Kason and the others taking part in the expedition all walked through the Forest in silence. For the children, Philera’s warning about making noise that she gave just before they entered the Forest was enough to shut them up, and for the senior division students, Kason thought that they had probably been in the Forest before and so knew what they were doing. Or, that’s what he hoped was the case anyway.
the Forest, as they first entered into its depths, was a realm of close-growing trees, with low and lush canopies which let sunlight filter down to the forest floor in patches making the ground, which was covered in dead leaves and other underbrush, a patchwork of light and dark splodges. The undergrowth, along with other plant matter, made walking through the Forest a slightly more dangerous undertaking than it could have been otherwise. They blocked the Forest’s floor from view meaning that, apart from the small trees and other bits of brushwood that kept on catching one’s feet, one also had to be careful not to trip over the tree roots that protruded up from the ground but was hidden from view.
Kason himself tripped over several such roots before they even reached the ten-minute mark. He had, however, been saved from actually falling over by the quick reactions and strong arm of Hugo who had been walking along beside him. Some of the others weren’t so lucky; they were walking with Philera and James at the front clearing the front, then came Alford and Harper, then Kayla and Ledia, Perceval and Lexia and lastly, Kason and Hugo. This meant that Alford and Harper were without anyone to help them if they tripped and Harper had seen both of them stumble repeatedly, and Harper had fallen over once. He hadn’t been hurt, but his hair and clothes were now distinctly ruffled.
As they walked through the Forest, apart from keeping an eye on the ground, Kason also looked around for any strange creatures that might be lurking nearby.
‘There must be a good reason that students under third-year aren’t allowed to enter the Forest.’ He thought as he looked around.
Although he never actually saw any creatures, he did hear many strange and wondrous noises as they walked, spine-chilling shrieks echoed out from within the gloom through the trees along with muffled snorts and several distant sounding roars. When they had first entered the Forest, Kason could still hear the pleasant chirping of birds every so often, but now, ten minutes in, they had completely stopped.
Their first scuffle with the native wildlife happened at roughly the fifteen-minute mark. It happened at the front of their little convoy so Kason could not clearly see what actually happened. After they started moving again, Kason heard from Lexia in front of him, that a coal-coloured panther-like creature had pounced upon the leading pair of James and Philera from a low positioned branch, but had been successfully beaten off by James after a short fight.
As they continued their treck deeper into the Forest, they came more and more frequently upon creatures in their path. A swarm of what looked like bats but noticeably smaller had descended from the gradually rising canopy above and had tried to latch onto them, apparently intent on sucking their blood. They had been scared off by the combined efforts of the senior division students but Kason still glanced fearfully after their tiny retreating silhouettes, afraid that they might suddenly turn back.
They had then encountered an attack from the undergrowth by small mole-like beasts that leapt up at them from the concealment of the foliage under their feet. One had jumped up right in front of Kason and only by chance had he managed to avoid its sharp little fangs as they snapped at where his wrist had been!
These moles had again been beaten back by the seniors using some quick spell work, but this experience particularly had shaken Kason. The fact that he could so easily be safe one moment and then in danger the next disturbed him, because even though he had been into the Blackwood sometimes with his parents before and so could handle the walk a bit better than the likes of Kyla, Alford and Harper, he had never been exposed to this level of sudden peril. It unnerved him and made him jumpy, his heart permanently beating slightly faster than it should have been.
The presence of the seniors did help to alleviate his worries though. Whenever they encountered a creature, they would deal with it effectively and efficiently and tried their best to ensure that the juniors were never in serious danger.
After they had been walking for about thirty minutes, the trees began to thin out. The smaller trunks were now completely gone, having been replaced with only the large, gnarled trunks of mighty old trees that stretched up some hundred meters into the air. These trees were goliaths that had overcome all adversities the Forest had thrown at them to become sovereigns in their own little patch of forest. The ground around these trees was almost bare except for the ever-present layer of debris, with only a few of the hardiest plants surviving under the shade of the ancient trees’ massive canopies.
The world under these giants was not dark, but also not illuminated by the golden rays of the sun. Instead, it was filled with a dim greenish-yellowy glow that came from the many lichens and creepers that clung to the trunks of the massive trees. There was also a light mist that permeated the space under the treetops, drastically reducing the view distance of the group and making the atmosphere on the ground seem oppressive and mysterious. The loud cries and screams of the various beasts of the forest had almost all gone quiet now, there now being only a few small noises heard every now and again.
After they reached this part of the Forest, their pace gradually increased. Without the foliage underfoot, there were fewer hazards for them to worry about as they walked. Kason walked through the mist, his eyes roaming around occasionally, but always coming back to rest upon Lexia’s back in front of him. He was afraid that if he looked away for too long, he would find that when he looked back, Lexia’s black and brown coloured back would no longer be moving steadily ahead of him and he would instead, see only the churning mist.
Several minutes after they entered the domain of the giant trees, they entered a clearing where a large tree stump jutted up from the earth, its uneven edges making it look like the gigantic maw of some dangerous beast in the half-light. Philera called softly back along the line, telling them that they would take a break in this clearing and that they should make themselves comfortable for a bit to give their feet some rest.
