Beckoning of the Gate

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Beckoning of the Gate (Fantasy, Book Award 2023)
Beckoning of the Gate (Fantasy, Book Award 2023)
Beckoning of the Gate (Young Adult, Book Award 2023)
Beckoning of the Gate (Paranormal & Supernatural, Book Award 2023)
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When Santha stumbles upon a small, rusted key in her home forest, it seems her silent pleas for a new life have been answered. Thrust into a world only glimpsed in childhood stories, Santha sets out to unlock its secrets. But as the key’s influence grows, a choice must be made: survival or sacrifice
First 10 Pages

Marget wiped the sleep from her eyes. Standing at the cottage
threshold, she peered into the night. Mist blanketed the
dense wood of spruce, fir, and witch-hobble east of the village.
Beyond, silhouetted by the rising moon, stood the ruined towers
and walls of a castle. Eerily beautiful, but nothing at all worrying.
But then why would this feeling not leave her?
Unless …
She strained her eyes, her ears, her will. It was much too still.
Not a branch stirred. No insect sang. The fog carpeted the mossy
ground, dense and opaque, like a slab of marble. She’d felt this
absence before, had grown almost accustomed to it, though not
Cold pricked at her chest and her pulse raced. The hunter.
In her mind, the master shouted, Run!
Marget flung herself from the doorway, into the night, skirts
drawn up, her bare feet churning the fog as she fled into the
East! cried the master. East!
Pure white light erupted from the necklace at her chest. Marget
clutched at it, shrouding it from prying eyes in her fist. The
evergreen trunks flickered past, a mural of shadows.
Faster! Had she ever heard the master so fierce? It thrust
the power upon her and she drew from it. Marget accelerated,
her feet ensorcelled, until she glided over land and fog like an
eldritch spectre. South! Marget veered, one hand gathering her
skirts, the other at her chest to keep the master safe.
As she sprinted towards a grove of spruce and birch, she felt
the absence grow stronger; a deeper shadow hidden in the night.
From within the foliage came an insectile chittering, sudden and
oppressive, momentarily drowning out her own pounding heart
and haggard breaths.
East, east! To the river.
Marget spun, kicking up a spray of dirt and needled leaves.
The din of insects abated and the presence, the feeling of that
heavy shadow, drew inexorably closer as the master’s influence
waned. She slowed. No, not again. She gritted her teeth. Keep
going. Not much farther.
And still she could not shake the shadow. Unlike the others
whose presence she sensed like the beating of a drum, his was
barely a whisper. Sweat plastered her hair to her scalp. Every
stride threatened to be her last. But she was close. She had to be.
Then, just beyond the trees, a torrent of cold water glistened in
the moonlight. Once she crossed it, pursuit would be impossible.
No wight could follow her there, not even the hunter. They
were saved!
The master lashed her chest with cold: a warning. Marget
gasped and tried to sidestep—too late. An enormous weight barrelled
into the small of her back. Breath erupted from her lungs
as she was sent sprawling.
She choked and spat dirt and pine needles from her mouth.
The great pines and elm trees pressed about her, deepening the
shadows and confusing the eye. Yet something was there, something
broad and squat and sidling towards her. Iron bands seemed
to clamp Marget’s chest. Her knees, torn and bloody from the
fall, spasmed beneath her so she had to pull at a low-hanging
pine to scramble to her feet. No, no, no, no! The river. She lurched
towards the promise of the black, flowing waters, taking only
two steps before a hand gripped the back of her neck and lifted
her off the ground. Squealing, she struck out with fist and nail,
knee and foot, but he was impervious. Grunting, the hunter
flung Marget to the ground, smashing her forehead against the
base of an elm. Dazed and breathless, she pushed her face into
the rough bark, putting her back to the fellbeast that had pursued
her for months.
‘Leave me be,’ she whimpered, her left hand going to the
leather pouch—the master—suspended about her neck.
The hunter chuckled. ‘That we cannot do.’ His voice was
not as she had imagined. It was too gentle, too human, though
instinct told her it made him all the more dangerous. She curled
into a ball. ‘Look at us, Marget,’ he commanded.
Marget bowed her head lower against the elm, wishing it
would swallow her up.
The hunter sighed. ‘We said, look at us, Cahbrúin.’
The breath halted in her throat. When had she permitted such
evil to learn her true name—her very soul? Jaw clenched, nostrils
flaring, Marget resisted at first, but it was no use. Hissing and
spitting through her teeth, she turned to face the creature. Her
glimpse of the immortal being, hunched over her in an ill-fitting
cloak, dark eyes pinning her, turned her bowels to water.
‘Thou hast led a good hunt.’ His lips, though drawn and
twisted, imparted his words slowly and elegantly. ‘It has taken
thee down a different path than the others.’ The grey one stepped
closer, hunched and peering. ‘We almost thought … Ah, well,
thou knowest what must be done now. Give it up and we shalt
end thy pain. It can be over in an instant, Marget, if thou will it.’
