The Darkest Gate

Chapter 1

She got the call just after four AM on a chilly Saturday morning. At the first ring of the phone, Sarah jerked and swatted her snooze button, then sank heavily back into her pillow. After a few more rings, she woke up enough to hope that her roommate would answer it. A short while after that, two things became clear: the phone was going to keep ringing, and no one else was going to get it. Sarah groaned and cracked her eyes open. Her eyelids felt gummy and she had to blink several times before she could focus on the glowing numbers of the digital clock. "Hells bells," she said grumpily and reached for the phone. It wasn't there. She groped her way across the length of the bedside table before sitting up and mumbling, "Sandy, what'd you do to the phone?"

As soon as she got herself slightly more erect, Sarah felt the weird disorientation of waking up in a different place than she expected to, and it took her a few moments to remember that winter exams had just gotten over. Sarah was home, in her own room, for the first time in almost a year and a half and the ringing was coming from the desk under the window.

She summoned enough energy to roll off the bed onto her feet, taking the quilt with her. Shuffling to the phone, Sarah wondered why Karen hadn't woken up yet. Her dad could sleep through earthquakes, but Karen made up for that by being the lightest sleeper on the planet and more than ready to remind them of it. A tiny spark of alarm flared in Sarah's gut - nothing specific, just a vague feeling that something wasn't right. She looked out the window at the moon, hanging nearly full above the trees, and shivered as she brought the receiver to her ear. "Hello?" she said, voice creaky with sleep.

"Ah, hiya darlin', is it a bad time?" Pierce's voice asked on the other end. The connection was terrible, spitting and snarling with static, but Sarah thought his voice sounded unusually high.

"Middle of the night, Pierce," she said, feeling more alert and more alarmed with each passing moment. Pierce already knew it was a bad time. Pierce always knew things like that, no matter where he happened to be.

"Apologies," he said. "We've got something of a situation, to tell the truth. Terry's on the phone with Hal and Becky. We're, ah, going to bring you all in. How quickly can you get to an airport?"

Sarah felt her stomach go cold. "Karen'll kill me. She's counting on me to babysit tonight. But I'm cleverly deducing from your tone that this is a little more important."

"You know those stories in my library that you're so fond of?" Pierce asked, voice stretching even higher. "Well, it turns out that some of them are actually true. Frighteningly accurate, in fact. Suddenly it seems that we might not be loonies after all."

"Pierce," Sarah said nervously, "that would ruin our image. What would Dad say if he found out I hadn't been wasting my life all these years? Please tell me this is a poorly timed joke."

"Less talk, more moving. Or, dare I say it, the whole world is going to find out exactly how not nuts we are. Steal the car, take a cab, I don't care how, but get thee to the airport. A ticket will be waiting, hopefully accompanied by Becky and Hal. Now scat!"

Ten minutes later, Sarah found herself in a taxi and soaked completely through. She had thrown on her clothes, left a barely coherent note for her parents, and dashed out into the rain. The taxi driver must have thought she was a few cards short of a full deck because he drove in total silence, not even checking his mirror when Sarah began to swear and slap at her clothing to make sure she hadn't forgotten her wallet. Paying the fare took almost all the spending money she had managed to scrape together at the end of the semester, and Sarah made a firm mental note to squeeze Pierce for every penny.

It turned out there was no ticket waiting for her: there was an entire plane. True, it was a little six-passenger thing, but Sarah couldn't help feeling mysterious and important as a security officer jogged across the wet concrete to meet her and escort her to the plane. Becky and Hal were already inside. As they strapped themselves in for takeoff, Becky leaned over and shouted, "Isn't this dreamy? Did he tell you what this is all about?"

"One of the privileges of unlimited wealth," Sarah yelled back over the sound of the engines. "I expect he's finally lost his mind, that's what." The little plane gave an odd hopping lurch, and they were airborne.

A few minutes after takeoff, Sarah started to get really angry at herself. "I am a prize idiot," she growled to herself between clenched teeth. "Pierce calls up in the dead of night, no explanation, and here I am, eager as anything to swoop in and be a heroine. Pierce and Terry probably just had a fight or something."

An hour into the flight, Sarah realized that she had no idea where they were going, or when, if ever, they were going to land. Crawling up the tiny aisle to the cockpit, she stuck her head around the door and yelled, "When are we landing?" The pilot glanced over his shoulder in her direction, then tapped the huge earphones strapped across his head and turned back to his instrument panel. Sarah saw, however, that the sky around them was no longer filled with storm clouds and the air seemed to be getting brighter. "Possibly heading east," she thought as she settled back into her seat. Despite the noise and the entirely unusual circumstances, Sarah closed her eyes and slipped gently into sleep.

