The early start wasn’t nearly as early as planned because Kieran slept in and only woke when Rhys sat on his stomach and told him he was a lazy slug. He didn't move because being sat on like this felt good and it took a few chest and stomach pokes, as well as the realisation that the other three were waiting and watching from beside the campfire, to make him sit up.
"Lazybones! Go and help Woorawa and Tan get some fish ready for our breakfast while Mr B and I look after George and the other horses."
"Everyone’s up? Why didn't you wake me?"
Kieran dodged another chest poke.
"We all agreed you need more beauty sleep than the rest of us."
Feeling slightly guilty, but not really, Kieran got organised and only twenty minutes later their breakfast was cooking and the Eagles were eagerly attacking the two small fish he’d given them.
"Why so small, Kieran? They can eat a lot more than that."
"And then they’d need a recovery time to digest it all, Tan, and I want to send them up for a good look round before we set off."
"Did anyone hear anything while they were on watch?"
Woorawa answered that.
"Nothing, Kieran. I checked that with everyone as soon we got up."
Mr B and Rhys finished putting all the saddle things on the horses and hurried to the campfire for their food and after that it wasn't long before the freshly mounted expedition was underway.
Woorawa was stopped and waiting for Kieran to draw in next to him.
"Are you all right, Kieran?"
"Yes, of course. Why?"
"I'm starting to feel weird when I look at it, so I wondered if it's getting stronger and having an extra effect on you and Mr B."
Kieran looked at the strange barrier ahead with a mixture of unease and curiosity, while Tan and Mr B caught up and joined them.
"It's way stronger, Woorawa, but I've strengthened the sight switch thing for both of us and it can't get through. Is it starting to give you a mind-eating feeling?"
"No, I can put up with it, but it gives me a strange feeling that I need to focus on the trail or a tree or something close to make sure I'm not daydreaming."
Kieran looked for Tan's reaction.
"That's sort of what it's like for me too, Kieran, except that my brain keeps telling me it's not even there and I have to keep looking to prove that it is ... What are we going to do now, go straight toward it or stay with the trail?"
Kieran's inclination was to leave the trail which was veering as if to follow parallel to the Wall, but he looked to Woorawa as the default leader while they travelled.
"I think we should keep to the track for a while. It was obviously made to head for the Wall so there must be a reason for turning."
"It's turning the wrong way, Woorawa. It's heading left, away from the water and we shouldn't go much longer without a drink ... Especially the horses."
Woorawa shook his head in annoyance.
"I'm glad we've got your common sense here, Tan. I should have thought of that. I wonder why there's no side track branching off?"
Mr B turned his horse in the creek direction.
"I think there is, Woorawa, but it's very faint."
Woorawa edged past the other horses so he could see properly.
"Hey, you’re right ... Let's water the horses and have a big drink for ourselves before we go on. We'd be silly not to, Kieran, and the creek won't be very far ... Unless the Eagles can see a different water source along the main track?"
Kieran was startled with the realisation that he’d left the Eagles cruising at their own whim for quite a while without checking them.
"Whoo! I think you just snapped us out again, Tan. The Wall’s giving us brain fog and you've seen through it the same way you did for the fear fog. Hang on while I bring the Eagles for a closer look."
Kieran turned directly away from the wall to where he knew the Eagles were circling and directed them to come close. Hmm! They were quite a way away.
"They’re coming but they'll take a few minutes because they've separated more from us than usual."
Woorawa swivelled to stare at the Wall.
"Brain fog, hey? Well, that's my excuse for not noticing the faint trail or thinking about how important it is to keep hydrated. If we’d been thinking properly we’d have had the Eagles checking ahead like we did all yesterday."
Everyone turned at this involuntary exclamation from Kieran which had nothing to do with Woorawa's observations, then looked to the sky where he was staring.
"They’re coming but they don't want to. I had to reinforce their commands."
"It's because of the Wall isn't it, Kieran? They don't like it?"
... No, they don't, and now that I'm looking I can see that it's in their subconscious to keep away."
"Why haven't the horses reacted then? It would make sense for them to keep away too."
Kieran shook his head in annoyance once again with the realisation that the horses also hadn't had a proper check for ages.
"They have reacted, Tan, but I've automatically been keeping them calm. The Wall’s having sneak effects and the closer we get the worse they seem to be. Woorawa, lead the way to the creek please. We’re going to refresh ourselves then get properly prepared before we get close to this Wall."
Two piercing calls sounded and everyone raised their head to look at the approaching Eagles.
"They’re not happy at all. Tan, call them to land on your shoulders. They'll be calmer there than anywhere else till I work out what to do for them."
"While I'm sitting on my horse? We haven't done that before."
"Don't worry. They think of the horses as part of our group."
