel the pain of impact. Mosuli was across the room already, peeling Farfarello's hand up from the table. White teeth crunched down on one of Farfarello's fingers.

    "Let me chew his fingers off," he snarled around the pale digit. "See how useful he is when he cannot kill."

    "No," Jonas said, wiping Farfarello's spit off his shirt. He smeared it across Farfarello's face. "He has to be able to work, no matter—"

    Realization hit hard. Jonas stared down at Farfarello, thoughts stumbling. Mosuli noticed his sudden silence and let go of Farfarello's hand. His gift sent Farfarello's arm crashing back to the table.

    "Oh," Jonas said at last. "I remember these limitations." Mosuli tipped his head to one side, not understanding, but Jonas didn't waste his time explaining. "Give him a little leeway," he said as he leaned over Farfarello. "I want to see him fight."

    He wasn't stupid enough to try kissing Farfarello. He went for Farfarello's throat instead and bit down almost hard enough to break the skin. Farfarello growled a threat at his ear, outraged at being marked like this, but Jonas barely heard him through the buzzing of his gift. He slid a hand down Farfarello's chest, mapping out a line from Farfarello's throat to his groin. His fingers seized Farfarello's crotch hard enough to cow a lesser man, and his gift went white-hot under Farfarello's skin.

    Maybe Farfarello couldn't feel pain, but he felt that, judging by the way he jerked. Muscles corded along Farfarello's arms as he tried to hit Jonas, but Mosuli had his hands sealed to the tabletop. Encouraged by Farfarello's reaction, Jonas forced his gift deeper, remapping every inch of Farfarello's skin. Farfarello twisted against the wood, struggling to find the weakness in Mosuli's hold. He found no escape from either power.

    "I will kill you," he snarled, voice ragged with hatred.

    "You waste your breath with empty threats," Jonas said, nipping at Farfarello's ear. Farfarello twisted his head away from Jonas' teeth, but Jonas grabbed his hair in his free hand and held him still. He teased the sensitive skin behind Farfarello's ear with his lips and tongue, loving the way Farfarello tried to twitch out of his grip. "Your time is better spent begging."

    If looks could kill, the one Farfarello sent Jonas should have destroyed his entire family tree. "Never."

    Jonas smiled, slow and cold. "Challenge accepted," he purred.

    "I will not be audience to this," Mosuli said.

    "Then help me get him to my room," Jonas said, straightening from Farfarello.

    It was easy for Mosuli to transport the Berserker down the hall. Jonas didn't have the restraints necessary to hold a man like Farfarello, but the Councilmen were good at improvising. Farfarello was left kneeling on the mattress, facing the head of the bed. Jonas' bed frame was made of metal rods. A thought from Mosuli had the rods winding around Farfarello's forearms in multiple loops, each almost tight enough to cut off circulation. He let go of Farfarello completely and stepped back, and the two watched critically as Farfarello fought to get free. He succeeded only in bruising the hell out of his arms.

    Jonas followed Mosuli to the door and locked it behind him. He leaned against the door, watching and waiting as Farfarello thoroughly exhausted himself. Farfarello's rage was almost suffocating in its intensity, but there was an animalistic edge of desperation to it. Beasts like him weren't meant to be bound like this; Farfarello had long ago figured out how to slip any sort of restraints. This was something different—this was something he couldn't break free of. Jonas savored every second of the futile fight.

    When Farfarello was left panting in the center of the bed, Jonas finally crossed the room toward him. He toed out of his shoes and climbed onto the mattress behind Farfarello. His presence triggered more struggles. Jonas caught Farfarello's ankle when the Irishman tried to kick him and pressed himself fully up against Farfarello's back.

    "I won't let you do this," Farfarello said, all furious denial.

    "You can't stop me," Jonas returned, kissing a line up Farfarello's throat. "And soon enough, you won't even want to."

    Farfarello didn't believe him.

    It took time, but Jonas loved proving him wrong.


    Jonas kept Farfarello for two days.

