Another night spent at the gate. The gales battered his arms and legs, leaving them numb to everything but their own exhaustion. But dumb and senseless as they were, Sebastian forced them forward, lest he let go of the door, even for a moment.
But as soon as the thought left his mind, the door began to slip from his grasp. His fingers scrabbled for purchase but slipped through, finding nothing. To his horror, the ground beneath him began to follow and he clawed upwards as gravity tore him away from the gate...
Sebastian lay panting on the ground. In the corner of his eye, the long bladelike leaves of corn stalks danced in a gentle breeze that he could neither feel nor hear. Sebastian heaved a sigh of relief and pulled himself to his feet.
The old prophet was waiting for him, tapping his feet impatiently against the muddy earth.
“I would have thanked you for taking me away from the gate, if you’d picked a less startling way to do it.”
The prophet watched impatiently as Sebastian regained his balance. “I have no control over the way your mind chooses to interpret my summons, nor any ability to set you free from that struggle. Only distract you from it, for a time.”
The old man looked down to Sebastian’s feet. Where his feet met the earth was solid stone, the same dull gray of the gate. He reached out to touch a leaf beside him, but it turned to stone beneath his fingers. He withdrew his hand, and it sprung back to life, undulating in the breeze.
“What is it, the gate?”
The Prophet shook his head. “It is something that belongs to you, and you alone. If you had not spoken of it, I would not have known of it. Only felt your toil. But for gates, it’s wise to ask what lies beyond it.”
“I don’t know. It’s always been closed.”
“Are you trying to open it, or keep it shut?”
Sebastian realized he did not know. At the gate he had no reprieve to understand his own struggle, awake he could not remember it. Even now, thinking of it made his limbs feel brittle and reminded him of the chill.
“Well, what did you want? Not that I’m in any hurry to go back,” Sebastian said, running the leaf through his fingers.
“You learned of the Haven’s goal, it’s nobility of purpose. In the near future we will seek out the Great Tree, and fulfill the conditions of your prophecy to end all suffering for humankind. In my lifetime, I set the pieces in motion. After it, this duty falls to you.”
“I’ll have to decline,” said Sebastian. “I’d rather leave the madmen to rave about universal oneness on their own.”
The prophet scowled. “It’s an unwise choice to dismiss the impossible as the symptoms of madness. You of all people should know this. For example, your friend the Empath. In a world of isolation, she is proof that something more is possible--”
“Have you met her?”
The old prophet sneered. “I know her better than you could ever hope to, and she does plenty to serve our cause.”
Sebastian thought back to how Erika had frozen when he told her the prophet was dead. “Because you made her.”
“In some ways, yes,” the prophet cackled. “She gave me her blood, willingly too, or the bond would not have lasted. Enough for me to find her, in turn enough for me to keep her close. And no matter how she tries to fight it, she cannot deny what she is. You’ll see soon enough what she does to serve our cause.”
“You’re sorely mistaken if you think that I’ll pick up where you left off.”
“Perhaps at first, but you forget that, like her, you are ruled by your nature, not your intent. Try to resist it, and you’ll find that despite your struggles you cannot. I have foreseen it.”
In death there was a thin sheen of whiteness to the man’s eyes Sebastian had not noticed in life. Even though the madness that had seized him on his deathbed had not to have followed him beyond it, blindness, or something like it, had. Sebastian shivered.
“I don’t put much credence in foresight. Think too much about the future and you'll miss what’s right in front of you.”
“An Augur that doesn’t believe in destiny? How laughable. Tell me, then how do you explain when your prophecies foretell events to come?”
Sebastian narrowed his eyes. “It means that I wasn’t able to change them in time.”
The prophet laughed. “Clever. But cleverness is better served in concert with nature. Allow your friend, the Empath, to demonstrate.”
Summarily dismissed, the grassy field began to fade. Like a wave rising up within him, the panic at the need to push at the gate returned, and Sebastian threw himself mindlessly at the door again.
Sebastian lay on his back, listening to the footsteps in the hall outside. Erika was late. Each passerby he thought might be her, but then dismissed it as he failed to recognize their tread. In general, there seemed to be more traffic outside his door than usual. He sat up, wondering if there might be a disturbance somewhere else in the compound.
Sure enough, the next set of footsteps outside the hall approached his room with some urgency. Moments later, the door to his cell swung open. A pair of guards ordered him to his feet, and without much patience for his wounded leg, brought him out into the hall.
They joined a stream of people, all headed again to the main hall Sebastian had visited weeks earlier. Another sermon, he assumed. This time attendance was mandatory, even for prisoners.
The hall was hardly as full, and the atmosphere tense. Sebastian surveyed the faces in the hall, and saw few that he would’ve guessed were from the outlying areas. There was little conversation between them, mostly whispers that hushed themselves as Sebastian’s guards brought him past.
The guards sat him on the floor before kneeling beside him. They lowered their heads deferentially. The rest of the room quickly did the same. The silence was absolute.
The silence in such a large group was unnerving. Their heads were bowed, patiently waiting. Sebastian followed suit just to avoid standing out.
