Chapter 21

Lightning had to admit the mountainside was beautiful. The mid-day sun had burned away the morning dew and winter was still far enough away that the temperature was reasonably warm. She had been allowed to change into garments more befitting her comfort; fitted grey leather breeches, a loose sleeved linen top and a light leather vest to match the breeches. Her boots had been returned to her, as well as her gunblade, which was settled where it belonged against the back of her thighs.

Several steps before her, Daya and Amara walked as close to side by side as they could on the narrow path. Most often, Amara would take a step back and remain a step behind Daya, close enough for them to continue the conversation between them. Lightning couldn't hear what they were saying, but she was certain Fang could, and since Fang wasn't concerned, she figured she needn't be either. Most likely they were taking advantage of being out of the city to have a personal conversation, as Light had come to know Daya wasn't one to talk much around others. It was something she could generally relate to.

She glanced over her shoulder. A few steps behind her, Fang was back in her habitual blue sari, and looking all the more relaxed for it. Her lance was resting across her right shoulder, counter balanced by her arm. She wasn't paying so much attention to where they were walking as much as watching the area around them. Her eyes would drift swiftly between the sharp slope to their right and the sky, while her left hand trailed against the rock face they were walking along. She was calm, but it only took minor prodding through their bond to realize she was really quite focused.

"Fang?" The soft query drew her attention, but Lightning didn't have to ask.

"Sorry, just tryin' to get a feel for the mountain. Been in the city too long." Fang spun her lance down under her arm and stowed it across her back before stretching her arms. "Feels good, y'know?"

Light nodded, slowing just enough for Fang to close the gap between them. She could feel the truth in that statement, but also an underlying concern. Patiently, she waited for Fang to continue. After a few more glances to the sky, she finally did. "Bein' trailed by a dragon."

Ahead of them, Daya stopped and turned to look at them. "Are you sure?"

Fang looked to her and tilted her head, as if wondering if she really had to ask.

Daya got the message and turned her eyes to the sky behind them. "Friendly?"

"Dunno. It's staying on the edge of my perception, hard to get a read."

Lightning's hand drifted back to the hilt of her blade. "How far?"

Fang turned, looking behind them as she placed her hand fully on the rock again. "About two kilometers I'd guess."

Amara quietly drew her bow.

"Can't be very big though. It's been keepin' to the cliffs rather than takin' wing." She pulled her hand from the rock and patted her hands together to rid them of the dust. "I'd guess it's just keepin an eye on us. If it's small enough to stay on the rocks and keep up without knocking trees off, it's not likely to be hunting us." She grinned at them. "Bahamut wouldn't be too happy about it if it was anyhow."

Daya wasn't amused. "I don't suppose you could call it out?"

"It's a dragon, not a dog." She shook her head and Light could feel her annoyance. "The only one I can talk to is Bahamut, so don't ask." She glanced back toward the cliffs and shrugged. "It's probably just curious."

Daya nodded, accepting of that answer. "Keep a look for it and let me know if it changes."

Fang mock saluted; a confusing gesture to Daya, but it earned a chuckle from Light as they started moving again.

Nearly an hour of trekking and climbing later, they reached a flat area with only a few trees. Arranged tightly to make the most of the space were several wooden constructs. Obstacles, interspaced with hazards such as mud pits or sharp rocks made it obvious what the purpose of their little excursion today. Training.

"I commissioned some help to set this up for you. There's one inside Artemi, but the younger castes are usually all over it since they can't leave the city. This area should be safe from any dangerous wildlife.. We're close enough to the dragon nesting area that the wyverns stay away. Dragons don't usually bother us." Daya glanced to Fang, making it fairly apparent that she also figured her presence would be a deterrent to any dragon who might think they look like tasty snacks.

"We have no way of knowing what you'll face in the trial, so we tried to bring up a good range of possibilities."

Light looked around as she followed Daya along the edge of the course, taking in the various obstacles. "Feels like boot camp."