There was no time to worry anyway because the big female was already landing and as soon as her wings were folded, so did the male. Woorawa led the way again, and in only a few minutes the horses were drinking from a very placid pool of water. The friends did the same then sat together for a break.
"We'll have a group refresh, please, before we do anything else. We don't want to be making decisions while we’re affected by this Wall fog."
Rhys laughed when everyone automatically extended a hand to touch him, and then the smile expanded with the surging burst of well-being.
"Can you tell if the Wall is making you call on the Opal more than you usually do, Kieran?"
The healing burst was now completely automatic for Kieran and he had to replay it in his mind to tell.
"I can't tell, Mr B. It was a bit extra but that could be because we’re all tired from two hours of travel."
"Are there any fish here, Kieran?"
"It's only just over two hours since we had breakfast, Woorawa."
"I know, but if we’re going to head away from the creek we should fill up while we’ve got the chance."
Kieran looked to where the Wall rose in the sky.
"I’ve changed my mind about that and I want to head directly there from here. It's only about five hundred metres and there’s no point in putting off finding out what it is."
Everyone joined in contemplating the incredible phenomenon.
"It gets spookier every time I look. Kieran, that's a double reason for stopping to eat then, because you said you wanted to be prepared. It’ll only take us half an hour if we get straight into our routine."
Kieran cast his mind to the pool with the fish pattern and was quite surprised with the result.
"That's weird. There aren't any fish."
Tan shook his head.
"I don't think it's weird at all. The Eagles and the horses don't like being here so it’ll be the same for any other animals."
"And the horses haven't eaten any grass. They’re just standing there looking at us. If there’s nothing to eat we should go now."
Woorawa was right and as soon as everyone was remounted he led the way through a gap in the creek-side vegetation. Kieran told Tan to call the Eagles to his shoulders again where their sense of security would be increased. The way got easier, with less and less vegetation till, eventually, with a growing sense of unease, the group stopped to survey the last desolate stretch of ground.
"This is scary, Kieran. Are we going right up to it?"
"Yes, look over there, Woorawa. The creek goes into it so if we follow that we’ll be staying with water and fish."
"No way would fish go through there, Kieran. I don't think I'm game to get much closer."
Kieran turned from the strange shimmering wall to take in the worried looks of all his friends and realised there'd be no progress without some kind of special assistance. For some reason he had a sense that this daunting barrier would provide information to help them understand their situation and lead them to a way home. What to do? Confidence was easy. That could happen with a switch in their minds, as long as he asked first, and staying close would help too.
"I really think we need to explore this, Tan. If you don't feel game enough I can keep you feeling calm like I do for the horses and the eagles.
Tan look shocked.
"Control my mind? No way, Kieran. I'd feel weak every time I thought about it."
Kieran looked to Woorawa, Mr B and Rhys for their thoughts and received the same strong negation from each of them.
Woorawa spoke up strongly.
"We have to keep together, Kieran, but I think it's important that we all stay independent in our minds, especially Tan, because his special way of looking at things has helped us get through two tricky situations already."
Kieran sat silently for a moment before nodding.
"Well, I can still help. Bring the horses next to each other and we’ll all link together by holding hands in a chain, and while we move forward I’ll use the Opal to make a special protection for us."
Woorawa was puzzled.
"What? Something different to our ordinary shields?"
"I'm not exactly sure, Woorawa, but remember how we all joined up just before we got transported to be with Rhys? I think it's because we were touching that we all came."
They'd talked about this theory a number of times and were pretty much in full agreement with it.
"Makes a lot of sense to me, and with the ground all clear of vegetation the horses can stay in formation all the way."
The horses were quickly manoeuvred next to each other and Kieran reached both arms out, to hold hands with Tan on one side and Woorawa on the other. Mr B joined with Woorawa and, after a pause while the Eagles were calmed and reassured in their position on Tan's shoulders, the group started forward.
A blue glow crept through the linked hands and spread over everyone and a smile sneaked through Tan’s frown of concentration.
"Is this a dramatic show to help boost our confidence, Kieran? Coloured light won't really protect us from anything."
"It's not just coming from me. The Opal’s doing something extra."
"I haven’t got a clue, Tan, but it's way different to a normal glow."
At a steady pace the compact group approached the dizzying expanse of tortured nothingness. The distance impression of a White Wall was long gone and every set of eyes was wrenched between the need to pull meaning from the strangely hypnotic spectacle and the need to stay with reality by averting their gaze.
Rhys still thought of it as an aurora, but without any colour.
Woorawa thought of it as a kind of anti-glow, an expanse of vacuum which sucked in any colour instead of giving it out.
Tan had a strange feeling, more accurate than anyone else, that it was like an interface where everything that was real suddenly stopped.
