Kieran gathered his own startled wits, brightened the inner chamber even more, and reached according to the first of Ranevargar's instructions.
"Look again, Rhys. It is Maurice."
"No way! Ranevargar put Maurice in our minds and that thing’s twice as big ... It's solid rock, and half of it’s frozen in ice."
"It is him, Rhys. The cavern ends back there."
"But! ..." Rhys’s splutter of disbelief changed to silence while he shared the group’s awe and struggled to acceptance. He was first to break the silence though.
"He must've kept growing. What do you want us to do while you’re waking him?"
Kieran indicated the monstrous head locked partially in ice and resting on the cavern floor.
"I’ll climb up there for a while because I have to be in physical contact to get everything started, but when I get back we’ll group like we do for going through a Boundary."
Rhys nodded then turned in surprise. Woorawa stopped his new chant to speak.
"We all know this one, Rhys. It is a friendly message which might be a support for Kieran."
"Thanks, Woorawa! You’re a wonder kid."
Kieran moved, then puzzled how to reach the giant forehead which he knew, with certainty, was the best place to make contact. Rhys understood, rushed close and cupped his hand for a bunk up.
"Stand on my shoulders, Kieran. That’ll make it easy ... Hang on while I get a better footing. This ice is slippery."
One foot went on Rhys's hands, the next on his shoulder and, after a few seconds, Kieran was standing secure with his body leaning against the giant snout and both hands pressed against the scaly forehead. Ranevargar's Pearl came to life, and calling power from the Realm Trees, Kieran sent a tendril of thought with the special key that was the only possible way into the mind of this huge construct ... Yes! There was the way in. Energy flowed, the lock opened, and the Pearl network completed a connection unused for 600 years.
Kieran followed the connection exactly according to instructions, paused in amazement at the complex but dormant mental structure, then searched for the spark of partial awareness he must find and revitalise. Nothing? ... It must be there or the Pearl would not have connected ... Follow that. Yes, there it was, deep, deep, not a spark, hardly even a glow. Grove energy transferred through the Opal and disappeared. Disappeared? ... Or maybe that little glow was stronger? Kieran increased the flow and made it last longer. Yes! This was exactly according to plan, except for the excess of power. A wisp of puzzlement appeared and, elated, Kieran watched a new flow of Grove energy turn the spark of awareness into a tiny, spreading fire.
"Cold! Terrible cold!"
The deep distress communicated so powerfully Kieran shivered and shook so violently he nearly lost his balance. He blocked the communication. Good grief! That was so awful it would be cruel to let it continue. Well, as long as he was careful he could change this. A great flow of Opal power enveloped the construct and converted to warmth. With careful control Kieran warmed flesh and heated the surrounding ice till water flowed and pooled in a low part of the cavern. Rhys made strange noises of disbelief when the ice melted beneath his feet. The awful distress lessened and Kieran returned to Ranevargar's procedure. Grove energy fed the awareness in steadily increasing amounts for the next twenty minutes.
The command was expected and Kieran replied with Ranevargar’s signature and a brief revelation of the Pearl network.
"No! You must awaken."
A vast mental rumble of discontent dissipated as the signature did it’s job and Kieran sensed muted acceptance. 500 years of accumulated energy drained from the Central Grove. Too soon. Maurice still wasn't properly awake. Well, he’d have to use Opal energy.
Maurice sensed the changed source and instantly accepted it.
"Who are you?"
"I am Ranevargar's friend. He has given me the authority to awaken and restore you.
"Authority is mine."
"No, authority is Ranevargar's, and through him, mine."
When Kieran's mind shield quivered he projected amusement.
"Behave yourself, Maurice, and delay your challenge while I restore you."
Kieran's mind shield reacted again, though this time it was a probe rather than an assault.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Kieran and when your challenge is finished we will be friends."
There was a thoughtful silence, tinged with surprise.
"You will provide enough power for a fair challenge?"
"That's better ... But of course. And when your imperatives have been honoured I will restore your body as well."
"Curious indeed. I perceive a stripling wielding strange power and ability. Whence come you?"
"Time passes, Maurice. Make your challenge when you feel ready ... And then we will talk."
In full accord with Ranevargar's procedure, Maurice built a great reserve of Kieran's Opal power before announcing his challenge. The challenge he must make before accepting authority from anyone except Ranevargar.
Two golden orbs appeared with the slow parting of scaly eyelids just a metre from Kieran's glowing hands and Kieran hastily summoned the defences laid out in Ranevargar's instructions as he jumped to the ground.
"Join the others, Rhys, and tell them not to look for a while. He’s focused on me but the side-effects might suck you in."
