Kason felt as though there was pit in his stomach. The howl signalled that even tougher times were upon the group and although Kason did not think that it was impossible for them to escape, it would certainly be much harder to do so now. Even as the smaller drake was still howling, it began to lope towards them, seeming wolf-like on its oddly long legs.
Philera, who had begun to tense up as soon as the beast came into sight, immediately sprang into action. She pushed her way past the children who were still frozen in place and stood next to Perceval who was looking anxiously at the rapidly approaching animal, his wand raised.
She shouted something to Ledia who was a few paces behind her and looked like she wanted to say something to Perceval, but then the drakeling, as Kason assumed it must be called, pounced at her.
Its large frame shot towards her at a surprising speed considering its size, propelled forwards over the ground by its powerful legs, its maw open wide to show two rows of pointed teeth. Kason, still rooted in fear, saw its strong jaws clamping down upon where Philera’s left arm had been but a few seconds before. However, instead of Philera’s arm, the pointed teeth sunk, with a muffled thump, into the mottled green body of a thick vine that had sprouted out of the earth a few short moments before.
The vine then curled around the drakeling’s head and lifted it high into the air before hurling it against one of the nearby trees. Kason gave a small cheer as he saw the light brown body fall heavily down to the tree’s base and lie there motionless, however, his voice faltered as he saw it stir and rise, seemingly unhurt, a few moments later.
Perceval who, by the looks of it, had conjured the vine, tutted impatiently as he saw the beast rise. He glared at it as if it had personally affronted him and, with a flick of his wand, sent the vine after it, snaking across the leaf-strewn earth. The drakeling however, seemed to have become wary of the approaching vine and loped off into the shadow of the trees in an attempt to throw it off.
This tactic succeeded as the vine, which travelled at a relatively slow pace, could not keep up with the drakeling’s long stride and Perceval was forced to begrudgingly abandon his attempt. With another flick of his wand, the vine disintegrated into fine particles of pale blue which vanished almost as soon as they appeared.
Now that the action of a few moments before had ceased, silence covered the group again. All were straining their eyes and ears, trying to find a trace of the drakeling that had seemingly run away into the mist.
After a few moments of tense silence, during which Kason watched the swirling mist with fanatic intensity and flinched at every little noise, Philera spoke quietly to the group, “We’ll continue back, Hugo will be fine by himself, given how he is…”
Kason felt relieved that they were moving again, but then realised that it was only now that Philera pointed it out, that he noticed that Hugo was missing. He assumed that he must have gotten separated from them at some point during the rushed escape.
They moved slowly and in silence, with Philera now at the front with Perceval, and James and Ledia bringing up the rear. All seemed to be going well, they had not encountered any other creatures since their encounter with the drakeling, but Kason could tell, by the tense looks on the older students’ faces, that they did not think that they were out of danger yet.
As they walked, James began to give a whispered lecture to the junior division students. He spoke in a voice so quiet that Kason could hardly hear him, giving them advice on what to do should they be unfortunate enough to get separated from the senior division students.
“If you ever get separated from us,” He began, “Don’t wander around, find a safe place and stay put. Most beasts won’t attack you unless you get too close to them, but if you are attacked, run away as fast as you can. If whatever is chasing you is a particularly territorial animal, it will stop chasing you if you get far enough away from its territory, but if they are hunting you for other reasons, then the best idea is just to keep running until you lose it.”
He paused for a minute and then continued, “Another way to escape from most land-based animals is to climb some way up one of the trees. Most beasts won’t be able to climb any further than they can jump up the tree so unless you’re particularly unlucky, this should keep you safe. If you do decide to climb a tree, do not ever go up to the canopy! There are many dangerous flying creatures up there and if you become their target then you’ll be in deep trouble.”
He paused again, giving them time to remember what he had said, “But remember, if you’re not being chased by anything, just stay where you are. If you do wander off, there’s a high chance that you will encounter something that will attack you. As for those young drakes, if you…”
He suddenly stopped and looked over his shoulder apprehensively. They were passing through an area of particularly thick mist, through which the shadowy silhouettes of the trees seemed to appear and disappear like wraiths. James turned back around, his face looking stern and from inside his black college robes, withdrew a jet black object about the size of a wand but much thicker. He then held it out in front of him and watched silently as it grew rapidly to the point where it was now a staff which was roughly three quarters the size of James himself.
Kason stared in surprise at the staff which had so suddenly appeared in James’ hands. This was his first time seeing someone use a staff apart from supervisor Rayleth, and he had not seen him use it for very long. Despite their current situation, Kason couldn’t help feeling impressed with the way the staff could turn from something the size of a wand into a staff that was taller than he was.
Just as he thought this he frowned, surely it wasn’t right for the staff to be taller than him, right? He comforted himself with the knowledge that he was still growing just as James pointed the top of the staff in Philera’s direction. Philera, who froze momentarily in helping Kayla over a large tree root, shot a glance in James’ direction and shook her head in denial to whatever it was James had asked.
James grimaced when he saw this, then whispered something to Ledia and turned on the spot, planting the butt of his staff firmly in the ground in front of him. Kason wondered what it was he was doing, but before he could find out, Ledia was urging him onwards with the rest of the group.