    The Council tolerated his distraction once Mosuli explained the matter to them, but two days was all they could afford. Jonas made the most of his time. He could not spend the entire time at Farfarello's bedside, but physical distance meant nothing to one with his rank. His gift never left Farfarello. Jonas made sure to linger over his meals in the downstairs restaurant. He didn't have to think about what he was eating, so he was free to explore Farfarello's body and weaknesses from a distance. His absence inspired Farfarello to struggle harder, but it also drove home just how helpless he was beneath Jonas' power.

    Sometimes he fucked Farfarello. For the most part, he was content to fuck him up and over. Farfarello found neither relief nor rest; his entire body was a mass of screaming need. Release made it worse, as Jonas refused to let him come down from the rush. Farfarello could barely breathe; his breaths were short, desperate gasps. His lips were torn where he'd tried to bite back needy groans. His throat was bruised black and blue from Jonas' teeth.

    Coming back down from the edge after two days was almost worse than everything before it: the abrupt loss of all sensation left Farfarello crumpled in the middle of the bed. Mosuli had unwound the metal bars from his arms, but Farfarello couldn't use his newfound freedom to fight. Fingernails dug short, desperate lines into the sheets as he struggled to get his breath back. He was shaking so badly Jonas could feel the mattress vibrating.

    Jonas had bought the Berserker a farewell present: a black collar with a simple buckle. Now he wrapped it around Farfarello's throat. Farfarello went rigid at the sudden weight around his throat, but his muscles wouldn't answer the demand to fight. It took serious effort just to touch the collar, and his fingernails scrabbled ineffectually at the edge.

    "This says you belong to me," Jonas said at his ear. Farfarello rasped something that might have been a denial. Jonas slid his fingers down Farfarello's back just to feel him flinch. "You belong to me," he said in a low warning. "Wear the collar to show me you understand. If you ever take it off, I will assume you need a refresher course. But Farfarello?" He wound his fingers around Farfarello's wrist. "The next time you force us to meet like this, I will make sure your team watches. If you want them to see you beg and break, then by all means…"

    Farfarello tensed all over at that threat. Jonas smiled, pleased, and drew back. "We are leaving," he said.

    Mosuli had to get Farfarello down to the car. Jonas seized Farfarello's lethargy and weakness in an iron grip to ensure the Irishman cooperated. When Mosuli was sure Jonas could handle things, he went back upstairs, and Jonas drove Farfarello to Takatori's estate.

    His gift kept Farfarello subdued the entire way back. Jonas pulled Farfarello out of the car and carried him up the steps to the front door. He didn't have to knock; the double doors swung open to reveal Schuldich. Green eyes swept Farfarello in a quick head-to-toe, lingering on Farfarello's unfocused expression and the bite marks on his throat.

    "Herr Hoffmann," he said belatedly.

    Jonas eased Farfarello into Schuldich's waiting arms. "What do you think?" he asked, pulling Farfarello's shirt collar down. Schuldich's mind spiked from worried to alarmed. The telepath swallowed thickly, choking on bile or words he didn't dare say. "He knows what will happen if this is removed from him. It is to stay on his throat at all times. No one is allowed to take it off. Is that understood?"

    "Ja, Herr Hoffmann."

    "You have a very strong teammate," Jonas said, tapping Farfarello's face. Schuldich's grip tightened on Farfarello as if he wanted to pull his teammate out of Jonas' reach. Jonas was amused by such protectiveness. "But when you strip away the person and leave just a man behind, when you take away control and dignity, shred pride and identity into ribbons, when you make a person forget who they are and where they came from… You are left with just a man. Just a man and raw emotions, and emotions are the field on which you play."

    Such words made Schuldich nauseous, but it was the ice behind him that concerned Jonas. The empath dragged his stare up from Farfarello's face and looked past Schuldich's shoulder. Crawford was standing in the middle of the lobby. His expression was the perfect, stony calm Jonas knew so well, but it hid something ugly and unfamiliar. Crawford was angry. Angry at himself, for failing to protect his team, yes—and angry at Jonas. Crawford had known Jonas for too long. He knew exactly what Jonas meant by his words. He knew what Jonas had done to his young subordinate.

