This is the fourth part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 3, you can read it here.
Part 4: Basement
Family breakfast at the Ling household was an awkward affair. The kitchen wasn’t really made for seven adults, and everyone insisted on helping with the eggs. Janet decided to sidestep the entire affair by getting cereal. She was finished by the time the third egg hit the floor. After that chaos, it was almost a relief to get to the hotel.
As she walked in, it occurred to her that it would be odd for everyone in this hotel, presumable for other words, to just happen to speak English. Was it magic that made it seem to be English? Some kind of magical translator?
She asked Hela and they walked downstairs. Apparently there was a basement room that needed to be cleared. More apparently, they still wanted her out of the way.
“It’s a perception filter,” said Hela. “Someone speaks, and you perceive it as being your language.”
Hela snorted. “Anything but. Each language has to be manually encoded. By that, I mean we need to input all the vocabulary, grammar rules, slang, and markers so that the filter can recognise a language as it is spoken. And that information needs to be woven through the walls, so that it is easily accessible. Then we find a way to tag every guest with their native language so that they hear everything right. About once a month someone comes complaining that everything they hear sounds like gibberish.”
On this lower level, the walls and floor were concrete. Janet trailed her fingers against the wall, wondering if she was touching the spells Hela was talking about. She imagined a spark of magic curling around her fingers. “So what language are you speaking now?”
“English.” Hela smiled at the look on Janet’s face. “Part of my job includes dealing with outside vendors — we can’t get all our supplies from Durridel and Himmeria, that would be too expensive — and helping to train each new anchor as they come in. The perception filter isn’t perfect, so it helps to be able to use your language to speak to you. Helps avoid misunderstandings.”
They stopped at a door. All the doors looked the same here; Janet wasn’t sure she’d ever find her way around. Hela opened it to reveal a clutter of furniture. Chairs and tables were haphazardly stacked in precarious piles.
“We just need to get everything stacked properly,” said Hela. “Start by taking some of these out into the corridor, so there’s more room to manoeuvre.”
Janet lifted two plain wooden chairs and stepped out into the corridor. She wondered if they would disappear as soon as she turned her back.
“They won’t. I’ve got a firm handle on this area.”
Janet dropped the chairs. “Okay, that’s it. Can you and Smith read minds?”
“It’s Mr. Smith, and no, not really. Just surface thoughts. The things you almost say out loud, or want to say out loud, or you’re so absorbed in your thoughts that they spill out everywhere.” Hela smiled. “Smith is better than I am. He’s had his office carefully prepared to draw thoughts out.”
“That’s real creepy.”
“He needs it. Every day there are people in his office asking to change a door, or add a door, telling him why they need to transport goods to another world. He needs to know if they’re lying.”
“And you need it for…”
“I’m sorry. It’s not something I normally do, but your thoughts are a little hard to ignore.”
“You mean they’re just flying off me in your face or something?”
“Actually, yes. That’s a good analogy. Most magic users learn to control that early, since magic is all about controlling thought.”
Janet picked up the chairs she had dropped. “I don’t suppose I could learn that.”
“You could. It’s a simple exercise.”
“You just need to hold an image in your mind. Usually for this, it helps if it is a flat surface. Say a wall, or a shield, or a plate. It’s even better if it’s something you’ve seen before and can picture easily.”
Janet thought of her bedroom wall. She’d stared at it for long enough that it was easy to bring to mind. “Okay, and?”
“Let it fill your mind.”
“Pretty much. After a while, you learn to keep it there while thinking your own thoughts underneath the image.”
“How can you think of anything if there’s a picture filling your mind?”
“Focus. That’s what magic is about, really. I think there’s enough space in the room now.” They began to sort the tables and chairs in the room, stacking them neatly in opposite corners. Some of the tables were fairly heavy, so it wasn’t long before they were both sweating.
Janet started dismantling a stack of chairs next to a wall, revealing a door in the process. “Hey. Where does this go?”
Hela turned to look and her eyes widened. “Don’t touch that.”
“Okay.” As far as doors went, it was particularly unimpressive. A smooth wooden door, painted in a now-faded black. A cobweb covered one corner. “Is it a portal?”
“If it is, it shouldn’t be there.” Hela pulled her phone out and dialled. “Felicia? You haven’t seen any new portals? No? Well, we’ve found one in Basement Storage 5, so you had better … oh. Ok. Can you see if the origin point has moved at all? And seal it. I don’t want anyone to get through.”
“So, not good?”
“Not as bad as I thought. It’s not a new portal, but one that moved from two rooms over. Although why it didn’t trigger any of Felicia’s alarms —” the phone rang and Hela answered it. “Did you — what? He said what? Did you explain that I was busy? And? Damn him!” She hung up and glared. “I have to go upstairs. Do not touch that door. Do not leave the room.”
“Where are you going?” Janet desperately did not want to be left alone in this room, with a door where one shouldn’t be. Not after yesterday.
Hela sighed. “Telar believes the dimensions of his room have changed and insists I deal with it personally.”
“Why don’t I go with you?”
“Because the Exile Prince will not want to see you. I’ve got a tight hold on this place, so the chances of anything shifting is low.“
“Ok, and what were the chances of a door being right there?”
“You make a good point.” Hela held out her phone to Janet. “You have a mobile, right? Take down my number. You can call me if anything happens.”
Janet fumbled with her phone, typing in the numbers. “I’m surprised you guys even use phones.”
“We’ve been here for long enough to pick things up. Magic doesn’t solve all the problems here. Have you got it?“
“Yes, but —”
“I don’t have time to argue with you. Stay here. Call me if anything happens.“ And with that, Hela left.
