After about twenty minutes of cantering at the same bone-jarring pace, Gemini slows down and stops on the edge of a clearing that's larger than either Kalani's or Cyra's. Squinting against the sun, you can just about make out Leo cropping grass, and you slide off Gemini's back thankfully, feeling like your legs will never work properly again.
"What took you so long?" Heather asks. She's treading water in the middle of a large lake, in the middle of which is an island with a sturdily built hut, quite a contrast to Cyra's pile of logs. The hut's occupant (you presume) is a good few feet away from Heather, also treading water furiously. He catches sight of you and waves.
"Finally! Someone come to release me from my torment!" He pauses. "Also known as Heather," he adds, diving under just as Heather splashes the place where he last was. He resurfaces in front of you about five seconds later and your first thought is There's no way anybody could possibly have covered that much distance in so short a time but you let it go as he pulls himself up to stand before you. He's short-only about five six-but well muscled. His hair is an unusual shade of blonde, so unusual that you wonder briefly if it might have been a dye job, or whatever the equivalent is here.
"Hi," he says, sticking out a dripping wet hand which you shake, wiping your own hand on your top afterwards. "I'm Arun and this-" he turns around with arms extended, almost as though he's trying to take in the entire forest, "-is my humble home."
"Wish Arun was as humble," Heather mutters from the water.
"Ah, save it, Heather, you're just sore 'cause I beat you at races. Again." Arun pauses. "You didn't have to jump on me, though," he adds in a martyred tone, then turns to you and grins, white teeth flashing against his tanned skin. "I'm...hmm, let me see-" his face takes on the slightly glazed look of someone doing several rapid mental calculations at once, then it clears. "I'm nineteen years old." He pauses. "Or eighteen," he admits. "Or possibly twenty. It's hard; I know I'm just over seventeen cycles, but as Kalani probably told you, we don't measure age like you do where I'm from."
"Where are you from?" you ask, your curiosity getting the better of you. Arun shrugs.
"A place called Yelczin."
"No he's not," Heather says wickedly.
"What?" you say.
"Don't listen to her," Arun says lightly.
"He's not," Heather says. "I don't know where he is from," she adds as an afterthought, "but it's not Yelczin."
"How do you know?" you ask.
Heather's eyes sparkle wickedly.
"'Cause I know a little of his language and places. Yelczin doesn't exist. It's a kind of...um...insult place? Like...shove it all the way to Yelczin means-"
"I understand," you say quickly.
"Can't blame a guy for having a little fun," he says lightly. "So who are you?"
You introduce yourself.
"Are you a candidate like the other two?" you ask, jerking a thumb back the way you came. Arun's blue eyes gleam.
"Not any more. I was lucky enough to get a Gem Dragon from DragonSeer's Mountain."
"Where is it?" you ask. Arun glances around.
"Right over...hmm. Strange. I could have sworn I saw..."
There's a splutter, a yelp and a splash from Heather as she's suddenly sucked into the lake by an invisible force...a force that reveals itself to be a black dragon.
"Oh, that's right; we were in the lake together," Arun says innocently. "Heather usually gets a little irked when the dragon does that; I can't think why. I mean, what else does she expect from an Obsidian dragon?"
"What other ranks were there?" you ask. Arun shrugs.
"Dunno. Don't think anyone does know; the only thing they can say for sure is that there's definitely an Opal there-they're the rarest of the Gem Dragons," he adds for your benefit. "Cyra did pretty well for herself; she got a Star Sapphire, and that's the second rarest." He grins. "Of course, now I've stopped waiting to find out if I was successful, I now have to wait to find out their name."
"Can we go now?" Heather demands.
"In a minute," you tell her, then turn back to Arun. "So how long until you know?"
Arun shrugs again.
"No idea," he says cheerfully. "But hey, I'm not going anywhere. I can wait." He stretches up leisurely, providing the perfect target for Heather who shoves him hard, back into the lake, then grabs you.
"What-" you begin.
"Come on! I don't want to be here when he gets out again!"
"Why not?" you demand, standing still and causing Heather to almost be yanked off her feet.
"'Cause he'll probably do the same to me and this top was clean on this morning, that's why!" Heather leaps onto Leo's back.
"Are we riding again?" you say, rubbing your backside ungraciously.
"Only until the rainforest," Heather tells you as she urges Leo into a gallop. Gemini butts you imperiously, clearly impatient to be off.
"Go on," Arun calls lightly from the water. "You better follow her else you'll only get lost, and I'm not sure of the way back. Come back any time." He pauses. "Oh, and if you happen to catch up with Heather and she's standing next to a puddle..." he lets the sentence trail off invitingly. You grin.
"Don't worry," you assure him as you mount and Gemini sets off after Leo. "I'll be sure to get her back for you!"
Phew! I'm beat! Give me a break!
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