Secure under the travel flap while Maurice powered his way across Uirebon's Realm, the companions woke from the short but deep sleep Kieran had imposed on everyone. Even Ranevargar had insisted on being included, after the long journey to the Boundary Wall, the transitioning of Griffins and hosts to their home Realm, then another Boundary transition and a hasty sharing of food before starting this flight to join Uirebon.
Kieran checked for Uirebon's pattern with his GPS mode and then Maurice’s sense of location.
"Watch through Maurice’s eyes, everyone. We’ll be there in a few minutes."
Eager minds marvelled at the clarity of the moonlit landscape passing so far below, dark patches of forested area contrasting with what must be grassy plains or cultivated areas.
"Has Uirebon learnt anything new yet, Kieran?"
"We’ll ask him in person, Tan, but I doubt it. He only arrived from his home base about half an hour ago."
"Base? Isn't it a Castle?"
Ranevargar’s thought came through.
"Think of a loose sprawling castle without ramparts and towers, Tan, then add an endless series of underground storage and filing levels."
"Not really, but under Uirebon's stewardship they have been steadily extending for almost 1400 years."
"Will this outpost centre be very big?"
"We’ll see for ourselves, Rhys. The outpost designation suggests otherwise, and Uirebon thinks of it as ancient."
Maurice’s flight slowed and dipped, taking everyone's attention to an array of sparkling lights.
"Uirebon gives us guidance to a clear landing area among the trees and I sense a group of some thirty attendants with him."
Uirebon made a gentle, though somewhat hurried, introduction to the little community then turned to the elf at his side.
"High Lord Kieran, this is Bantellar, the young researcher whose findings have brought us here in such haste. After more than a decade of searching the archives of many centres for any early records referencing the Nexus, he was directed here, where delving through an old and unclassified section brought the discovery of a collection of scripts relating to the adepts and their work."
Kieran, smiling broadly, double grasped the wide-eyed elf with an eager and friendly grip.
"These adepts, Bantellar, are they connected with portals in some way?"
Bantellar looked with diffidence to Uirebon and Ranevargar but they both nodded for him to go ahead.
"My Lord, it was the adepts who built the Nexus and brought us here with knowledge and skills now lost. The portal system connecting our Realms and linking to the Human World is one of their great legacies. My scripts are very hard to understand but within their general treatment of the Nexus itself, I have been puzzled by consistent references to some related form of translation."
Through the partial merge they always maintained in the presence of another Realm Ruler, Kieran felt Ranevargar's alert level escalate.
"Related, Bantellar? Do you mean related by more than the general use of power?"
"I do, my Lord. There is a sense of ... specificity ... which warranted a response to Lord Uirebon's alert."
Rhys laughed, then hurriedly explained himself.
"I’m not laughing at Ban, Ranevargar, I’m laughing because it's more dictionary talk."
"In this case, Rhys, it is more than appropriate, and even more exciting. A form of portal, bound specifically to the Nexus, is a possibility I have never heard of ... Is this new for you, Uirebon?"
"Completely, and it was this very wording which convinced me I should call Lord Kieran."
Rhys grimaced and grinned at the same time.
"Well, I take it back then, Ban, and we’ll make ‘specificity’ the theme for the day."
"Thank you, Lord Rhys ... I think. What is a dictionary?"
Rhys gave him a funny look.
"Are you kidding me? ... A book of words and their meanings."
"Now I understand. You thought I sounded like a lexicon."
Ranevargar took over.
"Ignore Rhys’s preference for simplification and generalisation over clarity and finesse with the communication process, Bantellar. Are your scripts close at hand?"
Bantellar looked to Uirebon.
"They are ancient, My Lord, and need the attention of a Master Restorer before they can be freely handled. Let me show you."
Kieran, still holding Ban's arm and showing his eagerness, started moving.
"How serious is their condition, Ban? Will we be be able to look at them without causing any damage?"
Ranevargar explained for the companions.
"Lord Uirebon is a Master Restorer, Kieran. With the use of power he will renew and reinvigorate any fading ink or brittle vellum. It is an unusual skill requiring innate ability and years of training, and vital for preventing the loss of stored knowledge ... How many Master Restorers do you have, Uirebon?"
"Five including myself, plus one other who gives service at the High Castle."
Uirebon answered a barrage of questions while the group moved down three flights of stone steps then along a corridor with smooth rock walls lit at regular intervals by softly glowing white crystals. Tan was so intrigued he paused and wondered if they could be touched.
"There is no heat, Tan. It is a simple version of Kieran's blue glow, and used for lighting in all Realms but mine."
Tan’s question about the crystals was forgotten because, just ahead, Bantellar was gesturing for Uirebon to enter a doorway.
"The records are in the old scriptorium on the left, My Lord, but after you repair them we can move to a study area."
"Scriptorium? Gods! Some of the novels I read are coming to life. I've got this image of old scribes dipping goose feathers in special ink and writing stuff on rolls of parchment with the light of a big candle flickering close by."
Uirebon turned with a smile.
"Some of us are old, Rhys, but not all. Bantellar is much the same age as Kieran. Our pens are carefully crafted metal. Vellum outlasts parchment by centuries, and candle fumes would be highly deleterious in the long-term. Otherwise your image has a degree of accuracy."
Uirebon turned back to Bantellar who now led the way through another entrance and passed a long stretch of old stone shelving to a curious alcove.
"I have puzzled over four of the best preserved scripts, My Lord, but in all there are twenty-seven works in this collection."
"Twenty-seven, really? The number of Power ... Fascinating! ... And these four at the front are the ones you have examined?"
At Bantellar's nod, Uirebon held his palms ever so gently above the old scripts and closed his eyes.
"Watch only, Kieran. The pattern is delicate and even a trace on the power flows could be too much interference."
Everyone stood silent, sensing there was no place for distraction of any kind, and watched till the capsule of soft yellow glow disappeared. Uirebon blinked and gave his head a little shake.
"Ancient indeed, Bantellar. Take them to the study area and find your references while I restore the full collection."
Bantellar gave the scripts to Rhys and clearly enjoyed the look of concern.
"This way, My Lord, they are now sturdy enough to cope with even the roughest of handling."
Kieran felt Rhys’s pleasure at the blatant stir. The comeback was a pretended trip on a non-existent step and an exaggerated save from dropping which drew the moment of concern it was meant to. All that was forgotten when Bantellar selected one of the scripts and, setting it down, started purposefully leafing through. Out of interest Tan opened another script and started examining it. His curiosity turned to complete amazement.
"Woorawa, feel this. It's perfect. Uirebon said it was ancient but these pages feel like they’ve just been made."
The amazement spread and Kieran was really impressed.
"Is this permanent, Ranevargar? Or will it revert when the effect of the power fades away?"
"My understanding is permanence, Kieran, but ask Bantellar."
Bantellar lifted his head from its close attention.
"These scripts, restored by the art, will endure beyond our lifetimes."
"I wonder if Rhys might learn to be a restorer?"
Every head turned and stared at Tan.
"Me? You mean Kieran don't you?"
