Part 7: Threads
It was over a week before Janet got the chance — and the courage — to visit the basement level on her own.
Smith must have talked to Hela, because the next shift began with a long lecture on exactly what she was and was not allowed to do, and how those rules shouldn’t have been broken for the sake of a phone.
“You leave something behind, you tell me,” she said. “Or you tell Felicia. We’re here to help you.”
Not entirely true, Janet thought, but it was a nice sentiment.
“Smith nearly let you go,” Hela said. “I had to talk him down from it. I think he would have done it anyway if I hadn’t already given you the map.”
“Really? Why would that change things?”
“It means you would still owe us some service for an even exchange.” In reply to Janet’s confused look, Hela continued, “Every person who enters this place as a guest, or as a worker, must do an exchange. Everybody wants something. It might be shelter, safe passage, or compensation. So we ask for something in return. Knowledge, or goods, or service. That map was valuable. It shows you information few people know. It’s more valuable than the coin we pay you. So to balance things, you must stay at least a little longer.”
“Does that mean I’m not getting paid?”
Hela smiled. “No, we have to follow the laws of your land as well as our own. But the coin we give you doesn’t mean much to us. I’d say it doesn’t quite count as an exchange.”
“You say every person who comes into this place has to make a deal like this?”
“An even exchange. Otherwise they do not have a place here.”
What did that mean for Robin and Paxton? They hadn’t given her anything, except for a promise of magic. If she didn’t take them up on that promise, would they ‘lose’ their place here? Did they have one in the first place?
Unfortunately Janet didn’t have a way to find out. Every time they were in the basement, Hela was right there with her. They spent the days doing basic chores – dealing with the laundry, stacking plates, clearing more storerooms. There was no sign that Robin and Paxton were around, which Janet hoped was a good sign. It meant they hadn’t been caught yet.
It could also mean that they had returned, or fallen down a deep hole somewhere. She had to remind herself that these two knew magic, unlike her, and thus were probably better able to look after themselves.
After a while, the work became routine. Hela began to give her more freedom, more duties. They spent a morning following the housekeeping team around all the rooms, and helping to make the beds. The rooms, Janet found, varied wildly, from football-field sized suites to tiny rooms barely larger than the beds inside.
Telar either bothered Hela less, or else she had found a way to answer his complaints without rushing off. Many days passed without their work being interrupted by his commands. At least, this was the case until late Thursday afternoon, when in the kitchen, Hela and Janet heard loud thumps coming from above. Before either could react, The door burst open. It was the teenager who helped out with room service.
“What is it, Cory?” asked Hela.
“The damn entire top level has gone haywire,” said Cory. “Telar says he’s holding it together and doesn’t need help, but Felicia says the structure up there is losing integrity. Things are bad.”
Hela looked at Janet. “Your shift’s nearly over. You should just go.”
Cory frowned. “She’s the anchor. Shouldn’t she be coming too?”
“Not until she’s had a chance to settle in a little more. Let’s go.”
Janet watched them leave. This was her chance. Everyone was distracted with whatever was happening upstairs. They were all heading that way, except for those in the common areas, which Janet noticed were being sealed off. The guests were not allowed to move around in emergencies. But she was free to do so. Of course, if they caught her later, she’d be out on her ear, but there was no helping that. She had to know what had happened to Robin and Paxton.
She made her way quietly to the basement stairs. Everything here looked perfectly normal. It had come to the point where she had memorised at least some of the layout. She knew where the storage rooms were and where the laundry rooms were. She had not visited the storage room where she had first seen that portal open since that night, but was fairly sure she knew where it was.
A voice stopped her before she got there. “Janet?”
“Is that Robin?”
“Thank god. Where are you?” Janet turned and saw her, still dressed in red and black, knives out. “How are you? Both of you?”
“We’ve kept ourselves safe. We were worried about you.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
“We heard them talking to you. Telling you not to be down here by yourself. You’ve put yourself in danger for us.”
“You were going to die.” This talk was pointless. “Look, I don’t know how long I can be down here. Where’s Paxton?”
