This is the third part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 2, you can read it here.

Part 3: Anchor

Janet slumped against the wall, eyes fixed on the gaping hole that had replaced most of the lobby floor. She was vaguely aware of people crammed against the other walls, but she could not look away from the bottomless depth at her feet. “What the hell is going on?”

“Quiet. I don’t need any more interruptions.” Hela closed her eyes and stretched out her arms, palms down. For a moment nothing happened. Then thin strands of white, red and gold stretch from the edges of the hole. They criss-crossed until the hole was covered in thin webbing, which thickened and grew until all that could be seen was the lobby floor — white marble under red and gold carpet.

Janet stood on shaky legs. “Did you do that?” She stretched out a foot and set it down. The ground was solid. There had been nothing there before.

Hela nodded to the receptionist, still sitting at the counter, staring at the screen in front of her. It seemed she had not moved from the time Janet had seen her at the start of the night. “It’s safe, Felicia,” Hela said.

Felicia nodded without taking her eyes off the computer screen. “I’ve opened the front doors and notified the guests.”

Hela turned to Janet. “I thought I told you not to leave the room.”

Janet stared at the floor, and told herself not to freak out. “I heard screams.”

“So you ran towards them?”

“Someone was shouting for help. They sounded close, so I thought — I’m sorry.”

Hela sighed. “This was not how your orientation was supposed to go. Then again, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Nothing goes according to plan here anymore. Come on. Manager Smith will want to talk to you.”

Janet followed without paying any attention to where they were going. Was she dreaming? Or was it some kind of prank, where they would shout surprise and show her the hidden cameras? No, it couldn’t be. There was no way to fake that giant gaping hole. She couldn’t get the image out of her head. This had to be a dream.

They entered the office. Smith was sitting behind his desk. He gestured for them to sit, and looked at Hela. “Care to explain?”

“The lobby floor collapsed. Opened up into what I think might have been the Fire Plains. Hard to say. We lost one.”

“And what is she doing here?”

“She nearly fell in.”

Smith switched his gaze to Janet. “You shouldn’t have been there. Why were you?”

“I heard someone calling for help. They said they were falling. I thought — they sounded close, and there didn’t seem to be anyone else around.”

“That’s an interesting explanation.”

“It could be possible,” said Hela. “You know the dimensions have been changing.”

This had to be a dream, Janet decided. There was no other explanation.

“It’s no dream,” said Smith.

She glared at him. Had he read her mind? If what she had just seen wasn’t a dream, then anything was possible. “Then could someone please tell me what’s going on?”

He drummed the table with long, thin fingers. “Very well. Miss Ling.” He sighed a long, deep sigh. “The world you know is not the only one in existence.”

“Ooo-kay.” Janet wasn’t sure what she had been expecting but it wasn’t that. “You mean aliens?”

“Other worlds, not other planets. This hotel has portals that open into two of them, and works as a bridge between them. We keep the doorways. We let the people through, we let them stay if they need a place to stay. That is our business. Whether other people from your world come to stay matters very little to us.”

Janet stared at him. “So you’re like the wardrobe into Narnia?”

“Most worlds,” said Hela, “are usually either tend towards magic or towards science. Your world, obviously, is based in science, in immutable laws of reality. Himmeria and Durridel, the worlds that are connected to Hotel Fulcrum, are based in the laws of magic. Hearts and minds have far more power over matter than they do here. Since they are linked to this place, magic also has a hold here.”

“We are the balancing point,” said Smith. “The meeting place. We need to keep the worlds in balance with this one or the walls fail. Maintaining that balance — a balance between magic and science — is a delicate thing. We need certain things to be in place. One of those things is you.”

“Me?”

“Not you specifically,” said Smith. “Someone from your world.”

“Wait a second. None of you are from Earth? Are you even human?”

“Not the Earth you know,” said Hela. “And we’re people, even if we aren’t quite the same species as you.”

“And what do you want me for?”

“One of the problems with magic is that there aren’t reasons for everything. It’s not strict cause and effect. All you need to know is that we need someone from your world to feel like they belong here, like they have a connection to this place. When that happens, they become what we call an anchor, keeping the place stable and grounded.”

