The telepath had the same crooked smile after his nose was broken and some of his teeth knocked free. He simply spat out the blood, and crooked up the corner of his mouth. "You think you can stop us," he laughed, "poor deluded little mundanes." He didn't even need his mouth to talk. It meant they could start by breaking his jaw. His hair was a metallic purple, an old yellow bandana holding it back from a pair of mercurial eyes that were sometimes blue and sometimes green.
Oracle stood at the back of the room, shielded by Blood and Fujimiya. They stood like that in order to protect him from the sight of it. It was not an interrogation chamber, just the only room that they had far enough under ground that they dared do this. They'd dispose of the body later. Ruthlessness was just one of the things that they had had to learn. Fujimiya's knuckles were bloody, torn open on the telepath's teeth. His plastic apron, found in some old warehouse, some plasticised thing with a picture of Wonder Woman on the front, was blood spattered. It reminded Oracle of how much that they had lost, even if he himself didn't remember it.
"Enough," Blood said stepping forward out of the shadows where he stood just in front of Oracle, to hide him from the view of the telepath. He looked tired and worn, the white streak in his hair seeming more prominent in the electric light. It said how important this was that they were using precious fuel to run the generators.
"I can get him to talk." Fujimiya said turning. His face was badly scarred, an inkvine of purple that curled up the side of his mouth and across where his eye used to be. The other eye was narrow and cold, but remained the most beautiful heliotrope colour that Oracle had ever seen. There wasn't a lot of colour left in the world.
"You're assuming he has anything worth saying." Blood corrected him. "He's just a foot soldier, he doesn't know anything."
At that the telepath laughed. "I know things," he continued to laugh in their heads, his jaw hanging loose from his face. "I know so much more than you think. I was there!" That was exultant. "I was there! I helped them do it. I'm the one who found the Godchild! Me! You don't know what I am!"
"We know that." Fujimiya said and hanging from the once yellow tie of his Wonder Woman apron a foot long kitchen knife, "but it doesn't make you useful." The electric light glinted off it. "Do you want me to do the honours or do you want him yourself, Blood?"
The other man smiled, wiped his hands nervously on the thighs of his jeans, he wasn't sure he liked what was coming next. "Oh, I think I'll take care of this one personally, being as he was there, and all."
The telepath's eyes went wide with fear. "I'll talk," he blurted out, "I'll tell you anything, I'll tell you everything. Don't leave me with him." But as Oracle closed the door behind him and Fujimiya Blood was already taking off his jersey. They didn't have enough clothes to let them be casually destroyed like that.
The basement of the broken skyscraper was as good a base as any and Oracle fell in step behind Fujimiya in the dark corridor, they'd been here long enough that there were old metal garden baskets hanging from brackets on the walls as make shift braziers. It was remarkable how much light they gave off. It fell in pools on the concrete floor and along the lines of Fujimiya's hair, freshly washed and blood spattered, and the line of his apron, as he took it off, hanging it just out side the door. "I could have gotten him to talk." Fujimiya said turning.
"I know." Oracle agreed softly, "but if Xan said he had nothing to tell us..." he shrugged. "Come on, you might as well wash up, whilst we can still have fire enough to warm the water."
"Xan isn't always right," Fujimiya groused, his bloodlust high.
"And you don't want Blood to hear you say that." Oracle corrected him, "he's dangerous where she's concerned."
"Not all of us kept our loved ones," Fujimiya says pushing open the door to the underground cupboard that they are staying in, it used to have a boiler in it, but the metal was needed for other things. His fingers spread over the small photograph he has hung there from a plastic clothes peg and a nail on the wall. It showed a young girl with twin plaits turning back to look at the camera over her shoulder in a light coloured sundress with her hands clasped behind her back. It was the only image of her he had left. After his parents died Fujimiya had spent five years searching the world for her.
He lost his eye when she had found him.
