The loud shriek pierced the cool, nighttime air once more.
Ruby and Cole cast half frightened glances at one another, then silently nodded in agreement to suspend their animosity until they were in safer scenery; only adding to Ruby's continued frustration. Aura, if they were even in that area any longer, a conjecture neither one of them could guess, grew still and soundless.
Tall trees, sparse and spaced out, dotted the region they had strayed into; their branches sprouted out high above the ground, and reached out for the very stars themselves, which blotted out the lights from above and caused pools of shadow to appear under them. A chilling breeze swept over the land, and the companions quivered as they pressed onward.
Ruby was still clutching the magical manuscript tightly, as if any second a monstrous creature might leap out and attempt to snatch it from her. She followed close behind her friend, then attached herself to his side after another shrilling scream broke the silence of their hurried pace.
The distant shrieks were more terrifying to Ruby. Cole was exposed to the fear of the decaying forest, and of the nasty creatures that lurked within it; he was used to the feeling of uncertainty, and perilous hikes over unknown terrain.
"That noise," Cole whispered to the young woman trembling at his side, "that noise, it sounds familiar, doesn't it?"
"No Cole, it doesn't. I don't live in this world, so to me that sounds like another monster ready to kill us. Is there an apple tree near by you neglected to mention? Did you eat anything out here while I wasn't looking?"
The young man halted his movement, then turned his head toward Ruby with narrowed eyes and tightened lips; his wrinkled expression spoke volumes to her, but he said nothing.
They continued on until Ruby suddenly ceased, refusing to move another step forward. "Are we walking in the direction of whatever that is?"
A wailing shriek rang out, resonating a bewitching echo.
"I want to know if it is what I think it is." Cole had stopped with Ruby, but his curiosity had taken hold of him, and he gradually proceeded in the same direction as before.
Ruby knit her brow as an immense irritation bubbled inside of her, about to boil over and burn the man responsible for her fury. When she formulated her argument, she opened her mouth for a word of protest, but then something unexpected happened; the tome slipped, or rather felt as if it were jerked by some invisible force, from Ruby's grasp, and dropped to her feet.
"Cole, wait up," she shouted out, stooping over and grabbing the ancient tome. After brushing some dirt off of its pages, she glanced up were Cole had been, but the young king was nowhere in sight. Ruby shifted her sapphire eyes from shadow to shadow, but her companion was not under any of the tall trees, nor was he in the dark spaces between them.
A constricting fear coiled around Ruby, yet she did not completely lose her senses. She patted at her waist, relieving the masterwork cutlass sword from its scabbard. Ruby hollered for her friend time and again; each cry grew louder, and the tone of the young woman's voice sounded more desperate and hopeless. "Cole! ...Cole!"
"He cannot hear you now."
There was another shriek that pierced the nighttime air, but this one was the sudden gasp of a surprised woman. Ruby's heart sank in her bosom, but swiftly she flung her body in a half circle, pivoting herself to greet the figure of the voice that had addressed her from behind. Her cutlass was raised and at the ready, and swung just as wildly as its wielder.
"You can put that old thing away, mortal; no weapon you possess can slay me."
Ruby had already taken the liberty of attempting to slash the ghastly looking stranger, but with every stroke of the sword, the cutlass passed through the unknown, as if they were some ghostly apparition. The young woman began to back away in sheer bewilderment, but slowly she recalled a description given by Cole; the same ghoulish portrait of an ancient being, silver haired and grim faced, draped in a white cloak resembling a giant bird, was now before her.
"Wh-Who are you?" Despite her courage to stay and address the strange specter, Ruby could not help trembling at his presence.
"If I were to begin to answer that, my dear, you would wither of old age before hearing the end. You may simply address me as the Keeper, if you wish." His answer was ominous, and he delivered the statement like all others; a cold and creepy tone passed through his hideous lips.
"Are you the same person who gave Cole that golden feather?" Ruby lowered her cutlass, but she still tightly clutched the tome against her slender body.
"A reward justly earned, and well deserved, but not fully recompensed."
The young woman was confused by the answer given, and she inquired, "What does that mean?"
"One trial remains for your companion: a decision he must determine alone. The consequences of his actions may affect the outcome of his fate. Will the mortal act kingly, or betray himself to foolishness? Does he possess what it takes to free a lamenting kingdom?"
The rhetorical questions irked Ruby, and inspired her to blurt out with abruptness, "Of course he does!"
A sly smile appeared under the hood of the hoary cloak. "Your faith in your friend is endearing. Ah! you have given me a marvelous idea, my dear. If you are so confident in Avelen's last hope, perhaps you will wager something important to you - say, your life?"
Ruby felt uneasy when asked such a dire question, but she nodded twice.
"Very well. Let us bear witness to how well your faith is placed."