She woke to Becky tugging on her shoulder. "We're here," Becky gushed, "and you should just see it! Somewhere in Yellowstone, I think. Maybe Pierce thought we all deserved a vacation."

Sarah raised her head and looked out her window, but all she could make out was a pale orange blur. Rising to her feet, she felt joints pop all over her body. "How long did it take us to get here?" she asked, rubbing her stiff back.

Hal reached over and started to rub her shoulders, but quickly withdrew his hand at Becky's glare. "Nearly four hours. It's nice to get away from the city every now and then."

Sarah walked to the open door of the plane and stuck her head outside, blinking at the brightness. They were certainly not in Yellowstone, although yellow rock and red dust dominated the landscape and here and there a tumbleweed sat at rest. In the distance, red cliffs pushed up from the flat, quiet ground. The sky was an intense blue and completely empty of clouds. She felt dwarfed by the vast, stretching emptiness around her. "If I was ever going to develop agoraphobia, this would be the place to do it," she said, testing the strength of the silence. The dry air thinned the words to almost nothing and they blew away on the wind. "Lonely," Sarah whispered.

At that moment, she heard the thin whine of a car engine. "That must be Pierce," Hal said, and all three of them climbed out of the plane. The pilot ignored them. Once outside, they could see a ribbon of dust snaking up behind an open-top jeep that bounced over the uneven terrain towards them.

"How did we manage to land here?" Sarah asked, looking around and noticing the lack of airstrip.

"More of that unlimited wealth business," Hal said, winking. "I'm amazed you slept through it. I thought we were going to shake ourselves to pieces."

As soon as he saw them, Pierce stood up and began waving madly. Terry honked enthusiastically from the driver's seat, Becky squealed excitedly, and all in all the group made an impressive amount of noise. Terry pulled up next to them and both men jumped out. Hugs were given and received all around, and then Pierce shooed them all into the jeep.

"I feel that explanations are in order," he began as soon as Terry started off. "First, let me thank you all for coming. I had hoped we'd get Dan Barker from New York, and maybe Housa Lotterdale, but they both told me I could go hang." Pierce's thin face drooped for a moment, but he picked right back up again, giving them his patented mad elf grin. "I'd better start at the beginning. Yesterday morning, just after sunrise, I got the strangest feeling that I ought to take a trip to Arizona."

"See? Yellowstone!" Becky hissed triumphantly.

Hal said guiltily, "Well, no, actually. But close, very close." She elbowed him in the ribs.

Pierce ignored both of them. "I called my driver, arranged the plane, and off we went. Terry thought I was out of my head, of course, but he's used to me flitting about by now. It was really the oddest thing, because I knew exactly where I was going. Once the plane landed, we set right out and I knew just where we were supposed to go. By that time it had got Terry, too, and the two of us were as excited and scared as we'd ever been. We pulled up in a darling little spot and just sat down on the grass and waited. 'This is where we're supposed to be,' we said to each other."

At this point, Terry turned down into a shallow canyon and the going got much rougher. Sarah gritted her teeth and held on to the jeep for dear life as it pitched and bucked on the loose stones, but she too was feeling something like Pierce had described. There was a sense of expectation in the air, of important business that needed doing and which they would be the ones to do.

Pierce lowered his voice and continued, "It was a good thing we were there, because we hadn't been waiting long when Something Happened." Chills rolled down Sarah's spine at his tone of voice. "We were sitting on the grass, and suddenly the air in front of us turned black! Now, it had taken us a good part of the day to get here, so the sun had set hours ago and the moon wasn't due to rise for ages. This wasn't like night, though. This was like death. It was complete black, something even the starlight wouldn't touch. It scared the devil out of me. I sat up straight away and recited the first words that came to my mind - the Prayer of the Innocents, from Hammond in the thirteenth century. And you know, it seemed to work! I could feel it shooting out long deathly arms in our direction, but it didn't like Latin at all! Terry and I just kept shouting every prayer we could think of, and then Terry got the idea of trying one of the basic incantations on it. Even better! The thing curled right up and went to sleep when we performed a simple Closed Door charm." Pierce's face was flushed with excitement, and his words were tripping over themselves in his haste to tell his story. Hal and Becky were entranced, eyes glowing and mouths akimbo.

Sarah, however, was experiencing an all-too-familiar sensation. Her stomach seemed to contract to almost nothing, and even in the heat of the desert her hands and feet felt cold. Her sight turned blurry and gray and her breathing became labored and shallow. She had struggled against these feelings every since she could remember and by now she knew that fighting only made it worse, but she still felt her body tense as the familiar fear took her. Why did this happen to her? She dimly heard Pierce say, "Hal, Sarah's having another episode!" Through her rubbery skin, she felt hands grab her arms. Then her sight faded and the world disappeared in rushing darkness.

