"Greetings young travellers. My name is Ranevargar. All my Realm welcomes you with gratitude and wonder."
Kieran wasn't sure how to respond till a helpful image formed in his mind and he reached his own arms forward for a mutual wrist grasp.
"Kieran is my name and thank you for your greeting."
Kieran stepped straight back and indicated to Mr B to follow suit, with the sudden knowledge that this was a simple but very significant formality for Ranevargar. One by one, Rhys, Woorawa and Tan did the double wrist clasp, and when that was finished Ranevargar took a container from the person next to him, lifted it to his lips, then passed it to Kieran. Two mouthfuls was the right amount, then, savouring the wonderful sweet taste, Kieran passed the container on.
"Why do you visit my Realm, Kieran? Do you seek my counsel?"
"Yes please, and any help you can manage. Someone kidnapped Rhys and when we tried to rescue him we ended up here. We came through the White Wall to get away from monsters and we have no idea where we are, or why so many strange things are happening to us."
"The White Wall?"
Kieran called the image into his mind and Ranevargar reacted with surprise.
"You came not by portal? That is a Boundary to my Realm and increases my confusion and wonder."
Rhys's laugh broke the formality.
"Confusion and wonder are our invisible friends. They must be because they follow us wherever we go, and coming through the White Wall is so confusing it nearly sends us crazy."
Ranevargar took in the smiles and nods of agreement and turned to Kieran.
“You have the power to pass a Boundary without knowledge of what it is. Keiran, your strange manner of dress suggests you come from beyond the Realms? Are you a mystical Great One from the human world?"
That set Kieran back completely and Woorawa eagerly took over.
"The Elders of my people call Kieran their friend and they used the same words to describe him. He brought us here from our world when Rhys was stolen from us."
Ranevargar gave a look which conveyed great respect for Woorawa's forceful declaration and spoke with renewed formality.
"I honour the wisdom of your Elders, young Woorawa, and I look forward to learning more of them. You have the appearance of the people of the dry continent on the Human world and you stand with Ranevargar, ruler of one of the Realms in this place which you sometimes call Faerie."
Everyone stared in disbelief till Rhys broke the silence.
"You’re saying you’re ... an elf?"
"Yes, Rhys. I am an Elven Lord, a Realm ruler, and subject only to the High King. My greeting ceremony has bound me to welcome you all with my friendship and protection. My heart flows with gratitude for the wondrous gift of Krol's life."
"... You don't ... You don't look like an elf! All our stories say elves have pointy ears."
"A seeming only, and a discussion we will share along with many others ... Kieran, let us all take counsel after Pelnor guides you for a refreshing break."
Kieran got the message and beckoned everyone to follow and find out what was used here as a toilet. Behind them Ranevargar and the other person, or apparently elf, moved closer to the griffins.
A short while later the companions followed Pelnor to where Ranevargar was waiting at the open end of the clearing. As they approached, the grass underfoot stopped and the layer of soil supporting its growth gave way to solid wood. Wood? Kieran's puzzlement switched to astonishment when Ranevargar gestured them to a kind of balustrade, again made, apparently, of solid wood, with an outlook showing the great open plains stretching way into the distance and a vertical drop which he figured must be at least several hundred metres. To one side, and not far below, a number of giant branches jutted horizontally for thirty or forty metres. Understanding crystallised and Kieran whirled to take in the vegetation reaching high into the sky around the clearing. Yes, now that he was looking for them he could make out three massive tree crowns with a tangle of interlocking branches.
"Rhys, these are the trees Woorawa could see. They’ve built a giant platform way up here for the griffins to land on."
All heads switched upward from looking out and down, and then to Ranevargar for confirmation.
"Yes, Kieran, this is a grove of my Realm Trees. The platform is fully alive and was grown rather than built, as is this small safety barrier. In a while you will see more when the Guardians take us to join Gryl and your steeds."
Wonder at trees three hundred metres tall was shunted aside by the implication that the clearing was grown by design, and that in turn was displaced by Rhys's question.
"What are the Guardians?"
"You saved the life of the greatest of all Guardians, Rhys. Krol has served to protect my domain and helped vanquish every Chaos creature and incursion from the Unordered Realm for over 700 years. Replacing him is a work now beyond me."
So many things to understand. Every sentence from Ranevargar contained some new puzzle. Kieran voiced their primary concern.
"Can you send us home, Ranevargar, or help us find the way?"
"The only way I know to reach your world is to portal through the Gateway Realm with the aid of the High King. My power is limited and very much restricted to happenings within this Realm, but I will do what I can. It is my right to seek such aid from the High King, Keiran, but without more knowledge I hesitate to do that since you can't have been brought here without his involvement."
"A High King? Does that mean there are other kings and he rules over them?"
"Yes, Rhys. I am one of four Realm Lords. The High King controls the Nexus energy which sustains our Realms and is responsible for ensuring their continued existence and well-being."
"Is he a good king, or a bad king? I don't like him if he kidnaps innocent people."
"I have always had respect for him, Woorawa. The Realms have long been managed with a mix of impartiality and independence and his underlying integrity has always had my support. Kidnapping a human is so far from my understanding of his nature that I suspect there must be matters involving the Realms ... Relate every detail of what has happened, Kieran, and we will see if we can make sense of it."
