Chapter One

The minibus cruised smoothly down the freeway, a dark silhouette against the brilliant burnt-orange sunset sky. Sparse shrubbery spread to the mountainous horizon as far as the eye could see. A cool autumn breeze ruffled the leaves of the plants, and sent sweet evening scents wafting in through the open windows of the bus.

All was silent on the interior of the vehicle, the as most of the passengers slept, wrapped in blankets against the rapidly cooling twilight.

The young driver stared ahead out the windscreen; every one of his mirrors reflecting the deserted road back at him. The still-bright sunlight lit his hair in a flaming halo, giving him a vaguely angelic look to one person who secretly watched him from behind. Kevin Clarke was the second-oldest out of his group of friends, having just turned seventeen. His hair was naturally medium brown but the sun over summer had lightened it to the dark blonde of old straw. It was also badly in need of a cut and fell frequently over his hazel eyes. As one of the oldest, he was generally relied upon to be more sensible than the younger ones and took on a protective role with the rest of his friends.

In the first passenger seat, directly behind Kevin, Olivia Chambers was sleeping slumped down; her head was drooping onto her shoulder, dark brown waves of hair curtaining her wide sharp-featured face. The bus they were in belonged to Olivia's father, who owned a vehicle hire company. Her family also owned the holiday house in Melbourne that the group was traveling to. Olivia was the oldest girl - seventeen in a few months – and tried to mother everybody, a job she was very good at.

Samuel Penner, more commonly known as Sam, was across the aisle from Olivia. His artificially black hair fell over his forehead and his brown eyes were shut, as he lay on his back on the seat, one pale leg hanging over the edge into the aisle. Sam, a small, thin and fairly fragile looking boy, was quiet and unobtrusive, never one to make waves or commotion and was well-liked by everybody.

A loud snore elicited from the seat behind Olivia, and Mitchell West shifted uncomfortably in his sleep. Mitch's feet rested on the back of Olivia's seat, his head was thrown back against the headrest. He was round-faced, a little on the chubby side, cheerful and friendly, and always ready with a witty remark or a quick joke to lighten a dark situation. His shoulder-length dark brown hair was wavy and all over the place from being mussed while Mitch slept.

Ryan Sullivan was sharing Mitch's seat, crushed against the wall because Mitch spread himself out and took up too much space. Ryan was the youngest boy in the group, one of Mitch's best friends, easily hurt and very sensitive, though he always pretended not to be. His brown hair was longish and straight, long enough to brush his collar at the back. One tendril of hair fell across an eye and he wrinkled his upturned nose in his sleep at the irritation of it.

Travis Hayes, across from Mitch and behind Sam, also slept sitting up with his head thrown back. He was part-Maltese; with long floppy black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. He was an easy-going decent one-woman kind of guy. The one woman, Felicity Bellcourt, was sitting between Travis and the window, her head of red-gold curls resting on his shoulder. Dark Travis and sweet, pretty Felicity were the picture-perfect golden couple, everyone in their group said.

Chloe Armstrong sat behind the couple, curled up at one end of her seat, a pillow between her face and the window. Chloe was a bit of a tomboy at times, but pretty, with dark brown hair and brown eyes and creamy pale skin. She was also a big animal lover, wanted to be a vet, and had a book about equine medicine sitting beside her on the seat.

Philip Leach was behind Chloe, the hood of his big navy jumper pulled up over his mop of mousy hair. He was slumped sideways, his forehead pressed against the cold glass of the window. He was fairly tall when he was standing up, stocky and muscular. Phil was the oldest one in the group, and something of a leader, but he could be bossy if no one was around to bring him down when he went overboard.

The two youngest girls in the group shared a seat, the one behind Mitch. Amelia Swanson, in the aisle seat, was wrapped in a large blanket, so that only a sliver of her face was visible and if she had been awake no would have been able to tell. When her head wasn't covered by a blanket, she had rich olive skin, large dark eyes, and a sheet of dead-straight black hair. She had a round, friendly face which matched her cheerful disposition, and she was usually very giggly. She was never known as Amelia, her friends always called her Mia, which everyone thought fit her better.