Through the whistling wind, Sarah heard voices speaking in unknown languages. She saw confused images of strange lands, tall towers, and a singular pure white owl. Fantastic faces and incredible creatures rushed past her and she felt feathers brush her cheek. Then she was falling down and down, and finally she fell back into herself with a solid thump.

She opened her eyes to see four worried faces bending over her. "Oh, for goodness sake," Sarah muttered, "you don't need to look so panicked. I'm all right, really I am. How long was I out?"

The four faces looked at one another, and then Terry said, "A few minutes, honey. Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes," Sarah said grumpily. She hated the episodes - she hated calling them "fits" even more - and she hated losing control like that. She righted herself slowly, careful to watch for any signs of dizziness. Sitting up completely, she looked around and said, "This must be it."

They had indeed arrived. Hovering in front of them was a little ball of blackness. Pierce had been right: the cloud of darkness felt totally alien to the world, and Sarah could almost hear it whispering hateful curses at them. As she looked at it, a very strange thing happened. "Pierce," she said slowly, "I know what this is."

"Of course, dear," he said gently as they all got out of the jeep. "It's mentioned in half a dozen classic myths, possibly even figures in some creation myths. It's clearly a sort of wormhole, a rift in space and possibly time -"

"The last one was attempted when Saint George was head of the Circle," Sarah continued in a low voice, as if Pierce hadn't spoken. "It took them ten days to close it, and a host of creatures escaped because they fought amongst themselves. The Dragon was the largest of them, but by no means the most vicious." The others were now staring at her in open astonishment. Sarah kept talking, saying the words as they surfaced in her mind in case she forgot them as soon as they stopped coming. "Pierce, your Closed Door charm was exactly what we needed to buy us time, but that time is rapidly running out. Once the Gate punches through to us, we'll find ourselves in the middle of a swarm of creatures out of nightmare. I can see the pattern in my head - here, I'll draw it on the ground."

Using her finger, Sarah began to draw on the scrubby grass that covered this part of the canyon. The other four looked at her in puzzlement, and then in fear, for where Sarah's finger traveled, a line of blue-white fire flared behind it. Sarah noticed it out of the corner of her eye but didn't dare allow herself to be distracted. The pattern in her head burned clean and clear, and she hurriedly traced each path, each turn, before the picture could disappear. The pattern told a story, tapping into the flow of history down through the ages to exactly describe what the world would be like if this little black thing were sealed off forever. Once drawn, it would require a Word to make it reality and Authority to say that word. Sarah prayed fervently that one of them might have such authority, because otherwise it looked like a fairly nasty end to the day.

She straightened at last as the final line settled into place, feeling very satisfied with her handiwork. When she looked at the others, though, they seemed anything but satisfied. In fact, Becky was crying and Hal was looking at her like she was from another planet. Pierce and Terry, however, regarded the pattern with something like awe.

"Is that how it goes?" Pierce murmured. "All these years, looking for the key to the ancient mysteries. It was in front of us all the time! Sarah, my dear, I take off my hat to you."

"I think we couldn't ever find anything like this before because we're only called on when we're needed," Sarah said softly. "Pierce, you were right, and you have always been right. As the head of our Circle, small though it may be, I think you have the authority to seal this breach."

Terry squeezed his hand. Pierce nodded, tears shining in his eyes, and raised a hand over the pattern. The Word rolled like thunder from his lips and shook the ground under his feet, and as soon as it was spoken Sarah couldn't remember a single sound of it. The Word made the pattern into reality, and they stood in silent fascination as Sarah's lines of fire drew together and flowed towards the ball of blackness, forcing it closed.

As she watched, Sarah suddenly saw a tiny figure within the darkness. It was running, racing frantically towards them, hands held out in desperate supplication. The wild blackness whirled around it, and its cries cut at her heart. Sarah's reaction was pure reflex. "Hold on!" she yelled, and took a flying leap towards the rift. Her hand slapped against something warm and firm, and she grabbed it and pulled hard. Unfortunately, the owner of the other hand seemed to be doing the same thing - in the opposite direction. Sarah dug in her heels and growled, but the other person only pulled more determinedly. Suddenly she felt a tremendous tug and she was yanked off balance. She felt herself start to fall. A belt of blackness rolled out of the rift and tied itself snugly around her waist. She howled a wordless cry of fear and rage, and then the darkness contracted upon itself and dragged her down into it.