"Well, our troubles really started when Woorawa came to Melbourne and discovered that Rhys had been moved away from our College and wiped out of our memories. We ..."
Rhys spluttered, almost with indignation, and looked at Kieran as if he was crazy.
"You've got to be kidding, Kieran. Funny things were happening way before that. The first weird thing I knew about was the way you swim and your migraines. And then at the Grampians the birds came to you and you zapped me."
Mr B added to that.
"Don't forget how fast he learns things, Rhys. That started even before you helped each other and became friends."
Kieran looked to Ranevargar for guidance.
"There are too many minor details, Ranevargar. We’ll be talking for hours if we tell you everything."
"One minor detail, which seems insignificant now, might be the pathway to greater understanding, Kieran, so the more description I hear the better. We have time before we meet Gryl and your steeds, and after eating we can talk well into the night
... Start by telling me what these migraines are, Rhys, and what he does with them, and then we will hear how everyone else perceives them."
A short while later, Ranevargar, after hearing Rhys and Kieran's version, listened to Mr B give his explanation of the zap event in the tent on the first trip to the Grampians, and called a halt.
"Kieran, with your mind protection so strongly in place, I am missing details and associated thoughts about these interesting events. If your friends are happy for me to access their thoughts while they speak I can build a far better understanding."
Kieran hesitated a moment then nodded his agreement.
"I can't take the protections away, Ranevargar, that would be too dangerous for us, but I can let you through to anyone who’s okay with it."
"You can safely release the protections while in my Realm. Nothing will harm you here."
Kieran shook his head. This was the first time since they'd arrived that he knew he understood something better than Ranevargar.
"No, someone knows our patterns so well they attacked us at home and then straight after we arrived. If I release the barrier they’ll know where we are and send the Spook things to get us."
"What are Spook things?"
When Kieran built an image of the Spooks attacking, Ranevargar registered surprise and then thoughtfulness.
"They are a construct called a Fetch and controlled only by Realm Lords and the High King. Keep your astonishing shields in place at all times, Kieran, and continue with your stories."
Kieran turned to everyone else.
"Are you happy to let Ranevargar see your thoughts? He's been seeing mine ever since we met and it helps with understanding. He won't look at anything private unless you ask him to."
"Does it hurt?"
Typical Rhys. That brought a surprised look from Ranevargar and smiles from everyone else.
"Idiot! If he looks in your mind he'll be the one suffering, not you ... It's the same as when you let me in for our practices, except he's a lot better at it than I am."
"Will he make me think I'm a giant bullfrog?"
Kieran gave Rhys an elbow in the ribs and told him to get serious.
"That means it's okay, Ranevargar. He just likes saying weird things."
Following Keiran’s obvious trust, everyone was completely okay with Ranevargar seeing their thoughts and the discourse continued with Rhys describing how the Medusa look got started.
After another half an hour they'd reached the trip to Alice Springs but, after hearing Rhys and Woorawa describe their experience of the campfire healing, Ranevargar reluctantly called a halt and said it was time to meet Gryl. Kieran knew Ranevargar was particularly interested to see this meeting because he'd been invited to follow the questioning as best he could and watch not only what information was received but also the reaction to it.
"Our transport is about to arrive, Rhys, and since you arrived in such a precipitous rush, Krol is eager to give you a more relaxed view of my Realm Trees."
Kieran was curious. He hadn't seen any contact with Krol in Ranevargar's mind and, since there was no sign of him anywhere in the sky, he wondered how Ranevargar knew he was close. Instantly the link became obvious, and so strong Kieran took a more careful look at it’s structure. Amazing! Somehow it was a natural part of Ranevargar's mind.
Krol and five other griffins appeared from behind the wall of tree foliage, gliding effortlessly closer and then landing one by one. The spectacle pushed all other thoughts from Kieran's mind till, following Ranevargar’s mind link to the griffins, he sensed a whole bunch of communication. Ranevargar turned to Rhys and gestured towards Krol.
"Lead the way, Rhys. Krol was torn between his loyalty to me and his new life bond with you, and I've just told him it honours me to cede you right of position as his rider."
Rhys surprised everyone by giving Ranevargar a little bow of respect before moving to Krol and receiving the usual chest nudge.
The launch into flight was very different this time and, in turn, the griffins moved to the drop-off and, with outspread wings, fell into a glide. Kieran’s stomach rose for an instant then settled as Kron steadied and moved to keep close behind Krol as they left the trees and cruised toward the lake. When Mr B, on the sixth Griffin, caught up, the flight gained extra height then wheeled in leisurely circles above the grove of Emperor trees.
Kieran smiled at himself. They'd called them Emperor trees so much it was stuck in his mind. From this changing viewpoint there were clearly four, three forming a surprisingly symmetrical triangle, with the fourth and significantly higher tree growing right in the centre of that triangle. Kieran's mathematical bent found the regularity intriguing and he sent a query to ask Ranevargar if it was natural or by design. It was by design but they'd all see more for themselves when they landed.
The griffins lost height now, gliding beside the trees for a closer look, and as they neared the ground the perspective changed. The real size sent a surge of awe through Kieran and the excitement of landing was completely overshadowed when the griffins touched down in the lee of a gigantic wooden buttress, angling upward to the closest tree.