"No, I don't, Rhys. This restoring is a kind of healing and you’re the only one of us who can really do that."
"Healing? ... What d’you reckon, Ranevargar? It does make sense."
"Tan is presenting us with yet another fascinating idea, Rhys. It certainly does have a comfortable sense of feasibility, but your healing gift is exceedingly rare, and to my knowledge, completely unstudied ... You reject this idea?"
"No. I reject the idea of my brain getting turned inside out by a group of elf doctors ... Do you have doctors?"
"… We call them healers or healer adepts ... but enough, Bantellar is distracted."
"Puzzled rather, Lord Ranevargar, but I have located the primary reference."
Ranevargar's head bent in perusal. Other heads closed in a circle of attention.
"Hm! The language is archaic. Can you or Lord Uirebon give it sense?"
"Yes, My Lord ... ‘The call of a Nexus translation may be instituted through a Power Stone.’ ... It continues with outlines of a range of Nexus properties but this reference is a direct statement."
"Read it again, please."
"The call of of a Nexus trans- ..."
"Hold till I can read with you."
Uirebon interrupted as he hurried close.
"Yes, all the scripts are restored. Start again, young Bantellar. Lord Ranevargar radiates great excitement."
"The call of a Nexus translation may be instituted through a Power Stone."
Ranevargar spoke first.
"Uirebon, that reference is more than specific. It is definitive. Do you see it as I do?"
"I do, but Bantellar's skill with this wording is practised and superior to mine."
"And what does it mean by Power Stone? Can that be a Realm Stone?"
"I suspect so ... Bantellar?"
"Without any doubt. Most ancient scripts reference the Six that way."
"Lord Uirebon, this young scholar is a treasure ... How much authority can we give to these scripts?"
"Again, I defer to Bantellar."
"The author held a position we would now call Lore Master and is the most respected scholar of that time."
"Hey! Is all this going to help us?"
"Not in itself, Rhys, but it notes a form of portal linking Realm Stones and the Nexus, a form which may be independent of the damaged main system ... Bantellar, you said the references were consistent. Do any of them give other information?"
"Not really, but the repetition and wording gives a feeling that the process was familiar to the author. I have only examined four scripts so far, but in one of them he describes in great detail the process of redirecting free Nexus Energy on a temporary basis, and in another he sets out a teaching method for tracing a Nexus power flow."
"Are you saying it is a characteristic of this scholar to elaborate where he has expertise?"
"Very much so, Lord Ranevargar, and since the purpose of the collection is clearly to set out the properties and processes of the Nexus I am confident that the problem will be to find the information rather than whether it exists."
"You found a number of references, Bantellar. Will any of them help narrow a search?"
"Not directly, but three of them do refer to particular scripts which until now were too fragile to handle."
Mr B interrupted.
"How long has it taken to work through these four scripts? Lord Uirebon gave the impression it’s been years."
"That is for my Nexus studies in general. It has been not quite a year since I discovered this collection."
"That still sounds like an awful obstacle from our point of view. If it takes a year for four scripts it’s going to take forever for the other twenty-three. And we can't help you because we can't even read them."
This brought a tense silence, and when the companions’ eyes flicked to see Tan’s reaction Ranevargar hastened to speak.
"It is not as bad as that, Mr B. Bantellar's studies have been general until now, so a targeted search will be very different. If we start with the three reference scripts we ..."
Ranevargar's speech stopped as every head turned to watch Tan’s receding back.
Oh no! He must be upset at this letdown after the buildup of anticipation from Uirebon's call. Kieran started after Woorawa, halted with the message from Ranevargar, and sent his own mental command.
"Stop, Woorawa! He’s not upset at all. He’s not even there. Don’t interrupt him."
Woorawa whirled and hurried back to the bewildered group.
"What do you mean he's not there? More delay is bad news, and I want to be with him."
"It's the special thing again, Woorawa. We can't sense his mind."
"But he’s by himself. What if I just go and watch without interfering? That should ..."
Woorawa whirled again because everyone had snapped to Tan’s returning figure.
With quiet deliberation and no acknowledgement of anyone around, he moved the open script to one side and replaced it with the one he was carrying. His hand hovered in a curiously meaningful fashion then manipulated the pages, with deft purpose, to a section some third of the way in.
His finger rested a moment, his eyes blinked, and, with a little head shake, he returned to ordinary awareness. His finger jerked from the script and he took in the staring eyes.
"... What? ... Did I go funny again?"
Woorawa laughed and gave him a big hug.
"You sure did! You walked out on us and brought back that new script."
Tan leaned to peer at the script which was now the centre of attention and was jostled by Ranevargar's excited approach.
"Bantellar, you saw where Tan's finger pointed. Fix the page and place in your mind and start reading. This will be what we seek."
Bantellar, moving close, looked from Ranevargar to Tan and then, lost for words, to Uirebon. Kieran rushed to explain.
"We don't understand either, Bantellar, but we’ve seen Tan do strange things a few times now. I know it seems impossible but check, please, if it's what we think it is."
Bantellar looked at Tan in wonder.
"Lord Kieran the wonder of your Dragon landing is now surpassed by your more wondrous companion."
Rhys leapt to drape an arm over Tan's shoulder.
"You said it, Ban, and it's right even without the weird stuff. Now, have a look and tell us if we’re all carrying on about nothing."
Kieran smiled as the light of excitement brightened Uirebon's features and every step of the process so carefully set out in the thirteen pages following Tan’s mind bending finger point came to functional readiness. He'd felt the same excitement of success twice now, first through the merge with Ranevargar's ever so cautious application, and then with his own trial.
"You have it now, Uirebon. You used the locking pattern with precision. Would you like my supervision for another trial?"
"There is no need, Ranevargar. The pattern is straightforward once demonstrated, but how did you have knowledge of it?"
"I didn't, but I understood its purpose and simplified the more complicated mechanism I use to make my Tree Portals safe."
"Yes, this form can be used by any Realm Lord you choose to teach."
He did too. He’d spoken at length to Maurice about Tree Portals and understood the special affinity that was so strong in Kieran and Ranevargar.
"This is amazing, Ranevargar. It’s a baby version of your Tree Portals except it uses a power line to the Nexus instead of a proper spider net."
"And highly susceptible to interference, Kieran. Without the locking pattern I would be wary of using it."
"I think Uirebon should follow after us in case something turns up that we haven't expected. He hasn't got any experience with this kind of portal."
"Ranevargar, before we commit we should warn the High King."
"No, Uirebon, we won't wake the High King. Our own day has been overlong and we need rest ... What do you think, Kieran?"
Everyone looked keen and ready, but a quick peek showed underlying weariness. A boost from Rhys would counter that but proper rest was far more sensible.
"We’ll sleep deeply till two hours past dawn and then leave."
"Yes, Rhys. By my command."
Kieran turned to Uirebon.
"It’s a one-way trip too, so that will give Maurice time to get there. That way we can bring you back here or wherever you want to go."
"Wonderful! But, Lord Kieran, what of your companions? The script describes this as a singular transfer."
"Tree portals have a group pattern which I am confident will work but, beyond that, I have a method of my own."