    Jonas leaned forward to whisper at Schuldich's ear, but he kept his gaze locked on Crawford's face. "Everybody bends," he said, "then everybody breaks. Just like you." He pulled back and turned away. "If I were you, I would release him. You do not want to be holding him when I let go."

    "Herr Hoffmann," Schuldich said in vague, muted farewell.

    Crawford said nothing at all.

    Jonas let go of Farfarello's mind as soon as the front door closed behind him. The Berserker came awake in an instant, equal parts fury and humiliation. Jonas savored the fight breaking out behind him, soaking up the tangled, vicious emotions, and drove back to the hotel in silence.

    He called Crawford that night. "You know what I did to him, don't you?"

    "I have my guesses, Councilman," Crawford said quietly. "I will not ask him."

    "You do not have to," Jonas assured him. "I will tell you."

    And he did, in more details than Crawford ever wanted to know.

    When he was finally finished, Crawford was very quiet. Jonas smiled up at the ceiling. "You are not pleased."

    "Mister Hoffmann, I am aware my opinion does not matter."

    "A little bit of honesty, Crawford," Jonas said. "I'm in a fantastic mood right now and willing to tolerate a little of your humanity."

    A pause, then, "No, I am not pleased."

    "Shall we mark that down as the understatement of the year?" Jonas asked.

    "I would not wish such things on anyone, Mister Hoffmann."

    "You would not wish me on anyone," Jonas interpreted. "But better him than you, hmmm?"

    "I apologize," Crawford said, "but I must disagree."

    Jonas wasn't expecting that answer. He stared up at the ceiling without seeing it and wondered how and when things had changed so much. His good mood soured. "I don't remember you being this human, Crawford. Once upon a time you were a star, perfect and beautiful and distant and cold. I'm glad I was not there when you fell. I am disgusted by what you've become."

    "My apologies, Councilman."

    "You're not sorry," Jonas accused him, and he hung up.


    The following weeks did nothing to improve Jonas' mood, as the Council was torn between their duties to their school and the promises they'd made Estet. The four Councilmen were working out of Japan now, living in hotel suites and keeping in touch with their Five long-distance. The Elders were negotiating to buy more Talents, citing a need to begin work on their ceremonial chambers. Jonas turned the project over to Aine, and she agreed to assemble a team.

    The problems from Schwarz's end were completely unexpected. Schwarz's mark, Takatori Reiji, was well on his way to becoming prime minister of Japan. Despite that, Crawford expressed private doubts to the Council that Takatori was the man for the job. He could see Takatori growing unstable, and he did not like the way Takatori was leaning. The Council ordered Crawford to stay the course—they were too close to back out now.

    They paid for that with Takatori's son Masafumi. The man went wild card and died in the process. Fortunately his research survived him, and Schwarz even managed to save his female associates. Among them was a familiar face, the ever-annoying Chizuru Aoi, and Estet's pet project Tot. The Elders were a bit frantic over Tot's safety, but Crawford promised to protect her. He checked the women in with Ikida and received regular updates on their health.

    Then Takatori Hirofumi died.

    Takatori himself didn't care that his sons were dying off, but Estet was alarmed by Schwarz's spotty protection. The Elders cried foul and claimed the Council was poisoning Schwarz. The Council did not want immortality for themselves, so now the Elders feared Rosenkreuz would sabotage their important plans. Masafumi's research had been a near-miss, Takatori's clients were suddenly written off as untrustworthy and dying, and now Takatori's heir was dead.

    Jonas trusted Crawford—but even he had to admit this looked bad.

    He was in a foul mood when he dropped by Takatori's estate the next day. He started the meeting with violence, landing three blows on Crawford's skin. It would have been four, except Schuldich moved flicker-fast and grabbed his wrist to stop him. Fingers dug into Jonas' skin hard enough to squeeze the blood from his hand.


