Chapter 23: The Apparition

The drakeling that had been looking at Kason let out a yowling howl and lept at Kason, its teeth bared. Kason stumbled sideways, his head just missing being clobbered by one of the beast’s clawed feet. As the beast flew on past him, carried on by its own momentum, Kason noticed that its hide, which looked scaley from a distance, was instead covered in very fine hairs making it seem more of a wolf than ever.

He took his eyes off the drakeling for a moment to see what everyone else was doing, but the only person he could see was James, who had a=sudenly appeared and was tackling the other two beasts. A menacing growl brought Kason’s attention back to the drakeling, it had landed and turned to face Kason again. Kason mentally scolded himself for being distracted and began to edge slowly away from the creature, aiming to put a tree or indeed anything between them.

He inched backwards, going slower than even a slug might have, his eyes never leaving the drakeling. It, in turn, began to slink towards him so that the distance between the two got neither smaller nor greater, and Kason, with a building sense of dread, got an opportunity to examine it properly for the first time.

As he had noticed before, its legs were oddly out of proportion of its body, as if they never grew any longer throughout its life and remained at that size until it died. Kason supposed that that would explain why the adult earth drake from earlier had had legs that seemed so stumpy. Apart from its legs, Kason observed that its body was more or less just a downsized version of its mother. It also had a rather stubby little tail, that was nothing like the enormous snaking appendage that the adult earth drake had had.

Despite being young, the drakelings were still massive. As Kason stared relentlessly at the drakeling, he hardly had to incline his head to meet the black pit-like eyes that were embedded in its face. Kason’s rambling thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt by the sudden sensation of something hard colliding with his back. It made him jump, given the mental strain his mind was under, and that sudden movement seemed to be the very prompt that the drakeling was looking for.

It suddenly sprang at Kason and let out another loud roaring howl. Kason, who still hadn’t recovered from the scare of colliding with the tree trunk behind him, barely managed to avoid the drakeling again by using the tree trunk behind him to push himself out of its way. He heard a low whistling of wind followed by a crunch behind him as the drakeling collided heavily with the trunk he had just been standing in front of.

Without looking around to see how the drakeling was faring after the collision, Kason dashed away between the trees. He had no idea where he was going, he hoped that he was going in the direction of The Forest’s edge but he wasn’t sure, all that was going through his head was the advice that James had given him earlier. ‘Climb up a tree’ he had said, and that’s what Kason planned to do, but only after he had put plenty of distance between himself and the drakeling.

A five minutes later, he arrived in a small clearing. It was quite a strange space, in that the trees on one side were different from the others. Kason wasn’t sure how it had happened, but on the side he had entered from, the trees were shorter and close growing, exactly as they were in the part of The Forest that they first entered, but on the other side, the trees suddenly became the behemoths that they had only begun to encounter deeper in The Forest near where the earth drake’s lair had been.

The massive trees on the other side of the clearing had correspondingly sized canopies that cast large shadows on the green carpeted ground. These covered roughly two-thirds of the clearing and, for some reason, seemed oddly dark in the light of the gradually setting sun. Despite its strangeness, it was peaceful in the clearing; there was the odd noise of birds calling to each other and the slight sigh of wind playing in the trees, but apart from that, the clearing was more or less silent.

Kason couldn’t help but let a slight smile blossom on his face as he took in the placid atmosphere, his breath was coming in heavy gasps due to the difficult journey through the tangled undergrowth, but his heart was suddenly at peace. Then, the moment was broken and he turned to look anxiously back the way he had come, listening intently for any noise that might signify the drakeling was still in pursuit. After a few minutes of listening to nothing but the wind, he concluded that the drakeling was either still so far behind that he couldn’t hear it or had lost him completely.

He smiled again, this time a broad grin. In his current state, he was willing to accept either outcome, anything that meant the drakeling was not running after him was a good thing in his eyes. He walked slowly towards the edge of the shadows and stopped, turning his head to stare up at the sky.

Given that it was still early spring, the sun set early in the evenings so even though it couldn’t be later than four o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was already nearing the horizon. Kason looked towards the sun and sighed, he didn’t know how much longer it would take them to get out of The Forest, but he didn’t fancy staying in there for the night.

As this thought passed through his head, he began to feel the beginnings of panic rising within him. He frowned slightly and force them back down, panicking would do him no good now. He was quite suddenly brought out of his reverie by the disturbingly loud noise of breaking wood not too far away.

He looked back over his shoulders apprehensively and then turned and looked around the clearing for a tree that looked suitably easy to climb. He spotted one that had a particularly gnarly bark with several small burrs and a branch that protruded quite low down the body of the tree. He hurried over to it, looking over his shoulder repeatedly as he went, praying that he wouldn’t suddenly catch sight of the drakeling rushing towards him from behind.

He reached the tree and paused for a moment before beginning to climb. Kason had much experience climbing trees from when he lived in Selmore village. Being a young boy with an adventurous nature as many young boys had, he had often snuck away from home to roam around the outskirts of the Blackwood forest.

And that adventuring naturally included climbing the tallest trees he could find.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, he had once fallen while climbing a rather tall tree and had hurt his legs quite badly. The result of this was that his parents had insisted that he didn’t go around climbing anymore and he also started to have a slight fear of climbing up to high places, both of which resulted in him not climbing trees very much from there on after. Of course, that did not mean that he had forgotten how to climb, to the contrary, he managed to climb up to the branch with hardly any problems.

Once he reached it, he sat down, legs swinging beneath him, and peered across the clearing in the direction that he had heard the sound of breaking wood coming from. Sure enough, a couple of moments later, Kason spotted a shadow moving among the trees and a few moments later, a bedraggled looking drakeling made its way into the clearing. It had obviously forced its way through the closely growing trees because there were wood splinters caught around its mouth and leaves plastered onto various parts of its body.