The companions all gave a puzzled look.
"Yes, Rhys. When we do our group handhold it’s a lot more than just holding hands."
"Okay, but why can't Maurice come with us then? He’s always part of our group for Border crossings and Tree Portals."
"The Nexus chamber is underneath the High Castle, Rhys, and this transfer takes us right there. Maurice by himself is bigger than the arrival space, so I shudder to think what would happen if we all transferred at the same time."
"Whoo! I’m glad someone’s thinking specifically. Is there plenty of room for the rest of us?"
Uirebon, familiar with the Nexus chamber, shared an image.
"Sheba! That’s the Nexus? It looks like a mass of old quartz rock. I was expecting some kind of giant gemstone."
Kieran had a similar idea but quickly built a degree of understanding.
"It is not opal or amethyst, Rhys, but quartz is a crystal, so your idea still works."
Mr B added his knowledge.
"Amethyst actually is quartz, Kieran. It's a translucent form with traces of iron, and quite a few other gemstones are also forms of quartz. Tiger eyes and topaz are two that I remember out of quite a big list."
"Quartz? Are you sure?"
"I looked up gemstones, Rhys, because I wanted to know about black opal, and one article said quartz and opal are both made of silica. Ranevargar's Realm Stone spoils your idea though because a pearl isn't really a gemstone."
"What do you mean?"
"Didn't you think the Nexus might be a giant Realm Stone?"
"Wow! That is radical!"
Ranevarga came in.
"Not really, Rhys, though I would invert the premise and liken a Realm Stone to a miniature Nexus ... Bantellar, please guide us to somewhere we can rest. There are too many ideas flowing."
The group stared. Plain old quartz it might be, but the volume and order of the glowing hexagonal structure was striking in its own right.
The first few seconds of their arrival was no different, as far as Kieran could tell, to the reorientation after an ordinary Tree Portal, and the physical contact and fierce group protection had been unnecessary.
"Well done, Kieran. A faultless translation. I will signal for Uirebon."
"Hey, Ranevargar. That felt like every other portal ... Sheba! It’s glowing. Is that power coming out of it?"
"Yes, Rhys, the shift felt natural because of Kieran's proficiency. The glow you see is simply the light I am providing ... Clear the stone platform, everyone, and I’ll send the okay to Uirebon."
Kieran smiled because Ranevargar must be catching the group speech patterns, then did his own staring while he moved. The others couldn't see, but there was power coming out of the Nexus, radiating in six beautiful flows through some kind of filter. What was that about?
"It is beautiful to anyone with the ability to see, Kieran, and that filter is a management tool the High King controls."
"I have the strangest feeling that it’s like when you stare at Maurice’s eyes for too long."
"You can sense that? It has always been too subtle for me."
Ranevargar strengthened their merge enough to access Kieran's particular perception.
"Power workers visit this underground chamber for specific and temporary purposes only, Kieran. Prolonged stays result in a steadily increasing reluctance to leave."
"Like an addiction, or hypnotised like with Maurice?"
"Hey! Don't forget the rest of us. What's the big mind talk about?"
"Sorry, Rhys. We’re talking about the weird way the Nexus feels like Maurice’s eyes, and what happens when people stay close for too long."
"Something happens? Is it serious and how long is safe?"
"A curious dependency develops, Mr B, but only for those able to work with Nexus power. Kieran and I would be safe for days ... Ah! Here is Uirebon, and the High King is also rushing to meet us."
Mr B missed Uirebon's arrival because his attention was with Ranevargar, but there was no missing his excited exclamation.
"Wonderful, Ranevargar! I had to use more power than I expected but the translation itself is almost casual."
Ranevargar's reply was lost when a brilliant glow lit an entrance-way and Aglaron, practically running, emerged and rushed to grasp Kieran's arm.
"Wonder of wonders! With all the complications and calls on your life I expected no visit to the High Castle. How is this possible, Keryth? Uirebon's message that you were about to arrive was a delightful but bewildering surprise. How is this possible and how long can you stay?"
His grip tightened and, understanding that just for this moment he was Keryth, Kieran returned the greeting with a quick impulsive hug.
"Thank you, father. Lord Uirebon contacted us yesterday with news, and when we rushed to his remote centre we unearthed knowledge of an emergency portal linking a Realm Stone to the Nexus."
Aglaron gathered himself.
"Welcome, everyone. What a pleasant surprise this is. Uirebon, with a little more warning I would have been better prepared."
Everyone was smiling but it was Rhys's laugh that now caught Aglaron’s attention.
"Yo, Aglaron! It's good to see you again. We stopped Uirebon from waking you up in the middle of the night and then Kieran kept us zonked till just before we tried this new portal thing. It’s not really an emergency but we all got so excited about the discovery we had to see if it worked."
Uirebon hurried to explain.
"Yes, My Lord, it is extraordinary. There was an element of risk in the process as translated by our young researcher, which leads us to believe it was likely used only in times of need, but with Lord Ranevargar's modification it is safe for any Stone Holder to use."
"Any Stone Holder, Uirebon?"
"Yes, and if there is time before the Dragon arrives I will guide you through the process."
"Maurice will be here again? Wonderful! The Castle will be in a turmoil of excitement ... Rather than dread.
Kieran are you hopeful this development will help you find a way to the Human world?"
"I was for a while, but now I don't see how. It’s a simple version of the process for Tree Portals, so we haven't really learnt anything new. My biggest hope is that Bantellar might find something else in the adept scripts."
Ranevargar shook his head emphatically.
"I disagree quite strongly, Kieran ... Bantellar is the young researcher, High King ... Think of the ways Tan’s gift has manifested. Every occasion has been significant, even if we haven't quite understood why, but this time it was more than extraordinary, as if we were being guided."
He broke off to explain Tan's finger point to Aglaron.
Tan lifted hands in an ‘I haven't got a clue’ expression when Aglaron stared at him in wonder.
"Guided? Who by?"
"I have no idea, Rhys. The number of happenings using knowledge foreign to the Realms is enough to make me wonder if some agency is working through the Opal."
"Which happenings? Aren't they all Realm stuff?"
"No, Rhys. Look at our mysterious mind shields. No one in the Realms could build them, and even Kieran doesn't really understand how he makes them.
His natural affinity with the life around him has developed at a rate beyond explanation.
And you have inexplicably developed facility with mind speech."
"That's because of all the practice Maurice pushes me through."
"I doubt that. Demonstrate your progress by asking Lord Uirebon about training periods in the Realms."
"Can you hear me, Lord Uirebon? I’m only used to speaking like this with Maurice and my friends."
"Your communication is clear and capable, Rhys."
Uirebon continued aloud.
"With variations according to natural ability Rhys's current level of ability would typically require several decades of training. Inexplicable is an understatement ... Lord Ranevargar, could the agency be a legacy from our ancient adepts?"
Ranevargar paused to consider.
"A fascinating idea, but I think it unlikely. The happenings we have witnessed are not from fields of knowledge we normally associate with the adepts. Do you know of any reference to an adept calling truth without a contest of will ... or accession of unknown knowledge?"