They left James where he was and continued on through the trees. A few minutes after they had left James behind, they heard a dull rumble coming from behind them as well as the pitiful yowls of animals in pain. Kason looked back over his shoulder into the mist, hoping that James would be alright facing whatever creature, or indeed creatures, that he had encountered.
Soon they reached the part of The Forest where the larger trees began to give way smaller, but closer growing ones. The mist also began to disperse, much to Kason’s relief; his white college robes which he had been wearing had been slowly becoming more and more uncomfortable as they absorbed the moisture from the air.
It seemed that the others were also feeling better now that they could see some sunlight shining down through the holes in the canopy, although the luminescent foliage of the mist-filled forest behind them had not been particularly unpleasant, it had begun to seem rather eerie on the way back.
They carried on moving, although not at as fast a pace. Philera reasoned that the drakelings would have a harder time moving through the denser growing trees of this part of The Forest and so they would be able to hear them coming and prepare themselves accordingly. Kason appreciated this decision because although he could now see better, the thick underbrush was now back and clinging to his feet almost permanently, making him trip several times within the first minute.
The group walked cautiously along, although not with the same tension as before. As they walked, Kason wondered why James, or Hugo for that matter, had not caught up with them yet. It must have been around five minutes since they had left James behind, and apart from that initial rumbling, Kason had not heard any other signs of combat behind them.
‘Perhaps he decided to stay back and wait for Hugo? Or perhaps he’s waiting for us to get outside of The Forest first?’ Kason thought as he walked. He mused about several other reasons that James might have stayed behind, but then, unwittingly, a chilling conclusion seeped its way into his thoughts. ‘Perhaps something happened to him during the first encounter? Perhaps he’s…’
Before he could finish that ominous thought, a loud scream sounded behind him causing him to whirl around in a panic. He saw, with a feeling of horror rising in his chest, Ledia, who had been walking behind him, being pulled by the back of her robe backwards across the undergrowth. Behind her was the figure of one of the drakelings, its head bowed behind Ledia, the back of her black college robe clamped tightly in its powerful jaws.
Kason stumbled backwards away from the drakeling, his foot caught on a tree root, and he fell with a thump onto the earth, still looking with dread at the figure of the drakeling. Somewhere in his mind, something was shouting at him, yelling at him to get up and go to Ledia’s aid, but his limbs were paralyzed with fear. He wasn’t sure whether it was the shadows beneath the trees or just a trick of his mind, but all of a sudden the drakeling seemed so much bigger than it had the last time he had seen it.
All this happened mere moments after he had heard the scream. He was still sitting stupidly on the underbrush a few moments later when Philera and Perceval rushed past him to confront the beast, Lexia and Alford following behind them. Then Harper appeared beside him and helped him to his feet, all the while looking anxiously at what was happening in front of them.
Philera and Perceval had both drawn their wands and had already managed to free Ledia from the drakeling’s grasp. Ledia’s college robe was torn at the back where the drakeling had bitten her, and there was a bloody gash showing through the hole. She was now standing behind Perceval, leaning on Alford for support and half crying, half moaning in pain.
The drakeling, on the other hand, had now been thoroughly strung up by the combined efforts of Philera and Perceval. Where it had previously stood was now a green bulbous object that looked a bit like a cocoon, only the random shakes and sudden protrusions let on that the drakeling was actually inside. Philera turned around looking stern, she quickly marched over to Ledia and waved her wand over the wound on her back. Slowly, a light blue coloured scab began to grow over the scarlet gash on her back until it was completely covered.
Ledia sent a weak, tear-stained smile towards Philera as thanks, before gingerly removing herself from Alford’s care and stretching her back, seeming a bit like a cat, and grimacing all the way. Kason looked at her pain filled expression and felt a wave of guilt wash over him, had he not been so scared, he might have been able to do something to help her.
Philera, seeing that Ledia was okay, then turned to the junior division students. “We need to go, now! and quickly!” She said sharply, her previous calm and collected manner had disappeared to be replaced with severe agitation.
Kason found himself nodding, slightly dazed, still sending guilty glances towards Ledia. Philera began to make her way towards the front of the group, escorting Ledia with her as she went. They had hardly gotten half-way, however, when a roar sounded through the trees.
This roar sounded a bit like the howls that they had heard coming from the drakelings before, except this one sounded much closer to the roar given by the Earth Drake back in the clearing. Before anyone of them could react to this sudden development, there was a great rustling in the trees to Kason’s left, and out of the trees emerged three other drakelings, their mouths open and teeth bared in nasty snarls.
Kason let out a great gasp of surprise and leapt backwards. The nearest of the three drakelings had been only several meters from him. This sound alerted that same drakeling to his presence and it turned its black, opaline eyes upon him.
Kason, who had almost fallen over again, clenched his teeth and stood his ground. Determined to this time, not look as much of a fool as he had before. There was a tense moment where the group of students and the beasts stared at each other, neither of them making any movements.
Then the three beasts leapt into their midst and everything devolved into pandemonium.