Kieran and Mr B shared the impression, the moment they looked away, that the barrier wasn't even there, and then a powerful sense of wrongness when they returned their gaze.
The closer they got the harder it became to define an actual boundary and by the time they were passing a small hump in the ground that had previously appeared to be quite separate to the Wall, the sense of distance was practically non-existent.
Kieran kept everyone moving despite seeing they all wanted to stop, and with each step forward, sent more and more assurance and calm to the horses and the Eagles. The complex network of protective mind shields started a strange reaction and when he made a new call on the Opal to strengthen them, the reaction increased and the blue glow surrounding them all flared red and thickened.
Startled as he was by the dramatic nature of this unexpected effect, understanding that it was a help traced the compounding effect of holding everything together with an instant positivity. That was lost though, along with almost everything else, when, with piercing screams of pure fear, the two Eagles launched and vanished from his mind. Reality dissolved and for an indeterminate period all he knew was a vast sense of pressure raging against the sea of fiery red glow being fed by a torrent of Opal energy. Whether by their own unmindful movement or some function of the Wall, the pressure suddenly dissipated to comparative nothingness and Kieran battled his reeling senses to gain a semblance of recovery.
Fear filled his mind. Everyone was gone. No! That was just from his mind. The strength of Rhys's grip round his waist and the tight hold on his hands by Tan and Woorawa said otherwise, and with a great rush of relief he re-established their presence in his mind and rebuilt the network of mind shields. The four horses, bereft of any calming influence, plunged forward and broke the chain of physical contact linking their riders. Kieran instinctively pushed to keep the protective red glow in place then relaxed when it subsided and turned his mind to controlling the horses. He dispelled their panic, then, when their rush had built enough distance from the wall, slowed them to a walk and brought them all together. The silent moment of shared disbelief at what had happened was broken when Woorawa patted his chest and legs.
"Am I still me? I got ripped apart then put together again. Kieran, that was even worse than when we got carried to Rhys. What did you do? Are you all right?"
"I don't know what I did but it worked. It was mostly the Opal."
Tan's twisting and turning to look in all directions made everyone else do the same.
"Gods, Kieran! Wherever we are now … it's awful ... And the Eagles are gone."
There was more silence while they took in the desolate terrain.
"It was bare like this on the other side, Rhys. When we get further away there’ll be plants again."
"It's not the same, Kieran. That hill is at least four hundred metres and there's not even one plant in sight."
"And we've lost the Eagles so we haven't got our lookouts anymore."
"I'm sorry, Tan. I couldn't keep hold when they panicked."
"Sorry? That's crazy, Kieran. You got the rest of us through whatever that was safely ... Look over there. We've got a much bigger problem."
Kieran followed where a very worried looking Tan was pointing and wondered what he meant. It was just bare ground, no different to anywhere else around them.
"We came through here to stay with the creek but it’s gone. There's no water."
There was no sign that a creek or even a watercourse had even existed, just open ground, gently sloping upwards towards the hill.
Tan’s worried frown was now shared.
"Let's head to the top of that hill, Kieran. We can think better when we’re further away from the Wall. I’m extra worried that there’s no sign of any plants because without them there can't be food and that’s big trouble ... Are all our shields working properly?"
"I lost them completely again, Woorawa, but I remembered this time and put them back first thing, even before I calmed the horses."
With a come-along sign to everyone Kieran jigged George into motion and headed for the hilltop.
"This is a disaster, Kieran. What you want to do?"
With growing dismay the whole group had examined the desolate plain ahead of them for any sign or feature of hope. Extending way into the distance to where a dark range of mountains rose abruptly in contrast with the wide expanse of flatness broken only by an occasional small, barren hill, the whole scene appeared to be void of life.
"We can't reach those mountains, Woorawa. Even with a proper trail for the horses they’d be days and days away, and there’s no food or water. The whole place is dead and we’ll have to go back through the Wall. There's no choice. We’ll starve if we stay here."
"No we won't. We'll die of thirst first. There's not even one plant out there."
"That's not funny, Rhys."
"I'm not being funny, Tan. I'm being serious. Staying here’s not an option."
"...There must be plants somewhere or there wouldn't be any air."
"Well it might take weeks to get there ... I hope you know how to make that red protection thing again, Kieran. Was it very hard to do?"
"I hope so too, Rhys. It really came from the Opal when the Wall got dangerous. I'll have a few practice tries before we go."
"We'll have to go soon. George and the other horses don't like it here."
“I'm watching them, Rhys. They’re okay. They’re just standing close and watching us because there's no grass and they’re expecting us to find some. We’ll leave when I sort a few things out in my mind."
"What's that mean? Is there something you haven't told us?"
"No, Tan. I just want a break before I think about the Wall and getting through it again."
Woorawa was immediately concerned.
"A recovery break, or a thinking break, Kieran? You said you were all right when you stopped the horses?"