Kason made his way over to the rotting stump and perched himself on the edge. Harper came and sat down beside him, followed by Kayla. Kason noticed that Lexia did not come and sit down, she seemed perfectly fine and wandered off to the other side of the clearing to examine some interesting flowers that were in bloom over there. Alford, who also looked fine, walked discretely after her, his head turning this way and that all the time, obviously still on the lookout for any creatures that might be lurking in the shadows.
As for the senior division students, they stood in a loose huddle at the edge of the clearing, discussing something. Kason pulled off the sturdy boots he had been wearing and began to massage his feet; they were aching slightly from the difficult walk and, although he had a bit of experience walking through forests like this, he found the terrain her to be exceptionally rough and the added tension created by their constant vigilance for beasts had not made it any better.
He looked over Harper and Kayla were doing the same as him. Harper looked especially bad, he was wincing slightly every time he moved his hand over a certain part of his foot, making Kason think that a blister had probably formed on it. After allowing the children around five minutes to recuperate, Philera and the other senior division students finished their discussion, with much gesticulating on Philera’s part, and walked back over to stand before the junior division students.
Philera called Lexia and Alford back over. As they walked back, Kason thought that Lexia seemed to be remonstrating Alford for some reason. “Right,” Philera began, still talking in a soft voice, “This place we’re resting is near the location of the Earth Drake’s nest. We should be able to get there within five minutes of walking.” She looked around at the group, her face grave. “However there is something wrong with the Forest at the moment, it is both too quiet and not quiet enough! Most of us have been here many times throughout our time at the college and we all agree that the current atmosphere around here isn’t normal.”
She exchanged glances with James and Hugo who were standing either side of her and they both nodded in agreement. “Therefore, we’re only going to make one trip to nest. Originally, we were going to make several trips and take only a few people at a time so that there would be a lower risk of provoking the Earth Dake’s young, however now it is more important to get the job done quickly so we will take the risk. We will all be leaving for the Earth Drake’s nest in another five minutes, take this time to prepare or rest or whatever. If any of you are feeling particularly sore, then talk to Ledia, she can help you out.”
Philera’s serious face then split into a smile, “Of course, this is all a great adventure. It’s nothing to worry about.”
Kason looked at Philera’s face, feeling slightly incredulous. According to her, they could be in a rather serious predicament at the moment, but she could still smile that same confident smile that she had during the other times he had met her and say such brazen things with seemingly little care.
Kason couldn’t help feeling admiration for her, her courage was surely astounding. And at the same time, he felt a bit better about their situation.
They then rested for another five minutes as Philera said they would. During this time, Kason took a drink from a water bottle that Lexia kindly offered him, and Harper, after some internal debate, went off to see Ledia about his foot. Alford looked to be in a huff, perhaps because of what Lexia had said to him earlier, and was standing staring out at the forest with a slight scowl on his face.
After their rest was over, they all gathered together near Philera at one side of the clearing where a small dirt track ran off into the Forest.
“We came here the day before yesterday to make sure the Earth Drake was still here and get lay of the land.” Philera said, her face again wearing a slightly grave expression, “We made this path then, it leads to another clearing where the Earth Drake has made its nest. As I said before, it will take about five minutes to get there from here, on the way there you must make sure that you’re quiet. We don’t want to alert the drake or its young to our presence if possible. You can talk while we walk but after you see me make this signal,” Philera raised a hand and clenched her fist high above her head, “you must be silent.”
She then looked around at all of the junior division students, making sure that they understood. “I’m sure that most of you haven’t seen any kind of drake before, let alone an Earth Drake. It looks a bit unusual and a bit frightening when you first see it, but please,” She gave a wry smile, “try not to scream or anything like that.”
On that rather ominous note, they set off down the dirt path that Philera had indicated. The mist that had been almost non-existent in the clearing, was now back in full force. It clung, thicker than before, to the trees as they passed through the large trunks that stretched above them, looking like pillars as the mist hid their branches from sight.
Because of the large space between the trunks, the group could walk in pairs again, this time Kason ended up with Perceval. Kason called quietly out to him, feeling very conscious of how loud his voice sounded in the oppressive silence, “What did Philera mean by the Forest being both too quiet and not quiet enough?”
Perceval began to explain as they walked, his voice low and gaze still darting around them alertly looking for possible threats, “As the others put it while they were talking earlier, the smaller creatures are too quiet, like they’ve been spooked by something. But at the same time, the larger beasts seem to be more active than usual, you can hear them making noises in the distance. I’ve only been into The Forest twice before now so I don’t really feel it as much as the older ones like James and my sister, but even I can tell it feels different to usual, although I couldn’t tell you how.”
Kason nodded and they went back to walking in silence. A few minutes later, their procession halted and Kason saw Philera hold her fist high above her green haired head, then set off at a slightly slower pace.
Kason took a quick glance at the people around him and saw that Perceval beside him had a slightly tense look about his face. He looked away and concentrated on walking, as they got ever closer to their destination he could feel a feeling of anxious anticipation rising in his stomach. After another few minutes, although they seemed to take forever to Kason, the procession halted again and a whispered announcement was passed down the line.
They had arrived!