Chapter 21: Earth Drake

After receiving the whispered message from Perceval, Kason felt a thrill of anxiousness rush through him and felt goosebumps spring up along his arms. They then began to move forward again, this time very slowly, creeping along with utmost stealth.

Kason could not actually see the earth drake yet. The trees had become more numerous and close-growing just before they reached this point, meaning that their path had shrunk to being just wide enough for them to walk in single file. So it was with trepidation that he stepped through the gap in the trees that Perceval had just gone through and emerged into a brightly lit clearing.

Kason had to close his eyes for a moment after he stepped, it was so bright. He opened them again as he was pulled aside by Perceval to let other people come in and let out a sudden soft gasp.

The clearing they were in this time was noticeably larger than the one they had rested in and was entirely free from flora of any kind. The ground was bare and beaten as if it had been trampled upon for a long time, enough to make it so that even weeds did not poke their hardy heads through the dusty surface. Far above their heads, the canopies of the surrounding trees seemed to have been burned back, and several of the gnarled giants showed singe marks on their might frames, all evidence of some kind of fire that must have ravaged them. Sunlight from the mid-day sun streamed down upon them from the gaping hole in the sea of green, brightening the environment tremendously and making a stark contrast to the gloomy half-darkness in the last clearing they had been.

The thing that made Kason gasp though, was not the rather strange appearance of the clearing though, but the large, lizard-like creature that languished in the centre of the clearing, curled around the stump of some broken giant that had long ago collapsed. It was a dark muddy brown colour and had four stumpy limbs sprouting from a body that was thicker, even than some of the gigantic trees that surrounded the clearing. One end of the massive serpentine body snaked off into the shadow of the trees on the other side of the clearing, getting thinner and thinner as it went. That was obviously the tail of the beast.

The head which was resting on the ground almost directly in front of them was almost as big as the body. There was no obvious neck separating the two and it was covered with the same leathery hide that covered the rest of the animal. It had a short snout that stuck out that stuck out from the face and its mouth hung slightly open letting Kason see a row of cruel, sharp and pointed, stone grey teeth in front of a large black tongue.

Kason took a small step backwards, his eyes lingering on the teeth of the beast. He stared at it for a moment more and then wrenched his gaze away to glance quickly at Perceval next to him, wondering what it was they were supposed to be doing. Kason was, however, alarmed to see that Perceval’s face was twisted in a grimace and he was scowling so deeply that his two green eyebrows seemed to have combined into one.

He then turned to Kason and, moving very slowly, bent down to whisper in his ear. “It’s awake.” He said simply and then straightened up, still moving very slowly, his eyes never leaving the drake.

Kason, whose eyes had been too fixed on the drake’s mouth to look at its eyes, looked up the face to where the eyes were. He found two inky black spheres gazing back at him drawing his gaze to them as if they had some kind of gravity to them. The two eyes were about a quarter lidded, but Kason had no doubt in his mind that the drake could see them all perfectly fine. Kason began to tremble imperceptibly and a sense of dread washed over him. He looked back at Perceval, hoping to receive some instructions about what their next move would be.

Perceval was still looking intently at the drake, his eyes hardly even blinking, but he suddenly jumped slightly and looked quickly to his left, away from Kason. A moment later he nodded and turned back around and, still with careful slowness, gestured for Kason to make his way back towards the gap in the trees where they had entered the clearing.

But Kason didn’t even get a chance to move before a low rumbling sound, like the purring of a very large cat, began to reverberate around the clearing. Kason immediately looked back towards the drake in the centre of the clearing where the noise seemed to be coming from and saw that the drake’s head, which had been resting on the floor, was now raised off the ground slightly and was swaying slowly back and forth in the direction of the students.

The mouth, which had been slightly open in a lazy sort of fashion before, was now closed and it was that which seemed to be emitting the sound. Everyone froze as the drake slowly lifted its front end of the floor onto its front legs and swung its head slightly more vigorously from side to side. Kason had no idea what it was doing, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he noticed that it actually looked quite comical and, had he not been scared stiff, he might have chuckled a bit.

After a few moments, the drake stopped its strange movements and looked straight at the group. The low rumble, which it had kept up unceasingly, now began to quieten, until it was barely audible at all. Then, suddenly, it raised its enormous head to the sky and let out an almighty roar which seemed to slam into Kason like a physical object, making him flinch and reflexively take a short step backwards.

Suddenly he felt a hand clamp down on his shoulder and he turned quickly to see that Perceval was leaning in close to him and saying something to him. Feeling slightly dazed and overwhelmed by the drake’s roar, Kason could not make out what it was that Perceval was saying and the loudness of the drake’s bellows, that were still ongoing, made it so that Kason couldn’t hear what he was saying either.

Then the drake stopped its deafening roars and Kason could finally make out what Perceval was saying. The ringing in his ears, an aftereffect of the drake’s thundering cries, made it a bit difficult to make it out but nevertheless, Kason began to hear Perceval’s voice over the top, saying repeatedly, “Go back! Go back!”

Having now understood, Kason nodded to Perceval to show that and, taking one last quick glance at the drake which was now silent in the centre of the clearing, moved hurriedly to the gap in the trees through which they had entered and plunged back into the gloomy shadows of the Forest.

A couple of panic-stricken minutes later, Kason stood panting back in the other clearing at the other end of the path where they had rested less than twenty minutes before. Besides him, there was Harper, who was standing staring blankly at the ground muttering something under his breath, Kayla, Hugo and Perceval who was following behind him.

He stood near the large rotting stump in the middle of the clearing and took in large mouthfuls of air, thinking back on the events that had taken place at the earth drake’s nest. The whole experience had seemed quite surreal to him as it was happening, it was like his brain couldn’t handle the amount of new information it was being asked to process and so its solution was to just not process it at all.