Oracle wanted to change the topic, but it was clear that Fujimiya had no interest in talking. He simply stripped off his sweater, a shapeless orange thing taken from a woman's rack in Target because it was the only thing there that would fit him when they raided it, looking for more important supplies like band aids and peroxide and tape, over his head and dumped it on the floor. He didn't bother to heat the water just poured it over his head to wash the worst of the blood out.
"We're losing," he said finally, flicking his dark red hair back, before he wrapped the remains of his towel around his head. They were like galactic hitch-hikers in that they always knew where their towels were. If the Great Dark, or whatever they called themselves, wanted to destroy them, they had only to take their towels away. "And we're losing hard."
"And yet we caught their Telepath."
"We caught a telepath." Fujimiya corrected. He was unearthly thin in the candle light, a pile of candles, three or four, were gathered together in the corner, burning slowly with thick greasy smoke. It was at best animal tallow, but it might be human. It had been a long time since they could be precious about the dead.
"We caught Schuldig." Oracle corrected, wondering if he looked as thin to Fujimiya, as if he could sit on the bulge of his hipbones. "Blood will take what he needs from him."
"I don't like working with the demon." Fujimiya was honest. He had nothing left to lose.
"How else can we fight fire with fire?" Oracle scratched his head, the glasses that they had found for him were long since broken and he had gotten used to squinting. He coped with the headaches the same way everyone did, he shut up about it and got on with what he was doing. "We're desperate, we're losing." He stepped up behind Fujimiya and wrapped his arms about his too thin chest, resting his head against the swell of towel and then had to stand on tip toes to rest his forehead against the back of his neck. "We've got nothing left to lose."
"Xan has a master plan." Fujimiya said and turned, accepting the slight comfort of an embrace made by too thin arms. "A way to stop it all. When did we sink so low that magic becomes our last chance?"
Oracle laughed, a soft sad broken sound, "when?" he asked mockingly, "probably the day Kyushuu sank and It rose."
Fujimiya found Oracle in a hen house, perhaps five miles from the house which killed his parents. He hadn't the strength to break a hen's neck, but was instead eating raw eggs as fast as he could find them. He had been prepared to leave the child that just burrowed farther into the hen house, even when the smell of roast chicken wafted from the small fire, until the salmonella hit. He nursed him through it, with a mix of water and salt and sugar and crushed saltines. He never asked him his name, just used a length of sheet to tie him, weak as a newborn kitten, to his back in a sling, with the food he found in the baskets on the side of the pushbike, and continued on his way.
When Fujimiya met the magic users, just before the second great wave of pestilence that It unleashed to consolidate it's power, they decided that the child was probably five or six, and decided on six because no child wanted to take the younger age, and offered Fujimiya a place in Sanctuary if he needed it. He looked at the young child, a sleeping lump with his head in Xan's lap, and agreed.
Oracle didn't remember time before Fujimiya, but the past was indifferent to him anyway, even with Con-Job's constant lessons about who they were, about what had happened, writing it down over and over into books that they snatched with food supplies from denuded and destroyed shopping malls. He had Fujimiya and Xan and Blood and Tanna and Thirteen and sometimes there were other children in Sanctuary before they moved them to Jerusalem where the protections were strongest and that was just how it was.
When the Visions came he just stepped into Xan's room, draped with perfumes and silks and other things that they stole, around the censer where she worked, with that periapt banging against her forehead and before he spoke she smiled at him, that wonderful smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes, and said "I know, love," and she meant it, because Xan always meant it when she said she loved him, she wasn't like Con-job or Blood who said the words but didn't always mean them, she was like Fujimiya who didn't need to say it as he cut his hair, blowing away the loose strands or slipped half of his potato unto Oracle's plate when he thought no one could see. "It's why we called you Oracle." Then she ruffled his hair, and from a secret drawer under her censer, that no one else could ever open, she pulled a candy and sent him on his way. Xan was like that.
Thirteen was more shy, she wore dark clothes and like Blood was always at the front in a fight, she would dive in but when she saw Oracle she always looked sad, like she knew something she didn't want to share. He called her Thirteen though sometimes the others called her something else because she had a number thirteen written on her forehead.