Gryl was waiting though, and ranged behind him were all the other Panthers. When everyone was dismounted Gryl approached Ranevargar and received a lingering touch to his head. Kieran watched, because Ranevargar had sent message he should, as Gryl's mind and body quivered with achingly beautiful joy. Gryl moved to stand proudly beside Ranevargar while his mate, and then all the others, approached. With each touch to a proud head Kieran's understanding of the bond between Ranevargar and the animals of this Realm built till the wonder of it sent his body into goosebumps.
Rhys bumped against him and spoke softly into his ear.
"Are you all right, Kieran? You've got a funny look."
"Ranevargar’s letting me share his meeting with the Panthers and it's too amazing. It's so beautiful I've gone shaky at the knees. It's hard to believe, but I think that he looks after every animal in the whole Realm ... I'll tell you more later."
Any discussion would have to be later because the reception was finished and Gryl's attention had turned. Kieran started with surprise at the request which Ranevargar had just placed in his mind then reached with his own hand to touch the top of Gryl's head. Something sparkled through his mind at the moment of physical contact, not the all-encompassing joy of a moment ago, but definitely a hint of it, and extra to the usual link. Gryl swung his head in a big arc and his amusement flared as a playful chest bump knocked an unexpecting Rhys to the ground.
"You great lump. You could at least have warned me."
A paw the size of an elephant's foot very carefully massaged Rhys's chest, and Kieran watched a muscle twitch in response when Rhys tried bending one of Gryl’s retracted claws.
"Help! Help! Grab his tail, Tan. Pull his ears off, Woorawa, and you can make him think he's turned into a mouse, Kieran."
A quick check showed that Ranevargar was curious about all this so Kieran led the attack. It only lasted a short while though because George and the other two horses were watching from behind the rest of the Panthers and also eager for attention. Ranevargar watched everything and Kieran could see his huge interest in every interaction that was going on.
"Food is prepared, Kieran, and we can rejoin Gryl and your steeds when that is finished."
Kieran sent assurances to the horses and discovered they'd already received them. The group now walked towards the great pillar of the closest Realm Tree, following beside the buttress and staring up sixty or seventy metres to where it's top joined the main body of the tree.
"The outer layer of trees each help the stability of the Grove with a living anchor, Kieran, and the inner layers all join by growing their branches together."
Mr B was extra curious.
"What do you mean by inner layers, Ranevargar? There’s only one inner tree."
"Two of my Groves are bigger, Mr B."
Kieran smiled because Ranevargar was using the group’s name.
"And my Central Grove spreads far with many, many trees ... Here we are. These chambers have been established for our comfort."
Kieran, along with everyone else, stared around with interest and took everything in. He’d expected the trunk to be enormous, but standing here was like standing next to a curving wall. On the left was the triangular structure of the great buttress but, dwarfing that, the main trunk rose to where the lowest branches hid the upper reaches from view. On the right the trunk itself curved slowly away.
"How far round is it?"
"I'm not familiar with your terms for distance, Woorawa, but I think one hundred good strides would be close. Follow that path around and tell us your finding. I see your companions share your curiosity."
"Around? To the buttress and then back again you mean?"
"No, the Managers have provided a walk through."
Another puzzle. Woorawa looked to see who else would make this interesting side trip then moved off with everyone except Mr B, who only had to wait a couple of minutes to learn that it had taken 108 steady strides for Rhys and 115 for Woorawa.
"What's your estimate for the actual circumference, Kieran?"
"... At least ninety metres, which means its diameter’s about thirty metres straight through."
Ranevargar pulled aside a curtain of leafy vines hanging just where he was standing and gestured for everyone to enter. Kieran entered a narrow room where four people were sitting at a long table laden with food and drink. His eyes lingered a moment then turned to check the clusters of large glowing flowers lighting the room.
"Wow! Fruit! I can't believe how much I'm looking forward to ... Double wow! Are those plants glowing by themself, Kieran? Or is it like the glow you make?"
As far as Kieran could tell it was natural, but he waited for Ranevargar to explain.
"Many plants and animals can make light, Rhys, and we use the effect in some of our living spaces."
"We call it bioluminescence at home."
"... Life light ... Yes, Tan. That is a precise description. The Tree Managers have enhanced these flowers to make our life more comfortable."
"Tree Managers? The same ones who cut the tunnel all the way through the buttress?"
"Yes, the same ones, Rhys, but it wasn’t cut. It was grown."
Ranevargar introduced Deltar and Tenlon who, along with Pelnor and Manen, had evidently gathered the food, and everyone tucked in eagerly. Big platters of what looked like earthenware were loaded with all sorts of food, and the companions followed the example of their hosts in choosing what and how to eat.
Manen took what looked like a golden, cooked potato, and Rhys, sitting opposite, was surprised to hear a distinct crunch when about a third of the almost spherical food was bitten off.
"What’s that, Manen? It looks like potato."
"It is rumin, the kernel of a large pod from a plant which we grow in symbiosis with the Trees, and one of our staple foods. It is particularly nutritious and very tasty. Try one."
Rhys’s first bite was cautious but then his face lit up and there were smiles all round at the eager crunching sound after a much more enthusiastic bite.
"Man, this is unbelievable. I could live off these."
That led to quite a chorus of crunches as everyone else tried one and pleased smiles from the five hosts.
