This is the fourth part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 3, you can read it here.

Part 4: Decluttering

Hela was waiting by the front desk when Janet showed up for her shift the next day.

“You again? When do I meet the rest of the staff?” Janet winced. “I mean, sorry.” Think before you open your damn mouth.

“All in good time,” said Hela, unruffled. “Besides, you’ve met Felicia.”

Janet and Felicia exchanged brief awkward nods before Felicia returned to her screen.

“What does she do on the computer?” Janet asked as she and Hela walked away.

“She’s monitoring all the portals. It’s an important job. We need to know right away if there’s any change, any portal closing, opening, or letting people through. Felicia’s the first line of defence. She keeps the portals stable as much as she can. If she can’t, she contacts me, Smith, or one of the techs for help.”

Janet looked about as they went downstairs. “Where are we going?” 

“One of the basement storage rooms. We need to clear it out.”

“I don’t understand. You want me to feel like I belong here but you keep assigning me to work out of the way of everything. Isn’t that counter-productive?” Janet ran her hand against the concrete wall. There were no furnishings down here. 

Hela sighed. “If you’d come to us just after Cassandra left, we would have had you serving straight away. We told Thomas everything at the end of his first shift. Turned out to be his last.”

“So you decided to play it cagey after that?”

“It isn’t that. Things were more stable then. They’ve been deteriorating for months. We could send you to serve rooms, but then maybe you wouldn’t come back. You don’t know how lucky you were the other night.”

“I think I do know how lucky I was. I nearly fell in to another dimension.”

“Another world,” corrected Hela. “But you could have opened a door and ended up there, as well. And neither Durridel nor Himmeria are good places to find yourself, even at the best of times.”

“Oh?”

“Not for someone who has no idea what’s going on. 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 whichever Prince has the higher status at the time.”

“So there are princes?”

“Something like that.” Hela opened a set of bare grey doors. “Here we are.”

The storage room seemed large, although it was difficult to see the walls behind the tables and chairs, piled precariously on top of each other. Janet was reminded of a class in high school when the teacher had been absent, and two of her classmates had decided to make a ‘modern art sculpture’ using the furniture in the room. Between and beneath the dusty furniture were other odds and ends — vases, draped cloth that could be curtains, a stack of picture frames. Janet squinted. “Is that a suit of armour?”

“Could be. We have to get this room tidied, so that everything is accessible. Here.” Hela grabbed a stool and used to to prop the door open. “Let’s get all the bulky things into the corridor.”

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.”

Janet picked up the chairs and stacked them neatly. ”I don’t suppose he’d be okay with it if I decided never to step into his office again.”

“He might make allowances for you. Earth-bound folks have fewer defences. But I wouldn’t suggest it to him until you’ve convinced him you won’t turn this place inside out.”

They continued to haul furniture out into the corridor, where it stayed put. The corridor was fairly wide, but soon it was full up to the next turn, at which point Hela decided the room was empty enough to allow for some rearranging. 

“Chairs in this corner, near the door. Stack them in if you need the space, but we’ll have to reorganise them again later. Tables —” her phone beeped. She pulled it out and scowled at the screen, then made a call. “Hey. I need someone to send a fried frog up to the penthouse. Thanks.”

“Upstairs guest still being fussy?” Janet asked when Hela hung up.

“Telar is a nightmare,” said Hela. “Tables go at the back, we won’t need them often. Anything you find that doesn’t fit, bring it into the centre.” As they got to work, Hela continued, “The worst part is we need him here, as long as he wants to be here, and from the way things look, he will be staying a long while.”

“Why do you need him here?”

“He’s in a unique position. A longtime citizen of both Durridel and Himmeria, and gained positions of power in both. They call him the Exile Prince.”

“Um. He was exiled from one world and made a prince in the other?”

“Close. He was a prince in Durridel before he was exiled. Then he reached ambassadorship in Himmeria. It’s the highest office an otherworlder can hold. But not high enough for him.”

“So that means…”

“He’s close to an anchor for us, if not quite as stable. Being a citizen of both worlds is something like being a citizen between the worlds, just as you are. Also it makes us about as permanent a home as he’s going to get right now. He can’t go back to Durridel and he won’t go back to Himmeria. Not until the ruling council is vastly different.” Hela sighed. “Meanwhile, he’s here, making sure we cater to his every whim.”

There was a black bookshelf against one wall. Janet pushed it to one side. “Huh. So where does this go?”

“Into the back corner with the tables. Need help?”

“I meant this door. Where does this door go?” As far as doors went, it wasn’t particularly impressive. Plain black wood. The paint had faded to a dull black. A cobweb covered one corner. 

“What?” Hela was next to her in an instant. She put her hands on the wood. “Damn it. That’s not supposed to be there.” She pulled out her phone.

“You mean that’s…”

“It leads to Durridel.” She put the phone to her ear. “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 again and Hela answered it. “Did you – what? He said what? Did you explain that I was busy? With a very definite situation? Damn him!” She hung up and glared. “I have to go upstairs. Do not touch that door. Do not leave the room. I don’t know how stable this part is.”

“Seriously? What if the floor swallows me up?”

“That shouldn’t happen.”

“It nearly did yesterday.”

Hela sighed. “Telar believes his room has changed and insists I deal with it personally.”

“Why don’t I go with you?”

“Because he’s not going to like you being there. 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 continued moving the furniture. The thing she had thought was a suit of armour really was, in fact, a rusty old suit of armour. She dragged it into the middle of the room, trying not to think of the floor suddenly turning into a dark gaping maw —

She gritted her teeth and kept moving things around. She found a couple more mysterious objects, including what could have been a large egg, but most of it seemed to be room furnishings. 

As she set another chair by the door, she heard a sound and froze. A click. No, it had been nothing. 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, groping for words. She shouldn’t say anything. She should say no. The door wasn’t meant to be here. She pulled out the phone and dialled. “Hela, you better come down here right now.”

“What happened?”

“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 can’t go back.”

“Well, um, sorry?”

The door swung open and two figures came through. 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 an immaculate 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. It was odd that they spoke English, but probably there was some kind of magical universal translator at work or something. Something to ask Hela. 

If she didn’t get fired after this, at least. “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.”

“Besides,” said the young man behind her, “we were compelled to come through.”

“What does that mean?”

“Don’t you know?”

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.”

“Really?”

“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 Kierri 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 blurted. “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 those 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. I don’t know enough about this. 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.”

“I thought the point was to help people.” Janet’s voice was quiet.

“It is. We do. But there is a limit. It’s a terrible but unavoidable truth. Do you know that when the abyss in the lobby opened up yesterday, two people fell through?”

“Wait, what?”

“One was from Durridel, so it wasn’t too much of a problem. He probably survived, although I suppose it’s too much to hope that he landed in his home principality. The other was Himmerian.”

“So that means…”

“That even if he survived the fall, he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. The current climate is not friendly to Himmerians.”

“And you’re fine with that?” She looked so calm. Had she seen it? How could she have seen two people falling, possibly to their deaths, and still be that calm?

“I can’t do anything about it, so there’s little point in worrying. The best thing to do is to keep things stable. That’s why you’re here.”

They continued clearing out the basement room. It was slow work, and Janet’s shift finished with half the furniture in the room stacked. 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.”

“Until then.” 

Janet pushed the doors open, and as she did so, she felt an odd pulling sensation, as though some strange force was pushing her down to the ground. She stepped forward and — what the hell? — into the storage room again.

Robin Foxglove and Paxton Blackthorn were right in front of her.

Want to keep reading? Part 5 is here.