Uirebon shook his head.
"No reference at all."
Rhys laughed and moved to give the nape of Tan's neck a friendly squeeze.
"I do! We’ll wait for the sun and the moon to line up at midday then we’ll feed him bird guts."
Rhys laughed even more at the looks this brought.
"They were called oracles and they used stones or bones or sacrifices to read the omens and answer questions. We’ll call him the Oracle of Melbourne."
"Rhys is a lot more than just a funny face, High King. He has a love of books and reading, and he makes reference to a famous oracle called the Oracle of Delphi."
Rhys's jaw dropped.
"Ouch! Watch your back, Mr B. That hurt."
The High King, taking in the smiles of the companions and the hint of a twinkle in Ranevargar's eye, understood there was no hurt at all.
"I see, Rhys. You think Tan might be an Oracle?"
"Not exactly. The knowing stuff sort of fits but not the truth calling. Some of the oracles were bound to the truth but I've never read about any who could control it in someone else."
Uirebon was looking puzzled.
"A curious piece of partially relevant information, Rhys?"
Rhys laughed yet again.
"I wasn't showing off my super knowledge, if that's what you mean, Uirebon. I was thinking how handy it would be if there was a way to set Tan going ... We could ask him about Mr B's face and find out whether it was a steam roller or a meat mangler ... Or we could get an answer for what to do next."
Mr B made a happy fist.
Kieran felt a burst of extra admiration.
Smiling, the High King said, "Ouch! I felt the hurt myself, Mr B."
Tan grabbed at Rhys's hand where it was still holding his neck.
"I agree with Ranevargar about an agency. Sometimes it has felt like we’re being protected and kept together. Kieran knew absolutely nothing about portals but we came to the Emperor trees, and when we entered the Boundary Wall the red protection looked after us. I don't think I’ve got a special gift either. The weird things I’ve done could all be an agency using me to send us help. Kieran, it mightn't feel like a we've made any progress but I think we have, and just don't realise it."
Tan faltered at the quiet, fixed attention.
"... What? Don't you agree? It’s just a background theory that fits with Ranevargar's idea."
"Tan, it makes real sense, but you said it so earnestly we wondered if you were in Oracle mode."
Tan made a wry grimace at the knowledge he was now stuck with a new nickname.
"No, it was all me ... Did you see anything different, Ranevargar?"
"I did wonder enough to have a peek, Tan, but you are clearly yourself and giving us cause to think in your customary manner. Do you have any thoughts or feelings about how we might proceed?"
"Not really ... Except we have all been brought here to the Nexus. Maybe the Nexus is another step on the way."
The four Realm Lords exchanged glances and Aglaron answered.
"I see what you mean about cause for thought, Ranevargar. I will willingly share the methods of Nexus control with you and Kieran if it will help in any way."
"You know more about the Nexus than he does, Ranevargar."
"But you don't, Kieran, and it is a gesture of trust and cooperation you would be wise to accept."
"You would show me how that filter thing works? Wonderful!"
Kieran looked round the Nexus chamber and turned to the companions.
"This is special, everyone, but it means Buddha time for four of us ... What are those wall panels? Are they worth looking at?"
Uirebon almost spluttered.
"Those engravings are a legacy from the time of Separation, Kieran. There is worth for all to see."
"What about the Nexus? We all want a proper look at that first."
"What do you mean, Rhys?"
"Well, will it turn radioactive or zap us if we touch it while you’re fiddling?"
"Fiddling? ... Apart from investing inexperienced tinkerers with the permanent seeming of a giant frog there should be no adverse effects."
Rhys shared a look with Kieran. Uirebon was most definitely catching on.
The Buddha time, some twenty minutes, was definitely enlightening, and particular rewarding when Aglaron transferred control of the free Nexus energy to check Kieran's understanding.
"Direct a portion of the High Castle supply to Lady Narello's Realm while you apply a fresh set of locking keys ... Yes, just so ... Kieran, did you learn that mastery of power flows from Ranevargar?"
"Mostly. He made me practice really fine control but a couple of times I was clobbered by overloads and had to figure how to cope for myself ... Did you see that? Lady Narello’s pushing the extra against her Outer Boundary."
"Every Realm Ruler is hungry for energy, Kieran, especially while so much is allocated to repairing the Gateway Realm. That push will be helping one of her Chaos Masters. Uirebon and I have tasked her to more deeply understand the link between Chaos energy and Chaos incursions."
Kieran returned control to his father and marvelled at his easy manner with it.
"How do you do that, father? I had to concentrate like anything."
"Time makes it as natural as breathing, Kieran. After 1400 years I am only aware of the control when I consciously bring it to mind."
"Can anyone except Realm Rulers take over if you want them to?"
"Anyone who has been adequately trained in the art of Power, Kieran, though none with the facility of a Stone Holder. Uirebon's Triad Masters would manage for a time and, with guidance, so would Narello's Power Masters."
"I’d like to understand more about Triads, Uirebon. The one you had with you when Ranevargar was kidnapped was strong enough to block our portal."
Aglaron, eager to help, jumped in.
"Uirebon's best Triads are currently resident in the Castle, Kieran, actively managing some of the more important repairs in theGateway Realm. A visit would be well worth your time ... One of them is dedicated to overseeing the ..."
"KIERAN! ... OVER HERE! QUICK!"
The strength of Rhys's yell, mental as well as oral, dissolved the construct of shared communication and had three Realm Lords trailing in the wake of Kieran's rush to where Tan was kicking at the base of one of the engraved wall panels.
"He must be in weird mode. He just started kicking a couple of seconds ago. Is he all right?"
A segment of panel cracked and fell away and Tan took hold of the section next to where it had been and tugged with fierce determination.
Kieran's hurried peek probed at the strange impenetrable identity barrier recognised from Ranevargar's close observation during the finger point episode.
"He’s all right, Rhys, and it’s definitely Oracle mode."
A larger piece came away and when Tan discarded it to tackle a new section Aglaron edged close and helped him.
"Look! A recess. This is important."
Woorawa joined the dismantling and left no room for anything except watching. With a satisfied grunt the High King passed another piece to waiting hands, started a joint effort with Woorawa, then froze along with everyone else when Tan folded backwards to a sitting position and stared in bewilderment at the proceedings.
"I suppose I must've gone strange again, but why are you wrecking that beautiful panel?"
"Because you started it, Tan. Woorawa noticed it was different material to all the others and we were discussing why when all of a sudden you were kicking it."
"Mr B’s right, Tan. We were all shocked because you were wrecking something precious and then Aglaron came rushing over to help you."
Aglaron started loosening a new piece.
"Of course I did, Rhys. It could only be important ... and look at the recess. I can already see part of another panel."
Woorawa gave Kieran a look which told him to keep an eye on Tan then added his strength to Aglaron's waggling.
Kieran gave Tan a big smile and helped him to his feet then, knowing he was completely all right, turned to watch another piece dislodged and passed back to Rhys.
"You’ve done it again, Tan. What I can see so far is covered in dust and cobwebs, but it’s definitely another panel."
