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[justify]Lukas was unaware of the stores directed his way. He gazed towards the picture window; surprise etched across his profile. As one, both women twisted, turning to see what he was staring at, drawn by the incredulity in Lukas' voice. Instinctively, MacKenzie shifted a mental gear, and, a moment later, the hazy form of the dead clairaudient became visible to her.
'Lukey?' Helen frowned at her brother. MacKenzie nudged her, and nodded towards the corner. Helen looked puzzled for a moment, then her expression cleared, as she also made her newly acquired vision available to herself. 'I'll never get used to this.' She muttered to the room in general, as she gazed at the apparition by the window.
Nobody paid her any attention. Both MacKenzie and Lukas were staring towards the slowly clearing image of Joan Collins.
'Joan?' Lukas repeated. He was at a loss for words. 'We thought- that is, I thought-' He paused, and glanced towards MacKenzie, who shrugged helplessly. 'We thought that.., you were lost to us.' He finished lamely.
'As did I.'
The clairaudient's voice was faint and carried a slight distortion. 'Were it not for Mentor, I might be still.'
'Mentor?' MacKenzie's surprised exclamation was a fraction of a second behind Lukas's; the word echoed his. 'What has Mentor got to do with this?' The agent asked, before Lukas had the chance.
'Mentor released me.' Joan's voice was clearer, yet the movement of her lips were slightly out of synchronization with her words. 'He led me here. I have news that may help you.'
'So that's what he had planned.' Helen was smiling. Her eyes glittered with unshed tears. 'Are you okay, Joan?'
'Yes Helen.' Joan returned the smile. 'It was bad; for a short while. I was lost, until Mentor led out of the labyrinth. Now I am free.'
'Labyrinth?' Lukas frowned. 'What labyrinth-' He stopped, and shook his head. 'It doesn't matter at the moment. You said you can tell us how the Outrunners are multiplying?'
'I can.' Joan replied. 'The labyrinth is a part of their scheme.'
By this time, Joan's image had solidified. If they had not known that the clairaudient was dead, they could easily have convinced themselves that Joan was with them physically. Rarely, if ever, had Lukas seen such an apparition with such solidity - he wondered whether that was also Mentor's doing, or if it was Joan's own psyche that possessed the capability.
'How are they doing it, Joan?' MacKenzie asked.
'You should know, firstly, that a significant proportion of people posses a psychic awareness, in one form or another. Not everybody possesses the level of ability that you do, of course. Even my meager talent is way above the norm.'
'I would never call your ability meager Joan.' Lukas interrupted. Joan smiled at him.
'Compared to you Lukas, I was a mere amateur.' She told him. 'Nevertheless, many people have a psychic awareness - an awareness that they shrug off as a hunch, or an instinct; a gut-feeling. It is this awareness, that these Outrunners are using. They are using this ability; following it down - into people's minds, and taking over. Once inside the mind of a person, a seed may be sown, for want of a better term. A new human - Outrunner hybrid can be grown, within the matrix of the mind. In time, if the host survives, an new Outrunner matures.'
'That's awful!' Helen looked sick - her face pale. 'Those poor people; what happens to them?'
'Their souls; the part of them that makes them essentially unique, is forced out, as was mine.' Joan told her sadly. 'The Al'urion - the Outrunners, have created a vast labyrinth that is sealed away from the barrier. The souls are forced into the labyrinth, and sealed away from the next level. They cannot die; cannot move on. As long as they are still connected to their physical selves, their bodies remain alive, to do the Outrunners bidding.'
'Is that what happened to David Jackinson?' Lukas asked.
He remembered all too well, his confrontation with Jackinson the previous year. The event had been Lukas' first direct confrontation with the Outrunners; the encounter was etched indelibly into his memory and his nightmares. He recalled vividly, the frozen posture; the blank eyes that stared straight ahead - devoid of any shred of intellect or life. He heard clearly, the rasping hiss of the multitudes of Outrunners, as they spoke to him, through Jackinson.
'Yes.' He barely heard Joan's reply. 'And no. From the little I have learned; those such as Jackinson, for whatever reason, allow the Outrunners free access into their minds. By the time they realize their error, it is too late. They are swallowed; devoured by the parasites of the Al'urion. These others are unwilling hosts. As long as they are imprisoned, and prevented from moving on, their physical bodies are the property of the Al'urion- to do with, as they wish. At the moment, they are few; but their numbers grow constantly.'
'Hold on ; let me get this straight.' Lukas said. He thought for a moment. 'All it takes, to be taken over, is a modicum of psychic ability?' The spirit inclined her head. 'And quite a few people have the required level of ability, for the Outrunners needs?' There was another slight nod of assent. 'This's crazy; surely a person would know? They'd realize, if something tried to take over their mind? They'd have to.' He was grasping; he knew it.
No matter how he attempted to refute what he had been told, he knew that what he was hearing was the truth, at least as Joan understood matters.
'Not when they sleep.' Joan told him softly. 'When a person sleeps, they dream. When they dream, the mind's defenses are lower than when it is awake. It is then that pathways into the mind may be forged, by those that know the way. The dreamers soul can be captured, and imprisoned within the labyrinth, where they remain in a permanent dream-state. The soulless body may then be used.'
'Hellfire,' Lukas muttered. He glanced at Helen and MacKenzie, and saw that they were thinking the same thing he was.
'So - why not just take us over?' He asked, indicating the two women. 'And how long, before a person becomes a new Outrunner?'
Joan smiled fondly at the pair on the settee. 'In answer to the first question - you are too powerful.' She said. 'Mentor has told me a little about you - what you are. The three of you together, are possibly the largest concentration of mental ability and power the cosmos has seen in a very long time; perhaps never. Even taken individually, it would take far more Outrunners than the Al'urion possesses, to take possession of minds such as yours. Even asleep, you have been designed to pose such a threat as the Outrunners have never encountered before. To date, I possess the highest level of ability they have managed to capture - it took a full dozen Outrunners to dominate my soul. As for your second question, it seems that, the more powerful the ability of the host, the longer the Outrunner takes to mature. A person of average ability might take a month to mature; I'm sorry; I cannot be more accurate than that.'
'That's fine.' Lukas told her absently. 'Don't worry about it.' His thoughts were chaotic; as his mind tried to absorb all that he had learned. He realized that he was staring at Helen and MacKenzie, and threw them what he hoped was an encouraging smile.