Master, help me, she implored. And the master reached out
with reassurance—and a name. Marget rolled upright, feeling
the rough bark pull at her dress, and pressed her back to the elm
trunk, a solid sensation that gave her courage.
‘Please, Mortthis. Please do not do this. Mortthis …’
He reared back with a growl, gnarled hand raised. Marget
braced herself, but the grey one composed himself, clasping his
hands behind his back.
‘Tch, tch. It goes too far, but thou art not to blame.’ His lips
unknotted into something resembling a smile. ‘On our honour,
we shalt hasten thy death if thou dost give it up,’ he said, his
words like honey. ‘Consider well, Marget. We grow impatient.’
Marget swallowed hard, and though her heart was in her
throat, she drew herself up. ‘To die quickly or slowly? A beggar’s
bargain,’ she snarled at him, looking the wretched thing in its
coal-chip eyes. ‘I will not beg for either, Mortthis. You’ll have to
do better if you would make me give up the master.’
Her left hand reached up to the leather pouch at her neck and
grasped it. Help me, she pleaded. I know not what to do.
Fear not, said the master. It flooded her with calm, the chill of
it smoothing her doubts, inviting her to yield as it had countless
times before. It whispered in her mind and she obeyed. It had
never led her astray. Marget rose and pulled the necklace off over
her head. She held it out to the immortal.
‘Take it,’ she said. ‘Take it, Mortthis!’ The grey wight reached
out and Marget laughed as she drew it back slightly, baiting him.
‘If you can ...’
But then something changed. A sudden wrongness.
The master tugged itself free from her grasp and launched
into the air. Pain lanced Marget—in her chest, behind her eyes,
her hands—as if something inside her had cleaved itself free.
The pouch generated a blinding whiteness that seared her vision,
blinding her for a moment. The hunter grunted as they both
retreated a little. The glow faded. Suspended in the gloom, the
master had woven itself a dazzling cocoon of white, and the sight
filled Marget with a great sense of loss. She had been judged and
found wanting. She was no longer its chosen.
‘Why?’ she screamed. ‘Why?’
With a loud noise, like an immense limb from an ancient tree
snapping off, the master was gone, the light it had brought forth
sucked from the very air.
Hands trembling, Marget sagged with exhaustion, and she
wept. A wicked laugh escaped Mortthis’s lips and she felt the
BecKoninG of tħe Gate 5
master’s betrayal all the more keenly. Her whole body began to
shake. Tears streamed down her swollen face and she slumped to
the forest floor. Forsaken.
‘Cahbrúin,’ Mortthis rasped.
Without the master’s influence, the power of her true name
hit Marget with a terror that silenced her sobs. She rolled onto
her back, paralysed, her eyes no longer her own as they stared up
into the face of death.
‘Did we not warn thee?’ he said. ‘It has used thee and cast
thee aside. Now, for thy foolishness, thy life is forfeit.’
Mortthis hissed, his hatred for all humanity keen in Marget’s
ears. Her eyes, though, showed her only her doom—but for one
brief moment when she saw a small man perched in the elm
above them, observing the scene with weeping eyes. I’ve gone
mad, she thought. Clenching her teeth, spittle frothing at her
lips, she fought against the wight’s hold.
‘Hickory! ’ was all she could manage, but the man shook his
head sadly, and when she blinked, he was gone.
Along with any hope Marget had of living.


Working in Stone
Beads of sweat fell to the stone floor as Santha tried to keep
up with Dandon’s considerably longer legs. In odd moments
like these, she wished she was a little taller. Being mistaken for a
child at nearly twenty years of age was a sore point she realised
she’d never overcome. Taking four steps for every one of his, she
followed grimly behind.
Colours flickered past in every hue from the stained-glass
windows of the school’s archways, painting rainbows of light on
the walls. Dandon took a sharp left into the northern corridor,
catching Santha off guard. Grazing her shoulder on a pillar with
a grunt, she suddenly realised where they were going: Dandon’s
private quarters.
‘Why are we …?’ she began when he stopped.
Their footsteps continued to echo for a moment in the still
hallway of the school as Dandon turned to her, his eyes gleaming.
‘Contain yourself, Santha,’ he teased. He was practically
shaking with anticipation. It was obvious, then, what this was
all about.
He pushed open the rosewood door and made his way inside.
Crossing the room, he disappeared through another doorway
where his study and bedroom lay. Santha did not follow, not
that it would matter in the slightest. Staying with the man, in
his own home, without witness or chaperone—the rumour mill
would already be grinding that bit of chaff to dust. But it was
the principle, to Santha at least. The impropriety of visiting an
unmarried man’s bedchamber was something she was unwilling
to tally to her personal list of sins, the town gossip be damned.
