The new life and vitality that was spread throughout the woodland made traversing the terrain less dismal and treacherous. Cole set forth to find Malachai, all of the while he admired his surroundings; the restored forest was a natural wonder, and its beauty was quite breathtaking. The ground was blanketed in an efflorescent carpet, and the flowers emitted an aroma that delighted one's spirit beyond measure. The trees bore leaves of blue and green hues, although once detached from there lofty origins, the leaf's color would shift to a bright scarlet during its descend, and alternate again to a deep purple after settling upon the ground.
The search for the woodsman did not take long, and Cole approached Malachai's campsite with great relief in his heart; he was happy to be freed from the dread of his current adventure, he felt thankful to finally have more than the ominous black birds to converse with, and he was eagerly anticipating the inevitable reunion with his companion, Ruby.
Cole approached the fire pit of his comrade, and he extended his hands over the bright embers that once held a brilliant flame. The sun was shining brightly above, so there was no immediate need for light, but the young man desired to feel the warmth in hopes to relieve the lingering chills of his ghastly encounter. In truth, he wanted to be absolutely certain this was not another one of the Keeper's illusions as well.
Malachai was resting upon the forest floor, and his supine body remained still. His hood was draped over his face, and Cole was unable to see whether or not his eyes were open, but he judged the woodsman to be enveloped in a slumber.
Cole stealthy crept toward Malachai, then frantically leaped backward when the supposed sleeping servant addressed his king. "All went well, I imagine, considering the wind did not carry any terrible shrieks of demise. Welcome back, my king. Were you able to retrieve the Avelen symbol of royalty?"
The young man placed his hand upon his bosom, then affirmed with a silent nod of his head.
"Truly?" The posed question seemed to take effect upon Cole, and he narrowed his eyes at Malachai, slightly irked that there may have existed any degree of doubt. "Alas! This news is great, though the Elder will wish to confirm your claim. I have faith in your confidence, and am devoted to seeing you safely to your journey's end."
"Which can't come soon enough," thought Cole, "and won't come without Ruby."
"We shall quit this forest and return to the kingdom, but my liege, where is your steed?"
"My horse refused to go on. I had to travel alone." The expression of untold dread surfaced as he recalled the dark memories, still fresh in his mind.
"I see," Malachai started with a look of seriousness, then he erupted into a boisterous laughter. He regained his composure, after he realized the apparent merriment was not being shared by the young man. "Forgive me, sire. The steeds of the castle are bred to withstand the toils of war, yet you say that the beast abandoned you after treading only a league into the lair of the Keeper. What splendid power, even after living an age beyond ages! This thought roused my hilarity, that is all."
"What will we do? My legs will not carry me back to the kingdom." Cole rubbed his aching appendages while fearing the idea of such a lengthy march.
The woodsman responded to the query by placing a hand to his lips and whistling; the sound was like a sharp siren, and it echoed throughout the forest, fading into the distance. Moments later, the stallion appeared before the campsite. The animal trod casually toward Malachai, and it was blissfully chewing away on a mouthful of cud. The horse looked satisfied and apathetic, as if the reality of the decayed forest was nothing more than a forgotten dream.
"Here we are." Malachai helped the young man onto the saddle of his horse, then he mounted his own. "Let us make haste. To the castle!"
The pair of riders galloped along the pathway that lead in the direction of Avelen, and the radiant light of the sun gradually waned into the evening hours. At length they arrived at their destination, and without incident they halted outside of the kingdom. Malachai lifted his hood over himself, concealing his identity, then he motioned for Cole to mirror the action. "It will be best," he forewarned with sternness, "if we remain undetected. Our enemy has many spies, and undoubtedly they witnessed our departure. We must conceal our arrival for the time being, and hope you bear the symbol."
The steeds were guided along the avenues, and they approached the castle while the glow of the setting sun painted the sky with a mix of salmon and cerulean. Without any accident Cole dismounted the horse, and readied himself to enter the stonework fortress.
"Go on ahead, my king. I shall tend to our steeds for a time. If you require repose, seize whatever opportunity you find; both the Elder and princess Aira will be sure to pounce when they discover your return," and as he rounded a corner leading to the stables, Malachai added, "although I know you will ignore my advice and seek out the girl."