The drakeling walked a few meters into the clearing and stopped. It stood still for a few moments, head swaying back and forth as if it were searching for something. Kason sat there in the tree, not daring to move and trying to keep his breathing as quiet as he could, he watched as the drakeling began to move again, prowling slowly around aimlessly, as if it didn’t know exactly where it was going.

The drakeling wandered around the clearing a few times, coming very close to the spot where the tree in which Kason was perched was located. On its third pass of the tree, the drakeling seemed to notice something and began to circle around the bottom of the tree trunk, still with its head swaying back and forth ever so slightly.

Kason looked down on it, the feeling of panic that he had forced back down earlier coming back up at full force. He began to hold his breath, wondering whether he had been breathing too loud. Then all of a sudden, the beast lifted its head and looked up into the tree slightly to the left of where Kason was sat on the branch.

Kason’s heart immediately jumped into his throat and tears began to form at the corners of his eyes. The branch he was sitting on was only about four or five meters up from the ground, but he didn’t know whether this would be enough to stop the drakeling. As the drakeling continued to stare up the tree trunk, Kason lamented having worn his uniform for the trip; it was a pure white mixed in with several patches of blue, both of which weren’t exactly good camouflage in the dark shadow of the tree.

He continued to sit there on the branch, waiting for the drakeling to begin roaring again and to leap up the tree to get at him. But as the seconds stretched by and became minutes, Kason did not hear the expected sounds of the drakeling scrabbling at the tree trunk. Just the rustle of the leaves in the wind.

He shivered in a sudden chilly gust which blew through the tree and caused the leaves to rustle louder. Kason nervously sat, still as a stone, hardly daring to breathe and staring straight ahead. He didn’t dare to look down and check whether or not the drakeling was still there, so he just sat there staring straight ahead blankly and mentally shouting at the drakeling to go away.

As he was just working up the courage to look down and check whether the drakeling was there or not, he noticed something move out of the corner of his eyes. He glanced upwards towards where the movement had come from and saw a large owl standing on a branch above him, its large dark eyes looking at him intently.

Kason stared back at the owl, feeling a bit wary of this animal that had so suddenly appeared. The owl, on the other hand, seemed to be uninterested in Kason; it moved its beak and began to preen its light feathers. Kason watched it with interest, he hadn’t seen an owl this close up before and so he observed it with great interest. Its feathers were a light brown colour that was interspersed with flecks of bronze and chestnut brown, and its beak was a golden colour that became a blur as it moved with astounding agility among its feathers.

After it finished tidying itself up, its head turned back around and it started staring at Kason again. Kason continued to gaze back at it, looking straight back into its eyes, which he discovered to be a dark shade of navy blue. As he continued to gaze unceasingly into the owl’s eyes, Kason was startled to find that he could not pull his gaze away.

From the outside, he looked calm and emotionless, but on the inside, Kason was beginning to panic once again. There was definitely something strange about this owl, he realised with regret, why had he been so stupid as to think that it would be a normal animal despite the many dangerous creatures that they had encountered on their journey through The Forest so far.

The gaze of the owl seemed to bore deep into his own eyes like they were looking for something deep inside his head. After a short while, Kason began to feel a chill congregate at the top of his spine; it felt like lots of small bits of ice were being slid across his back to gather at the base of his neck. Kason did not like the feeling at all, but no matter how much he tried to fight the owl’s mysterious gaze, he could not remove his gaze from those oceans of blue.

The chill continued to accumulate until it became almost completely unbearable, and then it began to move down his spine. It moved so slowly that Kason didn’t even realise that it had begun to move, but as it did, Kason felt as though all warmth was slowly draining from each part of his body that it passed.

After about five minutes, the little clump of cold had passed down to the middle of his back. Kason could barely feel the top half of his arms and his the tip of his nose which he could just see at the edge of his vision was beginning to turn a light shade of blue. On the outside, despite looking much paler than usual, he seemed to be perfectly normal still, but on the inside, he was crying with all he was worth. He wasn’t sure what would happen when the cold lump moved all the way to the bottom of his spine, but he was sure that when it did, something horrible would happen.

He had tried many times to imagine what was happening to him, but his knowledge was not enough to even begin to fathom what it was that was currently happening to him. The only theory that kept coming back to him was that he would eventually turn into a gigantic ice statue.

The lump of cold had now made it to the area just behind where his stomach sat and Kason had long since stopped despairing. Instead was just waited. As he sat, feeling the icy sensation move closer and closer to his pelvis he thought about his mother waiting back at home and wondered how sad she would be if he ended up dead; he did not want her to be sad but at this moment in time, there was hardly anything he could do.

As he sat there, the lump of cold slowly travelling further and further, he thought that out of somewhere he could hear a voice calling his name. The voice sounded oddly familiar, but he found that he couldn’t remember who it belonged to. He continued to listen to the voice as it gradually got louder and louder until it sounded like it was more or less next to him. He still could not figure out who the voice belonged to, and because his gaze was stuck on the owl in front of him, he could not look around to check who it was. For some reason, it really annoyed him that he couldn’t remember and, for a moment, he forgot completely about the cold that was slowly creeping its way down his spine.

As soon as the presence of the icy sensation disappeared from his thoughts, he began to feel warm again! His limbs suddenly felt as they always had and he found that his gaze, which had previously been fixed on the owl, was now free to wander wherever it liked!

He was just rejoicing in his newly found freedom when he suddenly experienced a sharp pain in his cheek. The abrupt change made him jerk backwards wildly and, with a horrible feeling in his stomach, he dropped out of the tree to land with a painful thud on the ground.



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