Making herself comfortable in the greeting room, she strolled
amongst the countless pieces of art instead. Most were Dandon’s—
chiefly among them, those from his university days when
he’d first discovered his talent for the visual arts—though not all,
such as a strange clay model of a mother holding a child. Both
their faces and bodies were warped and distorted as if someone
had punched them into place none-too-gently. A depiction of
the old gods, Santha remembered Dandon saying. There was
also a painting of a horse on grassy plains with the sun behind
it stretching over the hill, its rays reaching out to embrace the
creature, giving it warmth.
If that did not speak of Dandon’s wealth, his furnishings did.
They were luxurious and out of place in a town of simple farmers.
Soft, padded chairs packed with duck down and cushions
of sky blue with delicate pink embroidered flowers sat in one
corner. A large oak table, carved by his own hands, of course, was
the greeting room’s centrepiece. It, too, was cluttered.
Dandon was well taken care of. His ageing uncle, an earl in
Berisolis, funded his nephew’s endeavours quite generously. The
school itself had been commissioned by the old man with little
more than a letter from his nephew stating his intentions to
teach long-term in the Silver Valley. The expense would have
been considerable. The rosewood exterior and stone pillars at the
front entrance, imported all the way from Nagha Baahgnee in
Vaera, would have beggared the entire valley alone. The stainedglass
windows on the northern and southern corridors were,
to Santha, an unnecessary extravagance, though one she freely
admitted taking advantage of every morning as the sun’s light
peeked over Mount Tira in the east.
It was fortunate Dandon had such an amiable and wealthy
relative to call upon. He certainly wasn’t teaching for the coin.
Not in the Valley.
Dandon returned with something veiled, clutching it to his
chest. Santha’s intuition was rewarded: he was about to reveal a
new piece he’d created. And by the look on his contorted face,
it was heavy. Laying the bulk on another sturdy table that wasn’t
completely crowded, he stood back without so much as a patch
of sweat on his brow—an irritating sight as Santha felt rivulets
trickle down her own back. He looked up and beckoned her to
come closer.
‘What is it this time?’ she asked, curiosity taking hold as she
walked over.
He said nothing as he gripped the cotton veil and pulled it off
in one fluid motion. Santha gasped in awe, for before her stood
a dog, or so it seemed at first glance. When she looked closer, she
saw it was completely made of dark stone.
She turned to Dandon, a tad confounded. ‘It’s not wood …?’
He tilted his head. ‘An astute observation,’ he said mockingly.
‘Marble, actually. Black marble from a renowned quarry merchant
just outside the capital. I thought I would try my hand at
sculpting stone for a change.’
Santha turned back to the masterpiece, black and veined with
white, which made it appear a deep, deep grey. What could she
do but gape? She had never seen worked stone before. Not like
‘Surely this isn’t your first.’
‘Why do you look so surprised?’ He chuckled and then
shrugged. ‘Of course not. I have been practising in secret until I
had the technique right. It is a very hard stone, difficult to shape,
but I had to experience it for myself—the stone of the masters—
if only once.’
‘It looks so real, as if it’s actually alive.’ She looked at Dandon
again in disbelief. He stood to the side, arms crossed, an air of
satisfaction about him.
‘And so it should,’ he said. ‘It has taken me over a full season
to work the marble.’
It must have. It was a magnificent sculpture, the size and shape
of a small canine, but for the life of her, she could not tell what
breed. It had long pointed ears with a bushy tail and a slender
body that spoke of swiftness and cunning. The detail was perfect,
from each strand of fur to its delicately engraved nails and small
nose that sat upon its long, pointed snout.
‘I know what you are thinking, and it is not a real breed. I
made it up, though it does have some characteristics of animals
you do know, predominantly a fox.’
Yes, thought Santha, that’s what it looks like, a fox, but not quite.
‘What shall we call her?’ he asked, as was their tradition.
‘I’m not sure,’ she pondered, feeling the immensity of her
decision this time. Choosing a name for such incredible art
somehow seemed different to all those times before. Then something
came to her. ‘What do you think of Biahnd? I heard a
Vaerese merchant mention the name in a story he told at Ulric’s
inn. I liked it. It was unlike anything I have heard. And this
piece, I must say, Dandon, is unlike anything I’ve seen. Your best
work yet.’
‘Biahnd Des’rhatna. Ah yes, that will do nicely,’ he praised.
‘The name of a great female warrior in Vaerese lands. Very fitting.
And thank you, I appreciate it. Art should always be shared.’
Santha punched him in the shoulder. ‘Just don’t make me
wait this long next time,’ she scolded him. ‘Now, I’d best be
leaving if I want to see to the goats before dark. It’s getting late.’
‘Fine, fine.’ He ushered her out of his private quarters all the
way to the front entrance of the school, a gentlemanly gesture
so unlike him that there had to be an ulterior motive. ‘Make
sure you dine with me for supper tonight. Knowing you and
your penchant to sneak out at the crack of dawn to tend your
unsavoury short-haired beasts, breakfast tomorrow will be out
of the question. And so will half of the day, I would wager.’