Tanna would grab him for impromptu hugs and sometimes would sigh when she thought he wasn't looking, making sure he knew his maths though he knew that it wasn't something he'd need. She was the one who would heal them when they came in bloody, and she just got thinner and thinner and the shadows around her eyes got darker and darker.
And that's how it was until the visions left him sick and sore and ageless in a way only someone who lived in the future could be, and no one ever questioned when he would get out of his own bed, or out of Xan's when the visions left him aching, and climbed into Fujimiya's pallet, rearranging the thin limbs until he had made himself a pocket of warmth that he could crawl into, and always slipping into sleep almost as soon as Fujimiya put his chin down on the crown of his head.
They kept nothing from him- they never had. What was the use, Con-job asked, he can see it all and more anyway? So he sat in on the interrogations and the executions and the murders. And he wrote it all down. He knew that he didn't have to tell them his visions to know what was coming. It had plans, such grand plans and they were an irritant in It's path.
"It's too soon," Thirteen argued, biting her lower lip and fussing with the prayer beads around her wrist, "he's just a kid."
"We haven't time," Blood argued, "don't you think I'd rather do this some other way. We agreed, this is the only way."
"What is?" Oracle asked. He was wearing Fujimiya's sweater, the orange one which was almost threadbare at the elbows and his socks had been mended with bright purple thread, and he had the beginnings of a headache because he needed glasses and they didn't have them to give.
It was Con-job who answered, leaning against the wall smoking. When the others argued about it he just shrugged and went, it's the end of the world anyway, and after that there wasn't much you could say. He was taller than Blood, and had hard blue eyes. He called him Kid and spoke with an accent, but you could see how tired he was these days. He was the one that never openly used magic, although the others did, but they were scared of him, Blood said he was the strongest of them all. "When there's no future, kid, sometimes you gotta go back, and find the mistake, the point where everything turned and change it." He grinned around his cigarette and for a moment it seemed he had too many teeth. "In TV they used to call it a retcon."
"What's a TV?" Oracle asked.
And Con-job laughed.
"For fuck's sake, John," Thirteen protested, "he's just a kid, who old are you?" she asked him.
"I'll be eleven next spring." Oracle answered.
"Like that means anything," Blood said from where he stood behind Xan, "he's an Oracle, he has one foot in the future, he's probably older than the lot of us combined." Blood looked tired and dishevelled, like he had just pulled on his clothes quickly. He was spending more and more time as the demon lately.
"What do you think the alternative is, Thirteen?" Con-job asked, "I know, we'll go to It's palace and say hey, mind if you call off the slaughter and the pestilence and the harrying, because we need like five or six more years to thwart your plan because our master stroke is just a kid." He was angry but it wasn't at Oracle, it wasn't even at Thirteen. Then he turned. "Here's the plan, kid, here's what we've been trying to train you for, even if we have no more time, we can send you back in time, we can put you in one of those points where things change, and because time will always follow the path of least resistance we can hopefully, please, be able to change things, because you will know what happened, and you'll be able to stop it."
"So that's your plan?" Fujimiya asked from the doorway.
"If I go back," Oracle swallowed against the lump in his throat, "and I meet you when you're young, will you still like me?"
Fujimiya who was always so still and stern and silent faltered for a moment, "probably not, I was kind of an asshole back then." And Con-job laughed, and Oracle faked a smile for him. "Does he have to go alone?"
Xan nodded. "Combined we haven't the strength for more, It drains our power just by being in this realm. We need to find the point, the flash point," she used the term carefully, "where the alteration is strongest, where we can change everything. It has to be him."
"Because I can see the future?" Oracle asked.
"Partly." Blood said in a low quiet voice.
"Your thoughts are different," Thirteen told him, "there's not a telepath alive that can read them, it's how we caught Schuldig. They're like soap bubbles instead of lizards, if that makes any sense. It probably doesn't, but it means you're the perfect agent, but you're just a kid."