Ranevargar pointed to a platter with hand sized slices, about a finger thick, with dark brown material edged all round with white.
"This is even tastier, Rhys, and our main substitute for meat."
"You don’t eat meat?"
"It’s unnecessary with the bounty of the Realm Trees, and rarely practised in this Realm."
Rhys bit into a slice and once again his eyes lit up.
"Weird! It’s not meat but at the same time it sort of is. Chew a piece, Keiran, you’re going to love this."
"Chew? Is it tough?"
"No, but you can’t just bite and swallow. It’s kind of heavy but when you finish you’ll want another slice. What’s the story with this stuff, Ranevargar?"
Ranevargar waited till four more mouths were happily chewing before answering.
"It’s a special fungus which grows in plant material which collects where large branches grow from the main trunk."
"Fungus! You’re kidding!"
"You’re bonkers, Rhys. Mushrooms are fungus and you always tell me I haven’t cooked enough when we have them at home."
"Well, I suppose! … Tan’s the best cook ever, Ranevargar … Is there some reason why that food has brighter colours?"
He pointed to a big platter near the end of the table
"It is a selection chosen for soft texture and sweeter taste. The brightness of the colours is a signal of readiness for eating."
Pelnor filled their mugs, again earthenware and rather large, with a delicious tingly liquid which tasted strongly of honey. Questions flowed and the group learned that everything they were eating and drinking came from the Realm Trees and that the four hosts lived here permanently and represented Ranevargar who had arrived from what he called his Central Grove.
For a while Woorawa was very much the centre of attention when he described some of the Central Australian wildlife. Manen was particularly fascinated to hear about rock wallabies and was amazed when Ranevargar relayed Kieran's mental image of the pair at the Nature Park.
"They carry their young in a special pocket of skin? What a wonderful idea."
"Lots of our animals have pouches. All the kangaroos and wallabies and possums and even some of the little mice."
"Don't forget the koalas and wombats, Rhys. They have pouches too, but the opening faces their back legs."
"What? Are you sure, Mr B? The babies would fall out."
"I'm sure, Rhys. I went on trip to a special sanctuary and the keepers explained it all. The wombats dig burrows with their powerful front claws and the pouch has to face backwards so the dirt doesn't get in with the young."
When Ranevargar relayed Mr B's memories of these animals to the four hosts Kieran jolted with disbelief at the question which resulted.
"No, Manen. That is beyond our resources."
Mr B and the others weren't part of this mind talk so Kieran explained.
"Menon asked Ranevargar if he could make some animals like koalas and wombats for this Realm but he hasn't got enough energy."
"Make them? You mean bring them don’t you?"
This was for Ranevargar to explain.
"Kieran has it right, Rhys. Watch my hands."
He touched his fingers and thumbs together, rested them on the wooden bench next to a platter of purple and orange fruit, then closed his eyes till a soft green glow filled the little enclosure of his hands. A small bud appeared then opened and grew a slender shoot with two tiny green leaves.
"Life and the nurture of living things is my special gift, Rhys, and this Realm is my sanctuary for all the creatures you will see here."
Ranevargar closed his eyes again and the little shoot shrank back into the surface of the table.
"Was that a real plant? Kieran shows us things like that but we know he's putting them into our minds. He turned Woorawa into a giant bullfrog once and it was so real we could feel the moisture and softness, like the frogs we told you about."
"Yes, the plant was real, Rhys, but I returned it to the living structure of the table because without a lot more effort it would have quickly withered."
"And you can make animals the same way?"
"I have that knowledge, Woorawa, though it would be more accurate to say I change the form of a life that already exists. The shoot you just saw was adapted from the structure of the Realm Tree."
"You mean this table is alive and it's part of the tree?"
"Yes, Woorawa. As I mentioned, these shelters are the work of the Tree Managers. Under the guidance of our hosts they keep the Realm Trees healthy and functional."
Tan regarded Ranevargar with renewed awe.
"Krol and the Panthers came from you?"
"Yes. I had great vigour in earlier times, Tan. Krol leads my air guardians and Gryl oversees creatures of the land."
"What about water creatures then? Krol and Gryl can't watch over them."
"A perceptive thought, Tan. Yes, I do indeed have Water Guardians and if the opportunity presents itself you will meet them."
The two sets of images appearing in everyone's minds lit up Tan’s face.
"Dolphins? They’re sort of like dolphins, and the big ones are something like killer whales with different colour patterns. I love dolphins but I've never seen a real one so I hope we do get a chance to see them."
The information coming with the images showed the bigger ones guarding the sea and the smaller ones looking after the freshwater lakes.
"Tell me what happened when you reached Kieran's home with intact memories, Woorawa. I suspect your Elders must have given you some manner of protection."
"My uncle did teach me special chants and they help when Kieran and I have mind battles. It was really strange when I arrived because no one even knew Rhys except as a vague memory, and Kieran went all weird when I showed him Rhys's picture."