Fang chuckled at the two confused looks the statement had earned Light. Lightning just looked back at them, her usual 'soldier' mask slipping into place. "Military training. We had to do plenty of obstacle courses."

Daya nodded in return as they got to what Light surmised was the beginning of the course. "Then this shouldn't be a problem for you. We didn't bring a way to time you, so I thought it might be a good idea to race. Amara will spot for us, and the three of us will run the course." She looked back over the course. "We're all seeing it for the first time right now, so it's about as even footing as I can give."

"Should Fang even be doing this?" Lightning glanced at Fang, indicating her injured arm. The cut from the Behemoth was nearly healed over, but still looked irritable.

Fang just grinned and flexed her arm, showing that it could take it. "Got the ok from Ooma before we set out."

Lightning nodded and moved to undo the straps that held up her gunblade. At the same time, Fang pulled off her belt and lance, then proceeded to unwind the top of her sari and fold it. Lightning caught herself watching. Fang was facing away from her as she began unwrapping the bottom part of her sari, slowly revealing more and more of her shapely rear and legs. She would never admit to it, but she had a weakness for a nice butt and thighs. She mentally shook herself as Amara took her sheathed gunblade from her with a knowing smirk. She hoped she wasn't blushing too much.

Fang was pointedly not looking at her, but she knew she'd felt every bit of that lust spike through the bond, and the embarrassment that followed the realization. Light flushed a bit more when she realized Fang was quietly laughing at her. Daya shook her head and spared a small smile toward her mate at their antics.

Once their weapons and Fang's sari were set safely aside, the three of them lined up. It looked like the first part was a sprint partway around the outer ring of the course. Toward the end of the flat sprint, a few obstacles were integrated, and it just got progressively more difficult from there.

To her left, she saw Fang shake her head. Running wasn't difficult, but she knew Lightning was going to smoke them in the beginning. She tossed her a grin as she settled into a start position. No words were needed. Time to get to work.

"Ready?" Amara waited for them to get into position. "Set!" Lightning kept her eyes forward, trying not to be distracted by the ripple of Fang's muscles as she tensed next to her. "GO!"

The three of them exploded down the length of the curve, Lightning quickly outpacing both Fang and Daya. But she knew, this was not only about speed, but endurance. She didn't bother to hit her top speed, she'd need that energy later. The first few obstacles were light hurdles made from poles crossed over other poles. None of them had any trouble. The last hurdle was a wall, about two meters high. She jumped and grabbed the top to pull herself over. Fang didn't even bother. She vaulted, throwing herself over the wall backward only to land on the sand behind it in a roll. Daya was a split second behind her.

Agitated that they'd caught up to her and passed her so quickly, Lightning dropped from the wall and broke back into a short sprint to catch up. The next obstacle was a crudely dug pool of murky water. The three of them dove in nearly together and began the swim to the other side.

On the sideline, Amara followed along, keeping watch to ensure they all stayed in bounds and didn't sabotage each other purposely.

Daya was first out of the pool, followed closely by Fang, though Lightning was nearly matched to her. Daya took a moment to shake the water from her hair and her hands as best she could, sizing up the next obstacle. Lightning could see why, as the next was a series of uneven monkey bars that went on for several meters. The heights of the bars were not even, nor were the spacing between them.

Lightning followed Daya's lead and tried to rid herself of some of the water. The water would make the bars slick, but the wet leather also added weight. Fang might not notice the extra weight in her position, but Lightning certainly did. She quickly glanced around to what of the course she could see, then made a decision and pulled off the breeches before tearing the sleeves from the linen shirt.

As she and Daya prepped for the bars, Fang didn't even pause. She'd shaken her hair out as she'd gotten out of the pool. She gave her arms a cursory shake as she took the few steps to the bars and jumped to grab the first one.

Daya got moving before Light had finished and Fang was dropping from the last bar as Light got started. She tuned them out, knowing that getting upset about them being ahead would only make her sloppy.