Oracle asked. "It's why you needed the nth metal isn't it?" Xan nodded sadly. "And it will kill you all, won't it?" She nodded again, but she said nothing. She had looked sad for the years he had been there. "But if I change things it won't matter will it, it'll all be different, won't it?" She nodded again and tried another smile. Behind her Blood gripped her shoulder tight. "I have to make this decision myself, don't I?" the magic users never really understood how grown up he was, how years of seeing the desolation that It had wrought changed things. He took a deep breath.
His answer was cut off by the straining of concrete as an explosion rocked the upper levels. "The Godchild is here," Blood said, "whaddya know, he did know the telepath." It seemed to amuse him, even as Thirteen cursed and Tanna said "tropelet" and they appeared somewhere else. There had been too many teleportations for Oracle to question it any more.
It always left him feeling a little nauseous. The God-Child was this slim looking man, only as old as Thirteen and he had large eyes and a hard expression. His hair covered most of his face, Oracle knew that, he also knew that he could tear down buildings with a thought. He looked young and innocent and he could destroy the world with a wave of his hand.
Oracle wondered, the one time he had seen him, in one of Xan's mirrors, but never in visions, if he had had the same type of upbringing that Oracle had, if he was surrounded by people who loved him, even if they had a terrible purpose in store for him. This was what the lessons were for, and the books, and the protections, because if he went back, if he managed it, then he could save them all.
Japan sank when It rose, and within days most of the Eastern Seaboard and Western Europe followed it under the water. Millions died. Then came the first wave of pestilence, caused the survivors said, by the amount of dead and how it tainted the water. A year later a second wave hit, and then a third. By that point there were survivor cities here and there where stragglers gathered together. That was when It unleashed It's army of Talents and even the most skeptical couldn't argue any more that this was the end, it wasn't natural, It was a force stronger than they could imagine slowly destroying them just because It could. That was when the God-child appeared. Fujimiya had seen his image in Xan's censer, his face wrecked and his hair grown out to look so much like blood, and said, "what do you know, he's just a kid too."
Con-job burned the books in Xan's censer causing her to sputter and fume, but he just ignored her as he added some water and dipped Fujimiya's watch in it, even though it didn't work any more. It turned the brown strap black and Con-job just grinned at her then, like he knew what he was doing and it didn't really matter anyway. She had stormed away in a flash of fabric and Blood had frowned at him. "Our little magic trick," Con-job said leaning over and fastening the strap around Oracle's wrist. The ink seemed to seep into his skin and Oracle felt it, he could feel it all, all the time he had spent writing the histories and the love that they had for him, and the hope, bound into the leather watch strap. "Don't you lose that," he said and then ruffled Oracle's hair and went off for a smoke, cursing as he remembered he had none left.
"Don't punch the target," Fujimiya said holding up the bag again to reiterate the point, "punch through it, aim your punch at a place just beyond it." He made a sort of oof noise as Oracle struck the bag, "watch your feet, you have to be light on your feet or you'll lose your balance."
"Why are you teaching me this?" Oracle asked, wiping at his nose with the cloth wrapped around his hands.
"Because it's the only thing I have to give you." Fujimiya said quietly, "now jab, left, left, left."
"Nth metal," Thirteen said, "is naturally inimitable in the universe," it was a small silver coin, she was rolling it between her fingers, "it's resistant to most things, electricity, heat, magic, it's our solution to your paradox," the way she said it she sounded sad and broken, "but there are ways to manipulate it." She pressed the coin into his hand and whispered something in his ear but he couldn't hear what it was, then she kissed him on the temple and when he opened his hand the coin was gone. "Look," she said with a broken smile, "magic."
"It figures we'd have to do this with the God-child knocking on the door." It was the best place they'd decided to hold the spell. The walls were rattling with the force of his teke-blasts, but it was safe here under feet of concrete and reinforced steel. It had been a bunker, now it was just the best place to do this. This place had belonged to Blood for as long as anyone could remember, and the walls were lined with the books he had tried so hard to protect, though that was meaningless now. It was one of the few pockets of land just high enough to avoid the encroaching sea water in the old Gotham city scape.
