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The Gateway - Ch 1 (version 4)

by ChrisCharlton 

Posted: 18 August 2003
Word Count: 2482
Summary: Tightened, refined, polished - probably to death

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Chapter 1 - The unexpected consequences of a nature ramble.

Daniel had disappeared.
He wasn’t hiding. He hadn’t sneaked quietly behind a tree. He hadn’t run away while Joseph's back was turned. He had just vanished.
Joseph, his younger brother, stood and blinked owlishly at the spot where his brother had just been standing. There had been no flash. No pop, bang or fizz. It had all been rather understated, really. One moment he was there, the next moment he was not. Joe blinked again, hard, and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and sleeve. He peered at the spot again, but it made no difference – his brother had definitely gone.

Up until that moment the day had been okay if rather uneventful. Certainly, he could remember nothing to suggest that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen. Joe frowned. Mentally, he reviewed the last few hours in his mind, wondering if he had missed something. Perhaps something subtle or important had happened which, at the time he hadn’t noticed, but in retrospect would explain everything. He scowled, thinking hard.

It had started as a nice enough day – very nice in fact. As sunny and warm a Sunday in late August as you could ever want! Being Sunday, neither his mum nor dad were working. Unfortunately, after lunch, that had meant 'family quality time'.
“Come on, get your shoes on,” Dad had said, bursting into the study where he and his brother had been minding their own business playing on the computer.
“Bum,” Dan had moaned quietly under his breath, sensing the inevitable. “Why?” he’d remembered his brother asking louder.
“We’re all going out to get some fresh air. We’re going for a nature ramble in the country. Come on, save your game and let's get going,” and with that, Dad had bustled back out.
“So open a window. That’ll let in fresh air,” Joe remembered his brother calling after dad. He was always quick like that.
“Yes, but it won't exercise your legs, will it. They'll be all spindly and underdeveloped through lack of use."
Dan hadn't giving in so easily; he'd tried a different tack. “But what about sunburn? Our teacher said you could get skin cancer. It’s safer if we stay here indoors.”
“So we’ll put sun cream on your pasty white skins. Satisfied? If you like you can even wear a hat. Now – switch that off!” Dad had put his head back into the study. Slowly they’d swung into action. He remembered Dan still grumbling to his parents about them being over casual about the risk to his health. His parents had just ignored him, though his mum did emerge from the bathroom with a large tube of sun-block which she proceeded to smear over all their faces. Yuk!
Never mind! Having no choice in the matter, both he and his brother had borne the idea with natural fortitude. By mid-afternoon, there they were, deep in the countryside, having a ramble.
He remembered the warm sun beaming down lazily on his back as he’d trudged sweatily along a grassy trail by the side of a wood. He'd remembered seeing a large bird, a red kite, he'd thought, soaring gently a little way off to the left. "Probably just for the fun of it", Joseph had thought sourly at the time - "it beat walking any day."

Joseph remembered their ramble. They'd been walking, he admitted grudgingly, through some very pretty countryside. All low hills covered in a patchwork of fields and woods. His parents had taken the lead with Eloise, their little sister. He and his brother had followed slowly behind.
Before all this strangeness with Daniel had happened, he’d remembered them both trudging up a grassy track, wood on one side, golden field of gently swaying barley on the other. He’d remembered them kicking the heads off dandelion clocks with their grubby trainers and watching the seeds float gently away, dispersing in the very light breeze. As they walked, they’d been talking all sorts of nonsense.
"Hmmm!" Joe had remembered grumbling to his brother, as sweat dribbled down his forehead to sting his eyes. "I bet the Queen is never forced to do nature rambles. Or if she is, I bet she has a lackey to wipe sweat from her forehead."
"I heard the Queen doesn’t sweat," Dan had said.
"Eh? How come?"
A pause. "I don’t know - probably she's been varnished or something to keep it all in."
"Oh." Another pause. It had seemed plausible enough to Joe at the time "Does she ever need touching up?"
He'd heard she didn't go to the toilet either. He remembered wondering if she had to be surgically emptied now and then to minimise the risk of explosion – an explosion would be very embarrassing in front of foreign dignitaries.

