Chapter 24: Outing Successful?

Kason closed his eyes as he fell in anticipation of the painful impact with the ground that was surely waiting for him. To his surprise, however, all he felt as a slight bump around the middle of his back before he was pushed back up by something soft and springy beneath him. He immediately turned his head to see what it was that had saved him and saw that a thick layer of moss had sprouted up from the earth to form a sort of bed upon which he was lying.

He puzzled for a moment over this strange phenomena, but then he heard a slight rustling and his name being called again. He looked up to find the worried face of Lexia looking down at him.

“Are you alright?” She asked in a gentle voice.

Kason looked back at her speechless for a moment, then he quickly replied that he was fine and pushed himself into a sitting position. Lexia moved backwards and to allow him room to sit and as she did, Kason noticed that she was limping slightly.

“Did something happen to you? Are you alright?” He asked with concern.

Lexia smiled wryly and explained how, after the drakelings had ambushed the group, she had run off back in the direction that they had come from, but had unluckily tripped over a protruding tree root and almost sprained her ankle. Kason looked up at her with sympathy, she looked as though she had been through a lot.

Her tawny hair had broken free from the ponytail it had been tied in and was cascading down past her shoulders. The special outfit that she had worn for the outing seemed to be in one piece, however, Kason could seen streaks of mud and crushed greenery all across it; discolouring the white stripes to a colour more like the brown that made up the rest of it.

“Did you manage to get away from the drakelings?” He asked and then realised that it was a stupid question, given that she was standing in front of him at this moment.

Lexia smiled, “Yeah, one of them came chasing after me, but Hugo came along just in time and rescued me, he probably cushioned your landing just now as well. But I wonder where he’s gone now?”She looked around briefly, trying to figure out where he had gone. After a moment she stopped looking and turned back to Kason, who was in the midst of pushing himself to his feet.

“Oh, yeah! You lost something when you fell” She said, pulling something out of one of her many pockets. It was the necklace with the silver bird-winged locket that Kason had been wearing.

Kason looked at it in surprise, his hand subconsciously going to his neck to feel for where the strap should have been. He took the necklace back from Lexia saying a heartfelt thanks and giving the locket a once-over to see if it had been damaged in any way. As he looked over it, he puzzled over how the necklace could have come off while he was falling; he had been keeping it under his college robes after all so it shouldn’t have fallen out, even when he was falling.

As he was busy examining the locket, Lexia looked at him with a bashful expression on her face, “I’m sorry that I made you fall.” She said in a quiet voice.

Kason, who was only been half listening, accepted her apology and replied with a half-hearted word of forgiveness. After he spent a while confirming that the locket wasn’t damaged in any way, he looked back up at Lexia. She was standing a little way off, now examining one of the flowers that were growing in the shade of the tree that Kason had fallen out of.

Kason gazed at her absentmindedly, thinking about what she had said while he was examining the locket. After a moment he frowned slightly, she had apologised for making him fall, but he hadn’t even realised that she was the reason he had fallen or how she had even found him in the first place.

He walked over to her. “Ledia,” He called out in a soft voice, “umm, how exactly did I end up falling out of the tree?”

Lexia looked over her shoulder and shot him a quizzical glance. “I was, umm, a bit distracted while I was up there.” He explained with a nervous laugh.

Lexia shot him a glance that clearly expressed her disbelief in this explanation, then stood up and turned around to face him. “Well, after being rescued by Hugo, he told me to come with him while he went looking for anyone else who had gotten lost in The Forest.” She began, “So I went along with him and he came to this clearing where he spied you sitting up in that tree. He must have also seen something else because he sent me over to get you while he went and did something else.”

She went into a thoughtful silence for a moment but then continued, “Anyway, I came over to the tree and called up to you from beneath it, but you weren’t answering, so I decided to climb up and see what you were doing. When I got up here, I saw you were just sitting there on the branch staring off into space.”

Lexia stopped her explanation to give Kason a concerned look, “You looked quite creepy as well, just sitting there, pulling at that silver thing on your necklace; it looked like you were trying to pull it off! Anyway, you were being weird so I called out to you a bit more, but you weren’t answering still so I decided to give you a tap to see if you would react. I only meant to give you light slap on the cheek but you moved and…” She trailed off and looked down at her feet.

Kason looked at her, a smile slowly creeping over his face. It had been Lexia’s voice that had woken him from that horrible frigid nightmare.

“Thank you.” He said, in a voice full of heartfelt gratitude.

Lexia quickly looked up at him with a confused expression on her face. “What for?” She asked in a bewildered voice.

“For helping me wake up from that dreadful owl’s trance.” Kason explained.

To his surprise, Lexia looked even more confused. “What owl?” She asked.

Now it was Kason’s turn to feel bewildered. “There was an owl up in the tree perched on one of the branches. It was had brown feathers and…” He trailed off seeing Lexia’s disbelieving gaze.

“There wasn’t an owl in the tree when I went up.” Lexia stated slowly, looking at Kason with a worried gaze again.

“Oh, but I… umm, nevermind…” Kason replied feebly, looking away from her.

He felt his face begin to turn scarlet from embarrassment. He couldn’t have imagined that owl could he? No, it wasn’t possible! Was it? He fell silent as thoughts of doubt whirled around his mind, making him wonder whether the owl had actually ever been there.