"I can stay here in case you need healing, Kieran."
"I have to do this on my own or it doesn't count. Don't worry Ranevargar made sure I was ready."
Kieran turned from Rhys and smiled into the piercing stare.
"Beware the eyes of a dragon, Maurice … unless the master who taught the trick has passed knowledge of a counter."
The hypnotic gaze intensified.
"Relax, Kieran. I mean you no harm."
Adding a blue beam, which did absolutely nothing, Kieran laughed and intensified his own gaze.
"Relax yourself, Maurice, and enter the world of dreams."
Eyes as big as bowling balls blinked, disconcerted, and looked with a normal gaze.
"Danger, Kieran. Your mind and soul are in peril and your body faces destruction. Open yourself to my protection."
Kieran steeled himself. Maurice had mastery of illusion and was about to call into apparent reality creatures of nightmare and fear from the depths of his mind. Without Ranevargar's guidance he would never have coped.
The bogeyman lurched forward, a shapeless monster from dreams where his feet were glued to the ground. Click. Ranevargar's counter illusion switched the bogey to a miniature, rainbow coloured version of Maurice.
Mr B appeared, draped in funereal shrouds and laid on a bier with leaping flames consuming his body. Click. A miniature, rainbow version of Maurice gamboled playfully atop the bier.
Rhys appeared, dangling from a monster’s mouth with entrails spilling free, a dismembered leg on the ground below, and moans of agony issuing from his mouth. Click! A miniature rainbow coloured dragon gleefully punched the monster in the eye.
Kieran made a desist gesture.
"Turn for turn, Maurice. I haven't the knowledge to conjure fanciful phantoms of light, but consider this image."
For a long moment Maurice saw a mind picture of himself re-encased in a prison of ice, and the implication of return to dormancy.
"Enough games, young stranger. You have had guidance in the rituals of challenge. Yield to my will and bow."
Kieran staggered. The compulsion to submit held every muscle in thrall ... Almost ... Behind and to the side the thrum of the group chant stopped, and from the corner of his eye Kieran saw the movement of his four companions dropping to their knees.
Almost, but not completely, and Maurice’s demand faltered because as part of preparing him, Ranevargar's guidance had also shown Kieran the way to negate the construct’s will. Steadying himself against the battering waves of compulsion, Kieran stood tall. He recalled occasions when he'd had the need to press his own will and raised an arm to point at Maurice.
The compulsion vanished and astonishment echoed from Maurice's mind.
"Yes, my will is strong, Maurice, as you see, but I also stand in Ranevargar's stead. Observe the embodiment of your master’s authority."
Kieran held Ranevargar's Pearl, glowing with a beautiful green haze, for Maurice to see, and watched astonishment replaced by puzzlement.
"It is not mine. I wield it by request."
"I recognise your authority, Kieran, but I am bound by the rules of Challenge."
The change was fast. Maurice now wanted this finished.
"Of course. Would you like more power? The test of strength will only be validated with your utmost effort."
"More? I am bound to accept, but what of your companions? There will be spill from our contest."
"They have my protection."
Power flowed and Kieran could only smile at Maurice’s growing puzzlement.
"Enough, Kieran! Build your own protections. Our contest starts."
Kieran brought his Opal into view and redirected the powerful flow to his own use. His shields would hold, he had no doubt of that, but Ranevargar had warned that this final test, a test against a creature expressly built to wield power, would appear to be irresistible and shake his confidence to the core. Thankful for the techniques he’d been pushed to develop, Kieran watched energy compact and coalesce to a dense, lance like structure, shining with fierce brightness and deadly appearance. Good grief! Quivers of lightning! He was going to throw lightning bolts.
Woorawa's chant faltered. Kieran raced to complete the group physical contact, englobed them with a mirror-surfaced shield, and sent assurance that everything would be okay. A dozen bolts flashed down, struck, and reflected. Light flashed, sound crashed as volley after volley was hurled with increasing tempo till Kieran laughed and called aloud.
"It's a great show, Maurice. What's next?"
In the sudden silence four sets of eyes regarded him with disbelief.
"It’s real power, everyone, but it's not real lightning. I’m making a shield that acts like a mirror."
"It's real, Kieran. The ground’s trembling."
Rhys was right, but how? Maurice’s bolts were stopped and he was preparing the next test. Light flickered momentarily beyond the bend in the cavern and a new crash of sound followed. Real sound? Kieran reached for an instant of Krol perception and, while passing a message of admiration and support for his efforts against continuing monster attacks, directed Krol to look upwards. The unchanging clear blue sky was changed, replaced with massive banks of angry black cloud.
