Thick, grey clouds blotted out the sunlight from above, and only at the remotest points of the forest were there any pillars of gleam. The twisting and loathsome trees darkened their surroundings, as one by one the king passed between them, and a disquieted tension hung in the air with an unbearable heaviness. Cole was feeling glum, and all together alone, yet he encouraged his horse to continue to travel farther from any sign of ordinary existence; his mind had been made up, and he was possessed by the desire to disprove Ruby's negative opinions of him.
The fog that lingered upon the forest's floor was becoming more dense, and it veiled much of the region, which drained Cole's spirits even more. The frightening calls and terrifying trills of unknown birds interrupted the periods of eerie stillness. Frequently he turned his head from side to side, and gradually he surveyed the shadowy woodland, yet all of his thoughts were centered around his companion.
"I hope she is doing all right without me," he said to himself, under a sigh that instinctively follows fond reminiscence, "although maybe I should be worrying about princess Aira; if she continues to provoke Ruby, I don't want to be there when that volcano erupts. I can still remember the scolding she gave me the first time I was fired from a job."
Before his memories could envelope his attention fully, Cole was jolted back into the realm of Avelen, when he felt a long and slender claw stroke down his back; the young man was greatly startled, and his heart felt as if it had risen to the back of his throat. The sudden excitement overwhelmed him, and his surprise caused the steed to rear up, then Cole suddenly toppled to the ground with a loud thud.
He laid upon the uncomfortable dirt for a moment, and his vision was obscured by the creeping mist, but finally the king regained his sense of urgency. Quickly he roused his muscles into action, and Cole was on his feet after his brief fall. He had one of his hands upon the hilt of his sabre, and he readied himself for a ferocious battle; but after examining nothing more than a low hanging branch, which was gnarled into the shape of a talon, he perceived his fear was getting the best of him.
After his panic subsided, Cole struggled with easing the sporadic whinnying of the frantic horse, then he mounted himself into the saddle once again. This time, the young man keenly paid close attention to his surroundings, and he reluctantly directed his thoughts away from Ruby. Onward the steed trotted, yet before long Cole slouched lower and lower into the saddle, as his sight concentrated upon the trees of the forest, which were the only visible forms drowning in the sea ghostly fog.
The black branches curled and bent downward, and they stretched out as if they were reaching for the young man. He could not discern in his mind if the trees were in fact alive, as if they were some diabolical creature that was truly extending its limbs outward, menacingly grabbing at the hopeless king. Worse than the wicked and insidious trees that loomed above, were the ghastly beasts that perched along the myriad of branches; Cole's heart sank, though his astounding courage did not waver, as he gazed upon dreadful and ominous looking birds.
These fiends were unlike any sort of animal the young man had ever been exposed to, and he had never seen a creature quite like it in West Sparrow, though he had seen a picture of slight resemblance in a biology textbook. Their arching wingspan and devilish glares were similar in appearance to a vulture, yet these were like the horrors of a nightmare, and their unpredicted arrival had Cole quivering under his cloak. It was their shrieking trills that he had heard, and all of his nerves were tense, as he now heard their calls with clear reception. One bird after another would cry aloud, and the frightened king was undoubtedly convinced it sounded like a single word uttered over and over, which was being echoed throughout the forest; a warning, the only caution foreboding some impending doom:
The morale of the horse could not bare the paralyzing terror of the woodland, and it refused to continue onward, no matter what length Cole took to coerce his only remaining companion. Desperately he tried, and with every attempt failing miserably, the young man begrudgingly dismounted the steed.
He was uncertain how long he had been traveling inside the forest, and he was even more unsure of his immediate fate, yet he determined over anything else that he was hungry, so he rummaged through a pack that Malachai had kindly strapped to the animal, then he withdrew a portion of rations and rested for a short while.
It was not a lengthy respite, though Cole had yearned for longer repose, but he could not relish in any form of peace or comfort, as the multitude of ghastly birds peered at him with haunting gazes. He finished rallying his courage and energy, yet his spirits were still abject, and he traversed through the gloom of the forest alone and unaided.
Every time a bird shrieked aloud, and every step Cole unintentionally broke apart a stick with a thundering snap, the more fear would lurk and strive to overtake his heart. He could not guess the direction of his gait, nor did he perceive any hope of finding his way back, but never once did his feet tarry or give way to the terror of the ominous fiends, or the menace of the black trees. The king wondered how vast the forest was, then a bleak thought had crossed his mind, and he could not help but dread the idea of trolls skulking about in the blanket of obscuring mist.
Just as the torment of terrifying fancy has begun to seize his concentration, he heard a voice call out to him, though he could comprehend it clearly, and he understood it was not the repeating omen of the wretched birds. "I am impressed you have come this far, mortal."
Cole had been acclimating to the eeriness of the forest, and it had been, in his opinion, a great span of time since he had heard anything remotely comforting or usual, so the sudden surprise of being addressed startled the young man. He leapt back, then he pivoted himself and turned from side to side, but nowhere could he see any form of human figure.
The king's sight slowly focused upward, and he surveyed an immense shadow behind the dense fog. As the mist began to dissipate around the silhouette, Cole's mind was once again filled with dread. At first he beheld a creature that was as large as a man, but possessed the outer qualities of a bird. He was bewildered, and his body remained petrified as the being gradually became more visible. Upon closer inspection, Cole determined it was not a giant talking bird, but rather an individual of human like appearance, yet was shrouded in a mysterious garment.
The stranger was standing upon a long branch, and mostly hidden under a hoary robe; its fabric was bleached and feathery, which camouflaged the albino clothing against the continual haze of fog, and the brim of its hood jutted outward, like that of a bird's beak. The entire outfit reminded Cole of a large, white sparrow.
Under the eccentric garb, the figure's complexion could be seen, and his pallid skin and sunken cheeks were wraithlike, his expression was grave and somber. The stranger appeared ancient, and could easily be mistaken for a fearful phantom or ghoulish specter.
"W-who are you?" The young man inquired, and his nerves felt completely frozen. "Are you the Keeper?"
"I am many things, but you are not - you are one. It takes extraordinary courage to travel alone through this forest. An ordinary mortal will flea, when faced with certain peril, but the remarkable bravery of a king is not so easily broken, nor is the foolhardiness of a gesture." The stranger remained in a tree while he spoke, but when he finished his statement he slowly descended to the ground, as if he were levitating.
"If I am the star-born king, then why must I be tested? Can't you just give me the royal symbol of Avelen?" Cole was desperately seeking an conclusion to his predicament, and he worried what his fate may be like, if he remained absent from Ruby for too long.
"One trial for the hero, two for the legend, and three for the king. You have come a long way, and still your end is distant - or is it near? You have proven yourself to be courageous, or foolish, and now a new trial awaits. Is the path you seek your truest desire? Is your loyalty unyielding?" As the last question passed through the stranger's lips, he became enveloped in a thick gust of mist, and as the fog cleared, he had all together disappeared.
Cole was again alone, though he was grateful the ghastly birds of the forest were nowhere to be seen, yet all around him the white haze lingered. The young man swallowed his rising anxiety, and though the despairing terrain continued to deplete his mood, he trudged onward, in hopes that would survive his harrowing ordeal.