Uirebon moved to where Tan had been then dodged when Aglaron levelled a calculated kick at the section stubbornly resisting his hand manipulation. Rhys gave a yell of approval which cut off when the largest piece yet cracked and fell.
"Sheba! Put some glow on it, Kieran. It’s hieroglyphics or something."
It was definitely something, but it took more dismantling, and Uirebon making a curious cleaning pass with his hands, before it was revealed properly.
Not unexpectedly, Rhys broke the contemplation.
"Is it a star chart?"
"No way, Rhys. Look at those perfect hexagons. I think it must be a geometric model of something."
"I suppose, Mr B! What can that double circle stand for then?"
Uirebon made a soft, attention gathering sound, and Kieran felt a tingle of excitement at his nod and smile.
"I am finally able to make a contribution. Tan has unearthed what could very well be the original form of a rare but important diagram which has three main interpretations.
The foremost sees it as a representation of our Realm structure, with the six outer hexagons modelling the six Realms and the inner hexagon standing for the central High Realm or even the Nexus itself."
"Wow! That's fits perfectly."
"Nearly, Rhys. The second interpretation sees it as a theoretical representation of a Nexus of Nexuses ... similar to the compounding effect of a triad of triads but more far reaching."
"That fits too. What about the third idea? Is it as good as the first two?"
"Until now it has been regarded as a less likely interpretation, with that inner central hexagon standing for this Nexus and the outer hexagons representing six other natural Nexuses."
"Natural? What does that mean? One hidden in each of the Realms?"
"There is only one Nexus for the Realms, Rhys, constructed by the adepts for the Separation, but I have heard discussion that they used a model ... Uirebon, your ‘until now’ registered strongly with me. Do you see something new?"
"Yes, Ranevargar. The double lines describing the outer circle have long been a symbol for the Human World, usually centred with a small sun circle. In my mind this ties the outer hexagons to the Human World."
"Extraordinary! ... But where does this diagram lead? Tan acted with great purpose to reveal it."
Kieran, reviewing the three interpretations, and feeling Ranevargar's fierce concentration along with his own, started at Tan’s soft voice.
"Um! ... I think I know. If Uirebon is right and each outer hexagon is a Nexus we might have found a way home."
Afterwards everyone was laughing because even Rhys was too dumbfounded to make any comment. Kieran broke first.
"Go on, Tan. You’ve lost us."
"Well, we’ve just learned you can portal to a Nexus, and now Uirebon says this panel shows there are Earth Nexuses. That would explain where your White Power comes from ... and we know you’ve got a link through your Opal."
"... Hells! … Holy! ... Bells! ... Are you in Oracle mode?"
Tan shook his head, and along with Mr B, Woorawa and Rhys, looked to see what the four heavies made of this.
Aglaron and Uirebon, not privy to the intense communication passing between Kieran and Ranevargar, were themselves watching with heightened anticipation.
"Ranevargar, it feels right."
"It does, Kieran, particularly the idea that the source of your White Power might be a Nexus. In hindsight it is a disturbingly obvious possibility. Examine your special link for any similarity with the link between our Realm Stones and thisNexus. I would like to help but I can only see it through our merge."
Kieran was at a loss.
"I can't see it either. It's only there when there’s a power transfer."
"Call power then, and study the link while it flows."
"Here? Now? ... It’s a huge flood of power. What if it affects this Nexus?"
"Interesting thought! ... Control the flow. Reduce it to a moderate level."
"I don't think I can. It’s always the same giant flood."
"You have never tried. You have always been eager to receive the copious quantity. Prepare yourself while I warn Aglaron."
"Well, all right, but strengthen our merge so I can use your experience."
"Tan, your suggestion is overwhelmingly sensible and Kieran is preparing himself to make a study of the link which carries his White Power.
High King, when power floods this chamber Kieran would like to disburse it to the Triads and the Gateway Realm through your Nexus filter."
"The White Power? Yes, of course."
Rhys, staring at Kieran's inwardness, grabbed at Ranevargar's arm.
"Hang on! Is Kieran all right? I hate when I can't help, and does sensible mean this could be the way back?"
"I fully expect so and we will know one way or another very shortly. You would term it an extreme Buddha moment, Rhys, while he readies himself to learn control of the White Power and examine the properties of the all important link."
To all the onlookers Ranevargar's features transformed to match Kieran's. The Opal lit up.
The familiar glowing cloud coalesced and the group switched attention to Aglaron's startled gasp.
He was too deep with his own concentration to make any response.
Uirebon, avidly watching the White Power, closed his eyes at the High King’s call for help in distributing the influx of abundant power.
Mr B and Woorawa moved next to Tan and Rhys shook his head wonderingly.
"You’ve got all four Realm Rulers straining their brains to keep up with you. How did you figure that out so quickly?"
"It wasn't really that quick, Rhys, because last night I was kind of daydreaming for the Nexus to be at home instead of here. So when Uirebon said the hexagons could be Earth Nexuses, the connection was sort of already in my mind."
"That sounds funny."
"Why? It’s true."
"I'd didn't mean that. I meant the daydreaming."
"I daydream a lot."
"So do I, but you said daydreaming at night so it should be night dreaming, and that doesn't work either."
"Your mind works in mysterious ways, Rhys."
"Not as mysterious as Tan’s, Mr B. Daydreaming at night sounds like the Oracle taking over."
The White Power shrank rapidly and Uirebon snapped to awareness.
"What’s happening now, Uirebon?"
"Progress, Rhys. Kieran has learned control and the White Power is reduced to a trickle. Aglaron no longer needs my assistance."
Aglaron, smiling, was now also with them.
"Unbelievable! The Triads are almost dizzy."
"Does it feel like Nexus power?"
"If you mean the White Power, Mr B, I don't know, because Kieran transforms it for us."
Kieran's Opal brightened for a short moment and stopped all conversation till it returned to the previous softer state.
"He did something that needed power."
That was obvious but Mr B was really voicing the group feeling that it meant more progress.
The Opal flared again, even brighter, and a tinge of the red protection aura shocked the companions to full awareness. Mr B reacted first.
"Group contact, everyone, quick. Just in case."
Aglaron and Uirebon joined the rush to action but the Opal softened and Kieran and Ranevargar surfaced to normality.
"Good thinking, everyone. We had to initiate the process twice before we got it right, and when we finally commit we’ll definitely hold tight as a group."
"Yes, Tan, finally."
Woorawa rested his arm across Tan's shoulder and Mr B voiced the, oh so clearly evident, question.
"So, when do we leave, Kieran?"
"We nearly left then, but we had to stop. According to the panel there are six possibilities for where we might end up and we would have taken Ranevargar, my father, and Uirebon with us, Mr B. My Realm has Maurice to look after it but taking three other Realm Rulers is too complicated. Ranevargar thinks they might be able to get back but we don't know."
"We can't leave before this afternoon."
Woorawa voiced his puzzlement.
"Why ever not, Rhys?"
"Well, I’m not leaving without saying goodbye to Krol and Gryl … and George."
Woorawa and Tan exchanged a look and a nod.
"How close is Maurice?"