Her best friend, Louise Findlay, sat beside her, curled up with her knees against her chest and her head against the window. Her pale, faintly freckled face was turned toward the window, partially obscured by her long chestnut brown hair. Her eyes were large and dark brown – doe eyes – but were currently shut tightly, and a frown hovered around the corners of her mouth.

The last seat in the bus was solely occupied by Carl Shepherd, who sat sideways one the seat, socked feet poking out into the aisle. His brown curls were flattened against the window, his chin rested on this chest. He was tall, the tallest in the group, generally a placid and peaceful person, but often prone to sarcasm with a fairly strange sense of humour.

Lost in his own thoughts, Kevin steered the bus down a turn-off to the left. This was probably not good, he realized as they bumped and jolted along this…well, it was really more of a track than a road. It wasn't even asphalted.

The sky continued to darken until the Kevin had to switch on the dim headlights so he could see more than a foot in front of his face. Trees thickly lined the sides of the track, blocking out what he knew was a clear night sky above. Running a hand through his hair, he frowned, a sudden uneasiness welling up inside him. There was no reason for it, but just at that moment he felt that there was something not right about them being there, like something was waiting for them out there in the night. He almost wondered, for a second, if he should turn back. But he brushed it off, and kept going.

For a while the only sounds were the rattle of the wheels as they rumbled over the uneven surface of the road, and the light breathing of the sleeping passengers.

A tremendous bang shook the vehicle and as they came to a crashing stop, several people were jolted out of their seats. Someone cried out in surprise.

"Everyone okay?" Kevin leapt out of the driver's seat and stood in the aisle, looking back at his friends as they climbed, slightly shaken, to their feet.

"What was that?" Felicity's voice asked, as she pulled herself into the aisle.

Kevin pushed a lever and the doors slid open with a whooshing sound. "I don't know." He admitted, climbing down onto the hard dirt of the track.

He soon found out. On examination, the right front corner of the bus tilted down into a large crater in the dirt, the sudden fall into which had actually popped the tire.

"Pothole." Mitch said grimly, somewhat stating the obvious, from where he and Kevin stood staring down at the damaged wheel.

Kevin shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket. "Great. I wonder how long this is gonna take to fix."

"There's a spare tire in the luggage compartment." Olivia said, coming up to the boys.

The area around them was dimly lit by the headlights, so they were able to vaguely see the landscape.

Olivia stared around in confusion. "Kevin? Where is this?"

He shrugged. "I don't know."

"Well, it doesn't look like the way we usually take when we go to Melbourne."

"I just did what you told me. First left after the Merramba exit and then -"

"Wait, left? Did you say left? Because I said first right!"

"No, you didn't, you said left!"

"Oh my God!" Olivia slapped the palm of her hand to her forehead. "You're an idiot! I knew I should have driven!"

"Yeah, maybe you should have!" Kevin shot back, and opened his mouth to start yelling at her.

"Okay, okay, okay! Enough!" Mitch broke in. "That's not helping."

While Mitch, Kevin, and Olivia got to work fixing the bus, the others had wandered in away various directions.

Just near the site of the crash, the ground extended down into a small grassy valley, with little cliffs rising up on three sides of it.

Felicity and Travis had gone into this valley to check it out, having found a torch in one of their bags. Felicity thought there must have been some sort of memorial there, as the torch flicked over a bronze-colored plaque set into the stone of one cliff face. There was a large block of chalky grey-white stone sitting in front of the plaque, which seemed to have an eerie luminescence that the couple found a little odd.

Carl was watching them from the road, where he was standing in front of the bus with Chloe and Phil. Travis said something, and made his curly-haired girlfriend laugh. Carl couldn't hear the conversation from this distance. The two of them were facing the plaque and trying to read it, standing with their backs to Carl, who suddenly thought it would be fun to run up behind the unsuspecting Travis and leap on his back.

