Sinead wrapped her arms around Moonsprite’s neck, resting her cheek on her unicorn’s silver mane. Moonsprite cantered swiftly through thick shrouds of morning mist. Beneath her hooves was the shimmering Bridge to the End of the World, suspended in a ghostly void.
Images tugged and twisted in Sinead’s mind as Moonsprite pressed onward. Ghostly faces formed from the fog. She cowered beneath a vision of Last of the Oppressors. It reached for her and she tried to scream, but no sound came. Its huge arm swiped at her. Moonsprite veered, breaking into a gallop, sparks flying from her hooves. The monster Sinead had once destroyed melted into the mist.
The day wore on. Beams of sunlight pooled around them. Green tendrils sprouted along their path, flowers bloomed and sweet perfume filled the air. A lush woodland paradise unfurled beside the bridge; temptation beyond the imagination. Moonsprite slowed to a walk.
Sinead shivered in the pre-dawn blackness. Moonsprite stamped her hooves on the cold stone of the castle battlements. They waited, as Tarron had commanded.
As the lip of the sun appeared on the horizon, Tarron raised his staff. Out of the darkness, a golden pathway shimmered into view. The eyes of the elderly elf fixed unwaveringly on the pathway as he spoke. ‘The Bridge to the Edge of the World appears only on this, the longest day of the year. You must travel swiftly. Do not look over the edge. Do not stop for anything.’
Tarron whispered in Moonsprite’s ear and the silver unicorn lowered her neck. She whinnied gently, encouraging her mistress to mount.
‘Go now,’ Tarron commanded. ‘Remember, you have only until nightfall.’
Moonsprite sprang onto the Bridge and set off at a canter. Sinead glanced over her shoulder. Tarron stood, staff raised, a ghostly Hound beside him.
‘The Chalice!’ the words echoed inside Sinead’s head. She’d dropped it when she’d retrieved her sword. The Hound stirred as she leapt to her feet and scurried along the passageway. Tarron, the elderly elf, stood in the archway where she and the Hound had first entered the Great Maze. He smiled. The Chalice of Earthly Liberation was in his hand and Moonsprite, her unicorn, stood beside him.
‘The Hound…’ Sinead began. Tarron shook his head, pulling her urgently through the archway. She turned and looked back. There was just an empty room. The Hound, the monster and the maze were gone.
‘Grieve not, Sinead, it was the Hound’s destiny.’ Moonsprite edged forward and nuzzled Sinead’s neck.
Tarron placed the Chalice into Moonsprite’s saddle bag. ‘Hurry now, I will lead you to the Bridge to the Edge of the World. You must cross while you still can, then gather the Sisterhood.’
Glancing back as she ran, Sinead saw the bull-headed monster about strike the Hound again. Her foot struck an object sending it skittering before her. She looked down. It was her sword; the Sword of Elshain! However it came to be here, now was her chance.
Sinead snatched it up and wheeled around. The battling beasts were still locked together. She thundered back down the passageway, then raised the blade above her head and plunged it into the back of the monster’s neck with all the might she could muster. The monster staggered and fell to the floor. She retrieved the weapon ready to strike again, but the Sword of Elshain had done its work and the monster breathed no more.
The Hound was splayed on the ground, bloodied and panting, but still alive. Sinead knelt down and stroked his head. He’d saved her, but at what cost to him?
Hound’s eyes glowed red. Growling savagely, he bared his teeth and launched himself at Sinead. But the Hound leapt over her. Sinead spun around.
A hideous bull headed creature filled the passageway behind her.
Jaws snapping, the snarling Hound crashed into the horned monster. The creature grasped the Hound in its great meaty paws, crushing his rib-cage.
Sinead gasped. The monster had been almost upon her and now the Hound was fighting to protect her. She longed for her sword; without it she was powerless to assist.
The Hound fought back, jaws tearing into the creature’s shoulder, but the great beast was stronger, hurling him away. The Hound hit the ground hard; his head snapped backwards. The creature moved in, but the Hound was up again. He leapt into the air and the creature charged, horns gleaming savagely.
Sinead turned away. All she could do was run for her life.
The Cutesy-Pie Snow-People were the craze of the century that Christmas. Their sweet little faces and animated features melted the hardest of hearts, and by mid-December every garden, balcony and complex had their own little Cutesy-Pie.
Everyone feared what would happen to the cute little creatures come the thaw. People cleared spaces in their freezers and banded together to rented chill-rooms to accommodate them for the warmer months.
But as the snow melted the Snow-People hardened. They began to grow taller and slimmer. They lost their sweet expressions and threw off their quirky hats. People stared out at them with a new fear. Were their cute little Snow-People going to turn on them?
Then one morning as the sun rose and cast its strengthening rays over the land, the Snow-People took to the air, rising up, glinting in the sunlight like so many ice angels.
They banded together and flew north.
Satellites tracked the angels’ progress; the feed was live-streamed into every home. People watched and waited. Then, as the first light dawned over the northern pole, the angels descended. Their bodies merged with the melting glaciers and re-froze the recent permafrost.
Together the Snow-People undid the damage of decades.
Sinead stared up at the depiction of the Maze in which she was trapped. A dark shape was moving near the outer edge. The Hound?
His bark had been a relief. If she’d realised why he’d not touched his food sooner, she might not be imprisoned now. But wasn’t this her challenge from the Prophesy Book? Destiny could not be avoided.
Her eyes searched the images on the ceiling. A silver object glimmered in a small chamber nearby. A silver chalice. She recognised it immediately. It was the Chalice of Earthly Liberation. The fourth sacred artifact.
Sinead took a step backwards and found herself in the passageway. The wall behind her had vanished. She spun around. Moments later she had the Chalice in her hand. Sinead pounded through the Maze, certain of the way out. Finally, thankfully, the archway she remembered loomed ahead.
Sinead awoke shivering in the darkness. She reached for her cloak but it was gone. Panic rising, she felt for the Sword of Elshain, but it was gone too. Then she remembered. She’d either been drugged or enchanted.
The room grew brighter. Stone walls encased her in a small chamber. No window. No door.
Not all is as it seems. Was this an illusion?
She looked up. A picture was forming on the ceiling as if painted by an invisible hand. It was a depiction of a maze. In the centre was a tiny figure enclosed within a solid wall. Sinead rose to her feet, not taking her eyes off the ceiling. The tiny figure moved too.
This must be the Maze of Mandoran; the first of the four final challenges.
She heard a dog barking. The Hound was calling to her! All she had to do now was escape.
Tarron laid a hand on Moonsprite’s neck. ‘She will come with me.’
Sinead began to protest, but the elderly elf spoke: ‘The challenge is for you alone. Fear not, she will be safe.’ Tarron whispered in Moonsprite’s ear and the unicorn whinnied softly.
‘The Hound will accompany you.’ Tarron removed the great beast’s leach. The Hound stood up and shook himself.
‘The Prophesy Book!’ Sinead reached for Moonsprite’s saddlebag.
‘It will be of no help to you in the Great Maze,’ said Tarron. ‘Now go.’
The Hound at her side, Sinead stepped through the archway. The chamber lit up before them. People were feasting, there was music and laughter. Someone led her to a table and gave her meat and bread; people nodded and smiled. The Hound was given food too. Sinead ate with relish but the Hound didn’t touch his bowl. As she slipped into unconsciousness, she realised why.