"Close enough to worry about the High Castle Wards, Woorawa. Without Kieran's help I can't push my way through."
"You’re listening in? You know what’s happened?"
"At Kieran's invitation when I sensed a great flow of White Power and contacted him."
"Maurice is close enough to need your Wards lowered, High King."
Aglaron nodded, made it happen, then after casting a thought, turned to Kieran.
"My hopes for a longer stay are clearly dashed, Kieran. Can we speak while I tempt your party with the refreshments my people have been preparing in the Courtyard?"
"Briefly, father, and the refreshments will be greatly appreciated ... but why not travel with us to Uirebon's Realm where you can learn the Nexus portal for yourself?"
Aglaron eagerly accepted and, sensing the tension of purpose, led the way out of the chamber.
"That was a thoughtful gesture, Kieran. It meant a great deal to your father."
"More than I expected, Ranevargar, but it was the best way to share some time with him."
Ranevargar was referring to Kieran's decision to speak with Aglaron for the duration of Maurice’s return to Bantellar's study centre while everyone else had another forced catch-up sleep.
"It was awkward that he was so open with his personal thoughts and feelings when he didn't know about our merge."
"I don’t think it was, Kieran. Public or private was clearly irrelevant on his part."
"I suppose. Do you think he’s carried away with the Castle thing?"
"You need to experience the wonder of the Gateway Realm restored to have a proper understanding of his capabilities. The High King of all Faerie, not just a grateful and remorseful father, was expressing his gratitude. When the time is right a thousand Artisans will strive to mould a Castle of surpassing magnificence."
"A thousand? Is that your way to say it’s a big deal, or do you mean for real?"
"Both, Kieran. Re-establishing a residence on the old site near the cavern signifies the importance of Maurice’s place in your Realm, but it's location will call for an extensive support network."
"I suppose. Maurice wants to base himself up there, so it’s just common sense ... Ranevargar, the way this transfer process works means my Opal has to come with me and I’m still concerned my Realm might suffer without it."
"I don't believe that will happen, but if it does you can return and leave your Opal with Maurice when the portal system is recovered."
"Leave it? I wouldn't want to do that."
"I would have the same reluctance if I needed to part with my Pearl, Kieran, but the strength of your connection means any physical separation is highly unlikely to be a real concern."
"Across the Realm boundaries is no problem, but out of Faerie might be a very different matter. You said so yourself."
"I did, but Woorawa's story of the contest between his People and the ‘Great One’ has lingered in my thoughts, Kieran, and I believe that the mysterious power they wielded not only severed the Holder’s link, it also affected deeper functions of the Stone."
"That’s amazing! You think Woorawa's People were strong enough to cause Dead World?"
"The strength is without doubt. The Realms have always regarded the Ancient People with wariness and respect."
"That’s true. Aglaron and Uirebon explained about Maynor not being able to reach Woorawa and how they warned him off."
"And you’re linked to that power now, Kieran, through deep association and even deeper friendship, and you should prepare yourself for involvement in matters unknown to any Realm dweller."
"Prepare? You make it sound like a big deal."
"Think, Kieran. An elder of the Ancient People gifted you with an Artefact of power and eager assistance. Your involvement can only be significant."
Kieran felt total agreement.
"That’s for sure. Burrimul will want to know every little detail of what’s happened."
"Hold nothing from him. Your mind shows him as wise, gracious, and very kind, and I suggest you continue to regard him as a mentor."
"They’ll have a campfire get-together whenever Woorawa gets to Mparntwe and I can't imagine what will happen when they see him dance ... Their brains will explode,
...You’re my mentor, Ranevargar. We’d have been lost without all your help.
... Do you think it will be hard to keep in contact if this process really does take us out of the Realms?"
"Our minds have become so attuned I expect even direct contact will be possible but, as with the home links through Tan and Woorawa, requiring significant concentration and effort. Maurice, at the apex of your Opal network, will be ever present in the background of your mind and with minimal effort you can relay through him."
"Of course! Everything happened so suddenly I haven't properly thought it through. It makes me feel kind of guilty to be leaving when you’ve got so many things happening."
"Yes, desertion at the time of such need is unforgivable. I hope I can develop coping strategies."
Kieran had to smile because Ranevargar would absolutely have everything in hand.
"My first priority is always my Realm, Kieran and while the renewal program for my Guardians is particularly exciting, helping bring life to your Realm only compounds that excitement.
Another priority, in cooperation with Uirebon, will be a comprehensive study of Lord Maynor's mind manipulation methods. It is an imperative for Uirebon, as Lore master, to be able to ensure the High King, or any other Realm Ruler, is protected from any insidious influence."
"Really? That’s breaking your pattern of independence, Ranevargar."
"Yes, it will be an intricate, but necessary, path of association."
Kieran sensed something about a system of checks and balances but Woorawa was now in Ranevargar's foreground thoughts.
"For reasons I don't fully understand, Woorawa sees extraordinary significance in the planting of his Realm Tree pod, and I hope you will be able to coax it to secure establishment."
Kieran knew the seed pod was precious as a gift to Woorawa, but there was a connotation of something else.
"Yes, Kieran, his gratitude is as forthright as his heart, but his constant questions about the pod convey a sense of almost ceremonial importance."
"Well, that sure fits with the way his people do things. His uncle made an event out of giving me the artefact with special chants … but Woorawa already knows we’ll care for his Realm Tree, once he works out where to plant it."
"The Valley of the Eagles."
"What? No, that can't be right. There are some small rock pools … but that’s nowhere near enough water for a Realm Tree."
"He describes an underground storage with more water than even my Central Grove would ever need."
Kieran remembered one of the guides for the College trip describing how underground water was drawn to supply Mparntwe.
"Yes, I’ve heard about that but I think it’s too deep."
"Woorawa plans to use a mechanism which can tunnel through earth, and even rock, to whatever depth is needed."
"Tunnel? ... If he means a drill or a bore that’s a big deal project."
"With your backing there will be no doubt about its execution."
"We’ll be backing each other for everything, Ranevargar. What do you mean?"
"I find myself wondering if your association with Woorawa and the Ancient People might call for more involvement than you expect. Tan made that strong exhortation for Woorawa to use his gift."
"I don't know why he said that. Woorawa's ceremonies are built into our life now, and they’re too special to imagine them not happening."
"I can't either, Kieran, but the exhortation was to follow the ‘dictates of his heart’, which are clearly his companions and his family."
"And Woorawa ... But you’re thinking in general terms, Ranevargar. It could also be a single event or issue that’s especially important to him."
"Hm! Yes! That could well be. And thinking back, it does more closely suit the tone and context of the moment.
Kieran, have you given much thought to how you will reconcile your position and abilities as a Realm Ruler with your life as a student?"
"We talk about it between us all the time with lots of ‘what if’ and ‘hey you could’ comments, but not really seriously. I don't think it will be as hard as my father thinks, because this persona tells me I’m an ordinary human student who’s had all sorts of impossible things put onto me, rather than an elf with all sorts of mind training. We’ll face any issues like that whenever they come to us."