Could they have picked a less suitable person? Janet had never felt a connection to anything. Saying that seemed like a bad idea, so instead she went with: “When I applied I thought this was just going to be a summer job.”

“We wouldn’t expect you to work full time after this summer. A shift a week would be enough. It’s not about how much time you spend here, it’s about how well you fit.”

Smith shifted a few papers on his desk. “The problem is that since Sylvia retired in April we haven’t been able to hold onto anybody for very long. So things have been slipping, as you have seen.”

“Why is it difficult to keep people? I’m sure there are hundreds who would love to find out magic is real.”

“Some people can’t deal with magic.” Smith turned to Hela. “Who was the first person we tried?”

“Thomas.” Hela sighed. “He was fine, right up to when we told him what was going on.”

“Never saw him again.”

“And he wasn’t the only one,” said Hela. “Young Alex would have worked out well if he hadn’t received that scholarship.”

“Internship.”

“Whatever.” Hela turned to Janet. “He went off to America.”

“He chose America over other worlds?”

“Well, it makes sense. You won’t actually ever get to see other worlds if you work here. But that wasn’t the only problem we had.”

“No,” said Smith. “We also had problems with people who were a little too eager to investigate. The worst was a girl we had who tried to get into Himmeria. She may have been under the impression it was your ‘Heaven’.”

“Did she get through?”

Hela snickered. “Luckily, she didn’t. It isn’t like your stories, where you go to another world and they accept you straight away and invite you to tea, or crown you Princess or whatever. More likely you’ll get locked up for being unable to prove your citizenship or loyalty to whoever is in power. But she did open a new portal and let in a sitheri, a kind of ice dragon. Cleanup was a nightmare.”

“So you see, Miss Ling, hearing that you went off against orders and nearly fell into another world yourself does not fill me with confidence. We do not need anything of that order happening here.”

“I didn’t cause what was happening in the lobby! What was that, anyway? Someone else trying to open a portal?”

“Complete accident,” said Hela. “Reality in this place is deteriorating faster than ever. That means unexpected portals will appear, and also that the architecture of the hotel is in flux. That might be why you thought the screams were closer.”

“Are there ways to stop things like that?”

“Short term? There are some spells we can use to tie things together, but they take a good amount of concentration. In the long term, well, that’s why we need you.“

Janet stared at the two of them. They were so calm. Both of them were obviously at home with magic, could do magic, and they needed her help? What could she possibly do?

Smith coughed. “If you want to walk out, I won’t stop you. In fact, if you don’t feel like you can deal with this, you should walk away. Then we can get onto finding someone more suitable with all haste.”

“Or you can stay,” said Hela, “and stick it out and find your place here, and things will improve. I should note that under normal circumstances, the chances of falling down a large hole are very slim.”

Janet had thought there was something unusual about this place. Not something like this, of course, but she had known there was something odd. Now she knew what it was, she couldn’t walk away. This was magic. “If you can’t find anyone to stay, to fit in, what happens? The hotel and the land around it stops existing?”

“Possibly. Possibly it would be worse.”

“Well, I don’t want that any more than you do. I can do this. I can fit in here.” I hope I can fit in here

Smith nodded slowly. “Very well. But be warned. When you disobeyed orders today, you interrupted Hela in the middle of a delicate process. You could have fallen into another world, which would have killed you. That cannot happen again. We’re going to be very specific about where you can work, and what you can work on. You take one step outside the instructions we give you, you’re out and we take our chances with whoever comes next.” He sighed. “You should go home. There’s nothing left for you to do here. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

Janet stood. “Could someone please show me to the front door? I’m not sure if I know the way out anymore.”

“At least you pick things up quickly. Hela, show her out.”

The walk out of the hotel was so ordinary that it felt like walking out of a dream. It wasn’t until they reached the lobby that Janet decided her memories of nearly falling were too vivid to be just her imagination. She stepped out into the carpark with a quick thank you to Hela, wondering if she should come back. She didn’t blame her predecessors for running away screaming. It might even be the sensible thing to do. But that might hasten the end of the hotel, and what dimensional hellhole that could open up in its place. Of course, that could happen anyway, with her at Ground Zero. Janet drove off with her mind in a whirl.

Want to keep reading? Part 4 is here.