Taylor reached the edge of the woods at last, soaked through and panting for breath. She peered apprehensively into the darkness of the forest, not brave enough to venture too far in but unwilling to stay in the rain-lashed meadow. She stood uncertainly on the edge of the woods and stared back out across the plains, unable to make out the spot where she had stepped through the mirror. Lost. Something scratched against her arm and she absentmindedly reached up to brush it away, expecting to feel the rough texture of a tree branch beneath her palm. Instead, a now familiar sharp stab of heat electrified her fingers. She gasped and looked down to glimpse the mountain dragon's tail as it quickly zipped away.
The little creature sprung up and landed on a branch close to Taylor's ear, wrapping its claws tightly around the springy, bouncing twig to balance itself. The wind howled and whistled overhead as another blinding flash of lightning lit up the sky. The mountain dragon cocked its head at her, its emerald eyes bright and intelligent. "So, you're here at last." He looked away as he spoke in his gravelly voice, languidly stretched out his wings, and yawned. The twig twanged and bounced beneath the small weight of his body as the rain pattered on the leaves above, the comforting sound adding a homely backdrop to a surreal scene.
"You can talk! How can animals talk I'm losing my mind." Taylor rubbed at her eyes before opening them again to stare at the mountain dragon. He held one small foot in the air in front of his face and inspected his talons closely, as if she were not there at all. "Where am I A lizard named Sheldon has just told me that we are in Torwood. What country is this It looks like nothing I've ever seen before." She was babbling and she knew it, but if the dragon answered at least one of her questions, she was sure she would feel a little better. At least, not so alone and lost.
The mountain dragon set his foot down on the branch before lifting the other, again inspecting his talons with his focused green stare. He flexed and unflexed his curving claws before launching himself upwards to land on another branch slightly higher up the tree. He looked down at Taylor and sparked a small stream of flame in her direction. She jumped backwards in fright, painfully snagging her hair on a low hanging branch. "Ow!" She struggled to free myself, pulling out several long strands of hair in the process. Taylor rubbed at the sore spot and looked crossly back at the mountain dragon but he had gone, leaving nothing behind but a softly waving, empty branch.
As Taylor swivelled around, searching for a glimpse of the creature, a shaft of sunlight poked itself through the clouds and the last of the rain pattered to an end. Within seconds, a beautiful rainbow arched across the field. She stared in wonder at the unbelievable vibrancy of the band of colours, each perfectly separated from the colour before it. As she gazed rapturously at the rainbow, brighter than any she had ever seen, the grasses of the field parted and a large, white form walked under the ambient prism. Taylor gasped as she watched it approach, her heart pounding and her palms tingling as she braced herself for fight or flight. A giant white panther, surely bigger than any panther was ever meant to be, padded purposefully towards her, its yellow eyes fixed intently on her own. Taylor looked around in terror, searching for some means of escape. The woods were so dark and murky and the trees were growing too close together to allow for easy thoroughfare. Taylor stared frantically up at the towering trees, gauging whether she could climb the gnarled trunks and find safety in the branches above.
"Wait." The voice was musical, soft and beguiling. Gentle.
Taylor apprehensively turned to find herself face to face with the panther, so close now that she could make out each individual white hair on its coat and see each of its quivering whiskers. The large yellow eyes held her own, studying her with kindness and interest. "I won't hurt you." The panther slowly lowered its body until it lay stretched out on the ground in front of her, just as Sox laid herself down in a patch of sunlight. "There, see There's nothing to be afraid of."
Taylor stared at the massive paws in the grass at her feet, close enough to touch if she reached out her sandaled foot. With just one careless swipe, the animal could knock her to the ground. And then what! Taylor slowly raised her eyes to see the panther still watching her intently.
"I am Itaea," the panther said softly. "Tell me your name, human child."
"I'm Taylor." Her voice trembled and shook. "I followed the mountain dragon through my wardrobe mirror to get here." She lifted her hands helplessly. "I don't know how to get back."
Itaea said nothing. She thrust her head forward and began to lick rhythmically at her outstretched foreleg, her large tongue ruffling and dampening her pristine white fur as she dragged her tongue over and back. It was soothing to watch her, almost hypnotic. After several minutes of calm grooming, Itaea raised her head again to gaze at Taylor. "Taylor. I thought it might have been you. So, you have come at last. But I'm afraid that I can't tell you how to go forward and I can't tell you how to get back," she said sadly, her eyes unblinking as she studied Taylor. "You must find the pathway yourself. However, what I can do is warn you to be on guard. Sometimes the creatures who you believe to be your friends are the ones who will betray you the most. Think kindly of others, but be aware that not everyone wants the best for you. Keep love close to your heart but keep your eyes and ears open." She flexed her muscles and rose quickly and easily to her feet, her head almost level with Taylor's own.
Taylor backed up against the tree trunk behind her, her eyes never leaving the panther. The rough bark of the tree felt reassuring and familiar under her hands, giving her a sense of reality in the middle of all the craziness. Itaea shook herself, her coat rippling, and inclined her head towards Taylor, so close that her whiskers touched Taylor's dress. "Good luck with your journey, human child," she purred. "I'm sure that we will meet again. In fact, I am positive of it." She turned and padded across the field without looking back and soon disappeared from sight into the grass.