"Of that I have no doubt. Now, you have had less rest than any of your friends and you saw how much they needed it, so put yourself to sleep."
The friends clambered from Maurice’s back and into an onslaught of prolific licking and gentle head-butting from Gryl and his cohort of Panthers which then turned into the excitement and happiness of one of their ever so meaningful mock battles.
Kieran, laughing from the soft tongue rasping the side of his head and helpless on his back beneath a great furry paw, watched as well as he could manage while Rhys and Woorawa made a determined but useless effort to free him.
"It’s time to let me up, Gryl. The Griffins are coming."
They were too, but it would be another ten minutes before they arrived.
Gryl relaxed, released Kieran, and sat on his haunches while Rhys hugged the column that was his leg and the others made a very tactile farewell. Kieran reached his hand to the crown of Gryl's head and rested it in the gesture of benison he’d learned from Ranevargar. At the same time he shared images of moonlight on the plains and the silver and black dappling of the track through the trees when they were rushing to the Realm boundary.
"It’s the beautiful memory that comes whenever I think about you racing with us, Gryl."
Kieran kept his hand where it was, because Gryl’s soft throaty rumble and quivering muscles were too hard to resist.
Rhys laughed his happy laugh and massaged two big handfuls of neck fur.
"The prince of panthers turns to kitty putty. Does he understand we’re leaving, Kieran? He doesn't look sad."
Kieran tried to sense that, but realised he didn't know enough.
"He’s definitely not sad, and the best I can tell he just thinks we’re heading off for awhile and we’ll be back when we’re ready."
"Gryl shares my sentiments. We consider this a temporary parting rather than a goodbye. Rhys, turn your attention to another acquaintance who is somewhat daunted by the Guardians’ actions."
Rhys looked round ... then charged off to where George, looking very sleek and conditioned, was watching expectantly.
Tan turned to Woorawa.
"Rhys won't have animal friends all round if the Power link works like we hope."
Woorawa laughed, which was a surprise.
"What’s funny about that?"
"It’s not, Tan, but I thought of him turning up at College with Gryl or Krol and starting a panic … Don't worry about Rhys and animals though. We’ll probably have magpies or kookaburras sitting on our shoulders every time Kieran goes outside."
Tan laughed now.
"And he’ll call the magpie Maggie and the kookaburra Percy."
Woorawa canted his head knowingly.
"... That will be Percival, Tan, and it’ll be a pelican not a kookaburra."
Kieran shared Ranevargar's bemusement at the smiles of acknowledgement passing between Tan and Woorawa.
"What am I missing?"
Woorawa glanced to the full on attention Rhys was giving George.
"Rhys would be yelling at you for not reading enough, Kieran. Mr Percival is a famous pelican."
"He’ll keep yelling at me too, because I reckon there’ll be so much happening it will take me ages to even finish Myst."
Kieran stopped talking because a rather subdued Rhys was approaching.
"Gods, Kieran! They’re friends. I’ll never look at animals the same way again."
None of them would. Kieran gave Rhys an arm nudge of shared understanding and pointed to where Griffins were approaching in the distance.
"Wow! Get ready, Rhys. Krol’s got something special."
"What? ... No, don't tell me."
All eyes focused and, Griffin speed being what it was, shortly watched the coordinated approach and graceful landing of the flight of Griffins. Krol was in the forefront, fearsome in aspect as always but also clearly welcoming.
Rhys's gasp was echoed.
"They’ve brought the Grifflings with them!"
And indeed, from every back, young heads were lifting to peer curiously at the strange new environment of giant trees, people, Panthers and the gigantic, golden-eyed form of Maurice.
The friends hesitated, unsure. Ranevargar, a smile in his voice, assured them.
"Meet the newest Guardians, everyone. The maternal instinct is subsumed with pride, and homage is offered as a parting gift."
Rhys, unsure whether Ranevargar's statement was the meeting, or the go-ahead for an actual approach, watched Krol twist his head to nudge the Griffling from his back. With an indignant scrawrk and a gangly spread of wings the youngster moved to stand beside Krol.
Ranevargar gestured for everyone to move.
"Rhys, go and meet Rhys."
Rhys, moving because of the gesture, halted when the words registered.
Kieran didn't understand either and wished their merge was active. Ranevargar was looking inordinately pleased.
"Make your physical greeting, Rhys. Krol sought advice for some way to express your special bond and I suggested giving your name to their dominant hatchling. I knew you would be honoured."
Kieran watched disbelief and wonder, felt building emotion through the light link he always kept, then smiled his own happiness as Rhys raced to greet Krol and the little Gryphon.
Little? Well, compared to Krol, yes, but, grown as tall as Rhys, he was developed enough in size and presence to command attention in his own right.
Knowing this was Rhys’s time everyone waited.
"How did they grow so quickly, Ranevargar? Was it a special stimulus thing like you use with the Realm Trees?"
"No, Mr B, just a natural growth spurt and an abundant supply of food. Those regular sessions I had were for their Guardian qualities."
Krol lowered his head and held it formally in position to receive a Griffin version of the gesture of grace Kieran had given Gryl. Rhys’s happy laugh reduced the formality and at the same time added meaning.
Krol’s head turned and there was a curious deep chirring sound. The little Griffin’s head bobbed in a way that made Kieran think of the Joker birds, then lowered in a junior version of Krol’s formality.
"That is so cool!"
Mr B's mouth opened in surprise and amusement.
"Well, I agree with the sentiment, Woorawa, but ... Cool? That would even sound funny coming from Rhys."
Woorawa wasn't one bit phased.
"Which would be exactly why he’d say it, Mr B."
Talk became action because Rhys was beckoning everyone.
Five companions, kitted out with elven rucksacks packed chock-full, gathered close.
"We’ll make a circle, everyone, and hold tighter than our usual hand-grip. The red protection started building when we tested the start of this shift, so we might be in for a rough ride."
"Worse than Boundary walls?"
"Probably, Rhys. If it works the way we want it to it’s a lot more than a switch between Realms."
"Ha! I know how I want it to work, and it's not to end up somewhere in Antarctica."
That was from Ranevargar's thoughts that the North and South pole and the equator might be what he called Cardinal positions.
Conscious of the mix of trust, hope, and a certain amount of the trepidation he was feeling himself, Kieran nodded assurance to everyone and called for Ranevargar's merge and oversight in initiating this tested but never completed process.
"Here we go, everyone. Hold tight."
A great roar sounded and every being gathered to send the friends on their way cowered in momentary shock.
Kieran's mind froze with his own shock till a message of affirmation, and indeed approval, came from Ranevargar, then began to function properly when the roar finished a few seconds later.
"It is an acclamation, everyone, not anger. Maurice announces your departure."
Kieran struggled to resolve the confusion of total darkness, returning reality, and a mix of pressure against both mind and body. A muffled expletive and the realisation that a knee was grinding into his stomach brought partial understanding. He called for light and a soft blue glow helped the press of bodies struggle upright. Rhys laughed as Mr B pushed Tan off his chest.
"Whoo! You blew that one, Kieran ... D’ you know where we are? … What’s wrong?"