“In there,” Robin led Janet through a door to a storeroom. This was one she hadn’t been in before. It was nearly empty. It seemed that Robin and Paxton had set up camp here. Paxton was sitting on the floor, cross legged, his eyes closed.
“Hello, Janet. I am glad to see you are well.”
“Look,” said Janet. “I don’t mean to sound needy, but something Hela said had me worried. Something about guests not properly being guests unless there was an exchange? So when I say, can you teach me magic, I’m not being selfish or anything—”
“I understand,” said Paxton. “An even exchange must be made.”
“Something like that.”
“She is right. We have been feeling a pull towards the portals that lead out. A promise was made, but it was only that, a promise. I must keep it.” He held out his hands.
Janet sat down in front of him. “We can’t take too long. If I get caught down here…”
“I’ll make sure nobody finds you,” said Robin. She left the room.
Janet placed her hands in Paxton’s again. “All right. Show me.”
“Look around you.”
Janet looked, and saw the silver strings in the walls, the ceiling, and the floor. And around Paxton. The strings were entwined around both their hands.
“This is magic,” said Paxton. “The essence of it. Each string is a spell, or part of a spell, there to manipulate the world in some way. They move, they shift. They interact with each other. When people use magic, this is what they use.”
“Hela said magic was about focus.”
“And it is. Creating these takes focus. Each string is also a part of somebody’s mind and energy. Something they took from themselves and put out into the world. Now, to see it. How do your eyes feel?”
Janet thought. “Maybe a little achey.”
“Remember that feeling.” Paxton took his hands away. The silver faded. “Now bring it back. Focus on your eyes, focus on that feeling. Focus on seeing what you know is there.”
Janet tried. Nothing happened.
“It will take time that we do not have,” said Paxton. “Normally it takes weeks just for this first stage. You will have to work on this on your own.” He took her hands again, and again she saw the strings of magic. “Now, to see the links. Pick one string and focus. Try to follow it.”
Janet stared up. “I can’t pick a single string out of all of this.”
“Then look down.” Paxton raised her hand. One tendril of magic that entwined their hands glittered more brightly than the others. “See this one? Follow it.”
Janet watched it move, her eyes tracking the thread. It threaded through the others in a sort of loose braid, over and under. They all went the same direction. “It goes back into your hand.”
“It comes from me. See how it twists with the others? That means it is part of a larger spell. But there is another spell here, made before it and linked to it.” He picked out a thread from his hand. “Not part of the same spell, but a linked spell.” The thread stretched round his arm, and then to his eyes. “You see it? It allows you to see what I see.”
“I see it.”
“This is how the spells in the hotel are linked to one another. There are colours to these threads, that show you whose spells they were and what they do. It will take time to see those colours. I doubt you can see them now, even through my eyes.” Paxton took his hand from her and sighed. “You will have to practice on your own. It takes focus.”
“That’s fine.” There was still a sense of urgency in the back of her mind; she didn’t know how long it would take Hela to sort out whatever was happening on the top floor, and she couldn’t be caught, but that sense of urgency felt somehow less important than what was happening here and now. “How long did it take you to learn all this?”
“Years.” Paxton sighed. “My family didn’t like it.” He nodded a head towards the door. “Like Robin, they are all fighters and soldiers. But I did not want to destroy. I wanted to create, and see the stories around me.”
“I understand that.” They shared a smile.
“Thank you,” said Janet. “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”
“You saved our lives,” said Paxton. “This is but fair exchange, although barely merits the term. You should go.”
“I’ll come back if I can.” Janet stood.
Robin was just outside the door, and guided her to the basement stairs. It seemed like the issues upstairs had not yet been fixed. The corridors were empty and Janet could hear odd thumps coming from above. She was surprised, looking at her watch, to find almost no time had passed. It had seemed an eternity down there, with the strings of magic and the feeling of… what was it?
Janet made her way out distracted. One half wanted her to speed up, reminded her she didn’t want to be found, but another part wanted to slow down and watch the walls, to find those threads of silver.
Want to keep reading? Part 8 is here.