But now that he was out of immediate danger, it was like his brain had just turned back on and he suddenly realised that everything that had happened was very much real.

His breathing quickened slightly as he processed that realisation and he cast his gaze around subconsciously to find something to distract himself. As he was looking around, he caught sight of his legs in the corner of his eyes and realised that they were shaking. He staggered over to the rotting tree stump, sat down on it and placed his hands on his knees, hoping that this would stop their trembling.

A couple of seconds later, and a loud rustling from the direction of the path announced the arrival of the remainder of the party. First Lexia burst through the underbrush, looking very pale and out of breath, then came Alford, with a similarly grim expression, and lastly James and Philera who were bringing up the rear.

As soon as they entered the clearing, Lexia and Alford came and sat on the stump near Kason, both of them were out of breath. Philera, on the other hand, called the other senior division students to her and, after speaking a few words to them, then walked over to the stump to speak to Kason and the rest of them.

“That didn’t exactly go to plan,” She began, sounding a bit flustered, “but it’s nothing disastrous.” She smiled around at them and despite the slight unease in her voice, it was her usual confident smile. “We’ve decided that Ledia, Perceval and I will take you lot back out of the Forest as fast as we can and Hugo and James will stay to get the egg shards.” She then sighed, “It’s a shame though, if only…”

At that moment Philera suddenly stopped talking and cocked her head to one side while looking over at the path they had just entered the clearing from. After a few seconds, an alarmed expression flitted momentarily across her face before it was replaced by a slight frown.

Kason distinctly caught her swear under her breath before turning to the children and saying, “Well that doesn’t matter get ready to leave, the sooner we get out the better.”

They all got up from the stump, while Philera turned around and issued orders to Hugo and James who were staying behind. The group were ready to leave within thirty seconds and were standing ready for Philera’s signal. Kason’s legs had stopped trembling and everyone had gotten their breath back.

Harper walked up to Kason, wearing an uneasy smile. “I’ve got to admit, when I said that I would come along, I didn’t expect that we’d be doing anything this crazy.” He said in a low voice, shaking his head slightly.

Kason just nodded. Although he had tried to keep an open mind during their discussions, he had still been surprised when they had found out the purpose of their expedition. They had concluded in their discussions that they would probably be collecting some kind of poisonous plants or something, he hadn’t really been expecting an encounter with a drake.

Philera then walked over to their group who were still standing near the stump. “We’re leaving now. I will take the lead, Ledia will walk in the middle and Perceval will take up the rear. We’re not going to run, but we’ll try to move faster than we did on the way here, so make sure you’re careful with your feet.” She turned away for a moment but then, as if she had just remembered something, she said, “And this time, be doubly sure to be as quiet as possible.”

The group nodded seriously and followed Philera across the clearing towards the exit which would lead them back towards the college. They had barely made it halfway there though when Philera suddenly slowed her steps and looked back at the path leading to the earth drake’s clearing, her expression becoming slowly more severe.

“Go, quickly.” She said in an urgent voice to the group, “Follow Perceval for now.” She turned to Perceval, “You lead the way, for now, I’ll bring up the rear. Ledia you go with Perceval. James…”

Kason wondered what it was that had caused her sudden change in attitude, but then he heard strange sounds coming from the direction of the path to drake’s clearing. It sounded like there was a heard of dogs running towards them through the trees, or that’s what the yelps made it sound like. Except it couldn’t possibly be dogs, because these yelps were oddly distorted, with a deep gravely tone to them that Kason had never heard before.

A small part of him wanted to stay and see what strange animal it was that made these strange cries, but the rest of his brain was already clamouring for his legs to start moving as soon as they could. He began to move at a jog with the rest of the group towards the trees, hoping that once in there, they would be able to throw off their pursuers, whatever they were.

They reached the trees just as another roar rang out from where the drake was. This was answered by a chorus of long howl like sounds from their pursuers and, disturbingly, one lone howl from somewhere in the direction that they were heading.

Regardless, they plunged into the misty darkness of the trees, the low light making it all the more difficult to move quickly even though there was plenty of space. They moved at a steady pace for around five minutes, some of them stumbling over tree roots, but none of them had fallen. After that time, Perceval and Ledia who were at the front suddenly stopped.

The rest of the group stopped as well, with some crashing into the person in front because of the suddenness of the stop. Philera, who was at the back, pointed her wand at Perceval in front with an expression of impatience on her face, Perceval turned and pointed his own wand at her briefly before turning back to look forward.

Whatever Philera had understood from that movement, did not make her any happier. She whacked her wand on her sleeve out of frustration and then went back to keeping an eye out for threats. Kason wondered nervously what it was that had caused them to stop, but then, when the mist shifted a little, he felt a chill run down his spine as he caught sight of what it was.

On the path in front of them was an animal that looked like a small version of the earth drake, except with legs that were longer in relation to its body. It was standing stock still in the path, head slowly moving this way and that as if it were searching for something. Kason felt a thrill of fear run through him as he realised that its target was probably them.

He stood frozen in place, hoping that by doing so they would somehow be able to avoid detection by the miniature earth drake. Time seemed to pass by at a snail’s pace and the drake in front of them stubbornly remained stood in the same place, blocking their exit route. A while later, the small drake in front of them slowly moved its head in their direction, whether by chance or intention Kason did not know, but at that moment, Kayla who, Kason noticed, was visibly trembling, took a small step backwards.

There was a small crunch as some dead leaves under her feet were broken by the impact of her boots. The sound it created was very quiet, Kason would not have noticed it had he not seen her do it, but in that instant, the little drake’s head snapped in their direction and it let out its signature long howl.



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