This is the fifth part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 4, you can read it here.

Part 5: Mind Tricks

Janet stared at the impossible people before her. Robin Foxglove and Paxton Blackthorn stood before her, just as she had seen them before. Only they should not be in the basement. Hadn’t they left the hotel? And how was she in the basement?

“I’m dreaming,” she said. “I have to be.”

“Please, mistress,” said Robin, “it’s no dream. We need your help.”

“I saw you leave.”

“Paxton is adept at illusory magics.”

Paxton swallowed. “I studied at the Academy.”

“What does that mean?”

“What you saw was an illusion.”

“Hela reads minds!”

Robin gave her an odd look. “Only surface thoughts. They are easy enough to hide.”

Oh great, thought Janet, so I’m the only one here whose thoughts are on show? “She said you couldn’t stay here.” She looked at the door — at where the door used to be. Now there was only blank wall. 

“We would die if we returned.”

“Can’t you just, I don’t know…” Janet trailed off, and a new thought struck her. “Why do they want you dead, anyway? How do I know you aren’t murderers or something?”

Robin and Paxton exchanged looks. “What do you know of our world?” asked Robin.

“Nothing. Next to nothing. I mean, apparently there are princes, but that’s really it.”

“I could show you what we did that made Prince Kierri want us dead,” said Paxton. He held out his hand.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Just take my hand.”

Janet hesitated. She had thought she was way out of her depth before. Now it felt like the rabbit hole would never end. They needed her, though for what, she had no idea. And it could be a chance to learn more about this crazy place. Slowly, she placed her hand in his —

— and felt the weight of the pickaxe in his hand. The cavern rang with the sound of picks hitting rock. To his left and to his right, others laboured at getting the argil out. He looked up, where the cave walls arched high above twisted and black.. After a glance around to check if anyone was paying attention, he put his back against it, and, thank the All-Powerful, it did not move or twist beneath him. He slid down to the ground and let his eyes close. 

“Get up!” A stinging on his cheek. He opened his eyes. The guard with a whip stood over him. “Keep working.” 

Paxton rose with an effort and continued chipping at the black rock. From the other side of the cave he could feel Robin’s concern. He shook his head. I’m fine.

You have to be. It’s nearly time.

It was time. The third bell struck just then and the miners, the beaten down dregs of people down there with Robin and Paxton, sprang into life, running for the mine exit, hitting any guards in the way. Robin was faster than anyone, having wrested the whip from the nearest guard, and was throttling him with it. Others gathered argil for themselves before they ran for the exits. 

Paxton stayed with his back against the wall. A twist of the mind and he was invisible to all. He was not a fighter. But of course, this place was not safe. The stone twisted beneath him and he found himself tipping back into unknowable dark —

A hand pulled him up. Robin. “We have to get out of here.”

He clung to her as they ran, past the fighting and into the caves. Robin was light-footed and seemed to know where to step to avoid the jutting out bits. Paxton stumbled behind, but kept up. When the sounds of the fighting were gone, they stopped.

“I don’t know where we are,” said Robin. “Do you think you can get us out of here?”

“I think so,” said Paxton, and took his hand from hers —

— and Janet stumbled back and nearly fell over the table behind her. “What the hell was that?” She gripped the table below her to assure herself that she was really here. 

“I am sorry. It seemed simpler than an explanation.”

“Well, it wasn’t. That was you?”

“That was when we escaped from the mines. We had to incite a rebellion to do it. That is why Prince Kieri has sentenced us to death.”

Janet shook her head. “Why were you down there in the first place?”

“There was a Prince who was exiled from Durridel,” said Robin.

“Telar,” said Janet. “Hela mentioned it. He’s here.”

Robin and Paxton exchanged looks. “We were of his people,” continued Robin. “When he was exiled, his land and his people were split between those Princes who had nearby lands. So we became of Prince Kieri. She did not feel bound to us as a Prince feels bound to their people.”

“Prince Telar felt no such bond, either.” Paxton said.

Robin glared. ”That matters little now. All of us that used to be of Prince Telar were sent to do hard labour, like criminals. At the docks, in the mines, building the towers. We were sent to the argil mines. It would not be hard work, normally, but things have changed.”

“How?”

“Argil is the deposit of old magic,” said Paxton, “and can be used to fuel new magic. That means that it changes the landscape around it. That black stone you saw, it wasn’t argil, but it was what all stone will become when in the presence of magic for too long.”

“It looked volcanic rock.”

“Yes. volcanic – changed rock. It had been changed. But the changes were still happening.”

“The magic that holds Durridel together has changed, become more volatile,” said Robin. “Our relationship with Himmeria has become fraught, and with that, the lands rebel against the bridges between our lands. The mines were too near to the portals to this hotel and to Himmeria, and so they were apt to change.”