"A quiet break while I think, and then some kind of practice in about ten or fifteen minutes. The Wall’s kind of overwhelming and I want to psych myself up before we try it again."
"Kind of overwhelming! That's a total understatement if ever I heard one, Kieran. Take as long as you like. I could psych myself for a week and I'd still be too chicken."
"Don't talk about chickens, Tan. It makes me think how good a roast one would taste instead of more fish."
After fifteen minutes of quiet introspection Kieran arranged everyone in a circle with their hands joined and practised making the fiery red protection till he was confident he had it fixed properly in his mind. Woorawa, as usual, kept asking for the ins and outs of Kieran's thinking and making suggestions the way he did for ordinary practice sessions. Kieran liked this because quite often it worked as a type of foil to settle things more clearly in his mind.
"No, the colour’s not coming from me. It's like the Opal takes over or reacts on its own when I let myself sense the Wall."
"I wonder if colour means anything? Try turning it back to blue and see what happens."
"Um ... That doesn't feel right, Woorawa, but I'll try it."
A minute later they knew it was bad news to interfere with the red.
"Okay everyone, mount up. I think I’m ready for this."
"Yay! I hate going through that Wall but it’ll just about be worth it to get away from this dump."
Rhys calling it a dump was another understatement in everyone's mind, but it did tinge the apprehension for the coming ordeal with a trace of humour, and the group was quickly heading back down the hill. Rhys kept the atmosphere light for a while longer by raving about devouring roast chickens and eating fish and chips without the chips but then the growing sense of oppression became too strong. The Wall was still about two hundred metres away when Kieran stopped George in his tracks and turned to face the other way. Everyone else did the same of course and Rhys tightened his hold around Kieran's waist.
"What is it?"
"The Opal’s giving me a weird sensation. I think there’s something coming."
All the other horses were now turned in the same direction.
"From the top of the hill? There can't be, Kieran. We could see for miles and there was nothing alive."
Kieran didn't answer that. The weird sensation was stronger and compounding with alarm.
"I think we should ..."
The four horses bolted, screaming with bloodcurdling calls of fear. Kieran, fighting to keep his balance, reacted with more strength than he'd ever needed to calm the panic and stay their movement.
First George, and then the others responded and, turning to face the hill, Kieran had a few brief seconds to take in the monster coursing low towards them. Metre upon metre of widespread wings, and huge talons grasped forward in hunting readiness, registered with a mingle of shock, disbelief, fear, and almost panic in the brief time before Tan and his mount were struck a terrible blow and knocked fifteen metres to one side in a cartwheeling mass of newly screaming horseflesh and separated human.
With a thunder of wings the impossible creature descended on the horse as it struggled in agony and the petrified group watched talons take hold and impossibly huge fangs rip a hind leg free.
With a great wrench of purpose Kieran overcame the paralysis of horror and fear and reached to control the lethal storm of anger tearing the poor horse apart. Nothing! Like the Spooks, except not. No mind at all. Just that weird sensation surging from the Opal.
No! No! No! Kieran reached again, harder than he'd ever reached, but there was still nothing and when the thing threw a great gobbet of flesh to one side and looked toward the inert form on the ground close by, a tide of despair started to flow. Horror and dread came with the understanding that the monster’s attention was turning to Tan and there was nothing he could do to stop it. If they didn't run for the Wall while the beast was still rending the poor horse they would all be prey, but how could they leave Tan?.
The awful moment of hesitation while he faced this dilemma was disturbed when the tight grip round his waist vanished and Rhys slid to the ground. There was another moment, this time of utter disbelief, as Kieran took in the lithe form racing at top speed directly at the beast. He reached again, this time for the person who meant so much to him. The insane intention to attack a fierce creature ten times his size must be stopped, even if it meant taking control without consent. Contact was instant, of course, and with it came a great flood of anger, fear for Tan and the rest of them, and purpose. Also with it came the knowledge of his intention, and frightened beyond belief for Rhys, Kieran knew he had to let this happen.
The great beast raised its head to watch the puny creature approach and, in the last moment, as Rhys stopped his rush to prepare himself, lashed almost carelessly with one fierce talon. With a continuation of fluid movement Rhys leapt to one side and, with total purpose, lashed his own weapon. His wrist flicked purposefully and the Spook cord whipped through the air and brushed for an instant against the retreating talon. Fearful in his mind that the delicate cord would have little effect on a creature with so much power, Kieran's hope for even a degree of paralysis was eclipsed by the explosion of light and sound which knocked Rhys flat on his back.
The beast was gone, completely gone, and when Rhys sat up shaking his head to clear it, Kieran released the clamps holding the horses in place and rushed them forward. While they covered the short distance, Rhys ran to kneel by Tan and start checking him.