    The room went perfectly still for an endless moment, and then Jonas dragged his icy cold, disbelieving stare to Schuldich's face. "What did you just say?"

    Schuldich lifted his chin a fraction. "Don't."

    Jonas grabbed him by the hair and shook him fit to break his neck. "Do you presume to tell me what to do?" he demanded sharply, but Schuldich didn't answer him. Jonas clawed bloody lines into his face. "Don't you ever tell me what to do, do you understand me?"

    Schuldich said nothing; his silence said more than enough.

    Jonas beat him for his insolence and left Schuldich a gasping mess on his knees. "You disgust me," Jonas said, searing the skin off Schuldich's arm with his power. The telepath scrabbled desperately at his clothes before they could catch on fire. He managed to get his sleeve off in time, but he couldn't stop the burn. His skin crackled red and black. "All four of you disgust me. One of Rosenkreuz's greatest groups, favored by the Council, and you can't even keep a few ungifted alive. You allowed Takatori Hirofumi to die last night, and one of you had better have a damn good reason for it."

    "We turned our attention away from Takatori Hirofumi when he left the party," Crawford said. "There was an attack planned on Takatori Reiji, and we chose to concentrate our efforts on his safety instead. It was my decision."

    "Was it," Jonas said, not at all impressed with that excuse. He kicked Schuldich flat onto his back. Schuldich wasn't smart enough to stay down. He painstakingly got to his feet. "It doesn't take four of you to keep an eye on one fat man. Your preoccupation is understandable, as you are the precognitive. Your purpose on this team is to use your visions to help Rosenkreuz and Estet achieve their goals. But it doesn't take four people to guard him, and someone else should have been watching Hirofumi. If there was an attack on the father, there was likely to be an attack on the remaining son. Tell me why your call was such a terrible one, Oracle."

    Crawford had his mouth to open, but Schuldich beat him to the punch.

    "There was no reason for anyone to target Hirofumi."

    Jonas turned a murderous look on Schuldich. The telepath didn't have the survival instincts to shut up. No—it wasn't that sort of stupidity. It was the need to distract Jonas' rage from Crawford. That was even harder for Jonas to stomach.

    "He isn't an important player. In the beginning, he gathered people for his father. Their loyalties are already turned. His life lost its value."

    Jonas grabbed him by his chin and dug his fingers in, anything to make him shut up. "I didn't let you live seven months ago so you could mouth off to me today. You of all people know what happens when you piss me off, or maybe those telepaths repressed too much. What do you think?"

    "No, Herr Hoffmann."

    "Do you know what I think?" Jonas asked.

    "No, Herr Hoffmann, I do not."

    "I think you are a distraction," Jonas said, carving more skin off Schuldich's face, "and I cannot afford for my Oracle to be distracted. Do you understand that? You will not screw this up for us." He hit Schuldich again, but Schuldich held his ground. "Crawford is a rank eight precognitive. He should have been able to see both attempts. The only thing I can conclude here is that I have made a mistake in allowing you two to court each other. You are troublesome and unruly, and you are the worst thing that could ever happen to my Talents."

    "I'm flattered."

    "Schuldich," Crawford said in sharp reprimand.

    Schuldich didn't hear him, not with Jonas' gift screaming in his veins. The telepath hit his knees hard, gasping for breath and choking on blood.

    "I will not allow you to screw this up for us," Jonas said again. "I would shoot you, but I must cling to the hope that your sorry hide can still be useful. Therefore, I will simply correct the mistake I made several months ago. Get used to sleeping in your own bed, Mastermind, because you're not going to be welcome in the other one."

    There was a split-second bolt of denial and shock, but Schuldich had no time to react. Jonas tore through Crawford's shields with enough force to send the Five stumbling back a step. Jonas could have gone through and erased everything Schuldich meant to Crawford, but he was too angry to do such delicate work. Instead he crushed it deep, shoving it as far back in Crawford's mind as it could go. Crawford fought it, but there was nothing he could do.