The conversation continued with descriptions of everything that had happened till the arrival at the waterfall and Ranevargar very politely asked if it was possible to experience what happened with Woorawa's campfire ceremonies. That meant leaving the tree shelter and gathering several hundred metres away where someone had collected a pile of dry timber. It was quite a gathering too, with Griffins, all the Panthers who’d travelled with them, along with their four hosts and Ranevargar, all watching while Woorawa put his energy and spirit into a dance showing the bravery of the three Griffins, the sadness when Krol was wounded, and the joy when he first stretched his wings after Rhys and Kieran's healing. When it ended Ranevargar surprised Woorawa with the same apparently formal touch of recognition he'd used with the Panthers and everyone else jolted with the shock of ten powerful Griffin voices piercing the night with a chorus of acclamation.
Ranevargar spread his hands toward the campfire and Kieran couldn't help backing away when flames leapt higher with a great whoosh and formed into a giant glowing Griffin with showers of sparks cascading spectacularly all round, and incandescent red eyes tracking Rhys's scramble for safety. The fiery head inclined to Rhys, and then to Kieran, and the whole thing collapsed to nothing.
Rhys looked wonderingly at Ranevargar.
"Did you really shape the flames or was it one of Kieran's mind tricks?"
"A memory for you, Rhys, lacking the genius of Woorawa's motion and spirit, but adding to his tribute."
He left Rhys's question unanswered and sat cross-legged with a nod indicating everyone should join him. Rhys dropped to the ground then laughed when Gryl crouched near and butted his head against his side.
"Can you make up a dance for Gryl and the Panthers, Woorawa? I think he’s feeling left out."
Gryl wasn't, but now that he'd been challenged Woorawa would come up with something.
For the next while Ranevargar watched while the group involved themselves in a run through of the mental exercises Woorawa had built into a routine. It wasn't just watching though because as soon as he understood a purpose he would join in or show a more effective technique. Everyone had happily agreed for both Kieran and Ranevargar to mentally watch their efforts and Kieran was astonished at the deft way Ranevargar was putting images in his friend’s minds and nudging their efforts to more effectiveness. He was learning far more for himself though, and when he wondered how Ranevargar could do so many things with so little effort the clear mind voice of their first meeting sounded with a touch of amusement in his head.
"These skills should be easy for me, Kieran. I have had millennia of practice. Follow my pattern and speak directly to Tan. When you succeed with him the others will follow easily."
Tan's face lit up, and then again when Kieran followed Ranevargar's message with one of his own.
"That feels unreal, Kieran. Are the others hearing it too?"
Rhys, Mr B and Woorawa looked at him curiously then one by one registered their own surprise as Kieran practised this new way of communication. Rhys loved it and, thinking it was completely private, made a very personal suggestion which sent the blood rushing to Kieran's face.
"Rhys, Ranevargar’s teaching me how to do this and he can hear everything."
Rhys wasn't even one bit embarrassed, though he did look for Ranevargar's reaction. Kieran's own check found a matter-of-fact acceptance and a hint of approval. Approval?
"Of course, Kieran. It is an expression of the powerful bond you share."
Rhys spoke up.
"You’re talking about me aren't you?"
Ranevargar nodded and when Rhys turned to him with his special smile, Kieran realised there’d been a private communication he hadn't heard. There was still a lot more to learn about this mind speaking.
"Show Ranevargar how you make a flame without the Opal, Kieran. That's one of the hardest things for you and he might be able to see if you’re doing something wrong, or if there’s a better technique."
"Without an energy source, Woorawa? That can't be right."
"He can, but it's so hard we make him practice."
Woorawa passed a twig across and Kieran, focusing to build a hotspot, jumped with surprise at the cry of alarm and the wave of negation flooding his mind.
"Kieran, that process is extremely dangerous. Eighteen centuries ago it's misuse caused the death of a Realm Lord and most of his subjects."
"Energy must come from somewhere and you are drawing on the life force of your own body. A continued drain could leave you insensible and even incapacitated. I don't understand how you can do this."
"Rhys just gives me a booster zap and I'm okay again ... You think we should stop practising this?"
Kieran watched a great swirl of thought mix with astonishment and concern.
"... I advise you so but I really don't know. At the very least you should make sure Rhys is always present and ready to help ... Show me how you order the flow of energy from your artefact. I wonder if it might be protecting you without your knowledge."
Rhys grabbed Kieran's bare arm, the boost happened, and then Kieran switched the Opal energy in and out several times for Ranevargar.
"Extraordinary! Would you be happy for me to examine your artefact, Kieran? It is very much a puzzle."
Without hesitation Kieran unclasped the chain, handed the Opal over, and watched Ranevargar close his eyes. Seeing this concentration, everyone sat quietly for several minutes. Kieran, watching with his unique access to Ranevargar's mind, tried, with little understanding, to follow what was happening. There was a sense of probing, a small flow of energy from the Opal which turned to a blue glow round Ranevargar's hands, then a larger flow when the blue brightened and extended to envelop all of Kieran. Most surprising of all for Kieran, just before Ranevargar opened his eyes, was the impression of a link between the Opal and something else. While Kieran reclasped the chain he watched Ranevargar's unfathomable thought change to a far more comfortable state of puzzlement overlaid with wonder
"Your artefact is a new thing for me, Kieran. It has the appearance and all the qualities of what we call a Stone of Power, but it is far more than that and I sensed strength at a level beyond my reach."
Ranevargar smiled and reached inside his tunic.
"Yes, Tan. I can explain a Stone of Power and, indeed, show you mine."
