Harrin and Alys stared up at the gates. They were made of black stone, and intricately carved with designs of flowers and faces and cities and many things they could not quite make out. They were tall gates, heavy gates that towered over them.
They were also closed. Very closed. There was no gap between them, no handle, no opening.
‘I don’t understand,’ said Harrin. ‘We got the Jewel of Power. We overcame all the challenges.’
‘Did you?’ A black bird flew over to perch on the gate. They craned their neck to look up at it. ‘All the Challenges?’ The bird’s voice was mocking.
‘We navigated the Ever-Shifting Maze,’ said Alys.
‘We climbed the Tree of Temptation,’ said Harrin, ‘and resisted its whisperings’
‘We fought the Many-headed beast that was guarding your treasure.’
‘And we found our way to the gates that lead to the Mortal Realm.’
‘Not a bad job, for mortals,’ said the bird. ‘But you haven’t overcome all the challenges.’
‘Is facing you down a challenge, Trickster?’ Alys asked.
‘Because we can do it,’ added Harrin. He placed a hand on his sword.
The bird flapped its wings and descended from the top of the gate, changing shape. When it had reached the ground, it was now a dark haired youth, eyes twinkling with mischief. ‘The last challenge,’ it said, ‘is getting the gates open. If you don’t pass that, you will be trapped in my garden forever.’
Harrin scowled. ‘That’s not fair.’
‘I’m a god,’ said the Trickster. ‘I don’t play fair.’
‘But you have to follow the rules,’ Alys said. ‘The challenges have to be within human ability, somehow, or you wouldn’t be allowed to set them.’
‘So we can get the gate open,’ said Harrin. ‘Do we push?’
‘I doubt it. We aren’t strong enough.’ She looked around. ‘When EldAlyson was trapped in the Garden of the Trickster, he got out by eating a magical fruit that leant him extra strength.’
‘I learnt from that,’ said the Trickster. ‘You won’t find any of that here. Stupid weed.’
‘It’s probably lying,’ Harrin said. ‘I’ll take a look around.’
He started poking around the bushes.
‘Oh dear,’ said the Trickster. ‘Looks like you might be stuck here awhile. How they’ll mourn, back at home, when they find their heroes are lost to them. Tomorrow they’ll say you were never heroes, but fools who dared to challenge the gods, stupid fools who thought they could do the impossible.’
‘It’s not impossible.’ Alys examined the design on the gates. There had to be a way.
‘I suppose the mages were waiting eagerly for you to bring home your prize.’ The god gestured to the Jewel. ‘Too bad they’ll never see, never get to draw on such a power. But then, maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe the power would overwhelm their tiny mortal minds. Much better to keep it here, isn’t it?’
Alys glared. ‘Harrin,’ she called. ‘I think I might have an idea.’
Harrin stopped searching. ‘The bushes all seem the same,’ he said. ‘No fruit. What’s your idea?’
‘Use the Jewel on the gate. It’s full of power, isn’t it?’
‘Sure. How do we draw on it, though? We aren’t mages.’
‘Don’t draw on it, my dears,’ said the Trickster. ‘The power in my jewel will break you.’
‘Maybe,’ said Alys, ‘if we just, concentrate, or something.’
They concentrated. Nothing happened. The Trickster let out a peal of laughter and lay down in the grass beside the gate.
‘It’s been too long since I’ve had Questers,’ it said. ‘I’d forgotten how much fun this is.’
Harrin growled and drew his sword. ‘After all we’ve been through -‘
‘Harrin, don’t.’ Alys hesitantly walked towards the gate. The jewel was round and smooth and warm in her hand. It gleamed white.
‘Maybe this is how we get through this Challenge.’ Harrin levelled the sword at the laughing figure. ‘You tell us how to get through.’
The Trickster laughed harder. It sat up, wiping away tears. ‘Or what? or you’ll hurt me, a god? Or you’ll be annoying as you can, forever? I can deal with that.’
‘We have the Jewel of Power now. We could turn it against you.’
‘You can’t. For one thing, I made that Jewel, you can’t turn it against me. For another thing, your puny mortal minds couldn’t deal with the power in that thing. Even a mage would have trouble.’
‘That’s what you say.’
‘The rules, my dear, the rules! I cannot lie!’ The god spread its hands, a gesture of innocence, of welcome. ‘But you are free to attempt it if you wish. Watching you lose your minds would be just as amusing as watching you attack me with that sword.’
‘Sheathe it,’ said Alys. She looked hard at the door, thinking. Even a mage would have trouble with the Jewel. Which meant that the Trickster had no intention of letting it out into the mortal world, not something that dangerous. But if it was following the rules…
‘Harrin,’ she said, and turned. Harrin was now in mid air, flailing with his sword. ‘Put him down, Trickster.’
‘Sure, honey. In about a hundred years or so.’
‘Put him down now! I think I know how to get out of here.’
‘Oh really?’ It made a gesture, and Harrin fell in a heap, luckily without cutting himself. He groaned and stood, sliding the sword back in its sheath. ‘Go on, then, mortal.’
‘Hold this,’ said Alys, and passed Harrin the stone. Then she ran her hands over the door, over the strange patterns.
‘You aren’t trying to push it, are you?’ asked Harrin.
‘No. I’m looking for a latch, a slot or something.’
‘It can’t be that easy.’
‘Not a latch to open the door, a latch to – there.’ With a grinding noise, the door changed to reveal a small round slot. ‘We put the Jewel in there.’
‘Do it, Harrin, or we’re stuck here forever.’
‘But – but will we get it back?’
‘Does it matter? Better we get out without it than stuck here forever with it and that thing!’ She glared at the Trickster.
Harrin sighed and placed the the Jewel into the small round hole. Then he gave a yelp and snatched his hand back. ‘It’s hot!’
They stared. The Jewel was turning black, black stone indistinguishable from the door. There was a click, and the doors began to slide open.
‘Congratulations,’ said the Trickster. It winked at Alys. ‘You are a clever one, aren’t you? I’ll remember you.’
‘You – you -‘ Harrin spluttered. ‘You mean we never could have taken the Jewel out?’
‘Of course not. Too powerful for you mortals. And I’m not allowed to unleash that much havoc, I’m told.’
‘Then everything we did -‘
‘Pointless. But so are your little mortal lives, so-‘
Alys grabbed Harrin by the arm. ‘Calm down. We got out. That’s all that matters.’ She pulled him out through the threshold into the mortal world. They lay in the dirt as the gates ground shut, listening to the laughter of the Trickster.