There was movement on the stage. From some shadowed corner, a line of green robed figures walked onto the stage. The Emergent, Erika had called them. At their head was Master Freeman.
He spoke with no amplification, but his voice carried clearly over the hundreds of listening ears.
"My brothers and sisters," he said. "Thank you for gathering here. Thank you for your continued efforts in our pursuit of the reunification of our shattered consciousness."
The green robed figures dispersed from the stage, walking quietly down the shadowed sides of the auditorium. Sebastian watched them out of the corner of his eye.
"Today, though, I bring you here with news of utmost sadness. We are not as unified in our thinking as we lead ourselves to believe. Despite our best efforts to act as one, there is one among us who does not share our unwavering commitment to our goals.
"Not long ago, our dedicated enforcers were delivering a shipment of considerable importance. En route, only miles away from home, they were intercepted by the Foundation, attempting to steal our prize. How did they know of this?" he asked, looking out over the audience.
"A traitor," he answered. "Among us. But not for long."
Freeman stepped down from the stage and began to walk among the rows of his followers.
"Join me now, my friends. We shall exercise the unity of our minds. Despite the rifts that lie between us, let us join our minds and hearts and open them to our pursuit of wholeness. The harmony of our minds shall flush the traitor out."
There was a wave of rustles, a murmur of clothing and then a renewed calm. Beside him, Sebastian's guards lowered their heads and closed their eyes. Master Freeman slowly began to walk down the center aisle among the rows of faithful.
A flicker movement caught his attention off to the side of the auditorium. Sebastian thought it would be the green robed figures from earlier, but they stood still, heads bowed beneath their hoods. Instead it was a solitary figure dressed in black. It kept pace with Master Freeman, walking a few steps ahead, hiding in the shadows of the tapestries.
The figure stopped. Freeman did as well. They stood on opposite ends of a row only a few away from Sebastian’s. Freeman looked over to it. In response it nodded almost imperceptibly. Freeman began to walk down the row.
Sebastian quickly bowed his head as he walked near, then raised it again once he had walked past. Freeman took each step slowly, one at a time, keeping his eyes locked on the black hooded figure.
Then, another nod. Freeman stopped and turned to the man kneeling there. The black hooded figure disappeared behind the nearest tapestry.
Freeman thrust his hand out. The man flinched, though his opened palm only hovered above his head. Sebastian looked closer and could see beads of sweat run down the back of the man's neck.
"Michael Carberry, your will is not aligned with ours."
The sentence rang out like a death knell. Immediately all eyes were opened. The green robed figures swarmed from the corner of the rooms to grab him. Carberry tried to run but his neighbors grabbed at his legs. With a few precise blows, the robed figures felled him before hoisting him up and dragging him from the room.
In the midst of the commotion, Sebastian looked over the sidelines where the black figure had disappeared. Now it stepped from its hiding place behind the tapestry, pulling off its hood.
It was Erika. Sebastian immediately understood the trick. An accusatory sermon made the traitor nervous, allowing Erika to pick him out. By hiding her in the shadows, Freeman maintained the illusion of omniscience while Erika policed for unruly thoughts.
Then, as attention was focused on Carberry's removal, she shucked the black robes and knelt down at the end of the row, as if she had been there all along.
"So you're Freeman's thought police."
The day after the assembly, Sebastian was waiting for Erika at the door of his cell, arms crossed.
"I see you can stand on your own again," Erika said evenly. She set Sebastian's tray of food beside her on the floor. Sebastian wasn’t in the mood for visitors.
"That's a poor attempt at changing the topic," he said. "That was you in black, wasn't it?"
"Why were you looking into the shadows anyways? Even if Freeman's speeches aren't all that interesting, I'm sure Carberry being dragged kicking and screaming should have been exciting enough for you."
Sebastian tapped his foot with impatience. "I just was. And I saw you, sniffing him out. That was you, wasn't it."
Erika sighed. "Yes, it was."
"I thought you didn't care about the Haven. Never mind conducting witch hunts for them. Do they have you stalk the barracks at night, listening for illegal dreams?"
"I don't get why you're so angry with me," Erika said testily. "This is my job. You know I've killed people for them. You were there. This is hardly worse than that."
"Well, ostensibly that was in self defense. And I wasn't there. I ran away."
"And then I shot you."
She was right. Sebastian struggled to find the cause for his frustration, but even so, it wouldn’t abate. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “I just--I thought you didn't like being an Empath.”
Sebastian deflated, anger giving way and leaving him empty.
"I don't," she said quietly. "It makes me do things that I regret as soon as I'm away from Freeman, and people like him."
"Then why do them?" Sebastian asked. "If you hate it, why just not do it?"
Erika was silent. Sebastian didn't know what to name the feeling pulling at his stomach, but knew that she didn't need to.
"You said it yourself," she said, at last. "Eventually you just run out of energy to care. I could fight it, but day after day, trying to figure out which thoughts are mine and which feelings are mine--I’d rather feel nothing, think nothing. If I could find some way to make it stop, I would. But there isn't, so I have to find some way to live with it."
Erika handed the tray of food to Sebastian through the slot in the door. Automatically, he reached out to take it.
Erika made sure he had grabbed it, turned on her heel, and left.