"Use the Opal, Kieran. I can't see anything wrong but there must be something bad because he’s completely unconscious, and when I straightened him out he felt awful. He’s breathing but."
With a rush of thankfulness that the previous experience of healing Tan had taught him exactly what to do, Kieran built the special healing pool in Rhys's mind and as fast as he poured a torrent of energy into it, it drained through the contact against Tan’s temples.
Rhys groaned and Kieran hurriedly built the little structure that would direct energy to let Rhys keep his own body automatically working at its best. Rhys's eyes opened.
"Thanks, Kieran. Something must be happening because I suddenly felt like I was going to flake out."
"You were, but I've got you balanced now so you can keep going. You’re draining energy like crazy so it must be critical."
Rhys looked at Tan's blank face.
"He hasn't changed. I hope he's all right, Kieran. We’re not too late are we?"
"Shoosh, Rhys! With someone like you protecting him he won’t dare not get better."
Rhys gave a smile which, if not for the demands of the moment, would have turned Kieran into a quivering lump of jelly.
"I had to, Kieran. It seemed like the only hope we had."
Kieran couldn't speak so he covered Rhys's hands where they were held against Tan's temple with his own and leaned forward so their foreheads were touching. After a moment another pair of hands rested on his shoulders and when Kieran looked up he received a gentle nod of approval and assurance from Mr B and another big smile, this time from Woorawa. Tan’s body twitched and Rhys yelled.
"He’s moving! He’s moving!"
"His mind’s coming back. He’s waking up."
Relief coursed through Kieran as the internal signs of awareness that only he could read flickered into existence.
"I think he must have hit his head and got knocked unconscious when he came off the horse, because that's where most of the healing is happening."
Tan stirred again but his eyes didn't open, and for the next few minutes Kieran's whole focus was on refining the technique of strengthening and speeding Rhys’s healing ability that he'd learnt at home with the bruised bone. Tan’s features contorted and with eyes half open he gave a soft, heart-wrenching moan of pain.
"Hold on, Tan. Rhys is healing you and you’re getting better."
Tan didn't reply but before he closed them again, his eyes registered awareness. At the same time Kieran was surprised to sense the healing energy transferring to the top of Tan’s right shoulder. Did that mean his head was better? It must. Fascinated, he made an effort, beyond that of simply helping Rhys increase the healing, to watch how the energy was being distributed. Most of it was now focused in his shoulder area, but there was still a portion going to Tan's head and, as well, another portion centred low in the right side of his chest. Kieran increased the call of energy from the opal and watched the corresponding flow through Rhys's hands increase. Tan’s eyes opened and flickered questioningly between Rhys and Kieran.
"Keep still, Tan. You need more healing."
"What happened? Am I all right? I remember a thing hitting me but it must have been a nightmare. Did I fall off my horse?"
"It wasn't a nightmare. It was real, but it's gone now because Rhys killed it. You got knocked out when you hit the ground and there are a few other injuries too."
"My shoulder’s hot and it hurts ... Rhys killed it? It was too big."
"It's not your shoulder. It's your collarbone and I think it was broken. There's something wrong with your ribs and you had concussion too, but Rhys has fixed that."
"Are Mr B and Woorawa okay? Did anyone else get hurt?"
Mr B spoke up.
"We’re right here, Tan, watching you get better. Rhys saved us all!"
"How do you know so much detail about Tan’s injuries, Kieran? Resting my hands on him makes things happen but I haven't a clue what."
"What you do is beyond me, Rhys, but I've worked out how to follow the energy flow from the Opal and to see where you’re using it. At the moment most of it’s going to Tan's collarbone."
Tan started to move his arm but stopped with a wince of pain.
"Don't move, Tan. It might interfere with Rhys’s healing and it’s bone again so it's going to take a while ... Woorawa, would you go and comfort the horses please. They’re all still trembling after what happened and some personal attention will be good for them."
Tan twisted his head a little but it was held too firmly by Rhys.
"Where’s my horse? Did it get hurt?"
"Don't look, Tan. It saved your life by holding the monsters attention till Rhys dissolved it. You'll have to double up behind Woorawa when we leave."
"Double up? You mean ...?"
"It was horrible but it was all over in the first couple of seconds."
Tan just stared at Rhys for a moment then lifted his left hand across his body and rested it very tentatively on his shoulder.
"Not yet, Tan."
"I'm just checking. It's not hurting as much but it's all hot, much hotter than at home when you fixed my shin bone."
Rhys looked for Kieran to give an explanation.
"That’s all good, Tan. It means the healing’s going faster. Rhys is using lots more energy this time."
"I am? How come I haven't flaked out then?"
"You nearly did at the start. I fixed it so you’re healing yourself all the time."
Tan moved his hand again, this time to explore his rib cage.