Shock from his companions demanded attention when the cavern walls started collapsing and a great boulder toppled to rest beside them. For a brief moment Kieran shared the shock, but understanding came and with a pointed laugh he stopped the group impulse to run. The mirror shield changed its seeming to a protective buttress of solid steel girders. More rock tumbled and masses of dirt piled higher and higher.
"It looks like dirt but it’s Maurice power again. He’s going to crush us. Start chanting again, Woorawa. It's good for everyone's nerves."
The ceiling fell with a rumble and crash, completely burying their protected space and cutting off every bit of light. It would have been very effective if Kieran hadn't been glowing with Opal power.
"I don't like this, Kieran. We'll run out of air."
"Watch this, Rhys. I can match his show easily."
Limning the virtual steel girders with his signature glow, Kieran gestured dramatically and with a double palmed pressing motion extended the corresponding portion of their shielded enclosure.
"Whoo! That’s better. How long is he going to keep us trapped?"
Opal energy surged, overpowering Maurice’s effort and revealing the cavern as it really was. Woorawa's chant stopped and after looking at the intact walls and the giant immobile form, attention centred on Kieran.
"It was all imaginary?"
"Yes and no, Mr B. He used a huge amount of energy and made it act like dirt, so in a strange way it really was there. I used even more energy when I got rid of it and somehow it’s turned into a storm outside."
As if confirming this, brilliant light flashed from beyond the bend followed by three great thunderclaps.
"Is Krol ... Gods, Kieran! Look at the walls. That better not be real water."
Water gushed from three locations, pooling deep and deeper and washing round their ankles. Kieran laughed again when the entrance way became solid rock.
"Maurice is being dramatic. He’s going to fill the cavern with thousands of litres of water and drown us."
Tan wasn't reassured and he looked with dismay at the water now surging forcefully against his thighs.
"Stop it please, Kieran. It’s scaring me."
With a twist of thought the steel girders took on the aspect of a half-dome and through the transparent walls they watched the flood rise higher and higher. Woorawa draped his free arm across Tan's shoulders.
"There’s too much drama, Kieran. Too many things are happening."
Kieran didn't answer while he called the power necessary to counter this water challenge.
"He’s only going to try one more thing, Woorawa. We’ve had fire and earth and now water. Next thing will be air."
Kieran unleashed his gathered power and the pseudo water vanished. Rhys’s excited cheer stopped when the loudest crash of thunder yet followed the light flash from the bend.
"Holy hell! It sounds even worse out there. Is Krol all right?"
For a brief moment while Maurice was rebuilding his strength, Kieran reached, reached and took in the Griffin form crouched on the ground in stoic defence against the wild weather.
"He’s not happy, Rhys. It’s storming like crazy but he’ll be okay as long as lightning doesn't hit him ... And every Monster within about half an hour has stopped moving."
"I think the storm’s too powerful for them."
A strong gust of wind swayed the group off balance.
"Whoo! It must be wild outside if it can reach us here."
"It's not the storm, Rhys. This is the air test. Hang on while I adapt the shields."
Another buffet of air rocked the group, and four grips tightened instinctively. Woorawa restarted his chant then stopped when the weird howl of rushing air over-matched it. Normal speech was pointless against the sound and fury rising all around.
"Enjoy the ride, everyone. I’ve made our position the eye of the storm so nothing can touch us."
The howl rose in pitch, the whirling air opaqued with water blasted from the cavern floor, and Rhys, confident of Kieran's protection, reached his hand tentatively towards the edge of their safety zone.
"Don't touch, Rhys! You’ll be mentally taking yourself outside the shields and you’ll feel like you’re being sucked into a tornado."
Rhys snatched his arm back.
The cacophony built with the greatest aggregation of power yet, and Maurice, bound by his challenge, pressed with all his effort. The Opal responded instantly and between one breath and the next the whirl of air and misted water vanished.
"My challenge is discharged, Kieran, and I recognise both your authority and the authority of the Pearl. What news of the Maker?"
"We need your help to free him from Maynor's Castle."
"The Realm Lord who took him prisoner.
Images of Ranevargar, paralysed and helpless, passed to Maurice’s mind.
"... Maurice, we have to hurry. Activate your body with the power I send you."
"Of course, but the mobility you imply will be hard won. My long dormancy will only be overcome with careful healing and renewal.
"Ranevargar needs us today."
"Not today, Kieran. A call of that magnitude is more than the Realms can provide."
"I will provide, just tell me if the flow becomes too great."
"How long have I slept, Kieran? You access power in ways new to me."
"It’s been over 600 years according to Ranevargar, and the power you need will come from my Opal."
"A Realm Stone?"