He undid the lacing of a little pouch then extended his hand so everyone could view the beautiful white sphere glistening in his palm.
"And yes, it is a pearl, a beautiful pearl which came from the human world at the time of separation."
"You used to live with humans before you came here?"
"Not personally, Tan. The separation happened thousands of years before my time, but we did live on Earth till our ways clashed with the rest of humanity and we had to leave."
"Elves are really humans? That doesn't make sense to me. We don't live for a thousand years or build plants with our bare hands … though there was a guy called Methuselah who was meant to live for ages."
"That was exactly the problem, Rhys. When our people developed new knowledge of the human mind and started unlocking some of its deep abilities, ordinary people were taught to fear the difference and a great persecution forced our adepts to build a refuge. The six Realms of Faerie are the result."
"Six? ... We've seen the Spook place and Dead World and yours, so what are the others?"
"Your memories tell me you arrived in the Realm of Maynor, a Lord of great power, and we call your Dead World the Unordered or Lost Realm.
Lady Narello has closed the borders to her Realm and in recent times directed her subjects to study the arts of Chaos.
Lord Uirebon's Realm is a peaceful and pleasantly structured place, mostly dedicated to learning and the recovery of old knowledge.
The Gateway Realm is the pinnacle Elven achievement, the only passageway to your world, and controlled by the High King because of its importance."
Ranevargar reached his open hand to Kieran.
"A Stone of Power is linked to the structure of each Realm and the High King entrusts an Elf lord of suitable strength and standing with its use. Examine mine, Kieran. You will find it enlightening."
Kieran stared at the glistening orb resting in his palm and gently tested its surface with the pointer finger of his other hand.
"It's so smooth and beautiful, Ranevargar, and the colour is really interesting. At first it was pure white but when I look closely there’s a tinge of green."
Rhys leaned his head closer.
"No there's not. You’re seeing things, Kieran. There’s a reddish colour reflecting on the side near the campfire but there’s no ... Hey! There is green. I can see it now."
Kieran didn't answer because his fingers tingled and a soft green glow followed the spread of a familiar sensation through his arm.
"Why is it green, Ranevargar? This is exactly what happened the first time I held my Opal, except it was blue."
"Green manifests naturally when energy is drawn from my Pearl. I believed you would sense the power within, but somehow you have started an activation as well. Pass it around to see any other reactions."
Kieran gave the Pearl to Rhys, quickly, because a sense of unease was rising in Ranevargar's mind. Unease? Understanding flashed when he remembered his own violent reaction when the outsider was accessing his Opal and trying to take it away.
"Sorry, Ranevargar. I didn't realise what I was doing."
"Nothing happens for me. I feel like I'm holding something precious but there’s no green.
"I don't know how that was possible for you, Kieran, but my shocked sense of propriety is now controlled. We should study this further at some stage."
"You mean Kieran might be able to get energy from this Pearl the same way he does from his Opal?"
"There is no might about it, Mr B. We saw it start to happen. Somehow he established a connection despite my Pearl being uniquely aligned to me. If he put his mind to it he would be able to call on the limited energy it has available."
Woorawa was holding the Pearl now, but he stopped examining it while he asked his own question.
"That’s a big difference then, because Kieran’s Opal gives him whatever he needs. It seems like the more he uses it the more he can get out of it."
"Yes, Woorawa, and even the properties I do recognise and understand add to its mysterious nature. The energy stored in a Stone of Power comes from the one source of energy which powers the very existence of the Realms. We call it the Nexus and without it the Realms would dissolve into the Chaos they hold at bay."
"Chaos? The way you say it makes it sound like a real thing instead of a mix-up."
"It's very real, Rhys. You felt it's touch each time you entered one of the Boundaries."
"Chaos is a good name then. The Wall makes you feel like you’re going crazy."
Tan was holding the Pearl now and he had his own question.
"How does the energy get into it, Ranevargar?"
"I put it there, Tan, but it is more complicated than that. The basic structure and maintenance of a Realm is an automatic function of the Nexus but the overlay of purpose and design comes from excess energy which the High King controls and directs. The demands for that energy are in ceaseless contention and my Realm has little importance in the concerns of the High Court. I am limited with how much I can store for personal use."
"That's unfair. Why don't you build your own Nexus gadget and have as much energy as you like?"
Kieran watched the flow of surprise in Ranevargar's mind as, quite taken aback, he considered this idea of Tan’s.
"What an extraordinary idea, Tan .... The possibilities would be endless ... Tempting and at the same time fraught with complication and difficulty. It would completely change the working of all Faerie. It can't happen though. The knowledge of how to construct a Nexus passed with the adepts at the time of separation."
"Tan always has good ideas, but if you really need more energy this one seems like common sense to me."
"Common sense would be of little concern to the Realm Lords, Rhys. The struggle between them for power and influence is never-ending and only controlled by their reliance on the Nexus energy the High King distributes. A new source of power would disrupt the balance of all Faerie."
"Are they all bad?"
"Not bad, Rhys. Highly ambitious is a more accurate way to describe them, especially Lady Narello and Lord Maynor. Lord Uirebon holds his Realm by virtue of knowledge and the friendship of the High King."
"What about the High King then? Is he ambitious too?"