"Ouch! I just realised it's all warm there too."
"More healing, Tan. It's good. You'll have other bruises too but they’ll show up later. Rhys’s healing seems to fix the critical things first."
"What was that thing? I remember giant wings and awful teeth and then it hit me."
"I have no idea, Tan. It was a bit like the Spooks because I couldn't find a mind to control, but at least the Spooks didn't want to hurt us. All that thing wanted to do was kill."
"Did you say Rhys dissolved it?"
"He used the Spook rope on it and it exploded."
Tan’s eyes opened wider, which Kieran took as a really good sign.
"You should’ve seen it, Tan. When the rope touched it, it went BOOM and knocked me flat on my back like a ten pin skittle. All that was left was the rope handle. Hey, Mr B, can you go and look for the Spook ropes that were on Tan’s saddle? We’ll need them and I might be helping Tan for ages."
Tan moved his hand back to his shoulder.
"I don't know, Rhys. I think it's healing way faster than the other time. If the heat is good then I think it must be. Feel what it's like, Kieran. It's like there's a radiator in there."
Kieran wanted to keep physical contact with Rhys because it made all his controlling techniques easier. He could manage that with one hand though, so he carefully rested his other hand where Tan was indicating. He took it away in surprise, then returned it. Tan was right. The area was so hot that in normal circumstances it would be described as burning with a fever.
"Wow, Tan! We could cook the fish on that. It's not painful is it?"
Tan managed a smile.
"Don't make me laugh. I think it would hurt ... No it's a weird feeling ... It's too hot and kind of tingling but at the same time it doesn't feel wrong."
Now Rhys was curious.
"Can I use one hand to check it out, Kieran? That won't stop the healing if I keep the other one against Tan’s skin will it?"
"Hmm! That's interesting. It might even work better with your hand close to the injured area. Keep one hand on his forehead so there’s no break in contact and slip the other one under the collar of his shirt."
Rhys did that and was as startled as Kieran had been.
"Holy cow! That's unbelievable ... And my hands are doing that? How much are you calling on the Opal, Kieran? Tan’s shin bone didn't feel like it was cooking."
Kieran checked his mental gauge.
"The Opal’s busy but it's nothing compared to when we went through the wall ... It's easier than when we worked with the bruised bone too. We’re getting better at this, Rhys."
"Ha! You're getting better you mean. All I do is touch. Hey! What's happening? Either it doesn't feel as hot now, or am I just getting used to it?"
Tan laughed at this and immediately winced.
"Ooh! Please don't make me laugh. My ribs don't like it, and now I can feel them starting to heat up."
He wriggled a bit then surprised Kieran and Rhys by yanking his T-shirt out of his jeans and pulling it up to his neck so his chest was bare.
"Move your hands down to my ribs, Rhys, that's where they need to be now."
"One at a ti ..."
Too late. Kieran strained to control the sudden buildup in Rhys's pool of healing energy for the few seconds while both hands weren't making contact.
"Ga! That was a shock. Don't break contact without warning me, Rhys. I have to keep the in energy balanced with the out energy."
Rhys gave one of his ‘whoops I made a boo-boo’ grimaces mixed with an ‘I'm sorry’ look.
"Sorreee! I’ll remember if we ever have to do this again. Does this mean Tan’s shoulder’s fixed already?"
"I don't know. I think the healing goes to where it's needed most ... No, there’s still energy going there, and a little bit to his head too."
Tan's left-hand explored his shoulder with gradually increasing pressure then stopped in a spot about halfway along his collarbone.
"There’s a little bump just there that I don't remember having and it's a bit tender near it too, but not much ... I'm going to try moving my shoulder."
He said this with a questioning look to Kieran who nodded to go ahead.
"Carefully, Tan. Just stop if it doesn't feel right."
Tan concentrated while his shoulder moved forward, then back, then in a big slow circular movement.
"It's like it's stiff or different but it doesn't hurt. Could it really have got fixed this quick if it was broken? The bruised bone took lots more time."
Kieran had absolutely no doubt at all but his attention went to Mr B, who'd returned holding both of the Spook cords which had been clipped, one on each side, to the saddle on Tan's horse.
"One’s clean, Kieran, but the other’s a terrible mess. My hands feel awful after recovering it."
It did look awful with clots of dark congealed blood all through the coil and smearing onto Mr B's right hand.
"As soon as we get back to the creek we’ll get it all cleaned up. Can you cope with looking after it till then?"
"Of course ... Why is Rhys touching Tan’s bare chest? It looks rather unusual."
Rhys really enjoyed that.
"Because I am copping a feel of his sexy body!"
"Idiot! Tan’s ribs got cracked, Mr B, and we found out the healing works best when Rhys touches the place that’s hurt."
