"Just how big is this forest?" Cole asked himself, though the answer he received in return was a solitary echo. Regret was weighing down upon him; he missed his horse, as his feet were aching from the constant ambulation among the uneven terrain of the forest, and he longed to be carried on the back of the steed once again. The other half of his thoughts were concentrated on his companion, and he wondered how Ruby was faring inside the castle.
His fear of the woodland was beginning to subside, though he continued to observe the branches of the looming trees, cautiously remaining conscientious for signs of the devious birds or the eerie stranger that had only recently disappeared. He had little sense of the direction he was travelling, and absolutely no idea how much time had lapsed since he left Avelen with Malachai. Though his fright was waning, a newly formed doubt was conceived in his mind. "How will I find my way back? How will we find our way home? What if I am not this so-called 'star-born' king?" His thoughts tormented him to an extent more than the grievous surroundings of the forest ever could.
Just then, as apprehension and loneliness seized the young man like a snare that was set for its unsuspecting prey, and after much traveling of countless steps, another silhouette appeared before him, though its dim outline was hardly visible through the screen of fog. Cole halted his movements, and waited in silence as the figure drew nearer to him with each passing second. His heart was beating wildly, and he dared not call out, remembering his introduction to the world of Avelen and the unsightly troll he had encountered. Instead, the king placed one hand on the hilt of his royal sabre, hoping the need for the blade may not arise. To his great relief, his hopes were realized once the shadow came into view.
Surprisingly, emerging from the thick mist of the forest, Cole was in utter disbelief to see the princess of Avelen standing before him. "Aira, is that you?" Immediately his hand withdrew itself from the weapon, and his terror fled from him once he laid eyes upon a recognizable and familiar face. "What are you doing here?"
The princess was dressed in royal attire, though not of her usual eccentric garb, yet her bust was still prominent in the clothing. She approached the young man, and a sly smile crossed over her face. There was a brief moment of stillness, then she said in a gradual monotone voice, "I have been searching for you, Cole. I come bearing good news, you can return home now." When she spoke, her countenance was different than before, and suspicions began to arise in the king.
"What are you saying? Did Ruby find a way to go back to West Sparrow? What about being the king of Avelen?"
"Do not worry about your companion, she has already departed. As for the kingdom - we no longer need a king. You are free from your bond, and from the prophecy." The princess expressed no emotion when she addressed Cole, and her gaze was fixed upon him with an unbreakable stare. Suddenly, before the young man's eyes, Aira raised one of her hands and a pillar of light materialized from the dense fog of the forest. "Just step through this portal, and return to your own time."
Cole instinctively took one step toward the shining light, though his movements ceased once his mind began to function again. His doubts surfaced, and he could not help feeling suspicions arise within him. His heart was now sounding like a drum, "Ruby wouldn't leave without me, would she?" His thoughts betrayed his desire to return home, and his uncertainty kept him in check.
"What's wrong - you want to return home, don't you?"
"I do, but not without Ruby."
"I told you, she has already left. Now step into the portal, before it disappears!" Aira's patience wavered, and she snapped at Cole. The command only heightened his suspicions, and the young man took one step backward. Distrust had surfaced from his worries, and doubt had clouded him like the mist that surrounded and enveloped his being.
"No! Not without my friend."
"Are you saying you do not wish to depart? You would rather remain in a place that does not need you? You must decide without any delay. This is your last chance."
Cole stood like a statue where his movements had ended, and he remained standing defiant. Though he was unsure of himself, and even more uncertain of princess Aira, he understood his unyielding desire to return to West Sparrow the same way he had left, which is to say with Ruby at his side. The young man's brow lowered, and he held firm to his aspiration of seeing his companion once again.
"I refuse to believe Ruby decided to leave without me. You are telling me lies! I will not step into whatever light that may be, even if it were to lead me to paradise."
"Fool! How dare you defy me!"
All at once the mysterious light vanished, and the veiling fog enclosed around the space it had occupied. Cole's attention, which had previously been concentrated on the portal, now turned toward Aira. To his horror, the beautiful visage of the princess had faded, and his sight beheld the grotesque image of a creature that resembled a human in appearance, though the horrendous manifestation was anything but a normal human. Its complexion was vile, its expression was filled with dread; the surface of its skin was a pallid blue color mixed with tones of grey, its hair was wispy and thin, its teeth were like sharpened fangs, and lanky features were detestable to behold. The entire complexion of the hideous demon reminded the young man of a creature burned deep into his imagination, and Cole was terrified to think he may be in the presence of a doppelgänger.
At once the monster leapt toward Cole, and with evil intent, it pounced upon him with such speed that the young man had no time to react, and in a moment the creature's hands were wrapped tightly around his neck. Despite the bony and gangly physique of the monster, it retained a strength that was surprising, even to the frightened king. He struggled for a breath of air as his throat was being throttled, and Cole's face became flushed as he attempted to escape the mighty grasp of the demon.
The scuffle was in favor of the doppelgänger, and its horrific bloodlust was too much for the young man. His sight was beginning to blur, his veins were bulging from his epidermis, and his only hope of rescue was his companion; who was a great distance away, and undoubtedly unaware of the current situation Cole found himself to be in. It was in that moment, when his mind drifted toward remembrances of past memories of Ruby, that a hidden might surfaced within him, and he broke free from the grasp of the creature, though it was unclear just how he had succeeded in doing so.
After Cole regained his composure, with gasps and choking noises filling the air, his first instinct was to draw his sabre, and the blade sang with ancient valor as it was withdrawn from the decorated scabbard that housed it. When the creature's eyes beheld the sword, which brightly shimmered even in the depths of the dim and gloomy forest, it wailed with great dismay and began to retreat into the woodland, but the demon was pursued by the young man. Cole was enraged, which quickened his pace, and he overcame the monster in a single bound; both fell to the ground, then a new brawl was born, though this time it was the king who had the upper hand.
The pair of bodies rolled this way and that, from side to side, but after a few moments all signs of struggle had ceased, and Cole staggered to his feet. He stood over the mass of the monster, which laid upon the soil, lifeless and still, the weapon of the king protruded from the doppelgänger's chest, and the young man perceived he had won another victory. He wasted no time retrieving his blade, and a sickening gargle escaped the creature's lips; the signal that the battle was over.
In that instant, as the king placed his sabre into the scabbard once again, something unexpected happened, which delighted Cole beyond measure. The mist of the forest lifted from the ground, and it dissipated, leaving no trace of its origins or existence. The trees, which appeared black and ominous upon his arrival, were now rejuvenated with a color of lively caramel; their vacant branches sprouted a myriad of leaves, hues of scarlet and peach. The wretched birds that once mocked the young man, and inspired terror, were somehow transformed, and their chirps were light and harmonious. All around the woodland, the constant dreary and miserable surroundings converted into a terrain of rapture and enchantment.
"You have overcome the fear of death, and the temptation of evil," a voice called out to Cole, "and another peril is over. You have not proven yourself worthy of the title 'star-born king', but your trials in this forest has ended. Return to the castle, I give you the symbol of Avelen royalty, brave mortal." The young man looked about, from one tree to another, but no where could he see the stranger who was addressing him, though he recognized the voice to belong to the eerie specter dressed as a large, white sparrow.
There was no trace of the being, yet a single feather, wrought in gold, slowly drifted downward toward Cole from one of the branches above. He caught the feather, and with absolute care, he placed the symbol of royalty close to his bosom, then he began his search for Malachai, elated that he was no longer obliged to wander the forest any longer.