Jade Creek no longer had command of her facilities. There was no control of her body, nor the neurons that drove her motor faculties, not even the movement of an eye. Every functional part of her had been brutally enslaved, dominated by an alien entity of cold intelligence, a dark mist that had infiltrated her from her brain matter to her nerve endings. Nothing remained of her nuerocomplex except for a tiny bubble of protection she’d barely managed to install over a fragment of her self-awareness during the thing’s initial attack. With her instinctive act of self-preservation a nanofraction before being overwritten, she installed an impenetrable shield holding back the malevolent cloud that desired her as a host and for her ability to read a person’s three possible future images, the images that rotated around them in a black cyclone.
Now, the clinical coldness of the alien intellect drove her motor faculties as if it manipulated an unthinking machine, which Jade supposed she was now. Having full access to the neural links within her brain, the creature, which thought of itself as the One Mind, controlled nearly all aspects of what she’d been as a young woman. The only things left to her were reading the thing’s intentions, its primal thoughts, and hearing and seeing where it took her and what it did when it got there.
Not the best situation to find herself in. It went beyond frightening, seeing and hearing where she went, what she did—what it did—some of it bad enough she would’ve retched if she had control of her throat and could feel her stomach. Many times, she wished to be able to cry, particularly when the enormity of her helpless state threatened to crush her. Not the best situation by any means. But it was something.
Unlike what the One Mind had done with most other hosts it acquired in its eons of existence, the entity desired to keep her functional. Though it considered her nothing more than an insect on which to exercise its vast will, the alien had chosen to leave the bubble of her awareness intact. At least, the insidious entity had convinced itself of that. Jade knew better. The little left of her existed by will alone. Only hers. Her steadfast refusal to be overcome, written out of existence.
Floating formless in her last bastion of resistance, the tiny bubble shielded within her own mind, Jade kept an infinitesimal link open within her internal neural network. From that point on, she sensed the commands put forth by the alien entity. Even some of those sent into what the One Mind considered the Over Mind, a vast neural network the being had structured throughout its dark gaseous makeup that contained all the minds of those it had absorbed into its ethereal substance.
Sustenance storage for it to feed upon at its leisure.
Unable to do anything else, Jade rode along as the One Mind moved with intent. Forcing her frail body to move faster, the alien intellect directed her, the host, higher into the caverns above the Dark Citadel where the Great Shadow, the Dark King, had formerly ruled.
As helpless as Jade felt, dwarfed by the power of the thing, there was a small but distinct advantage for her of listening in, which stemmed from her ability to read someone’s aura. The ability helped her develop a sense of her surroundings. An adaptation which the essence druid Camoe Shadoe would’ve referred to as her true sense gift.
Thinking of the druid brought sadness, and then anger. Once she broke free of the One Mind, she would find a way to end its blight on the world. With her sister Crystalyn’s help, it could be done. Sister, I need you! I cannot take this much longer . . .
Crystalyn’s symbols were strong.
But together they were stronger.
Jade’s sister had stayed at the Dark Citadel after the battle beyond the Dark Gate. Though critically wounded and now healing, Crystalyn was still in the Citadel somewhere. If only Jade could somehow reach her. With her sister’s help, they might force the alien thing out of her, perhaps send it scurrying away as they had done once before in the Vibrant Vale when the being had tried to overcome her will a few months back.
Crystalyn was the one person whose power was, by all appearances, stronger than the One Mind. She was the one being it was wary of, that confused it. Never before in the alien’s long history—on any world—had it ever been thwarted. Only those saturated with the Flow, the river of power underlying the land of Astura, had defied its supreme will for a time. But even those had succumbed to its cunning eventually.
But not Crystalyn. Her amazing ability for creating symbols for aggression and healing with a mere thought, the force of her strong will, had proven effective against the creature once. But not Jade’s paltry ability of reading a snapshot of someone’s future. Ironically, that same ability was the very reason the thing wanted her more than a planet of others so it could best decide how to go about worldwide domination. That, and the fact that she seemed to have an innate resistance to the decay the alien caused the host body when it inhabited the form too long.
In its dark past, the entity had relied on stealth. Moving in the shadows, the ethereal being used its absolute power of compulsion to manipulate the intellect and motor capabilities of all things. Not once throughout its eons of solitary existence had it failed to gain complete control, not once had it failed to consume every single neuron of humans and nonhumans, and not once on any other planet had it failed to leave a world barren of life.
Yet when had it truly ever been alone?
The entity stored neurons consumed from countless worlds, from every being it had fed upon. Locked away inside the crowded and finite space of the Over Mind—the neural network of interlinked minds stored inside the mist of its ethereal makeup—the neural waves fed it thoughts, memories, and emotions when needed.
Nearly at capacity after consuming a large portion of the Dark Citadel, the One Mind had selected leaders to do its bidding as it fed on the oldest brainwaves in the storehouse of the Over Mind, erasing them forever. When the final push came, it would consume the entire world’s brainwaves and gain much power.
A creature with lesser cunning, lesser intellect, might have become enraged at the troubling discovery of its weakness to the great river of the Flow. But not the One Mind. The cold, dominating thoughts that dwarfed Jade’s own had a plan to nullify the threat of the Flow and exterminate Users, those capable of accessing and Using the great energy streaming within the river of power.
The One Mind had set events in motion to dry up the river, but it would take time—something that caused a sense of doom the transcendent creature had not encountered in its long past, nor had it found the experience in a single one of the countless memories stored within the Over Mind.