They had drawn the symbols on the floor and arranged what they needed. "We just need a little time." Blood said, pulling off his shirt because the demon could distract him. The demon might be able to take on the God-child for the minutes that they needed.
The demon always looked at them like they were meat, except Xan for who it had a lingering fondness. "A million dreams and hope we pin on thee, a thousand lifetimes could abrade at thee." The demon always talked in rhyme. Blood said it was a mark of rank in Hell. He wondered if It talked in rhyme too. Con-job said after this Shakespeare would be a piece of piss. Oracle didn't know what that meant.
"I'll try not to let you down, old man." Oracle replied from his place in the centre of the circle.
"Never got why you aren't scared of him," Con-job said, "because he frightens the scouse right out of me."
"He wouldn't hurt me," Oracle said bluntly, remembering games of chase where he sat upon the demon's shoulders with claws around his shins to hold him in place as they ran and leapt. "I'm far too valuable."
"I'll go with you, demon." Fujimiya said picking up one of the swords.
"What madness is this? the godchild will not fall to steel's cold kiss." The demon said, and Fujimiya smiled.
"Probably not," he said, "but I doubt he's alone, and we're only buying time."
The previous night Oracle had crawled into Fujimiya's bed for the last time, knowing it was the last time, and Fujimiya had lain there in the dark and told him a story, not his own, which Oracle knew, or that of his sister, lost and then stolen, or of Xan or Blood, stories which had formed him, but instead of a knight lost in the wilderness waiting and how although he himself died his quest was finished.
"Aniki." Oracle said, he hadn't called Fujimiya that in years because he knew it hurt. "Daisuke da."
"Daisuke da, otouto." Fujimiya said with a lowered head.
"It's time," Xan interrupted them, "the spheres are in alignment, we can start." And Tanna and Thirteen nodded.
Oracle looked at the telepath manning the gate in front of him, thirteen years old and considering himself king of the school. He was just a petty weakling with a big mouth and larger fists. "So," Oracle said looking around, "this is Rosenkreuz," he flexed his hand, the little finger on his right was always stiff, like it was frozen, but it didn't matter. "Take me to your leader." This was the training ground for Trigon's army, he thought to himself, content that his thoughts were secure. This was the flashpoint, the point where history would change.
The telepath reached out with his mind and then fell back. "Was ist Ihr name?" The telepath asked. He could feel the poking of his mind around the edges as he was led through the old monastery to where the teachers waited. "Ich bin Berger, was nenne ich Sie?" The teachers were watching, this was perhaps his final test to enter the academy.
"Oh me," Oracle answered blithely. "My name is Crawford," it was the name that Con-job had given him, even as he scuffed up the toes of the new sneakers the Blood here had given him when he had appeared, with new clothes and food, and barely a question as to where he had come from. "But you can call me Oracle."
I kinda cheated for this. I wanted the alternative timeline to be the one we know, the one that was altered. Knowing that this was one step away from being a herculean monster I decided I would just write the end, the stragglers searching for the flashpoint, the bit where they could send him back to change everything. Knowing I needed characters powerful enough to manipulate time and that to create the original desolation I had a demon I combined my forces. Not many other universes feature a) demons or b) groups powerful enough to pull off time travel and so I went to DC. Blood, Xan, Thirteen, Tanna and Con-job are all members of the so-called Justice League Dark, ie Jason Blood, the demon Etrigan, Madame Xanadu, Traci Thirteen, Zatanna and John Constantine. Con-job is Constantine's nickname in the actual Hellblazer comics, in which he never seems to do magic at all.
I used an actual DC villain in the place of the demon that Esset summons, Trigon, a demon overlord.
The God-child is the description in Gluhen for Todou who appears for all intents and purposes to be Nagi's Clone, so I just applied the name to Nagi. He has no powers in this he didn't in Gluhen.
Interestingly, although it was something I couldn't weave in, there is a group in DC who work for Cadmus called the Brain Trust who gather talents to turn them into soldiers, and they are based somewhere in Europe, so I considered them being an alternative name for Rosenkreuz.