Sinead shook the gates harder. No lock was visible, but they would not yield. They must be secured by an enchantment. Too slippery to climb, too high for even Moonsprite to jump, they were trapped in the bitterly-cold darkness. The Crystal’s light was fading and the night closing in.
The beast howled again. It was coming closer.
Sinead thrust the Crystal into Moonsprite’s saddle bag and pulled out the fabled Blue Orb, the most powerful weapon they possessed. The Orb had destroyed the last of the Oppressors, it would surely demolish the gates.
Sinead clasped the Orb in front of her and prepared to utter the sacred words.
Just as she was about to speak, a dark shape appeared out of the gloom and bounded towards the gates. Touched by the hot breath from its snapping jaws, the gates swung open.
The fabled Blue Orb rolled from Sinead’s startled hands.
Sinead thrust the now useless Prophesy Book back into Moonsprite’s saddlebag. The light was fading and the temperature was plummeting with it. The same thoughts formed in both Sinead’s and Moonsprite’s minds. Had they been betrayed again? First by the Sisterhood, now by the so-called Gatekeeper?
At least they still had all the remaining artifacts.
The Crystal of Nor began to pulse.
Sinead snatched it up and held it aloft, but its glow could not penetrate the gloom ahead. Surely their only course was to return to the Garden and confront the Gatekeeper. Moonsprite snorted in agreement, nudging at Sinead to mount.
Guided by the Crystal’s light, Moonsprite thundered sure-footedly down the snow-covered steps. Soon the great iron gates came into view. Sinead dismounted and hurried forward. She gripped the gates and pulled, but they remained stubbornly shut.
In the snow-clad garden beyond, they heard a great beast howl.
Sinead and Moonsprite began to climb the shallow steps. All they could see around them were the tall hedges on either side and a bright patch of clear sky in the far distance, where the endless steps were leading them.
The air grew increasing chilly. Frills of frost appeared on the hedges and visible tendrils of breath spilled from Moonsprite’s nostrils. Flakes of snow began to fall. Sinead shivered and drew her cloak around her.
On they climbed through the ever-thickening snow.Sinead placed her hand on the hilt of her sword. This time Moonsprite sent no calming message to her, as she had back in the Garden. Sinead placed her other hand on Moonsprite’s neck, urging her to stop. The snow-white unicorn halted, stamping her hooves on the icy stone, while Sinead opened the saddlebag. She took out the Prophesy Book and opened it.
Without another word the emerald-clad Gatekeeper turned on her heel and strode across the lawn to a different path. Sinead and Moonsprite hastened after her. The atmosphere had changed. A cool wind blew across the grass and the trees began to quiver, casting showers of red-golden leaves onto the ground.
The Gatekeeper glanced over her shoulder and quickened her step. When Sinead and Moonsprite caught up with her she was standing before a pair of tall iron gates. A broad flight of steps, edged with tall green hedges, lay beyond.
Sinead took the Freedom Key from her tunic and held it out to the Gatekeeper, but the ageless woman shook her head.
‘These gates are not locked. All are free to pass through.’ She turned and pushed the two gates open with a grand, sweeping gesture. ‘Put the Key away and enter,’ she instructed. ‘I will not be far behind you.’
Image credit: ‘Iron Gate’ by flowerpowerstock on Deviant Art
The heavy door clanged shut behind her. Sinead wheeled around, drawing the Sword of Elshain for protection. The weapon glowed only dimly: no threat was apparent.
Sinead advanced through a lofty hallway, which opened into a still larger, circular atrium. Double doors swung open at the far side and a warm, fragrant breeze wafted in. Sinead hastened forward, filling her lungs with the scents of fruits and flowers, and tasting the honey-dewed air.
She stepped out into patchwork of verdant greenery, laid out in manicured magnificence. Was this really the place where Mother Earth was being held?
‘We’ve been waiting for you.’
A woman, neither young nor old, dressed in flowing emerald robes emerged from a blossom-filled orange grove. Moonsprite was at her side, whinnying gently. Sinead dropped her sword and ran towards them, burying her face in Moonsprite’s mane.
In that moment, their reunion was all that seemed important.
Image credit: ‘Alley Of Roses’ by Leonid Afremov on Deviant Art
Sinead forced her eyes open. She was lying on a lumpy mattress wrapped in her cloak. A short, stout figure with a black beard, was crouching beside her.
Sorry for hitting you like that,’ he said gruffly. ‘Alric and me thought you were one of them witches.’
Another squat figure appeared out of the gloom. ‘It’s her, Dorril! Like it says in the Prophesy: ‘She will come bearing a Dwarfen sword’.’ He pointed to the Sword of Elshain, which lay beside Sinead. ‘That’s it! The Destiny we’ve been waiting for all these years.’
Sinead raised herself on her elbows, fighting back the dizziness.
‘We are the last Dwarves of the Deep Mines. It’s says in the Prophesy that we must help you,’ said Alric solemnly.
Sinead blinked. ‘Prophesy?’
Sinead sank back onto the mattress.
Dorril crouched down again. ‘Quickly, fetch some water, Alric! Our Destiny depends on her.’
Tarron had already disappeared when Sinead turned to wave farewell. She sighed and continued along the new path. It led downwards into darkness.
She held the Crystal aloft to light her way along the smooth-sided tunnel. Her other hand gripped her sword. Water dripped from the ceiling and ran down the walls in tiny rivulets; beyond that there was no sound apart from her footsteps.
She pressed on, senses alert to any sound or movement. Somewhere she would find the Key. The Prophesy Book offered only the instruction to ‘forge ahead’. Tarron had put her on the right path and all she could do was follow it.
The air thickened. Dust filled the tunnel, dimming the Crystal’s light. The blade of her sword started to glow, warning her of danger. But it came too late. Feeling a sharp blow to the back of her head, Sinead crumpled to the ground.