Adding to the sentiment of its disquiet, Jade sensed, the alien commanding her body had discovered a bright blip of power growing in the west, nestled within a family of strong Users. The One Mind could not allow such a threat to exist long. The alien had no reason to wait to eliminate the future threat, not when it had creatures absorbed within its neural net of dominion that it could use for the extermination. As lesser lifeforms, they were more susceptible to compulsion. The animalistic instincts of survival innate to them made them more accepting of domination.
On other worlds it razed, the One Mind eventually consumed the neurons of all lifeforms, controlling them as it fed, and it planned to do the same on Astura. Every single being helped offset the high energy cost of moving through galaxies in its endless search for the next neural food source.
But Jade knew from the dark presence’s thoughts that leaked through her bubble that the great river of power underlying the land, this world of Astura itself, was a consternation to the creature. It was forced into knowing caution. The One Mind had to come up with a master plan, an ultimate directive that made Jade afraid for her sister and all those Jade knew. Helpless to stop it, all Jade could do was listen in and watch. Screaming a warning wasn’t even possible, which created a harsh quandary: how to let someone know what had happened to her.
As the One Mind manipulated her body along black passages and over ancient stone bridges that spanned dark crevices deep in the caverns under the Dark Citadel, going downward and then upward for a league, the rankness of corrupted energy drifted past in spotty black mists. The dark spots, remnants of the Dark King’s considerable strength for corrupting the vitriol energy of the Flow, grew more frequent within the caverns under the great plateau that was Dark Citadel.
Though wisps and sometimes wide swathes of darkness exuded power, the One Mind avoided those spots, both corporeal and nonphysical, whose essence reeked of the dark taint of the Flow even though some exuded fear when it passed close. Feeding on such distress was a risk it would not yet make. When all neural waves without a trace of Flow were absorbed throughout the planet, only then would it consider imbibing on the rest.
At every junction, the One Mind moved Jade along the ascending passage, taking the steeper route when possible. Jade disliked the dark and damp caverns and fervently wished she knew what the One Mind sought. After four similar junctions, all with the same near absence of light which didn’t slow the One Mind a bit, the passageway lightened, bringing the foul stench of rotting carrion. A clear indication the creature controlling her neared its destination.
The One Mind gave the command for faster movement. Before long, Jade’s body must’ve sent warnings of muscle failure stemming from an interior dryness, the need for moisture. The One Mind raised her right arm, the one holding the leather waterskin bag it had brought along, and sipped as it moved.
The uniqueness of the current situation with the host confused it vastly. Always before, control of whatever vessel it had taken was absolute, final from the moment of first contact. Why Jade had resisted total domination, it could not fathom. A significant part of the Over Mind mulled it over with the single-minded focus of a machine as it forced her body onward.
After a series of tunnels and wide caverns, the One Mind strode into a cluster of monsters that hungered for human flesh. Maimwrights. Vile beasts that fed on the succulent flesh of a lifeform Jade and the parasitical alien both relied upon, a human body. Her body.
Wrapped in a cocoon of their own skeletal membrane wings, a dozen maimwrights lay in individual recesses around a rough-hewn half-circle chamber that was once a burial tomb. The cluster was large for creatures known to live in isolated groups of two to six.
Jade’s scent caused a frenzy of excitement within their lair, as the One Mind had expected. Sharp clicks accompanied a flurry of movement as the maimwrights rolled out of macabre stone beds, their razor-teethed beaks and lobster claws coming together in anticipation of a defenseless and fresh meal’s unexpected appearance.
The two largest creatures—brown and green brutes two heads taller than a large man—dashed toward the host with surprising quickness. Dropping the waterskin, the One Mind grabbed the snapping claws as they descended upon Jade, grasping for flesh. In an instant, the two monsters stopped moving, as if solidified on the spot. Soon others came for Jade, but now the two maimwrights moved. Holding out their monstrous appendages, they touched those that came after until movement ceased.
Then, as one, those left with their own minds rang a sound about the small cave. Wailing. The keening of fright. An eerie sound coming from such large frightening creatures. At least, to Jade it was.
The One Mind drank deep from the fear, absorbing it into the multitude of emotions harbored within the Over Mind, and it was replenished.
Touching each wright in turn, the One Mind absorbed the limited intellect of the creatures, the base instincts of feeding and mating, into the confines of the Over Mind. Then, it commanded the now mindless beasts to join the controlled army of the Dark Citadel.
The two larger maimwrights had a mission in store for them, an ultimate directive that would help with the One Mind’s unease. Jade didn’t know the specifics, though she felt it important to know. But try as she might, Jade couldn’t get a sense of what it had ordered them to do, no matter how hard she forced her will.
However, while she tried, Jade was able to strengthen her sensory perceptions along the edges of her bubble. By extending delicate shards of her shield into the misty blackness that was the One Mind’s disembodied substance surrounding her, new activity within that shadowy vapor triggered a warning for her to implement greater attention to listening in.
The One Mind sent the two horrors stomping down the tunnel that led to the light of day and then a long flight to a secluded valley in the northwest, to a forest there.
Watching them go, the One Mind was pleased.
Within Jade’s constant anxiety, she feared. Feared for her Dad and sister, and for all life on the planet of Astura. The One Mind would no longer remain in the shadows. Events had been set into blatant motion.
Turning toward the next pair of maimwrights, the One Mind initiated the second part of its plan.