This Work in Progress is called The Portal. In it, Satan returns to a small island town in Long Island Sound to use an enchanted portal to permanently open the doorway between our reality and Hell. Here’s how the whole thing starts, back in 1716.
At minutes before midnight, five matches flared in the darkness, and then five tallow candles flickered to life.
The dim, yellow flames illuminated a large circle etched into the drafty barn’s dirt floor. The circle encompassed two triangles, one inverted upon the other, all six sides radically concave. An upside down wooden cross impaled the ground at the star’s center. The musty air smelled of dried dung.
Five girls carried their candles to their designated points on the circle. Providence Neely’s wick’s amber glow lit her face, that brimmed with anticipation. In moments, Mr. Blackwell, agent from the East India Company, would fulfill his promise, and whisk her and the others on a journey to a place far away, where sermons did not fill each Sunday, where drink and dance were not forbidden. They would exercise control over all creatures that walked the earth, and they would be forever young.
Beside her, Sarah Rogers giggled. Providence stopped herself from slapping the stupid girl. If Sarah’s barn had not been the place the East India Man had selected for the ritual, Providence would have never let the silly, freckled girl into the group. One of the other girls shushed Sarah.
Thoughts of Mr. Blackwell swirled in Providence’s head. Though stout and bald, he was somehow captivating. His presence set a fire between her legs she’d never felt before, a fire he promised in private to quench, after the girls opened the portal to the magic place beyond.
“This is the time,” Providence began, “and this is the place Mr. Blackwell chose. Are you ready to commit yourselves to his service?”
“Yes, we are ready,” the girls answered together.
“Are you prepared for the Cleansing,” she asked, “to strip away the impurities heaped upon you by the church and your families?”
“Yes, we are.”
“Then clear your minds.”
Providence went to the rear of the barn. On the ground lay a burlap sack adorned with the gold twin-lion crest of the East India Company. She knelt, opened it, and slid out the Portal, a disk three feet across, carved in thick, polished cherry. The symbol from the barn floor covered the center, inlaid in actual gold. Each triangle point hosted a picture of a strange, unrecognizable creature. Mr. Blackwell had taken her to find it, washed up on the shore outside Stone Harbor. Its arrival was a mystery, Mr. Blackwell’s refusal to touch it even more so. He explained this was the door to his kingdom, and the girls were the key to unlock it.
The far doors to the barn swung open. A mob of men with blazing torches charged in. The girls screamed. The torches’ flames overpowered the candles’ dim light and the girls squinted against the sudden brightness.
Providence gritted her teeth at the sight of the Stone Harbor elders. The men were armed, two with muskets, the rest with knives, pitchforks, one a rusty whaling spear. Reverend Snow, the aged, scrawny windbag, led the pack, ever-present Bible clasped against his chest. His eyes burned with his usual self-righteous fire.
“There!” He pointed his bony finger at the cowering girls and their flickering candles. “Just as I warned you! Witchcraft afoot in Stone Harbor!”
Providence doused her candle and ducked into the shadow. She shoved the Portal back into the burlap sack and pulled it over to her feet.
Sarah’s father muscled his way to the front of the group. His hard, angry face melted into shocked disbelief as he recognized his daughter at the strange symbol in the dirt.
“Sarah? How…how could you…?”
Sarah dropped her candle and scrambled over to her father’s feet. She wrapped her arms around his legs. Her face, white with fear, turned up to face his.
“Father, it wasn’t me!” she implored. “’Twas the East India Man. He bewitched us.”
“Did I not warn you all?” Reverend Snow said. “That man’s promises to make us a great seaport were falsehoods.”
“We are but his pawns,” Sarah said, “surely compelled we are, by him and by Providence.”
Providence wanted to beat the whiny weakling with the Portal. Sara had never been worthy of following Mr. Blackwell.
“Providence is here?” Reverend Snow said.
“She’s the full witch,” Sarah said. “Not me. She rides a broomstick and speaks black magic to cats.”
Providence knew that pack of lies would earn her a perfunctory trial and a death by pressing. She needed to get out of here now. She grasped the sack to her chest and stole out the rear door and into the night.
A blast of cold wind off the harbor whipped her long skirt around her legs. She clenched the heavy sack tight and ran for the sheep pasture. Behind her, torches lit the night as some of the elders left the barn.
In spite of her pounding heart, she tried to think clearly. Above the other four girls, Mr. Blackwell had entrusted her with the Portal, and with special instructions for its care. Should the Cleansing be unfinished, she had to hide it, to keep it out of the hands of the Reverend and the others. Mr. Blackwell promised to keep her under his protection forever if she would protect the Portal.
She crossed the pasture at a run. Bleating sheep scattered ahead of her. As the sheep’s cries rolled down toward the barn, the clamor of men’s voices echoed back in reply.
“She’s up there!”
“Grab her, brother! Use care for her spells!”
She cut right and entered the forest. The autumn’s bare branches reached for her like goblin hands from the darkness, each revealing itself a split-second before ensnaring her. She ducked and weaved, but one branch snagged and ripped her blouse. Then another whipped against her cheek and drew blood. From behind her came the sound of men charging across the pasture. Their voices grew louder as they closed on the forest.
Her heart seemed about to burst, her leg muscles burned. The Portal felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. She sagged against a tree, and scanned the forest for a hiding place.
Starlight lit a large, flat piece of shale amongst the fallen oak leaves. She stumbled over, dropped the sack beside the rock, and fell to her knees. Her hands shook as she grabbed the stone’s sharp corner and pulled with all her strength. The stone yielded and revealed a patch of soft, brown earth. With her bare hands, she attacked the ground. Her nails split and tore as she dug through roots and rocks. She scraped a shallow grave for the Portal.
Sheep again bleated a warning. Torches flickered at the forest’s edge. She tossed the sack in the hole. It was just deep enough. She grabbed the rock, and heaved it back over the exposed earth. It landed with a sharp crack. The edge of the stone shattered, leaving a jagged border along one side. She kicked the soggy leaves back over the rock. Trickles of icy sweat ran down her face. She stood and raised her chin in triumph.
I did it, she thought. I saved the Portal. Its resting place shall never pass my lips. My East India man will shield me from their torments. Even if they capture me, no stones will crush my chest. Mr. Blackwell will rescue me. I know he will.
Leaves rustled at her feet. A flash of tan and copper lunged at her leg. Twin spikes of pain lanced her calf as a copperhead snake clamped on her calf. She dropped to one knee with a scream. The snake released her, slithered off, and coiled a few feet away.
Her leg went numb. Panic surged within her. She knew that many had died of copperhead snakebite. But didn’t snakes slumber this late in the fall?
The heavy shuffle of a dozen feet through the detritus of the forest floor came closer. Torches bobbed between the thick tree trunks. The voices grew louder, but the words less distinct as the poison made Providence’s head spin.
What grievous fate befalls me? Providence thought. How can this happen? All he asked, I have done.
She collapsed to the ground. All around her went dark. Her last breath passed her lips, and she wondered why her East India man had not protected her.
A little higher on the hill, Mr. Blackwell, as he called himself this time, stood in the shadow of a great glacial boulder. A broad black hat shielded the stocky man’s face from the cold, only his chin and black goatee poked out from its shadow.
With a sweeping hand gesture, he sent the copperhead retreating into the woods to return to its interrupted hibernation. Blackwell was indeed there to protect, just not to protect poor Providence.
This window of opportunity had closed. But the Portal lay safe. He’d be back in a few hundred years. Immortality bred amazing patience.
The rest coming soon. Somewhere. I hope.