Joe remembered then that they’d started arguing as they’d dawdled - but in a fairly gentle, not very serious kind of way. The weather had been far too warm and lazy for that. He remembered the sleepy hum of insects sounded like the soft drone of bagpipes. He hated bagpipes.
"The Scrog monster's secret weapon is double speed. That means he can liquidate your Nadoo before it can even fire. Whamo - I'd win!" had claimed Daniel.
"No you wouldn't 'cos on the 7th level you'd need 500 health points to use double speed, and you'd have lost that getting through the Iron portal with it's invisible guardian. So my Nadoo would get an attack in and you'd be creamed," replied Joe.
"Not if I had a gem of stealth to get past the invisible guardian, I wouldn't." had stated his brother, with a snort.
"But you haven’t got one".
"I might".
"But you haven't, so there!” Joes remembered replying (so winning the argument in his view). He’d remembered his brother frowning briefly before shrugging his shoulders.
The argument had petered out rather inconclusively. Both of them had been scheming about how best to master the 'Secrets of Snaterley Cave', the latest computer adventure game to occupy the focus of their lives.

It was then that events had taken a peculiar twist. Daniel had glanced up and seen something from out of the corner of his eye in the woodland to his right.
"Hey - what's that?" he'd said.
"What?" Joe remembered asking, suspiciously. He'd looked where Dan had been pointing but couldn’t see anything interesting. Joe remembered at the time being rather suspicious of his brother. Noticing nature on a nature ramble? He knew the likelihood of either of them spotting any nature on one of these rambles was usually vanishingly small. He'd thought at the time that Daniel was just trying to change the subject because he'd lost the argument.
"Dunno," Dan had replied. "But it was odd, though, whatever it was. It looked like a small deer or something. It was brown with long pointed ears, and quite small."
"It wasn't a rat, was it?"
Dan had paused considering. "Nah!" he'd shaken his head. "No tail, and it didn’t look ratty. Come on, let's go and have a look." Joe had seen his brother glancing carefully up the trail towards their Dad to make sure they weren't being watched. Then he'd slipped sideways and onto a faint trail that led through the trees and deeper into the wood.

Joseph had remembered staring after his brother. He knew that sometimes when you read stories where strange things happened (like brothers vanishing) there was often a really obvious point in the story when the hero got into trouble. All too often that moment was when they did something really stupid - such as entering some dark and dismal wood. In such cases, the wood might be described as primordial, like ancient forests; all dark, dank and menacing. The story would sometimes talk of lichen covered roots and gnarled branches, and ancient hoary trees. They would tell tales of strangely shaped tree trunks that if you squinted at, you could make out the strange faces of crusty old men – or worse. These forests would hide strongholds of menace and gloom in their depths. And these depths would be hiding strange, half mythical creatures - giant snakes or hairy spiders the size of dinner plates. And in these stories, if you were to step foot off the path you would become instantly lost. And if you were lost, then you would be bound to be captured by extremely short cannibals with extremely long blow guns - assuming of course that you didn't end up being killed or worse by all the snakes, spiders and other nasty creatures, all positively queuing up to get a bite out of you!
And so, at this point in his thought processes, Joseph frowned even harder. Because as he remembered himself watching Daniels’ retreating back, these were exactly not the kind of images he would use to describe the wood he was standing in front of.
The trouble was, this wood had been, and still was a light and open, airy kind of place. The trees were mostly of beech - a clean, straight-limbed kind of tree. There were clumps of holly and outbreaks of brambles (it was too early in the season yet for blackberries) and there was very little low-level ground cover. Far from being dank, it looked pleasantly cool when compared with the heat soaked path running at its side. Undoubtedly there were spiders (keeping well about their own business) but of giant snakes and other half mythical creatures and cannibals there seemed to be very little sign. And anyway: the small deer (or whatever it was) had slipped, according to Daniel, behind one of the bigger beech trees only ten yards or so into the wood. Well within exploring range.

