Gemini starts to slow down at the exact moment you notice the foliage around you becoming less dense.
"Are we there?" you ask. You feel somewhat silly talking to a horse but there's no one else around.
Gemini tosses her head impatiently-you assume that means yes-and comes to a stop on the edge of another clearing. The grass in this one is somewhat shorter than the one in Cyra's-maybe someone's been cutting it. Looking around, you can see that there's no sign of thistles or stinging nettles and so you sit down and start to doze off.
The touch of cold steel against your neck jerks you out of a pleasant snooze and you freeze, motionless.
"Who are you?" a female voice from behind you demands. "What are you doing here?"
You introduce yourself.
"I'm with Heather," you say. To your surprise (and great relief) the pressure on your neck goes and you risk turning around, finding yourself face to face with someone who looks to be a good few years older than Cyra, possibly about twenty five. She's also a lot more tanned and is wearing a pair of golden hoop earrings and a necklace similar to Cyra's.
"Heather," you hear her mutter. "I'll kill her when I get the chance! She could at least have told me she was bringing guests!" A slender hand is extended and you hesitate, not too sure what the owner intends, then grasp it and are pulled to your feet.
"I'm sorry about that," the woman says apologetically. You nod, thinking privately that 'sorry' doesn't cut much ice when you've just had a knife held against your throat, but wisely deciding not to make an issue of it.
"My name's Kalani," the woman adds. "I'm a friend of Cyra and Arun's-I assume that's why you're here?"
You nod again, still not quite trusting yourself to speak. Kalani sighs, more through regret than irritation.
"Look, I'm really, really sorry, okay? If you knew what had happened, you'd understand. And if you knew we'd-" She shuts her mouth abruptly and you get the definite impression that she thinks she's said too much.
"How did you get down behind me so quickly?" you ask, hoping to spark off a conversation (and for the first time on this crazy journey, wishing Heather was there with you).
Kalani's green eyes sparkle with a hidden mischief.
"Look up," she commands. You do so and are rewarded by the sight of two large treehouses connected by a wooden bridge.
"That's where I live," Kalani said. "I saw you coming a ways off."
"And you didn't see me with Heather?" you say, not quite managing to keep the bite out of your tones.
"No," Kalani says flatly, "I didn't." A slight twinkle appears in her eyes. "Else I'd definitely have run you through," she adds with a grin. "Anyway, since Heather's gone on to see Arun, I assume you're on the tour?" You nod and Kalani's grin widens. "That's so typical of her, moving on to Arun's place for a swim. He's the only one that has enough patience with her." She shakes her head. "Anyway, enough about that. My name, as you know, is Kalani, and this is my Gem Dragon."
For a few minutes you're not sure what she's talking about, then you catch sight of a flash of purple and realise.
"It's an Amethyst kind," Kalani tells you, while the dragon sniffs you curiously.
"'It'?" you say.
"Yeah. See, the thing about Gem Dragons is that you don't know what gender they are or what their names are until they're fully grown." Kalani shrugs. "Guess that's the way it goes. I'm just so pleased I was successful!" Her eyes gleam again. Kalani's obviously one of those people who use their eyes to express their true emotions, you decide.
"Luckily Gem Dragons can fly, so I didn't have to move out of the tree, but just in case it rains, there are the tunnels-did Cyra show you?" When you nod, Kalani goes on, obviously satisfied. "Good, then I won't have to waste time explaining them again." The humourous glint is still there in her eyes, causing you to not take her words and tone too personally. "I'm also building a shack for when it's too windy. So far it's not coming along too well. A couple of people from Dragon Mountain-Sheratan and Cabrauntes, for example-came down and helped move the logs out the clearing and stack them up for use, but they've been busy helping the newcomers in the Mountain make new lairs recently." She shakes her head. "Urgh. I can't stand being surrounded by rock any longer than I have to be. It's way too claustrophobic."
"Where did you become a candidate?" you ask. Kalani shrugs.
"On DragonSeer's Mountain. I think it's closing down now though; at least for a while."
"How old are you?" you blurt out suddenly, then, upon catching sight of Kalani's sharp gaze, hasten to add, "that is, if you don't mind?"
"No, I don't mind. I'm not too sure the answer will mean much to you, though. You seem to have a different way of measuring time to where I came from. Still...I've lived through just over twenty three cycles. I think that's about twenty five of your years; I'm not sure. Somewhere around there, anyway." Her eyes crinkle at the corners as she adds, "I'm probably the oldest out of the three. Certainly older than Cyra; she's only fourteen and a half cycles-that's about sixteen in your terms."
"Ah." You nod, realising your estimation of Kalani's age in relation to Cyra was pretty accurate.
There's a loud splash and a yell from further down the path.
"You'd better get moving," Kalani says with a rare smile. "I think Heather's on the point of driving Arun crazy."
You laugh and mount Gemini, who's been grazing placidly during your conversation. You just have time to think you're getting a lot better at this riding lark when Gemini sets off at a rapid canter and you're almost unseated, but manage to right yourself as she continues.
Phew! I'm beat! Give me a break!
Background from AAABackgrounds.
Background from AAABackgrounds.