They were still standing in silence and a few minutes later when Hugo returned to the clearing. He appeared silently from the shadows beneath the huge trees that grew up from one side of the clearing, casting several glances over his shoulder as he walked over to them.

At first glance, he seemed to be exactly the same as he had when Kason had last seen him, but as he got closer, Kason realised that he too had obviously had a rough time in The Forest. His black college robes were torn in places and his tired eyes looked to be sunken further back into a face that was now slightly sallow looking.

He approached where Kason and Lexia were standing and cast Kason a piercing gaze. “Did you experience anything strange whilst you were up in that tree?” He asked in a rather sharp tone of voice.

Kason, who was startled by his unexpected tone, answered him in a slightly shaky voice, “Yeah, I- I did…”He began and then went on to describe his encounter with the owl, adding onto the end what Lexia had told him only a few minutes before. Once he had finished, Hugo examined him with pursed lips for a few moments; he seemed to be contemplating something.

Kason squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze, thinking that Hugo didn’t seem at all like he had on the journey into The Forest. Eventually, Hugo let out a short sigh and then turned to Lexia, “You say you couldn’t see this owl when you climbed up the tree?” Lexia nodded and Hugo went once again into contemplation.

He looked up again after a moment, “Can I see that locket?” he asked Kason. Kason nodded and hastily pulled at the leather strap around his neck to pull the silver locket out from under his college robes. It emerged, glittering in the evening light, a few moments later, and Kason wordlessly handed it over to Hugo.

Hugo took it and turned it over in his hand. “Is there anything inside?” He asked after a moment.

“Y- Yes” Kason replied, and explained about the black stone that he had found while walking around the college on the day after he had first arrived. Hugo nodded silently and went back to examining the locket. He poked at the silver-winged doors with one of his fingers and they swung slowly open for him, just as they had done for Castor in The Stars at Midnight.

Hugo gazed down at the little pitch black stone that sat inside and fell into silent contemplation again. He stood there staring at it for so long, that Kason and Lexia began to glance at each other; silently trying to persuade the other to get his attention.

After a few more minutes of this silent conversation, where neither managed to convince the other, their exchanges were halted by Hugo who came back out of his trance-like state and absentmindedly handed the now-closed locket back to Kason, who took it gingerly from his hand. He then took a long look around the clearing before looking at the two children again.

“We had better get going,” he said, “I’m sure neither of you wants to hang around here much longer.” He smiled slightly at the two of them and Kason let out a small sigh of relief, it seemed that the normal Hugo was back.

Hugo began to lead them through The Forest back towards the outer edge where, he told them, the rest of the group were gathering. “Everyone else is safe,” he said as they walked, “James managed to beat down the other two drakelings. Only the ones that chased you two managed to get away.”

“He didn’t kill them, did he?” Lexia asked

“Oh no!” Hugo said, shaking his head, “No, he just subdued them so that they wouldn’t bother the rest of them anymore. They should wake up in a clearing somewhere soon feeling as though they had been lying under a tonne of boulders.” He smiled slightly as he said this in a way that Kason could understand. He too, wanted the drakelings to suffer at least a bit for all the terror they had caused them.

They reached the rest of the group without any other mishaps occurring. There was a pleasant outcry upon their arrival, Harper, who spotted them first, stood up and ran over to check if they were both okay, closely followed by Kayla and Alford. Kayla and Alford both focused more of their energies on Lexia. Which was understandable, Kason thought, they had known her much longer than him anyway.

Harper stood next to Kason and watched as Alford fussed over the state of Lexia’s outfit and spoke at great lengths about how she shouldn’t have run off all by herself, to which Lexia just nodded and rolled her eyes. He told Kason about how he, Alford and Kayla had managed to escape with Ledia and Philera while James dealt with the drakelings and asked how things had gone with Kason.

Kason turned away from the scene occurring around Lexia and explained to Harper all that had happened to him in the clearing. Harper frowned as he described what the owl had done to him and looked at him with sympathy in his eyes.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” He asked in a worried voice.

Kason nodded and smiled at him, thankful for his concern. Harper smiled back and began to speak again, telling him about the inane things that he had heard from other students about The Forest. Kason, although not entirely in the mood for it, went along with it all the same. He appreciated that Harper was trying to take his mind off what had happened to him in The Forest and so let himself get caught up in the flow of conversation until he had almost forgotten.

Just as Harper began to tell Kason about a flying squid-like creature that someone had sworn that they saw drifting between the trees a while back, Philera coughed to get their attention. The five children all stopped what they were doing and looked at her.

“I’m glad that you’re all safe.” She began, addressing all of them “Although things went a bit awry during the process, I think we can all agree that the trip could be called a sort of success.” Kason, who immediately began to question Philera’s sanity, cast a glance around at the other Botanists to see what they thought of this statement and was surprised to see that many of them were nodding along with Philera.

“After all,” She continued, “We managed to get the egg shards, courtesy of Hugo.” Hugo bowed slightly from where he was sitting next to Ledia and the other Botanists gave him a light smattering of applause. “So now that our objective has been accomplished, it’s time for us to make our way back to the college…”



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