Carl bolted off, pounding across the grass, and gripped Travis by the shoulders, pushing him forward onto the luminous rock…Travis's shin split open on the edge of the rock, sharper than it had first seemed…blood oozed out on to the chalky surface…first Travis - and then Carl - vanished…

Felicity's scream split through the quiet semi-darkness.

Phil and Chloe, who'd been watching, ran over to the terrified girl. Everyone else was close behind.

"Travis…he was here…" Felicity pointed, looking wildly round. "And then, they were just…gone!"

Chloe nodded, white-faced and confused. "I know, I saw…but where…?"

"Wait." Ryan cut in, trying to maintain some level of calmness. "What exactly happened?"

"Travis and Felicity were standing over here, and Carl ran up behind them and jumped on Travis and knocked him down, and then they both just…vanished!" Chloe said, all in one breath.

An uncomfortable silence descended on the group, and they looked at one another in varying degrees of confusion and fear.

"Look at the rock." Felicity said, quietly and calmly pointing at the chalk-colored chunk of rock now glowing bright against the dirt.

"That is so weird." Mia whispered breathily.

"Yeah." Someone else agreed.

Sam's brown eyes widened as he noticed the dark smudge on one edge of the stone. "It's got blood on it." He said, with more than a tinge of horror in his voice.

Kevin bent down to have a closer look. "Are you sure it's blood?" He whispered, looking back over his shoulder at his friends.

Bending down beside him, Sam nodded, and murmured. "Yeah, it's blood all right."

Nobody spoke louder than a whisper. They weren't sure why. Maybe they all felt like they should be reverent and respectful around the stone.

Kevin reached out to touch the bloody smear, but the second his fingers touched the rough white stone he abruptly disappeared.

Shocked and horrified, Mitch cried out his name and pointed at the rock, his finger shaking in fear. "It's that…that thing! It's making them disappear."

"Travis!" Felicity cried and, before anyone could stop her, she flung herself forward and threw herself down across the glowing obelisk.

Within seconds, she too was gone.

"Oh my God!" Olivia shrieked.

"How do we get them back?" Louise asked, panicked, looking around at the remains of the group.

"Maybe…if we just wait…they'll come back." Phil said slowly, using the pretence of reasonability to hide his fear of the suggestion someone was bound to make sooner or later.

"No." Mitch said, shaking his head vehemently, "There is no way I'm just going to sit around and wait while – I don't know – anything could be happening on the other side of this…this…portal thingy!"

"Portal thingy?"

"Well, that's what it is. I mean," Mitch continued, getting more agitated every second, "Sure, the safe, sensible thing to do would be to sit and wait. But what if they've been hurt or something and they can't get back so we just wait here forever, when if we'd actually gone through after them we might have been able to help them? What then?"

"We can't all go…" Mia said softly, though even as she said she knew it wasn't true.

"Why not?" Ryan argued, coming to Mitch's aid. "We're a team. We stick together. If one of us goes, we should all go, and I should point out that four of us have already gone so why are we wasting our time debating what to do when we should be diving in there after them? You think we should just leave Travis and Felicity and Carl and Kevin to maybe die in there? You wanna get back in the bus, guys? Maybe just drive off to Melbourne without them? Well, you can if you want to, but me? I'm going in."

"Wait!" Louise cried, and Ryan froze, his fingers just inches above the pale stone. "How do we know there even is an 'other side'?" She pointed out, "I mean, how do we know they haven't just disappeared into oblivion? Does it occur to you that we might be jumping to our deaths as well?"

In answer, Ryan just smiled gently at her, "I don't care. Alive or dead, I'm not going anywhere without them." And he slammed his palm down flat on the top of the rock.

Mitch followed right behind his friend.

Olivia was the next to realize her conscience would not let her have a choice in this matter, and she too vanished into the newly christened "portal", with Mia and Louise hot on her heels.

This left Chloe, Phil, and Sam staring in stunned silence at the place where the rest of the group had disappeared. Then one by one they stepped up to the stone until the great shadow of the bus was the only trace that remained of the group. If not for that, they might never have been there at all…