Janet stacked some furniture into one corner of the room. The middle of the floor was mostly clear now, and as she looked into it, she remembered the lobby floor, opening up into a wide gaping maw. She shifted closer to the wall. Hela had said she had a hold of this place, but she’d also said the key to magic was focus. Could she focus on this one room while still dealing with the guest upstairs? Janet put a hand to the wall, feeling stupid for panicking. Even if something went wrong, there was nothing she could do, nothing to hold onto.
Something shifted beneath her hand. She moved it. It was just her imagination. Had to be. She thought again of a string of magic, curling around her fingers. She had to stop making things up. Things were strange enough as they were.
As she took her hand off the wall, she heard a sound and froze. A click. No, it had been nothing. She strained her ears. Nope, not nothing. A drawn out creak.
Janet turned. The door in the wall had opened. It had swung inward, leaving only blackness.
“Hello?” a voice called from somewhere behind the door. “Can we come through?”
Janet gaped. She pulled out the phone and dialled. “Hela, you better come down here right now.”
“Um, the door opened? The one you said was from another world? I think there’s people who want to come through.”
“Tell them they can’t! I’m coming down.” The call ended.
“Sorry, you can’t come through.”
“But we must. We cannot go back.”
“Can you wait?”
There was no answer. Instead, the door swung back further, disappearing into the dark. Two figures stumbled out. They looked just like normal people. Their clothes were a little odd, but they’d probably fit right in at a costume party. The first figure looked like a young woman dressed in a black and red suit, complete with cape. Her hair was tied back in a rough ponytail. Behind her was a thin young man with floppy brown hair, wearing a dark green tunic under brown cloak.
“Shit,” Janet muttered. In a louder voice, she said, “Look I’m real sorry but you can’t be here. Can you, uh, come back another time?”
“We seek asylum,” said the young woman.
“Didn’t you hear me say you couldn’t come through?”
“We apologise,” said the woman. “We had little choice. The prince’s guard is after us. It was come here or be executed.”
It was just then that Hela came in. Her gaze took in the room and landed accusingly on Janet.
“They came through all on their own,” said Janet defensively. “I said they couldn’t. You can’t pin this one on me.”
“That should be impossible. You cannot enter this place without permission.”
“If the instability means that rule is no longer true, then we have a larger problem than we thought. Who are you two?”
The woman made a sweeping bow. “I am Robin Foxglove, and this is my companion, Paxton Blackthorn. We once served Prince Kieri of the East Mountains of Durridel, but she has exiled us and marked us for death.” She raised a hand. “We seek asylum here.”
“You cannot have it. Our rooms are full.”
“Then let us go to Himmeria.”
“You cannot go to Himmeria. The worlds are out of balance.”
“Does letting people through affect that as well?” Janet asked. “I thought you just needed me to stay or something.”
“There are many factors that can change the balance of the worlds. One is the number of people who have left their world. Too many otherworlders crossing over will throw the balance off. Even worse, too many otherworlders here will make the place less stable, because each one brings magic with them.”
Janet thought back to the crowded lobby — which had opened up into another world. “Why are there so many people here, then?”
“Because the instability is affecting Himmeria and Durridel. Many people found their worlds deteriorating and escaped here.”
“And you let them through.”
“We could afford to, then. We’ve reached our limit now.”
“Couldn’t you send some people back? Then things would get better both here and there, right?”
“That’s not how it works. Cause and effect don’t work the way you’re used to. This is magic, not science.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you understand or not. These people cannot stay here.”
“But if we return we will die,” said Paxton.
“I’m sorry. I really am. If you stay more might die, or worse. Please leave. Now.”
Janet opened her mouth to argue but found no words. She didn’t know enough to argue. This wasn’t her place. Robin looked like she was about to say something, but Paxton took her hand. Slowly they turned and went back out through the door. Hela shut the door after them and ran her hands over its surface. “That should seal it properly this time. I hope.”
“Do you think they were telling the truth? That they’ll die if they go back?“ Janet’s voice was quiet.
“It’s possible.” Hela began to shift furniture. “The Princes of Durridel make sure everybody knows their place. There are harsh punishments for those who step out of line.”
“And you’re fine with that?”
“We can’t help everyone. It’s a terrible but unavoidable truth.“
Janet remembered something. “Yesterday. You said you lost one. Did you mean…”
“Someone fell through, yes.”
“Was that… I heard someone calling out for help. They said they were slipping. I wasn’t imagining that, was I? Was that the person who fell?”
“I wouldn’t know. There were others who slipped, others we helped out before I sealed it off.” Hela gripped Janet’s shoulder. She looked so calm. Had she seen it? How could she have seen someone falling to their death and still be that calm? “Listen. I know this is probably hard for you. But this is exactly why you’re here. Without an anchor, without someone from your world, these things will keep happening. They will get worse. With you here, things will stabilise, they’ll get better.”
“But not right away.”
“And in the meantime, I just have to watch people die?”
“Maybe. I won’t lie to you. But isn’t it better to do that, than to walk away and know that people will die anyway, people you could have helped?”
“I suppose so.”
“Then let’s get back to work.”
They continued clearing out the basement room. It was slow work, and they had just about finished by the time Janet’s shift ended. Hela walked her to the door.
“Nothing’s changed here at least,” she observed. “You might be having an effect.”
Janet didn’t know what to say to that. “See you tomorrow.”
Janet watched Hela walk across the marble floor. She was right. It would be better to not walk away, knowing that there might have been something she could do.
It was late. The lobby wasn’t empty, but it was close. The receptionist was fully absorbed in her screen. Nobody was paying attention to Janet.
She walked back and headed to the basement.
Want to keep reading? Part 5 is here.
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