"His ribs? What about his broken collarbone, Kieran? Isn't that a lot more debilitating than cracked ribs?"
"My collarbone seems to be a lot better."
Everyone grinned at Mr B's amazement and Tan reached up and grabbed his hand.
"Feel along my collarbone, Mr B. There’s a lump that wasn't there before where it must have been broken."
Mr B started exploring, gently, where Tan was directing but stopped with the surprise he shared with Tan and Rhys when Kieran suddenly stood up and stared into the distance. The healing stopped and when he let out a great yell to Woorawa, the three horses came charging towards them.
"Get on as quick as you can. We’re heading for the Wall because I just got the sensation from the Opal that there’s another one of those things somewhere. Rhys, take that Spook rope from Mr B and I'll charge you up for it."
Rhys was helping Tan to his feet but when the horses and a worried looking Woorawa arrived, he took the cord and turned to listen to Kieran.
"Help Tan onto the saddle first, and Woorawa can support him from behind while his ribs are still painful. We have to get moving because the sensation’s building and I think it's more than one."
Bending over slightly and holding his ribs, Tan shuffled hurriedly to the horse. Rhys and Woorawa boosted him into place then rapidly got mounted themselves. The horses, all under tight control, charged towards the Wall with their riders casting frequent worried looks behind for any signs of pursuit. Kieran's mind raced, figuring all the things he had to manage. First of all he charged up the pool of energy for Rhys's Spook rope then, as the Wall got closer, he called on the Opal to help cope with the increasingly distressing disorientation. Kieran felt they were going to make it, despite the strengthening sensation now telling him there must be at least four pursuers, but then, turning at Woorawa's great warning shout, he saw three shapes flying low over their lookout hilltop, another shape to the left, and further to the left another two. With a great surge of power Kieran built the red protection field and clamped even more strongly on the horses as he slowed and bunched them for the last twenty metres where everyone needed to be in physical contact.
Great screams of anger from close behind sent a rush of fear but, ready this time for their panic, Kieran held the horses minds and muscles with a grip of iron till the last few metres of movement dissolved everything into weirdness.
Red! Red! Red! Kieran held everything together till they emerged, covering the ten to twenty metres of distance it took for reality to re-establish and awareness of their surroundings and what was ahead to snap into focus. When the red faded to nothing and they no longer needed physical contact, Kieran stopped the horses and shared everyone's dismay at the sight ahead. The strong emotions and adrenaline rush from the narrow escape were now eclipsed by disbelief at what they were seeing.
"What happened, Kieran? Did we get turned around?"
Kieran shook his head and quickly turned to Tan who he knew was in pain.
"How bad is it, Tan?"
"It's not too bad while we’re walking but rushing made it stab with every bounce."
"We’ll walk another few hundred metres till we’re comfortably far enough from the wall for another healing session and then Woorawa can scout out some water for us."
"Very funny, Kieran. We’re back in the same dead place again. There's no water here, just flying nightmares."
The horses started walking again, slowly.
"It might be the same country, Rhys, but it's not the same place. There’s no lookout hill."
Four heads searched then shared a look.
"I think it is the same country. There’s no vegetation anywhere no matter how far you look ... I reckon you’re right, Mr B. And there’s that big mountain range way off in the distance."
"Except it's not quite as far off this time."
And that made everyone look again in a more measured way.
"Sheba! It is too, Woorawa. Another impossible thing."
"Well, for once I'm glad for an impossible thing. If we'd been turned around and come out at the same place, all those monsters would have been waiting for us."
"Tan’s right, Kieran, except if it is the same country we’ll have to worry about monsters homing in on us again ... Can you make the Opal pick them up from further away so we get more warning?"
After a couple of seconds of thinking Kieran stopped the horses again. Woorawa was right and while two hundred metres gave a comfortable respite from the Wall effects, it would be critically dangerous time-wise if any warning they received was as scant as last time. He was conscious of Tan watching quietly but this really was a priority.
"I wasn't making anything happen, Woorawa. The sensations came from the Opal without my asking."
"Really? That's unusual isn't it? Has it ever started anything by itself before?"
"Only that first time when we took it out of the clay protection and it made me tingle all over."
"What about the red protection for the wall? You said that came from the opal."
"Sort of, but I was definitely asking for help when that happened. Ha! Screaming for help I should say."
"Have you got the monster sensation stored like you do with everything else, Kieran?"
Woorawa meant the ‘clicking in to place’ technique they’d talked about and practised in so many of their training sessions.
"I haven't exactly stored it but it’s sure burning bright in my memory."
"Well, store it properly then keep it in your mind and call on the Opal."
Rhys was really impressed.
"How do you come up with all these ideas, Woorawa?"
"Tan has more ideas than me. This one comes from all the practice and talks I have with Kieran for his abilities."