    When Jonas drew back, the Crawford standing behind him was more recognizable than the one he'd been forced to deal with these past few months. Crawford radiated disapproval, but this frustration was aimed at his disobedient subordinate. Jonas let go of Schuldich and turned a significant look on Crawford.

    "Do not screw up again," he said.

    "Yes, Mister Hoffmann," Crawford agreed.

    Jonas was still angry, but he stalked out of there. He left Schuldich on his knees, radiating defeat and disbelief, and went downstairs to his car. He waited in the driver's seat, seething, until Crawford caught up with him. The Five slid soundlessly into the passenger seat, and Jonas drove him back to the hotel. Crawford waited in the lobby while Jonas went before his colleagues. He had to explain what he'd done and why. The Councilmen were furious, but not all of that was directed at Jonas. Seraphim had warned them to leave Schuldich and Crawford alone, but Schuldich had crossed too many lines today.

    In the end, they sided with their own, and Crawford came before the Council to accept punishment for his team. He could explain away Hirofumi's death as necessary, but he could not make excuses for Schuldich's behavior. He knew better than to try.


    Their actions were enough to satisfy the Elders, and for a few days, there was peace between Estet and Rosenkreuz. Then Takatori Ouka died, and Takatori tore a permanent rift between the groups.


    Schuldich didn't stand when Jonas stepped into his room. For once it wasn't disobedience—Schuldich simply could not get up. Jonas could feel the hazy numbness of drugs as they circulated his system, but beneath that cloak was a dangerous sort of agony.

    "Herr Hoffmann," the telepath slurred.

    Jonas ignored the greeting, more interested in pulling Schuldich's shirt out of the way. The telepath's back was an ugly, discolored mess. Looking at it, Jonas couldn't believe nothing was broken. He tracked his fingers down his nephew's back, feeling the damage with his gift. "Sit up," he said when he was through.

    It took Schuldich serious effort, but he obeyed. Jonas inspected the swelling in his shoulders before moving up to his face. "A nine iron," he said.

    "Ja," Schuldich said.

    "He took a nine iron to you."

    "He was upset," Schuldich said tiredly. Jonas' mouth twisted, prompting Schuldich to say, "I couldn't have stopped it."

    "I know," Jonas said. Fingertips tested Schuldich's skull. It felt intact, but Jonas didn't really believe it. He kept expecting to find a hole where Schuldich's skull had caved in. He remembered how Alessa's head had looked, so grotesquely deflated by Enrique's poker. He remembered how it felt when his fingers slipped into one of the holes on accident. Jonas swallowed bile.

    Crawford had warned the Council multiple times, and still they'd let last night happen. They'd come within an inch of losing Schwarz. Farfarello and Schuldich could have died on the other end of Takatori's golf club, and Crawford would not have survived Schuldich's death. Some stupid dead-mind politician could have cost Rosenkreuz and Estet everything.

    Takatori's fury was justified, and Schwarz would answer for their thoughtlessness. But the manner in which he'd taken it out on Schwarz was unforgivable, and the Council no longer wanted to back Takatori's schemes. The latter would take days to resolve. Schwarz had the quicker fix, so Jonas would take care of them here and now.

    He left Schuldich and went in search of Farfarello.


    Jonas called Aine on his way out, and she answered on the first ring. Jonas licked Farfarello's blood off his fingers before turning his key in the ignition. "You are to report to Schwarz," he said. "I need this team stabilized as quickly as possible."

    They were unexpected orders, but she was pleased by them. "Of course, Herr Hoffmann," she promised. "I will come over straightaway."

    Jonas hung up on her and turned the car toward the Council's hotel.


    It took time, but the Council managed to pry Estet's greedy fingers off of Takatori. Crawford insisted the man was unstable and promised he was no longer necessary to Estet's cause. He had files and numbers to back up his words, and he refused to back down in the face of Estet's displeasure. The Council had learned its lesson and now sided with him wholeheartedly. Estet finally had no choice but to give in.

    As soon as Schwarz had the go-ahead, Takatori was dead.

    "Give us one month," Crawford promised the Council and Elders both. "One month, and this will all be over."

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