"I don’t know. It’s not actually hurting but it’s sort of like a whole mountain’s pressing on me. Hang on while I rebuild our shields. That was so major it wiped them all ... Is everyone okay?"
Kieran knew they were but answering would share the assurance.
"Are we in a cave, Kieran? It was so pitch black I thought my head wasn't working."
"Me too, Woorawa, and having Tan squirming on top of me made it even more confusing. Can you extend your light, Kieran? This little glow is giving me a closed-in feeling."
Extending was a better idea than extra brightness and Kieran sent a tendril of glow in the direction he was facing. Twenty metres away a sheer wall blocked everything.
"Well that doesn't tell us much, except that the stone’s a weird colour. Try the other direction."
Kieran was already turning but Rhys's colour comment sparked a thought.
"The colour’s from me, Rhys. My glow comes out blue unless I think about it. Have another look."
Recognising a certain note in Kieran's voice, Rhys did just that.
"So? It’s white instead of grey-blue. It’ll still block our ... It’s quartz! A whole wall of quartz?"
"It’s not a wall."
Mr B broke the silence that followed.
"It’s too big!"
"I agree with you, Mr B, but it is a Nexus and it makes the Realm Nexus like a toy. I felt it as soon as the red protection faded, but it’s so different and overwhelming it’s like I’m a grain of sand at the bottom of a whole ocean."
The wide-eyed looks expressed acceptance without real understanding. Woorawa whirled to grab Tan's arm.
"It IS a nexus, Tan, and if the panel was right it’s an Earth Nexus ... Use your GPS, Kieran."
The urge to know more was almost a compulsion but the question of their whereabouts, now immediate for everyone, took priority. What to use as a focus? Well of course. Try the share house.
Kieran couldn't help smiling.
"The lounge came into my mind, Rhys, and the cardboard covered window ... Which isn’t there ... but the house is."
Kieran swivelled and pointed.
"… And it’s that way .. a long way away."
Mr B spoke first.
"That gives me a good suspicion, Kieran ... Look for Burrimul."
With a quick new questing, Kieran's arm moved minimally to the right. His features lit up.
"Better than good, Mr B. It's brilliant, because he’s that way and he’s not far ... Tan, we’re HOME."
Tan’s big smile said more than any words till the mix of emotions erupted with Rhys's yells of excitement and an assortment of hugs and expressions of wonder. Woorawa steadied first.
"This is the best, Kieran. I know you and Ranevargar were confident but I couldn't help feeling it might be too good to be true. How close is Uncle Burrimul? Can you tell?"
"Not exactly ... I should have practised more ... But I’d say about 40 or 50 km ... Are you ready to contact him?"
Woorawa nodded, then hesitated.
"How? With real mind talk or a ‘come and get us’ feeling like our other assurances?"
"You know him best. Will mind talk freak him out?"
"Try it. It’s hard to freak him out about anything ... But what will we say? ... Apart from telling him we’re back, I mean? Telling him we’re in a cave somewhere close won't be much help."
Mr B added his bit.
"Yes it will. Put your scouting brain into gear, Woorawa. If we’re near your uncle that means Kieran's first direction was South and we’re basically north-east. If he’s got a vehicle he could make a start."
"He hasn't, but he could use the mini-bus from the Cultural Centre."
Rhys pointed at the surroundings.
"He might need to bring an excavator so he can dig us out."
"The air’s not stale, Rhys, so there must be an entrance somewhere."
"Hey! Good thinking, except if it’s a crevasse or something in the ceiling. Gods! Imagine what this would be like without Kieran's light."
Every second was bringing new puzzles and Kieran swept his glow in an arc, lingering on each of three definite openings in passing.
"Mr B can make a glow too, Rhys."
Mr B shook his head.
"I know we’ll have to explore, Kieran, but there’s no way we’re going to split into ..."
Every gaze jerked from the third dark opening to Tan and the nimbus of soft white light surrounding him.
"Join with me."
It wasn't a command. It wasn't a request.
Discussing it later everyone agreed with Mr B’s description of a curiously nonthreatening compulsion to make the group join up.
Woorawa and Mr B, standing with Tan, lifted their arms. By the time Kieran and Rhys closed with a few automatic steps, they were outlined with the same soft aura. Without a question Kieran completed the hand contact ... And blinked to awareness of Tan gazing at gully walls.
"Whoo! Unreal! We’re outside."
That was Rhys, and a few steps away, Mr B and Woorawa were making their own survey.
"What did you do this time, Tan?"
"Me? ... again? I thought Kieran must have done some kind of portal."
"You zapped us. The last thing I remember is seeing the halo thing round you ... Where are we now, Kieran? Can you tell if we’ve moved far?"
Kieran’s reply was slow because he was was checking everything again.
"... I don't know what Tan did, Rhys, but whatever it was this time it didn't affect our shields or anything! ... Burrimul feels like about the same distance."
"What about the giant Nexus? Does your GPS work with that?"
It did and Kieran pointed up the gully.
"Somewhere in there and a bit more than a kilometre."
Woorawa left Tan's side and walked five or six metres.
"What are you doing?"
He pointed to the ground.
"I’m wondering about footprints, Rhys. Gullies like this sometimes have shelters or caves at their head ... Yes, I can see fresh marks in this sandy place. I don't think it was a portal."
The scout hurriedly moved a few metres to another sandy patch.
"More scuff marks. Tan dream-walked us out."
Tan looked at the wondering expressions.
Mr B answered.
"I've never heard of it, Tan, but it’s a better description than sleepwalking. What time is it on your watch?"
"... 9:12 in the morning, Mr B, but why? It doesn't mean anything."
"Just for a reference ... Look at the shadows. The sun’s behind the hills so it must be early morning or late afternoon."
Kieran understood straight away and did the Melbourne and Burrimul comparison again.
"Melbourne is East so the sun is in the West."
Woorawa, returning from his sortie, took in the conclusion that it was late afternoon.
"Kieran, I think we’re close to one of the elders’ secret places. Contact Uncle."
For the next while the friends watched Kieran's expression vary through intense concentration, moments of stillness, several smiles and a number of nods.
With happy impatience Rhys turned to Woorawa.
"It’s turned into a gossip session about your funny singing and dancing. That's why he’s smiling."
Woorawa didn't need a comeback because Kieran was with them again.
"And I might have been telling him how you were nearly a roast chook ... He did freak, Woorawa, but only for a few seconds and then it was my turn to freak when he said he was expecting us."
"What? How come?"
"The regular reassurances made him really confident. At any rate, I showed him a mind picture of this gully and he knows exactly where we are.
He’s on his way, Tan, and he’ll be here in less than an hour."
Tan answered in a curiously distant manner.
"Life is about to become interesting."
And so, dear readers, chapter 52 marks the leaving of the Realms and a return to the ‘ordinary’ Human World.
It has been a delight to hear that the story has brought some enjoyment and I am ever so grateful for the wonderful comments ranging through support, humor and stimulating challenge and word play.
Please know that any reviews, comments, or thoughts about the story as a whole would be highly valued, particularly while I ponder whether to formally polish and publish.