"Very much so, Rhys. The position of High King is one of strength and can be challenged for at any time. Aglaron has held his position for 1200 years and held off two such attempts with relative ease. His ambition is tempered by long experience and the integrity I have already mentioned."
"Would you ever think of being High King if you had the extra power?"
Ranevargar gave Woorawa a penetrating look before answering.
"That is a deep question, young Woorawa. Through the experiences and considerations of my long life I have learnt that my deepest fulfilment comes when I use my special gift for guarding and guiding the life in my care. The mantle of a High King is broad but, while bestowing great power and opportunity, it also demands endless attention to management of the ambition and will of others. Good kingship is a wonderful achievement but not, in the long term, suited to the outlook and abilities that make me who I am."
"I think you’d be a wonderful High King."
"My nature would have to change and I would lose my independence, Rhys."
In the silence that followed, Tan returned the Pearl and Ranevargar replaced it in its pouch. Woorawa put a few more sticks of wood on the campfire and Rhys unconsciously rubbed the fur on Gryl's neck. Kieran tried to follow the contemplation of Ranevargar's mind but it was too rapid and complicated. Ranevargar's moment of introspection ended.
"Kieran, before I share my thoughts on your situation I would like to help Tan and Woorawa overcome their sadness and concern for the worries of their people at home."
Kieran jolted with surprise. He'd comforted Tan as best he could. They all had.
"How can you do that? I told Tan I could make him forget, but that would be awful."
"Of course, but you found Rhys across the boundaries between your home and the Realms, so you should be able to do the same with Tan's people."
"I don't know them. I can't locate anyone unless I know them in my mind."
"They are so strong in Tan’s mind you can use him as a pathway to send a message of well-being. We will practice with Rhys and Krol so the process is clear in your mind before you try the distant reach. Their bond is strong and immediate and will help you see the pattern."
With Ranevargar's help Kieran was soon able to make indirect contact with Krol. It needed Rhys's cooperation by putting Krol at the forefront of his thoughts, but that was easy and Kieran quickly grew confident with the process.
"Are you ready to try, Tan?"
"What do I have to do?"
"Exactly what you saw Rhys just do. Concentrate on your family as hard as you can and tell them you’re alive and well."
"Will you put my voice in their minds? That would be very strange or even frightening."
Kieran had a quick back-and-forth with Ranevargar before answering.
"No voices, Tan. Ranevargar says they’ll just suddenly know with great certainty that you’re alive and well but out of touch. Is that all right?"
It was more than all right and when Tan's thoughts abruptly overflowed with powerful memories of his family Kieran linked to follow them. There was nothing ... No, that wasn't right. There was something but following it was blocked.
"Help! What do I do, Ranevargar? It's too hard and I can't get through."
"You needed your Opal to reach Rhys. Recall how you did that and apply it again."
Kieran felt like kicking himself for not thinking properly as he moved beside Tan and held his hands for the physical contact that he now remembered had helped so much when he needed to reach Rhys. Yes, the tiny trace of link strengthened and he called on the Opal. No, it was still too hard.
"Rhys, help me please. I need your touch to keep us going."
Rhys rushed to make a three-way hand contact. Kieran called the Opal once again then after a few seconds gasped with relief.
"It worked, Tan. Could you tell?"
Tan nodded with a smile of gratitude which touched everyone.
"Astonishing! Now you should do the same for Woorawa and his uncle."
Kieran nodded so Woorawa knew it would happen.
"When I’ve recovered, Ranevargar. That was really hard ... What do you have to tell us?"
"I have no explanation for much of what has happened, Kieran, but what I do see gives me great concern for your well-being. Rhys's portage to the realms can only have occurred with the express consent of Aglaron, the High King, while your arrival at the two Realm Trees near Lord Maynor’s castle implies his involvement as well. The persistent pursuit indicates that Rhys, at the very least, is wanted for some matter involving the two most powerful individuals in all of Faerie.
Never let your shields down, Kieran, especially that unique function which hides your existence. I received news earlier that a number of Coursers crossed our boundaries late this afternoon and flew as if guided in a search."
"What are Coursers like? Not flying Spooks I hope."
"What a thought! No, Rhys. You befriended two till your first encounter with a Boundary frightened them away."
"They’ve sent Eagles to look for us? Can you stop them? It's your Realm."
"I could, Rhys, but that would be a poor strategy. If I thwart the High King’s will he'll want to know why, and if he questions me formally I will be bound to reveal your presence."
"What? ... Why? ... You said you’d protect us."
"And I'll do my best, Rhys, but if your presence here is a matter concerning the High Court I will be bound by my oath of fealty to accede to his will."
"Wow! That makes things complicated for you."
"Complication is a game I am very good at, Rhys, and tomorrow we will play it to the full."
There was silence at this surprising statement till Rhys laughed.
"Against the High King?"
"Yes, Rhys, unless he formally demands my assistance. I don't have enough strength to send you home but I do know I can show Kieran many things which might help you on your way."
Kieran saw an associated image of the Realm Trees and asked aloud for everyone else's benefit.
"The Realm Trees might help us? How could that be?"
"I developed them as a means of instant transport, Kieran, and tomorrow I will show you how to use them."
"Yes, Rhys, like the portal which brought you, but limited to the locations of the groves."
"You mean people can simply jump from one set of Realm Trees to another?"