“Oh.” Janet thought about what Hela had said. “That might be because of what’s happening here, too.”

“Possibly. A week before we came up with our plan, the caves had opened up and two people fell through.”

Janet shuddered.

Robin continued. “We rebelled because to continue mining would have meant death, if we were there for long enough. Do you think we are deserving of death?”

“No, of course not. But I can’t help you,” said Janet. “I’m new here. I don’t know anything about this place, nobody here trusts me or likes me really -“

“But you are the anchor,” said Paxton.

“How do you know that?”

Paxton shrugged. “To cast illusions well, you must see clearly.”

It made sense, in a way. ”What does it matter if I’m the anchor?”

“If you are the anchor, then you are part of this place. You belong here. You can permit us to stay. We shall be forced to return without permission.”

“I don’t know where any of the rooms are.”

“We will find a place to hide. We just need your permission.”

Janet sighed. ”Well, if that’s all you’re looking for, then fine, you have my permission to stay. I don’t think it’ll do any good, though. Once Hela finds out – once anyone finds out you’re still here, they’ll send you back.”

“They don’t have to find out. We can take care of ourselves,” said Robin.

“Well, apparently everyone can read my mind. Especially when I’m upset.”

“You can’t protect your mind? Truly?”

Janet glared. “I just said. I’m new. I’m from a world where there’s no magic, and only found out about magic like, a few days ago. So no, I don’t know how to protect my thoughts from mind readers.”

“It is a simple thing,” said Paxton. “We can show you.”

“Really?” Janet almost forgot the trouble she was in. “You can teach me magic?”

“Why not? It is simply a matter of controlling the mind.”

Simply. Yeah, right. Still, what could she lose? ”So what do I do?” asked Janet.

“There are a couple of ways to form a shield for the mind,” said Robin. “The first is the easiest, and also the easiest to break. You only have to focus on what’s around you.”

“Um, that’s it?”

“Let it fill your mind,” said Paxton. “Your breathing, the sounds around you, the feel of the ground under your feet. If your mind is only filled with sensory details, they cannot get at what is beneath.”

“So I can’t think of anything else?”

“Not at first. In time, you will learn to think your thoughts beneath the surface.”

“I’m pretty sure that my mind is just surface.”

“You will find another layer. Try it now.”

Janet took a breath. It sounded a bit like meditation. She took a couple of deep breaths, emptied her mind, focused on her breath, but could not stop thinking. How do I get out of here? If Hela spots me, she’ll want to know how I got back in and why. I won’t have an excuse for her.

“You almost had it,” said Paxton, “but you slipped at the end there. You can’t let your worries show at the surface.”

“That’s a little difficult. Do I have to stay here until I can concentrate on my breath or something?”

“You just need to practice. You can do that in your own time, and you will get better. That will stop your thoughts from being visible to all when you are upset. The other method is more difficult, but it is stronger. We use it if we think someone is trying to draw our thoughts out.”

Janet thought of Smith’s office. “Yeah, what do you do for that?”

“Create a shield in your mind. A solid one. You must be careful when using this, because people will know. They see the shield and not you, see, but that means they know what you are doing.”

“What, imagine a shield?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of shield?”

“It matters not.” Paxton frowned at her. “Let me show you mine.” He reached out his hand.

“Again?”

“Do you want to learn this or not?” Robin put in.

“Fine, fine.” Janet put her hand in his and closed her eyes. She saw only a white sheet, perfectly smooth. No, it rippled, and now she could see washes of colour spreading and fading like waves on a shore. It was mesmerising. “I don’t understand,” she said aloud.

“What you see is my shield. Anyone who probes my mind will see only this image that I created in my mind. All my thoughts go behind it, where none can see. You must imagine something like this, and focus on that, and people who try to probe your mind will see only that.” He let go.

“Can I just imagine your shield? Or would that be offensive somehow?”

Paxton smiled. “It would not offend me. But you would find it difficult. My shield has other spells woven into it. Yours should be simple. It helps when you start to imagine something you already know, have seen before and can picture easily.”

“Don’t make it too simple,” Robin added. “Blank walls are easy to break.”

Janet frowned. What had she seen that she could picture as a shield? Something simple. Her mind was a complete blank until she thought of the tall hedge around her house. She pictured it in her mind, the mass of leaves and twigs that blocked her window from view.

“That looks good.”

“Not too complicated?”

“No. If you can focus on that it will serve you well. Now you have to practice holding that in your mind above all your other thoughts.”

“Yeah, and how do I do that?”

“You must practice every day. Begin by focusing only on the shield, or only on the things around you, and nothing else at all. If you do that enough, in time you will find that it gets easier and that you can hold the images and sensations in your mind while thinking your own thoughts. But you must practice.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll practice.” She checked her watch. It was after midnight. “Now I need to get out of here.”

Want to keep reading? Part 6 is here.