"Shoosh! He's got that look."
Kieran was indeed very much internalised because once again Woorawa had come up with a pattern of action which somehow had a feeling of rightness about it. The pattern storing was easy, and almost instantaneous with the sensation memory so strong from such a short time ago. Calling it back and setting it at the front of his thoughts was easy too, but making a link with the Opal wasn't. He concentrated harder and the reflexive blue glow built around him as he willed for the result that felt close but wouldn't quite happen. Think harder! ... This was a bit like that complicated first search for the Eagles when they were too far away for normal contact. That search pattern was definitely stored. Substitute the monster sensation for the Eagle identity and try that. No ... But not a definite no, so try again with even more effort.
What a disaster!
Kieran switched the now successful pattern off and on twice more to make this new technique part of his repertoire of instantly available actions, then focused on what was out there. Blinks of the sensation were everywhere, some stronger than others, which must be related to distance, and some with a vague impression of movement. Gods! It was the stronger signals that had the sensation of movement.
"They’re everywhere! Dozens of them and the closest ones are all moving towards us ... Sorry, Tan, we can't stay here."
"You can see them? Will they take long to get here?"
"It's not exactly seeing but they’re definitely there, and I can't be exact about the time but it might be five or ten minutes."
"We’re going through the dam Wall again. Three times in less than an hour. Our brains will be like scrambled, scrambled eggs."
"Scrambled, scrambled, Rhys?"
"Yeah, technically it’s scrambled, scrambled, scrambled, Mr B, but my brain’s getting scrambled thinking about it."
"At least we've got more time so Tan doesn't get bounced around ... Except that means it takes longer before we’re through."
The horses, at Kieran's prompt, turned and headed for the Wall at a gentle walking pace and, resigned to the necessity of the situation, the five companions rode in silent introspection till Kieran called for the physical contact he now looked on as a necessary part of the process.
Rhys gave a resigned grunt.
"I know what's going to happen. It’ll be the same dead country again."
"As long as it’s a different place, Rhys, without a dozen monsters flying at us."
His arms tightened round Kieran's waist.
"Lead on, Macduff!"
The world dissolved into the weird loss of sense and sensibility till Kieran's will and the protection of the Opal carried them far enough through to allow proper awareness to return. After a few more moments of progress came Rhys's carefully exaggerated groan of protest.
"I told you, didn't I? There’s not one single plant anywhere. I’m going to call this place Dead World ... I hope there aren't any monsters close this time because my brain wants to go on holiday."
No one acknowledged this brave attempt to lighten the situation because the Wall effect was still dissipating. Even more, it was ignored because the sight ahead demanded full attention. Apart from his softly muttered exclamation of amazement, Rhys also lapsed into silence till they were far enough from the discomfort zone to stop and consider the situation. All eyes turned to Kieran who'd been totally occupied with the business of disbanding the red protection, rebuilding all their shields, and managing the horses. After a glance to see how Tan was coping he turned his mind to the top priority and called up the monster search technique then shook his head negatively to the four watchers.
"No rest for the wicked, Rhys. There aren't as many but they are here, spread out along those mountains and the closest ones are already moving towards us."
"I don't believe this. They’re moving already? We must give off bad vibrations or something. How long before they get here this time?"
Kieran had another look and think.
"They’re a bit further away than last time but that's tricky because if they dived from so high they could build up incredible speed."
All eyes turned to the massive broken cliff face extending way into the distance, and to the rugged and spectacular mountains rising in the background.
"Yowies! If it's the same country then we must have zapped across more than a hundred ks. And, look! There’s snow on all those peaks so there must be water here."
"With monsters everywhere, that won't help us, Rhys."
"I know, Tan, but it's interesting. Do you want us to help you get off the horse for a while?"
Tan put his hand against his chest then screwed up his face.
"Ah! No thanks. Not if we’re leaving in a few minutes."
"Just a couple more minutes, Tan. We should play safe and leave now but I've never seen anything like this."
Kieran turned to drink in the snowy peaks and the great broken wall of the nearby cliff face, till caution overcame awe and the group remounted to walk slowly and very reluctantly toward the Wall again. Rhys raised a smile with his quadruple scrambled comment, but the general concern, voiced by Woorawa, was rising.
"I know we don't have any choice, but it's starting to feel like we’re stuck in a loop, like the Wall’s fixed on taking us somewhere in Dead World."
Everyone had the same feeling but the time to talk about it before they linked for the crossing passed with Rhys carrying on about his dream alternative.
"No more Dead World, thank you! This time I want trees and creeks and friendly animals and a campfire beside a beautiful pool."
Woorawa had to laugh.
"Dream on, Rhys. Are you sure that's enough?"
"No! Fruit and a waterfall would be good too."
The wall was imminent and all talk stopped.