Her arms ached a bit once she made it across the bars, but aside from nearly slipping once before the heat from the sun warmed bars dried her hands, they hadn't been very difficult.

She dropped from the last bar directly onto a slim log, which she easily made her way across. The log let off on slightly elevated platform with a railing that forced her to turn to the left. A series of more platforms were there, each within jumping distance of their neighbor. Daya was just ahead of her, but Fang had already moved ahead. She grit her teeth and jumped to the first platform easily. The second was slightly higher, but still posed no problem. The third was higher still, and a farther distance across, so she took a few steps to get a head start and jumped. She landed in a graceful tumble, nearly knocking into Daya, whom she'd caught up to.

They narrowed their eyes at each other before both taking the jump to the last platform. Landing without a problem, they each reached up to the rope and began the climb. It was about a 45 degree angle, so they each hooked their legs over the rope as they pulled themselves up toward the next platform. Suddenly Lightning wished she hadn't ditched her pants. The rope burned against her bare legs, forcing her to slow down lest the rope do real damage. Daya had no issues, as she had opted to keep her pants and paid her no heed as she easily pulled ahead. Lighting watched from the halfway point as Daya pulled herself onto the platform, and noticed that the rope had apparently slowed Fang as well, and likely for the same reasons. She continued as the two of them moved on.

Once she made it to the top, she took a moment to catch her breath and try and cool the rope burn on her leg. She glanced over the side of the platform to her left to see what the next part was, only to see a series of ropes over a mud pit several meters below. She rubbed her hands together a bit before taking hold of the first rope.

Swinging from rope to rope wasn't the problem; that was easy. Hanging on when her hands had already been roughed up from the first rope was more of a problem. The Yuns ahead of her didn't seem to have any problem, but she knew firsthand how callused Fang's hands were, which probably afforded them some protection from it. Her hands, treated with care all her life by Cocoon healing methods until the fall, had not yet developed such defenses. But she made it across, valiantly ignoring the burning in her palms and fingers.

She didn't even pause as she moved through the next few platforms, each fairly easy drops down to the next, gradually bringing them back to ground level and another pool. She found Daya there, looking a bit winded. Across the pool there were several logs tethered so they couldn't move too far from their assigned places. She could see Fang hadn't had any trouble crossing, despite the way the logs would not only shift underfoot, but also dip and even roll. Well, Light knew her speed could help here. After taking a moment to catch her breath, she stepped onto the first log but didn't wait long enough to lose her balance. She simply continued on, skipping across each log in turn until she hit the opposite bank. Daya, apparently spurred on by being passed, was right behind her. After the log pool, there was another sprint around a massive tree, with not only hurdle, but haphazard roots from the tree just waiting to trip them up. The hurdles were sturdier than the earlier ones, however and while Light easily vaulted over them without touching them, Daya took a slightly different approach and used her hands. They both kept pace and Daya reached the next obstacle just a moment after Light.

A tall climbing wall stretched upward before them. Fang was nearly to the top. Light wasted no time as she launched herself into the climb, Daya hot on her heels. Her arms burned with the exertion. She could easily understand how Fang was managing to stay ahead, her strength and endurance both greater than her own.

Between her aching muscles and wet boots, the climb proved to be rather difficult for her. Daya fared a bit better, and Lightning realized why they apparently favored the open toed boots as she watched Daya bypass the tread of her boots and opt to use her toes for the climb instead. She filed that away for later as she pushed herself up the wall.

She allowed herself a moments rest at the top of the wall, indulging herself as she watch Fang pull herself up the vertical rope by arm strength alone. She tried not to dwell on how sexy she decided that was; the ripple of muscle with each pull, or the sweat that made her skin shine. She shook her head free of lustier thoughts and focused on the course.

She knew there was no way she would be able to go up the same way, she was too tired and didn't have the same strength in her arms. The rope itself was knotted along the way, so she'd be able to use her legs to help.