"It's not at all simple, Rhys, and before Kieran arrived I'd have said only a Realm Lord would be able to access the energy and knowledge required."
"You mean Kieran’s as strong as one of these Realm Lords?"
"Strange question, Tan. Of course he is. His Opal was involved but he forced at least two of them from his mind and carried you all through a portal."
"I really meant that your comparison sort of feels like you think he might be one himself."
"He can't be a Realm Lord. All five positions have been stable for centuries, but many of his abilities do seem to suggest a connection with Faerie, and even the possibility that he comes from one of the Realms."
"What? That's crazy. Kieran could be an elf? I don't believe it."
"There is enough mystery about Kieran to make it unlikely, Rhys, but I don't discount the possibility."
"Wow, Kieran! We all know you’re a weirdo, and now you’re a mystery too. What are the mystery bits, Ranevargar?"
Ranevargar watched Kieran give Rhys a whack in the ribs before answering.
"Well, the friendly way he puts up with being called a ‘weirdo’ could be classed as a mystery, Rhys, but otherwise I'd point to his astonishing affinity with animals, the ability to draw on his own life force, apparently without any lasting ill effect, and his mastery with mind shields."
"But Rhys is a mystery too, isn't he, with his magic hands?"
"Yes, Kieran. Healing is a highly respected art through all the Realms but Rhys's touch is beyond anything I have ever encountered."
"So now we've got two weirdos. Does that mean Rhys might be an elf too?"
"All five of you are unusual in some way, Woorawa, but I see Rhys as the least likely to have any connection with the Realms. Apart from his mighty spirit he has almost no resistance to an elf probe."
Kieran smiled at Rhys's awkward look and felt especially happy to see the others doing the same and nodding in agreement.
"The rest of us aren't really unusual, Ranevargar. Why did you say that?"
Ranevargar gestured to the campfire again. The flames rose and for a few seconds formed a life-sized image of Woorawa dramatically posed as he’d been at the end of his Krol dance.
"There is mystery and the power to touch the soul in the story of your movement, Woorawa. It can only be classed as unusual, and apart from that there is a sense of ancient otherness overlaying the thoughts you have shared with me.
Tan appears normal till he speaks or thinks and unique perceptions are presented.
Mr B is a puzzle too. The structures of his mind closely match those I see in Kieran but he has no unusual abilities."
"Another difference you all share, Kieran, is the attraction of like-for-like. I say this in private because Woorawa and Tan have not quite acknowledged this for themselves."
"Everyone? Mr B too?"
A touch of amusement entered this very private conversation.
"As you very well know, Kieran. Your study sessions were partially motivated by the mutual attraction you feel."
"I’m with Rhys now."
"Of course, but your bond with Mr B is powerful and I advise you to consider whether exclusivity is the wisest course."
That was too big an idea and Kieran switched thoughts.
"Are you sure about Woorawa and Tan? The likelihood that all of us are the same must be very, very low."
"I am sure, Kieran, and I suspect a subconscious recognition of widderkin is a big part of why you drew them into your circle."
"The term used in the Realms ... More later, Kieran. Woorawa has an interesting comment."
After the pause while Kieran and Ranevargar looked fixedly at each other, Woorawa agreed.
"That makes sense too, because when we first saw the White Wall Mr B and Kieran couldn't look at it till Kieran worked out how. It didn't affect the rest of us till we got close. Mr B’s unreal at swimming too, just like Kieran, but that probably doesn't mean anything."
Ranevargar hesitated and Kieran watched his churning thoughts.
"It possibly could, Woorawa, but I'd have to access the deeper levels of their minds for more certainty."
"Go ahead, Ranevargar. If it might help then we should."
Rhys laughed and gave Kieran a cheeky arm bump.
"If you go deep into Kieran's mind you'll probably never get over it."
Kieran bumped him back.
"Look who's talking."
"Kieran has already invited me deeper into his mind than any of you, Rhys, and it certainly is very unusual, especially when he’s thinking about you."
Rhys didn't know what to make of that and then was more puzzled when Kieran grabbed his hand.
"What? Do you want me to be part of it?"
"No, Rhys. I want you to help us contact Burrimul. I've had enough of a break and that should happen before we do anything else."
Woorawa scrambled eagerly to get between Kieran and Rhys so they could all be in physical contact, and after some drama when the blue glow surrounded all three of them, Kieran collapsed sideways against Woorawa.
"Quick, hands on his temples, Rhys. He's tried too hard."
Kieran lifted his head.
"It won't make any difference, Woorawa. My mind needs a rest, not my body. That was way harder than it was with Tan and we nearly didn't make it. You did feel it work though, didn't you?"
"Yes. It's kind of amazing."
"What happened, Ranevargar? Could you see why it was different?"
"I don't know how you managed that last push, Kieran. But it appears that Woorawa's uncle must have an even greater natural resistance to intrusion than Woorawa does. My counsel now is for immediate sleep and recovery."
"What about the mind stuff with Kieran and Mr B? You were going to do that next."
"It's not a passive process, Rhys, and Kieran's resources are momentarily too low. Take him to the shelter and make sure he gets to sleep without delay. I will work with Mr B who has decided to stay."
There had been more to the private contact but the idea of sleep was suddenly so attractive Kieran wondered if it was Ranevargar's doing.
"Maybe. Rest well!"