Joseph remembered that he'd also glancing up to see what his parents were doing (they had an irritating way of interfering if they saw you having to much fun). They weren’t watching so he’d also slipped silently sideways to follow his brother into the wood. He'd still been suspicious of Daniel, but was willing to forget their argument on the off chance that something more interesting would crop up.
Daniel, already a little way into the wood itself, had pointed (a little nervously, Joe suspected) to indicate when he thought the deer had gone. "Round there!" he’d whispered. He’d crept around a particularly broad trunked tree, giving it a fairly wide birth.
Joe had smirked to himself. He'd never heard of anyone being savaged in open woodland by crazed dwarf deer, but it seemed Daniel was taking no chances!
Being of a more warlike disposition, Joe remembered that this was when he’d grabbed the best of locally available weaponry - a three-foot length of approximately straight stick (which was still clutched firmly in his right hand). He’d remembered picking it up, giving it a few trial swishes, and following his brother deeper along the trail. "It's OK, I'll protect you!" he'd smirked to his brother. Dan had scowled back at him and then crept onwards.
"So what was it then? And where is it?" he’d accused his brother as it had became obvious to him that there was nothing hiding behind the tree after all.
"Dunno, it must have gone" Dan had said, straightening up and peering suspiciously all around before looking back towards the tree. Joe had smirked again as he saw his brother's bravery returning - especially in the absence of any obvious crazed woodland animal! But then he'd been a little surprised himself to see the new look of consternation which had suddenly come over his brothers face.
Following his brother, Joseph had then seen that on the tree itself, where normally you'd expect to see roughly ridged bark, there was instead a large oval of some kind of smooth, black looking material. It was about three foot high, by about a foot across and just up from the ground. It had been apparently embedded into the trunk itself.
"What's that?" he’d asked, genuinely mystified as he came to stand a couple of feet from his brother. There was no strange creature, but he had to admit, this was something at least as odd and mysterious.
And mysterious it certainly was. Up close, it wasn't really black at all, but actually lots of colours like some very dark oily film. As you moved your head and the light changed, rainbow sparkles seemed to scud across (or maybe inside) its surface. Its edge seemed to be embedded into the wood itself, and it seemed very definitely un-naturally smooth. Definitely not natural, he’d thought to himself.
And that is when it had happened. Daniel's expression had turned from surprised to inquisitive. He’d looked carefully at the oval from the front and the side. “I wonder what it is?” he’d asked. Then he’d reached out and gently, with the tip of his finger, touched the surface. That's all he'd done. And that’s when he’d disappeared. Just like that.

In that split second, Joseph had frozen solid in shock. He'd been watching his brother all the time – he didn’t think he’d even blinked - and yet one moment, Daniel had been standing, large as life next to him, as clear as day. The next moment he wasn't.
Now, he came slowly back to life. There had been no strange events up to that moment. He was sure of it.
"Daniel?" he called out in a slightly quavering voice. Suddenly unsure and a little frightened. Should he fetch his parents? He glanced around to see if anyone was watching.
No, he seemed to be alone. He quickly turned around to see if he could catch someone ducking behind a tree. Still no-one.
Cautiously, he crept further around the tree to where his brother had just been standing, prodding the leaf litter in front of him with the tip of his stick as he went. It all seemed perfectly normal. There were definitely no deep, hidden holes for his brother to have fallen into. Still frowning worriedly, he looked back at the strange black oval embedded in the trunk of the tree and examined it more closely. It was very much still there, gleaming smugly at him in the dappled shade of the wood.
Warned by the actions of his brother, he though to himself "You're not going to get me as easily!" He raised his stick and prodded the oval with its end.
He was wrong. The instant the tip of the piece of wood touched the smooth, darkly scintillating surface; both he and his stick vanished too. It had got him as well.

Silence reigned in the wood, broken only by the soft, lazy drone of insects. Where the two boys had stood only moments before, there was now no sign.

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Comments by other Members

writersblock at 18:44 on 26 August 2003  Report this post

this is truly excellent stuff. What else can I say? Look forward to reading more...
regards, writersblock

s-jane at 00:00 on 30 August 2003  Report this post
I was immediately hooked. What had happened to Daniel? Reading on, I was also amused, particularly by the fragments of conversation that families have about all sorts of odd things like "I heard the Queen doesn’t sweat,"
I have a feeling though that the 'show, don't tell' rule should apply much more in your writing. Information is more interesting if it is filled in by dialogue rather than by narrative. The initial feeling of panic, because Daniel has disappeared,is soon lost.
When we panic, all sorts of stupid, irrelevant, sometimes trivial thoughts intrude. "The Queen doesn’t sweat," could be one of these as Joe's heart is pounding as he looks for Daniel. Good stuff. I look forward to reading more of it.

ChrisCharlton at 21:00 on 01 September 2003  Report this post
Thank you both. I do like encouragement! ;-)


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