Fang easily made it to the top of the rope climb first. Daya caught up to her there, and Light caught up to them not long after. Both winded, they opted to stop and catch their breath. Understandable, as a fall from the height of the platform they sat on would lead to injury.

She sat next to Fang, her legs dangling off the edge just as hers were. She looked on to the next obstacle and agreed that yes, resting a moment was an excellent idea. Before them stretched a series of vertical poles that did not look stable at all. Atop each pole was a tiny platform, not quite big enough to get both feet onto. The trail of platforms wasn't even straight, it curved around to meet up with another resting platform situated into the branches of the huge tree they'd sprinted around after the log pool.

She could feel Fang's trepidation at this obstacle. Daya's face was unreadable, but her hesitation said everything to Light.

She stood and approached the first of the poles, which was close enough to test without putting her full weight upon it. It wobbled, unsteady, but wasn't as bad as she had expected it to be. Overall the poles seemed strong enough, but she was sure any hesitation would mean the pole would bow and if not dump her on the ground, was likely to take her well out of range from any of the others. "Hmmm."

She glanced to Fang and Daya as both of them watched her sizing up the obstacle. She knew the fact that the line of platforms wasn't straight was going to make this tougher than it would have been otherwise. She rotated her shoulders and neck to loosen the muscles. She could feel Fang's curiosity, but didn't even spare her a smile as she flipped backward, landing a hand on the first platform. Using her momentum, she flipped again, landing a foot on the next one. She could feel Fang's slight panic as she stood on the platform, worried should she fall. She pushed Fang's worry to the back of her mind and kicked off the platform, doing her best to compensate for its sway as she corrected her trajectory toward the next platform. Another handspring and she successfully made it to the last of the tiny platforms, which bowed toward the tree and the safety of the resting area, which she casually stepped onto as if she hadn't a care in the world.

She faltered only as she felt Fang's pride well up. She continued to face away from them as she tried to reign it in.

"Well. That was impressive." Daya's stoic mask cracked as she spoke softly to Fang.

"That's Light for ya. Full o'surprises."

Fang and Daya made their way across, though a bit more cautiously and not nearly as flashy. Light hadn't been able to see them cross she as fought to regain emotional control, and take in the last obstacle, which appeared to just be to climb down the tree and cross the finish.

She didn't glance at who stepped onto the platform behind her as she chose her route down it and began her descent. She made it to the bottom first, but even as she turned toward the finish line, Fang dropped out of the try into a crouch about a meter away from her. Daya followed suit only a moment later. Fang and Lightning crossed the finish at nearly the same time, while Daya just shook her head with a smirk and leisurely followed behind.

Once she was certain they were finished, Light collapsed gratefully into the cool grass. Amara approached with water and rolled waxleaves that held some dried meats for them so snack on. "Well done Lightning!"

"Oi.. we made it too!" Daya groused at her mate, amused as she settled into the grass next to Fang.

"A bit on the slow side I think." Amara smirked at Daya's irritation as she looked to Fang. "How's your arm? It looked like it was ready to give out a few times."

Light watched as Amara inspected Fang's injured arm while Fang flexed for her. "Bit sore, but nothing too bad. Ooma does good work."

Amara hmm'd softly as she pulled a small glass bottle from her satchel and applied some of the pale rose colored oil to Fang's arm, which she gently rubbed into the skin, inspecting what was left of the cut. "We'll need to clean it properly, but it looks to be doing well."

"Looks like it'll be a nice scar soon." Daya added. It was a compliment among the Yun, they carried such pride in the scars of past battles, and none better than those received while protecting others.

I am so sorry at how long it has taken me to post this. No excuses, just a thanks for sticking it out! I couldn't decide if this chapter was largely gratuitous or not, but I figured none of you were likely to complain about having more. ;)

Thanks so much for all the comments/follows/faves! You're a great bunch!